Tina Anderson, aka Roxxy, aka guild leader and main tank of the Roughneck Raiders, aka the poor person in charge of tonight’s raid, was trying to drum up a few more seasoned fighters and not having much luck.
“Where the fuck is everyone?”
Tina propped her character’s elbow on the edge of her massive tower shield, scowling at the glowing menus. The game’s fully immersive VR engine made it look like they were floating right in front of her, rubbing the long list of grayed-out, offline names in her face. “We had eighty-five people begging for raid slots yesterday, but now that I need volunteers to help with tryout night, everyone’s mysteriously gone.” She glanced down at the deadly-looking elf wearing a killer’s suit of black-and-red armor beside her. “You got anyone?”
SilentBlayde, her second-in-command and the only Roughneck who never missed a raid night, shook his head. “Sorry, Roxxy. It’s Golden Week here in Japan, and all of my friends are busy.”
“Damn,” Tina said, pinching the bridge of her towering character’s stone nose. “Thanks for trying. I just can’t believe this bullshit. Look.”
She waved her hand through the cluttered floating interface, bringing up her browser window showing the tryout-night sign-up sheet she’d posted on their guild forums over a week ago. “We had a full group lined up! Now that it’s actually go time, though, five people suddenly have connectivity issues, four are down with the flu, two have work emergencies, and Chris is claiming he’s got food poisoning for the third damn week in a row.”
“Chris does eat a lot of weird stuff,” SilentBlayde hedged. “Maybe it’s just bad luck?”
“It’s lies. That’s what it is,” Tina snarled. “I don’t know what’s worse, the shirking or the fact that they think I’m dumb enough to believe this crap.” Her eyes narrowed. “I should kick them all out.”
“Hey, it’s only tryout night,” SB said, his slightly accented voice cajoling. “Let’s go in anyway! What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Are you crazy? We’re eleven short!” She pointed at the truncated raid list floating in the left of her heads-up interface. “If they were all Roughnecks, that wouldn’t be an issue, but these are newbies. I don’t even know what gear they’re wearing.” She sighed. “If we didn’t need new recruits so badly, I’d cancel the whole thing.”
“Yeah,” SB said, the good humor draining from his voice. He knew as well as she did how many A-list players they’d lost over the last few months and what that meant for the guild. “It’s the stupid Once King fight,” he said bitterly. “It’s too hard.”
“He’s the final boss,” Tina said with a shrug. “He’s supposed to be hard.”
“Not that hard,” SilentBlayde said. “He’s a guild killer. His fight broke Six Ways from Raiding and Richard’s Inferno, and they were the top two raiding guilds in the world. People are starting to say that the Once King can’t be killed.”
“Fuck that,” Tina said. “Why would they put a boss who can’t be killed in the game? If other guilds couldn’t handle it, that just means there’s room at the top. We are this close to figuring the Once King out. We got him to thirty percent last week. Just a little bit farther, and we’ll be the new number one!”
Just thinking about that pumped her up. The Roughnecks had scored a world-first kill earlier this year, and it had been the best night of Tina’s life. But that was just the Blood General, a lesser dungeon-boss who was now on farm status for most of the top guilds. The Once King was different. He was the final boss of the Dead Mountain, the hardest raid dungeon Forever Fantasy Online had ever released. His fight was so famously unfair, even non-FFO gamers had heard about it. If Roxxy and her Roughnecks could kill him, they’d be legends.
Assuming she could ever fill a raid again.
Armored shoulders slumping, Tina shoved the browser window full of excuses, laziness, and lies to the far side of her interface so she could see her clock. 9:30p.m. She’d been trying to fill this group for two hours now. Two damn hours wasted playing the obnoxious Guild-master-game-of-bullshit-menus instead of Forever Fantasy Online, the most beautiful full-immersion VR game ever made. The game she’d played obsessively for the last seven years. The game she used to love before it had turned into a weekly cycle of nagging and brow-beating a hundred players into acting like the hardcore raiders they claimed to be.
“Hell with this,” Tina muttered, punching her gauntleted hand through the “Close All” command. The interface chimed when she touched it, and the sphere of guild-management menus, chat boxes, and windowed browser plug-ins surrounding her vanished to reveal the ancient flagstone road leading to the Dead Mountain.
Even a year after release, the dungeon still looked damn impressive. Now that Tina’s vision was no longer cluttered with floating boxes, it really did feel like she was standing at the threshold of a dreadful mountain of death. The Once King’s stronghold rose from the dusty gray valley like a giant black thorn. There were no plants on its slopes, no life. Instead, the barren stone was stitched with battlements where skeleton archers, zombie hounds, and other undead roved in huge packs, their eyes glowing like ghostly blue-white candles.
At the base of the mountain, where the broken road ended, a giant arched gate stood open in invitation, its four-stories-tall iron doors filled with the vortex of swirling purple magic that marked the entrance to the Dead Mountain raid dungeon. It was all beautifully detailed, a masterpiece of atmospheric game design, which only made it more obnoxious that the rest of the Once King’s zone was a whole lot of rolling gray nothing.
Tina hated the Deadlands. Unlike FFO’s other zones, which were filled with beautiful elven forests, glowing volcanoes, and endless golden fields, the view here was gray, gray, and more gray. There were dead gray trees, gray roads, gray boulders, gray rocks, and fields of gray dirt spread out below a cloudy gray sky. Even the air smelled of ash and tasted like road grit, which was a total waste of FFO’s revolutionary Sensorium Engine technology. The game automatically muted sensory input that was deemed painful or unpleasant, so at least the dust that was constantly blowing into her eyes didn’t sting, but it was still ugly and depressing. Sometimes, Tina couldn’t believe she’d spent a year in this damned place. When she looked up at the pinprick of blue-white light shining from the Dead Mountain’s peak, though, it all came back. The Once King was up there, and she’d eat all the gray crap in the world if that was what it took to claim the prize of his defeat.
Burning with renewed determination, Tina turned on her armored heel and marched down the road to address her raid, such as it was.
A few dozen feet from where she and SB had been standing, thirty-seven players stood out from the gray landscape like neon stars. The glow of their enchanted weapons and armor transformed the Deadlands’ dusty air into a rainbow prism, and their wildly colored hair, hats, and vanity decorations showed no sign of the dirt that clung to everything else. But while they looked like an army of radiant gods, they acted like a bunch of bored teenagers.
The players stood in small packs, some chatting, others dancing half-heartedly or fiddling with in-game toys. One group was sitting in the dirt with their weapons discarded around them, blatantly watching anime on a giant floating screen someone had projected into the shadow of a destroyed catapult. Tina couldn’t believe no one was complaining about such an immersion-breaking faux pas, but what else was there to do? All the other raiding guilds had long since gone ahead into their own private versions of the Dead Mountain dungeon, yet her crew was still standing around, doing nothing.
Tina ran a metal-gauntleted hand over her character’s face. Everyone in front of her met the minimum requirements for the dungeon—she wouldn’t have invited them otherwise—but this was a shit group. Other than the pack of Roughnecks hanging out together in the back and a few regulars who weren’t in the guild but always came to Tina’s raids when she invited them, no one had end-game gear. Taking a raid like this into the hardest instance in the game was just begging for an ass kicking, but giving up meant another week without bringing any new blood into the guild, putting them even farther away from a Once King kill.
That was too close to defeat for her to stomach. Gritting her teeth so hard she could feel the pressure in her real head beneath the VR helmet, Tina waved her arm for the raid announcement command. The second she finished the gesture, a gleaming silver megaphone appeared in her character’s fist. She was raising it to her mouth to order everyone into the mountain, ass kicking be damned, when she heard SB calling her name.
Tina looked over her shoulder to see the elf running toward her, and she felt her real face again as a blush spread over her cheeks. Watching SilentBlayde move was one of her guilty pleasures. As an elven Assassin, his character model had fluid animations that the less graceful classes, even those played by elves, simply couldn’t match. She’d actually tried the combo herself back when she’d first gotten into FFO and had a pretty fun time.
Then she’d made Roxxy.
It had taken less than five levels before Tina was hooked. Her stonekin Knight was eight feet tall and seven hundred pounds of armored elemental fury. With granite for skin and copper for hair, Roxxy was striking rather than pretty as her elf had been, but Tina didn’t care. Playing her stonekin felt titanic. Even when the game’s Human Analogue Translation System made it feel as if she was walking on stilts inside her giant character, it was worth the inconvenience, because that size was power. Unlike her real-life self, people paid attention when Roxxy spoke, and Tina loved it. Even better, stonekin didn’t blush, which meant her character’s face at least was fine when she turned around.
“Please tell me you’ve found eleven geared players to come and save us,” she said as SilentBlayde slid to a graceful stop beside her.
“Not eleven, but I might have one,” he said, blue eyes shining above the ninja mask that covered the lower half of his face. “James just came online.”
What little of Tina’s good mood watching SB had brought back evaporated at the mention of her brother’s name. “So?” she said sourly. “James never says yes when I invite him.”
“He does sometimes, and he’s always top notch when he shows up.” SilentBlayde gave her a warm look. “Just try him. The worst that happens is he says no.”
That was not the worst that could happen, but she wasn’t in a position to be picky, and they could use another healer. She was weighing the salvation of her raid against the emotional minefield that was spending time with her brother when the inside of her head began to ring.
“Speak of the devil,” Tina said, glancing up at the corner of her vision, where a green phone icon was pulsing next to a picture of James’s tired face. “Hang on, SB. Looks like he’s calling me.”
SilentBlayde stepped back politely, and Tina tapped the icon to pick up the call, trying her best to inject some enthusiasm into her voice as she said, “Hi, J. You logging in soon?”
Her older brother’s reply spoke directly into her head. “Hi, T. Yeah, I’m on the character-selection screen right now.” She could hear the nostalgic FFO login music through his speakers as James’s voice took on a suspicious level of charm. “You want to ditch raiding for a night and come get something amazing with me?”
Tina snorted. “Amazing like that stupid fire rabbit pet you spent twelve hours grinding for last Saturday?”
“Hey, that drop normally takes a year to get!” James said defensively. “And I did it in eleven hours because I saved up all those luck potions from the April Fools’ Day event. But forget the fire rabbit. I found something way cooler. Get this: there’s a place in the Verdancy where the game developers are building part of the next expansion. We can sneak inside if we wall-walk just right, and—this is the best part—it says on the internet there’s an active quest giver who awards some kind of giant-lizard mount! Wouldn’t it be cool to be two of the only people in the world riding it?”
“Sounds like asking for the ban hammer to me,” Tina said, glancing at her wilting raid. “I have a better idea. Why don’t you come raid with me for once? We’re short for the Dead Mountain. If you help us out, I’ll guarantee you one piece of loot if we kill anything.”
“Thanks,” James said, the excitement draining from his voice, “but I’ll pass.”
“I can’t believe you’re turning down free loot,” Tina said angrily. She was being dangerously generous bribing him like that, and she knew that he knew it.
“Dying all night is not free,” James countered. “And it’s not fun, either. I appreciate the offer, but I just want to kick back and explore tonight, not slave away in a raid.”
“No, I get it,” Tina said. “You’re good for messing around with some buggy wall walking but not for helping me.”
Her brother heaved a long sigh. “Tina, this is a game. It’s not supposed to be work. I’m already working three jobs to pay my student loans. More hard stuff is not what I want right now.”
“And whose fault is that?” Tina snapped. “If you’d finished college instead of slacking off for five years, maybe you wouldn’t have to work three jobs.”
“Don’t ‘Tina’ me,” she said, probably sharper than she should have, but she couldn’t help it. As always, her brother’s complaining pissed her off more than anything else ever could. “That’s your entire problem! You never want to do the hard work. I had to pay for college all by myself, but I’m leading a world-first raiding guild and on track to graduate on time because I’m not lazy.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself,” Tina said with a sneer. “I knew you wouldn’t come. You always flake out when I need you. Have fun doing your bullshit alone.”
James started to sputter more excuses, but Tina had already jabbed her finger into the silver X, closing the voice chat. She was still fuming when she noticed the concerned look SB was shooting her from above his ninja mask.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just…that was a little harsh. Don’t you think?”
“That’s why I didn’t want to talk to him!” Tina cried. “It royally pisses me off. He’s one of the best healers in the game, yet he wastes all of his time on meaningless crap. It’s the story of his life. I’d feel almost sorry for him if it wasn’t also the story of my life due to all the shit I’ve had to go through because of him!”
SilentBlayde winced as she finished, and Tina realized belatedly that she was yelling, which made her feel awful. SB didn’t deserve her temper. Her guilt intensified when he turned away, wrapping his arms around his waist in a sign she recognized as maximum SilentBlayde upset.
“I’m sorry, ’Blayde,” she said, running her hand through Roxxy’s copper dreadlocks. “I’m just stressed. It’s been an awful night. I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
She paused, waiting for him to reply. When he didn’t, Tina winced. She was trying to think of what else she could say when the elf collapsed right in front of her.
Tina lunged to catch him but stumbled instead when a horrible pain stabbed into her chest. The agony quickly spiraled outward, spreading down her torso and into her limbs until her whole body felt as if it were being crushed. As she gasped for air, her first panicked thought was that she was having a heart attack. It had to be something in the real world, because this pain was way worse than anything the game allowed for. But when she forced her violently shaking hands up to cover her ears in an attempt to trigger the emergency logout command, something new slammed inside her.
It felt like hitting a wall at full speed. Her head went WHAM, then SPIN, then WHAM again as the world turned to blurry Jell-O. She could dimly hear the other players screaming as their hazy figures dropped like cut puppets. A second later, Tina went down too, pitching onto her face next to the inert form of SilentBlayde.
The blackout couldn’t have lasted more than a few seconds. Tina almost wished it had been longer, though, because the moment she regained consciousness, all of her senses started trying to kill her. Her eyes were burning and blinded, and her body just felt wrong. It was too gigantic, too heavy. The sound of her own blood pumping was like hammer strikes in her ears, and her mouth was full of the gritty, acidic dust of the Deadlands.
It was overwhelming. Tina had never realized just how much FFO’s engine muted her in-game senses until they’d all kicked into overdrive. Even when she managed to roll over onto her back, the sullen gray light of the Deadlands scorched her eyes like she was staring straight into the sun. She threw an arm over her face to block it as she waited for the pain to fade, but that just let her focus on the roaring in her ears and the heaviness of her armor as it crushed her limbs. No matter what she did, the torment just kept going, rolling on and on without any hint of why it was happening or when it would stop. Then just when Tina was sure she was going to crack under the pressure, the hand she’d dug into the dirt beside her bumped something blessedly familiar.
Multiple small glass vials were strapped into loops on her belt. It was her potion holster, the place she kept her healing items for quick access while she was tanking. They were all still there now, and Tina grabbed one automatically, yanking a pan-elixir from the first slot. She knew it was stupid. Whatever was happening, it was obvious that the Sensorium Engine—the kinesthetic feedback system that allowed FFO to mimic physical sensation in virtual reality—was catastrophically broken. Hell, it was probably cooking everyone’s brains right now. A healing potion, even the most amazing cure-all in the game, was just a digital item. It couldn’t actually help her, but Tina didn’t care. She was willing to try anything to make the hurting stop, so she grabbed the potion and popped the cork, relying on years of habit to bring the vial to her mouth and dump it down her throat.
When she promptly choked on it.
Rather than simply vanishing as usual, the rainbow liquid of the pan-elixir splashed wetly against her tongue. Equally astounding was how good it tasted—like the freshest, sweetest strawberry smoothie that had ever been. It took a few coughs, but once she got it flowing down the right pipe, the magical ambrosia washed away her pain and confusion, replacing them with glowing warmth as Tina’s broken senses slammed back into place.
Strength surged through her limbs, causing the coffin-like weight of her armor to vanish. Light and free, Tina shot to her feet with such vigor that she missed her new center of gravity and nearly fell over again. Swaying from side to side, she wondered what the hell the Human Analogue Translation System was doing. Operating Roxxy had always felt a bit like walking on poles, but at least the game had more or less matched Tina’s real five-foot-tall body to that of the hulking stonekin. Now, though, she felt as if she was something else entirely.
Flailing for support, Tina grabbed one of the road’s crumbling stone signposts. Grabbed and missed, because her arms were now three times longer than she was used to. Off guard and off balance, Tina lurched forward to wrap the entire post in a bear hug. She was leaning on the stone to steady herself when the post cracked in half under her tremendous weight, sending her right back toward the ground.
She caught herself at the last second, narrowly avoiding another face full of dust. In her rush to stay upright, though, Tina accidentally took the top half of the broken post with her. The huge chunk of stone had to weigh a hundred pounds or more, but it felt like nothing in her arms. Surprised, Tina gave the stone a squeeze, grinning when the gray rock crumbled beneath her colossal strength.
It was incredible. All the previous sensory trauma was gone, forgotten in the power-drunk euphoria of the pan-elixir. As she steadied herself at last, Tina could feel the astounding strength of Roxxy’s body, her body, running through every muscle. She could smell the earth on her stone skin and taste the cool smoothness of her white marble teeth. The stonekin’s senses had completely overwhelmed Tina to the point where she couldn’t even feel her real body lying in bed at home anymore. She was still marveling at the way her stone hands moved like actual flesh inside her armored gloves when a loud, persistent, and terrifying noise finally beat its way through her magical high.
Tina looked up with a start. Someone was screaming. Lots of someones. Shaking her head to clear the last of the pan-elixir’s effects, Tina turned to see the rest of her raid thrashing on the road like an entire school of fish out of water. From the way their hands were covering their faces, she knew that they were going through the same sensory hell she’d just escaped. She still didn’t know what had caused the disaster—if it was a bug or some horrible new hack—but the pan-elixir had worked on her, so she grabbed another off her belt and dropped down beside the spasming SilentBlayde.
He cried out when she touched him, screaming in pain as her huge hand crushed his shoulder. Tina let go with a curse and eased up on her strength until she was cradling him like an egg. Next, she pinched the small potion bottle delicately between her giant stone fingers and popped the cork. When it was ready, she pulled down SB’s special-edition Fukumen Festival 2060 ninja mask and gently pried his clenched jaw apart just enough to shove the pan-elixir into his mouth.
After a few sloppy chugs, the elf’s hands flew up to cup the potion bottle. SilentBlayde finished the rest of the elixir in one gulp, then his bright-blue eyes snapped open as he slipped out of her grasp. He moved so fast, Tina didn’t even see him stand before he was on his feet in front of her, hands raised high over his head.
“Woooooo!” he cried, doing a perfect double back-flip. “That was amazing!”
“SB!” she snapped as he did a cartwheel. “Get a grip!”
Her voice—huge and deep now to match her body but still female—boomed across the dusty plain, and the frolicking elf covered his long ears in pain.
“Sorry,” she said at a much more reasonable volume. “But we’ve got problems.”
She pointed at the convulsing players, and the Assassin’s blond eyebrows shot up.
“Whoa,” he said, pulling his ninja mask back over his nose. “What’s going on, Roxxy? I felt like I was dying, but now I feel amazing. Never better in my life.” He reached up to touch his delicately pointed ears in wonder. “What’d you do?”
“Gave you a pan-elixir,” Tina replied, pulling off her backpack. “No idea what’s going on, but it worked for me, so I tried it on you. We need to get everyone else up or at least not in seizures. Got any pans on you?”
“Two on my holster plus a full stack of twenty in my bags,” SB said proudly.
Tina whistled. “Damn, dude, you’ve been working hard.” Pan-elixirs were stupidly expensive to make. “I’ve got the main tank’s allotment in my pack, which is another twenty. Go get started administering yours, and the guild will pay you back. Get the healers first so we don’t all get slaughtered by some random monster.”
SilentBlayde saluted then popped the first of two elixirs off his belt holster as he moved toward the closest healer, a white-robed, fish-faced ichthyian Cleric who was curled up in a ball. Meanwhile, Tina turned her attention to her backpack. Between her and SB, they should have enough potions to get everyone up, but when she flipped her bag open and made the hand gesture to bring up her inventory, nothing happened.
“What the hell?”
She made the gesture again with the same result. Her backpack was no longer a void of floating icons representing her stuff. It was just an ordinary cloth rucksack filled with squashed bread. Grabbing the strap, Tina turned her bag upside down and shook it. Twenty loaves of bread, some gold coins, and three large iron bars fell out. She was staring in horror at the sad pile when she realized it wasn’t just her inventory that was broken. The entire interface was gone. Her health bar, defense points, ability icons, mini-map, chat log, raid list—everything she normally kept up was missing. Her vision was perfectly clear of all information overlays, including the level icons and player names for the raid in front of her.
Bag forgotten, Tina shot to her feet, swiping her hands through the menu gesture as she went. Just like with her backpack, though, nothing happened. She made the gesture to bring up the system menu next, but all she saw were her own giant steel-gauntleted arms waving in front of her.
She stopped, stone body shaking. As alarming as this situation had been so far, Tina had never questioned that it was caused by something explainable—a bug, a hack, a horrible malfunction—something that made sense. Now, every instinct she had was screeching at her that this was different. This wasn’t just an interface screwup. Something fundamental in the game had changed, something bad. She was struggling to make a list of everything that was broken when a wind blew down from the Dead Mountain’s battlements, carrying the faint sound of hundreds of screams.
Her head shot up, then she took a step back. Maybe she was just seeing things differently without the interface, but the Dead Mountain fortress looked… bigger. Much bigger, like an actual mountain. With the wind blowing down it, she could hear screams coming from the upper levels, but she didn’t see the undead patrols on the battlements anymore. She also didn’t see the purple swirl of the instance portal. The giant gate was now just empty, standing wide-open to reveal the huge, dark hall of the dungeon’s first wing and the things moving in the dark inside it.
“SB?” Tina called, voice trembling. “I think we need to get out of here. How’s that healer coming?”
When the Assassin didn’t answer, Tina turned to see he was still wrestling with the Cleric. Trapped in sensory overload, the blue-scaled ichthyian thrashed at every touch, wrenching his mouth away whenever SilentBlayde tried to cram the pan-elixir between his fish lips. Tina was about to go help hold him down when a harsh metallic screech pierced the air.
She whirled back around with a curse. Every Dead Mountain raider knew that noise. It was the sound the skeleton patrols made when they detected a player. Wincing at the bad timing, Tina drew her sword and started searching the gray landscape for the enemy, but all she saw was the empty road.
Confused, Tina squinted down the gray road toward the mountain. As she’d noted before, the swirling purple vortex that used to mark the start of the dungeon was gone. Without it blocking her view, she could see undead moving inside the Dead Mountain’s grand entrance hall, but they were hundreds of feet away, much too far to have been triggered by the raid.
No one must have told them that, though. No sooner had her eyes adjusted to the dark than Tina spotted a pair of enormous armored skeletons as they ignited their flaming swords and rushed forward, bones rattling as they charged through the hall and out the mountain’s gate.
Straight toward her.
Scrambling, Tina bent down to grab her massive tower shield off the ground where she’d dropped it. By the time she’d gotten it back onto her right arm, the first skeleton was on top of her. It was even bigger up close, ten rattling feet of dusty bone, tarnished armor, and blue-white ghostfire filling her vision as it raised its flaming sword with both hands to chop at her head.
For an eternal second, mortal terror froze Tina in place. Then years of habit kicked in, and her body moved on its own, snapping her shield up just in time to catch the burning blade before it could land in her scalp. The impact sent Tina’s feet sliding backward down the dusty road, but she managed to stop the monster’s rush. She shoved the skeletal knight back next, swinging her own oversized sword to smack its blade off her shield with a ringing clang.
The parry was pure instinct. The undeads’ chopping attacks had always been repetitive and predictable, and Tina had spent so many years battling skeletons, bandits, dragons, and so forth that the motions of FFO’s active combat system had long since become second nature. But while all of those battles had felt as real as the game could make them, they were nothing like this. With the gritty wind blowing in her face and her muscles aching from deflecting the skeleton’s attack, Tina had never felt more heart-poundingly “here.” The rattle of animated bones, the cobblestones sliding under her metal boots, the so-cold-it-burned heat of the ghostfire rising from the monster’s blade—it all felt real, and the fear that brought was real as well, slowing down her practiced motions as the skeleton threw its sword up to hammer into her shield again.
Focused on the enemy with the blade over her head, Tina didn’t even notice the second skeleton rushing past her until it was several feet down the road. Confused and frantic, she considered letting it go until she realized it wasn’t trying to flank her. As the tank—the player in the party who taunted monsters into attacking them instead of going for smaller, squishier prey—Tina was used to being the only target, but the second skeleton hadn’t even glanced in her direction. It was going for the downed raid behind her, its sword already lifted to strike the helpless body of a human player lying on the ground.
By the time Tina realized what was about to happen, it was too late. She watched in horror as the skeleton’s blue-white flaming sword swept down, slicing the incapacitated player’s head off in a single strike. The head bounced away like a rotten melon while the neck stump pumped blood onto the gray rocks of the road.
As she watched the viscous red liquid soak into the dust, Tina forgot that there was a skeleton over her head as well. She forgot about the fight, forgot about the raid. All she could see was that red liquid pouring from the stump of what had once been a person.
There was no dismemberment in Forever Fantasy Online. Getting hit with a sword caused a stagger animation and lost hit points. There wasn’t even blood. Certainly nothing like this. This wasn’t just a new graphic. She could see the bright white vertebrae sticking out of the dead player’s neck. See the blood dripping down the sundered flesh to the ground where it sank like an oil spill into the gray dust of the—
The skeleton in front of her brought its blade down on her shield with enough force to make her stagger. The deafening crash of cursed metal on sunsteel snapped her out of her shock. Blinking frantically, Tina tore her eyes away from the corpse and shoved her shield at the skeleton attacking her to buy some room. While it was recovering, she looked frantically over her shoulder to get an eye on the skeleton behind her, which was already moving toward the next unconscious player.
Tina moved on instinct, slamming her foot down to activate her wide area taunt. The only way to prevent another disaster was to get the runaway skeleton focused on her, so she stomped as hard as she could, yelling for good measure. With no ability interface, she had no way of knowing if the ability would work, but the moment her boot landed, a brilliant shockwave pulsed out from her foot, running up the skeletons’ legs and through their bodies until the blue-white ghostfire in their eye sockets flashed red.
That was exactly what was supposed to happen. But before Tina could feel relieved about activating the right taunt by gesture alone, everything else went wrong.
Normally, the environment in FFO wasn’t collapsible. That must have changed too, though, because unlike every other time she’d used her taunt on this exact stretch of road, her stomp now sent a spiderweb of cracks through the ancient cobblestones. The ground fell apart a second later, toppling Tina and both skeletons over as the road collapsed into a wide crater of loose dust and rolling stones.
To Tina’s dismay, the skeletons were the first to make it up. They rolled back to their feet in unison, chopping at her with their swords while she was still scrambling to get her legs under her. She lurched backward just in time to avoid getting filleted, throwing out her arms for balance, which was a nearly fatal mistake. The moment her shield was out of the way, the first skeleton’s blue-white flaming sword shot through the gap in her defenses.
Tina gasped in terror as seven feet of flaming steel crashed into the heavy armor that guarded her neck. As expected of top-level raid gear, the runed metal deflected the blade with barely a scratch, but the ghostfire that coated the skeleton’s weapon flashed an angry white. As the light pulsed, Tina felt burning cold bite through her armor, down her neck, and into her collarbone on her right side. It wasn’t a dangerous hit, but the burn still hurt a hell of a lot more than the game should have allowed, and the unexpected pain destroyed what was left of Tina’s stability.
She went down with a pained yelp, smacking her head on a rock as she landed, which was how Tina learned that the “don’t show helmet” setting she used so she wouldn’t have to play the game while staring through a realistic-style visor now meant “you have no helmet.” The only things that saved her from an instant KO were the weird metal-but-not-metal copper dreadlocks of her hair, which softened the blow. Still, all Tina could do for the next several heartbeats was lie dazed on her back with her sword arm flung out and her shield over her chest as she stared up at the flat gray clouds of the Deadlands. Then the sky vanished as the two skeletons appeared above her.
The skeleton on her left stomped her sword flat to the ground with its boot. Meanwhile, the one on the right bent down to grab her shield and wrench it away. Tina strained with all her might, but since she was stuck on her back at the bottom of the crater, their combined strength, weight, and superior angle were more than she could match. No matter how she fought, she couldn’t free her sword or stop the skeleton above her from yanking her shield to the side, leaving her body exposed to the sword the left skeleton was now raising over her.
Staring up at the executioner’s stance, the fear Tina had felt earlier came back with a vengeance. She still didn’t know what was going on, if this was even a game anymore, but her body was completely, one-hundred-percent convinced it was about to die. Her panicked brain raced in circles as she tried to remember which ability she needed to use to save herself, but without her interface, she had no idea what still worked. The sword was coming down, though, so Tina decided that if all bets were off for her enemy, she might as well try something crazy, too.
Letting go of her sword and shield, Tina grabbed a basketball-sized piece of rubble and hurled it with all her might at the left skeleton. The improvised move wouldn’t have been possible in normal FFO. Now, though, the mini-boulder flew like a meteor right into the skeleton’s face, exploding on impact and knocking the monster flat onto its back.
A sword flashed on Tina’s right as the other skeleton tried to stab her, but its grip on her shield forced it to attack from an awkward angle, and Tina easily smacked the blow away with her armored hand. As the skeleton reeled, Tina grabbed the shield it had tried to rip away from her with both hands and rolled backward. The skeleton clung desperately to its prize, but now that it was alone, she was the one who was stronger and heavier, and she yanked it off its feet, ending up on her back again with the massive skeleton on top of her and her shield in the middle.
It was a dangerous position, but now that she was no longer trying to hold on to her sword, Tina’s left hand was free to shove herself up. Once she got her legs underneath her, she pushed up with her entire body, hoisting the shield—and the skeleton on top of it—over her head. Then roaring with fury, she turned her shield and slammed it back down again, crushing the skeleton that was now beneath it into the shattered road. Since her legendary shield, forged during the Age of Skies, could take a beating, Tina stomped her boot down on it next, smashing the trapped skeleton several inches into the stony dirt. She was about to stomp again when she heard retching noises followed by SilentBlayde’s cry of distress.
“Oh shit, David! You’re not allowed to choke to death on a healing potion!”
The shout made her cringe. She was turning to ask SB if that was pan-elixir number one or two being barfed all over the road when the skeleton she’d knocked over with the rock clambered back to its feet. Her dropped sword was right beside it, just a few feet away, but if Tina took her weight off her shield, the skeleton she’d trapped beneath it would get up, too. That left her with no weapon and no door-like shield while facing an end-game monster meant to be fought by 3 or more players.
Tina wanted to run, or panic, or do anything other than fight this terrifying, un-winnable battle, but the image of that unknown player’s head bouncing across the broken cobblestones was seared into her memory. The blood was still on the ground, bright red and accusing, reminding her that it was her fault. She’d let the skeleton slip by. If she messed up again, someone else would die, so Tina swallowed her fear and raised her empty hands instead, curling them into metal-gloved fists as the monster charged.
Screeching like a band saw, the huge skeleton brought its curved sword down on her with both hands. It was an easy-to-follow attack, but when Tina raised her arm to knock the sword aside, she discovered that the injury she’d taken earlier wasn’t as minor as she’d thought. The burn from the ghostfire no longer hurt, but it was still there, sending a deathly numbness down her shoulder and into her arm as the skeleton’s sword slammed down.
She didn’t have the strength to block it, so the attack smashed Tina’s raised arm into her own face. Still unable to cut through her god-forged armor, the giant blade slid down her gauntlet in a shower of sparks and dropped to land between the knee and thigh plates of her left leg instead. No longer hampered by inch-thick rune-forged metal, the flaming sword chopped clean through the relatively thin chain that guarded her joint and into the stony flesh below.
Roaring in pain, Tina kicked the monster away and scrambled back, looking down to assess the damage. Sure enough, silver blood was welling up from the wound like a faucet, but terrifying as it was to see herself bleeding, part of Tina felt like laughing at how she only had a narrow gash instead of a whole missing leg. Just like the earlier wound in her shoulder, the ghostfire burned like crazy, but while she could already feel her leg going numb, it still worked. Not that that mattered.
In her rush to get back so she could check her leg, she’d stepped off her shield, which meant the other skeleton was now free to climb back to its feet. It didn’t even look damaged from its time in the dirt, its ghostfire eyes as bright as ever as it shook the gravel from its armor.
As two pairs of white-fire eyes floating in empty skulls locked onto her, Tina had no choice but to back up again, climbing out of the crater and back up on the road. Her right arm was now completely numb thanks to the spreading ghostfire, and her bloody knee burned like acid where the sword had cut through. She desperately needed to take control of the situation, but she had no sword or shield. She couldn’t even see her available skills without her interface, but all of Tina’s experience said that this was big-ability time.
The skeletons advanced slowly until they reached the edge of the crater. The moment they stepped up on solid ground again, they charged in unison, the tongues of ghostfire in their eye sockets dancing as they hurtled toward her, swords raised high. Wincing, Tina turned her back on them and slammed her arms together, activating her race’s Earthen Fortitude ability.
For a terrifying second, nothing happened. Just the whistle of giant swords streaking through the air toward her undefended back. Then Tina felt the kiss of earth on the soles of her feet as the blessing of the Bedrock Kings flowed into her. Strength and stability settled in her bones, her skin, her armor, and even her metal hair. She felt colossal in its grip, a mountain that could take any storm. But with the power of bedrock came the immobility of it as well, and as her body hardened into position, Tina gritted her teeth for the beating.
Sparks flew over her shoulders in rivers as both skeletons hammered their swords into her back. The normally crushing blows felt like bee stings compared to the mountain within her, but it wouldn’t last forever. She couldn’t see the cooldown with the interface, but Tina knew she only had eight seconds before the near-invulnerability of Earthen Fortitude wore off. After that, she’d be mincemeat.
Unable to move, Tina used those precious seconds to look for help. She spotted SilentBlayde giving a Cleric the Heimlich maneuver. The white-robed healer was gagging and barfing rainbow-colored pan-elixir everywhere. That was no good for her, but surely someone else was up. SB had had two pan-elixirs on his belt, after all. The Cleric couldn’t have barfed them both up.
With her time rapidly running out, Tina desperately looked around for someone else. Aside from SB and the healer he was keeping from choking, though, there was only one figure who wasn’t sprawled on the ground. A dozen feet down the road, an ichthyian Cleric who looked almost exactly like the one SB was helping was cowering behind a rock. Hopes soaring, Tina opened her mouth to yell his name only to realize she had no idea who he was. She had to know him—all the healers in tonight’s raid were Roughnecks—but without a nameplate over his head, she couldn’t identify him by character model alone. It didn’t help that all the best-geared Clerics wore the exact same white robes and there were four in tonight’s raid who were ichthyians, scaly fish people whose bug-eyed character models all looked nearly identical.
He was all she had, though, so Tina yelled anyway, screaming at the Cleric to heal her, but the fish-man just turned away.
“It’s just a dream,” he said, placing his webbed hands over his ear holes. “You aren’t real. I’m just having another lucid dreaming episode, that’s all. There’s no way this is real. It’s never real.”
There was more, but Tina didn’t bother listening to the rest of his babbling. “SB!” she cried instead, looking frantically at the elf since she was unable to lift her arms. “Help!”
Far down the road, SilentBlayde stopped flicking rainbow-colored puke off his leather armor and glanced up in surprise, his blue eyes widening into an Oh shit look as he realized her situation.
The mountain within her was starting to fade now, the magic falling out of her like the stone it was. As it left, Tina knew she was screwed. SB was on the opposite side of the raid group from her. Even if he was strong enough to stop the swords falling toward her back, he’d never make it in time. Once she was dead, the Assassin would be outmatched. The skeletons would kill him and everyone else, and it would be all her fault.
The moment Earthen Fortitude released her legs, Tina wheeled around. She might be outmatched, but it was her responsibility as a tank to be the wall between these things and the other players for as long as she could. If nothing else, maybe her blood spraying across the ground would snap that idiot healer out of his shock long enough to save the others.
The skeleton on her left went first. As it swung down, Tina lifted her right arm, choosing her numb limb for the first sacrifice. But even though she was anticipating the blow, the lingering ghostfire left her too slow by miles. She’d barely managed to get her hand up before the massive sword swept right past. It was about to land in her skull when its owner’s head was engulfed by a cloud of dark-purple powder.
The sword flashed past Tina’s face, cutting so close it flicked a single drop of silver blood from the tip of her nose. Reeling from the powder, the huge skeleton staggered backward, but the cloud surrounding its head followed every move, obscuring even the white ghostfire of its eyes.
With its ally blinded, the second skeleton took its chance to attack. When it raised its sword to chop at Tina, though, SilentBlayde appeared from thin air at its side, one of his gleaming silver swords already wedged perfectly into the joint of the monster’s arm. The flat of the blade prevented the ball from rotating fully in its socket, locking the monster’s arm comically over its head.
“I’ve got you, Roxxy!” SB said, keeping his eyes on the skeleton he’d just locked down. “Sorry I’m late. Anders was supposed to heal you while I got David up, but the A-man flipped out on me.”
Tina rubbed her numb arm in relief, glad it was still attached. “You got here when I needed you, Blayde. Thanks.”
SB took his eyes off the enemy just long enough to give her a wink. “Here,” he said, plucking something from his belt pocket with his free hand and tossing it at her. “Drink!”
Tina scrambled to catch the glass vial before it shattered on the ground. Fumbling with the cork, she didn’t look at what it was before she downed the contents in one gulp. The half cup of liquid tasted like normal water when it hit her tongue, but it washed away all the weakness in her arm and leg.
“What was that?” she asked, looking down at her once-again functional hand in wonder.
“Unfallen Water from the Age of Skies,” SilentBlayde replied proudly. “Ghostfire is purged with water magic, so—”
He cut off as the skeleton he’d trapped suddenly gave a violent shake. It didn’t look like much to Tina, but the force of the motion sent the wiry elf flying over her head. She was moving to catch him when he flipped in midair and landed on his tiptoes on top of the ruined catapult.
“Did you see that?” SB cried, pointing at his pose. “I’m like freaking Legolas here!”
Tina laughed. “Thanks, SB,” she said, pointing at the skeleton that wasn’t currently reeling blindly with a purple cloud over its head. “Play with that one for a minute. I need my sword and shield if we’re to have any chance here.”
SilentBlayde saluted and leaped at the towering undead knight, smacking the skeleton across the knees with his left-hand sword as he landed. It looked like a solid hit, but the ten-foot-tall monster barely noticed. It was still locked on Tina, almost trampling the slender elf in its rush to get to her.
“Umm, Roxxy?” SB said nervously as he danced back. “You kinda still have its attention. Looks like aggro system still works.”
“Just stun lock it,” Tina ordered, looking longingly past the skeleton at the crater where she’d gone down earlier.
The ninja mask hid his expression, but Tina could hear the panic in SilentBlayde’s voice. “I’m trying, but there’s no interface! I’m used to having all my macros and mods for abilities. I don’t remember how to activate everything by gesture only!”
Tina gaped at him. “What? How’d you use the blinding night powder, then?”
“It’s just a packet I throw! There was one in my belt!”
“I told you running all those mods was a bad idea!” she cried, ducking the skeleton’s sword as it swung over SB’s head. “This happens to you every expansion!”
They danced back and forth, with the monster striking at her while SB harassed and parried in between. A few feet away, Tina could already see the night powder’s purple haze thinning around the other skeleton’s head. Losing her patience, she leaned down and wrenched the lower half of the old stone signpost she’d cracked when she’d first woken up out of the ground. She was about to throw the hunk of rock at the skeleton’s face when SB sheathed his left sword.
Pausing with her rock held high, Tina watched in amazement as SilentBlayde pulled a glowing crystal bolo out of one of his many pockets and whipped it at the active skeleton. As the bolo twined around the monster’s exposed ribs, the crystal ends crashed together, and electricity coursed over the skeleton, immobilizing it.
“Three seconds!” SB yelled as he pulled his sword back out.
Tina dropped her rock and dove, sliding past the immobilized skeleton to scoop up her sword from the broken ground behind it. She was going for her shield next when the crackling lightning went quiet, then the leather cord of SB’s bolo snapped like a whipcrack as the skeleton broke free.
The night powder keeping the other skeleton at bay ran out at the same time. As the air cleared, the skeleton whirled on her and charged, screaming that horrible scream. Wincing at the sound, Tina dropped and rolled, sliding her arm into the straps of her shield. The moment the comforting weight of the wall of metal was back on her arm, she pushed herself up and leaped to the edge of the gravel pit she’d created with her stomp. Too simpleminded to go around, the skeletons both charged directly into the pit again, floundering when they hit the loose soil. Tina was bracing to meet them when SB appeared at her side.
“What’s the plan?” he asked, gripping his blades as the skeletons struggled to climb up the rolling gravel toward them. “These guys are both two-skull rated. We’ve never beaten a pack like this with only two people.”
“Forget the game,” Tina said, gripping her beloved sword and shield tight. “We’ve got to fight for real now.”
SilentBlayde’s confused look was lost as the two monsters reached the top of the pit and slammed into her guard. Tina grunted at the impact, but this time, her feet stayed firm, stopping them cold.
“Sorry, assholes,” she said through gritted teeth, glaring over the top of her shield into the burning eyes of her enemies. “We’re not dying today. SB!”
The elf was moving before she said his name. In a single graceful motion, he leaped over her head to land on the closest skeleton with both swords, sending bone chips flying as he began carving into it from behind.
James Anderson should not have been playing FFO tonight.
Work had been worse than usual. He’d pulled his shoulder saving a student from a bad throw at beginners’ jujitsu class, and now his whole arm was on fire. It was his fault, too. He never should have agreed to teach four classes in a row, but the money had been too good to pass up. Now, ten hours later, his muscles were shot, his brain was fried, and the dread of having to get up and do it all over again tomorrow was throbbing like an ulcer in his stomach. A smart man—a responsible man—would have gotten his sleep while he could, yet here James was, sitting on his futon, staring at his VR helmet like a fucking addict.
His calloused fingers tightened on the sleek black plastic. He’d ripped it off his head after Tina had hung up on him mid-apology, not that that was new. He’d apologized to her a million times over the years, and she hadn’t listened to any of those, either. Yet another reason he should put the helmet down. If he logged into the game, guilt would eventually drive him into raiding with the Roughnecks. Staying up late running a super-stressful dungeon was the last thing he needed, but he couldn’t stop looking at the inviting glow of the Forever Fantasy Online screen shining inside the helmet’s visor.
He wanted to play. Bad idea or not, he wanted to escape to the beautiful world in which the disaster his life had become didn’t exist. The one place where he could pretend he wasn’t a failure, if only for a few hours.
“Addict,” he muttered, shoving the VR helmet over his head.
The moment the warm plastic covered his head, his tiny bedroom vanished, replaced by the endless blue-black expanse of the character-selection screen. As his eyes adjusted to the sudden change, bright 3-D images of all his characters appeared in front of him and immediately started jumping and waving, pointing at their chests in a “Pick me!” gesture whenever James turned his head in their direction. After considering his options for a moment, James lifted his arm to point at the first in the line, his main character. The motion sensors on his helmet detected the movement, and the tall, catlike jubatus Naturalist pumped his fist in victory. Bad decision made, James lowered his body carefully onto the bed as his characters vanished, leaving him staring into the swirling dark of the loading screen.
“Initiating Sensorium Engine,” said a soothing female voice. “Please relax. Full immersion in 10… 9… 8…”
The countdown moved from the helmet’s speakers to inside James’s head as the virtual reality expanded to take over his senses one at a time. By the time the countdown hit “1,” he was barely aware of his body or the hard bed beneath it. Then the soothing voice reached zero, and James sucked in a breath as he fell into complete sensory deprivation.
He was no longer in his bedroom. He was standing in a translucent white bubble surrounded by a vast starscape that stretched to infinity. It was unspeakably beautiful, but the anti-deprivation loading sphere was actually James’s least favorite part of the entire FFO experience because he couldn’t move. He supposed a few moments of paralysis were a small price to pay for the miracle that was full-sensory VR, but it still felt terrifyingly like being trapped inside his own body, held down by a force he couldn’t understand or fight.
Thankfully, the servers were on the ball tonight. After only a few seconds, the Sensorium Engine succeeded in taking over his kinesthesia, and James’s body was returned to him. He was hopping from foot to foot just for the sake of moving again when the soothing system voice spoke his favorite words.
James’s face split into a grin. No matter how many times he logged in, this part never got any less cool. As the game connected, the FFO servers took over control from his helmet, and the endless stars vanished as the inside of the transparent loading bubble became mirrored. Smiling like a doofus, James watched as his reflection grew taller. His face flattened, and his eyes became slitted. Claws and fangs appeared, followed by fur, ears, and a tail. The sequence was accompanied by a full orchestral score complete with martial brass and pounding drums. A dazzling show of bursting golden lights completed the celebration of his log-in, and James silently thanked whichever developer had decided to make this happen inside the privacy of the loading sphere. If anyone saw how happy the transformation into his character made him, he’d have died of embarrassment.
“Connection complete,” the system voice said proudly. “Good luck, hero!”
As the words faded, the mirrored ball of the loading sphere vanished, and the world of Forever Fantasy Online blossomed around him.
It was morning in the game. Bright sunlight streamed through the white hide walls of the large yurt he’d logged out in yesterday. It was just an empty tent in a low-level quest hub no one went to anymore, but in his own mind, James liked to pretend it was his character’s home. He could have bought an actual place on the player housing islands, but the disconnected dimension of floating mansions felt too artificial. As part of the game world, the yurt felt much more real, even if it wasn’t actually his.
Smiling, James stretched his long arms over his head to settle himself into his character’s catlike body only to stop again when the movement made his injured shoulder twinge. Pain in full immersion was a bad sign. Yet another reminder that he needed to take it easy tonight. A quick glance at his friends list showed that Roxxy and SilentBlayde were both still in the Deadlands, but neither had messaged him yet. He was reaching for the tent flap to head outside and catch a flight to the Verdancy to see if he couldn’t sneak his way into that unfinished zone before they did when a sudden pain stabbed into his chest.
Gasping, James dropped to his knees, clutching his ribcage, which felt as though it were full of knives. The agony quickly spread down his limbs, filling his entire body with pain. He was trying to breathe through it when his head went WHAM, then SPIN, then WHAM again, making everything go blurry as he pitched forward onto the floor of his tent.
When he came to again, every perception he had was ratcheted up to eleven. His skin burned, tickled, and itched all at once. Every fine hair of the hide rug he’d fallen on stabbed like a needle, and his ears were being hammered by the cavernous whooshing of his own breath. Even the normal dustiness of the yurt was like a sandstorm crammed up his nose, drowning him in the musty scents of earth, leather, and grass.
Cracking his eyes open was like looking straight at the sun, but closing them didn’t help, either. Even with his eyelids shut, there was a world of dazzlingly colored streamers drifting in the dark behind them. While not as bright as actual sunlight, the luminescence still overwhelmed James’s vision, making everything blur together into a swirling, prismatic soup.
Chest heaving in panic, James frantically waved his hand in the log-out command, but instead of hearing the familiar bing of the interface, he felt his arm collide with the tent’s wooden support pole, causing him to yowl in pain. Desperate and confused, he tried again, going slowly this time to make sure he did it right. But though he was certain he hadn’t made a mistake, there were no familiar chimes of his fingers passing through the virtual buttons of the interface. He didn’t even hear an error.
“Help!” he yelled, thrashing on the ground. “GM! Stuck! Report! Emergency! 911!”
James tried every voice command he could think of, but nothing and no one responded. That left only one option. It took a long time—he couldn’t see, and it was hard to tell where his too-long arms were now—but eventually, he managed to cup his hands over his ears to trigger the emergency logout.
Hard-quitting out of full sensory immersion would leave him barfing on his bedroom floor, but James would gladly take a few hours of dump shock to escape whatever was going on. Unfortunately, triggering the emergency log-out required absolute stillness, which was difficult when all you wanted to do was writhe on the ground. There was no other way out, though, so James forced himself to concentrate, clamping his hands tight over his ears as he silently counted to twenty. Then thirty. Then sixty.
When he passed a hundred, James dropped his arms with a curse. Whatever malfunction had caused the interface to disappear must have disabled the emergency log-out as well. Good for him there was more than one way to dump out.
“Start Console,” James said in a croaking voice then paused. Normally, the game would ding to let him know the voice command had worked. Now, of course, there was nothing, or maybe he just wasn’t able to hear it over the deafening rush of his blood in his ears. Either way, James didn’t know what else to try, so he kept going.
“Command. New macro,” he said, pausing carefully after each statement. “Name, GTFO. Script start. X equals five divided by zero. Script end. Save.”
There was no way of knowing if the system had gotten all of that, but James had made a lot of macros over the last eight years, and this one was as famous as it was simple. The UI0013 script bug had haunted FFO since launch. Certain errors in the ability macro system, like division by zero, would crash the whole damn game. He and other players had complained about it for years, but since only a tiny portion of the player base was advanced enough to care about writing their own ability scripts, the developers had never bothered to fix it. Hoping that laziness was still in play, James pressed his hands over his eyes and took the plunge.
“Command, Run GTFO.”
He held his breath as he finished, bracing for the dump. When nothing happened, he slammed his hands down in frustration then cried out in pain when the sudden smack of his fingers against the ground sent his heightened pain awareness into overdrive.
Clutching his hands to his chest, James curled up into a ball on the needle-sharp rug to wait this out. It had to end sometime. He was still logged into the game, which meant someone would find him eventually. It might be his roommates tomorrow once they realized he hadn’t left his bedroom all day, but this couldn’t last forever. To boost his chances of survival until then, James focused on counting his breaths. With each intake and exhalation, he sought to make his breath the center of the universe. It didn’t decrease the sensory agony, but it did help him ignore the worst of it, pushing the pain to the sides of his consciousness as he waited for this to pass.
After three hundred breaths, James began to wonder if it was going to pass. He wasn’t sure how long this had been going on now, but it couldn’t have been more than thirty minutes. The thought of spending hours like this was almost enough to make him hyperventilate, but he caught himself at the last second, forcing his mind back to his breaths.
By the time he reached six hundred, he thought his heart was beginning to slow down. By eight hundred, his chest definitely hurt less. His skin felt less sensitive, too, the hide rug poking him less like needles and more like normal scratchy hairs. By a thousand, the dancing lights behind his eyes were more pretty than painful, and James decided to take a chance.
Gingerly opening his eyes, he pushed himself to a sitting position, keeping one hand in front of his face to limit the glare. Everything was still way too bright and intense, but his senses seemed to be drifting back toward normal, and he wasn’t dizzy. Encouraged, he opened a crack in his fingers, squinting into the bright-white glare until, slowly, shapes began to emerge.
He was still in the game. Still in his yurt, even. But while that much hadn’t changed, everything else had.
The tent’s walls were still white, but they were no longer bare. The stretched hide was now lovingly decorated with paintings of animals being hunted by jubatus: the cheetah-like people native to the savanna zone where he’d logged out. The tent’s wood support poles were also carved with intricate scenes of jubatus hunting and battling the gnolls, the other major race in the zone. Similar themes decorated the rest of the furniture that was now scattered around the once-empty tent. There was a bed now, and a bench, and woven baskets holding carefully folded stacks of lovingly mended soft-hide shirts and pants with holes at the back for the jubatus’s tails.
The decor wasn’t all that had changed, either. The yurt was now easily twice as large as it had been when James had logged in. Before, it had looked like a single tent for a scout. Now, it looked like a home for an entire family. There were even some straw cat-people dolls tucked away in the corner next to a rack containing bundles of dried herbs. Now that his nose was calming down, James discovered he could smell them strongly, which was how he learned that Plains Rose smelled a lot like rosemary.
Breathing the familiar scent in deeply, James rose to his feet to take stock of his situation. He still had no idea what was going on—if he’d been the victim of a hack or if a new art patch had just gone horribly awry—but now that he had control of his sight and limbs again, it was time to log out and go to the hospital. There was no way that much sensory nerve pain didn’t have serious consequences. At the very least, he wanted a doctor to tell him he didn’t have brain damage for his own peace of mind. But when he made the motion to bring up the system menu, all he saw was his own hand moving through the air.
Scowling, James made the motion again. Slowly this time, to be sure he was doing it right. Again, though, nothing happened. The menus must still be busted. He was wondering what to do about that when he realized with a start that none of the user interface was present.
Normally in the game, critical information like his health, mana, level, mini-map, status effect, the time, and so on were all discreetly visible at the corners of his vision. Now that his eyes were working again, he was able to look all around, but no matter how far he craned his head or moved his eyes around his field of vision, it stayed empty. There was no user interface, no floating text, not even an internet connection icon, and the more James stared at the blank places where all those things should have been, the bigger the lump in his stomach grew.
“Command,” he said, voice trembling. “Message player Tina Anderson.”
“Message character Roxxy.”
“Command, join general chat.”
Each voice command was met with deafening silence. He didn’t even hear an error beep, leaving James feeling like he was talking to empty air.
Shaking harder than ever, he rubbed his character’s clawed hands together, marveling at the rough and now incredibly realistic-feeling catlike pads on his otherwise human fingers. He couldn’t comprehend how much work it must have taken to put this new level of detail and sense-mapped information into the game. James hated the legendary recklessness of the FFO developers, but surely even they wouldn’t push through a change like this while the servers were live. That was the only explanation he could think of, though. Unless…
James went still. He still didn’t know what to make of this situation, but he had to consider the possibility that maybe this wasn’t a hack or a patch. When he mentally tallied the development time and server resources needed to achieve the level of realism his five senses were currently showing him, it didn’t seem technically possible. There was just no way the game could have changed this drastically without a massive hardware upgrade. He, on the other hand, had been playing a lot lately. Other than his jobs, FFO was the only thing James did. If the game itself hadn’t changed, then there was another, much more likely explanation for what had just happened—lucid dreaming.
The more James thought about it, the more sense it made. Lucid dreams were a pretty common issue for FFO players. At the game’s height a few years ago, the FCC had actually commissioned an entire guild to play fourteen hours a day so they could study the phenomenon. He’d played almost that much this weekend, so it made sense he was having the same problem, especially since his shoulder didn’t hurt anymore. Given all the rolling around he’d just done on the floor, the joint should have been throbbing, but it felt fine.
James breathed a sigh of relief. That proved he couldn’t actually be in the game. He must have fallen asleep with his helmet on. He’d pay for that with a splitting headache in the morning, but that was far better than actually being trapped in some kind of catastrophic virtual-reality system failure. Hell, if he was lucky, maybe the fight with Tina had been part of the dream, too.
Smiling at the hope, James wobbled across the yurt on his character’s too-long legs toward the long wooden bench set against one side. There was only one surefire way out of a lucid dream, so he positioned himself right in front of the low wooden seat and took careful aim as he pulled his leg back then slammed his shin straight into the bench’s sharp corner.
Pain exploded through his limb, and James snatched it back with a hiss. The tail he wasn’t used to lashed at the same time. He was standing on only one foot, so the unaccustomed movement threw off his balance, and James toppled to the ground, smacking his head against the central support pole on the way down.
Well, he thought, reaching up to rub his throbbing skull, that should have been enough to wake anyone. He just hoped he hadn’t broken his helmet when he’d fallen off his bed. But when James opened his eyes, he wasn’t on his floor at home. He was still on the hide rug, staring up at the yurt’s sun-drenched painted walls.
A cold sweat prickled under his fur. He was still here. He hadn’t woken up. There was only one explanation for a lucid dream you couldn’t wake up from. It was the most terrible possibility, too. Even worse than his helmet going haywire and giving him a lobotomy.
He might have Leylia’s Disease.
Like most FFO players, James had heard plenty of horror stories about the VR-induced mental disorder. People with Leylia’s suffered from random involuntary waking lucid dreams. The smoking gun was when they couldn’t wake themselves up during an episode. No matter what they did, they were trapped in the delusion, moving in reality just as they did in the dream. Like sleepwalking but a thousand times more dangerous, because people with Leylia’s had no way of knowing what was real and what was a hallucination.
“Oh no,” James moaned, covering his face with a clawed, padded hand. “No, no, no.”
Leylia’s was as bad as it could get. He didn’t even know when the episode had started. For all he knew, he’d started dreaming the moment he got home and only imagined logging in. Maybe the sensory overload he’d experienced earlier had just been him freaking out on his apartment floor. If that was true, he didn’t dare move from this spot. Anywhere he went in this place, his body would also go in real life. If he started walking, he might walk right out his window and not notice until he hit the ground.
Panting, James looked around the yurt, trying to estimate if its new larger size matched his bedroom. Perhaps those beautifully carved wooden shelves were actually his Goodwill bookshelves. The bed was definitely in the wrong place, but the bench he’d banged his leg on sort of matched his desk.
He was tilting his head to see if he could make things line up better when he heard someone cheering outside. A lot of someones. The noise got louder by the second, rising up until it sounded like his yurt was in the middle of a stadium.
James flicked his eyes toward the closed tent flap, a tantalizing few feet away. Moving was a terrible idea. He still had no idea where his body was in real life. If he left this spot, he could walk straight into a wall or fall down his apartment stairs. But those dangers were being crushed by a growing desperation to escape the prison of the yurt and his fear. He had no idea how much of the real world bled into Leylia’s waking dreams, but if there were people out there, he might be able to get help.
It was a risky gamble, but being trapped here felt even worse, so James cautiously pushed himself to his feet. Standing up again, he was surprised to discover that not only was the dizziness from earlier completely gone, but he actually felt better than he had in years. Nothing hurt, and he wasn’t exhausted for once. A cruel mockery considering he was trapped in a mental delusion, but at least he felt ready to roll with whatever was waiting as he eased his way across the tent and pushed aside the hide flap that served as a door.
James’s jaw dropped. Up till now, he’d assumed his hallucination would line up with reality, at least a little bit, but this was like nothing he’d ever seen. The dirt street outside the yurt was flooded with jubatus. Like his character, the cat-people were as lithe and muscular as the cheetahs they’d been modeled after, complete with unique spotted patterns on their sand-colored fur. They all had whiskers, tails, claws, and other animal features, but they walked on two legs and had five-fingered hands, just like humans. Their catlike faces had human expressions, too, and right now, every one of them looked overwhelmed by emotion. Some were weeping. Others were shouting with joy, the sound he’d heard. Still more just looked stunned, staring at the village as though they’d never seen it before.
It certainly didn’t look how James remembered. The village of Windy Lake was the main town for the mid-level savanna zone. It was a small town with a few quest-givers, some trainers, and just enough yurts to make it look lived in. Now, though, the village looked more like a city. The tents were still laid out in the same orderly grid he remembered from the game, but there were ten times more than there had been. Likewise, the lake he could see glittering in the distance between the tent lines was huge, far bigger than the blue pond it had been before. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the land itself. It was still completely flat, a problem since he lived in a third-floor apartment. The stairwell could be right in front of him, and he wouldn’t know until he took a step on what looked like flat dirt road and fell to his death.
Swallowing, James looked again, scouring the street for any match to the real world. The more he looked, though, the weirder things got. The sun blazing down on the dirt road and the dry yellow grassland beyond was augmented by lights he had no explanation for. Bright-green glowing ribbons—the same ones he’d seen earlier behind his closed eyelids—drifted up from the ground to mix with sharp white streamers in the sky. If he hadn’t been so concerned for his sanity, they would have been beautiful, but James had no time for more weirdness right now, so he put the dancing lights out of his mind and focused on moving without killing himself.
Assuming he was still near his bed, he thought the stairs should have been outside the tent and to the left. Clenching his jaw, James took a cautious step into the road, sliding his bare foot along the ground, but all he felt was hard, warm dirt, which didn’t make any sense. Even if he couldn’t see it, there should have been a drop. He must have gotten turned around somehow, but there was no correcting it. The neat grid of tents didn’t translate to his apartment in any way, and he didn’t see anything that might represent objects in the real world. No blocks that could have been a door or their apartment couch. It made an infuriating lack of sense even for a dream, and the continued strangeness of the cat-people’s behavior was starting to annoy him as well.
The crowd he’d heard earlier was all around him now. Across the street, an old feline man was sitting on the ground, laughing and crying at the same time. Farther down the road, a pair of warriors had fallen over and were singing enthusiastically at the sky, their yellow eyes shining with wild, reckless joy. There were just as many people weeping as rejoicing, and more were appearing all the time. Watching them stumble out of their tents into the street, James had to wonder if this wasn’t Leylia’s after all. Maybe he’d just gone plain old crazy.
Hands shaking, he reached up to poke the tall, catlike ears on top of his head. In game, they were normal for his character model to have, but he’d never felt them before since FFO’s Human Analogue Translation System didn’t convey sensation from nonhuman features. The same went for his tail, which had always been more of an accessory than an actual part of his body. Now, though, James could feel the weight of the long, furred appendage behind him, helping him balance. Moving his tongue around, he found an entire mouthful of sharp, predatory teeth, none of which had been there before, and the wind that made his whiskers twitch was the freaky icing on the freaky sensory cake.
If the additions hadn’t been so clearly part of him, it would have felt alien. People with Leylia’s always described their episodes as highly realistic, but James was certain he’d never, ever felt something like this before. This wasn’t like dreaming you had long hair or were eight feet tall. This was entirely new sensory input, like seeing a new color. James didn’t even know if he could effectively communicate his problem to a stranger right now. What he needed was to wake up, which meant it was time for the nuclear option, personal safety be damned.
Though much bigger, the dream town still resembled Windy Lake village. The park near his apartment also had a lake, and James was willing to bet that its lake and the Windy Lake lined up. It was late April in Seattle, so the water would still be frigid, definitely cold enough to snap him out of whatever was going on. If nothing else, throwing himself into a lake might result in rescue and a trip to the emergency room, where he could get professional help.
That sounded like a win-win to James, so he swallowed his fear and started striding down the road, walking past the weeping and laughing cat-people without a word. Now that he was moving, he saw again just how much larger this town was than the one in the game, giving him hope that what he saw might line up with reality. The park was at least half a mile from his apartment, and so seemed to be the Windy Lake.
Encouraged, he picked up the pace, keeping to the side of the road in the hope of avoiding the cars he couldn’t see. He was trying to figure out if the acacia trees he could see in the distance matched the large oaks by the lake path he sometimes jogged down when the air was split by the enormous booming of a drum.
All around him, the frantic cat-people went silent, their large ears flicking in the direction of the drum. Then as if that had been a signal, they all stopped what they’d been doing and started walking toward the center of town. Since he had to go that way to get to the lake anyway, James joined them, hoping that following other ‘people’ might protect him from getting hit by a bus.
A minute later, he reached the edge of the plaza at the middle of the village. The open square looked identical to the one he remembered from the game, complete with the iconic giant war drum at the center. Behind that was the two-story Naturalists’ lodge, the only all-wood structure in the village. The crowd stopped when they hit the square, but the lake was still a good distance away. Sniffing, James smelled water on the wind. He was about to leave the crowd and follow it to the shore when someone started hammering on the war drum like they were trying to break it.
He looked up in alarm. The five-foot-wide wood-and-hide drum was elevated above the crowd of swishing tails and flicking cat ears by a large wood platform. Standing on it, pounding the drum with heavy mallets, was a muscular jubatus decked in feathers, fangs, and a painted suit of plate armor that, to his enormous surprise, James recognized. It was the village’s head warrior, Arbati.
The sight made James rub a hand over his face. Here he was, going as mad as a hatter, and the first person he “knew” was the most obnoxious non-player character in all of FFO. Every new jubatus character had to spend hours here, completing quests that mostly involved repeatedly rescuing Arbati from his own impatience and poor judgment. If James thought Tina had a temper, Arbati could take anger management lessons from the Hulk. He was so famously annoying, he even had his own internet meme called Angry Cat.
James didn’t know what Arbati the Angry Cat’s appearance in his dream meant, but he’d already decided he didn’t care. He turned back toward the lake and tried to push through the crowd only to discover that he was trapped. In the few moments he’d been gawking at Arbati, so many jubatus had arrived in the square that what had been the edge of the crowd was now its center, and James was in the middle of it.
Cursing under his breath, James rocked back on his heels to consider his options. He could try pushing his way through, but he didn’t want to accidentally hurt anyone who might be real. He definitely didn’t want to risk starting a fight. Of course, for all he knew, these “people” were just bushes, but James didn’t want to risk hurting others unless he absolutely had to. Looking up at the warrior, who was still banging the drum, James decided to bide his time. If they moved on their own, he’d continue to the lake. If he stayed here, maybe someone would notice him acting crazy and call the cops, saving him from potentially drowning.
That was as good a plan as any, especially since he didn’t have a choice. Fortunately, he didn’t have to wait much longer. The square was already nearly full. When the crowd was packed all the way to the tents, the person James’s delusional vision saw as Arbati stopped drumming and turned around to assist a gray-furred old cat-lady in a feathered headdress onto the war drum’s platform. When she reached the top, James realized with a shock that he knew her, too. It was Gray Fang, the stern old battle-ax of a grandma who served as the spiritual leader of Windy Lake.
Seeing her sent James’s worry into overdrive. Arbati was the subject of a famous meme, which made him easy to remember, but Gray Fang was just a normal NPC. James only recognized her because his character was a Naturalist, and Gray Fang was the Naturalist class trainer. But seeing Non-Player Characters was a textbook symptom of Leylia’s. He was working himself into a panic again when Gray Fang—or the poor person he’d hallucinated was Gray Fang—swept her hand over the crowd.
“It has happened at last,” she said when they fell silent. “The Nightmare has finally broken.” She lifted her clawed hands in blessing. “We are free!”
The crowd roared in reply. Even now that his hearing was more or less back to normal, the noise was deafening. James was rubbing his ears when a potbellied cat-man grabbed his shoulder and started crying on him in joy. James was desperately trying to wiggle free when the elder motioned for silence again.
“Our world returns to normal, and we are able to move once more,” she said. “But we know not how or why we were imprisoned these last eighty years. We know not where the ‘players’ of the Nightmare came from, where they went, or if they’ll return.”
The way the grandmotherly old cheetah said “players” made James’s ears flatten. It wasn’t just the hatred in her voice. It was the emotion that word drew from the crowd. All around him, jubatus were flexing their clawed hands and flashing their sharp teeth. Even the children looked murderous, snarling around their baby fangs. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if this was a delusion. The crowded square was now somewhere James very much did not want to be. But as he started to push his way through the mob, a bloodcurdling scream ripped through the air.
He, and everyone else, whirled around to see a tall old jubatus at the back of the square, pointing a shaking claw at James. “I see you! You’re not one of us! You’re a player! Player!”
The jubatus around him scurried away, leaving James standing alone in a widening circle. The entire crowd was looking at him now, hundreds of slitted cat eyes tightening in rage. Then as if answering an unheard signal, the angry mob surged toward him, their clawed hands grabbing his clothes, his fur, his skin—every part they could.
“Monster!” they screamed. “Slaver!”
“I’m not!” James cried, putting his hands up. “I didn’t—”
A rock smashed into his head. James staggered back, blinking as hot blood began to trickle through his fur. As it dripped into his eyes, he noticed that the strange glowing streamers that had haunted his vision since this madness had started were getting brighter, their curling lengths twitching above him like a rope tossed to a drowning man.
Desperate and terrified, James reached up to grab the closest one—a gray-white tendril that glowed like the inside of a cloud. His fingers passed right through it—no surprise there since this whole thing was a hallucination—but what was surprising was that the moment he touched it, James knew what the glowing ribbon was. Lightning. He couldn’t explain how even to himself, but something deep inside him was certain the floating light was lightning. Air magic in lightning form to be specific, and he knew how to use it.
Clutching a hand to his chest, James pulled up the deep-blue mana from inside himself. It was the same motion he’d used to cast spells in the game, but unlike every other command he’d tried, this one worked. When he felt his own magic rising, he reached up to grab the ribbon of lightning again. This time, with his hands filled with his power, the white light stuck fast to his fingers, letting him yank it down into his fists. It was the same motion he used to cast lightning spells in FFO, a motion he’d done a thousand times. Bright-white electricity arced from his fingers as James brought the power together, and the attacking crowd began to back away.
James smiled as they retreated. He was wreathed in lightning now, and the power was glorious but also comfortingly familiar. He’d never been this close to it, but he’d played long enough to recognize the shape of the electricity arcing between his hands. It was chain lightning, the Naturalist class’s staple attack spell.
His smile turned into a triumphant grin. As he was a level eighty in the low-level Windy Lake, one spell would be enough to kill anyone in the crowd. Even better, chain lightning jumped between targets, and the jubatus were nicely clumped together. With this kind of target density, the magic that was already in his hands could devastate the entire square, leaving him free to run. If he could get to the lake, maybe this horrible hallucination would finally end, then he could apologize for whatever the hell had actually happened here.
The finished spell was throbbing in his hands, and James decided that the warrior holding the rock that was red with his blood would be a fine opening target. But as he began the motion to let the spell go, people turned and started to flee.
An old jubatus lady scrambled backward on all fours, tears streaking down her dusty face. Beside her, a man grabbed his young son and turned around, shielding the boy from James with his body. Others simply ran, crashing into the people behind them in their rush to escape. Even though he knew it was a dream, the fear on display in front of him was so real, James felt it echoing in his body, making him wonder for the first time if maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t a hallucination at all.
Sweat drenched his fur as he clutched the magic tight, fighting the spell as he scrambled to think things through. This couldn’t actually be the game. He could smell his blood and the hot hate of the mob in the dusty air. Feel the intense, throbbing pain from the rock that had struck his head. None of that was possible in FFO or in life as he knew it. Pain was common enough, but the wild lashing of his tail and the instinct that kept his catlike ears flat against his skull were utterly alien. Even with Leylia’s, it didn’t seem possible that he could dream entirely new sensations. No theory he’d come up with could properly explain what was happening, and if he couldn’t explain it, then James needed to make a decision fast. The lightning in his hands had to go somewhere soon, but if he released it without knowing the consequences, there was a chance that “target density” might translate into real lives. Because if this wasn’t the game and it wasn’t a lucid dream, the only explanation left was that this was real, which meant he was about to become a mass murderer.
That was a risk he couldn’t stomach, so James thrust his hands into the air, loosing the lightning he’d built into the clear blue sky. The tree-trunk-sized bolt left his hands with a thunderclap that flattened the crowd. Then there was complete stillness. No one moved. No one shouted. Everyone, James included, stared fearfully at each other, waiting to see what came next. The standoff was still going when weakness crashed into James like a wall.
He staggered, clutching his chest as his head began to spin. He was worried he’d damaged something inside him with the lightning when he remembered that he’d taken off all his gear before he’d logged out last time and hadn’t yet tried to reequip anything. Chain lightning didn’t normally take much of his mana, but without his magical armor and staff, one casting was enough to drain him nearly dry.
James closed his eyes with a wince. That had to be it. He wasn’t hurt. He was low on mana, yet another sign that things weren’t what he’d thought. Nervously, he looked around at the crowd he’d just spared, debating if he should run for the lake anyway. He was already edging toward the scent of the water when a yell broke the silence.
The terrified crowd parted as the tall cat-warrior, Arbati, leaped off the drum platform. There was no hint of fear or hesitation as the jubatus marched toward him. James was opening his mouth to say… something. He wasn’t sure what, but before he could get a word out, the warrior decked him in the jaw with a gauntleted fist.
The stinging blow smashed him straight into the dirt. He was trying to push back up when the warrior kicked him in the ribs.
“Bring me rope and a sealing mask!” Arbati called, planting his boot on James’s neck to keep him down.
Reeling from the attacks and still weakened from the spell, James didn’t even manage to get his hands up before someone brought Arbati what he’d asked for. The warrior rolled James onto his stomach and tied his hands behind his back with what felt like a strip of leather. The binding bit painfully into his wrists, but things got even worse when the elder jubatus, Gray Fang, shuffled down from the drum platform and began smearing James’s face with what felt like cold mud.
It was so sudden, James didn’t even think to struggle as the old lady smashed the dirt into his fur. He’d never seen anything like this in the game before, but her rough claws painted his face with practiced ease, layering the mixture on until only his eyes, nose, and mouth were left uncovered. When she was finished, the old Naturalist reached up to snag a handful of the glowing magical lights James had been watching all morning.
She wound the magic between her wrinkled fingers like a cat’s cradle then pressed the strands into the drying mud on James’s face. When she was finished, the mask hardened into something much stronger than clay, and the colorful floating lights faded from James’s vision. He was still blinking at the loss when Arbati hoisted him off the ground using only one arm.
“Our revenge starts with this one!” the head warrior proclaimed, holding James up like a trophy. “How shall we kill it?”
“Drawn and quartered!” a woman yelled.
“Stake it out to dry!” cried another.
“Skin him alive!” screamed an otherwise adorable little girl with big, poofy ears.
James shook his head frantically, but the mask prevented him from fully opening his mouth, so he couldn’t speak loudly enough to be heard. He was frantically kicking at Arbati’s legs in a last-ditch effort to get free when Gray Fang straightened up.
“We will not be killing this one,” she said, dusting the dried mud from her fingers. “At least not yet.”
The crowd roared in fury at that, but Gray Fang silenced them with a hiss.
“I hear your anger,” she said when they’d quieted. “I would also like nothing more than to see his blood on the ground. But we know nothing of why we were imprisoned, who the players are, or if it will happen again. I have eighty years of questions this one might be able answer. We must know more before we execute him, if only for our peace of mind.”
The other villagers growled, but Gray Fang’s word must have been law, because no one spoke again as Arbati threw James over his shoulder and carried him toward the lodge.
“That’s enough anger for now,” Gray Fang said as James was hauled away. “We are still free this day! Go back to your families and homes. Warriors, see if there are any other players hiding in the village and bring them to me.”
The crowd lowered their heads and began to disperse. Once they were moving, Gray Fang turned and followed the warrior into the large wooden building at the village’s center, where Arbati had already hurled James as hard as he could onto the board floor.
“This player greatly angers you, doesn’t he?” Gray Fang said as she closed the door flap.
“More than I have the words for, Revered Grandmother.”
The old woman placed her hand on the warrior’s shoulder. “The Nightmare is over, my child. That is what matters. We are finally free to deal with these monsters on our own terms. A path that was denied us all these years.”
“For how long, though?” Arbati growled, never taking his eyes off James. “I’m as happy as any to no longer be stuck in place, reciting the same foolish words about gnolls and undead to every new ‘hero’ who walks into town. But seeing this one still here makes me worry our reprieve is only temporary. How many more players are hiding in our midst? Could they bring the Nightmare back?”
Gray Fang nodded. “Those uncertainties are why we must use this one to get answers. You have more reason to hate the players than any other in our village, but you cannot take your revenge yet.”
Arbati’s whole face ticced at that. James winced as well. He was pretty sure they were talking about the scripted event where Arbati was captured, tortured, and if no players arrived in time to save him, sacrificed. The event had run once a day in the game, resetting every morning with Arbati back in position to hand out quests whether he was saved or not. It was one of the repeating story scenarios FFO was famous for, but now that he was facing the warrior’s thousand-yard stare, James had to wonder what it would be like to be a helpless victim of some quest writer’s plot, forced to repeat the same mistakes over and over, to feel the pain of your own death every single day.
It would certainly explain the mix of pain and fury on the warrior’s face. In fact, the more James watched the two jubatus interacting with each other, and reacting to him, the more certain he became that this had never been a dream at all. Now that the possibility of everything being real had been breached, it felt more and more like that was the only explanation. It sounded crazy even in his mind, but if he really was here and FFO was no longer just a game, then he needed to get serious about his situation before Gray Fang made good on her promise to kill him.
Taking a deep breath, James pulled his eyes off his captors and started looking for an exit. Like the tent he’d woken up in, the Naturalists’ Lodge was much bigger and far more ornate than he remembered. The large, open wooden building was lavishly decorated with paintings, masks, hides, and antlers. The layout was also different from how it had been in game. Before, the lodge had just been a big room where the Naturalist trainers stood waiting for players. Now, it looked like a place where people might actually live. There were sleeping rooms off to the sides for the elder and her apprentices as well as a kitchen and a small common area. He even spotted an outhouse through one of the building’s rear windows, which almost made him laugh. All those times he’d joked about there being no proper bathrooms in FFO, and there they were. He was still reconciling all the changes when Arbati grabbed him again.
There was no throwing over the shoulder this time. The warrior simply tossed him onto the rug in the middle of the ring of pillows at the lodge’s center. Gray Fang took a seat on one of them, arranging her graying tail across her lap while Arbati took the pillow directly in front of James. He expected them to get right to his interrogation, but surprisingly, neither the elder nor her warrior grandson said a word. They both just sat on their pillows, staring into space as though they were searching for something he couldn’t see.
“I guess the others aren’t coming back,” Arbati said at last. “I’d hoped that when the land returned to normal, they’d reappear, but…”
“We’ve been free for less than an hour,” Gray Fang reminded him, pulling a long-stemmed pipe from inside her robes. “It’s too soon to give up on our vanished families yet. Perhaps they’ve respawned somewhere in the world and are still making their way here.”
“‘Respawned,’” the warrior repeated, lips curling in a sneer. “I wish you would not use the players’ words, Grandmother.”
“There’s no other way to say it,” Gray Fang said, lighting her pipe with an ember from the nearby brazier. “Our language has no words for what they did to us, so we must use theirs. It’s the only way we’ll get answers.”
“But we know so little!” Arbati cried. “Lilac is among the missing! The questl—” James thought he heard “questline,” but Arbati struggled for another way. “The situation with the gnolls that started with the Nightmare might still be happening. If that’s true, then my sister is trapped in the middle of it.”
“We can know nothing until we have more information,” the elder said, her gentle features growing savage as her yellow eyes slid to James. “We’ll start with this one. The mask seals its magic, but I saw this player in our village many times during the Nightmare. It was level eighty then, as powerful as they get.” She smiled. “It will know things.”
James’s ears pressed flat against his head. He certainly didn’t feel powerful with no weapon, no armor, and the mask binding his spells, which he couldn’t cast anyway since he was still desperately low on mana. All he had was his white linen undershirt and the leather pants that all jubatus characters started with by default. He didn’t even have his backpack. He didn’t even have shoes.
Growling, Arbati rose from his pillow and prowled forward, drawing a long knife from his belt as he leaned down to peer into James’s face. “Can it speak through the mask?”
Gray Fang nodded, the bone beads of her headdress clacking together, and Arbati frowned. “Perhaps it doesn’t understand us anymore?”
“Try English,” Gray Fang suggested, causing both James’s and Arbati’s eyebrows to shoot up.
“How did you know I can speak the players’ language?” the warrior demanded.
“Because no family of mine would be stupid enough to stand surrounded by the enemy for eighty years and not learn something useful,” the elder replied matter-of-factly.
Arbati made a huffing noise and turned back to James. Given all the talk of talking, James was pretty hopeful about finding a diplomatic way out of this. Or at least, he was until the cat-warrior casually stabbed him in the leg with his knife.
“Ow!” James cried, wiggling away. “Stop, dude! I understand you!”
A look of supreme disappointment crossed Arbati’s face, but at least he pulled the knife back. “What is your name, player?”
“James Anderson,” James said automatically, struggling into a sitting position.
“Lies!” Arbati hissed. “I know you! You are the Naturalist known as ‘Heal-a-hoop,’ and you have squatted in our village for the last eighty years!”
“I’m not lying!” James said frantically. “James is my real name. ‘Heal-a-hoop’ is just the name of this character. It was supposed to be a joke!”
Arbati’s scowl deepened. “A joke?” When James nodded, the warrior crossed his arms over his chest. “Explain.”
James looked down at the rug, scrambling to think of how to explain a pun involving a toy that didn’t even exist in this world to a giant, angry cat-man. But while most of him was now convinced this was all real, the hope that it wasn’t hadn’t fully died yet. There was still a chance he had Leylia’s and this wasn’t some bizarre real version of FFO at all. For all he knew, Angry Cat there was actually a police officer trying to restrain a crazy person in a park, which meant James still had a shot.
“Look, dude,” he said, trying to sound calm. “I’m hallucinating real bad.” His voice choked. “If I’m making any sense to you, can you please take me to the hospital? Or call 911? Because I need serious help.”
He finished with a pitiful look, but Arbati seemed angrier than ever.
“More lies!” the cat-warrior roared, grabbing James by his shirt. “You seek to deceive us so transparently, demon? You claim madness, yet you plainly speak the language of Wind and Grass. Now tell us who and what you are before I make you bleed!”
He brandished his knife to finish the threat, but James could only gape at him.
“Wait,” he said at last. “You mean I’m not speaking English right now?”
“What do you mean?” Gray Fang asked, her yellow cat eyes sharp. “You haven’t spoken anything but our language since you appeared.”
James fell back on his heels, replaying her words in his head—the slippery, beautiful, foreign-sounding words he hadn’t even realized he was saying until she’d pointed them out—and he knew Gray Fang was right. They weren’t speaking English, and James had no clue what that meant for any of them.