Neither in her new form as Lady Midnight or in her old one, did Claire O’Connor need fighting experience to know that she was dead. The eight ‘adventurers’ who’d surrounded her and Starchild were too obviously bad news for there to be any doubt what their intent was.
“We’re not flagged for PvP,” Starchild said, taking a relaxed pose.
Her voice sounded feminine as she spoke in the [General Chat] channel where regular, non-telepathic speech occurred. Despite how Starchild sounded though, Claire guessed it was Pete who was speaking. Starchild seemed to use direct game related references less and naturalistic, in-world explanations for game mechanics more, whereas Pete spoke like most gamers Claire knew, herself included.
“And do you think we care about that anymore?” the [Half-Giant] leader of the player killing squad asked.
“Didn’t give it much thought,” Starchild said. “Have you tried it already, or are we your first test subjects?”
Pete sounded calm and collected on the outside but Claire could see Starchild arranging her fingers in the starting position of one of her spells.
“We’ve been farming noobs for hours now,” the leader said.
“Are you still playing through the game client or are you here for real?” Claire asked, confused for a moment on exactly what form of idiocy they were dealing with.
“A game client? Oh, isn’t that cute,” the leader said. “She thinks the only thing she needs to be afraid of out here is some bugs.”
Claire felt a chill run through her. There was something wrong with the [Half Giant].
“What else is out here beside bugs?” Starchild asked, her tone low and careful as though she’d caught onto the same bad vibe that ran through Claire.
“All kinds of bad things,” the leader said. “Things you’d never want to meet.”
“Things like you?” Starchild asked.
She was one word away from unleashing her magic but Claire didn’t think it was going to help. The only time eight on two odds worked out in the favor of the two was when the eight were very bad, the two were very good, or there was a noticeable gap in levels between the opposing groups.
They could fight, and would if no better option appeared, but even if all eight players avoided her to focus on Starchild there was no chance that her healing spells could keep up with the brutality a full party could unleash on a single defender. The option where some of them targeted her was even worse though.
Lady Midnight was still a low level [Grave Mender]. She didn’t have anywhere near her full compliment of skills and spells yet. On thing in particular she was missing was any method of healing while she was under attack. Her [Minor Blood Channel] spell was her most powerful healing tool but any damage she took, or movement she made was enough to disrupt it. That was fine when they were fighting mindless foes, or ones the party’s tank could compel to focus on themselves. Against intelligent foes though (assuming other players could justly be described as intelligent) anything interruptible was almost useless.
“You don’t think we’re bad things?” the leader asked. “Oh, isn’t that cute. She thinks the only thing she needs to be afraid of out here is some bugs.”
Claire took a half step backward before she could stop herself. Acting like prey wasn’t the right move, but she was rapidly coming to the belief that the ‘adventurer’ in front of her wasn’t human on the inside and possibly never had been.
“I’m sure you’re plenty bad,” Pete said, the cadence of his voice Claire’s tip off that he was speaking rather than Starchild. “I’m just wondering if you’re the worst there is?”
It was phrased as a challenge, or a taunt. Claire couldn’t tell what Pete’s play was exactly but, since he seemed to have one, she took a moment to look around at the other Player Killers who were arrayed around them.
None of them were moving. Not ‘they weren’t advancing’, they weren’t moving at all.
Each one had stopped and frozen in place, caught in the middle of a motion which seemed oddly unnatural the more Claire tried to make it out.
They weren’t posing. There was no theatricality to the position of their arms and legs. They were simply motionless with their body dynamics all wrong.
Claire thought of puppets, if there were ones whose control had been given to a machine.
In the eyes of the one directly to her left, she saw a wild, twisting thing. Something inside the frozen figure was turning and screaming, though the eyes were unfocused and unmoving.
“We’re bad,” the leader said. “We’re Bad. we’re Bad.”
“But are you the worst? Aren’t there things out here that are badder than you?” Pete said, an edge of madness creeping into Starchild’s voice as he egged the leader on.
As a strategy, it seemed like a pretty dreadful one to Claire, but it was keeping the leader talking and the rest of the kill squad frozen, and that was better than several of the alternatives.
What’s the chance that they’re faster than we are? She sent the question telepathically, but saw the player killer nearest to her twitch when she did.
I can’t see their level, Pete replied. They shouldn’t have any movement skills at this point, but I’ll bet one or more of them can slow us.
PvP experience is trash isn’t it though? Claire asked. Could they have leveled up as much as we have just beating other players?
Neither she nor Starchild had leveled much of course, but even as a Level 5 [Grave Mender] and a Level 6 [Druid], they were noticeably stronger than they’d been at Level 1.
I don’t think there are that many new players around here for them to have fought yet, Pete said. But when I said I can’t see their levels, I mean they don’t seem to have any.
Claire blinked. Those words didn’t compute. Everything in [Broken Horizons] had a level. Even the little incidental fauna like rabbits and mice were technically “Level 0”. Or almost everything. Some “special” monsters, like the [Wraithwings] didn’t. But those were monsters. One’s programmed for events. Not things that could talk.
Staring directly at the [Half Giant] seemed like a great method of provoking him into something unfortunate, but Claire couldn’t help herself. The spot next to his name which was supposed to display his level was simply empty.
What the hell are these things? She couldn’t help but take another step backwards.
The player kill squad responded by taking two unnaturally quick and jerky steps forward.
I don’t know and I’m not sure I want to, Pete said.
“Isn’t that cute,” the leader said. “They probably think. Think.”
He’d appeared with his sword in hand and, as he twitched , the blade caught fire, burning with a deep violet light.
That’s not a low level ability, Pete said. Or at least not one I’ve ever seen in the game before.
Denial, being one of the few options available to her, seemed like a great idea to Claire.
Maybe it’s new? Maybe this is one of the PvP specs for a class from [World Shift] and these guys are just putting on an act to scare us?
It’s working if so, Pete said.
I’m adding the leader to my blacklist. That should take move us to a different layer than him and the rest of his crew, Claire said.
It was a strategy she’d used a many times in the game when someone was being obnoxious. Generally that wasn’t due to PvP concerns, since fighting players outside of PvP zones and arenas was only possible if both sides were open to PvP.
Sadly, it didn’t work this time.
> Add to blacklist command failed. Invalid target.
The words appeared in the virtual chat log before her.
It didn’t work, she said, her sense of the world being out of kilter growing stronger with each passing second. He’s not a valid target.
Oh wow. That means he’s not a player then.
But he has a player’s class, and he looks like one of the player models. Sort of.
All of the members of the player killing squad looked like they derived from the same basic templates as the rest of the player characters, but there were differences to them. Nothing simple to quantify like their bones being too long, or their skin being too pale. Those traits were mundane and whatever was wrong with the kill squad went much deeper than physical changes.
“Do you want to…kill me?” the leader asked, his head twisting much too far to the side as his voice rose a whisper to a hopeful squeak.
“We’re not here for you,” Starchild said.
“How cute.” The leader raised his blade and began stalking forward. The other members of the kill squad stayed where they were though, paused mid-motion.
Don’t fight them, Claire said. So far we haven’t flagged for PvP. Maybe they can attack us anyways, but if so we need to be able to report that.
Reporting this is a great idea. Can you see if Pillowcase or Alice is available? We should tell them about this, in case… Pete trailed off as the leader of the player killers closed into melee range.
In case there are real consequences to this fight, Claire thought. She’d been willing to risk “death” in the dungeon they’d delved into mostly because she’d already “died” here and gotten better without a problem.
The player killer squad though didn’t seem like the monsters she’d fought so far, and she’d never been a fan of PvP under the best of circumstances.
Pillowcase? Hi, this is Lady Midnight, Claire sent the telepathic message out hoping she wasn’t contacting the [Clothwork] tank at a bad moment.
Lady Midnight? What’s up? You sound scared? Pillowcase asked.
Starchild and I ran into some player killers, but they’re not normal. There’s something wrong with them, Claire kicked herself for not having the right words to convey what was going on succinctly.
“You think, probably” the leader said. “You think, you’re safe if you don’t fight back?”
He coughed out a deep giggle and held his burning sword beside Starchild’s face.
Claire wasn’t sure if Starchild flinched back out of reflex or pain from the flames. Her health hadn’t taken a hit but she hadn’t let the flames get terribly close either.
We just finished off a pretty weird pack of trash mobs, Pillowcase said. Let’s [Coalition] so we can all chat freely?
In a minute, Claire said, I think they’re about to attack now.
Don’t flag for PvP! They can’t attack you if you’re not set for it! Pillowcase said.
We’re not flagged, Claire said. That doesn’t seem to be stopping them.
What? Pillowcase’s surprise and outrage was a mirror of Claire’s own feelings.
I tried Blacklisting them too, but I don’t think they’re players anymore.
They’re, I don’t know how to describe it. Glitching? They move like something out of a horror movie. And their leader is repeating himself. Little phrases of dialog. Like an NPC.
“Time’s almost up,” the leader said. “Fight or flight? Which will it be?
“Neither,” Starchild said. “We’re not here for you. Go find someone who wants to play with you.”
The leader stabbed her.
One moment he was creeping around Starchild, the next Claire saw his blade burst from her back in a shower of blood. Less than an instant later it disappeared as he pulled it back for another strike.
“Wrong, wrong, Wrong choice!” The leader’s grin was feral as the other player killers came to life, skittering inwards like a tide of frenzied beetles.
It was over. They were done for. All Claire had left to decide was how she was going to meet this death, and the choice was easy.
Like a healer.
“[Casting spell: Minor Blood Channel]” she said and sent a telepathic cry out after the spell finished casting. They can attack us! PvP flags do not apply!
She thought it would be her last message before she was kicked over into ghost form (or worse, though she was resolutely not considering that possibility). The healing she was able to dump into Starchild prevented the torso wound from being fatal by cutting off the [Bleed] damage and repairing a chunk of the health Starchild had lost before the wound closed. It wasn’t going to be enough to see them through a two on eight fight, but it bought Starchild a chance to cast the spell she’d been holding.
The burning violet sword met a flaming green staff as the player killer leader tried for a second strike. As a [Half Giant] he should have been stronger than Starchild but the [Druid] fought with a power beyond what her simple frame suggested she should have.
It was enough that the two were stalemated for a brief instant.
Then the other player killers joined the fray.
One slammed a short sword into Lady Midnight’s arm and Claire screamed, losing her spell. The pain was unreal. Or perhaps all too real. It hurt far worse than even the brutal killing blows from the [Soul Blights].
This is bad, Pete said.
Something’s wrong. Their weapons hurt too much! Claire sent to Pillowcase. She didn’t know what was going to happen but she had to make sure someone else knew so that they could stop it from happening again.
Hang on! Run away! Stall for time! We’ll come to you! Pillowcase said.
Claire wished for that more than anything in the world, but Pillowcase and her team were too far away. Only a miracle could save them.
“Hey!” a woman’s voice boomed across the battlefield, commanding the attention of the player killer squad.
Claire felt the edges of a skill wash over her. That single word had been a [Provoke] and the golden haired [Guardian] who uttered the command followed it by leaping from the highest rock in the area to land in a perfect (and impossible in the real world) three point landing. Rising, she drew her sword and pointed it at the player killer leader.
“They said to find someone who wants to play with you, well here I am.”