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I pull my dagger from the chimera’s eye with a sound like someone sucking soda, leather-strapped hilt molded to my palm. Green blood drips from the chiseled point of the blade, steaming slightly in the dank underground air. One of the beast’s feathered hind legs spasms briefly, drumming a tribal tattoo into the rocky floor, which startles Kiro back a few steps. His staff wavers in the gloom, the glowing light at its tip coming close to a few of the oddly shaped stalactites. Shifting highlights momentarily gleam in his brilliantly purple spiked hair.
“Careful,” I hiss, trying not to yell, “you hit one of the alarms, and we’re gonna be neck deep in flenser worms quicker than you can spit.”
“Sorry, Ash, sorry, I swear, it’s the inputs. They’re not reading my motions right.”
“Don’t give me that shit. You know the Game can’t be hacked. Their encryption’s better than the gummies and silkies combined. If you fuck up, it’s on you.”
“Ash is right.” A deep baritone comes from my left, where a thickly muscled woman levers herself to her feet with a large axe. Chain mail drapes her body, and an assault rifle hangs from her back. What skin isn’t covered by armor is the deep red of coal embers. “Said you knew encounter. Said you were good.”
“I do, I am, I swear,” Kiro whines. “I read all the online guides and ran all the sims until I could do it bli—”
“Nashor’s balls, you brought a newbie on the run, Ash? As support?” A high-pitched voice sounds from my right. An anthropomorphic fox with camouflage fur finishes carving off small pieces of the chimera’s body with a serrated blade, more short sword than knife. She snarls at me. “Why the hell isn’t Brand here?”
“I haven’t been able to reach Brand in two weeks. Keeps going to avatar. It was either Kiro or wait for the next reset. High-level supports don’t exactly grow on trees, and you know we can’t plug in a random. Everyone’s a newbie at some point. He knows this is his chance to prove he can handle endgame.” I plunge my fist through the chimera’s dulling eye, reaching into its brain cavity for the essence jewel I know lies within. My fingers brush aside lumpy brain matter, searching for the hard facets of the jewel, the only currency that matters in endgame—proof an obstacle has been surpassed. “Besides, I know Kiro in the real. He’s solid.”
“Ugh, I guess, but still … a newbie?” The fox sighs and lops off the barbed tail, sticking it into a pouch on her waist. The large segment seems to shrink down into the mouth of the pouch, then disappears, defying all expected laws of physics. “It makes my fur itch.” She turns and looks at the muscled woman in chain mail. “Also, Slend, you need to change your voice setting. It’s freaking me the fuck out. You sound like a guy.”
“Stoofoo, Wind. My voice, my mod.” The battleaxe comes flashing down on the chimera’s groin, a post-mortem neutering. Kiro winces again, and I frown. If he can’t handle harvesting resources from endgame trash, there’s no way he’s going to have the stomach for a boss encounter, especially in the Everdark facet of the Game. Most people think fantasy and picture elves, unicorns, other twee fairy shit. Most people never make it to Everdark, relive the old myths. With a wrenching twist, I yank the fist-sized jewel free from the chimera’s brain stem and walk over to Kiro.
“You doing okay?” I ask, absentmindedly placing the gem into one of my storage pouches. Ichor drips from my hand to the floor in a steaming puddle, the sensation like warm candle wax bathing my fingers.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine. It’s just…”
He waves a hand at the scene. The half-butchered corpse of the chimera lies in front of us, Wind and Slend plucking feathers from its outstretched wings. Viscous green blood pools beneath its corpse. In the illuminated area around us, writhing stalactites, shaped like giant worms, hang from the ceiling, fang-filled maws bracketing a narrow path. Disgustingly organic sounds echo from the darkness, a mixture of slurping moans and bone-crunching snaps—an atmosphere that reaches down to the hindbrain and yanks some very primal levers.
Just another encounter.
I nod. “You’re right. First time through, it’s a bit of a change from Candyland, huh?”
“… Yeah. I don’t know if I like it. Are all the encounters like this? In Everdark?”
“Most of ’em. There are a couple that are more logic oriented, but even those have psych-secs.”
“Psychological sections. Fighting’s only part of endgame, and the devs love to mess with people’s heads. Better get used to it if you’re gonna run with us. If you want endgame trophies, you gotta earn ’em. Psych-sec’s part of that.”
He grimaces. I can’t say that I blame him. It takes a special type of mind-set to run endgame encounters, the toughest challenges Infinite Game’s developers can nightmare up. No one knows if they have that mind-set or not until they do their first run. Most of them head back to Candyland, home of the omnipresent computer assist. I decided to stay, the darkness calling to something inside me, a thrill I can’t find anywhere else. I’m hoping Kiro stays for a while too, since Brand, our normal support, is away from world somewhere, and supports are hard to find.
I walk back over to Slend and Wind. The wings are bare, lumpy flesh oozing more glistening fluid. I nod in satisfaction. Almost every useable piece of the chimera has been stowed away in limitless bags of holding, one of the few game allowances for convenience outside of Candyland. The remnants of the monster lie sprawled in front of us like a mangled mole rat, pink skin shining wetly beneath Kiro’s staff.
“Good job. That’ll at least pay for rezzes if we wipe later. Wind, you’ve got point. Slend, make sure Kiro doesn’t walk into a trap.”
“Whatever you say, Ash.” The fox grabs a pair of nightvision goggles from a waist pouch and walks forward in a crouch. “If you hear me die, assume that something bad happened.”
I fall in behind her, adopting the same gliding walk, my boots hitting the ground like falling leaves. “If only we could be so lucky.”
“Let Wind watch the newbie,” Slend grumbles from behind. Chain mail clinks gently but her feet are whisper quiet.
“Wind has a higher dex, and she’s more expendable if we lose someone before a boss.”
* * *
Three trash clears, a logic trap, and an hour later, we’re standing in front of an ominously glowing cavern entrance. Bloodstains mar the rocky floor, the jagged mouth of the cave exhaling hot air in rancid breaths. Our path leads directly into the flickering opening, impenetrable rock walls to either side.
“Okay, we’re at the boss. Last time, this was a Diremoth,” I whisper to the others.
“Latest patch notes said that endgame encounters were rebalanced,” Kiro whispers back. “Are you even sure it’s still the same base type?”
“Oooh, look at the newbie talking about patch notes,” Wind mocks. “Next thing you know he’ll be telling us what rotations we should be using.”
“Newbie has a point,” Slend says slowly. “Devs like screwing the ladder. Wipe here, drop at least five. Season’s almost over. Losing first would suck, ’specially to Mikelas. Fucker’s evil.”
“Yeah, he is,” Wind responds, her voice subdued for the first time all run. “Him and his boardshits cornered me back when I was still leveling, before I joined Ash. If we had been in the real…”
“We’ve got your back.” I pat her on the shoulder, fur silky beneath my hand, trying not to think about my own encounters with Mikelas, some in the real. “Kiro’s right, though. It might not be a Diremoth. The devs have kept endgame the same for the last month. They’re trying to get more people out of Candyland, give ’em predictable progression, but the league’s about to end. That means it’s gonna be different. Devs always change things near the end.”
I bounce a rock idly in my left hand, thinking, my eyes locked onto the pulsating cavern entrance. The Everdark facet of Infinite Game is designated part of the fantasy spectrum, which means our guns aren’t going to be very helpful here—not only are the monsters resistant to any damaging tech more advanced than a crossbow, the encounters themselves are prioritized to punish tech use, like how the frozen flenser worms surrounding the chimeras we dispatched earlier forced us into melee combat, instead of a safer ranged battle. Devs like to make things hard, but not impossible, so whatever’s in this cave shouldn’t be a permanent flyer.
The key word there being “shouldn’t,” I think sourly. Not “won’t.” They could be trying to lull us into a false sense of security with all these melee encounters leading up to a ranged fight. Wouldn’t be the first time.
I turn back toward the group.
“Okay, here’s how we’re going to do this. Standard diamond formation, Wind up front, Kiro in the back. Slend, you take left. If it’s still a Diremoth in there, same plan as last time. If not, we’ll improvise.”
“Uh, what was the plan last time?” Kiro asks.
Wind silently mouths the word “newbie” at me, and I glare at her before answering Kiro.
“If you see its wings shimmer, throw a vortex barrier in front of us so we don’t get hit by acid pollen. Other than that, stay out of the fire, try to get some skill shots in if you see an opportunity, and be ready to drag one of us to safety if we take a hit. We’ll have to wait for it to land to cripple its wings for phase one. Your trauma skills are near maxed, right?”
“Yeah, I suppose…” His voice trails off in a petulant pout.
“There’s no suppose about it,” I say, glowering at him. “This isn’t Candyland. This is endgame. Trust your training, and we’ll make it through just fine, but you gotta react fast. There’s no room for error here.” I put a hand on his shoulder, feeling the sleek fabric of his sigil-inscribed robe. “Look.” I go on more gently. “It’s okay to be nervous. Everyone gets nervous their first time in endgame. That’s why you’re in the back, to keep you out of the heavy shit.” I wave my free hand at Wind and Slend, both busy checking their equipment. “We’ve killed hundreds of Diremoths. It’ll be fine. You’ll get a feel for the encounter, and next time it’ll be easy peasy. It’s like anything else—the more you do it, the more natural it seems.”
“I guess you’re right…”
Dammit Kiro, I don’t have time for one of your sulks, not right now. I punch him on the arm, trying to shake him out of his funk.
“Of course I’m right, stupid. I’m always right. Just try not to cause a wipe, okay? Losing our streak would suck.”
He swallows. “Got it.”
I pat Kiro’s shoulder.
“Let’s go get some loot, then. Wind, take us in.”
* * *
We creep through the twisting passageway, its narrow walls almost brushing my shoulders, even crouched as I am. Ominous light flickers ahead of us, and pulses of rancid air increase the stifling heat. It feels like going through some huge animal’s digestive tract, working our way down its throat and into its stomach. Another psych-sec. I look back at Kiro to see how he’s handling it, and grin inside. His face is set in a scowl of disgust, but he doesn’t hesitate, following Wind’s footsteps precisely.
Nice, Kiro, nice. I knew you had it in you. I’ll make a raider of you yet. This is just another encounter, something to get used to.
Ahead of me, Wind stops and gently raises a closed fist, fur rippling along her arms and back. I settle onto my heels and wait for her to report, motioning for Kiro and Slend to join us. They crouch-walk forward and we huddle our heads together, cheeks almost touching.
“Large cavern just around this corner,” she whispers, breath brushing across my skin. “Light’s bad, can’t see too far inside. Lots of steam. Looks like magma vents around the edges of the room.”
“Okay, that means lava’s gonna come into play as an environmental hazard,” I whisper back. “What’s rule number one?”
“Don’t stand in the fire,” three voices chorus back, Kiro’s slightly slower than the other two.
“Right. Don’t stand in the fucking fire. Anything else, Wind?”
“Big pile of rocks near the middle. Might be a rockfall hazard, might be a golemtrap. Couldn’t tell. Steam hashed the optics on my rifle.” She pats the weapon strapped to her back.
“We’ll operate under the assumption that it’s rockfall at first,” I say, “but keep your distance from it just in case. A golemtrap is really gonna hurt our deeps if we have to split damage. Any sign of a boss?”
“Nope. Visibility’s real bad. Can’t see much past six meters overhead. Could be a Diremoth in the ceiling; they like damp places.” Wind pauses, then continues, her voice pragmatic. “Could be something else too. Won’t know until it eats the newbie.”
“Great.” I rub the hilt of my blade, its worn grip comforting in my hand. “Okay, we’ll proceed as planned, ranged weapons first. Diamond formation, watch for lava and rockfall, don’t get near the center. Kiro, be ready to solid-shield us the instant something appears—I wouldn’t put it past the devs to have the encounter start with a sneak attack from above. We’ll react from there. Let’s move.”
A chorus of whispered assents, and we advance into the cavern, Wind in front, assault rifle snugged to her cheek and gently bobbing from side to side, Slend to the left, chain mail softly clinking. I scan our right flank through the holographic sights of my own rifle, trying to take in everything, knowing that anything could be a warning, or a threat. In the Game, you learn quick or you die. Exhalations of steam billow from gently bubbling mounds ringing the edges of the room, creating a hot, wet mist in the air.
We cautiously advance counterclockwise around the room, keeping clear of the large, shadowed mass in the center. The tension saws at my nerves, every sense hyperalert, waiting for the encounter to begin. Magma vents continue their slow churn. We make it halfway across the room, and then everything goes to hell.
Copyright © 2020 by Chris Kluwe