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Worth the Candle

Chapter Text

I strained against the collar that held my neck in place, trying to get a better look around. My hands and feet were both cuffed, with thick metal bars connecting the cuffs to each other, resulting in no give at all. I had a gag in my mouth as well, but that was a little bit looser.

Five seconds ago, I had been passing notes in fifth period English.

I could see other people bound just like I was in the dim red light that came from regularly spaced bulbs. We were in two lines that faced each other. There was a loud droning sound that I imagined it would be hard to talk over, if I hadn't had the gag. That sound, along with the vibrations in my seat and the curved walls, told me that we were in a plane, though I had no idea where we were going, or where we were.

I didn't see anyone that I knew. I had been in English class, so given that I was abruptly transferred into bonds aboard some bare bones airplane, it stood to reason that perhaps others from my class had been too. The other boys and girls were around my age, but they didn't look like they went to school in Bumblefuck, Kansas. Part of it was the hairstyles, which over-represented mohawks and bright colors. But more than that it was the hard looks on most of their faces, a defiance that I associated more with terrorists on television than high-schoolers.

A man in army fatigues walked down the middle aisle of the plane, between the two lines of knees. He stopped just in front of me, which allowed me a good look at him. He was cleanly shaved and grey at the temples, with a scar that ran from the bottom of his chin up to his nose. His eyes were filled with an intense, burning hatred as he looked at us, which was accentuated by the way he grit his teeth.

"Rebels. Traitors. Murderers. Dissidents. Thieves. You are the scum that has floated up to the surface. A less civilized society would have put you to the sword the moment you were caught. We believe in our ideals though. Strength through adversity, righteousness through struggle. If you survive, you will be stronger for it. Make it to the outpost, and a place in the Host is waiting for you, your crimes forgiven."

With that he walked away. I had questions, but I couldn't raise my hand and my attempt to yelling just came out as a gurgle around the gag in my mouth. None of what he'd said sounded comforting. I'd already been flush with bewilderment, but now fear had finally added itself to the mix.

The boy across from me was shaking his head from side to side. He'd been doing it for a while, but he'd started speeding up. With a quick jerk he hooked part of his gag on a bit of metal surrounding his neck and pulled it off completely. He showed no satisfaction at that, instead opting to start speaking.

"We're allowed to cooperate," he shouted. "We stand a better chance of survival if its us against them instead of everyone for themselves. We can --"

He was drowned out by the airplane opening up its belly. A mile below us were farmlands in the half-light of an overcast day. I struggled against my restraints and prayed that I would wake up, even though I knew in my heart that this wasn't a dream. My feet were dangling into the open sky now.

Some loud mechanism was making a clank. I still couldn't move my head much, but in my periphery I could see people dropping down into sky below us. As the sequence got closer to me, I saw that none of them were wearing anything resembling a parachute. What the army guy had said was ringing in my ear; strength through adversity. That seemed like the kind of thing you might say right before you murder someone.

Then the mechanisms released me and I fell, free of restraints.

The wind rushed past me. My stomach lurched at the feeling of weightlessness. I spread myself out, almost instinctively, trying to brace myself against the wind. I had let out a scream when I'd first started falling, but stopped when the wind started trying to force its way up my open mouth. I was going to die, just like all the others, and there was nothing that I could do to stop it. From this height, even an impact against water was sure to be as hard as against concrete.

I looked to the others that were falling, hoping that one of them had a solution.

Instead, I saw a murder. A boy with a pink mohawk had swooped down to collide with a girl. He struggled against her, holding onto her with one hand and a leg wrapped around her, and with the other hand pushing her chin up. When he applied sudden force, her neck snapped, and he detached himself from her as her lifeless body twisted and tumbled toward the ground.

To my horror, I realized that he was coming my way. I had no idea how to maneuver while skydiving, short of "spread out to slow down, put your hands to your sides to go fast". Given how fast the mohawked murderer was coming toward me, I elected to go fast and pinned my arms to my side. It took a few seconds to stop myself from spinning, but I certainly was going faster.

That meant that the ground was coming up towards me at a frankly alarming rate. I must have hit terminal velocity fairly quickly, but the perception of speed was greater the closer the ground got. I tried to think about why that was, and got as far as wondering whether it had to do with the viewing angle before deciding that I didn't really want to spend the last moments of my life trying to recreate physics knowledge from base principles.

When I looked back behind me, the pink-haired guy was gone. I could only see a few of the others in the air, as well as a few tumbling bodies that I assumed must be corpses.

The ground had gotten really close, close enough that I could start to make things out beyond just the irregular grid of farmland and a smattering of houses. To my left was a vast cloud so close to the ground that it must have been fog, but in the general area where my body was going to splatter was what looked like a gas station. There were no cars around, but there were people; they were looking up toward me with glowing red eyes. I might have found that ominous if it weren't for the whole imminent death thing. I closed my eyes as my heart hammered away in my chest. As deaths went, at least it would be fast.

I kept my eyes screwed shut, right up until the point where I realized the wind was dying down. When I looked around, I saw that death wasn't quite so imminent as I had thought; I was slowing down. There was a glowing rune on my right hand which I would have sworn wasn't there five seconds ago. By the time I finally got to grips with the fact that perhaps I hadn't been thrown out of the plane to my death, I was sliding down from the sky at a rather sedate pace. I was going to land maybe a hundred yards from the gas station in a big field. Four of the red-eyed people were nearby, but they were moving toward a girl who had already touched down. I could see now that these people had pallid skin and torn clothes, which, along with their shuffling gait, screamed ‘zombies’ in ten foot high neon letters.

As soon as my feet touched the ground, I heard a pleasant chime and words popped up in front of me.

Achievement Unlocked: Down, But Not Out …

I blinked twice and the message vanished. I had no idea what the hell that was about, but I had bigger things to worry about, like the zombie shuffling toward me. I had on black jeans, white sneakers, a leather belt, and a dull gray T-shirt. There was nothing I could use to fight it with, but I wasn’t about to try, given how slow the zombie was shuffling toward me. (I also briefly wondered who the hell had dressed me, since black jeans weren’t my thing and I never wore a belt.)

I heard a scream of “Get the fuck off me!” from over to my left. I turned to look at the girl I’d seen from above, careful to keep the zombie near me within my eyeline. The girl had somehow gotten surrounded. Her eyes caught mine and she yelled to me, “Help me!” There was something indignant about the way she said it, like she was offended that I wasn’t doing anything.

I hesitated, and when I did, one of the zombies lunged toward her, moving surprisingly fast. She pulled away from it, but I could see that her shoulder was bleeding.

I started running. Not toward her, but away, steering clear of the zombie that was next to me. I had no weapon to speak of and I had only managed an orange belt in middle school karate, which is what they hand out to basically anyone who sticks with it a few weeks. I could hear the girl screaming, and I wasn’t sure whether it was at me or the zombies around her. Then her scream was cut off.

More words appeared in front of me. I looked at them more closely this time, though I didn’t stop running. The words moved with my eyes, like a heads-up display. They were just out of the center of my vision, but stayed in focus no matter what I was doing with my eyes. The words didn’t make me feel too good.

New Affliction: Cowardice!

I made my way toward the gas station, running at a jog and trying to conserve my energy. There were no zombies near it, and no people either. It would have been hard for me to forget that I’d seen someone get murdered in the air. I had blinked away the message calling me a coward, but I could feel my cheeks flushing with anger the more I thought about it. I had seen someone fucking die and I was supposed to just throw myself into a melee to help someone I didn’t even know? That wasn’t cowardice, that was just common sense.

Just before I got to the gas station, another message popped up.

Skill unlocked: Athletics!

I didn’t know what that meant either, not in this context, so I double-blinked it away and looked at the gas station, or at least at what I had thought was a gas station. Up close, it was clear that I was wrong. It had some of the hallmarks of Midwest gas stations, like the cheap cinder block construction and the unadorned metal doors. Where there should have been gas pumps, there were instead black shards of obsidian jutting up from the pavement. If they hadn’t been surrounded by cheap concrete curbs, or so evenly spread apart with plastic trash bins between them, I might have thought that they had sprung up from the ground.

There were other incongruous notes, like the stack of clear barrels sitting out front, or the signs that showed advertisements for fresh frongal legs. That word, ‘frongal’ tickled at my mind, but I couldn’t make sense of it.

The road running by the building looked like normal asphalt, with a double yellow line down the middle. There were power lines running alongside the road and cars sitting in the parking lot, though there was something off about the shape of the cars, not just their 1950s style but something having to do with the way the hoods swelled up.

All of it was in a total state of disrepair; the grass I’d been moving through was two feet high and there were weeds surrounding the building where they’d managed to grow up between the cracks in the sidewalk. The building itself was covered in grime and two of the windows were busted out, with shards of glass visible on the ground.

I stood where I was, trying to work things out.

“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” I muttered to myself. That had always been my dad’s thing; he said it whenever we went on a trip and crossed state lines.

My plan had been to get to the gas station and … well, I didn’t know what. Gas stations had people, food, phones, and transportation. If this thing wasn’t a gas station, I had some hope that wherever I was it was a proxy of one, but that didn’t help the fact that it was completely rundown and deserted. My gut was telling me that if I went inside I would find spoiled food or ransacked shelves, with no power to speak of and a phone that was non-functional. My gut also told me that if I went in there, I’d be easily cornered by anyone - or anything - that came after me.

My heartbeat was starting to slow down. The zombies that I had left behind were still shuffling towards me, and there were others out there, further away, which were visible mostly by the red pinpricks of their eyes. I looked at the building that was not-quite-a-gas-station and tried to steel myself. If nothing else, maybe there would be a weapon inside, or something I could use as one. I jogged forward and peered in through the busted out window.

The bad news was that it was almost exactly as I had feared. The shelves were almost entirely bare of supplies and the foul smell coming from the place seemed to say, “Hey, all this food is rotten and gross”. I still held out a little bit of hope that I would be able to find something in a can that hadn’t gone bad, assuming that wherever I was actually had things in cans. This whole world I seemed to have (literally) landed in was just one step to the left of reality as I knew it. About 90% of it could have been straight out of Bumblefuck, Kansas, if everyone had just gotten up and left for a few years, but that last 10%, like the red-eyed zombies and black crystal shards … well, they kept sending a chill up my spine.

When I slipped into the gas station, I saw a guy’s feet sticking out from behind one of the shelves. I almost yelped in surprise, but managed to hold it back. Now, my big fear was that this guy was going to rise as a zombie, or that I would round the corner to find something chowing down on his body, both of which I considered a real possibility. Another part of me thought that this was my best chance to get either a weapon or some answers. I had already checked my own pockets and found them empty. I picked up an empty rack for greeting cards, raised it over my head like a bat, and stalked forward.

Skill unlocked: Improvised Weapons!

The sound that accompanied the appearance of the text did make me yelp in surprise. I’ll admit that I was a little keyed up. Just after that though, I saw the foot twitch.

I’d always been far at the ‘fight’ end of the ‘flight or fight’ spectrum. I don’t say that because I want to sound tough, more to excuse the fact that my dumb ass ran right around the corner and started beating the life out of the corpse on the floor, which all things considered was probably not what I would call smart. I hit him twice on the head before the rack partly broke, then two more times until it fell apart completely.

Skill increased: Improvised Weapons lvl 1!

The corpse was still moving, slowly crawling to its feet. I glimpsed a handle beneath its torso and grabbed for it; to my surprised pleasure I found I was holding what looked to be a rusted machete.

Skill unlocked: One-handed Weapons!

I blinked away the message as I brought machete down on the zombie, just as it twisted its head around to look at me with glowing red eyes and a slack expression. The machete hit him right in the forehead, with my weight entirely behind it. I heard a crack of the skull splitting --

Critical hit!

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 1!

-- and the machete wedged itself halfway down his face, embedded between his glowing red eyes.

If there had been any justice in the world, that would have been when he stopped moving. His red eyes would have faded like at the end of Terminator , and he would have slumped back down onto the floor. Instead, he lurched toward me, opening his mouth. The only thing that saved me from getting my bite (since my reflexes were essentially non-functional) was the fact that I was still holding the machete and it was still halfway through his head. That was enough to keep him at bay.

When I brought up a foot to kick him backward, a message came up telling me something about unarmed combat, and I put my full weight behind my foot to push him backward while keeping a firm grip on the machete. The machete came out of his head with a wet sucking sound and copious amounts of dark red blood, while the zombie tumbled backward and fell into a pile of garbage. He was back on his feet surprisingly fast though, and stared at me with his glowing red eyes, not seeming to mind the empty air between them.

That was how you killed zombies, wasn’t it? All the comics and movies I’d seen had been clear on that score, destroying the head was the only way to be sure, because they could keep coming if you did anything else. If that wasn’t how this guy was going to die though, what was I supposed to do?

I backed away from him as he shuffled forward. A quick glance out the window showed that more zombies were near me than before, though not so close that I couldn’t make a run for it. I looked back at Split-Face and tightened my grip on my machete. I wasn’t dumb enough to think that I could take all these zombies on without making a mistake, but if it came to it I needed to know what it took to kill one. My heart was beating like crazy in my chest, but I steeled myself.

The crazy messages that kept popping up were like something out of a videogame, that much I had noticed. Maybe that was why I’d been so certain that an axe to the head was going to kill Mr. Split-Face. But that didn’t work . So if I were playing a game, and literally cleaving someone’s head in half didn’t kill him, what would I do? Well, that was a sign that the designer was trying to be a clever little shit by subverting the expectations of the player. Come to think of it, I had done that in a D&D session once, a first level dungeon crawl.

Split-Face was still coming toward me and I was thinking about D&D for some stupid reason. What had I done, when I’d made the zombies’ heads irrelevant? I’d moved their weak point to their heart, that was it. And I’d given them glowing red eyes, just to have some descriptive flair.

Holy shit.

I aimed my machete at Split-Face’s heart, and I was just in time because he lunged at me a split second later, spearing himself straight through the chest. He stopped moving almost instantly and slumped to the floor with my machete still piercing him. That was when his red eyes finally faded to a milky white.

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 2!

Zombie defeated!

Achievement Unlocked: Rambo

Level up!

That last message came with a sensation that I can only describe as orgasmic. Golden light burst forward from me in a wave that kicked up wind and I briefly lifted up off my feet. It was like someone had jabbed a live wire directly into the pleasure center of my brain.

It was over in less than a second and left me trembling afterward.

“Did I just level up?” I asked the empty air. None of what had happened since I had found myself on that plane had much sense, but what I was seeing the outlines of was so weird that it almost started to make a bit of sense.

First, I was in a game, or at least something that resembled a game.

Second, that game had elements that I personally had created. It wasn’t just the red-eyed zombie variants that you had to stab through the heart, I was pretty sure that I remembered those black crystals out front. I’d called them the blackthornes, and they were used to power an ancient necropolis. Frongals I remembered too, they were giant frogs that people raised and slaughtered like pigs.

Naturally that just raised further questions. I closed my eyes for a moment and sighed, and that was when I saw my character sheet.

PHY

3
2 POW 1 Unarmed Combat 2 One-handed Weapons 0 Two-handed Weapons 1 Improvised Weapons
2 SPD 0 Thrown Weapons 0 Dual Wield 0 Pistols 0 Bows
2 END 0 Rifles 0 Shotguns 0 Parry 0 Athletics
MEN

3
2 CUN 0 Dodge 0 Engineering 0 Alchemy 0 Smithing
2 KNO 0 Woodworking 0 Horticulture 0 Livestock 0 Music
2 WIS 0 Art 0 Blood Magic 0 Bone Magic 0 Gem Magic
SOC

3
2 CHA 0 Gold Magic 0 Water Magic 0 Steel Magic 0 Velocity Magic
2 INS 0 Revision Magic 0 Skin Magic 0 Essentialism 0 Library Magic
2 POI 0 Wards 0 Language 0 Flattery 0 Comedy
0 LUK 0 Romance 0 Intimidation 0 Deception 0 Spirit

At that moment, 0 Luck sounded about right.