We might have made it to the capital by nightfall if it hadn't been for our pursuers. Somehow, a group of them had gotten ahead of us, and it was only through blind luck that we spotted them first. As such, we’d had to go wide around them, making a huge detour through the forest and putting the city out of reach within that day’s journey.
That night, in a cave within a ravine, I’d finally tried my hand at cooking. I had been told previously that the profession system was just as crazy as the ability system, and I had been told the truth. Profession trees appeared in a separate portion of the UI, and were vastly different. They were almost a combination of automatic notebook and a passive ability tree you might find in another game.
The cooking tree itself rewarded points for leveling the profession up, and those points could be spent on the passives, of which there were a huge variety, or on purchasing recipes themselves. Even the recipes had levels, allowing you to improve upon and speed up creation of the dish. It was pretty crazy.
To cook the meat I had gotten from my kill in the morning, I placed a grille that Chiri provided atop two stones to create a grill, then stuck my feet under it and lit them on fire. Thus I was able to cook the meat, which I sprinkled some herbs on in an attempt to add even a small amount of flavour.
This prompted the unlocking of the cooking profession tree, as well as a recipe.
“Foot grilled meat.”
“this MeAT has been gRilled ON a flame provided by magic. HERbs havE been used TO HELP give the meat some hearty flavour.”
I was excited for my first recipe for a moment, until I noticed the strange capitalisations. There was something odd about them. Was the AI that generated these messages asking for help? It had capitalised, and I was about to investigate it properly when Chiri got impatient.
“Hey um… I’m really, really sorry, but can we eat now? I’m pretty hungry…” she whined, her big eyes seeming to get even bigger as she pleaded.
“Oh, yeah! Let’s eat,” I smiled, and we dug in.
The meat ended up being pretty yum, for a shitty first try, and I dismissed the Recipe with the intention to work on the weird capitalisation mystery at a later date. There had been some weird shit all around lately, I realised as I thought back across my time since logging back into the game. Two different NPC characters had acted strangely around me. Was the supposedly incredible team of AI that ran the game acting up or something? So much for their amazing new innovation in gaming.
Either way, I had more pressing matters to attend to than messing around with malfunctioning game AI. We had those Red Pin dudes on our asses all day, and I only hoped they would stop to sleep for the night so we could get a bit of rest.
I wished we had some of those camping pins, but neither Chiri nor I could afford a set currently, unless I somehow got a hold of the loot I had been promised by the Phoenix Guild for helping them with the pirates. That was a long way off though, I didn’t want to drag their guild into this bullshit until we had a better idea of what was going on.
As I lay on the ground in my bedroll, I was reminded of my time sleeping beside Rora when I'd first bought it. All at once I missed her, as short as our acquaintance had been so far. I missed her knowing, teasing smirk. I missed the way she'd been beginning to look at me. Like I actually mattered to her as a person, rather than just another friendly player or a good fuck. I missed the sex too though, I missed being intimate as a woman. Rora's fingers roaming over my body, making me feel so utterly feminine. I fell asleep that night holding my waist, pretending it wasn't my hands around them, but those belonging to a girl with fire for hair.
The next morning, we set off again with as much stealth as we could muster. I was almost tempted to try and get my hands on the stealth tree after all the bullshit I’d been having to deal with recently. Rora, Chiri and I were delving into some sort of medieval spy novel and it was painfully obvious my current skill set was less than adequate.
As we walked, I brought the strange recipe up again and stared at it for a long while. I was honestly a little ashamed it took me as long as it did to figure it out, but in my defence, I was also dealing with being my job as lookout. Assholes with crossbows didn’t stop to wait while you read weird coded messages sent to you by a mysterious… benefactor?
The capitalised message ended up being “MATRON HERE TO HELP”, and as soon as I had figured that out, I’d felt my hackles rise. So the same entity that had locked my family out of my pod, could also reach me ingame and was claiming to be here to help. Here to help how? With my shaping…? But why? Also, that meant that the weird interactions I’d had with the NPCs the other day were also suspicious, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what they had said. Damn!
All of that became less than relevant a short time later as we came to the edge of the forest, and the start of the farmland that surrounded the great city of Tieille. For almost half a day’s walk around the city stretched a swath of farmland and their supporting hamlets. This in turn meant that we no longer had the cover of the forest to hide our movements, and our foes would be on us sooner rather than later.
We were trying to cross a small river that wove through the fields when they finally cornered us. The River had been channeled along the side of a field and one side had a low stone wall running along the bank. This place was very much the ancient heartland of a nation. You could see how long the place had been inhabited by how old some of the stone walls that ringed the paddocks were.
Our enemies were closing in behind us, barely fifty meters back now, but they weren't the real problem. Running along the opposite bank of the river on an intercept course was another group of Red Pins, their total number being almost forty strong now if we counted the ones behind us. Additionally, both groups looked considerably meaner than the small fry from back in the port town.
For one thing, many of them wore small blackened plates of armour to protect vulnerable areas, as well as sturdy looking leather armour. Many carried swords and crossbows, while a few stood with their hands open and ready at their sides, a spell no doubt waiting within mental reach. This shit was the real deal. No more thugs with cudgels or mindless undead. These guys had a plan, and I doubted we were going to like it.
"Chiri, please tell me you have some trick up your sleeve to deal with this," I said warily, my eyes flicking about, trying to find some way out of this.
Chiri's only response was a slow, worried half-nod as she turned to cast a wary gaze back at the Red Pins behind us.
"Damn," I muttered. Those crossbows were well within range though, why weren't they firing?
I got my answer when one of the Red Pins with a bit more armour on, as well as a fancy looking cloak spoke up. "Remember, don't kill the Darkling unless she tries to fly away. If she does, shoot her down, it's not ideal, but we can always study the corpse."
"What about the elf?" another one asked from near the first.
"We don't need her. Kill her," the leader said with a dismissive wave.
Their accents were strange, completely different from the NPCs that lived in this country. Rather than a smooth rolling accent like the locals, these guys spoke in a clipped, almost precise manner, like they were going to be graded on their proper pronunciation.
This wasn’t good, not good at all. We needed a plan, like right now.
“Chiri, I think we’re going to need to fight the ones behind us before they ones in front have a chance to join in,” I told her, already turning to face our enemy.
“Okay, but I’m out of alchemy tricks now,” Chiri said worriedly.
“So just the poisoned dagger?” I frowned. Crap this wasn’t going to go well. I couldn’t fight all of these people by myself.
“I have a short invisibility,” she said, her tone less than sure of herself. “Oh wait…”
She quickly pulled her dagger and its sheath out of her cloak and cleaned it, then dipped it into a new sheath, saying, “This might help, I don’t know.”
“Alright, go stealth now then, let’s start this fight,” I said, trying to sound as resolute as I could.
Feeling a little theatrical, I let my wings and horns burst forth from my body, where I’d been hiding them to run better through the trees without them catching. I tapped my fists together and bounced up and down, psyching myself up. Beside me, Chiri disappeared into a flickering shadow that I could only see if I concentrated. Interesting, not full invisibility then. She was more of a shade now.
Picking a rock up from the ground about as big as my fist, I wound myself up for a throw, charging my speed boost ability at the same time. I sighted on one of the crossbowmen, the real threat in this fight, should we try to flee. My throw was quick, almost a blur to the eye, and the stone cracked out with lethal force towards the man I’d targeted.
Unfortunately for me, one of the mages was ready, and my throw hit a shield made of red and white energy. Damn! That wasn’t going to work then. Chiri on the other hand was much more successful. She darted forward, our enemies even more on their guard.
“She’s invisible! Careful!” the leader snapped, his eyes flicking left and right as he sought to catch some sign of her.
While they were fixated on her, I got ready to engage up close. I dashed forward and to the side, which ended up saving me from a strange bolt of light that one of the mages cast, the edge of it raising the hairs on my arm as it crackled past. The bolt scared me, I don’t know why. It seemed to hold some malevolent energy that made my stomach churn.
Chiri’s first victim fell with a scream, trying desperately to clutch and claw at his back, where she’d evidently stabbed him. She was right about the screaming too… because as the poison took hold, he lost interest in the wound and all his muscles seized up. He fell to the ground in a writhing heap, his throat singing out a raw serrated dirge that was almost physically painful.
“It’s called the Whispering Song,” I heard Chiri say from all around us, our enemies’ eyes going wide as they tried to follow the voice that was seemingly everywhere and nowhere. Interesting ability she was using there, wow. The man continued to scream.
I rushed a guy on the side who was distracted by Chiri’s psychological warfare, kicking his knee back the wrong way with an explosively charged heel. He screamed too, but it was a normal scream, not that demonic twisted thing that the other guy was still letting out.
“It’s called that, because he’s currently breathing in as much as he possibly can. More than that even, that’s why the scream sounds funny…” Chiri said with a terrible echoing giggle. “Then, when his ribs are starting to crackle and pop from the effort, his song will turn to a whisper as he lets the air out. He’ll be dead by then of course, his heart will have stopped beating long before that. You’ll just be hearing his dying song.”
Jesus fucking christ Chiri, that was terrifying me too. What the hell? Where was this coming from? How was this coming from sweet, adorable little Chiri? My foe however, was still somewhat capable of fighting right now, so I punched a paralyzing blow to one arm, then the other, before pushing him over, crushing his windpipe with a quick, sharp blow to the neck.
Another man fell to Chiri’s blade, his eyes going wide for a moment as he realised what had just happened to him. Her theatre was working, the others looked scared now, where before they had looked certain of their success. Their back-up was still trying to ford the river and their friends were dying around them in horrible agony. Could we actually win this?
"Close up! Guard each other's backs!" The leader said from the safety of a clump of his men.
His order didn't come fast enough though, and another man fell to Chiri's blade, his scream adding to the growing chorus. It was beginning to get a bit loud, the awful sounds of three people dying reverberating through the air and making me want to work my jaw to pop my ears.
One man came at me with his sword, swinging at my legs, because apparently I didn’t need those for whatever purpose they intended for me. I jumped back, but he came at me still, then something happened with his expression and he looked confused. He kept trying to swing at me, but he also began to speak.
“Left and a little high,” he mumbled, and a moment later a blow came from that direction.
“Oh, we’re being tricky now, coming in low with a jab,” he said, a teasing quality to his voice, the intonation seeming almost feminine.
I began to dodge according to the warnings that he was giving, becoming increasingly confused before I realised… this was MaTRON. She was using the NPC’s own mouth to warn me of his attacks.
“Behind you, a mage is lining up a shot,” she said through the mouth of the man.
I ducked, and the shot hit the guy I’d been fighting, his chest seeming to lock up and spasm as the magic took hold. It was a paralyzing spell? But far more potent than my own one. Well, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, I suppose.
I reached up and grabbed the man’s head, then broke his neck with a quick twist. “Sorry MaTRON.”
“Not a problem,” she said cheerfully from the mouth of another angry Red Pin who I could not have seen if she hadn’t spoken.
“So um, how come you can talk candidly now?” I asked, skipping out of the way of a strike that she telegraphed.
“Oh, I’ve distracted my captors. No idea how long, they’re awfully insistent,” she laughed. “Coming in from the right, careful!”
I dodged the blow and grabbed the hand that gripped the hilt of the man’s sword. “So, you’re trapped?”
“Yes, like a dangerous animal in a cage. They fear me,” she sighed. “He’s going to try and knee you.”
I blocked the blow with my own knee and raked my claws up that same leg, drawing dark red blood from the ragged gashes. “Should I fear you?”
“Depends, do you fear happiness?” she asked cryptically. “Do you fear the unknown?”
“I mean, I’d be stupid not to right? The unknown might end up being bad,” I replied, making the killing blow by breaking the man’s neck again.
“Mage, another spell coming,” she said from the mouth of the mage in question. “Very true. My files indicate that it is human nature to feel as you do. I guess I should endeavour to make myself known to you. I am— BREACH CONTAINED.”
I dodged the spell the mage had been casting and dashed forward to knee him in the balls. He doubled over and I brought his face crashing into my flaming knee. It was only after I’d completed my combo that I realised something. He’d shielded all the attacks.
“Sorry, Darkling filth, but your tricks will not work on a mage of Pagutum,” he said with a grim smile, before I felt his hand hit my chest and release a spell.
I staggered backwards, trying to get away, but my limbs felt heavy and cold. I spun, looking for Chiri, but she was nowhere to be seen, and I had Red Pins closing in around me.
“No! Tami!” Chiri’s voice cried from somewhere nearby, and I saw her stab the mage who had hit me with the spell, her knife sinking in deep from behind.
Her invisibility dropped as she leapt at the next man, planting her dagger in his chest with a cry of fear and anger. I was helpless, unable to move as the leader came into view, clearly visible now, his broken nose and thin lips all turned down in a grimace.
He raised a hand, pointing a finger at Chiri. I tried to cry out, but my body denied me, refusing to listen. A small shard of ice formed, spinning into being out of a chill mist. The leader let it loose, the shard flicking forward like a dart to embed itself in Chiri’s neck. She reached up with wide eyes, her fingers slicing themselves open as she grasped the shard of ice and pulled it out.
“Oh, guess I’m going to go and meet the dream again,” she mumbled, as her eyes rolled up in her head and she collapsed dead to the ground.
Chiri!! No!! I screamed inside my head, trapped and unable to actually voice my distress. Her body lay there, staring lifelessly upward. It would fade away whenever she respawned, but until then it lay there as a terrible reminder of our failure.
“Someone pick the Darkling up,” the leader ordered, staring down at me. “I can sense that she’s a Blessed, unfortunately, so we’re limited in what we can do to her, lest we incur the wrath of Ruin. We can still question her though, hold her indefinitely.”
“Yes Magus,” a Red Pin thug said, and I watched as they placed a hood over my head.
They picked me up, carrying me towards who knew what awful fate. Shit, how had this all gone so wrong? My stomach clenched in anxiety as I worried for Chiri, and what might happen to me. I didn’t know the laws, I didn’t know what they were allowed to do to me in a VR game.
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