The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

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Pryde
Pryngles
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The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Pryde » Tue Aug 13, 2019 2:59 am

"Hey, get up," a voice cried through the darkness, though it sounded muffled and far away. There was something else too, the sound of metal ringing against metal and shouting. Lots of shouting and screaming. The young woman's eyes fluttered open. She tried to rise from the ground but a sudden spell of dizziness threatened to topple her again. The woman refused to give up and somehow managed to maintain her balance. Her head spun as she glanced to her left and right, taking in her surroundings.

There were men all around her clad in armor and armed swords. They were attacking each other. She saw one man stab another through the heart and started to panic. Her arms and legs still felt like jelly yet she fought in vain to crawl away from the carnage. "No, this way," the voice called again and she felt a hand reach down and grab her by the arm. She tried to resist his grasp but couldn't muster the strength to do so.

"It's alright, I'm not going to hurt you," the voice assured her. He hefted her up off the ground and finally, she got a look at his face. He was young, bearded and dressed in robes carrying a long stick.

"Thi--this isn't right," she managed to say but her voice sounded faint, even foreign to her. "W--where..."

"No time," he told her. Then with a surprising degree of strength he half carried her down the hill and into the forest.

The girl had no idea where they were going, nothing of what she saw looked familiar to her at all. How did she even get here? The last thing she remembered she was sitting in front of her computer. Then everything went dark and she woke up here. Now she was in a forest with a man she'd never seen before running for their lives, but not understanding why. Who were those men back there? Why were they fighting? Would they have killed her if she stayed? She had so many questions and no time to ask them as she and her companion made their way through the brush.

The pair ran as far as they could, the sounds of battle fading into the distance. When neither of them could hear the fighting anymore they stopped. The man beside her helped her onto the ground where she could relax and regain her strength. Her body still felt weak and even completely alien to her. As they fled she couldn't help but notice her hair was longer and there was a lot of it.

"Here, drink this," he said as he handed her a waterskin.

She snatched the skin from him and pressed it to her lips, taking short fast gulps of the precious liquid inside. It felt like she hadn't had anything to drink for days. "You're a player like me, right," he asked.

She had no idea what he was talking about. "What the hell is going on here," she asked, still surprised at the sound of her own voice. Why did she sound like this?

"I don't know," the man asked, "I assume you were playing the game like me. Then suddenly everything goes dark and I woke up here."

She tried to stand up but the dizziness stopped her and she stumbled backward. "Whoa, whoa, easy there," he said, reaching a hand out to steady her, "The dizziness goes away eventually. Probably just have to get used to that body. What's your name?"

What's her name? She knew the answer, of course, but she didn't feel comfortable sharing it with him. The first rule of the internet was never to use your real name after all, right? "Just call me Scarlett," she said finally, "It's my character's name."

The man made a face at her. "Scarlett," he asked. "Your character's a redhead and you named her Scarlett? That's pretty on the nose, don't you think?"

"Hey, shut up, Dude, I didn't ask your opinion."

He smiled, "Sorry, I didn't mean it like that. I named my character Melcior but my real name is Daniel. You can use either if that makes you feel comfortable." Then he stared up at the sun, using one hand to shield his eyes. "Look, it's going to be dark soon and we don't want to be out here in the woods when the sun goes down. We should probably get back to town."

Town? What town? The town she started in? It wasn't that far away, was it? Then she remembered something. "Shit," she cursed, "Shit, shit, shit!"

"What is it? What's wrong," he asked, looking back at her.

"I was supposed to meet a friend," she said, "She was running late so I came out here to do a couple of quests. She said she was on her way."

"You think she's out there too," he surmised. "If she was playing at the same time we were it's certainly possible. Do you know how far she was? Maybe we can find her."

She shook her head. "I got no idea, dude, I've only been playing this game a week. She knows it better than I do. I don't even know where she was coming from."

He smirked and stroked his chin with one hand. "That explains the starter equipment," he said, looking down at her armor.

Scarlett squirmed under his gaze. Especially when she noticed his eyes lingering a bit too long on her breasts. "Hey, eyes up here, bub," she said, her cheeks flushed red.

"Sorry," he apologized then he stood and held out a hand to her.

She grabbed hold of his hand and he hoisted her up off the ground. The dizziness was almost gone now and she could stand under her own power. Now that she was back on her feet, though, she noticed something else that was off. "Why are you so tall? I don't remember making my character this short."

"Well, you chose Wood Elf as your race, right? Wood Elves tend to be just a bit on the short side compared to humans, especially females... At least lore-wise. High Elves can be taller but they usually average out to about the same."

She gave him an odd look. "You play this game a lot, don't you?"

"Almost religiously," he admitted, "I even read the books."

"There are books about this game," she sounded surprised.

He looked at her, one hand on his hip the other holding his staff. "You don't know anything about the lore, you don't know anything about the game. Why did you even start playing, anyway?"

That kind of offended her a bit. "My friend asked me to, alright? I needed an outlet and it was something to do that didn't involve going to juvie... Again," she added after a bit of hesitation.

"Juvie? So you're just a kid."

"Hey, I'll be eighteen in July. Besides, aren't you?"

He shook his head. "I'm thirty-four."

"Thirty-four?! And you're playing a kid's game?"

He shrugged. "I wouldn't exactly call this a kid's game," he said, "You saw those guys back there killing each other. Would you let a kid play that?"

He had a point, this game could get pretty violent. Now that he mentioned it, though, she remembered the carnage from earlier. "Who were those guys, anyway? Why were they killing each other?"

"I don't know, some of them were members of a PvP guild. I get the feeling they were out there to ambush new players."

"PvP," she asked, she'd never heard that term before.

"Player versus player," he explained. "I wasn't there for the whole dispute but it sounded like those guys jumped a couple of new players. They killed one right before we all ended up here. I don't know what started the actual fighting, but there was a lot of arguing before I showed up. Then one thing led to another and they started stabbing each other. That's when I found you. At first, I thought you were with them."

She shook her head. "I don't think I was. I mean, maybe but I don't know." Her memory was still clouded. She did remember running into some players before blacking out, but she couldn't be sure.

"Anyway, we better get going."

"Wait," she said, grabbing his arm as he tried to walk away, "The guy I saw get stabbed, did he die?"

He closed his eyes and nodded. "Most likely."

"Will he come back?"

There was a long pause then finally he shook his head. "I don't know. I recognize the game world and the weapons and armor we're wearing. Beyond that, I don't know anything more about this place. I don't know if the same rules will apply. He might come back to life or he might be gone for good. I just don't know and I think they're fools for killing each other before finding out."

That sent a chill down her spine. Could death be permanent here? If those men had killed her would she have died in this body? "How do we get home?"

Home was a funny word, she never considered it to be home. Like all the foster families before that had adopted her. She considered each home to be little more than a way station. She had intended to leave as soon as she turned eighteen. Legally they couldn't force her back into the system after that. Still, as much as she hated that place she wished she could be back there. Anything was better than dying here.

"I don't know and we're not figuring that out right here in the middle of the woods. Now let's get going before we lose all daylight. Those guys are still out there and I really don't want them to find us in the middle of the night."

"Fine," she said, "Lead the way."

**********

It was well after dark before they stopped again. They had spent too much time conversing in the woods after their flight from the battle. Also, as it turns out, the town was much further away than anticipated. Distances were so much different in real life as opposed to the game. Scarlett was sure she hadn't wandered far from the town. Being here in person, though, everything seemed so much bigger than it appeared on the screen. Her companion had been silent for the most part. He hadn't wanted to camp out in the woods for the night but traveling in the dark was far more dangerous. If a wandering monster were to cross their path. Or even another player, for that matter. It would be too dark to see them coming before they could do anything about it.

Daniel caught her by surprise when he pulled up short next to a tree and leaned against it. He slipped his pack from his shoulder and fished out some flint and tinder.

"What are you doing," Scarlett asked, "I thought we were going back to town."

"It's too dark to travel out there now. We're better off staying where we are," he said, striking the flint into the tinder and causing a spark. Then he pulled some branches from a nearby tree and tossed them into the fire.

Scarlett looked at the tiny fire and made a face. "You know, I'm no nature specialist, but I don't think that's going to burn for very long," she pointed out.

"We don't want it to," he explained. "The bigger the flame the easier we are to spot. This is just to ward off wild animals. Here," he said tossing her half a loaf of bread. "Your character's new so you probably don't have provisions yet."

She gave him a confused look. "Provisions? What are those?"

"Like food and stuff," he said, "Most new players don't usually buy food before leaving town. Your character doesn't need to eat, usually. Eating food restores health, though, and it's cheaper than buying health potions."

She couldn't deny that her stomach was rumbling at the sight and smell of the bread. It had been quite a while since last she ate she hadn't realized how hungry she was. She tore into the bread, losing all sense of decorum as she gobbled it up. Daniel watched her for a moment before fishing some jerky out of his pack. "So," he said after taking a bite, "you chose Wood Elf to start, what build were you going for?"

He was, of course, referring to her class. While there weren't any official classes in the game there were a few archetypes. Things like paladin, warrior, rogue, but they weren't true to form classes, per se. They were in essence a grouping of skills that fit a particular theme. Unlike traditional MMOs, the game was skill-based rather than level-based. So it was possible to build a character that didn't fit any of the traditional archetypes at all. Scarlett herself had a variety of skills ranging from thievery to magic. In the real world, she had a reputation for having quick hands. She could pick your pocket as soon as distract you with a card trick. She used to impress the neighbor kids with little magic tricks after school. That is when she wasn't out picking pockets or tagging walls downtown.

"Dude, I don't even know what I was doing. I just picked a few skills I thought would be useful," she said. It was a half-truth. She picked skills like sleight of hand because it was something she was good at. Plus, picking pockets in the game was almost as much fun as picking them in real life. She picked a melee skill because of course. The point of the game was to quest and for that, she needed to defend herself. Finally, she added a few magic skills for some variety. Magic looked cool and she wanted to try it, that's all there was to it. It wasn't like she had a plan or anything.

"Dual daggers and leather armor," he muttered aloud, "You look like a rogue. Is that what you were going for?"

She shrugged, "I don't even know what that is."

He seemed surprised. "Do you play any games at all," he asked.

"Mostly Call of Duty," she said, "and Halo. I don't usually play this fairy shit."

He stared at her with a curious look in his eye, she had an interesting way of speaking. "You know, you behave very strangely for a girl," he said, noting the way she sat with her legs spread wide open.

Scarlett felt uncomfortable under his gaze. She half-turned away from him, putting her knees together in the process. "What exactly is that supposed to mean," she asked.

He was still eyeing her with that same inquisitive look on his face. "Are you a guy," he asked.

Scarlett's cheeks flushed bright red but she said nothing.

"Look, it's alright if you are. Lots of guys play girl characters online, it's not that unusual."

"Shut up, alright," she shouted, "It's none of your damned business what I am! Besides, you've told me literally nothing about you!"

"Alright, calm down," he said, holding up his hands in defense. "We don't know what's out there so you probably don't want to talk too loudly. Anyway, if you don't want to talk about it that's fine, I won't pry. If you want, though, we can talk about me. I don't mind sharing."

"Fine," she said, "Go ahead." Then she finished off the last of her bread.

"Well, you already know my name and that I'm thirty-four. There isn't really much to tell after that. I work as an accountant, I'm currently separated from my wife but not divorced. I live in a one-bedroom apartment in San Antonio and I love this game."

"Separated," she inquired, "it sounds like there's more to that story."

He shrugged, "Not really. I put more time into this game than I did our relationship. It only got worse after she told me to leave. I tried to stop, really I did, but addiction's a funny thing."

She chortled at that. "You're addicted to a video game? Don't make me laugh."

"Mock me all you want, but trust me it ain't eas--," he stopped mid-sentence and reached for the sword at his hip.

"What--," she tried to say but he hushed her before she could finish that thought.

"Shh! Did you hear that?" He whispered.

Scarlett hadn't heard anything. She thought he was making it up. "Dude, stop being so paranoid, alright? You're scaring me."

He stood and drew his sword, eyes scanning this way and that. Scarlett was starting to get nervous too, but she made no move to try and defend herself. Not that she could anyway, she had a pair of daggers at her hips but had no idea how to use them. In this situation, she was completely out of her element. If it had been the police coming she would simply run but here it could have been anything. A wild animal or a monster even. If she ran it would catch her and even if it didn't where could she run to? Suddenly an arrow flew out from the woods and struck Daniel in his shoulder causing him to drop the sword. He cried out in pain and fell to his knees as four shadowy figures emerged from the trees. One of them was laughing.

"Did you see that shot," the man with the bow said as he and his friends stepped into the small clearing. "Right in the shoulder and it didn't even kill him!"

"Yeah yeah, shut up, Frankie," another said stepping in front of the other three as though he were their leader.

"Sorry about the shoulder," the man apologized, "but we had to be sure you wouldn't attack us."

Scarlett looked up at the four men and her body immediately went cold. "You're the ones from before. You killed those other players!"

The man just shrugged. "I know, I didn't want to do it but they left us little choice. They attacked us first, you know."

"That's a lie! You killed one of them!"

"That was before all this," he answered. "When we woke up here we were just as confused as they were and when they saw their friend's body they just lost it."

Scarlett's eyes widened in horror. That player's character was dead before everyone blacked out and awoke in the game world. Does that mean they're dead too? Did they die in the real world? Or did they wake up here only to bleed out in front of their friends? She couldn't even begin to imagine what it would be like to wake up choking on her own blood. The thought of it was too disturbing to even think about.

"What do you want," she asked.

"Nothing really," he said kneeling beside her, "My men saw you and your friend escaping from the battle. We just wanted to make sure you were okay and to ask you to join us."

"Join you?" Daniel seemed surprised, "Why the hell would we do that?"

The man shrugged, "Look, we're all in this boat together, right? None of us belong here and none of us know how to get back. The way I see it we're all better off sticking together."

"And if we refuse?"

There was a long pause as the man stood, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword. "I might take it personally," he said, "I'm reaching out my hand here. I could just kill you and your friend and take what I want, but I'm asking you to join us and possibly to share."

Scarlett squirmed as her gaze shifted from him to his friends. The three goons standing behind him had been leering at her the whole time. She was already starting to imagine all manner of horrible things they could do to her. "Share what," she asked finally after she was certain her voice wouldn't crack.

"Your food, preferably," he assured her, "My companions and I have none and we are so very hungry. Now, what'll it be? Will you honor us and join our merry band?"

Daniel stood and turned to face him. "How about this," he started, "How about you and your friends go fuck yourselves?"

The man sighed then shook his head. "Alas," he muttered under his breath. Then he half turned to the man behind him, "Frankie."

Frankie said nothing as he notched an arrow and let it fly. The deadly projectile struck Daniel square in the forehead killing him instantly. It all happened so fast that Scarlett hadn't had time to register it before Daniel's body even hit the ground. "What the hell," she shouted, "You didn't have to do that!"

"But I did, your friend was a danger to us. You saw what happened before, how those other players attacked us."

"He wasn't a danger, you idiot! He was an accountant! He was a god damned number pusher, he probably doesn't even know how to use a sword! You didn't have to kill him!"

"Really? Can I take that chance? Look around, sweetheart, this isn't the real world anymore. You're in the game now and here anything goes. So if I were you I'd think real long and hard about my offer."

Scarlett's eyes raced between him and the crumpled form of Daniel's body. He wasn't getting back up and his body wasn't disappearing like it did in the game. For all she knew death was real here but she wasn't about to test it to find out. "Fine, I'll join you, okay? Just don't kill me."

"Good," he said, "Welcome to Misery's Company. I"m Damien, the guild master. That's Frankie with the bow, Jacob and Liam. What's your name?"

"S--Scarlett," she stuttered.

Damien smiled. "Nice to meet you, Scarlett," he said, then he looked at Jacob. "Bind her hands," he told him.

"Wait, I thought I was joining you," she cried as Jacob grabbed her and began tying her hands together. "Why are you taking me prisoner?"

"Just a precaution," he said with a shrug, "I don't quite trust you yet."

Then he turned and gestured at the other two. "You two loot the body and take anything useful. As soon as you're done we'll head back to base."

"Right now?" Scarlett asked, "In the dark? You don't even know what's out there."

"Exactly," he said, "that's why we're not staying here. Look how well that worked for your friend."

Scarlett glared at him but said nothing. He had a point, Daniel was being far too cautious and look where that got him. Had they made it back to town he might still be alive. Now all she could do was watch in horror as Damien's lackeys stripped his body bare. They took almost everything he had, shoving it all into an overweight bag. When they finished Frankie stood and leaned against a tree, wiping his forehead.

"Man, looting a corpse was so much easier in the game," he panted.

"Are you done," Damien asked and Frankie nodded.

"Yea, boss."

"Good, then let's get going..."

**********

Scarlett was still in the game world when she awoke the next morning, much to her chagrin. She sat up on her rough little cot and checked herself. She still had the same body from yesterday so she groaned and pinched herself as hard as she could. She yelped in pain after a moment and grumbled under her breath. Guess it's not a dream, she thought to herself as she leaned back against the wall. Misery's Company had a guildhall a fair distance outside of the town. They were a notorious PKer guild who liked to pick on new players. Because of their reputation, they weren't allowed inside any of the safe zones. That included the starter town where new players began their adventures. Not that it made much of a difference, Scarlett could see the town from her window. It was close enough that with a spyglass one could see people coming and going from the city gates. It was still far enough out, though, that anyone they attacked would not be able to flee to the town for safety. They could head out in the morning, kill a few inexperienced PCs and then be back before lunch. It was a pretty good setup but lacked any real point. Killing new players didn't yield any experience. Not to mention any items they had on them would have been useless. Damien and his guild only did it because they were total dicks and enjoyed screwing with people.

If she could just get out of here she could make it back to the town in less than a day and... And do what? Warn the guards? The guards were non-player characters, weren't they? Scarlett remembered from the game that they only had a few lines of dialogue. She could rant and rave about the PKer guild outside of their town all she wanted. The guards would only stare at her and say, "Good day, Citizen," or something completely useless. The only time the guards seemed to do anything was when someone started a fight or broke the law in town. Once you were through the city gates, though, the guards stopped chasing you.

She sighed and stood, crossing the small room over towards the door. Damien locked the door from the outside so there was no way she was going to get it to open. Even if she could he had ordered his men to take her weapons so she had nothing to defend herself with.

"Hey," she exclaimed while pounding on the door, "Let me out of here! I said I would join your stupid guild so stop treating me like a prisoner!"

She waited for a response but heard nothing, so she pounded on the door again. "Hey! Anyone there! I said let me out of here!"

Again no response so finally she gave up and moved back to her bed and sat down. Great, she muttered to herself, now what? She fell backward onto her back and lay staring up at the ceiling. She couldn't even begin to imagine how this could get any worse. Then she remembered what body she was in and the way those three boys had been staring at her the night before. She immediately sat up with a start, her heart racing.

"I need to get the hell out of here," she said aloud to no one in particular and she began looking around the room.

The furnishings were sparse, a bed, a wardrobe and a basin for washing her hands. There wasn't much that she could use to either pick the lock or pry the bars off the window. Why did the guild even have this room, anyway? Did they keep other prisoners in here back when this was a game? Was that even allowed? Damn it, she thought, lying back in the bed again. I wish I never started playing this stupid game...

**********

How many hours had it been? Scarlett had completely lost track. The door to her room remained closed except for a small window in the center of it. Her captors would on occasion open the window to check on her and to serve her food. It wasn't much, some bread and a bit of fruit, most of which taken the night before from Daniel's body. She considered not eating it but she could no longer ignore the rumbling in her stomach.

She'd gotten up once or twice between meals and had wandered about her room trying to devise a plan of escape. She wracked her brain for hours and tried numerous things. At one point she tried to take the bed apart and use one of the legs to pry the bars off the window. However, she lacked the strength to accomplish either of those tasks. Try as she might she couldn't break the leg off the bed. If she couldn't pry a nail from a piece of wood then there was little chance she'd able to pry a metal bar from stone.

She also considered using the water basin as a makeshift club. She waited by the door for half the day hoping someone would enter but no one ever did. Whenever they brought her a meal they passed it through the window in the door without having to open it. Scarlett wondered if that was Damien's decision. His way of taking precautions in case she tried something. The wardrobe was empty and provided even less material for breaking out of here. Other than hiding inside of it there wasn't much she could do with that. Should they come to look for her, though, it would be the first place they'd check.

With a frustrated groan she fell back onto her bed again. Outside she could see the sun dipping beneath the mountains in the west. It was already dusk and she had spent most of the day accomplishing nothing. How long were they planning on keeping her in here?

Almost as soon as that thought had entered her head the door to her room opened and Damien stepped in. "Come with me," he said.

Scarlett rolled onto her side to look at him but made no effort to do as he asked.

He glowered at her. "I won't ask again," he continued. His fist tightening around the hilt of his sword made clear his intentions.

With a note of hesitation she rolled out of the bed and stepped past him through the door. Out in the hallway there were a couple of familiar faces as well as some she'd never seen before. Most of them stared at her with a look of intent in their eyes and a creepy smile on their face. Some were looking away, almost too afraid to make eye contact. She was quick to notice that they were wearing almost the exact same armor that she wore. It wasn't hard to guess that they too were conscripted into the guild. Besides herself, there was only one other girl there but no one paid her any attention. She carried an array of knives and had a sour look on her face. The look she gave Scarlett was full of complete and utter contempt.

Scarlett instinctively tried to move in such a way as to put Damien between her and the other girl. Doing so, however, brought her a little too close to Frankie. The bowman immediately reached out and grabbed a fistful of her hair and gave it a loud sniff. Scarlett felt her head jerked roughly to the side and in response she shoved him away.

"The fuck, you asshole," she shouted at him.

Frankie was still smiling and laughing as he held up a few strands of her hair and showed it to her. Scarlett lunged towards him with her hands balled into fists. Before she could punch him Frankie pulled a dagger from his hip and stopped her.

"Whatchu going to do about it, girl," he asked, "You wanna take a swing at me? Go on, try it."

"That's enough," Damien said as he stepped between them, urging Scarlett away. "Frankie," he continued, holding out his hand.

The other man glowered at him then deposited the hairs he took from Scarlett into Damien's palm. Then Damien leaned in closer and whispered into his ear. "Don't let me catch you trying that again."

Without warning he thrust his knee into Frankie's gut doubling him over completely. Then he shoved him backward into the wall with such incredible force that he rebounded off of it. The young bowman crumpled into a heap on the floor and lay gasping for air. Scarlett felt only a little satisfaction at the way Damien handled Frankie. He did it with such ease, though, that it had actually terrified her.

"Come on," he said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and leading her upstairs into a large common area.

There were tables and large, cushioned chairs. A stone hearth sat against one wall, a fire blazing inside it. There were bearskin rugs on the floor and high above banners hung from the rafters. There had to have been enough room in here for a dozen people or so but Scarlett only counted six aside from Damien. At least two of those were new additions like herself. It was obvious Damien had plans for expansion.

"This way," Damien said as he led her towards the stairs to the second floor.

"Where are you taking me," she asked.

"To my personal chambers. You will dine with me for dinner tonight."

Scarlett heard the words personal chambers and her heart skipped a beat. "Like hell," she started but when she tried to push against his grip he held strong. No matter how much she resisted she couldn't break his grasp.

"I'm not going to harm you," he told her, "but you are going to dine with me tonight and that is not an invitation."

She had no idea where the dagger had come from or even how he had slipped it into his hand. The feeling of the blade pressed up against the small of her back, though, was unmistakable. "Do you understand," he asked.

Scarlett glanced over her shoulder then back at him and nodded. She had no idea what this man wanted from her but she had no interest in finding out what he would do if she refused. She allowed him to lead her up the stairs to his personal room, which turned out to be something more akin to a suite. It was in actuality three rooms in one. The first room was a large spacious area with a hearth and cushioned chairs for lounging. Off to one side of the room there was an oak table with a feast set out atop it and several chairs around it. One of which Damien had already pulled aside for her. The doors to the other two rooms were closed and she could only guess what they were hiding. A bedroom and a room for washing, she assumed.

"Take a seat," Damien said, moving over to stand behind the chair he had pulled out.

The girl waited by the door, silently contemplating making a break for it. Somehow, though, she doubted she would make it very far. Damien moved with a kind of confidence that exuded a man in complete control. Finally she gave up and sat down in the offered seat. He nudged her forward a bit then walked around the table to his own chair. Once he was settled he wasted little time in helping himself to the various meats on the table. He did not seem to care that she was even present.

Scarlett only watched him from the other side of the table. She made no effort to help herself to the food. Damien saw this and set down the leg of lamb he'd been eating before wiping his hands with a small cloth.

"Go on, eat," he said, "Before it gets cold. I assure you it's not poisoned."

Scarlett had just about had enough. "Alright seriously, what the hell do you want from me," she demanded.

Damien maintained his composure as he leaned backward in his chair, taking a sip of his wine. "I want you to know that I'm not a monster," he said after swallowing. Then he set his goblet back down on the table and leaned forward. Placing his hands underneath his chin. "The things I did out in the forest were unfortunate but necessary."

"You killed an unarmed man simply because he refused to join you. How was that necessary?"

He reached down and took another bite from his food. Scarlett was impatient as he waited until he had swallowed before speaking. "You remember what I said about the people we killed yesterday? How they attacked us first? We barely had a chance to explain ourselves. We're a PvP guild who prays on newer players. We cornered those three last night and killed one right before we all blacked out. When we came to he was just lying there, blood gushing out of the wounds in his chest. They tried to save him, of course. We would have helped but they wouldn't let us near the body and when he died they were beyond all reason. They blamed us for killing him, but we didn't know any of this was going to happen, how could we? What happened after that was not our fault. Because of what we are, because of what we did they judged us guilty and then attacked. We had no other choice but to defend ourselves."

Scarlett was silent after that, what he said seemed reasonable. She admitted she wasn't expecting to wake up in a strange world and neither were they. They were just playing the game. They were playing it like assholes, but they were still just playing. No one had intended to kill anyone, but she guessed that didn't matter in the heat of the moment. After hearing that she couldn't help but wonder what she would do in that situation. What if one of them had come at her? Would she have been able to kill them in self-defense? Would she feel remorse after? Would Damien?

"Okay fine," she said, "but what about Daniel? He didn't try to attack you."

"He drew his sword first," Damien pointed out, "He knew we were PKers, probably thought we were there to kill you. I really genuinely hoped he would take my offer to join us, but when he refused I knew he couldn't be convinced."

"But why kill him? Why not just let us go?"

He sighed, wiping his mouth clean before tossing the napkin onto the table. "Look outside, Scarlett. This isn't America, or the UK or Russia. We are in a new world, one that doesn't give a damn about you or me or even Daniel. It's kill or be killed out there. The only thing that's standing between you and a gruesome death is the will to do what needs to be done."

Scarlett was not convinced. "Killing to survive, is that it," she scoffed at him, "I think you and your friends enjoyed it. You got a taste from killing those other poor saps and you liked it. Don't pretend like you're some kind of pariah making the hard choices to live. You're just a murderer."

Damien shrugged. "What you think of me is immaterial, but the hard fact is your friend had food and we didn't. We needed that food and we would have gladly shared it, but he chose to snub my offer. Do you think he would have parted with his belongings to save himself? Or you? Would you have done it?"

The answer to that was pretty obvious, she would have told him to stuff it but she didn't even know who Daniel was. He risked his life to save her once already. If he thought she was in danger what would he have done?

"Just be thankful you made the right decision," he said as he stood and walked around the table to stand by her side. Scarlett fidgeted as he leaned over her and poured her a glass of wine. Then he set some meats, vegetables, and fruits onto a plate and served it to her. "Now eat," he told her, "Where I come from it's extremely rude to let food go to waste."

She looked up at him with defiance in her eyes but still accepted the food anyway. She took a bite of the lamb and was surprised at how much flavor it had. She half expected it to be bland, or burnt, or under cooked or something.

"My father was a chef," Damien explained when he noticed her reaction. "Obviously, the facilities here aren't like any you'll find in a five-star restaurant. But you'll be surprised what you can do with a bit of spice and the right kind of sauce."

Scarlett couldn't help but notice his use of past tense. "Was a chef," she asked. Her mouth full of lamb.

"He died," Damien explained, "Pancreatic cancer."

"I'm sorry," she said and Damien waved it off.

"Don't be, I'm not," he replied, then he stepped away from her and resumed his seat at the other side of the table. Scarlett kept eating but her eyes followed him the whole way. She wasn't expecting that kind of answer and she actually felt bad for him. It surprised her that she could feel any sort of sympathy for a man who kept her prisoner for an entire day.

The two ate in silence after that. Scarlett still had more questions to ask but she had worked up quite the appetite while trying to escape. At the moment all she was interested in was filling her stomach. Damien, for his part, seemed to have nothing else to talk about. Having explained himself she assumed he was satisfied. After Scarlett had eaten her fill she signaled that she was done by wiping her mouth off with a napkin. Then she tossed the small cloth onto the table next to her plate.

Once Damien saw this he stood. "If you are done then I will take you back to your room."

"You mean my cell," she shot back at him.

"A necessary precaution," he admitted, "It's not safe to let you out yet."

Scarlet was incredulous. "Not safe?! Even after all this, you still think I'll try to kill you?"

He shook his head. "You misunderstand," he said as he came around the table to help her out of her seat, "I meant it's not safe for you. As you might expect a PKer guild doesn't exactly attract the most stable of people. Especially one that specifically targets newbs. Those guys out there? Half of them were overweight neckbeards in the real world with a lot of pent up rage towards women. Now they're strong and fit and suddenly in a position to take anything or anyone they want. What do you think they'd want with you? A beautiful Elven maiden?"

"So what? You locked me up to keep me safe? Bullshit, what about that girl I saw on the way up here? Why isn't she under lock and key?"

He smirked. "These losers wouldn't dare mess with Liana. She's proven more than a few times that she can handle herself."

"And I can't?"

"Can you," he asked, stepping closer to her to the point where his body was touching hers. "If I were to take you right now, could you stop me?"

She took a step back and her hand immediately went to the knife on the table. She held it out towards him, the tip of the blade cutting a thin sliver through his doublet. "Try it and I'll cut your dick off," she hissed at him.

He gave her an amused look then with a surprising amount of speed he grabbed her by the wrist. He wrenched the knife out of her grasp and twisted her arm around her back. Then he forced her down onto the table and held her there.

"Go on," he said, giving a slight twist to her arm, "break free of my grasp. Prove to me that you can do it."

Scarlett struggled and pushed against him with all the might she could muster but to no avail. He held her firm against the table and when he tightened his grip on her arm all she could do was cry out in pain. There were tears in her eyes as he leaned down over her shoulder and whispered into her ear. "I'm sure it hasn't quite dawned on you yet, but there is a big difference between a man and a woman. Sure that body is probably stronger and faster than what you're used to, but the same can also be said for the rest of us. You think those losers out there will give a damn about who you were in the real world? Here you're just a piece of meat. Now you might not like what I am doing, but trust me it is for your own protection. Unless of course, you'd like to experience first hand what it's like on the other side."

He pressed his pelvis against her hip for emphasis before finally letting her go. Scarlett all but fell off the table as she scrambled to keep her feet. Her arm was sore from her wrist to her shoulder and she cradled it in her other hand as she turned to look at Damien. "How did you know," she asked, wiping away a tear from her eye with her injured arm.

"That you're not a girl? Please, I wasn't born yesterday. You eat like an absolute slob, you have no table manners to speak of and every time you open your mouth filth pours out."

She scoffed at him. "Right, and you're the expert," she muttered.

He gave her a long hard stare. "That's enough for today," he told her. "Come, I'll take you back to your room."

He reached out to her and she refused. "Why," she growled at him, "Afraid to let me wander on my own? Afraid some big scary man will get me? You can't keep me here forever, asshole!"

"We'll see," he said, then he grabbed her by the arm and shoved her towards the door.

Scarlett stumbled but managed to keep her balance. Her hands balled into fists and she considered slugging him. After the way he overpowered her, though, she thought better of it. The walk back to her room was uneventful. The others had since scattered and were otherwise occupied. No one was waiting for her outside her room on the way back, though she did catch a glimpse of Liana in the common room. The girl's expression had not changed since their first meeting. It was like she had permanent resting bitch face and she didn't seem to care for Scarlett at all.

Damien closed the door behind her once she was back inside her room. She leaned her back against it and listened to him leave. His footsteps retreated down the hallway until finally she could no longer hear them. She ignored the pain in her arm as best she could and reached into her pocket to withdraw a pair of chicken bones. She had slipped them under her jacket while Damien had her spread across the table. She would, of course, have to find something to sand them down with before she could use them as lock picks. However, that put her one step closer to breaking out of here.

"Yea, Damien," she quietly muttered to herself under her breath, "We'll see..."

**********

Scarlett waited until well after dark when she was sure everyone had gone to sleep. Somehow she had managed to turn her chicken bones into a serviceable lockpick. With a little help from the stonework around the window, of course. She leaned against the door and peered through the window. There were no guards posted outside, there was no need to. Her room was always locked and Damien had the only key. When she was satisfied she knelt down next to the lock and jammed one of the chicken bones into it to use as a lever. The other she used as a rake to push the tumblers up until they locked into position. It took some time, more than she would have liked, but soon she heard a click as the lock disengaged.

She resisted the urge to celebrate as she slid the door open and poked her head outside. The hallway outside her room was empty. She couldn't hear anyone stirring in any of the rooms. Though a few doors down she could almost make out the sound of someone snoring. Moving on the balls of her feet she made her way toward the stairs as silent as possible. When she heard a break in the snoring she stopped and froze in place. A heartbeat later the snoring continued and she breathed a sigh of relief. She made her way up the stairs into the common area. The fire was still lit in the hearth but it had all but burned out. She could see a couple of the newer members lounging in the chairs or on the floor on one of the bearskin rugs. No one stirred as she entered the room, they were all asleep.

The door to the outside was locked and she made use of her chicken bone lock picks again. This time it was easier now that she had some idea of how the locks worked. The last tumbler clicked into place and she heard the latch disengage. She took one last look at the sleeping forms of the two men behind her. Neither of them had moved, satisfied she slipped the door open and carefully closed it behind her. The night air outside was cool and refreshing. It was colder than what she was used to in Sacramento, even on those cold winter nights. Had she a jacket she would have pulled it tighter around herself. To her regret what little she had with her the night before was still locked up in a chest inside the guildhall. She wasn't going to go back inside to get it. Her stuff wasn't that important to her.

Relieved to finally be out from under Damien's control she headed into the forest at a brisk pace. She had a pretty good idea of what direction to head in since she could see the town from her window. She didn't bother to take precautions, she just wanted to get away as fast as possible. So focused was she on escaping that she failed to take notice when a shadow sprung up from the brush in front of her. Frankie surprised her and tackled her to the ground. Scarlett fought back, kicking and punching but the man was stronger than her.

"Thought you might try something," he said in a sly voice. "Just you and me out here now. Damien's not here to protect you."

Scarlett managed to get her foot under him and kicked him in his gut, loosening his grip. Then she tried to scramble away from him, clawing at the ground trying to find any purchase she could with her feet. Frankie followed her, grabbing at her trying to hold her down. He had a sadistic look on his face that terrified her.

"Get the hell off me," she shouted, turning back around to take a swing at him.

Frankie caught her by the wrist and forced her hand onto the ground next to her head. He leaned in close, mouth dripping with drool. "I've waited my whole life for this," he gloated as he tore at her leather jerkin with his other hand.

Somehow he managed to rip the garment open and as he fought with her to do the same to her blouse she reached for his belt with her free hand. Her fingers wrapped around the hilt of his dagger and without even thinking she pulled it free and stabbed it at him. The blade pierced his chest, cutting deep into his heart. Frankie let go of her and straightened up, looking down at the wound in his chest in shock. Scarlett scrambled away from him and pulled herself up to her knees. Her hands were shaking and covered with blood. When she saw that she panicked, trying everything she could to wipe them clean. When Frankie fell over she stopped.

"No," she whispered and she scurried over to him, lifting his head into her lap, "No, no, no, no, no. Don't you dare die!"

Frankie looked up at her, his lips moving as if he were trying to speak but nothing came out. He coughed and wheezed then his head tilted backward and he was gone.

"No," she repeated, there were tears in her eyes now. She hadn't meant to kill him.

A sudden light from the guildhall spilled out across the forest which drew her attention. The front door had opened and she could see several figures illuminated in the doorway. She took one last look at Frankie then clambered up to her feet and fled into the forest. Behind her, she could hear cries of alarm as the others discovered Frankie's body. This only encouraged her to run even faster and she pushed herself as hard as she could. She ran as fast and as far as her legs would take her, leaving her pursuers behind in the dark...

**********

It was morning by the time she ran out of steam. The nightmare filled forest from the night before was long behind her now. Ahead of her she could see the high walls and city gates of the town of Iselia and at last she could breathe easy. No more Damien, no more Frankie, no more blood and violence. She was finally safe. She made her way down the hill to a cobblestone bridge spanning the river that crossed in front of the city gates. There were surprising amount of people coming and going from the city. More than she had ever seen before back when this was a game. The city felt so alive, with horse drawn carriages coming and going. The guards posted at the city gates inspected every wagon as they wheeled through. Something Scarlett had never seen them do before.

Since she had no goods with her and no wagon the guards let her through with little fuss. Once inside the city the illusion that this was a bustling and lively town was only stronger. She could hear merchants shouting into the crowd to advertise their wares. Women and men conversing in the streets, greeting people they knew. Children could be heard laughing and playing, chasing each other around. Scarlett stared at everything in wonder. Was this really the same town she started the game in?

"'Scuse me, Miss," a woman called out to her, "Would ye be interested in some of these fine silks?"

She held out a bolt of cloth toward her to allow her to touch it. Scarlett took a step back from her and held up her hands. "No, no, that's fine, really. I'm not interested."

The woman seemed disappointed but turned to try and proposition someone else. Have the townspeople always been this--emotive? She asked herself. It was hard to tell from her computer screen what any of these people were thinking or feeling. Being here in person, though, they seemed so alive. Why would the developers bother to program any of this into the game?

She wandered the city streets for a good hour. She had no idea where she was going, she barely knew this town and it seemed so much bigger in person. She passed by so many faces it was hard to keep track. How many of these people were NPCs? How many were players? It was difficult to tell, they all looked the same. Her thoughts were interrupted when she felt something hit her leg. She looked down and found a ball resting by her feet. She reached down to pick it up then looked around for the owner. There was a small boy nearby hiding behind the wheel of a wagon. As soon as Scarlett saw him she held the ball out to him.

"Is this yours," she asked and the boy slipped behind the wheel out of her sight. "It's okay," she assured him, "I won't hurt you."

There was a pause then the boy peeked his head around the corner again. "Go on, it's okay," she said, still holding the ball out to him.

The boy hesitated a moment before he slipped from hiding. With slow, gradual steps he closed the distance between him. Scarlett pushed the ball out to him again and he cupped it with his little hands. As he looked up at her, holding his ball he gave her a curious look.

"Are you an Elf," he asked.

Scarlett thought that was strange. Shouldn't he already know? "Yea," she said, "Yea, I am."

"I've never seen an Elf before."

Never? Not even here? She knew that there were several starter towns that she could pick but she didn't expect race to play a factor. Does that mean Elves are rare here? "Well, now you have," she replied. It sounded less stupid in her head.

"Does that mean you can do magic? My Pa says that all Elves can do magic!"

She considered that. It was possible that she could, she had invested some of her skill points into magic, after all. The problem was she had no idea how or even where to begin. "I don't know," she said finally, "I've never tried."

"Not even once?"

Then she thought about it. "There is one thing," she replied and she knelt down next to him, holding her hands out toward him palms out. The boy was fixated on her hands and when she reached behind his ear and produced a silver coin he was dumbfounded.

"Wow," he squealed with delight.

Scarlett smiled. "Here," she said, handing him the coin, "you can keep that. That coin is magic, hold onto it for good luck."

"Thank you, Miss," the boy cried and then he ran off to go play.

"Well, that was sickeningly sweet," a female voice said from behind her.

Scarlet half turned to look but before she could even react the woman grabbed her and forced her into an alley. She pinned her up against the wall with a knife to her throat and that's when Scarlett recognized her. It was Liana from Misery's Company.

"You killed Frankie," she hissed, "I should gut you."

"That's enough," Damien barked at her as he stepped into Scarlett's view. "I want her taken back to the guild alive."

Scarlett squirmed and struggled to break free of Liana's grip but the girl was stronger than her. "The fuck," she snapped, "How are you even here?! I thought PKers couldn't enter the city!"

"You're right," Damien admitted, "they can't."

"Then how?"

"Simple, I'm not a PKer," he told her, "You recall it was Frankie who killed your friend two nights ago. That's how the reputation system works. The one who does the killing is the one who loses Rep. So Liana and I? We're clean."

"Let me kill her now," Liana urged him. "She's useless to us."

"Now, now, I wouldn't say that. I find her presence amusing. That was a nice piece of work you did last night. Picking the lock to your room then killing Frankie. Clearly, I underestimated you, but you've had your fun and now it's time to return."

"Svenya," Liana whispered sharply under her breath, "you're too close to this. Just kill her now. What do you even see in this woman?"

Damien gave her a cold, hard stare. "I told you never to call me that."

Liana shrank back from him in fear. Scarlett had seen that look once before. It was right before Damien beat the crap out of Frankie for pulling her hair. Whatever Liana said to him must have set him off.

"Now," he said, looking back at Scarlett, "You'll come quietly, or..."

He was interrupted mid-sentence by a loud ruckus from the street. The mild hustle and bustle of the city had stopped. People were now lining up on the side of the streets shouting at the top of their lungs. Damien turned and nodded to Liana. The other girl slipped the knife back into the sheath on her hip. Then she wrapped her hands around Scarlett's shoulders and led her out to the street.

Scarlett couldn't quite see what was happening. Further down the street it looked like there were some guards coming toward them. They had a man in custody, his hands bound behind his back by rope. He was shouting as they passed, the guards leading him to the large square at the center of town. There was an executioner's block set up there now and a large man awaited atop it, carrying a vicious looking axe. The crowd booed and hissed at the man, throwing vegetables and fruit at him as the guards led him to the block.

A public execution?! That never happened in the game.

"Listen to me," he cried as they half carried him up the stairs to the executioner. "You don't have to do this! I didn't mean it! Any of it! It was just a game! We were just playing a game!"

Scarlett's entire body froze. The man they had in custody was a player.

"Please," he begged, "Please don't kill me! I'm just a kid! I'm only fifteen! Why won't anyone listen to me!"

They forced him to his knees and tied his head down to a block. He continued to beg to for his life as the executioner raised his axe. Scarlett closed her eyes right before it fell. But that didn't prevent her from hearing boy's cries stop as the axe sliced through flesh and bone. She felt the grip on her shoulder loosen somewhat and opened her eyes again to see a horrified look on Liana's face. She used this opportunity to escape and shoved Liana away before darting into the crowd.

Liana reached for her dagger and started to give chase but Damien stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "Let her go," he told her. "We have more pressing matters."

He never took his eyes off the boy's body or the executioner. "Gather the others," he continued, "I think it's time we moved..."

**********

Scarlett had all but collapsed in an empty alleyway. She leaned against the wall, her legs bowed beneath her, unable to hold her weight. She'd been running for awhile, first through the forest then through the city. She had finally reached a point where she could run no more. She tried to take a step forward but her legs gave out and she collapsed into a heap beside a stack of barrels.

"Hey, are you alright," she heard a voice say. She tried to look up at him but her vision swam.

"Here, let me help you," he reached down to her and helped her up. For a moment as he carried her Scarlett recognized the face of her foster father, but it was only for a moment. She was so exhausted she couldn't keep her eyes open. Her head tilted to the side and she blacked out.

When she awoke again she was lying in a wool bed, the linen sheets pulled up around her shoulders. When she remembered the events that had transpired the day before she sat up with a start. Then she felt a sharp pain in her head and immediately regretted it.

"Here," a woman said, handing her a tankard full of water, "You must be dehydrated."

Scarlet took the tankard and gulped down the water in seconds. The pain in her head seemed to subside and she handed the tankard back to the woman. "Where am I," she asked.

"The Lucky Lion Inn," the woman answered, "I'm the proprietor's wife, Mildred."

The young elf threw the sheets off of her and tried to stand, but her legs got tangled in the fabric of her gown. "Careful," Mildred warned as she reached out a hand to prevent her from falling. "You've only just woken up."

Scarlett stood and looked down at the dress she wore. "Where are my clothes," she demanded in a sharp tone.

"Forgive me, Miss," the woman apologized, "but they were covered in blood and dirt. I'm having one of my servants attend to them now. I hope you don't mind the dress, it was all I could find in your size."

She lifted the skirt a bit with a look of disgust. "You didn't have anything with pants," she asked.

The woman gave her a curious look. "Are all Elves as strange as you?"

"What the hell do you mean by strange?!"

"My apologies, Miss, that was too forward of me." Then she turned and carried the tankard over to a nearby dresser and set it down before returning to her side. "My husband says you collapsed in the alley behind the inn. You must have had a rough go of it yesterday, you look like you haven't eaten in days."

"Yesterday?" Scarlett repeated, "How long was I out?"

"Most of the afternoon and well into the evening. It's morning now, come on," she gestured toward the door while placing a hand on her shoulder. "My husband will no doubt have the morning breakfast cooked and ready to serve."

Scarlett shrank back from her. "Wait! I can't go out there like this!"

"Like what," the woman asked, confused by Scarlett's reaction. "It's a perfectly fine gown, is it not?"

"I--," the elf started but then she stopped. How could she explain it to her? This woman was an NPC. If Scarlett told her she was actually a guy would she even believe it? "Forget it," she said finally, "I'll go."

She let Mildred lead her out of the room and down the stairs into the common area. She'd been in this inn before when it was just a game and everything was as she remembered it. There were a scattering of tables and chairs about the room. A giant stone hearth in the center of the far wall just west of the door. The stairs she had come down wound up and around the bar area and torches hung from the walls in metal sconces. There were a few patrons in the room and as Scarlett stepped of the last stare she noticed all eyes were on her. She took a step backward and considered fleeing back up the stairs but Mildred stopped her.

"It's alright, Miss, most of us just never seen a real live Elf before."

Scarlett's gaze shifted from one person to the next. She couldn't tell if any of them were players, they were dressed about the same.

"Here," Mildred said, leading her over to a nearby table. "Have a seat and I'll fetch you some food."

"Wait," Scarlet said in haste, grabbing her by the arm before she could leave. "Why are you helping me?"

The woman seemed surprised. "Because, Miss, it's the right thing to do."

Scarlett let go of her and Mildred headed back behind the bar to fetch her some food. With nothing else to do she sat down and waited, her mind racing with ideas. Just what was going on? Why did the NPCs seem so--alive? It was like they were real people. Was she actually inside the game world? Or was this something else?

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Starlight
Daughter of Epona
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Joined: Mon Feb 17, 2003 10:00 pm
Location: Between Heaven and Earth

Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Starlight » Tue Sep 03, 2019 3:17 pm

“She can’t have gone far. You go ‘round to the left of those rocks, Gael will go right.”

“What about you?” The other man growled dubiously. His voice was rough, as though he’d long ago swallowed a mouthful of gravel that took up permanent residence in his trachea.

“I’m going to go up over there to that copse of trees.” The swarthy man narrowed his eyes in warning at the suspicion in his compatriot’s tone but the gesture was lost in the darkened shadows cast across his face. The forest was quiet tonight. Too quiet. He hadn’t been in this world long, but he knew enough from his hunting trips back home that there should be some sort of ambient noise; crickets chirping, the rustling of rodents and nocturnal scavengers, the buzzing of insects. But there was nothing. Which meant that something else had recently come through here, startling the wildlife into flight or silence.

“Quit griping Levi and come on.” Gael shifted the scabbard across his back and set off to the narrow trail that ran to the right around the sizable stone pile. After another charged moment, Levi muttered a curse and swung around to the left, his spiked mace glinting dully in the narrow sliver of moonlight spilling between the treetop canopy. Richard watched them both then began climbing the short ridge up to a denser cluster of trees, picking his steps carefully. There were too many gnarled roots and vines just waiting to snag a carelessly place foot and twist an ankle, or worse.

If that brazen harpy was anywhere nearby, they’d find her.

He was just reaching the crest when something flashed to his left. His cry of alarm turned to a sickly wet gurgle, his hands clutching uselessly at his slit throat. His short sword dropped and clattered over the rocks and roots he’d been trying to avoid, alerting his companions even as his dying corpse tumbled back down the embankment. Levi and Gael both came running, giving up the pretense of stealth and brandishing their weapons. So fast were their clumsy steps that they all but tripped over the bloody mess of their leader.

“You brat!” Levi roared into the forest and shoved Gael to get out of the open and behind cover. By now she could’ve hidden anywhere.

Adrenaline pounded through their veins, overloading their senses and causing limbs to shake as they tried to pick out any sort of clue where their quarry had gone. A moment later, the sound of displaced pebbles rolling down the embankment snagged their attention. Gael motioned he would circle behind while Levi should take the front. No sooner than they had moved from cover, a short whistle followed by a dull thunk reverberated in the woods as a crossbow bolt obliterated what had once been the base of Gael’s skull. His body flew forward, carried by the momentum of his run and the impact of the bolt.

Overcome with rage and frustration, Levi blindly swung his mace as he charged in the direction he thought the girl was hiding. When he got there, he found only the discarded crossbow propped against the tree. He spun in a circle, snarling out filthy curses and vile names. The trace of Berserker in his veins demanded violence and crushing gore. He would snap the girl’s neck like a chicken bone for this. He kicked the crossbow and roared a challenge to the darkness.

From above, a weight dropped down from the tree and caused Levi to stumble forward. His skullcap helmet slipped askew and he slipped in the mossy loam soil. Without mercy or remorse, his killer jammed a small knife into his eye socket, ending his miserable existence.

“See no evil,” she remarked quietly and stabbed out the other eye for good measure. Panting as she rode through the last of her adrenaline, Brisa cleaned the small blade on Levi’s shirt before pocketing it back in its sheath at her waist. This entire thing had been a damn waste of time and now she was even further behind in her plans. She picked up the discarded crossbow and secured it on her back. Necessity dictated she loot all three corpses for anything of value, though the prospect was distinctly more distasteful since the latest turn of events. Since she found herself in the skin of her game avatar and not just an amused player on the other side of the monitor.

Coins, a firestarter kit, some dried food provisions. A few more weapons, though she decided to leave the heavier ones. She wouldn’t be able to wield them well enough to be worth the cost of dragging them along. A basic healing kit, always useful. A rabbit’s foot, of all useless things. Brisa wondered if it was a cursed one for Gael, or a lucky one for her. In either case, she decided to leave that as well.

As she wandered back to the main trailhead, Brisa counted out her remaining arsenal of bolts. 8 left, with no easy way to replace them outside of finding a town, armory, or a miraculously appearing NPC trader. Although, since the world had gone mad, maybe it wasn’t such a far-fetched motion. A soft nicker brought Brisa out of her reverie. Her dark brown eyes lightened in relief as she saw her mount still waiting her return.

“Easy, Suspect.” She called out to the dark bay mare, as delighted as always at the name she’d given the sassy warmblood with a mile-wide streak of skepticism. Brisa launched herself up into the saddle, more relieved than ever she had managed to collect the mount-badge last week when the world still made sense. Together they jogged off on the rough-paved dirt trading road. Brisa hoped to make the town before morning, provided she didn’t have to tangle with another bandit gang.
My horse's feet are as swift as rolling thunder,
He carries me away from all my fears;
And when the world threatens to fall asunder,
His mane is there to wipe away my tears.
~Bonnie Lewis

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Pryde
Pryngles
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Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Pryde » Tue Sep 03, 2019 11:02 pm

"Here," Mildred said as she handed Scarlett a fresh set of sheets. "I'm sorry I couldn't have this room prepared earlier, it was just recently vacated."

Scarlett eyed the discarded clothing in the corner. Then the large pack and sword leaning up against the wall by the door. "Vacated? But their stuff is still here."

A shadow passed over her face and she nodded. "His body was found this morning out on the King's Road. Bandits and the like. 'Tis the life of an adventurer, I suppose."

Scarlett's eyes widened. Adventurer? That's how NPCs referred to players. So the person who occupied this room was from the real world like her. "What was he doing out there," she asked.

Mildred shrugged. "Who knows? Just took that giant axe of his and left. Said he was going to try to earn some money."

I'm going to have to do that too, aren't I? The thought of it hadn't occurred to her until now. She was going to need money to survive here, but she had no desire to leave the city walls. Not while Damien was still out there. Just what exactly was she planning to do, then? She only had a few coins in her pocket leftover from what she started with. Enough to afford a loaf of bread but little else. Most of what she had she spent on the equipment that now resided in a chest belonging to Damien and his ilk. There was little chance of her getting that back even if she wanted to.

She accepted the bundle of sheets from Mildred with a soft exhale. Then she wrapped her arms around them, her gaze shifting from the other woman's face to the floor at her feet. "Thank you for this, but you know I can't pay you."

The other woman waved it off. "Think nothing of it, dear. My husband and I can put you up for the night. Then tomorrow we can see about getting you back to Illyria or wherever you're from. I expect you have family there worried sick for you."

"Actually," Scarlett began, albeit a bit sheepish, "I don't have anywhere to go."

Mildred gave her a sympathetic look. The poor thing was probably an orphan. Parent's killed by war or some such. The life of an adventurer must be especially hard. "Very well, you can stay here then. I've been meaning to bring on a few extra hands. As long as you work you'll earn some extra coin and have a place to stay."

Scarlett considered that. Her first impulse was to say no. She'd never worked a day in her life. Back home she made her money stealing, but back then getting caught meant spending a night in juvie. Here, though... The memory of the execution from earlier flashed unbidden through her mind.

"Alright," she said finally, "I'll do it."

**********

The next few days were especially rough. Though, not because she had any trouble adjusting to her new situation. Rather it was that Mildred and her husband, Pierre, were quite the taskmasters. They had her scrubbing floors, tables, and chairs. Cleaning out the stables, serving food and drink and doing all manner of things. She tried to half-ass it on her first day but Mildred pointed out all the spots she missed and asked her to do it again. On occasion, Pierre would ask her to assist him in the kitchen preparing food. Cooking was definitely not her strong suit and she often made a mess. Pierre was patient with her, though, he never once chided her for making a mistake. He simply showed her what to do and gave her careful instruction.

The days passed without notice and before she knew it two weeks had gone by. All that time she worked at the inn, stepping outside only to go shopping with Mildred. They usually visited the market for the express purpose of purchasing various meats, greens, spices and other supplies. On occasion, though, they would stop by the tailor where Mildred would have a new outfit made for her guest. Even some with pants, at Scarlett's request. She couldn't very well continue to wear the same thing day in and day out, after all.

One day Pierre was out receiving a shipment of ale while Mildred and Scarlett tended the tavern. Scarlett roamed the inn taking drink orders while Mildred manned the kitchen. As she passed one table she overheard one of the men talking.

"They found another one this morning," he was saying. "Killed up there in the High Forest by some goblins."

"That's three dead adventurers in as many days," another replied solemnly. "This bodes of ill times, methinks. The monsters are becoming more dangerous."

Scarlett closed her eyes as she passed them. She'd heard stories of adventurers heading out into the wilderness. So far to her knowledge none have returned. Most people from the real world seemed intent on staying inside the city and who could blame them? The world outside was dangerous. While your average adventurer was just a teenager playing on their mom's computer. She couldn't help but feel a pang of regret for the men who died. They deserved better than this.

"Watch this," she heard someone say, followed by a sudden smack on her rump. "Hey, sweet cheeks," a man hollered at her, "why don't you head back there and get me another tankard of ale?"

The Elf stumbled a bit and almost dropped the platter she'd been holding. Then she spun on him with a raging fire in her eyes. "Hey, hands to yourself, dickwad!"

The man seemed taken aback by her reaction. That's not what he expected her to say. "Wait, you're not an NPC," he asked, his cheeks turning red.

"No, I'm not, fuckwit! Touch me again and I'll shove that tankard up your ass!"

He sputtered some incoherent nonsense but Scarlett was done listening to him. She spun around on her heel and stormed away. Meanwhile, the other two people sitting at his table were quick to start poking fun at him. He shrank down into his chair as they berated him, his cheeks burning a bright red. Scarlett paid them no heed as she headed back toward the bar. Along the way she stopped to retrieve some empty tankards from a nearby table.

"You know," someone said from behind her. "I wasn't expecting to find an adventurer working the tavern here."

Scarlett turned at the sound of his voice and saw a bulwark of a man sitting at a table looking up at her. He was clean-shaven with loose dark hair, brown eyes and a cocksure look on his face. He wore mail over his shirt, sabbatons on his feet and carried with him a massive sword. Scarlett couldn't help but notice that both his chest and his arms were bristling with muscle. I should have made that my character, she grumbled to herself. But nooo, I wanted eye candy.

"What do you want," she asked, "Hurry up and order, I got several other tables waiting for me."

He smiled. "I'm not here for the drinks. Actually, I'm here for you."

That sent a cold shiver down her spine that immediately reminded her of Damien. "What the hell does that mean?"

"Calm down," he assured her, "It's not like that. I heard there was an Elf working at the Lucky Lion. I merely came to ask her a favor."

"The answer's no, now order or get out."

The man did not seem phased by that and pressed on anyway. "You know Elves start the game in Illyria, right? Iselia's a human settlement and not even on the same continent. How exactly did you get here?"

"A friend," she answered, unwilling to elaborate further.

He gave her a dubious look. "This friend of yours have a boat?"

She sighed. "She knew a portal mage, alright? Now are you going to order or not?"

"I'll have to pass, like I said I'm not here for the booze."

"Fine," she said then she turned and started to walk away.

"You heard about what's happening up at Hampton's Stead?" He called after her and she stopped.

Of course she had, it was the talk of the town. Goblins had moved in, killed the family and taken over the farm. There was a reward for clearing them out but so far no one had dared try. "What's it got to do with me," she asked, turning back to look at him.

"I'm going to go clear them out, but I need your help to do it."

"Hmm, let me think," she said, pretending to consider his offer. "how about no? You're totally welcome to fuck off and get yourself killed, but I ain't stupid enough to come with you."

Then she turned and stalked away before giving him a chance to respond. He went after her this time and caught her by the wrist before she even made it three steps. "Wait," he said, "just listen to me."

Scarlett gave him an impatient look then set her platter down on a nearby table and crossed her arms. "Alright, you've got five minutes."

"Okay," he began, giving his next thought careful consideration. "You know what racial bonuses are, right?"

She nodded and he continued. "Well, Elves start the game with a plus fifteen in both restoration magic and evocation. Meaning you should be able to cast a basic healing spell. Even if you haven't invested any more skill points into it. That's all I'm asking you to do."

She looked him up and down. "You seem fine to me."

"Not right now," he said in exasperation. "Look, do you know what the holy trinity is?"

Scarlett made a face. "You're not talking about the Son, the Father and the Holy Ghost, are you?"

He shook his head. "No, the holy trinity of MMORPGs. Tank, healer, DPS. Have you seriously not heard this?"

"Proudly," she said, "I don't usually play this pansy shit. I'd rather be playing Halo over this crap."

The man looked stunned. He hadn't expected her to be such a newb. Not to mention he was a little bit offended by her choice of words. "Alright listen, every dungeon run needs three things. A tank for taking damage, a damage dealer for dishing it out and a healer for keeping everyone healthy. Though in a pinch a DPS can act as a tank or a tank can act as DPS. Nothing replaces a healer, though, so you often have to find somebody."

Scarlett yawned and seemed not to care. "This is all fascinating and everything, but your time's almost up."

He looked frustrated with her but pressed on anyway. "I want you to be my healer as I go to clear out the farm," he told her, "I'll handle the goblins and try to keep you safe. All you have to do is heal my injuries."

"Oh, is that all," she said. "Follow some kid out to the woods and watch him get slaughtered by goblins. Do you even know how to use that thing?" She gestured to his sword.

"Yes," he said and when she gave him a dubious look he explained. "I learned how to use one with the SCA."

Scarlett could only give him a blank stare. She had no idea what that was.

"The Society for Creative Anachronism," he pressed further. "Doesn't ring a bell?"

She shook her head and he sighed. "We do medieval reenactment," he explained.

"Oh, you mean like a Renaissance Fair."

He shrugged. "Sort of," he said. "What we do is a bit more historically accurate, but basically yeah. Point is you have nothing to worry about. I can kill these things then you and I can split the reward. Whaddya say?"

He reached his hand out to her and she shrank back away from him. The thought of killing anything brought back unwanted memories of Frankie's death. She could still see it clearly. The fear in his eyes, the blood on her hands, even the smell. It was like she was still there. Simply thinking about it made her whole body tremble.

"No," she said, albeit a bit louder than she intended. "I'm not a murderer!"

"They're not people they're monsters," he told her. "You get that, right? They're out there killing innocents and tearing down farmland. We have to stop them or people will die."

"I said no," she almost screamed. "Why do you even care, anyway? This isn't our world!"

"I know," he said, giving her a sympathetic look, "but just look out there. People are dying and the rest are losing hope. We all want to go home but we're too afraid to leave the city. Someone has to motivate us, to inspire everyone to take action. Otherwise, we may just accept that we'll be here forever."

"So you're going to inspire everyone by getting yourself killed?"

"If I thought like that I wouldn't be here talking to you," he told her. "Look, I don't want to die and I know you don't want to die, either, but we don't belong here and we can't stay. The way home is out there somewhere and we'll never find it by hiding in the city. You come with me, help me claim this reward and prove to everyone that it can be done. Maybe then we can start putting this world back together again."

She gave him a disapproving look. "What," he said as soon as he saw it. "I'm sure you've noticed it. Bandits on the road, goblins taking over farmhouses. These are all quests. The NPCs relied on adventurers to keep them safe, but now all the adventurers are afraid of dying. It's only going to get worse and the townsfolk can't defend themselves. If people don't get out there and start completing quests then this world is going to fall apart. Then, my friend, you can kiss any chances of finding a way home goodbye."

"Look," she started, still not convinced, "even if I wanted to help you I can't. I don't know how to use magic."

"Of course you do," he urged her, "You have the skill for it."

"Doesn't mean I can do it," she shot back.

He sighed. "Alright, let's start from the beginning. Have you ever cast a spell in the game before?"

She nodded and he continued, "Okay, what do you remember about what it looked like?"

Scarlett shook her head. "I don't know, dude, I barely paid attention."

"Just think," he urged her, "What did your character do?"

She tried to picture it in her head but nothing specific came to mind. "Wave her hands around or something, I don't know," she exhaled in an exasperated tone. "Look, if I needed to heal I just hit the heal button and it happens, okay? There wasn't anything special about it."

"Exactly," he said, "There isn't anything special about it at all. You just do it."

She looked at him in confusion and wondered if he'd completely lost it. "Right, sure. That really clears it up for me, thanks."

"Alright, look," he started in a patient tone. "In the lore whenever a wizard casts a spell they don't wave their hands around or say a magic word or anything like that. They have a specific goal in mind and they just make it happen."

"Just make it happen," she repeated, "What exactly does that mean?"

"It means it's all up here," he said, tapping her on the forehead. "Spellcasting is just using your imagination."

"Oh, in that case do you think I could use my imagination to make you disappear," she asked. Then she retrieved the platter of empty tankards she left on the table and turned to leave.

"Okay, that was hurtful," he said, still following behind her.

She stopped at a nearby table to retrieve a pair of empty mugs, then wiped down the table using a white linen cloth. "Look, genius," she said in a flat tone as she worked. "If it's really that easy then why don't you do it?"

He shrugged. "Simple, I don't have any skill points in it."

"Right, as if that matters," she replied, rolling her eyes. She tossed the cloth over her shoulder and picked up the platter again, moving to the next empty table.

"It does matter," he persisted, stepping around a bar patron to continue pursuing her. "Just think of it like this. Every point you put into a skill measures your training in that skill. So if I put ten points into athletics then my character can run much farther before running out of breath, right? As an Elf you start with a natural bonus to spellcasting. It works the same way. If athletics increases my stamina then spellcasting increases your mana. Thus allowing you to cast more spells before running out of energy."

"That still doesn't explain why you can't do it," she pointed out while wiping down another table.

"Because overcasting will kill you," he said at last. That made her stop what she was doing and look up at him. "It doesn't happen often," he continued, "but there are a couple of instances of overcasting in the books. The wizard Rathariel died after using his power to shield his allies from a Balrog's attack."

"You're really selling me on the whole healer thing," she told him.

"Look, just don't cast too many spells and you'll be fine. How many heals could you get off before running out of mana?"

She shrugged. "I don't know, three? Four?"

"Then we'll say that's your limit. Cast any more than that and you might die."

"Except that I can't, remember? I don't know how."

"I can help you with that if you'll let me."

Scarlet let out a long heavy sigh then glanced over to where Mildred was working behind the bar. She couldn't deny that the thought of using magic did feel appealing to her. Still, she wasn't ready to wander off to go fight goblins with someone she didn't know. "I can't, alright," she said finally, shaking her head, "I have work to do."

She tried to leave but he grabbed her by the wrist again. "What if I come by later tonight," he pleaded, "We can put our heads together and try to figure this out. If I can help you learn how to use magic will you come with me then to the farmhouse?"

For a moment she struggled against his grip, but couldn't break free. Then she gave him an exasperated look. I'm getting really tired of people being stronger than me, she complained to herself. "Fine, alright? Just come by tomorrow after dinner. Pierre has me cleaning the stables tonight and I'm not having guests over before taking a bath."

The man gave her a big dumb grin. "Alright," he said, "I'll see you then. Name's Kieran, by the way."

He held out his hand to her and Scarlett stared at it a moment before taking it with her own, wincing as they shook. He was squeezing her hand so hard that it almost felt like he just about crushed it. "Scarlett," she said, between gritted teeth.

"It's been a pleasure, Scarlett," he answered with a half bow. Then he turned and strode out of the tavern, leaving Scarlett cradling her poor hand in the middle of the room...

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Starlight
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Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Starlight » Wed Sep 04, 2019 11:10 am

Brisa made it to the local village without further incident. A feat, apparently, that was impressive given the spawn rates of enemies and lawless PC bandits starting to cluster together. Suspect was currently munching her way through a ration of grain and a few flakes of local hay at the Blacksmith's shop. Riker, as he was known, had always been a reliable NPC before and he was proving to be a boon now. With his wrestler frame, behemoth arms, and legs like tree trunks, she felt better leaving Suspect in his care knowing that Riker would beat the tar out of anyone stupid enough to steal the mount. It was infinitely safer than the inn, where the only guard was a scrawny adolescent who was more elbows and knees than common sense.

Leaning against the frame of Riker's three-sided shelter, she sliced off another chunk of apple with the smallest of her knives and watched the blacksmith heave the bellows to life to repair some sort of wagon part waiting at the forge.

"So if none of the adventurers are too keen to take on these roaming bands, what's the other option?" she asked Riker when the noise of the shop was back down to a dull roar. Gods, the heat in this place, even with the cool breeze flowing out from the nearby Evernon river. Wearing hunting leathers and a light chain mail didn't help matters. At least she wasn't wearing a helmet, and she'd plaited her auburn hair up into a braid that circled her head like a crown.

Riker grunted in distaste, as if the very word 'adventurer' now left a bad flavor in his mouth. Well, it probably did if the players around here had given up the village to save their own skins. After all, it seemed like villagers had no clue what had changed. Lucky them - except now they were really fending for themselves.

"There ain't no local militia or kingsguard, if that's what yer gettin' at, lass. 'Leastwise not in these parts." He eyed the hot piece of metal he was shaping and stuck it back in the hot coals. "With Haversham being on the trade road, there was never a shortage of folks who would keep the baddies in line. Now though, since all have turned coward, we'll probably have to start up recruitment. May even have to think about buildin' some sort of wall around the village."

Brisa hummed a non-committal response, afraid where this conversation was leading. Sure enough, Riker's steel gray eyes swung her direction and all but pinned her to the wall she leaned against. "Even if we drafted all the able bodies, we've no one to teach them to fight or defend. Seems like we'd just be lining them up to be meat shields."

She held up her gloved hands to fend off the implication, though the apple and paring knife slightly ruined the effect. "Don't look at me, Riker. I'm a terrible teacher and I've no patience for teaching greenhorns."

"You're the best option we've got, lass." His solemn tone, the way his great broad shoulders sagged slightly as he exhaled the statement, ate at her. Game-generated or no, the blacksmith was sincere. Sure he would be able to take on an enemy or two by sheer size alone, that didn't make him buller-err, arrow-proof.

"Riker.."

Now it was his turn to hold up a hand to forestall her argument. "I know what I'm askin' ye, and I wouldn't if there was any other way about it. But the village is desperate. These are farmers, traders, merchants. A few are former soldiers, but they are few and there's a reason they can't fight anymore and turned to the quiet life."

Her appetite gone, Brisa remained silent as she crossed over to the little fenced off paddock adjacent to the shop and fed what was left of her apple to Suspect. Nor did she say anything as she hooked the heel of her boot against a cross rail and stared out over the rolling meadows beyond the village outskirts. Deceptively peaceful, it gave no hint of the growing turmoil caused by such a catastrophic -yet invisible- shift in reality. How on earth was she supposed to grapple with the ethics of this situation? Were they truly computer-generated images anymore? How could they be, when they bled and died just as easily as any other mortal. She'd felt the heat of the blood when she'd had to kill a rabbit or other game to eat. Heard the screams of the dying as wolves or other predators hunted these human sheep who depended on others to protect them from harm?

She scrubbed a hand over her eyes, exhaustion dragging at them and ringing the brown orbs with dark circles and tension lines.

Feeling rather than hearing Riker step up beside her, she kept her gaze fixed forward.

"I know yer just one person against a mountain, lass. But I've known ye the longest out of any of the adventurers and though you keep to yerself, you've always looked out for us in your own fashion. The fact is, I know something has changed. I dinnae know what, but it's obvious even if the old goats that make decisions around here don't want to own up and face it."

Brisa smirked at that, cast her eyes over to him in resignation. "And are you certain these old goats approve of a woman such as me teaching up whoever draws the short straw for this militia of yours?"

Riker chuffed a laugh and clapped her on the shoulder. Even expecting it and bracing against the fence, it was like being smacked by a bear's paw. "They might not admit it out loud, but they have no other options either. We've not enough to coin to hire protection, and that's even if we could find folks willing to take it and stay here over heading into the bigger townships."

Well they were smarter than Brisa, apparently.

"A week, no longer. I'm meant to be searching for my friend." Though how on earth she'd find him - or her now, rather, Brisa had no idea. Travel was taking ages longer now and even on horseback it was taking too long to search the settlements. That was assuming that no harm had befallen her friend's avatar, Scarlett. Poor guy, trapped in a petite elf frame now. Well, she'd tease him - her- about that when they finally crossed paths.

Riker nodded amicably, as if always knowing she'd given in. Hells bells she was an idiot. A competent one, but still an idiot.

"Fine," she grumbled in resignation. "Let's gather the troops and figure out a plan to keep you all alive."
My horse's feet are as swift as rolling thunder,
He carries me away from all my fears;
And when the world threatens to fall asunder,
His mane is there to wipe away my tears.
~Bonnie Lewis

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Pryde
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Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Pryde » Wed Sep 04, 2019 7:24 pm

"This is stupid," Scarlett said in an exasperated tone, "It's not working."

She'd been sitting at a table staring at a candle for the better part of an hour. Kieran, meanwhile, was busy pacing back and forth as he tried to encourage her and offer advice. As soon as she spoke up, though, he stopped his pacing and moved over to lean against the table.

"Just concentrate," he told her, "Don't think about it so hard. Try breaking it down into pieces. What do you want? You want the candle to light, right? For that you need fire, fire means heat. So just imagine it getting hot or something."

"Pretend it's getting hot," she said as she looked up at him, her tone flat. "That's the best you've got?"

"Well, it's not like we have an instructional video," he admitted, scratching his head.

"I thought you knew this stuff."

He shrugged. "Kind of. It's written in the books."

Her expression became annoyed. "Alright, nerd, then what do the books say?"

"You know, maybe you should try having a better attitude--," he tried to tell her. Before he could finish, though, the creak of her chair sliding on the wood floor interrupted him.

"Alright, we're done here," she said, standing up.

"No wait, I mean it," he begged. "The books all say that if the wizard doesn't believe in what he's trying to do then his powers won't work. You have to believe that what you're doing is possible."

"What do you think we've been trying to do for the past hour?" She snapped at him, "You wanted me to light the candle, I tried and it didn't work. We're done."

"But did you believe it," he pushed her. "Did you truly believe you could do it?"

She opened her mouth to say something then after a moment she averted her eyes. Her silence told him everything he needed to know.

"See," he said, "that's your problem. You have to shed all your doubts and believe that you can do this. Now sit down and try again."

She sighed then sat down in the chair again and took a moment to collect herself. She closed her eyes, breathing in deeply through her nose then exhaling from her mouth. Finally, she opened her eyes again and stared at the candle. trying to imagine what it would look like if it were lit. Once she had a firm image in her head all she had to do was make it happen. Only, she had no idea how to do that.

"Can you feel it," Kieran asked, interrupting her thoughts. "Can you feel the candle getting hotter?"

Scarlett tried to focus for a minute or two longer then finally gave up with an exasperated sigh. "I don't feel anything," she said, "I see the candle burning and then nothing, okay? Nothing happens."

He thought about that for a moment, pacing back and forth again as she watched him. Something was missing, some crucial piece of the puzzle. His mind wandered back to the game and the exact process of activating a skill. Usually, whenever he wanted to do something he had to push a button. Maybe that was it, that could be the piece that was missing.

"Try giving it a command," he said finally, "Like pressing a key on your keyboard. Focus on the candle like you did before then tell it to light."

"This is such a waste of time," she grumbled as she rolled her eyes. Still, she did as he asked anyway and glared at the candle. In her mind she tried to picture that same image from before of the candle burning. When she was sure she had it she leaned forward on her elbows and said, "Burn."

All of a sudden the candle burst into a giant fireball startling them both. "Jesus," Scarlett exclaimed, falling backward out of her chair. Then she scrambled back to her feet and started waving her hands at the fire trying to put it out.

Kieran grabbed the nearby water basin and dumped it over the candle, dousing the flames. When it was out they both looked at each other and smiled. "There you go," Kieran congratulated her. "Just like that, only next time maybe a bit smaller."

There was a sudden knock on the door and before Scarlett could stop him Kieran moved to go answer it. "Wait, wait, no," Scarlet whispered sharply under her breath but it was too late.

Kieran opened the door and found Mildred standing on the other side. "Oh," she said, a bit surprised. "I'm sorry, I wasn't aware that Scarlett had a guest. I'm Mildred, the proprietor's wife."

Kieran held his hand out to her. "Kieran," he said, "I'm--,"

"Just leaving," Scarlett finished for him as she came up beside him, "He was helping me out with something and now he's gotta go. Isn't that right Kieran?"

He looked confused. "Don't you think we should try it again," he asked, "You were just getting the hang of it."

Scarlett's face blanched and she looked over at Mildred who seemed embarrassed.

"I'm going to go," the woman said. "I was just checking to make sure you were okay. We heard such an awful ruckus downstairs."

Then she turned and started to leave. Scarlett chased her out into the hallway. "Wait, Mildred, it's not like that," she called after her but the other woman was long gone. Then she spun on Kieran and fixed him with a rigid stare. "Thanks for that," she accused him. "Now she thinks we were up here playing."

Kieran had a baffled look on his face. "We were, though, weren't we? With the candle?"

"Not like that, you idiot. Like playing, you know? A man and a woman? Alone in a room?" When she saw the blank stare he was giving her she rolled her eyes. "I'm a teenager, alright? I've watched pornography."

"Oh like that," he suddenly exclaimed as realization dawned on him. "You're right, I wasn't thinking about that."

He had an embarrassed look on his face now which only served to further infuriate her. "Anyway, are we done here? Can I have my room back," she asked with a sudden impatience. After everything that happened all she wanted was for him to leave.

"Don't you think we should practice some more," he asked, "Now that we know how magic works you need to learn to control it. Put too much energy into a spell and you could leave yourself feeling drained."

"Can't we do that tomorrow," she begged, her tone sounded irritable, "I'm tired now and I just wanna sleep."

He gave her a stern look then finally nodded. "Alright," he said, "but we need to think about heading to the farmhouse as soon as possible. The longer we wait the more people will be put in danger."

"Right, right, sure. Whatever," she replied with a wave of her hands. "Now get the hell out."

She tried her best to shove him out the door but the effort required more strength than she anticipated. The man was like a brick wall. Even though he wasn't planting his feet simply moving him an inch was such an ordeal. Eventually, he got the hint and moved out of the room under his own power. He turned back to her to say something but she closed the door in his face and immediately went to bed.

The next day the two of them met outside behind the stables. A prudent choice given Scarlett's spectacular display from the night before. Neither of them wanted to risk burning the tavern down. Again they practiced lighting a candle, though they did take a few precautions. They surrounded the candle with stone creating a makeshift fire pit. If Scarlett's spell got out of hand again they were sure this time that it wouldn't spread.

After that first casting using magic seemed to get a little bit easier. Now that she understood the process it wasn't that hard to build up energy and release it. In the process, they found that speaking a command wasn't actually necessary. The word served as a focus for her to release her energy. Kind of like how a karate master would scream right as they throw a punch. The same goal could just as easily be achieved with a simple hand gesture. The only thing that seemed to matter was having a clear image in her head at the moment of casting.

Once she was confident she had control over her magic they took a break. Too many castings were beginning to wear on her. She'd only been casting small spells but even so she could feel her energy draining with every cast. As they sat drinking water to rehydrate Kieran handed her a sword. "Here," he said.

Scarlett looked at the weapon with a degree of trepidation. "No," she told him, "I told you I won't kill. I'm not a killer."

"Neither am I," he admitted. "Closest I got to real combat was a tournament we hosted last month. We used blunted swords and wore armor, it wasn't exceedingly dangerous. I've never actually fought anyone to the death."

"So then why are you so dead set on killing these goblins," she asked, her tone sounded incredulous.

He sighed and his shoulders slumped forward. For the first time since she had met him she now saw the heavy burden he carried. "Because, Scarlett, whatever happens to this world happens to us. If we just sit back and do nothing then the forces of evil will ravage the countryside and destroy the city. We'll all die here before we ever find a way home. If we want to survive then we have to fight. That means killing monsters and maybe even players. Whatever it takes to keep breathing."

Scarlett stared at him and shook her head. "Wow," she said, her tone dripping with sarcasm, "you get that off a Hallmark card?"

He blushed. "You know what I mean," he told her. "You're a survivor. It's written all over your face."

Her expression became guarded. "What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about your terrible poker face," he explained. "Every time I mention killing the goblins your eyes go wide and your hands start to shake. So who was it? Who did you kill?"

She stood then and stepped away from him, her body trembling. "No one," she lied, "Just forget about it."

"Sure, my bad. Clearly you are a master of deception."

She spun on him with an angry look in her eyes. "Look, you don't know what I've been through, alright?" She shouted at him. "I didn't wake up in a cozy little town like you! I woke up in the wilderness surrounded by dudes trying to fucking kill each other! And Melchior...," she drew up short at the mention of his name. She hadn't thought about him since the day he died. She didn't know much about him yet somehow his death still had a tremendous impact on her.

"Melchior?" Kieran asked, "Is he the one you killed?"

She shook her head. "No, I killed the one who shot him."

"So you killed him in revenge," he surmised and her shoulders slumped in response.

"It wasn't like that," her voice sounded small and meek. "I was taken prisoner by a group of PKers. When I tried to escape he attacked me. He threw himself on top of me and he... He...," she found herself unable to finish that thought. She had a vague notion of the dangers of being a woman but she'd never been that close to experiencing it first hand. In response she hugged herself tightly. Her hands gripping her elbows so hard that her knuckles turned white. "It all happened so fast, I just grabbed his knife and...," again her words trailed off.

She fell silent and Kieran watched her for a moment. He felt bad pushing her to reveal such a horrible thing so he stepped forward and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "It's alright, you don't have to tell me."

Scarlett pushed his hand away then turned on him. "Look, I don't need your sympathy," she snapped. "And you better not be trying to put the moves on me, either! I'm still seventeen, remember?"

He winced, it was so hard to tell with that body. She looked like she was close to his age, early twenties at least. Maybe even twenty-five. "Right, sorry," he apologized, his voice sounding rather sheepish. "Anyway," he continued, "point is you did what you had to do to survive. That's just what we're doing. We kill a few goblins now we won't have to fight a few hundred later when they've taken over the countryside."

Her hands dropped to her sides and she averted her gaze. "I thought you were going to keep me safe."

He nodded. "I am, but I can't guarantee that you won't be in danger. This is just in case." He held the sword out to her one more time.

"I don't even know how to use that thing."

"Easy," he said with a shrug, "just stick 'em with the pointy end."

She didn't seem very convinced so he continued. "I'm going to try to do my best to protect you," he assured her. "This is just in case something happens. I'll feel much better having you out there with me if you have something to defend yourself with. Just take it and keep it with you. You may not even have to use it."

She sighed and reached out to take the weapon. It was heavier than she thought it would be but not so heavy that she couldn't lift it. She stared at the hilt of the blade, a million thoughts racing through her head.

"Alright," he said, after a moment had passed, "I'll meet you back here by tomorrow morning. We'll set out for Hampton's Stead and hopefully be back within a week. You just try to get some sleep tonight and try not to think about it. We're still a few days away by horseback so there's no point in fretting about it now."

"Right, sure. Whatever," she said, eventually tearing her eyes away from the sword. "I better go tell Pierre and Mildred that I'm going to be gone for a while then. Goodnight, Kieran."

She turned and started to walk away without giving him a chance to respond. He hastily muttered something about goodnight. Then he too began to walk away in the opposite direction. There were so many things on Scarlett's mind right now. Not the least of which was whether or not what she was doing was crazy. She couldn't deny that Kieran had a point. It had only been a few weeks since she woke up here and people were already talking about how bad it's become. If Kieran was right then it was only going to get worse. Whether she wanted to or not she and everyone else from the real world would have no choice but to fight back...

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Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Starlight » Sat Sep 07, 2019 12:56 pm

"Again!"

Brisa barked out the command as she walked between the ragged rows of the farmers, young folks -because Brisa ignored the elder's remarks about recruiting women-, fathers, mothers, and former soldiers. At her order, they assumed the fighting stance again and brandished whatever weapon they were able to heft. Some had pitchforks or scythes. Others had hammers, kitchen knives, or blunt metal rods crudely fashioned in a hurry by Riker. Many others had long wooden staves. Still others had crude hunting bows or slingshots; those were put away for now but would soon be utilized in ranged weaponry class.

Class.. Bah. Desperation is what it is.


"On my order," she called out. "Remember not to drop your guard this time. An enemy will be waiting, searching for that moment. All it takes is one second and they will cut you down!"

"Yes, Ma'am!" her makeshift militia yelled in response.

"Good.. Now... Lunge! Strike! Parry! Retreat!"

And so it went, as it had for almost a week. Drilling every spare moment they could, Brisa could just barely start to see something resembling progress. She'd been merciless, sparing no one their sensibilities on the reality they faced. These were not soldiers and never would be. Instead, she taught the dirtiest street tactics she knew of. The self-defense classes she'd taken over the years were finally coming in handy, as was her familiarity with pitchforks and other farm implements. Her family were fifth-generation farmers and her father was as anti-government survivalist as they came. At the time, she played along to get along. Now though, she was grateful for every miserable moment spent learning those survival tactics. It was a shame too many lessons involved firearms, but she had the basics in archery at least.

"Don't forget your footwork, Randall," she remarked to one of the farmers as he swung the long staff. "Your weapon gives you a fair reach but the idea is to keep moving."

"Yes, Ma'am," he panted and shuffled his feet forward and back while going through the combination again.

"Alright, break." Most collapsed to the ground where the stood, the pitiless sun beating down on sweat-soaked bodies. At least they didn't drop their weapons anymore. Brisa had been living nightmare until that particular habit was broken. "Drink some water, dry off. Then those of you that are trap-setters gather at Riker's in a half hour for your patrol. Those that are working on the barricades meet at the village green. The rest, meet at the tavern to keep working on fletching arrows and knitting the trap nets."

She waited until she got a few waves and nods of response before making her way over to Riker. She had seen him standing there for the last few minutes off to the side, his huge arms folded and a frown knotting his bushy eyebrows together. Brisa had to admit that were she not already married - in the real world back home - she might have returned the interested glances he'd sent her way over the last few days. At least it'd proven one thing - however they had been computer generated pixels and coding originally, now they had as many thoughts and emotions as their human-born counterparts.

Some days Brisa wondered if this whole thing was some sort of Matrix-like scenario, not that it was a particularly pleasant idea to mull over. It begged the question then, what was real and what was truly the fantasy?

"They are coming along" he spoke up when she came within speaking distance. Brisa only grunted at that, knowing they were both putting on a show of optimism. It would be a miracle if this crew wasn't cut down in the first few moments of engagement.

"You're giving them a fighting chance, lass." He clapped her on the shoulder as they turned back toward his shop. "It's more than they had before. We're grateful."

"Riker, you know as well as I do that this is a few shaky steps away from a farce."

He scraped the thick whiskers of his beard when the backs of his knuckles then shrugged. "Might be as that's true, but I mean it. We're getting the foundation in place. The rest will come in time."

"Not quickly enough. Those traders this morning spoke of growing goblin packs to the east, between here and Iselia. Hampton Stead I believe. It won't be long before they head our way." And since Iselia was the town Brisa was originally trying to get to next to look for Scarlett, it was going to be a rough time.

Reaching the shop, he gestured her to help herself to the basket packed full for a late luncheon. A crusty roll of bread, some dried venison, a wedge of hard cheese, a few apples. Definitely a far cry from her usual diet, but it was much better than trying to forage in the woods or hunt game on her own. She cut up the apples, split the roll, and broke off some of the cheese. All of this was put into a cloth napkin she carried over to a three-legged stool perched out of the way of Riker's work.

"It's been almost a week now." She said after a few moments of eating. Not meeting the gaze she felt land on her, she emptied a small mug of sweet water into her mouth. Wiping away a few drops the clung to the corners of her lips, she finally shifted on the stool to see Riker looking at her in resignation. "I promised a week, Riker. I need to get moving again to find my friend. There's no telling what trouble she could be in by now."

"Aye, so you've said, and I won't waste my breath trying to talk ye out of it." He pushed away from the wall and came to kneel in front of her. Even perched on the stool, they were at eye level. "I just ask ye to think about what I said before. When ye find her, bring her back here. Ye know ye'd both be welcome."

Brisa gave a tired smile and reached forward to lay a gloved hand on his bearded cheek. "I will, Riker. But you know how things are. Even though my husband is missing, I cannot give up on seeing him again." It was a mostly-truth she had decided upon when asked by one of the womenfolk, curious about her family and upbringing. After all, he was missing. Or, she was. Either way, it was close enough. And Brisa was too loyal, too stubborn to give up on the idea of getting home. Or giving up three years of marriage.

Riker nodded, huffing out a sigh of disappointed understanding. "Aye well, the offer still stands for you and Scarlett. Find her, come back here, and we'll all weather this strange storm together."

"I'll pitch it to her when I find her," she agreed, refusing to commit one way or the other. "Now, I'm going to take Suspect out for a ride and check on the archery range."

She'd just brushed the breadcrumbs from her lap when one of the boys, Liam, called out for them. He skidded to a stop just before tumbling into the wall of Riker's body and dropped his hands to his knees, completely out of breath. "Ye must come quick to the town square, Riker sir. Mistress Brisa, too. We've had word from Islelia, and it's not good news."
My horse's feet are as swift as rolling thunder,
He carries me away from all my fears;
And when the world threatens to fall asunder,
His mane is there to wipe away my tears.
~Bonnie Lewis

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Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Pryde » Sat Sep 07, 2019 3:23 pm

"Will this be enough," Scarlett asked, eyeing their meager rations dubiously.

Kieran nodded. He was busy strapping a saddle onto his horse, Brego, a name he 'borrowed' from Lord of the Rings. "For a week's worth of travel it should suffice," he said. "It might not be filling but it will provide you with the nutrients you need."

He grabbed the sack from her and tied it onto the back of his horse after he was finished fixing the saddle. Then he put his foot in the stirrup and swung his other leg over the horse's back. Scarlett watched him in amazement. He seemed so comfortable carrying swords, wearing armor and riding a horse. This new reality was probably a dream come true for him, which begged the question of why he wanted to go home.

Kieran reached his hand down for her and she made a face. "You don't have to baby me, you know."

"No offense meant," he said, still offering his hand, "but have you ever ridden a horse before?"

She opened her mouth to say something but looked away. She hated how he always seemed to be able to see right through her. With a disgruntled groan she took his hand and allowed him to help her onto the horse. It was a bit uncomfortable, the two of them sharing the same saddle but it wasn't like they had a choice. Scarlett did not have a horse and Hampton's Stead was too far away to simply walk. At least not with a week's worth of rations.

She sighed in annoyance then her body tensed up when she felt Kieran's arm wrap around her waist. "Dude, what the hell," she cried.

"Relax," he told her, "I'm just making sure you don't fall off. You break a bone out there chances are you'll die."

That shut her up pretty quick. She'd never ridden a horse before but she did fall off a bicycle at full speed while flying down a hill. She had to wear that cast for almost two months. Kieran took one more moment to make sure everything was secure. The pack, his sword, Scarlett. Once he was satisfied he nudged the horse into a trot out onto the city street.

It was kind of strange, staring out onto the throng of people from above them. Though, it was nice that they didn't have to walk to the city gates. Iselia was so much bigger now than it was before. Scarlett wasn't entirely familiar with the city but Kieran had said he knew it like the back of his hand. Though now there were parts of the city that even he said he had never seen before. Not to mention there were so many more NPCs about. Iselia had always had a large NPC population but nothing like this.

Once they were through the gate and out onto the road Kieran prodded his horse into a canter. He said it was to preserve the horse's strength. Since they had three days to travel and the horse needed to eat and drink to regain its stamina. Still, they made good time down the road and it was exhilarating to feel the wind in her hair. It was almost enough to make her forget about the strange sensation of Kieran's arm around her waist.

The two of them rode for most of the day before stopping for lunch and then again for dinner before making camp. At each stop Kieran took some time to instruct Scarlett in the art of swordplay. She still wasn't very keen on using the weapon to actually kill anything. However, she couldn't argue that it wouldn't be useful to at least know how to use one if she had to. He was relentless in his teaching style and surprisingly good. He taught her the proper stance and the basic guards and even ran through some combinations with her. The weapon he carried was massive, four and a half feet of solid steel tapered at one end. Yet somehow he wielded it as if it weighed almost nothing. His strikes were lightning fast and Scarlett could barely keep up. Each time he disarmed her it was like his attack had come out of nowhere. Once they were back on the road she asked him about it.

"You seriously learned all of that from medieval reenactment?" She asked one morning after they had broken camp.

Kieran had once again had one hand on the reigns and the other around Scarlett's waist. "Not exactly," he said. "I didn't get involved with the SCA until I was in college, but I'd been interested in swordplay since before that. I first got involved with Kendo at the age of twelve. Then I branched out to European sword fighting techniques after graduating high school. That's when a friend of mine introduced me to the SCA."

Scarlett frowned. Normally she would make fun of him for being interested in something so nerdy. Now, though, learning how to fight with a sword didn't seem quite so silly. It really put into perspective her own level of skill, though. He'd been sword fighting for the better part of thirteen years. Meanwhile she had literally started yesterday. They rode in silence for the rest of the day across the plains east of the city. The farther they got from Iselia the fewer traders and travelers they found on the road. Out here on their own Scarlett couldn't help but feel just a little bit lonely.

That night after they set up camp Kieran sat down next to her at the fire. "We should arrive at Hampton's Stead tomorrow," he said. "When we do I want you to stay behind me. Don't try to do anything crazy and just let me handle all the fighting."

Scarlett didn't feel a need to argue. She hadn't really planned on fighting, anyway. The only reason he brought her along for this trip was to heal his injuries and that's what she was going to do. She had no intention of killing another being, if she could help it. That night her dreams were fraught with nightmares. Memories of her struggle with Frankie and the look in his eyes just before he died. When she awoke the next morning she looked ragged and disheveled. She nodded in and out of consciousness as they rode the rest of the way to Hampton's Stead.

Once they reached the farmhouse, however, Kieran nudged her fully awake. They were still on the road but could see the farm from where they were. It looked peaceful, almost, not a sign of any other living being.

"W--where are they," Scarlett asked.

Kieran frowned. "I'm not sure," he said, then he nudged the horse into a trot towards the farmhouse.

Scarlett wasn't ready for that and fell backward into him. Her hands subconsciously gripping his thighs to prevent herself from falling. Then her cheeks flushed a bright red and she quickly took her hands off his legs.

"What are you doing," she asked, her embarrassment coloring her words. "Shouldn't we leave Brego by the road?"

He shook his head though she couldn't see it. "It's fine, they're not here."

"Not here," Scarlett repeated, "but how do you know?"

"There's no red mist," he pointed out. "The monsters spawn out of the mist. It's how the Dark Lord summons them. Look above you, the sky is clear."

He was right. Scarlett looked up and could see the midday sun clear as day. "If the goblins are gone then does that mean someone else killed them?"

"Maybe," he said, pulling the horse up next to the house before climbing out of the saddle. "Let's take a look inside," he added after helping her off the horse.

Scarlett gave him an uncertain look but he placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder to calm her nerves. Then he turned and led her into the farmhouse. Inside the place was ravaged. Furniture was torn or shredded into pieces. Various clothes, candles and other knick knacks were strewn about the floor. Claw marks could be seen etched into the walls and on every surface. As they moved from room to room they found more of the same but a surprising lack of bodies.

"I don't get it," Scarlett said aloud at last. "Where are the farmers?"

Kieran had a shadowed look on his face but he said nothing. Eventually, the pair of them made their way back outside. A quick cursory search of the barn revealed more of the same but no sign of the victims. Kieran deliberately left searching the cellar under the house for last. As they approached it he opened the doors with some measure of trepidation.

The stairs leading into the cellar were dark and impossible to see. He glanced over at Scarlett who nodded. After concentrating for a moment she made a small orb of light appear just above her palm. She held it out in front of them as they carefully made their way into the cellar. There was a door at the bottom of the stairs and when Kieran tried to open it the door held fast. He drove his shoulder into it a few times before finally the door popped open with a loud crack. What they found beyond the door made Scarlett wretch in disgust.

It was the smell that hit them first causing her to gag. When she saw the blood on the walls and the entrails strewn about all over the room she could no longer hold her lunch. The bodies were torn to pieces, their skin flayed from head to toe. Their entrails had been pulled from their bodies. Then arranged in specific patterns on the floor. Scarlett had no idea what any of it meant but the sight of it horrified her.

On one end of the room they found a young girl strung up by her wrists. She was probably about as old as Scarlett was in the real world. Her clothes had been stripped from her body and her skin half flayed up to her waist. Scarlett had initially thought she was dead but as they approached her the girl's eyes shot wide open. The Elf yelped in surprise and jumped backwards as the girl groaned and gurgled. She tried to say something but her words were unintelligible. Kieran looked at her with pity in his eyes.

"Scarlett," he said quietly, "go back upstairs and get Brego ready to leave."

"But--," she tried to say, but Kieran cut her off.

"Now, Scarlett," he said more firmly.

Her eyes shifted from him to the half dead woman hanging from the ceiling. Then she turned and hurried from the room. She ran up the stairs without looking back and once outside she fell to her hands and knees. She wretched the last of her lunch onto the ground in front of her, tears welling up in her eyes. She wiped her face with the sleeve of her linen blouse then looked up. Catching the sight of footprints heading away from the farmhouse. Upon closer inspection she could tell that the prints were not human. Each toe had made some kind of divet as if by a claw, or a long curled toenail. There were many footprints, all beside each other. It was difficult to tell how many creatures had passed through, but they all headed in the same direction.

"Kieran," she called out to him.

He rushed up the stairs from the cellar, his sword stained with blood. "What?! What is it," he asked, a note of alarm in his voice.

"Look," she said, pointing at the prints, "Where do you think they're going?"

Kieran followed the prints with his eyes, noting that they headed west. The only thing west of Hampton's Stead that might interest them was... "Oh no," he said aloud, his face blanching. "Haversham. They're heading for Haversham..."

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Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Starlight » Tue Oct 08, 2019 5:34 pm

Haversham was in a panic. As soon as the messenger finished his tale of lawlessness, roving bands of treacherous creatures, and no chance of outside help, the villagers were mindlessly shouting conflicting directives. Stay or go. Fight or flee. Hide or evacuate. The cacophony of voices, of cries in fear and yells in anger, all were giving Brisa a massive headache.

"ENOUGH!" Riker bellowed in a bear-like roar. He swung himself up onto the small platform where the messenger stood and threw his arms wide. "And what do ye think we've been doing these last days? Preparing!" He stabbed his meaty finger downward in emphasis. "We cannae run - not all of us. For where will we go? Everywhere there is chaos. Everywhere there is danger." Folding his arms across his chest, he stood tall and defiant under the dozens of stares pinned to him. "Here we have a chance. We have our defenses, our traps. We have plans, and we have both provisions and weapons. Out there?" His chin jutted to the road that led out of town. "There, we are guaranteed to die, for it sounds as though even in Islelia we wouldn't fare very well. Everyone is out for themselves, and so will we be. With Mistress Brisa's help, we at least stand a fighting chance, aye?"

It wasn't a rousing speech, and there wasn't a great rousing response, but at least people quietened down enough to listen and consider. Brisa remained on the fringes of the crowd, leaning up against the bakery wall and surveying the crowd. Body language was an interest of hers, and she studied those around her. Feet shuffling, whispered side conversation, shifting eyes. None of it boded very well, but Riker had spoken the truth. They really did have no where to run.

"If you all are finished debating the veracity of the situation and pondering whether it's best to die with an arrow in your back versus your front?"

Eyes turned towards her as she pushed away from the wall. "Riker is right. And what have you spent the last week for, if not this moment? Obviously it would be lovely to have more time but you all at least have a chance now, compared to then. It was only a matter of time. Time that we are now wasting milling about here."

Riker nodded at her, his gaze warming in both pride and appreciation. Uncomfortable, she averted her awareness to the townsfolk again. She took a deep breath then shot a fist into the air. "So stop standing there waving about like a field of corn and man your posts!"
My horse's feet are as swift as rolling thunder,
He carries me away from all my fears;
And when the world threatens to fall asunder,
His mane is there to wipe away my tears.
~Bonnie Lewis

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Re: The Journey Home: A Fracturing of Worlds

Post by Pryde » Thu Oct 10, 2019 2:56 pm

The ride from Hampton's Stead to Haversham was much more intense than the ride from Iselia. As soon as they were situated on the horse Kieran set Brego into a gallop. They raced along the uneven dirt road to Haversham with Scarlett gripping tightly on the saddle for fear of falling off. There was no time for conversation. She had questions about the farm but they both knew how dire the situation was. Haversham was a small village in the game with a tiny population which was now likely much larger since the game became real. A couple of weeks ago Scarlett wouldn't have thought anything of it. After having spent time with Mildred and Pierre, however, she had come to realize they weren't just NPCs anymore. They were real people now and if something wasn't done the people of Haversham were going to die.

They galloped for the better part of the day then shortly after dusk Kieran brought his horse to a screeching halt. Scarlett nearly fell forward out of the saddle but somehow managed to maintain her grip. "What the hell, Kieran? Why'd you stop?"

He pointed off towards the horizon. "Look," he said, "Down in the valley near the trees."

Scarlett sighed then followed his gaze. Down near the tree line quite some distance away she could see a red mist covering the valley and inside the mist dark figures were milling about. "We finally caught up to them," Kieran continued, "Whaddya say we go finish this?"

He started to nudge his horse forward but stopped when Scarlett gripped his arm. "Wait," she said, "there's too many of them. Ten, no fifteen! And there are more coming from the trees. Lots more."

Kieran looked at her with surprise. He could barely see them let alone count their number. Apparently, there were certain advantages to being an Elf. "If you can see them what are they doing?"

Scarlett continued to watch them for a moment then shook her head. "Organizing, I think. It's kind of hard to tell but there's someone down there barking orders."

Kieran grimaced. The monsters never behaved like this before. "The situation might be worse than I thought," he muttered to himself.

"What?" Scarlett said, looking at him curiously.

"How much do you know about the game's lore," he asked her.

Scarlett shook her head. "Barely anything, I don't pay attention to that shit."

He sighed. Of course she didn't. She probably skipped all the text in the quests in favor of just playing the game. "Well," he began, "if the monsters are organizing then someone must be directing them. The only one I can think of is...," his words trailed off.

"What? Who?" Scarlett pressed him.

Kieran sighed heavily. "In the lore the monsters are servants of the Dark One who created the red mist. If the game's lore has come to life then that must include him."

"You mean the Sauron wannabe," she grumbled. "Great, let's just find his ring, toss it into a volcano and be done with it."

Kieran looked at her eyes wide. "Wait, you've read Lord of the Rings?"

She scoffed at him. "Hell no, dude, I watched the movie. It was badass! Except for the part where they ended it six times."

He sighed again. This girl was turning out to be such a jock. "Anyway, I don't think it's going to be as easy as all that and even that wasn't very simple. There was a rumor from the development team that the Dark One was supposed to be a raid boss in an upcoming expansion, but it never got released. At least not before...," he left the rest hanging in the air.

Scarlett understood what he meant and the two fell silent for a moment as they stared into the distance watching the red mist. Eventually she was the first to breach the quiet. "What now," the girl asked. Obviously, the two of them alone could not take a score or more of goblins.

Kieran took a deep breath then exhaled it softly. "We warn the village," he said, "Maybe there's still time to get them out."

**********

An uneasy quiet had befallen Haversham. Since the town crier had delivered the news and the villagers had resolved to stay the people knew it was only a matter of time before they were attacked. Reports had begun to trickle into the village that the goblins inhabiting Hampton's Stead had since moved on and were heading west. The villagers worked tirelessly to prepare while the elders planned their strategy. It was in one such meeting that Brisa found herself, standing around a table with a crudely drawn map of the village on top of it.

"If they're coming from the west they'll attack from here," Riker said as he pointed towards the map. "That is where we should set the majority of our traps."

"What about the other side of the village," the mayor asked. "Won't they try to come around and attack us from behind?"

Brisa had opened her mouth to answer that but before she could respond a young boy had burst into the room. "Adventurers," he cried excitedly, "Adventurers have entered the village!"

Brisa and Riker shared a look but neither of them said anything, they both shared the same concern. News of adventurers arriving in the village could either be a blessing or a curse. Since the game had become real many of the players had resorted to brigandry in a bid of desperation. Even if these adventurers weren't here to rob the village it was entirely possible they would bring with them a false hope. Haversham hadn't been visited by adventurers since Brisa had returned from the woods. If they were arriving now then many of the villagers may start to feel like they might not have to fight. Haversham, after all, had a history of being protected by adventurers.

"We better go and greet our guests," Riker said to the others who merely nodded in response.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the village Kieran was helping Scarlett down from his horse. As soon as her feet were on the ground she looked around, taking in the entire village. It wasn't quite what she was expecting. There were sharpened spikes dug into the ground in front of the gate and many of the villagers were currently digging a trench. It looked as though the village was preparing for war.

"Is this kind of what you were expecting," she asked, leaning in to whisper to Kieran.

He shook his head. "Not really," he said, "It's almost like someone is preparing them."

"Another adventurer?"

"Maybe," he answered. Then he grabbed the reins of his horse and led him into the stables. Kieran secured him in an empty stall then joined Scarlett out front. "We better speak to the mayor," he told her, "If we don't handle this delicately we could start a panic."

He half turned and started to head into the village but Scarlett grabbed him by the arm and stopped him. "Wait," she said, "just real quick. Back at the farm, the girl we found. Why didn't you ask me to heal her? It's been eating at me for two days now."

He sighed and looked away. "Healing magic doesn't work the way you think it does," he told her, "It enhances and intensifies the body's own ability to heal itself, draining energy from the healer as well as the victim. The more severe the wound the more energy it takes. Healing a scratch takes almost nothing, a person could heal from that in a day. A fatal wound to the chest, however..."

"Okay," she started, slowly nodding her head. "I think I get it, but that still doesn't explain why you wouldn't let me try."

"Because, Scarlett, the spell draws energy from the victim and the healer, ideally in equal parts. The less energy the victim has the more it has to draw from you. Had you tried to heal her you could have killed yourself."

Scarlett's eyes widened in realization. She was quickly starting to learn that magic was much, much more dangerous than she had given it credit for.

"Now let's go," he said, "We don't have much time."

He turned and started to lead her into the village when they noticed that a small crowd was beginning to form. All eyes were on them and Scarlett could almost feel them scrutinizing her.

"It's an Elf," someone whispered and that word was repeated a number of times. Scarlett remembered hearing the same surprise mixed with shock from the people of Iselia and experiencing it again made her uncomfortable.

"What's the deal with that," she asked Kieran as she nervously stepped closer to him.

Kieran shrugged. "The different races of Ailelle are all isolated. Elves in particular are separated from humans by an entire ocean. That's not to say they don't occasionally venture to the mainland, of course, but there isn't a whole lot of interaction between them. For the most part the different races are treated with suspicion. Despite the Dark One's ever looming presence there are still tensions between the kingdoms of Ailelle. Relations between the Elves and Dwarves, for instance. The two of them practically hate each other."

"Great," she muttered quietly to herself.

An older woman stepped out of the crowd and bravely approached them. "Excuse me, kind adventurers," she asked, "but have you come to save our village?"

Kieran shared an uncertain glance with Scarlett. "Kind of," he said. Their actual goal was to encourage the villagers to evacuate, but considering the state Haversham was in that might prove more difficult.

"Oh blessed be, the Gods have answered our prayers! These heroes are here to save us!"

The crowd erupted in cheering and Kieran quickly held up his hands. "Wait, it's not quite like that," he shouted above the din, "We came here to speak to your Elder, where might we find him?"

The elderly woman who had spoken before now gave them a wary look. These adventurers had gotten their hopes up but now it sounded like they might dash them. She half turned and pointed towards the center of town. "Head due east from the town square," she told them. "The Elder's house is located on a hill at the edge of town."

"Thank you," Kieran replied with a slight bow. "My name is Kieran, by the way, and this is Scarlett."

The older woman's eyes widened at the mention of Scarlett's name. "Scarlett?" She repeated, "There was a woman here looking for you. She failed to mention you were an Elf."

Scarlett overlooked the slight disdain in the woman's voice when she mentioned there was someone looking for her. Her heart thumped loudly and her eyes brightened. "Evie," she asked excitedly, "Evie's here? In this town?"

The woman just stared at her blankly and Scarlett quietly chided herself. "I mean Brisa," she corrected herself, "Where is she?"

"With the town Elder and that blacksmith. Since this morning, I reckon," the old lady told her.

Scarlett wasted no time and took off running. "Thanks," she shouted back over her shoulder as she burst through the crowd.

"Wait! Scarlett," Kieran called after her as he took off running. Wearing all that armor, however, proved to be an impediment as the girl was much faster than him. Even at his top speed he could barely keep up.

The town of Haversham wasn't a particularly large village even after the change in reality. Still it was quite some distance from one side of the village to the other. Even walking at their top speed Brisa and the others had only managed to make it about halfway before Brisa started to hear an unfamiliar voice calling her name. Her real name.

"Evie!" Scarlett cried, appearing almost out of thin air as she pushed her way through the townspeople to wrap her arms around Brisa. "Evie, I'm so glad you're here!"

"Al--Ale... Scarlett," Brisa fumbled with her name in surprise, glancing over to Riker who looked at her in confusion.

Scarlett's grip on her was tight, which surprised Brisa. Alex had never been this happy to see her before. In the real world, Evelyn Marietta, otherwise known as Brisa by the townsfolk, had worked as Alex's, or rather Scarlett's social worker. Alex Knight was his name and he was a troubled youth. Abandoned by his mother at the age of seven. He had been in and out of the system repeatedly through different foster homes, always getting into trouble with the law. After his most recent stint in juvie Evelyn had made it her mission to try and put him on a better path. He never did take her advice, though, so she had tried a different tactic. She tried to bond with him through her favorite game. Of course, that was only a week before, well... Everything.

"Evie," Scarlett said as she took a step back, "there's something I need to tell you. The goblins from Hampton's Stead. They're coming here and there are a lot of them."

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