A gleaming sun bounced heatwaves off the bright blue sea. Were there seasons, one would guess for all the world it was an absolutely fantastic summer day, perfect for swimming, lying on a beach with someone you love, or even more water-related activities. Alex and I were doing no relaxing of the sort.
"Honestly, why do we need to do this?" Alex asked as the boat sped across the ocean.
"It was your idea," I told Alex. "And I know just the solution. If we need an animal companion in order to gain access, then I have just the fitting candidate."
As the conversation drew to a close, so too did our trip, and the large boat, freshly outfitted with an animal cage, brushed up against the sand, sputtering to a stop. A large canine came bounding up to the side of the boat, and looked up at it expectantly. His eyes and mouth were wide and his tail was wagging. I scooped him up with my arms and brought him into the boat with us.
"Welcome back, Doug!"
Creatures of the Void
"Trouble in Breakdown Town"
"Trouble in Breakdown Town"
Subchapter One: City of the Verians
"So you haven't given me the rundown on exactly what this place is," I reminded Alex. "Where are we going anyway?"
"This town is the home of an informant I contact on occasion. If anyone knows what marvelous daydream means, it'll be her," she answered. "But the problem is that this place isn't human."
"What?" I interjected, as she hadn't alluded to this before.
"The town is an outpost of the Verians, a different species than us. They're from a country halfway across Hestion, and if they get their way this is eventually going to be a full-fledged Verian city in Desa."
We rode across the countryside on horses we had found in the plains near to the ruins of our cave. It was about a week after we'd discovered the paper, and we had mostly been trying to repair the cave. Once we got enough supplies together, we set out. The sun was setting and creepers poked their head up from hills in the distance.
"That's good, isn't it? Them having their own city," I asked.
"It would be if they weren't at cold war with the human race," she replied.
"Oh, now you're just telling me things that'll shock me," I retorted. "How are we going to get in if they hate humans?"
As the city started to pull up on the horizon, she stopped her horse, as did I. Doug came bounding up behind, his fluffy fur swishing in the evening air. "This should be about as close as we get now." She placed down a fence and roped her horse to it, motioning for me to do the same. "We get in," she revealed, "with this." She threw me a small device. "Attach it to your belt and flip the switch."
I did so, and suddenly I felt a spring of energy, like if light had a feeling, sort of like a million grains of sand hitting me all at the same time, and I was suddenly different. The hand that had flipped the switch was now green and clawed, and I yelped and flipped the switch back. Anyone would do it out of surprise. The feeling ran back over me and I was human again. I looked up at Alex. "What is this?"
"A surface-morph illusion. Scan something, and it makes you look like it, so long as it's somewhat human-shaped," Alex answered. "Samuel invented the littler projector for it," she motioned to the device, "not the concept, just the way of doing it that compactly. We've used it from time to time to pretend to be people we weren't. One time I was a creeper. Really fun, actually. Flip the switch again, and this time lock it in place so nothing accidentally turns off the illusion. I've got one too," she showed me, lifting up the chainmail coat she was wearing. She flipped the switch and locked it in place, and she was a nonhuman, green and black mottled-skin monster, with barely any nose, large eyes, and an elongated head. "This is a Verian. Get used to it, we won't be taking these off for a while."
I flipped my switch and turned the little plastic arm into place to lock it from flipping back, and now my hands were larger and my legs were strangely shaped. "I feel like I can run faster now," I pointed out.
"You can't," Alex said. "You just look like one, you're still human on the inside. Don't try anything special or new inside that body. And may I point out, you still have only one working eye." We started walking to the town.
I rubbed the spot on my skull over my injured one. "I really need to get a patch for this."
"So in essence," Alex explained, ignoring me, "she thinks I'm a field worker for a defunct organization called the 7 Agency. Obviously she doesn't know it's defunct."
"Obviously," I retorted somewhat sarcastically.
"Well, if she did, we'd be pretty hard-pressed to escape with our lives. I don't think that's a situation I'd walk into so willingly."
"Knowing you, I wouldn't doubt it so quickly."
Any more avenues of sassy discussion were brought to an end by a sudden motion in front of us, followed by a skeleton creeping from behind the dark grassy mounds. "I've got this," Alex whispered, immediately crouching into a ready position and pulling out her weapon in a single fluid motion. She rushed the skeleton, taking a hit to the shoulder and shrugging it off in the way only players can. She swiped with the curved iron sword of (I assume) Verian design, and it collapsed to the ground. Effective weapon. Unfortunately, more came out of the woodwork, mixed with their zombie brethren and the odd spider.
"Can I get a sword?" I yelled, and she turned around, slinging hers in my direction and pulling out a new one. God, she was smooth when it came to combat moves.
"Packed an extra just in case!" she responded, and I ran up to join her, Doug following faithfully.
I took a swing, but misjudged due to lack of depth perception, and missed. A zombie attacked me and I was hit with an arrow. My skills were going downhill quickly, and I needed to fix it. "Should I let myself respawn at the cave? I can't fight these guys!" I asked Alex.
"Don't you dare, I can't fight them all on my own, and I couldn't hold everything in your inventory anyway. Plus this dog's yours, not mine."
"I'm not seeing much of an option here," I said as we backed up together, now back to back, with the mobs all around.
"We've got this, we can kill them," she reassured, but I could tell her voice was fake.
"Any last words?" I asked as they drew ever closer, their monstrous mouths hissing and their sharpened teeth gnashing. They reached arms and drew bows, and we prepared for our mission to be fruitless.
Hiss. Hiss. Hiss. Three arrows that glowed green-yellow rocketed from the direction of the town, striking down three of the monsters. They looked in the direction of the outpost's outskirts, and more arrows flew at them. They broke their uniform, closing ranks and ran. They ran from the arrows. No monster does that. Within a matter of seconds, they were all gone, leaving us in the dark surrounded by the green-tipped arrows.
"I, uh... told you we could do it," I laughed nervously, but Alex was focused on something else.
"These arrows aren't normal, they're..." she trailed off, gingerly touching one. It hissed, and she jerked her hands back. "They're tipped in Gott-Meinian acid," she realized, her voice becoming darker.
"What acid? What's that?" I asked her, seeing her sudden expression of fear when she had been fighting dozens of mobs a second earlier with no hesitation.
"It's one of the only substances able to permanently kill a player." She looked up at the town with her illusion of a face, still capable of expressing genuine fear. "And they have enough of it to tip their casual hunting arrows."
Subchapter Two: Entry
"Relations status: platonic or romantic?" asked the gate guard, quite obviously tired and bored with the mundane job of sitting and waiting for people to exit or enter.
We eyed each other at the same time with the same expression, a habit we'd picked up that still translated through species appearance. "Romantic," I answered.
"Protective animal register?" he asked.
I pointed to Doug and stated "Wolf, name's Doug."
He half-raised an eyebrow. "Northwestern orange knifetail," he identified. "Good choice, great protector, very loyal."
I mouthed Did you know that? to Alex, and she shook her head no.
"It's all clear guys, you're good to enter."
We turned and walked through the arch in the guarded fence border. Even at night the streets were active, with people going about daily activities as if there were no difference in time. Verians walked along the roads with their protective animals.
"So, war against humans, required swords, and possible permadeath," I ran over the list of new developments. "This is turning out to be particularly more dangerous than I thought fifteen minutes ago."
"I wanted to surprise you," Alex said.
"Remind me not to let you plan my next birthday party," I told her. "If I knew when it was."
"Nobody really knows when their birthday is," Alex pointed out. "We just have to trust that the people close to us aren't lying about it."
"I'll have to remember to be motivated by that, somehow," I replied, and suddenly was stopped by a giant foot in my path.
A monstrous beast that appeared to be a well-intentioned knockoff of an elephant, if such a description could be accurate, had stepped in front of me, gliding silently out from a turned street as if it had never been moving. It was covered from head to toe in shining iron armor, and it turned to look at me with intensely experienced eyes, like it had seen the world pass before it. Its owner strode in front of me, holding a leash that was superficial at best. The Verian turned to me and took some note of unexplained familiarity.
"Who are you?" it asked, in the hissing voice of a Verian. "I don't recognize you," it noted with a nearly threatening tone, eyes narrowing slightly. Okay, maybe it was unexplained unfamiliarity.
Alex took the lead. "I'm Alex, and this is Steve." We noticed its eyes widen by a small amount. "We're here temporarily, on a mission for the 7 Agency."
The Verian responded, "Well, my name is Rana, and if I were you I wouldn't go saying that organization's name around here like it's an introduction," she threatened, brandishing her clawed hand. "Might get you in trouble."
"...Noted," Alex replied, visibly intimidated. "Good night, Rana."
"Most definitely not," she replied, narrowing her eyes once more and turning, yanking on the large elephant's lead. It turned and began plodding along with her down the direction from which we had just entered, with not a glance more in our direction from either of them.
Subchapter Three: Seeking Lodgings
The housing area we had entered appeared as if it had been built by a child without a sense of pattern or evenness: stone homes built on top of stone homes built on top of stone homes comprised the section of the town entirely, much like a toppled empire of building blocks. Stairways, ladders, and platforms were inset into the location seamlessly, in perfect symbiosis with the random housing, uneven ground level (some places had steep drops as far as five blocks heralded only by a cheap sign and the telltale top rung of a ladder), and rampant stray builds. On the subject, the very concept of empty negative space seemed to be banned from the community: in every sparse nook, corner, and alley between houses was some sort of shop, fort, shelter, or dump. The only open space as far as I could see was the plaza which we had just walked into.
"How do you remember your way around this place?" I asked Alex as we continued moving.
"Good question," she admitted. "I know we go down that ladder over there, and then we're looking for a small indent in the ground. Her house is built into the ground." She noticed me raise my eyebrows (or, the space where my eyebrows would normally be), and continued "She built it under another house that was raised off the ground."
"Verians don't waste space, I see," I remarked, moving down a ladder after her. A passerby looked at me funnily, and I mentally noted to myself to not refer to Verians in the third person anymore.
"Here we are," she announced. "This is my informant."
True enough to her word, there was a two block deep indent into the ground, and a small surrounding step-down area. The door was fashioned clumsily, and easily swung open when she pulled.
"Anyone home?" she asked into the darkness, adorned with many-colored curtains and a plethora of unlit candles of a diluted purple. Plants skirted the ceiling, stemming from the far too small home of some pot structured in a corner at an unnoticeable part of the home. They shied away from the impressions the candlelight had left behind, in a slow dance with intermittent deadly fire. Fortunately enough for them, and unfortunately enough for the willing answer to Alex's question to the home, the catalyst which began the fire from time to time was entirely absent from the abode.
That is to say, nobody was home.
"Well, that's absolutely perfect," Alex huffed. "I have no clue where she could be." She fell onto the couch, letting more of her fatigue show now that we were in private. "I hope she's okay."
"Definitely," I said, striding into the kitchen with confidence. "Water bottle right here, with chunks of ice."
"Verians like cold water too, Steve," she revealed to me like a sarcastic teenager with the intellectual upper hand.
"If she'd been gone for more than a few minutes, this ice would be melted," I finished, completing my statement.
"True," she admitted. "And it's not like the door was locked."
"Can I take off this dumb illusion yet?" I changed the subject, throwing up my oversized arms in frustration. "Nobody can see us."
"Not where someone could easily open the door and get us revealed," Alex denied me. "There's no telling when some wannabe thief could bust in. These Verians don't do respect for elders." She waited a bit as I moved to the living room to sit. "Honestly, I'm a bit scared."
I sat next to her and gave a quick hug. "Don't be. We've got this in the bag." I wasn't quite so sure myself. What about this agency was so knowledgeable that this random informant would know anything about "marvelous daydream"? But I trusted Alex's judgement.
"I'm going to go into the back, check the state of things and change. Stay here," she ordered, and retreated into the dark house.
I waited for about twenty seconds before getting bored. I quickly stood up, restless and prepared for something to happen, but nothing did. I walked to the front of the house and peeked out the window. Maybe the activities of the commonfolk would be entertaining enough.
Two male workers walked by the house, carrying a large quartz crate each. They seemed strong and eager to show off said strength by carrying them. One, turning to catch the eye of a passing female, hit his foot on a rock, stumbling forward. He regained his balance within a second, but some of the contents slopped out, splashing on the ground and sizzling.
"Gott-Meinian acid," I breathed to myself.
The other turned to him and shouted, berating his inattentiveness. He apologized, straightening up and continuing moving. If I followed them, I could figure out where they were getting the acid and what they were using it for. Alex had obviously implied that it wasn't exactly a commonplace substance. But, while on the subject of Alex, she told me to stay here.
I turned toward the back of the house, where she still was, rummaging around behind a closed door. She'd forgive me.
I waited for them to be far enough along the dirt path, then opened the door, stepped out onto the street, and started trailing them.
Alex emerged from the room in different clothing, faded pink with white elements. She noticed the telltale absence of Steve and swore to herself. "I should have known."
She had no more time to ruminate on the subject before the door of the house swung sharply open, and a strong Verian in an official-looking uniform burst in, yelling. "Who are you!? Why are you here?" he cried out, leveling a gun at her. Another came in behind, with another futuristic weapon. She was cornered.