Fight or flight are not the only options when a predator surprises someone. Most people don’t consider ‘freeze’ as a particularly heroic or valuable response but the fact that many species retain it after millions of years of evolution testifies that it’s more useful than it may appear.
“What?” Lisa asked silently on their private channel.
Tessa wasn’t terrified. She wasn’t frozen mentally. She had simply halted and become a statue. In the darkness at the bottom of the stairs to the cellar, the flaming eyes closed and Tessa saw the shadows part.
“Something’s down there,” she said.
“Aggro’d?” Lisa asked.
“If it’s aggressive, yep.”
Lisa stepped in front of Tessa and peered into the cellar.
“It moved,” Tessa said. “Had burning eyes.”
“Threat level?” Lisa asked.
“Can’t tell,” Tessa said. “Stupid human eyes.”
The clipped conversation felt natural under the circumstances to Tessa. She was used to the days when voice chat wasn’t prevalent and intra-party communication had been done via typed chat messages. In the middle of a encounter long messages were both impossible to type and impractical to read. Technically they weren’t limited like that with their telepathic communications but each of them seemed to understand the need to limit the cognitive load of processing speech when a monster might spring out at them at any moment.
“Back up?” Lisa asked.
“Could blast it?” Tessa said, gesturing with her new wand.
It turned out [Void Speakers] were enough of a [Caster Class] that she was able to make us of some of the general [Mage] style weapons.
Back when he was still a [Slime], Ashad had abandoned them when the first of the (then) [Formless Hunger’s] zombies had shown up. Tessa had been busy with enough things at that point that she hadn’t paid it any mind. As a [Slime], Ashad hadn’t exactly been a major tactical asset so his absence wasn’t particularly concerning.
What he’d been doing, it turned out, was bouncing off to acquire a suitable weapon for her. Being armed with a [Wand of Minor Death Bolts] wouldn’t have made a real difference against the zombies, but in the present circumstances, Tessa was rather glad to have it. Despite their name [Minor Death Bolts] packed a nice punch for things at her level.
That it was an open question of whether the thing in the shadows was even close to her level was something she was trying not to consider too strongly.
“Better not start shooting yet,” Lisa said. “Just because it looks scary doesn’t mean it’s kill on sight.”
“Right,” Tessa said, pointing the wand down at the ground rather that towards the cellar.
Fighting was a lot harder when she needed to care about who and what she was about to inflict violence on. Even the idea of turning to deadly force still made her head reel a bit, but she’d done it already, both as Pillowcase and as herself and it seemed to be getting easier each time.
“It’s supposed to,” Pillowcase said. “And we know that’s not good. We’ll just have to watch ourselves as best we can. And trust Lisa to help us there too.”
It wasn’t a perfect pep talk for herself but it kept her going.
“Let’s back up and see if it follows us,” Lisa said. She had her own staff out and seemed as ready to initiate mayhem as Tessa was.
“Plus side if it does, we might be the first to find some treasure here?” Tessa said.
“Or it will,” Lisa said. It was a serious concern, but her tone was openly amused.
Tessa found her heart lighten in response.
They were probably in danger.
But they were [Adventurers].
They had this.
Together, they backed away a half dozen paces. Enough that they’d have time to react if the creature (or creatures, there could always be more than one, a fact each had encountered countless times before) came springing from the cellar-turned-lair.
“Did you hear that?” Lisa asked.
“No,” Tessa said, cursing her stupid human ears too.
“Cool,” Lisa said. “I kinda love Alice’s senses.”
Because of course [Vampires] could hear better than [Humans]. The lore had made a big deal about all the special perks [Vampires] got, but that rarely translated into any actual benefit in the game. Had they been sitting at their monitors, Tessa knew they either both would have heard the game sounds or neither of them would have. The real version of the [Fallen Kingdoms] didn’t seem to be quite so homogenous though.
“What was it?” Tessa asked.
“It sounded like a frustrated growl,” Lisa said. “Might have been human? Hard to tell from a growl though.”
“A human with flaming eyes?” Tessa asked.
“Here? Sure. There’s like half a dozen spells that have that as a special effect, not to mention all the cheesy vanity gear,” Lisa said.
“Eh, fair point,” Tessa said and then had an idea. “Does it smell like a human down there?”
“Can’t tell,” Lisa said. “All I smell at the moment is you – and you smell lovely before you ask.”
“I haven’t bathed in like two days though?” Tessa said.
“Perk of being an [Adventurer] I guess?” Lisa said. “I mean your hair looks fine too.”
Tessa ran her free hand through her hair and noticed it wasn’t greasy or itchy or splattered with blood or monster bits like it probably should have been.
“Huh, that’s unexpectedly nice. If we ever run into a developer here remind me to give them a tip for that one,” Tessa said.
“I think we kinda did,” Lisa said. “Isn’t that what the [Lord of Storms] was?”
“Oh yeah, probably, or at least the part of them from this world,” Tessa said and wondered if she could manage to meet anymore of the old gods. As a [Void Speaker] she might be able to do some useful things with them.
“Something moved down there,” Lisa said. “It went ‘clink’ and ‘clatter’ though. Like metal hitting the ground?”
“Let’s take another look,” Tessa said and waited for Lisa’s nod before proceeding forward.
She didn’t have any proper stealth abilities but as a caster who wasn’t decked out in heavy armor, she didn’t make much of a racket either.
Peering over the edge of the door frame, she saw a bit more of the cellar was visible. Apparently the creature’s body had been some of the shadows she’d seen and it had moved off to wait somewhere else.
Move away and left behind a pile of gold.
“Wow, that’s definitely not a trap,” she said, still privately but the temptation to taunt the mob for its obviousness was profound.
“That’s like [Adventurer] Bait 101,” Lisa said.
“We’re totally going to go down there to get it though, aren’t we?” Tessa asked.
“I’m mean, it’d be rude to turn down free money like that right?” Lisa said.
“Why would it want to lure [Adventurers] in though?” Tessa said. “That’s not a brilliant idea usually, and if it’s smart enough to set out bait, it’s at least somewhat intelligent.”
“Can’t say until we know what it is,” Lisa said. “Could just want to eat us. That’s reasonably common.”
“Hmm, you know, before we fall into its trap – and I’m not suggesting we pass that bit of fun up entirely – why don’t we check out what this place is, or was? That might give us a clue about what we’re dealing with.”
“You know ‘smart’ is just such a sexy quality,” Lisa said, running her hand tantalizingly up Tessa’s back.
“Let’s see if I’m even vaguely right,” Tessa said with a laugh. “The whole place could be either empty or something like a mattress factory which would tell us basically nothing.”
“It might be a demonic goose come to get revenge for it’s feathers being used in mattress pads?” Lisa said “It growled again as a note.”
“Perfect,” Tessa said. “If we’re lucky it’ll get impatient and try to eat us out here.”
“Death at high noon by demon goose, you know that doesn’t even sound that out there compared to the stuff the devs usually come up with,” Lisa said, stepping away from the cellar once more.
“I’m going to be so disappointed if its not a demon goose at this point,” Tessa said. “I think the front door’s on the next lane over. Want to cut over to there and see what the facade looks like before we head in?”
“Sure, as long as we’re pretty quiet I think I’ll be able to hear if the critter comes out of the cellar.”
Tessa wondered for a moment what the limits of [Vampire Hearing] were. Could Lisa act as a lie detector by listening to people’s heart beats? Could she echo locate and fight blind if they were in a totally lightless environment?
Had she been able to hear all along how she made Tessa’s pulse quicken!
She was distracted from those thoughts by the large, and mostly intact, sign which was bolted over the main entrance to the building the creature lived under.
“Bank and Mercantile Exchange?” Lisa said. “I was expecting it to be a butcher shop or a chapter house for some random god.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure what kind of mob an abandoned bank would have in it…” She stretched the last word out as a terrible idea occurred to her.
“What are you…oh, no. You’ve gotten be kidding,” Lisa said.
“Yeah, they wouldn’t have put one of those things in here would they?” Tessa said. “I mean the devs aren’t…”
She couldn’t finish her sentence.
Lisa was groaning beside her.
The devs absolutely were that cruel.
“A Misery Worm?” Lisa said. “Seriously?”
Tessa wanted to protest but the developers of [Broken Horizons] were terribly predictable sometimes and since the real version seemed to follow their blueprint to an implausible degree, it pretty much had to be a Misery Worm.
Technically the creatures were named [Miser Wyrms], but the fan name had caught on for more readily than their official one.
It helped in part that Misery Worms weren’t relatives of [Dragons] at all, despite sharing a few similar qualities, so the “Wyrm” part of their official name was misleading.
Where [Dragons] and [Wyrms] horded treasure for a variety of reasons, [Miser Wyrms] gathered wealth because it was their only reason for existing.
Created from the spirits of dead mortals, [Miser Wyrms] were a type of demonic entity. They arose from lost souls who’d had more wealth than they needed in life and striven to gain ever more, without a care or consideration for the suffering they caused or overlooked.
It was unclear whether the dead misers were being punished for their greed or whether their greed had become a thing unto itself which outlasted their mortal lifespan.
“Why did the devs ever make those stupid things,” Tessa said, memories of infuriating encounters with earlier [Miser Wyrms] flooding back into her mind.
“It was supposed to be a joke,” Lisa said. “They were going to unleash them on April Fool’s Day, but then the game economy blew up with all the extra people playing and creating a ton of gold so their bright idea was to make a monster that punched you in your gold reserves in addition to your hp.”
“Oh god. I hated those things so much!” Tessa said. “I still remember running into one for the first time. It must have been about two weeks after I started playing and I’d finally gotten enough money together for a new staff that was on the auction house.”
“I know exactly where this is going,” Lisa said.
“No wait, it gets better!” Tessa said. “I was going back to the city and I saw another player who’d set themselves up as a traveling salesman. I figured I’d just peek at his inventory and guess what he had?”
“You hadn’t checked the area had you?” Lisa said.
“I’d been playing for two weeks! I figured if he was there, it had to be safe right?”
“How many Misery Worms were nearby?” Lisa asked.
“Just the one. That’s all it took. I went to buy the staff and before I could hit ‘Ok’ to confirm there was this disgusting centipede thing chewing on my character and eating all my gold!”
“What did the other guy do?” Lisa asked.
“Nothing! He was AFK, or just laughing his ass off at me,” Tessa said. “I didn’t even manage to kill the thing. They still had that stupid flee timer. So it gobbled up all my gold and then ran off faster than I could catch it. I was broke and my gear was still horribly out of date because I hadn’t been buying anything so I could save up for that staff.”
“For what it’s worth, you’re far from alone. I know about a dozen people that went bankrupt from those things,” Lisa said. “And it was so stupid. All the rich players were high enough level and powerful enough that they didn’t have to worry about getting attacked. So the only people the worms feed on were the ones who were new or broke for some other reason.”
“I can’t believe they would put one back in the game though?” Tessa said. “The beta testers said nothing about that.”
“They did change them later on,” Lisa said. “Once the devs put in other, less rage inducing gold sinks, they patched the Worms so that they stopped stealing gold and just did more damage based on how much gold you had.”
“You know, the funny thing is, I don’t have all the much gold now,” Tessa said.
“So you’re thinking we go kill the hell out of that thing?” Lisa asked.
“That is exactly what I’m thinking. I want to lay that things corpse at Glimmerglass’s feet as an apology twelve years in the making.”