I made the executive decision to drag Col back to the hill town for a proper chat with the crew. Because as much as it was me who he’d fucked over, the rest of our friend group had a right to their say about the whole ordeal. I might be a total pushover when it came to forgiving him, but they might have a more grounded approach.
The forest was quiet as we walked, each step we took echoing faintly between the massive trunks of the redwood trees. It was sort of pleasant, really. I liked forests like this, where you felt extra small beside the ancient behemoths that held up the canopy.
“I’m so nervous,” Col whined quietly.
I gave him a sideways glance. “You kind of deserve it. I mean, I feel you, but you totally deserve it.”
“I know, I know,” he pouted, staring morosely down at the ground. “I just have that feeling, you know? That it isn’t going to go well.”
“I don’t think it will go worst case scenario. I think you’ll get shouted at… but that’s about it,” I said, almost gently. I did feel for him, every one of us has done something stupid that we regret even as we walk towards our punishment for said stupidity.
“Being shouted at is scary though!” He exclaimed in a murmur.
I let out a lighthearted laugh, “It’s the least you deserve for being a dimwit.”
“I know… I know,” he said with a sigh. “Plus, I should be grateful you’re even talking to me, I guess. I’m kind of amazed at how quickly you’ve forgiven me.”
Giving him a sideways look, I raised an eyebrow and said, “You shouldn’t be. I’d forgive… I don’t know, anyone. You know that. I’m not built to hold a grudge, even to my own detriment.”
“Ah… true, yeah,” he said, giving me an chagrined smile. The sort that showed just a little of the emotions within the person giving it. “Now that you mention it, there was that time that I broke your arm—“
I held up a hand to cut him off, stopping in my tracks. As much as I wanted to relive that experience, something clicked inside my mind, something that had been tickling at my subconscious this whole walk.
It might be cliche, but the forest was too damned quiet.
“Jere— Col, I mean… does it seem way too quiet and still in the forest to you?” I asked, dropping my volume even further. We’d already been subconsciously quieter, in reverence to the quiet of the forest.
He frowned, clearly emerging from his own self pity to actually focus on the world outside his skull. “Yeah… it does.”
Another suspicion hammered into my skull like a bandit’s arrow. “And where exactly did Juliet say she was going to meet you? Before she decided you were too uncool for her, I mean?”
“Here… actually,” he said slowly, eyes now trained on the forest around us.
If she was planning to meet him here… was she with Blackfeather? Was she one of his lackeys? We knew he and his followers had disappeared into the forest recently, and she’d been probing Jeremy for information… Not that he knew anything more than our location really… gah.
I had no real basis for the way my mind was making the connection between the two, but there were so many signs. Juliet saying I’d get what was coming to me a while back, the way Blackfeather had attacked us once already. I don’t know, it all just sort of lined up… goddess, I hoped I was wrong.
“Fuck,” I swore with uncharacteristic intensity. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“What?” he asked worriedly. “What’s wrong?”
“We don’t have time for an explanation and I could be completely wrong anyway, but let’s pick up the pace,” I told him urgently, already running as fast as my little legs and lungs could push me. I loved being small from a trans standpoint, but it did have its drawbacks.
We began to jog, but that soon turned into a sprint when we heard an explosion go off in the distance. Urgency fueled our steps, propelling us into a proper run as we desperately tried to reach the hill in time to help with whatever was going on.
When we made it to the treeline, we found ourselves staring across the plains and into the backs of an attacking army. It wasn’t an army in the sense that you’d expect after a lifetime of watching various media, no this was obviously an army of players. There were no pennants flying proudly from the tops of lances, no organised formations or obvious tactics being prepared.
Instead, it was a mob, a loose mass of people, each wearing whatever they thought looked cool and did the job. There was one uniformity throughout their number though, the colours green and black.
Already they were firing spells up at the hill, massive fireballs and lightning strikes raining down with minimal accuracy and maximum explosive power. Too bad we’d already finished the ditch.
“Blackfeather,” Col whispered from beside me, staring with open worry at our much smaller defending force as they rushed to put together some form of barricade around the hilltop. We’d gotten the foundations for the wall laid down, but we hadn’t actually continued it above ground level yet. It would likely never go any further either, since we didn’t have a hope in hell of winning against this many people.
We could try though.
“Let’s go,” I hissed, grabbing Col’s elbow and pulling him forward.
His face went bone white and he dug in his heels. “Are you crazy?”
Staring at him, the afternoon sun shone as brightly as the fear in his eyes as he glanced from my face to the horde and back again. We stood there, the wind playing through the grass behind me and the leaves of the trees behind him, each willing the other to give in.
It was a deceptively serene moment, with the initial bombardment from Blackfeather’s crew still dulled by distance.
His shoulders slumped. “Fine. But I think I want to quit this… game, after we’re done. It’s way too terrifying and way too real for my tastes.”
“If you want,” I said, giving him a grateful smile. “Don’t have to play a combat role though, remember that. You could be Colourless the merchant baron instead, or something like that.”
“That’s assuming we even come out of this with our characters intact,” he grumbled while we got moving again.
Ignoring his comment, I began to scope out how best to do this. We could just sneak around and climb the cliffs on the other side of the hill, but we had a pretty unique position here.
“Do you still have that big beam of fire spell?” I asked my recently reaquired friend.
He nodded. “Yeah, it’s upgraded now too, anyone who dies to it explodes. Plus it has a longer range.”
“That sounds overpowered as fuck,” I snorted. The MAIs might be magically powerful and all that, but their game design and balance skills sucked. Maybe we could convince Feslia and her friends to hire some real ones.
“It’s kinda like fireball from DnD, I can only use it a certain number of times,” he explained, pausing for a breath. “Want me to use it on them?”
“Let’s hide for now, then use it on them when they try their initial charge. Remember, they’ll only have campfires so they only get a few respawns each before they end up all the way back at the last town they visited,” I said, trying to figure out how we could make the biggest impact.
Col shook his head sadly. “No, they’ll have a war camp.”
Hope began to drain out of me as my fledgeling plan crumbled before it could ever bear fruit. I’d intended to hit them in the rear as they charged, hopefully sowing enough confusion to blunt it. With our spawn advantage we’d have been able to come back to the fight much faster
That is, until Col lit up with an idea. “What if we torch that? We can follow their footprints right to it! At least that way it will be a slightly more even playing field. Our folk will have like… one or two respawns each at the campfire up on the hill? That might balance their numbers advantage out a little.”
“Nope,” I gasped, feeling so very happy with my past self. “Because we built our own respawn totem thing. A proper town-style one!”
“No shit!” he grinned. “So that means…”
“We might actually have a chance at winning this thing,” I said in a whisper, as though speaking the possibility too loudly would scare it away. If we could torch their war camp, we’d be able to respawn an infinite number of times, while they would have to walk days and days to get back here. We’d win via pure willpower and attrition! It was going to hurt like hell, dying that many times… but still.
My smile turned exasperated when something occurred to me. “Col, why couldn’t you have been smart like this when you were acting like a dumb fuck about me”
He winced. “Ah… yeah.”
“Whatever, let’s go, they didn’t exactly cover their tracks,” I said with a rueful shake of my head.