As a programmer, Tessa had spent weeks ‘working the bugs’ out of a system before. Never before though had she used a sword and shield to do it.
“Oh god, was that the final wave of them?” Rip asked, panting with exhaustion.
While their adventuring bodies were tougher than their Earthly ones, they did still have limits. Tessa saw Rip’s stamina was all but completely tapped out and the rest of the team wasn’t looking in great shape either.
“It was at least the last wave for now,” Alice said. “I’d say we’ve got about five minutes until the next respawn happens.”
“We could wait for them and keep grinding, but I think it’d be better to pull back at this point,” Tessa said. “We could use the rest and the chance to review the levels we’ve gotten.”
“Can we sort through the gear too?” Matt asked. “I think I saw a new staff drop off one of those last centipedes.”
With no one opposed, the group pulled back to an outcropping of rocks which looked to be a safe distance from the farm house. Matt and Rip collapsed against one of the rocks as soon as they could. Tessa didn’t blame them. The fights with the [Chaos Centipedes] weren’t difficult, not since they’d leveled up a few times, but going through so many of them in a row was taxing, especially for the two who had to do most of the work in putting down the monsters.
“That was crazy,” Rip said as they got the gear which had dropped from the monsters divided up. “How were there so many centipedes hiding under the farm house? It’s like they’ve got an army down there.”
“They probably do,” Alice said. “But a smaller one than it looks.”
“So we killed all of them then?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, several times over,” Tessa said. “Somewhere in those tunnels there’s a [Heart Fire] for the centipedes. You saw how they derezzed a while after they died? That’s what it looks like when someone uses a [Heart Fire] to reincarnate.”
“Wait, how can monsters use a [Heart Fire]? Don’t you need to be able to think to do that?” Rip asked.
“Not exactly,” Alice said. “All you need are the right instincts.”
“So does that mean there’s no way to make the farm house safe again?” Matt asked.
“In the game there wasn’t,” Tessa said. “No matter how long you grinded out the mobs in any given spot, they’d always come back.”
“Which is good for us, in a sense,” Alice said. “We made a decent amount of progress on those things without having to travel very far. We can head back to [Sky’s Edge] now and repair our gear.”
“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea,” Tessa said. “The armor pieces we’ve picked up for me are around half strength now.”
“Let’s get them fixed then before you’re wandering around naked.” Alice said.
“I thought they changed that?” Tessa said. In truth characters whose armor had been completely trashed never appeared in the nude. Broken Horizon’s rating wouldn’t allow that. Running a dungeon in a character’s underwear was not unheard of though, especially if it was new and things were not going well. Tessa thought there’d been talk about allowing the players to at least retrain the appearance of wearing armor though.
“They tried, but there was a bug that took off the model’s skin instead, so they rolled back that change and just never bothered trying it again,” Alice said with a shrug.
Tessa sighed. She knew she shouldn’t throw stones at other developers. They were working under ridiculous deadlines and had to deal with code that was probably some form of black boxed quagmire of “clever ideas” strung together by people who’d never met each other and shared a visceral distrust of their predecessors’ programming styles. To just give up on fixing something so trivial as letting character’s retain their armor though? That was a terrible sign for the stability of the overall codebase.
Why who knows what kind of catastrophe code that broken could lead to? Maybe it would randomly start eating users. But that was just impossible. Code could never do that. Tessa suppressed a laugh at her own train of though. It wasn’t a happy laugh. There was still a bit of hysteria lurking inside her it seemed.
“Where are we going to go after that?” Rip asked as they set off back to [Sky’s Edge].
“Not home,” Matt said, not sounding at all bothered by that fact.
“Huh, homes,” Alice said, her gaze going distant for a moment.
“We’ve got a few options,” Tessa said. “We could hang around [Sky’s Edge] for a while and see what’s happening with the other players. It might be good to collect what info we can from them, especially if any of them have spoken with a GM in the last hour or two.”
As best as Tessa could tell, it was close to sunrise in her original, Earthly timezone. In the [High Beyond] the sky was still the radiant and roiling rainbow masterpiece of cosmic wonder it had been, so local time was difficult to guess at.
Given the state of [Sky’s Edge] when they arrived, Tessa judged that whatever the hour was, it was late. No one was moving in the town square, and the damage from the [Wraithwing] attack had been hastily patched up, suggesting that people had done what little they could and were getting their rest for the long day of repair and rebuilding which awaited them.
Well, most people. A few buildings still had lights shining in front of them or through their partially repaired windows.
“Doesn’t seem like there’s a lot happening here does it?” Rip said.
“Yeah, but Mister Pendant’s place is still open,” Matt said, pointing to the light over the shops front door.
“Good, he should be able to fix up our armor and weapons,” Alice said. “And buy the extras we have off of us.”
The pile of loot they’d collected from the hoard of [Chaos Centipedes] had indeed included a new staff for Matt. In fact it had included several, most of which were inferior to the last one which had dropped into their shared treasure pool. Since no one else used offensive staves, the best option generally was to convert them into money instead of allowing them to clog up valuable inventory space.
“We might as well do that with all the extra gear,” Tessa said. “Unless anyone wants to work on their crafting skills?”
“I wanted to try [Leatherworking],” Rip said. “I heard it was good for [Archers] to be able to make their own armor.”
“It can be a huge expense,” Tessa said. “Or at least it used to be. I think I remember reading that a couple of expansions ago they did a major overhaul on the crafting system and people seemed pretty happy with it. But most people were already at the max skill level weren’t they?”
“Some people were,” Alice said. “Most hadn’t bothered to work on a crafting skill at all though, since the old system was ridiculous and awful.”
“How did it work?” Matt asked.
“It used to be that you had to gather components from higher level zones than the final items you wanted to make,” Tessa said. “So to make level 10 boots, you’d need ingredients from a level 20 zone. And then once you had them it was random exactly what they would make.”
“Or if they’d make anything at all,” Alice said.
“So, wait, you’d like go to sew a sweater and wind up with a sock or something?” Rip asked.
“Not quite that bad, but there’d be several different types of sweater, basically junk, normal, good, better, and so on. Oh and it was possible for the sweater to just explode in your hands as you crafted it, destroying some or all of the ingredients,” Tessa said.
“The best part was that some quests wanted particular things, so if you made a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Awesomeness’, the quest giver wouldn’t accept it because they wanted a ‘Level 10 Sweater of Mediocrity’. You can see why a lot of people didn’t bother with crafting much.”
“What’s the new system like?” Rip asked, not bothering to hide her dubious expression at the old one.
“The new one has you working with ingredients the same level as the item you want to make,” Alice said. “If you develop a Gathering skill, you can find the components you need in the wild, or you can work just with the crafting skill itself and rework existing pieces of gear in order to skill up.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Matt said. “Why don’t we get started on that now?”
“In the game, we’d need to check in with the Crafting Guild for the skill we want to pursue,” Alice said. “They give you a primer on it and basic training to get you started.”
“I don’t see any Crafting Guilds around here?” Rip said.
“There’s not,” Alice said. “I checked for that earlier. It’s pretty typical though. The intro cities aren’t meant to be where you hang out long term, and the Crafting guilds are one of the draws to pull players on to the major hubs for each region.”
“So we’ve got to wait on that then?” Matt asked.
“I don’t know,” Tessa said. “That was the game. We can do more than our characters could already. Maybe we can develop skills on our own too.”
“Does anyone here know any crafting skills in real life?” Alice asked. “Sewing, knitting, metal working?”
“I know a bit about carpentry,” Matt said. “Rip does too.”
“Oh yeah, from the play last year,” Rip said.
“[Woodworking] wouldn’t be bad for either or both of you to work on,” Alice said. “Matt could combine it with [Enchanting] to make better staves for himself or improve on the ones we find, and Rip can do the same for her bows.”
“Improve on them?” Tessa asked. It wasn’t something crafters had been able to do six years ago.
“That was added in too,” Alice said. “I’ve skipped doing it because my guild have a bunch of crafting freaks who take care of it for the rest of us, but since they’re on the other side of the world, it might be nice if we can find the guilds to unlock the skill enhancements. They let you do things like take a bow you’ve found and improve the damage it does, or its accuracy. The modifications aren’t much but it’s better than nothing, and at max level they can make a big difference.”
“I wonder if that’s what a lot of the low level players could do,” Tessa said. “Rather than going out and risking death, they can stay back in town and just work on their crafting skills to support the high level players.”
“That would work fine, if there were any high level players around,” Alice said. “Maybe back in the older zones that’s what the GMs are recommending to people, but until we get there, it looks like everyone is in the same boat that we are.”
“And we don’t really know that sitting at home and crafting is actually safe in the long run,” Rip said. Her brows were knit into a worried furrow, which Tessa misread for only a moment.
It took an aggressive puff of air from Rip for Tessa to see that she wasn’t concerned about being safe, she was concerned that the conversation was trending towards the topic of leaving her and Matt behind.
It wasn’t an unreasonable concern. Part of Tessa still rebelled at the idea of bringing children into the kind of horrifically violent peril they’d already been through. Even against some of the lowest level mobs, Pillowcase had been incapable of keeping her party completely protected. But, reflecting on the short time they’d been together, Tessa knew thinking in terms of keeping the kids safe was coming at it from the wrong direction.
Rip and Matt weren’t safe.
They would never be safe.
Not even if they were whisked back to Earth and the lives they’d left behind that very moment.
Safety wasn’t a thing you had. It was something you created. Hiding away, refusing to engage with the world was one method of doing that, and maybe sometimes it was the best, or even the only option, but given where they were and what they’d accomplished already, Tessa knew her team could do better. They could be better.
There were risks out there, and mistakes they all were surely going to make, but it was better by far to stand together and face them than to leave anyone behind.
“Repairs and crafting sound good,” Tessa said. “But what do you say we go and take on that dungeon that’s waiting for us.”