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Worth the Candle

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The character sheet appeared whenever I closed my eyes for three seconds. That’s not me being casual with my language, I sat there and timed it after the first time it came up. It was like the messages I’d been seeing that flashed up into my field of view to inform me of achievements, skill unlocks, and things of that nature. No matter where I turned while my eyes were closed, the whole character sheet stayed in focus. If I moved my eyes to the sides, it switched to mostly blank ‘pages’ with nothing more than empty panes and the occasional title like “Virtues”, “Companions”, “Spells Known”, and things of that nature. I did eventually find one that said “Afflictions” which had “Cowardice” listed, but it didn’t seem like that actually did anything, or at least it didn't have a tooltip. Somewhat surprisingly, there was no inventory, though there was a pretty pointless page that gave me a physical description of myself. The only information of note there was that I was level 2, which I’d already guessed.

(I won’t belabor my physical description. My friend Greg had once said that I looked like someone had chosen ‘default’ for every option in the character creator, which I’d tried to laugh at but cut kind of deep. I wasn’t handsome, I wasn’t ugly, none of my features were very prominent, my eyes were blue, my hair was brown, average build, average height … After Greg had made his comment at one of our D&D games, my nickname had been ‘default’ for a while, at least until I stopped pretending to find it funny, and even after that my friends would use similar lines to trash talk me, saying that I was “the most generic man alive”, “a white bread with skim milk motherfucker”, or “the human equivalent of vanilla ice cream”. Not that I was any less of an asshole to them.)

I opened my eyes and looked around the gas station, then to the zombies out front. I judged that they were far enough away that I didn’t need to worry about them quite yet and closed my eyes, even though a part of me (probably my WIS) was saying that it was a really bad idea to just stand there not looking out. I did it anyway; I wanted some answers.

The problem, so far as I could see it, was that this wasn’t a system that I was familiar with. You might think that’s hubris talking, as though I thought I'd have been just fine if the character sheet had been for 5th edition D&D, but at least it would have been a start. 5th is harder to munchkin than Pathfinder, but at least I have a handle on the ins and outs of it. That would have been a huge advantage. I’d thought that on first glance, and thought it even more when I discovered that looking at the abbreviations for long enough brought up tooltips. (Tooltips inside my head!)

There were abilities and skills, which were familiar enough, though if there were thirteen abilities in total that seemed like a bit much. There were four rows of ten, for forty skills in total. They apparently needed to be unlocked before they could rank up. Thirty-six skills were still greyed out, their names just on the other side of readable no matter how hard I squinted at them. If this game was like other games, then I could guess at what some of the missing skills would be …

But there were risks there. I opened my eyes and looked out at the zombies, with their glowing red eyes. The zombies were an idea I’d had, one that I’d presented to my friends in a D&D session, and here they were come to life. I’d put myself at risk thinking that ol’ Mr. Split-Face (he of the slick puddle of viscera on the floor) was going to be like any old zombie I’d seen in TV or movies. If I had been a game designer (and I did consider myself one, in a way, since I did most of our DMing) then I would have made a zombie like that, placed right at the game’s start, as a way of giving a warning. “You cannot depend on your knowledge of other games,” Mr. Split-Face seemed to say.

I picked the machete up out of the zombie’s body, dislodging it from his heart. The smell hit me in a wave and made me want to puke, but I just barely managed to force a lump of something back down my throat. I went back to the front area of the store, stepping warily and trying not to make a sound. A quick look at the coolers in back showed them in a total state of decay. I didn’t think I would find anything of value in them, nor did I think that my stomach could survive the assault of that stench. Mostly, I wanted to get out of here, except that the fields outside and the long empty road were not exactly as much “out of here” as I might have liked. I tried to remember what the military guy on the plane had said, but came up blank.

I closed my eyes again and looked at what I was starting to think of as my eyelid menu. There was a small, glowing ‘+2’ in the upper right, just outside the character sheet proper. When I looked at it for a second, the character sheet rippled and changed, expanding slightly to allow for some plus and minus signs to surround all the ability numbers. That part was somewhat comfortable to me; I had increased in level, so I had some points to distribute.

I had no idea where to start though. If Rule 1 was “don’t depend on game design to exactly match other games” then Rule 2 was “don’t depend on game design to be good”. I had played enough poorly thought-out games to know that sometimes there were broken abilities and dump stats, but just knowing that systems were sometimes flawed wasn’t enough to know where those flaws were. All I could do was stare at the character sheet and make some guesses.

A third of the abilities were social; those I dismissed out of hand, since the zombies were my main concern at the moment. A third were mental; those I reluctantly decided against, since they were usually good for doing magic, which I hadn’t unlocked, and if the “linear fighters, quadratic wizards” rule applied then I was liable to get my ass handed to me before I could become powerful. That left everything under PHY. Curiously, I could increase either PHY or the three abilities it was tied to, POW, SPD, and END. The tooltips gave me no indication of what the underlying mathematical reality was.

When I tried to put a point in PHY, I saw them both vanish, moving it up by one, which cascaded to the other three abilities and increased those by one as well. Ah . That seemed like a pretty good deal to me; I was basically getting double the number of points, or maybe only half again if PHY didn’t actually do anything on its own. If the game design were sensible, then this was probably a generalist/specialist trade-off, but in order to meet the immediate (and largely unknown) problems I was facing, a generalist approach was probably right.

When I opened my eyes, the zombies had gotten worryingly close. I gripped my machete and stepped out of the gas station’s front door. The zombies were slow, slow enough that I could out-walk them, but the trick was that they would just keep walking, and trying to kill them wasn’t without its risks, especially if they could infect a person with a scratch or bite.

(If I was actually trapped in a game, then basic game design dictated that the game not kill players over something that they didn’t know and couldn’t find out. Of course, Rule 2 was that I couldn’t depend on good game design, and there were some genres or schools of thought where it would be acceptable, like in Call of Cthulhu where deadly wasting sickness was par for the course. Still, if it had been me, I would have had the source of the zombies be something like a dread necromancer putting all his effort into sustaining this undead militia, or some intriguing bit of technobabble like a necrotic field effect.)

There were about thirty of them in all. The closest was twenty feet away. I walked up slowly, cautiously with my machete held in front of me. I remembered reading that stabbing things in the heart was surprisingly difficult, because you had to have your blade dodge both the sternum and the ribs. Worse, machetes were made for getting a lot of power behind a swing. Trying to pierce something with one was like trying to make a hole with a meat cleaver. The basic purpose of a machete was cutting down jungle undergrowth or sugar cane, not poking holes in hearts.

(I didn’t mention it before, but can I say how utter bullshit it is that I only had a 2 in KNO? I wasn’t terribly athletic, I wasn’t great in social situations, and I wouldn’t have even called myself that smart, but dammit, I had drunk knowledge from Wikipedia like I was dying of thirst and I’d read a mountain of books.)

I lined up my strike and swung for the zombie’s neck. She lurched forward right as I did made my attack, and I ended up hitting her in the shoulder instead. I had to push her away from me in order to prevent her from getting her hands on me, and when I did my fingers touched surprisingly warm flesh. It was like pressing my hand against a feverish forehead. I hacked at the zombie again, this time striking her in the collar bone. The crack of bone made me wince, but I reared back for another swing. My arm briefly blocked my view for just long enough that the zombie had time to move. I ducked out of the way of her hand, then backed up to give myself some room.

Skill Unlocked: Dodge!

Well, I couldn’t say that one was too much of a surprise. I swung at the zombie again, hitting her in the temple this time, and one of her red eyes flickered out like a light. I wasn’t sure quite what that meant; when I had made my own version of these zombies, their eyes were nothing special and the glowing effect was purely cosmetic.

The other zombies were getting closer to us, so I attacked again, resolving to turn tail and run if this didn’t do anything. My machete came down from up high in a double-handed overhead swing with all my power behind it and hit right at the place where I had broken her collar bone. There were two distinct wet cracks as the machete cut its way through ribs and then the light in her other eye went out. I managed to hold onto my machete as she slumped to the ground.

Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 3!

Zombie defeated!

I had hoped to kill a few more before leaving, mostly to level up, but they were clustered too closely together now, and I wanted to escape before things got dicey. I moved away from the center mass of the crowd and slipped through them without any problem, then got on the road and started walking at a brisk pace.

The thing was, I didn’t actually know whether the stats I could see written on my eyelids actually did anything. When I’d swung the machete I hadn’t felt any better at it at level two than level zero, and there was no clear relationship between that number and the outcome, at least not to me (with the heady rush of leveling up being the one exception). That meant that staying in one place and trying to kill relatively easily killed things was still too much of a gamble, at least until I learned more.

I’d had a choice when I’d gotten to the road, and I had decided to go toward the distant buildings rather than the flat, seemingly endless plains. It was overcast, so I couldn’t see the sun, and without that I had no idea which direction I was going. I had never really had much experience outdoors. Maybe if I had, I would have been able to find directions without the sun to guide me. There was something having to do with moss, I remembered, but I couldn’t recall what it was. It wasn’t really like directions would help anyway, not when I had no idea what kind of world this was.

I tried to keep a steady pace to my walking, fast enough that I would be able to get somewhere, but slow enough that I wouldn’t get tired. Oh, and the zombies were still following me, as I could see by the veritable field of red eyes behind me. They were slow, but if they kept on me I was going to have to find somewhere to hole up in order to sleep. They didn’t seem to be very strong, though I’d thought I’d seen a few bursts of speed and power from them, like when Split-Face had stood up in the gas station or when they did their lunges. A door might hold them back, but for long enough that I would be able to sleep? I’d need an exit strategy on top of that. The military guy had said to get to the outpost, which seemed like a reasonable goal (and the start of a quest) but he hadn’t said what direction it was in or how far away. Either way, I didn’t think I would be able to get there before I needed sleep, so finding a safe place to hole up was imperative.

Skill increased: Athletics lvl 1!

Right then, brisk walking apparently counted as athleticism, which was good to know. I had been waiting for that one, and I did notice a change this time. My steps became a little more sure, a little more swift, and I straightened my posture slightly. I wondered how much of that, if any, was psychological. Either way, it gave me some more information about the game system, which was welcome.

I didn’t have too much time to ruminate on that though, because I had come close enough to the crop of buildings to get a look at them. It looked like the kind of tiny town that you could find all over the Midwest in general and Kansas in specific, a place that existed mostly because there was a limit to how far farmers were willing to drive for groceries, gas, and a haircut. Three giant grain elevators dominated the town, but again there was a note of the exotic, because each had a large antenna rising up from its side, marked with floating, rotating sigils that were barely visible by the unearthly blue light they cast.

It was with a start that I saw people moving across the main road. They were running, a short-haired blonde girl in the lead and two guys with pink mohawks chasing after her. Or at least, that’s what I thought at first, until I saw the thing following them. It was a blackened creature of corpses, with eyes as large as headlights and a body so big it would had have a hard time hiding behind a gas station. It was moving far faster than the zombies had moved, slamming down its fists and dragging itself to make up for a back leg that was crooked and broken.

I was between a rock and a hard place, with the enormous necrotic monster ahead of me and the horde behind me. I didn’t think either was within my abilities, but at least if I moved on ahead there were buildings that I could hide in and maybe try to loot while the big guy was distracted.

Affliction: Cowardice lvl 2! (WIS -1, POI -1)

“How is that cowardice?” I asked, but I soon realized the answer. I’d gotten ‘Cowardice’ when I had run away from the girl getting attacked by four zombies, right when I’d landed. Here I had been presented with another girl running from both the scary guys with mohawks and a monster, and I hadn’t even spared a thought to running to her rescue. “That’s not cowardice, that’s selfishness, if anything,” I said to the air. There was no response, not that I had expected one.

I began jogging toward the town. The nearest building looked like some kind of mechanics shop; there was a large folding door by the road and while the vehicles in the parking lot were rusted out, some of them also had doors off the hinges and open hoods in a way that suggested some of the disrepair predated whatever it was that had happened here. The biggest point in its favor was that it was the closest place to hide from the Big Ol’ Corpse-Legs, which had disappeared out of my sight.

There were no zombies in sight, and a quick peek through the small window in the side door showed nothing waiting for me. With rusty machete in hand, I opened it slowly and tried my best to emulate what the SWAT teams I’d seen on TV did, sweeping the room from side to side (a technique that probably makes more sense when you have a shotgun or rifle). The room that I’d come into was some kind of waiting area, the kind that in the Midwest had uncomfortable chairs, stale coffee, and a few out-of-date magazines, all of which mingled with the smell of car guts and wheel skins to create a very specific ambiance. Here it was almost the same, but the coffee pot was replaced by a tea kettle sitting on top of a handful of rocks (though the little cups of creamer and packets of sugar were about what I was used to).

The smell was atrocious, probably because of the body. Sitting in one of those uncomfortable chairs was the corpse of one of the guys with pink mohawks. I would have been on guard, waiting for him to rise from the dead, but he had two very precisely placed dime-sized holes in him, one in the center of his forehead and the other right in the center of his chest. He was practically drenched in blood from the chest down.

I think it was only my experience hunting deer and cleaning the kills that got me through that without throwing up. It brought back the same queasy feeling I’d had one summer when I’d shot a buck in the gut and had to chase it all over the hills as it bled out, but I’d gotten through that, and I would get through this too.

I moved further into the building by the light of dirt-clouded windows, looking for anything useful, but mostly trying to make out whether the shapes I was seeing had limbs or heads, and whether the reflections of light that I saw were buttons or eyes. I kept my footsteps as quiet as possible, but it all sounded impossibly loud to me --

Skill unlocked: Deception!

The chime that came with the message caused me to tense up for a moment as my heart hammered in my chest. It had been some time since I had gotten one of those messages, enough that I had almost forgotten. I pushed the questions it raised out of my head. (Did this system use the same skill for both stealth and lying to people? What stat governed Deception, SPD or CHA? What condition had caused the unlock to trigger?) The next door, which based on my reading of the building would lead into the shop itself. I took a deep breath, slowly lowered the door handle, and pushed the door open with my foot just a crack to look inside.

Standing by a workbench, among various car parts, tools, and cans of unidentified fluids, was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen.

I’m not really sure what protocol is here, in terms of prose. I mean, I don’t want to sound like a creep, so maybe I should stay as generic as possible and tell you about her dark red hair pulled back in a braid, the glacial blue of her eyes, how starkly alert she looked as she peered over the parts in front of her, or her grease-smeared clothes. Save for her eyes, I wasn’t really focused on any of that. My mind was consumed by tracing her curves, the swell of her tits in her blood-stained t-shirt, the fullness of her lips and the delicate way she had them parted -- and yeah, it was pretty fucked up that the splatter of blood on her shirt wasn’t worth rating much of a mention. I was consumed with staring at her and thinking how gorgeous she was, until I noticed that she was having a powerful effect on me, at which point different parts of my mind were given over to marveling at the sensation of being so attracted to a girl, and others were still focused on her.

Imagine that someone spent a few years studying your likes and dislikes, running through video of your every private moment, somehow surreptitiously hooking up EKGs to measure your physiological responses without you knowing. Then imagine that they sat down with that data and the best photo manipulation artists in the world and made the absolute perfect picture to cause your heart rate to spike, a jolt to run up your spine, butterflies in your stomach, and a cold sweat on your palms. Then imagine that they did this again, over and over in slight variations, until they had a full 4K 60fps 3D movie to show you. That was what it was like watching her.

(And if that analogy sounds a little bit frightening to you, then I think it did its job, because there was a part of me that was afraid of how pretty she was, a part that was angry that someone could provoke such a reaction from me, and a small, mostly unexamined part that was instantly distrustful of someone that could hijack my brain in the way she did.)

She was rooting around in the parts on the bench, occasionally turning one over. She picked up a particular one, a flat little rectangle with what appeared to be a handle. With a smooth motion she held it at arm’s length and swept it to the side until a small hole in the thing was pointed at me. That small hole was roughly the size of the ones in the dead guy out in the reception room, and even in the state I was in, I was able to peg the thing she was holding as a mostly flat, mostly vertical gun.

“Don’t move,” she said.

“Buh,” I said. I’d wanted to say ‘but’, to start some sentence, but it caught in my throat.

Skill unlocked: Romance!

(Har har game, har har.)

“Name,” she said.

Eventually some spinning gears in my mind slipped into a position to do some work, and I realized that she was asking me my name. “Joon,” I said.

“Jon?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No, Joon,” I said. “Short for Juniper.”

She was staring at me with her teeth set. There was a tension to the way she held herself, like a bow ready to let an arrow loose.

“Background?” she asked.

“Uh,” I said slowly, trying to play for time. I had a sneaking suspicion that this was exactly the kind of thing that POI was used for, and mine was at a whopping one point thanks to the penalty I’d taken.

“Background,” she said with a curl of her lips.

“Student,” I said. I had no idea what she wanted from me; maybe saying that my dad flew helicopters and my mom worked in a box factory would have been more helpful.

She looked me up and down, or at least as much as she could given that I was still partially obscured by the door. “Which athenaeum?” she asked.

“I, uh, I don’t know what that is,” I said. It was true when I said it, but right after a memory sparked and I recalled the term; it was a fancy term for a place of literacy and learning, taken from the name of the Greek god Athena. I’d used it in a D&D campaign before, when the party had been tracking a goblin ranger through the halls of the abandoned Athenaeum of Quills and Blood.

“Why did they put you on the plane?” she asked. I could tell that my athenaeum answer hadn’t done me any favors. Her gun was still pointed at me, which only slightly dampened my attraction.

What had the guy on the plane said? Dissidents. “I was caught distributing pamphlets,” I said, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t press me on it.

Skill increased: Deception lvl 1!

I couldn’t tell whether she believed me or not, but she lowered her gun slightly so it was pointing at my stomach instead of my chest. “Step out from behind the door,” she said. I did so, lifting my hands above my head and putting my machete on full display so she could see that I didn’t mean to be a threat. “Drop the machete,” she said. I did as she asked.

“The Fuchsia Coterie came down with us,” she said. “They have a mission in the Risen Lands, and part of that mission is putting down anyone who sees them. Ordinarily, one in one hundred survive the journey to the outpost, but the Color Riot will ensure that you don’t even have that hope … not unless we work together.”

Well, that was a pretty shockingly straightforward hook.

“I’m in,” I said. “What needs doing?”

Quest Accepted: Seven Bells for Seven Hells!