I had some serious questions about the quest system. What would it have done if we had decided to brute force our way into the city? What about if we had spent a few hours going back and grabbing a ladder, then awkwardly carrying it to Silmar City? What if we’d found some rope and fashioned a grappled hook? The quest system had inside knowledge of the environment we existed in, but where was that knowledge being pulled from? It was, to say the least, worrying, and I took it as proof that I was actually in a game, even if it was a game that was so far beyond any technology I knew as to be incomprehensible, one that I had been thrust into while in the middle of my life, and one that had given me an assurance that my death was still on the line.
It took us a few minutes to get through the grates on the outflow pipes using the void tunneler, but it was easy enough. The grate fell to the ground with a clank and we stared down the pipe, which was large enough for us to walk down without crouching.
“What about the soulcycle?” I asked, looking back to it. My butt was sore from all the riding we’d done, but I regretted leaving it.
“Good point,” said Amaryllis. She went over to it and pulled a long, thin rubber pipe off it, which she hooked into itself so it formed a loop. She slipped that over her head as a necklace. “There,” she said. “Now no one can take it. Not that we’re going back for it.”
“What about the souls?” I asked, looking at the tank, which still had the same seven souls sitting in it. I had to wonder about that; it didn’t seem like they were depleting, which meant my initial impression of them as being fuel like gasoline must not have been quite accurate.
“They’ll fade in about five years,” said Amaryllis. “It’s doubtful that anything will have changed in the Risen Lands in that time. She began moving back toward the outflow pipe.
“I’d like to take them with us,” I found myself saying.
Amaryllis regarded me for a moment, then shrugged. “Suit yourself,” she said. She reached into her bag and pulled out the empty glass jar, which she’d brought with us. “You know that we can’t bring them back to life, right? Not even if we wanted to, which we wouldn’t.”
“I know,” I replied. “It’s for my peace of mind.”
It took longer than I would have liked to get the souls out, as apparently the tank was more designed for entry than exit. Amaryllis stood by and offered me no help, even though it was eating into our time. I have to admit that annoyed me a little bit, though it did give me some measure of what Loyalty level 3 actually meant. When I was finished, we finally headed into the sewers.
I led the way, with the void tunneler in one hand and fire in the other, which provided our only source of light. My sword was at my hip, though I was desperately hoping that I wouldn’t get into a situation where I needed to use it. Amaryllis followed behind me with the rifle. I’ll admit that made me nervous; from what I had seen she had good trigger discipline and impeccable aim, but if we ran into anything I was going to be between her hole puncher and her target. I didn’t think that she was going to shoot me in the back, but she was visibly annoyed at my skill with Aarde’s Touch, and clearly had no compunctions about murder. I hoped that didn’t play into her calculations on whether or not to take a shot.
There was a trickle of water flowing through the pipes, just enough that I could see which way it was flowing. That made navigating the pipes nearly foolproof, since all I needed to do was go upstream. I was hoping to get to a water treatment plant or whatever the local equivalent was (a topic that Amaryllis had professed ignorance on). From there, we could break through doors or climb out windows and get onto the city streets of Silmar City, and from there start making our way to our objective.
The first sign of trouble was the corpse of a dead rat, which was partially decomposing and badly mangled. I stared at it for a long moment.
“What is it?” asked Amaryllis, who was stopped behind me.
“Rat corpse,” I said. I knelt down and looked at it. “From what you said, rats should have been caught in the stronger field effect here?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis slowly. “Though rats would be risen as undead once they died either way. I was mostly referring to what would have happened during the attack itself. All of the rats would have turned undead all at once, all across the city. Same for the birds and humans.”
“Right,” I said. “So how in the hell did this rat die?”
“That’s not a question that I think we want to find the answer to,” she said.
But something about the rat was nagging at the back of my mind, aside from the simple question of what had killed it and what that implied about what was down here. I was also wondering what mental ability I would need to boost in order to have that thought at the tip of my tongue come to fruition, if any.
It was another few minutes before I saw a flash of red at the end of the tunnel, moving frighteningly fast. The plain old zombies were almost not enough to be considered threats, now that I was armed. The big ones, the Zombies Voltron, were slow enough that I could outrun them. It was the mid-sized one that we’d faced down just outside of Comfort that really scared me, especially in this environment, which would turn claustrophobic in a hurry if we had to run away. We had only a single void bomb left, and we were casting light that I assumed would draw any of the undead like moths to a flame.
I stopped in my tracks when I’d seen the two red eyes, and Amaryllis stopped behind me. I waited, tensed, for it to come forward, but it must have been moving through one of the side tunnels, almost perpendicular to us. There was a chance that it hadn’t seen us … but there was no noise either, not the slap of dead flesh against a wall nor the sound of a foot stepping in water.
“We have contact,” I whispered. I heard Amaryllis shift behind me as I raised my hand higher and put more of the heat of my blood into Aarde’s Touch so that it engulfed my entire hand from my wrist to the tips of my fingers. It still wasn’t terribly bright. I could also feel the chill that the spell description had warned about, but at the moment that was a lesser concern.
I waited another few seconds, then stalked forward with my gun pointed ahead of me. My hand was shaking slightly, which caused the tip of my gun to waver, which in turn increased my feeling of doom as I realized that I was going to have a harder time landing my shot. I almost lost what little cool I had remaining when the game gave me another inopportune message, this one about my ability with blood magic.
Eventually I came to the split in the pipes where I had seen the undead thing go past. I took a deep breath of mildewed air and quickly turned the corner. I got a shot off, thwip, right before it started moving, before I even had a chance to take in its form.
It was made of the corpses of rats, hundreds if not thousands of them, arranged with four limbs and reared back on two of them. It was a mess of wet fur and wriggling tails, with bits of legs and heads sticking out from between the bodies, all forming a solid mass. One of the things I’d be hesitant to call hands reached forward with a dozen rat claws arranged together and extended. I backed up, but it caught my left hand and left several long rows of deep scratches.
New Affliction: Rat Rot! (END -1, CUN +1)
I had no time to process that, because I was trying to back up and kick at the rat thing so it couldn’t get close to me. The second time I tried kicking it in the chest, my foot seemed to sink right into it, the rat corpses parting way just enough, then crawling back around to hold my foot tight. I stumbled backward, losing my shoe to the rats in the process and falling on my ass in the shallow water at the bottom of the pipe.
I heard the solid thunk of Amaryllis firing her rifle and scrambled to my feet just in time to duck under another swipe from the dozens of tiny claws. Without thinking too hard I dropped my void gun, drew my sword, and swung with it. The sword sliced right through, cutting rats in the process. I saw bits and pieces falling to the ground, but the rat colony reformed itself to compensate and took another swing at me.
I raised my sword to block, but it rammed its arm straight through, heedless of the rats I was cutting up. The claws dug in and ripped away flesh from on the inside of my arm, right at my elbow, and I screamed out in pain as I pulled back and made a sloppy swing with my sword again.
New Affliction: Blood Loss! (END -1)
Skill increased: One-handed Weapons lvl 4!
My sword arm was wet with blood as I took another step back, and the mass of rats didn’t seem at all injured. I heard another thunk from Amaryllis, this one frighteningly close, and saw a number of rat parts drop off from a hole I couldn’t even see in the poor light coming from my flaming hand. I struck again, coming down at an awkward angle because my elbow had hit the side of the pipe, and cleaved straight through the swarm of rats from its shoulder through to its leg.
Affliction: Blood Loss lvl 2! (PHY -1, END -1)
I was feeling quite cold now, and somewhat dizzy, and the bar that seemed to be tracking my blood supply had taken a noticeable dip, and when the rat thing swept an arm toward me I wasn’t able to react fast enough to dodge or parry. It sliced through my stomach, cutting up the t-shirt and leaving long red lines.
Amaryllis pushed me to the side, which made me fall against the curved side of the pipe in a bloody heap. She stepped forward and punched at the center of the rat thing, moving so fast I heard the rush of air before her fist went straight through with a wet crunch. I let out a moan of pain that was meant to be panicked advice, telling her that we couldn’t deal with it that way, but then she drew her hand out of the rats and a split second later there was the muted sound of a void bomb going off. The rats all fell apart into a pile on the ground, most of them missing pieces.
Umbral Rat Zombie defeated!
I was worried they were going to swarm us, until I saw how slow they were, then I tried to move and realized how slow I was, which was when I started to panic a little. I was still bleeding, enough that I could see it pumping out my veins, as well as the visibly shrinking blood supply mana bar.
Amaryllis stomped the rats to death, one by one, moving with purpose, until none were left moving. Then she came to me and looked me over. Her own hand, the one she’d punched the rat thing with, was scraped up and bleeding lightly, but she moved as though unaffected.
Affliction: Blood Loss lvl 3! (PHY -2, END -1, MEN -1, SOC -1)
“Did you punch that thing with a grenade?” I asked her. I was starting to feel quite dizzy.
“Shut up and don’t move,” she said. She reached into her bag and pulled out a belt, which she quickly wrapped around my wounded arm and pulled painfully tight. Then she took out a screwdriver, which she rested against her pinky. She took a deep breath and set her finger on fire. She held it against the screwdriver, wincing in pain and visibly sweating, until the smell of burnt flesh was rising in the air and the screwdriver was red hot. I knew what was coming and closed my eyes, trying not to think.
The red-hot screwdriver came down on the pit of my elbow, where my vein must have been sliced open, and cauterized it with a pain that was surprisingly dull at first, then so sharp and white-hot that my whole body involuntarily clenched up. I almost couldn’t hear the sound of my blood and flesh hissing.
“You said leveling up heals you?” she said.
I nodded weakly, then dared to look at my hitpoints. 1/8. Lovely.
“Well we had better make sure that happens in the next half hour, or I think you’re probably going to be beyond my ability to do anything.” From her bag she pulled out a strip of cloth, which she quickly wrapped around her finger. She didn’t so much as wince. If it weren’t for how she clenched her teeth, I might not even have known she was in pain. “We’ve got no void bombs left, you’re injured, and we still don’t know if we’re any closer to getting to the surface, let alone what we’ll find there. And encountering another one of those,” she paused to stomp on a rat that had gotten close to me, “Probably means that we die.” She looked down at her wounded hand. “Plus I think there’s a great chance this is infected.”
“We’ll manage,” I said as I struggled to my feet, something I tried my best to do gracefully and failed miserably at. I did manage to stand up eventually though. My estimation, based on the blood meter, I was down about two pints (the meter unhelpfully told me 61K/75K). I wasn’t entirely sure that it would refill when I level up. I’d broken my arm and that had been fixed, along with its associated affliction, but the cowardice affliction had stayed in place for a few levels until I’d tried to save Becca.
Amaryllis took lead and I limped behind her. My pistol had been soaked in water, but still seemed to fire fine. On the other hand, the person firing the pistol was in bad shape. I didn’t want to look at my character sheet, mostly because there wasn’t going to be anything actionable on it, but if the ability stats worked like I thought they did, then I was down to two points of END and the combination of Blood Loss and Rat Rot was giving me the equivalent of stat equivalent of losing four levels.
Affliction: Hungry lvl 2! (PHY -1, MEN -1, POI -1)
“I need to look at my character sheet,” I said. It came out with a rush of air. I was practically panting.
“Go quickly,” said Amaryllis. “We need to keep moving.”
A quick glance confirmed my mental math; I now had four stats sitting at zero, all my mental stats save MEN, plus POI. I breathed a sigh of relief at the fact that it hadn’t actually killed me. A look at my skills gave me another bit of good news; so far as I could see, if skills were capped by their primary stat, it wasn’t obvious that having that primary stat reduced would also reduce my skills.
“Okay, we can keep moving,” I croaked out. The burn on my arm was excruciating. “I just needed to see –”
“Save your strength,” said Amaryllis.
I don’t know exactly how long it was that we moved through the tunnels. My sense of time and sense of self were both warped. My heart was hammering away through all of it, both because I was afraid of dying and because it was struggling to make do with far less blood than normal. We encountered a few other zombie rats, but none of the monstrosities, which was a good thing, because we both would have died. We also came across another of the mangled rat corpses, which I finally understood. The rat-horde beast used corpses as feet, bringing down hundreds of pounds on the lowest ones each time it took a step.
Eventually though, we came to a ladder that led to a grate, and that grate led us up into something vaguely resembling a place meant for people, with metal walkways and unlit overhead lights. More importantly, it had a door, which promised other doors, one of which would lead us to the outside. I sat down and rested my head against a railing, then gestured toward it.
“Look, we found the way to more zombies,” I said.
“Don’t say that word,” hissed Amaryllis.
“Sorry,” I replied. My throat was barely working.
“Do I need to let you get the kills?” she asked.
It took my mind a second to work through what she was asking me. “Oh, don’t think so,” I replied. “I get a message when you kill things for me.”
“I’m going to leave you here then,” said Amaryllis. She shifted the sling on her rifle. “Moving alone I can cover ground faster, which means that I can scout out ahead and engage in hit and run tactics if need be. I’ll come back for you with food and medical supplies as soon as I find them. If what I do helps you to live and we’re separated from one another …”
“Meet up,” I said, nodding my head because I couldn’t keep my neck straight.
“Meet up,” Amaryllis agreed. I could see the way she clenched her jaw. “Twenty-first floor of Sorian’s castle, that’s where the facility is. I’ll … I’ll try to wait for as long as I can, if I can’t make it back.”
She left me, out the door without another word. I closed my eyes and wearily pulled up the settings menu, then checked the “Helldiver” option. While I was there, I tried to uncheck some of the options, like the one informing me that this was my one and only life, but of course those options stayed locked, as I had known they would.
And after that, I just waited for a while, staring into the darkness because I was too cold, tired, and low on blood to use Aarde’s Touch to light the room. I thought to myself, so this is what dying feels like, and then amended it to, this is what dying from blood loss feels like, and then amended it a second time to, this is what heavy blood loss feels like, regardless of whether you die or not, because I didn’t actually know that I was going to die, did I? In what I still thought of as the real world, people survived much worse injuries than this on a daily basis. I checked my health and mana; 2/4 health, 59K/75K blood. I had gained back a point, presumably by not dying for long enough that my wounds had started to close a little bit. The same thing had happened after Amaryllis had hit me in the head with a rock.
If I had been waiting for anything, it was for Amaryllis to kill something and a message to pop up on my screen, but I had seen nothing like that. After maybe a half hour on the uncomfortable floor of this industrial room in the complete darkness, I decided that being left for dead by Amaryllis with just enough pretext to make me not blame her (and her to not blame herself) didn’t mean that I actually had to die there. So I climbed to my feet, feeling wounds on my stomach, hand, and arm slightly reopen. I tried to use blood magic to light my way, but my blood pressure was too low for me to feel my pulse. Instead, I stumbled forward, holding the railing and saying a silent prayer of thanks to whatever Silmar City’s version of OSHA was.
It took a long time, enough for another thousand drops of blood to drip out of me, but I made it to the door and opened it, which provided some very dim light from down the hallway. I moved toward the light, leaning up against a wall as I did so. My toe kicked a corpse after a hundred feet; there was just enough light to see a perfect hole right in his chest. And her kills aren’t counting for me, just lovely.
After a turn in the hallway, I was in the light. There were half a dozen corpses here, and by the look of them they had been reverted from undead back to dead again by someone with a void rifle, three guesses who. The light was coming in from a high window, too high for me to see out of even if I had been in good enough condition to stand on my tippy toes.
I moved through more doors and down more hallways, taking the path that Amaryllis had left whenever it was obvious. I encountered no zombies of my own, just the destruction she’d left. There was something frightening about how methodical she was, how precise she was with her shots, enough that it pushed me just a little bit out of my haze. The zombies were slow, sure, not much of a challenge, but it still took effort of will to face them down and wait for the perfect moment.
Finally I reached wide double doors with frosted glass windows on either side of them. It took basically all my strength to lean into the handle and push the door open. Before me stood Silmar City, high walls behind me, a brief stretch of lawn in front of me, and beyond that, towering over office buildings, were six improbably immense castles. That wasn’t what drew my attention though; standing tall enough that its head was visible over three story buildings was another creature made of corpses, with red eyes so bright they reminded me of a lighthouse.
Quest Complete: Out of the Frying Pan – You have made it to Silmar City!
Quest Accepted: Into the Fryer – The teleportation key lies in a secret research facility nestled into the top level of Sorian’s Castle, one of the six corporate castles in Silmar City. Get the key, find Amaryllis, and leave before her friends show up.
I sank down to my knees as the golden wave of bliss took me, but it lifted me partway up, supporting me entirely as it shook my body with ecstasy. It seemed to last longer this time, long enough that I felt myself in its grip. When it stopped, I felt this hollow emptiness, as though I’d been pithed. And yet that sensation didn’t last that long, because I was also whole, devoid of affliction, all my blood back in my body, and I wasn’t even hungry anymore.
I stretched out and smiled, then went off to find Amaryllis.