Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE
Newbie

I pull my dagger from the chimera's eye with a sound like someone sucking soda, leather-strapped hilt molded to my palm. Green blood drips from the chiseled point of the blade, steaming slightly in the dank underground air. One of the beast's feathered hind legs spasms briefly, drumming a tribal tattoo into the rocky floor, which startles Kiro back a few steps. His staff wavers in the gloom, the glowing light at its tip coming close to a few of the oddly shaped stalactites. Shifting highlights momentarily gleam in his brilliantly purple spiked hair.

"Careful," I hiss, trying not to yell, "you hit one of the alarms, and we're gonna be neck deep in flenser worms quicker than you can spit."

"Sorry, Ash, sorry, I swear, it's the inputs. They're not reading my motions right."

"Don't give me that shit. You know the Game can't be hacked. Their encryption's better than the gummies and silkies combined. If you fuck up, it's on you."

"Ash is right." A deep baritone comes from my left, where a thickly muscled woman levers herself to her feet with a large axe. Chain mail drapes her body, and an assault rifle hangs from her back. What skin isn't covered by armor is the deep red of coal embers. "Said you knew encounter. Said you were good."

"I do, I am, I swear," Kiro whines. "I read all the online guides and ran all the sims until I could do it bli—"

"Nashor's balls, you brought a newbie on the run, Ash? As support?" A high-pitched voice sounds from my right. An anthropomorphic fox with camouflage fur finishes carving off small pieces of the chimera's body with a serrated blade, more short sword than knife. She snarls at me. "Why the hell isn't Brand here?"

"I haven't been able to reach Brand in two weeks. Keeps going to avatar. It was either Kiro or wait for the next reset. High-level supports don't exactly grow on trees, and you know we can't plug in a random. Everyone's a newbie at some point. He knows this is his chance to prove he can handle endgame." I plunge my fist through the chimera's dulling eye, reaching into its brain cavity for the essence jewel I know lies within. My fingers brush aside lumpy brain matter, searching for the hard facets of the jewel, the only currency that matters in endgame—proof an obstacle has been surpassed. "Besides, I know Kiro in the real. He's solid."

"Ugh, I guess, but still...a newbie?" The fox sighs and lops off the barbed tail, sticking it into a pouch on her waist. The large segment seems to shrink down into the mouth of the pouch, then disappears, defying all expected laws of physics. "It makes my fur itch." She turns and looks at the muscled woman in chain mail. "Also, Slend, you need to change your voice setting. It's freaking me the fuck out. You sound like a guy."

"Stoofoo, Wind. My voice, my mod." The battleaxe comes flashing down on the chimera's groin, a post-mortem neutering. Kiro winces again, and I frown. If he can't handle harvesting resources from endgame trash, there's no way he's going to have the stomach for a boss encounter, especially in the Everdark facet of the Game. Most people think fantasy and picture elves, unicorns, other twee fairy shit. Most people never make it to Everdark, relive the old myths. With a wrenching twist, I yank the fist-sized jewel free from the chimera's brain stem and walk over to Kiro.

"You doing okay?" I ask, absentmindedly placing the gem into one of my storage pouches. Ichor drips from my hand to the floor in a steaming puddle, the sensation like warm candle wax bathing my fingers.

"Yeah, yeah, I'll be fine. It's just..."

He waves a hand at the scene. The half-butchered corpse of the chimera lies in front of us, Wind and Slend plucking feathers from its outstretched wings. Viscous green blood pools beneath its corpse. In the illuminated area around us, writhing stalactites, shaped like giant worms, hang from the ceiling, fang-filled maws bracketing a narrow path. Disgustingly organic sounds echo from the darkness, a mixture of slurping moans and bone-crunching snaps—an atmosphere that reaches down to the hindbrain and yanks some very primal levers.

Just another encounter.

I nod. "You're right. First time through, it's a bit of a change from Candyland, huh?"

"...Yeah. I don't know if I like it. Are all the encounters like this? In Everdark?"

"Most of 'em. There are a couple that are more logic oriented, but even those have psych-secs."
...

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