Kamie Anne Do
Sometimes being able to punch someone well is exactly the skill that was most needed. That was sadly not the case when an invasive entity had taken residence in a bunch of innocent people.
“Doesn’t look like there’s been any change in them,” Battler X said. “Are you sure we need to keep watch over the non-walking wounded here?”
Kamie didn’t have a good answer for that question.
She wasn’t a nurse, or a doctor, or anyone with any medical training beyond basic first aid. Kamie, her alter ego, didn’t have any healing talents either, unless an intimate knowledge of how to deal with pulled muscles and general battering and bruising counted.
Given that the people Grace was standing watch over were still unconscious after close to twenty four hours and they all harbored wounds which leaked a dark grey smoke, she guessed that their malady was beyond the reach of any medicine she could make or administer.
“I know we should be out there earning xps and leveling up like the rest, but I can’t shake the feeling that something’s going to happen here. Something bad,” Grade said as Kamie.
“There’ll be time for leveling later,” Buzz Fightyear said. “We can let the others figure out the good camp sites and if there’s any overleveled mobs in the area.”
“Yeah, this place is the closest thing we have to a home at the moment so we can’t let anyone mess it up,” Grail Force said.
“And we’ve got your back, you know that,” Battler X said.
They’d been through a lot together in a short time. Every one of the [Adventurers] had. For a lot of them it had driven them closer together, had turned what were common bonds of shared interest into solid friendships.
Grace had watched it happen with most of the other groups she was familiar with and seeing the examples of it working, had made her either more interested in trying to forge the motley collection of strangers she’d been fighting alongside into something more.
“We still don’t know what really happened to them, do we?” Grail Force asked.
“They got bit by the [Formless Hunger],” Battler X sad. “So that’s apparently a bad thing.”
“The question is whether they’ll turn into zombies too,” Grace said.
“That definitely happens in other parts of the game,” Battler X said.
“Sadly it doesn’t sound like the cures for that are helping any of these people out,” Grace said.
“I’m glad that we can see them breathing,” Buzz said. “As long as they’re alive, we should be able to help them.”
“I’ve read that people in comatose states can still be able to hear things,” Grail said. “If that’s the case here, then just being with them might be enough.”
“Could be but something feels off still,” Grace said. It wasn’t like she had a danger sense. Kamie could react to danger with staggering speed but that was a result of having reflexes that Grace would have killed for on Earth.
“I know what you mean,” Buzz said. “I mean leaving aside that this is a strange and freaky world, and leaving aside that it’s not supposed to be real in the first place, I’ve been freaked out since we got here.”
“Your character isn’t making things easier?” Grail Force asked.
“Not really,” Buzz said. “It’s all just me in here. I’m not a two-in-one package like some of you seem to be.”
“Being whatever we are, or whatever I am now, does have some perks,” Battler X said. “It feels like we should all be like this, with two perspectics to draw on. Or more. I can’t contact any of my other characters, but I can almost feel them out there. Like they’re calling to me to make them real again.”
“I’m glad I wound up on Grail here,” Grail Force said. “My guild meets on the weekend so I wanted to have her spun up and waiting for them when we got together. Not level capped, obviously, but I figured if I plugged away at it this week I could make it out of the starter zone at least.”
“You were not wrong about that,” Battler X said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” Buzz FIghtyear said. “I mean, a lot of my characters are joke alts but I thought Buzz might be worth running long term. He’s got some cool abilities and tanks are kinda my thing.”
“Same with Grail. But it’s more than looking forward to being awesome or anything. Being low level? It’s kinda nice. Yeah, we’re weak as hell compared to the high levels, but that means the weight of the world isn’t on our shoulders. If I was Holly Weird, she’s my main, I’d feel like fighting the whole Consortium War thing would be something I’d have to do. I’m glad I don’t.”
“Did your guild lose some people?” Grace asked.
“Yeah,” Grail said. “A few of the guys didn’t make it back from the raid they did on the space ships and a few more died in the fighting on the ground and couldn’t make it to the [[Heart Fire] before the hounds got them.”
“I’m so sorry,” Buzz said. “Did you know them well?”
“Yes and no,” Grail said. “We’ve played together for years, but we never did out of game stuff. So I game-know them I guess? It’s not real but…”
She trailed off.
“But what you’re feeling is,” Battler said, more serious than usual. “It’s still a loss and the grief is just as ‘real’ as if you’d met them everyday face-to-face. Maybe moreso. You got to know who they wanted to be without a bunch of things about who they were muddying things up.”
“Thanks,” Grail said. “I guess saying our characters aren’t real is kind of ridiculous here too.”
“That’s okay,” Grace said. “You can be as ridiculous as you want. I lost a game-only friend last year to a car accident and I was wrecked for days. I still can’t poke those memories too much without it really hurting. I know some people would say he wasn’t really the kind, giving guy who always showed up to raids with a bag full of food for all of us since none of that was real, but that’s bull as far as I’m concerned. Maybe he was more than our guild’s cook, but with the time and energy he invested into it, the generosity he showed was at least a part of the real him.”
“What do you think happens? After we die I mean? Sorry, I mean after the [Hounds of Fate] get us?” Buzz said. “I mean, just being here, that tells us a lot doesn’t it? Like, on Earth we had no idea if there was life after death, just a lot of faith and speculation.”
“That’s kind of all we have here too,” Battler X said.
Watching the slumbering bodies in front of her, Grace saw what Buzz was driving at.
“Don’t we though?” she said. “Okay, we don’t know where the Hounds drag us off to, but the fact that we’re here at all, that means there’s something about us, some instantiation of our consciousness that’s not tied to the physical structure of our brains. We left those behind on Earth, so what was it that came here?”
“I feel compelled to make a joke about some players either having nothing much to leave behind, or that they always left their brains behind when they were playing anyways,” Battler X said. “Take your pick.”
“Do you think we could find out where the Hounds take people?” Grail asked. “Is there someone here who would know?”
“It’s supposed to be a mystery ‘beyond even the wisest and most ancient’ or something like that,” Battler said. “Which is probably the devs saying they didn’t feel like making anything up or the players would start endlessly nitpicking it.”
“It’s not supposed to be an area they wanted us to poke around in much,” Buzz said.
“Geez, where have I heard that before,” Battle said. “Secrets man was not meant to know! The fruit from the Tree of Good and Evil! Live in Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt and listen only to the man behind the curtain. As theologies go, I kind of hate all that stuff.”
“I guess it’s more compelling when there are gods who can smite you if you go poking around in their drawers,” Grail said.
“Except there aren’t,” Grace said, the kernel of a dangerous and terrible idea beginning to form in her head. “The gods of the [Fallen Kingdoms] are all dead and gone.”
“Granted but they hung around for a while right? And the devs were still watching the game, so you’d be risking getting a banhammer dropped on you if you went poking around looking for exploits around death,” Battler said.
“In the game, sure, but who’s going to drop banhammers here?” Grace said. “There’s no one running this place, not anymore. That’s why the Consortium was able to invade in the first place.”
“Okay, but the Hounds are still active,” Grail said. “So there’s still some system running to keep us from messy around too much. Right?”
“I don’t know,” Grace said. “And that’s one of the most exciting things you can say in science.”
“Science? Aren’t we kind far from anything scientific here? This place has magic everywhere. I mean there are people here like the [Artifax] who literally couldn’t exist without it,” Buzz said.
“Science isn’t a list of rules and laws,” Grace said. “Science is an approach to understanding the world. It works better on some things than others, but it’s always something you can at least consider using.”
“So what would Science do about the [Hounds of Fate] then?” Battler asked.
“Study them,” Grace said.
“That seems stupidly dangerous,” Grail said.
“Lots of things that we’ve studied scientifically are,” Grace said. “That why we put thought into it before hand. One of the hallmarks of a good experiment is that you can survive doing it after all.”
“So, what, like we’d bait the Hounds to come out and then teach them to do tricks while we stay safely near a [Heart Fire]?” Battler asked.
“Sure,” Grace said. “Well, maybe not teach them tricks. That’s probably too advanced to start with. Where we’d probably begin for something like would be a hypothesis like ‘The [Hounds of Fate] like to consume life energy, and we’d test it by seeing if things like healing spells on a corpse drew them in faster. Or, that’s a more specific hypothesis, but you get the idea.”
“And if it turns out they don’t care about healing spells on a corpse?” Grail asked.
“Then we’ve falsified the hypothesis and we’ve learned something. Congrats, that’s what doing science is all about,” Grace said. “Of course, repeating the test to make sure the results are consistent is part of it too, and for proper experiments you want other people to review your work, but the core elements are make a hypothesis that can be proven to be wrong, do the experiment and record what happens. Simple and applicable to a whole lot of ‘magical’ things.”
“What would the hypothesis be for getting back people we’ve lost?” Grail asked.
“I don’t know,” Grace said. “I don’t even know what I don’t know to be able to form the right questions there. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Big questions like that take work to get to, usually lots and lots of little things that take a long time to get through. Even the people who make the great strides forward are building on the work of countless people who came before them.”
“So it’s the work of a lifetime to figure out the answer to what happens afterwards,” Battler X said.
Grace say the wry humor in the statement but chose to answer it simply.
“More likely the work of many lifetimes,” she said. “To understand what comes next we’ll probably need to discover whole new disciplines of science on par with physics and biology. What’s exciting is that we have a tools to do that work that we never had before.”
“Sounds like dying’s going to be a thrill from now on then,” Battler X said.
“Not dying,” Grace said. “Learning. If we do this right, we may never have to say goodbye to a loved one again. If fact,” she added as a new idea struck her, “if we really work things out, maybe we can bring back the ones we’ve already lost.”