Chapter 22: Back on the Crazy Train
❝ Athena ❞
Athena opened her eyes and rose from the bed she was lying on.
She stretched her sore muscles, re-acclimating herself with her virtual body, with the bulging muscles rolling under her green skin, with the higher point of view and relative distances, with her sharper sense and the overall sensation of raw power. She allowed herself an instant to bask in the pure strength of her semi-orc avatar—an instant she, unfortunately, spent trying to ignore the treacherous thought whispering she was just running away from her real self.
Is there really a point in all this? With a sigh and a shake of the head, she finally opened the notifications she had neglected on the day she’d arrive in the deserted village. She was startled by an unexpected message.
Untold Tales Patch 1.9.1
Greetings adventurer, adventuress and others.
Following the implementation of the Subclass System with the update 1.9, several issues have come to our notice. Mainly, there was confusion concerning the extent to which ancient players might be penalised by not having been able to grind their subclass skill since the threshold level 25 at which the subclass option becomes available.
In an effort to clarify the situation, we have reworked the class system to make it more transparent and systematic.
Firstly, no new player will be able to advance past level 10 unless they chose a class. On that note, we take this opportunity to issue the following official statement:
“THERE IS NO SPECIAL SECRET HIDDEN CLASS THAT YOU CAN ONLY UNLOCK BY REMAINING CLASSLESS UNTIL LEVEL 50!! THIS IS A FALSE RUMOUR AND STOP GETTING YOURSELF KILLED OVER IT!! Thank you.” –Kevin Hatter, Head Programmer.
All class can be obtained at level 10, and while it is arguably true some are more arduous to discover than others, no Class Trainer is hidden in an area inaccessible under level 11. As for unique classes that may be found in higher level areas, similarly to the discovery of a new playable race, the player who discovers a unique class will be offered to change their current class to the new one.
Similarly, the choice of a subclass will be compulsory at level 25.
The cost to change class under level 25 and subclass under level 40 has been lowered. If you are dissatisfied by your choice after the fact, you can go to your local Temple of Order to get a clean slate and receive your Stat Points back…for a fee, of course.
Now, concerning the worries of our most senior players. Each class or subclass possesses specific skills that can be unlocked past a certain level. This time only, if your level meets the requirement, you will automatically receive all corresponding skills of your subclass at [Beginner level 1] without the need for more specific unlocking requirement.
Some stats gains have also been reworked and you may discover some changes to your status. Be reassured that these changes are mostly logistic and won’t affect the overall power balance of the game. The bonus stats from your subclass have been added from level 25 up.
Lastly, to all those who still want to complain that new players will get the opportunity to grind more skills from the bottom up, we generously offer you to shut up. Go tell that to the top rankers who were stuck with choosing only between human, dwarf or elf as starting race back when the game first released. Are they complaining about not being able to level mermaid racial skills? No. So suck it up.
Subclasses add variety to the gameplay. They do not equal a power up.
Wishing you a fun game and many adventures,
Edward Dabbler, Head of Communication.
Athena’s brows furrowed in annoyance.
“Command. Open Advanced Status. Open Race Window. Open Class Window. Open Subclass Window.”
After reading the entirety of the windows twice and mentally checking the numbers, Athena exhaled deeply to calm herself. She didn’t like when someone messed with her organisation and calculations. She didn’t like surprises, or change in general. However, dealing with Victoria had somehow expanded her shallow reservoir of patience.
Victoria. Vicky. How is she? Athena banished the windows and looked around the room as if she could see through the walls and locate the eccentric dhampir.
She stood in a small wooden bedroom, inside one of the houses of the small village named Kansas, where she’d ended after exploring the seemingly unremarkable hamlet. She remembered being bothered by something back then—aside from Vicky’s crying face—but after the emotional two days she’d gone through, and especially last evening, those worries had faded into blurs.
Two days, though, meant eight in the game world. Another worry rose in her mind. Is she alright? She felt guilty for basically running away when her… My what? What was Vicky to her? A friend? More? She’s an NPC, Athena reminded herself. No matter how much she liked the company of the insane princess—and she did, in a pissed, exasperated, irrational kind of way—she shouldn’t get too attached. One and zeros, Thena. One and zeros.
The semi-orc didn’t notice she’d already adopted Victoria’s nickname for her even in her own thoughts.
Still, I should check up on her. Eight days was a long time alone in an empty village with God-knew-what roaming around. Athena had verified the solid palisade was unbroken before logging out. The village was probably safe. But she could do nothing if the princess decided to walk out on her own.
She made her way out of the building, noting distractedly the disturbing lack of evidence anyone had lived here in quite some time. The cupboards were full, the closets too, the bed were done, everything showed the house had been occupied—and until not too long ago, judging from the very thin layer of dust. But occupied didn’t mean lived-in. Everything was too ordered. Too tidy. A show house rather than a home.
And all the houses were the same. She could believe the occupants of one house had been OCD. The compulsive need for organisation and neatness was something she was intimately familiar with. Maybe the occupants of two houses, three at most. But the whole hamlet? It made no sense.
It was as if someone had outfitted a whole village for people who didn’t actually need to use those commodities.
She crossed the silent settlement with long strides. Here and there, she noted things she was sure hadn’t been there before. A table and chairs standing in the middle of an empty street. Footsteps in the dirt. Flower pots gathered on the ground to form a smiley. It would have been honestly creepy if she hadn’t had a pretty good idea of the culprit.
She was making her way towards the conspicuous blue house she’d left Victoria in—when a scratching sound caught her attention. Stopping in her tracks, she turned around, towards the outer wall. Now that she paid attention, the scratching seemed to be getting louder, like a thousand nails on a woollen sofa and a thousand feet shuffling in the dirt, accompanied by a low humming.
The wall was a long uninterrupted succession of pikes twice as tall as she was, surrounding the village in a half-circle up to the emerald mountain on both ends. The only opening was closed by a heavy wooden gate made of weighted pikes. On both sides of the gate were observation platforms. She climbed the nailed ladder to the left one. The sound of scratching grew even louder, and the humming turned into shallow wheezes and moans that sent shivers down her spine.
Finally, she reached the top and looked over the wall.
“Jesus fucking Christ!”
Eight days ago, she’d looked at that same view and seen only a large picturesque clearing, with fields of crops, a crystalline lake and an orchard in the distance, a beautiful scene only marred by the low thunderclouds covering the sky.
Now, however, the clearing was swarming with corpses.
Swarming, not filled.
The corpses were moving, swaying, clawing at the palisade. The creatures were so numerous she couldn’t even see the grass anymore, though it would have been trampled under the horde’s feet anyway. For an instant, she was reminded of the crowd at one of her sister’s concerts, pressing forwards against the stage and screaming the names of the band members. She would sometimes accompany Hellen and watch from backstage and be scared at the mere thought of standing in this mass of bodies that seemed like it would crush her.
The bang of thunder overhead snapped her out of her memory. The crowd of fans faded back to the horde of undead abomination and her eyes widened in horror. “Oh, fucking… fuck…fuck, shit...” Swearing unoriginally, she literally jumped off the platform and took off running through the empty streets.
A yard away from the house, she started hearing loud joyful singing, most incongruous after the vision of nightmare she’d just witnessed.
“Les poi—sons… les poisons!
♩ How I love les poisons!
How they’ll choke you when served in a dish~.”
She pushed the door open—and froze. The scene inside made little sense, and in her mind’s eye, it was superimposed with another recent memory which she quickly suppressed to focus on the present weirdness.
Athena was confident that last time she’d been here, the room had been dusty, yes, but orderly. Now the situation had somehow reversed. Everything was spotless—except for a few burn marks here and there—but complete chaos reigned everywhere.
In a corner sat a pile of metal scraps, some molten beyond recognition, some still vaguely identifiable as the remains of cooking devices… mainly frying pans for some reason. Another corner was occupied by roughly pilled parchments covered in abstruse scribbles and geometric patterns and, more disturbingly, blood stains. The plush hellhound laid atop the pile, on its back and its stomach ripped open in a gory(?) mess of wool stuffing.
Other incongruous items were scattered around, but the most eye-catching oddity was the heteroclite assortment overrunning the table, a collection of bottles filled with bubbling and fuming multicoloured liquids, bowls and mortars containing mysterious powders, and diverse ingredients which seemed to actively disagree with their presence in this place.
“First they melt down your nerves, ♫
Then they corrode your lungs!
Ah mais oui, ♫ ça c'est toujours délice…”
In the middle of this mayhem, a petite lady waltzed to the sound of her own melodious voice, dressed in a stained and ripped white dress and happily juggling a pair of vials filled with suspiciously simmering substances. Caressing the vials with hands covered in blood-red jewellery, the lady mixed their content together with an expectant look on her face and a hum to her lips.
“Les poisons, les poisons!
Hee hee hee, ♩ haw haw haw…
What a clever way to kill you. ♪
It destroys what’s inside,
And then leave it all fried! ♩
♪ Damn, I love these recipes… That’s true.”
The scene was both surreal and disturbingly familiar. Athena was rooted in place. She was so stunned she couldn’t recognise half the words the girl was singing. The mixture Victoria was holding began to bubble and whistle ominously. She quickly added a weird blue pebble into it, an action which immediately stopped the alchemical reaction.
“Here’s something for tempting the pala~te,
Prepared in the classic techni~que. ♩
First, you pound the scorpion with a malle~t,
♫ Then you slash through the skin,
And give the glands a slice,
Then you rub some salt in
'Cause that makes it taste niiice~ ♩”
The semi-orc was torn between wonder and horror, pondering if she should intervene before the young woman blew herself up or if startling Victoria would result in precisely that she was trying to avoid.
Before Athena could come to a decision, the mad princess had taken a hammer from the table and a strange bluish scorpion and had smashed it to pieces, sending bits of insides everywhere. She dropped the hammer, clapped happily like a little girl, and then stuck her forefinger inside the bluish arachnid she had just smashed. Again before the stunned Athena could intervene, Victoria was pensively licking her digits covered in thick purple mucus. The green Amazon could only stare in frozen bewilderment as her comrade shivered through an appreciative nod.
Victoria’s gaze then fell onto something inside an opened cupboard. “Zut alors! I have missed one!” She waltzed across the room and reached out inside the piece of furniture, taking out a little glowing item, bringing it to her eye with a crazy fascination in her gaze.
“Sacre bleu! ♩ What is this?!
How on earth could I miiissss—
Such a sweet little suspicious flask? ♫
Quel dommage— What a loss!
Here we go, in the sauce… ♪
Now some cyanide I think will do the task.
♩ Now I stuff it in bread.
It won't hurt, ♪ you'll be dead!
And you're certainly lucky—you are.
‘Cause your brain’s gonna rot,
In your big skully pot! ♪”
She amorously grabbed one of the largest bottles, sniffed the fumes coming out of it and staggered, a hand on her head, as she smiled drunkenly. Then she performed a jumpy axel turn, finally facing the still stunned Athena. “C’est pour vous, ♩ bon poison, au revoi—Thena!!”
Eyes widening in shock and a wide fangy smile blooming on her face, the princess carelessly dropped the glowing flask. It shattered on the ground, and a cloud evaporated from the spilt fluid, briefly taking the shape of a skull before distorting in a soundless scream. Athena gulped as she eyed some of the stains on the floor, walls and even ceiling with renewed suspicion. Completely ignoring or oblivious to0 this, Victoria sauntered up to the petrified semi-orc, grabbed her hand and pulled her into the room, casually sidestepping the puddle of poison.
“Thena! You’re back! That’s great! Come and see this! I made pancakes!”
“Pan… Wha…” She blinked. Things were going too fast. Too much to compute. Her brain wasn’t keeping up. “Wait.” She stopped, finally remembering why she’d been in such hurry…twenty seconds before? How long had it been? “We can’t stay here! There is an army of… corpses outside!”
To her renewed shock, the news didn’t seem to worry the princess. “Oh? The zombies? Sure, they showed up a couple days ago. But, hey, look! Pancakes!!” Acting completely unconcerned at being surrounded by the swarming undead, the short white girl extracted a plate of flat cakes from the mess of stills and bottles and nearly shoved it in Athena’s face before waltzing away.
This girl really needs to get her priority checked. At the same time, Athena started to feel silly for panicking. She was still very much aware they needed to find a way out of this death trap… surely… probably… maybe? It was really hard to remain tense in the face of such carelessness and insane frivolity.
Unaware of Athena’s struggle, the other girl continued to talk to no one in particular. The semi-orc wasn’t really paying attention anymore. “It’s been so long since I last ate pancakes!! And you won’t believe how hard it was to reproduce maple syrup with only poisonous flowers. I swear, Martha has such weird stuff in her cupboards.” She fished a seemingly random vial from a pile and poured its syrupy content on her dish. Producing a fork from somewhere, she stabbed it violently into the top pancake and lifted it towards Athena. “Say aaaaaaaah~”
Without thinking, the semi-orc opened her mouth and let herself be fed what had 99.9% chances of being poisoned, if only by contact with the fumes and spills of the other concoctions.
“Good. Now, chew.” Obediently, Thena chewed, under the half-expectant, half-stern look of the shorter girl. “How is it?”
“It’s…” To her surprise, it tasted… good. Not just good, in fact. It tasted purely delicious. Athena could feel the food melt in her mouth—and not the opposite like she’d expected, her mouth melting on the food. And the syrup—God. It actually tasted nothing like maple syrup. But whatever it tasted like, it was divine.
Victoria’s smile was nearly blinding. “Good, isn’t it? I do not wish to brag, but this one’s culinary talent would have left the palace’s cooks utterly flabbergasted,” the princess said, relapsing into her outdated speech pattern she’d been working on getting rid of.
“It’s… It’s really good.”
“Thank you!” The girl’s beaming smile—with sharp fangs—did strange things to Thena’s insides. She didn’t think she’d ever met anyone so overflowing with positive energy. It went beyond bubbliness. It was infectious. There was an odd discomfort on Thena’s mouth where her long-neglected facial muscles almost tried for the first time in years to form something other than a scowl.
Pushing the strange, upsetting feeling aside, she looked at the carnage around. “What is all this?”
“This? Oh! That. Well, I went around the village, and I rounded up all sorts of things. Since you weren’t waking up, I’ve been brushing up on old skills. Alchemy used to be a hobby of mine. I love making poisons! And sweets! It’s not so far from each other, considering some beastkin cannot digest chocolate.” Victoria sighed. “Poor creatures.” Obviously, she thought not being to consume chocolate was a dramatic fate.
“I see…” Athena carefully replied.
“And, then, I also tried to reproduce an old ritual I tried once. I’ve been thinking, you see, and I’ve come to the realisation that I don’t have a weapon! I know I’m a mage, and you’re good at what you do, but what if something sneaked up on me?! I need something to defend myself in close combat! But I can’t really wield a sword, and I’m too clumsy to use daggers, and a club is just undignified, you see? I mean, a princess with a cudgel? Pu-lease. So, I had to improvise. You follow?”
“I—I suppose, but—” Athena stammered before she was interrupted.
“And so I made—THIS!!” From a pile of scraps, the excited dhampir pulled out a… thing.
“What is this?”
“It’s a weapon!”
“It’s a frying pan.”
“Not a frying pan. THE frying pan!” Victoria lowered the kitchen implement and caressed it lovingly. “I named it Francis.”
“Francis the frying pan…” The semi-orc dropped flatly. Was I really worried about this girl? She rubbed her temples, feeling a headache rising up. She usually trusted her memory, but for some reason, in two days out of the game, she’d forgotten how tiring the princess could be.
That said, Francis the Frying Pan wasn’t just some bland utensil. The underside was painted with blood red colour following a motif that looked like a singularly creepy Jack-o'-lantern, and there were runic engravings running over its sides. Athena blinked. “Are those…?”
“Ancient runes? Yes. Look!” Without warning, the base of the frying pan erupted into bluish flames. Victoria shot her another triumphant beaming smile. Athena thought it looked slightly hysterical and a little scary, especially with the moving light of the flames casting shadows on the pale girl’s face. “It doesn’t even need a fire to cook! Oh, and I suppose it can be used to roast enemies too… I actually didn’t really think about that when I was making it. I mean, the runes already make it practically indestructible and multiply blunt impact by a factor of six. I thought of using it as an original hammer of sorts, and added the fire enchantment as an afterthought. I guess the flames are a bit overkill because of the dragon blood in the paint. That smiley face is cute, though. Oh, well. I just hope it won’t crumble under the amount of magical power I designed it to conduct, but I still haven’t had the opportunity for a field test. Or, I mean, I had the time, but I kind of forgot and simply used the fire function to cook pancakes. Hehe. Wait, could that be considered a field test?”
Athena’s eyes had the look of someone who’d given up on something important. She wasn’t sure what. But she had felt it breaking. She thought she’d heard something outrageous—or five—in the middle of that soliloquy, but she preferred to ignore it. For her own sanity. Hell, if that… that thing can really do that, it would rival King of Firstland’s sacred hammer. A frying pan… rivalling a royal heirloom. She vaguely wanted that fact to be known in the Capital Start, just so that others shared her headache. Schadenfreude sounded really tempting right now.
Victoria was still discoursing about her activities of the past week, but Athena tuned her out to spare her dying common sense—what fragments were left of it. Instead, she checked the notifications she’d neglected back when they first arrived in the village. She skipped over the increases in skill proficiency and other usual messages and reached the one that presently mattered.
|You have levelled up!|
Well, there’s that.
“Hey! Thena! Are you listening to me?”
The semi-orc shut the window with an internal sigh. “Yes, yes. What is it?”
Victoria pointed at the pile of scrapped metal. “Those are what’s left of Francis’ big brothers and sisters—I mean the prototypes for the Fryingator. It’s semi-enchanted metal, so it should be good for your shield. I kept it for you.” She turned back to Athena and smiled with large wet eyes, like a puppy waiting to be praised. Not sure what to do, the semi-orc awkwardly patted the shorter girl on the head, then walked to the pile of scraps. She did need to feed her [Cursed Gorgon Shield] if she didn’t want to turn to stone. The damned piece of gear had turned out to be picky. If it wasn’t precious or magical, it didn’t want it, making it a very expensive annoyance.
She equipped the shield and picked the pieces of destroyed frying pans, trying very hard not to think about what had occurred to distort cast iron so completely. The snake-haired woman engraved on her shield opened her mouth and she tossed a crumpled piece metal into it, then another. When the shield was sated, it let out a loud burp, contrary to its elegant appearance. Athena sighed and unequipped it, making it disappear back into her inventory.
She stood up. “Right. Still, we should get going. I don’t know how long the wall’s going to hold.” She turned to the clustered table, considering the benefits of loading her inventory with possibly useless and volatile components. While they wouldn’t cause any issue while inside the inventory, one of those vials might very well explode the moment she decided to throw it away and took it out. She looked at Victoria, who was now crouched next to the gutted puppy. “Victoria?”
“Yeaaassss~?” The half-vampire spun, standing up with a smile and holding the plush toy in her hands.
Athena resisted the urge to massage her forehead. She waved towards the table. “Is anything there useful?”
“That?” Victoria tilted her head cutely. “I’m not sure… I was mostly trying out random recipes for fun.”
“Oh, don’t worry. They almost never exploded.”
“ALMO—You know what, never mind. But no more mixing dangerous potions without my consent, alright?”
“Right…” Athena sighed. What else is there…? Something came to mind. “You’re not hungry, are you?” Normally, the vampire girl would pounce her whenever she felt peckish and sink her fangs into her skin without asking for permission.
“No, I’m fine. I helped myself while you were sleeping,” the other replied without one ounce of shame. “I’m good right now.”
Athena’s frown deepened. Why was she feeling slightly disappointed by that?
She shook her head. “Anyway. Is there anything you still need to do here? I’d like to get going as fast as possible.”
“Just one thing.” Athena wasn’t sure she liked the smile on Victoria’s face. It seemed just a little more unsettling than usual. “Doth thou still have that dragon soul?”
“Yeah… Right there.” The semi-orc pulled from her inventory the large gemstone holding the soul of the dungeon boss from [Bluerose Castel].
“Marvellous!” The pale girl’s creepy smile widened. “Follow me.” She twirled around and walked out a back door, still holding the plush toy scattering its woolly insides. Athena followed apprehensively. Her apprehension spiked when they emerged in a small backyard. Abstruse symbols had been drawn in the dirt then filled with some kind of white powder. The symbols formed overlapping circles more complex than anything Athena had ever seen aside from the Temple’s teleportation circles. These circles were smaller, but the runes were crammed so tight there was almost no space between them.
“Wha… What is that?”
“Hehehe. It’s a surprise. The dragon soul, please?”
Like an automaton, Athena dropped the gemstone in Victoria’s outstretched palm. She didn’t really want to know what the half-vampire had in mind, but at the same time, she did. It was the same fascination that made people stare at a derailing train or a crashing plane. Or maybe it was closer to why a deer froze in a car’s headlights. There was a certain magnetic pull to disasters.
Stumbling a bit under the weight of the stone, Victoria put it inside the stuffed puppy, then she mumbled something and the ripped opening in the belly of the toy closed, leaving it as intact as if there had never been any tear to begin with. Only with a lot of the stuffing now replaced by a gem containing the soul of an ancient dragon.
Athena’s bad feeling worsened. “Err… Vicky…”
Ignoring the Shield Bearer’s worried voice, the princess set the puppy down in the middle of the central circle, while making sure not to disturb the runes in the dirt. She then bit into her own finger until it bled and liberally scattered red drops on the circle. Without pause, she started a long and complicated incantation in a language Athena didn’t understand. The semi-orc prudently took a step back when the runes started glowing.
For almost ten minutes, Victoria continued chanting. Her voice grew deeper and hoarser as she went. Sometimes, it sounded as if two people were talking slightly out of sync, like someone else was echoing the princess’ words. The glow of the runes kept intensifying and the puppy started glowing as well.
At this point, Athena had decided not to intervene. She was standing a good distance away and had also equipped her full armour and shield. Just in case.
“…Digas lethodar nal moipar Kalipar soth moiparran kair Tasarak nal nal Kini ta shirak qaziem jalaran… TOTO!!” The incantation finished on a strange note and the world seemed to erupt in brightness as the air shook with a loud primal roar.
When the light vanished and Athena’s sight returned, the runes in the ground had been replaced by scorched earth. Victoria was standing beside the burned ground, looking a little dishevelled herself. Her already tattered dress looked even worse for wear, exposing far more flesh than Athena judged appropriate in this possible dire situation. Although, she might have trouble convincing anyone of this opinion with how her wide eyes were drinking in the sight of the practically naked princess.
Her question died on her lips when she noticed a movement to her left. She snapped her head that way and was stunned to see the plush puppy rise to its feet. She was smart enough to quickly deduce the likely purpose of this ritual now, but something in her still refused to believe it.
Nobody would actually make a dragon inhabit a stuffed doll, would they?
The answer came in the form of an earth-shattering roar that came out of the tiny plush’s tiny maw. Athena’s jaw dropped and Victoria let out a squeal of delight. “It worked! Oh, my gods, it worked! I never thought it’d actually work!” She rushed forwards and pick up the puppy. She raised it before her eyes and turned it to face her. “Hello, Toto. I’m your new mistress, Victoria.”
The dragon-puppy’s reply was to open its maw, and a deluge of blue fire immediately engulfed Victoria’s head.
Athena was about to jump and try to salvage what she could. But what would be left after taking dragon fire at point-blank? And did she really name that dragon Toto? The semi-orc’s thoughts were a mess.
Then she heard a crystalline laughter come from somewhere in the inferno. The puppy must have heard it too, because it stopped breathing fire into the princess’ face and changed its expression to something Athena could only describe as a displeased pout. As for Victoria, she appeared completely unscathed, although the collar of her dress looked slightly charred. Not seeming to care, she pressed the puppy against her face with another squeal. Toto didn’t seem too pleased about the treatment and struggled helplessly against the dhampir’s weak grip.
“Aw! You’re so cute!! Did you see, Thena, he can—Thena? What are you doing?”
“Ignore me for a moment,” the tall green woman in armour mumbled and hit the wall with her forehead a third time.
The moment was interrupted by a loud crack echoing through the village. Athena tensed and looked towards the entrance. “What was that?”
Still holding the struggling dragon-puppy plush in one arm, Victoria scratched her cheek. “Mmm… I was afraid of that. Using so much soul magic at once. Of course, it would make undead nearby go berserk.”
“WHAT?! VICKY!! YOU LITTLE—Damn. There’s no time. We need to go. Now!”
“Ah, I need to change first!” Without waiting for a protest, the princess spun on her heels and ran back inside the house.
Athena watched the door close with blinking eyes. Then her brain caught up. “This… insane… bi— VICTORIA!!” Fuming, she ran after the idiot. I swear, if those corpses don’t kill us both, I will rip her pretty head off with my own fucking hands!!
* * * * *