Storm clouds covered the sky, lightning crackling in a spray of digital wonder, illuminating the forest. Three shadows were revealed darting through the trees. As thunder sounded and the lightning came again, one peeled away, taking his position. The others continued, hunting their target.
Carrion Carriall stopped, leaning on a tree as he caught his breath. His friend and fellow Hunter, Sasa, did likewise. Carrion jerked his head toward a clearing, got a nod in response. They crept closer, peering through the darkness and trees.
A mass of bodies swayed in the clearing, an occasional collective moan breaking the silence. It was the usual mob of zombies that accompanied their real targets, the Rogues. A single one would be nothing, but at least thirty milled about the open patch, shuffling in randomized paths. Clothes hung in tatters from their bodies. For the most part, they were plain enough. Undead Online didn't focus on the horror aspect of the zombies, preferring that the regulars, as most players called the randomly spawned zombies, remain cannon fodder. It gets scary enough, mind you, when you're trapped under a pile of them. But they weren't terrible to look at.
“I'm ready.” The voice came through perfectly clear over their comms application. Frosty, their sniper, was in position. Carrion and Sasa didn't know where, exactly, but it didn't matter. Frosty knew what he was doing.
“Got it.” Carrion replied. “What's the plan?”
“Kill things?” Sasa replied sarcastically, fumbling a cigarette from his pocket.
“Well, obviously. But I don't think you can just walk in there.” Carrion waved at the spear hanging from Sasa's back. Six feet long and ending in a brutally curved blade, it was the only weapon he used. Of course, it isn't the kind of weapon you want if you plan on fighting in the middle of that many enemies, even if they are only zombies.
“Yeah, yeah.” Sasa mumbled around the cylinder of tobacco. A cloud of smoke drifted into the air. “Fine. Usual thing?”
“Yeah, sounds good. Can you handle that many?” Carrion asked.
“Sure. Shooting's hard, kiting's easy.”
Carrion was tempted to point out that that wasn't true at all, but he didn't. “Whatever. Break in five.”
They took their positions just inside the line of trees. Carrion counted the seconds on his fingers.
On the third, lightning flashed.
On the fifth, the thunder struck, rumbling through the clearing as, with a hellbent scream, Sasa tore into the clearing.
Carrion had to admit, it was a pretty sight. Sasa handled the spear with ease, cleaving through one of the zombies with a single swing before spinning to bisect another. But then his presence washed over the mob and they turned toward him. They began their strange shuffle-walk, slowly ambling toward him before picking up speed. Sasa was forced to retreat, running away from Carrion, half the crowd following him while the other half remained in place. The lot of them disappeared into the trees. In just a few seconds, the number of zombies in the clearing had been halved.
“Going in.” He said to thin air, knowing Frosty and Sasa could hear him. No reply came, so he took it as a sign to start his run. He grabbed his MP5K submachine gun with its shorter barrel for more maneuverability and walked into the clearing, pulling the trigger in short bursts.
The gunfire was loud in his ears as his bullets tore into the remaining regulars. Blood sprayed from them as they fell, the fluid turning to sparkling pixels like water in sunlight. Dropping any zombie that came too close, he made it halfway through the clearing toward his target, a copse of trees where he knew the Rogue was waiting. The entire time, the boom of sniper-fire echoed through the trees as Frosty let loose, hitting zed head after zed head without a single miss. Carrion reached the middle of the clearing.
And a new wave of zombies ran from the copse, vectoring straight toward him. He brought his gun around, jamming his finger down on the trigger, a withering stream of bullets ripping into the crowd. But it took only a second for his gun to click dry.
“Fall back, Kerry. Get out of there!” Frosty shouted over the comms, his gunfire doubling as he tried to thin the crowd.
But there were just too many. Carrion spun in place, trying to find a way out. But the two groups of zombies had him sandwiched, and he had nowhere to go. He was still looking for escape when a zombie ran into him, throwing them both to the ground.
“Dammit!” Carrion shouted, slamming his fists into his attacker, trying to throw him off. But before he could even budge the zombie that was on him, the others were piling on. Desperate sniper fire echoed through the forest, but it didn't stop the horde. A dozen pairs of teeth scissored into him, pain flaring as a dull tingle across his entire body.
It took what seemed like an eternity, but seconds later the world of flailing limbs was replaced with darkness as Carrion Carriall died.
2034, The City
Kerry Ascher slapped the TruDive helmet off his head, his neck length brown hair flopping into his eyes. He let his head fall backward onto his bed as he groaned. His heart was still pounding with adrenaline as the visions of teeth biting into him slowly faded, game over never a fun experience.
He grabbed a chunky keyboard off the floor next to his bed, flicking the on button and selecting a name from a menu.
I'm so bad at this game. He typed in exasperation.
The reply took a second to filter in as his brother, Dallas, 'Frosty' in-game, thought-typed a response. still inside UO.
Gimme a sec. I got you.
Undead Online was a game with two main things to kill. You had the usual zombie fare, obviously, but you also had Rogues, zombies born when a player dies. Rogues are controlled by a specialized AI that spends its days watching the player, learning how to play, think, and fight exactly like them. These are infinitely more dangerous than the cookie-cutter crowds of zombies, and as a result are important targets. Kerry, Dallas, and, to a certain extent, Sasa were Rogue Hunters, players who do nothing but hunt down other players after they die.
Kerry could imagine the scene as his Rogue rose from the ground, a groan falling from its lips. He could feel the crosshairs on his head as Dallas sighted, heard the boom of the sniper rifle and the THRACK-SKASH as the bullet tore through him.
You're good to go. Log back in.
Kerry sighed and settled back onto his bed, putting the TruDive back on. The whir of fans and processors was loud in his ears as he thought-clicked Undead Online from a list of games. Another half second passed, then the world slipped away.
The trees were dark around him, bodies covering the leaf-strewn ground, still waiting for them to leave before despawning. Frosty had been busy while he was dead. The storm was beginning to break up, the clouds parting to give him a glimpse of bright stars as he got to his feet.
“Sasa?” He asked no one, knowing they'd hear him over the comms app. The reply took a second.
“Hey kid. Heard you took a spill?”
“Just a little one. Are you on your way?”
“Nah. I still got zombies on my booty. You're on your own.”
“Got it.” Carrion started toward the copse of trees where Harrier, their target, waited.
“Careful in there Kerry, I don't have coverage.”
“Don't worry. I got this.”
He weaved through the trees, settling behind one just outside a second clearing. Inside, Harrier was standing stock still. As always, Rogues were consistent with their player-counterparts.
Harrier spent his time defending smaller towns from randomly spawned hordes that could easily wipe out the lower population counts. He was a patient kind of guy who preferred to let his enemies come to him. Hence why his Rogue had stayed put despite the fact that he must have known they were clearing out the regulars to get to him. It was kind of ironic how he died. He spent his days defending people from random hordes, but was taken down when one of those same hordes was spawned in this forest as he passed by. For weapons, he used a-
Carrion stiffened. Harrier was looking straight at him! He'd been so lost in thought he hadn't even noticed. They stared at each other for a second before, the motions seeming to slow down and take forever, they both moved.
Harrier grabbed a long-barreled shotgun that hung from his hip and raised it at Carrion. The flash and boom followed a second later, a wave of buckshot tearing the tree into splinters just as he rolled away from it. He came to rest behind a second tree, panting from the sudden exertion. The chick-chick of Harrier cycling a new shell seemed nearly silent compared to the deafening roar of the shotgun, but Carrion's ears perked up at the sound of it anyway.
In three seconds, a knowledge of guns beyond his years filtered through his mind, one thought leading to another, then another until he knew what he had to do. He took a single breath to steel himself.
Then he sprinted into the clearing, running so fast he was almost a blur. He reached the middle of the clearing and, for an instant, thought he'd made a mistake. But then Harrier turned to follow, raising the shotgun again. He pulled the trigger and the world seemed to go bright as Carrion's heart nearly stopped.
The gun flashed-
And the buckshot grazed Carrion's shoulder, missing the kill shot!
The force of the impact nearly carried him off his feet, but he knew that if he fell, he was dead. So he threw himself toward Harrier. The man reared back as Carrion unsteadily charged at him, trying to chamber a new shell, but the pump seemed to catch and he couldn't. Carrion, flushing with his victory, leveled his gun and fired a single shot, catching Harrier in the head. The man was thrown backward off his feet and died instantly.
And just like that, the clearing was still.
Carrion dropped to his knees, gasping for air. The wound in his shoulder was throbbing with a dull ache, the pain inhibitors reducing it to the familiar tingle. Already the dynamic healing systems were kicking into action, stitching the torn skin together. This system reduces the healing time of players according to how bad their wounds are. No one wants to spend three weeks in bed because they broke their arm in a hunt, after all.
He got to his feet, taking a second to pat himself on the back for a successful plan. He'd known from the beginning that the shotgun Harrier used was a Franchi Spas-12, a brutally powerful combat shotgun. He also knew that the gun templates Undead Online used were based off of their real life counterparts, which meant the Spas-12 in UO had a difficult to use pump-action that tended to catch while cycling a new shell, especially if you're doing it in a hurry. This usually didn't matter since the Spas-12 also had a semi-automatic mode that ignored the pump-action. But as soon as Harrier cycled a new shell by hand, Carrion knew he wasn't using it. After that, it was just a matter of speed.
He heaved a sigh of relief that he'd been fast enough to throw off Harrier's aim, replaying the brief fight as he left the clearing. He didn't mess with the body. Loot doesn't drop in UO, unless you want to steal someone's gun while they're dead. The body would disappear soon enough when the real Harrier signed back in.
As he passed through the line of trees, he found Frosty and Sasa waiting for him.
“You got him. Great job, bro.” Frosty slapped him on the back.
“Thanks, but it was easy.” Carrion waved his hand in dismissal.
“Yeah, so easy you let him hit you.” Sasa grinned, messing with him.
“Oh, he got lucky.”
“Whatever. Hey, you guys up for another hunt?” Sasa asked.
“Nah. I gotta get some sleep, and we still have to walk back to town.” Frosty answered.
Sasa's eyes drifted upward, looking at a clock in his In-Head-Display, or IHD, the menu that floated around the edges of a player's vision. He gave a low whistle. “Yeah, you're right. I gotta head to bed too. I don't get some sleep, Marcie's gonna kill me.”
They both half turned to Carrion. He just shook his head. “Nah, you guys go on ahead, I'm gonna keep going for a bit.”
“Kerry, come on, man.” Frosty said, concerned.
“Don't worry about it.”
“Whatever you say, man. As long as you're in bed by three.”
With that, Sasa and Frosty walked away leaving him alone in the clearing. He glanced up at the sky, now covered in glorious stars, their glow untouched by the City lights he grew up under. Then he disappeared into the trees himself, and the scene was still.
Outway, The Next Day
Outway was one of the largest towns in UO, for good reason. The current game world was a rough diamond three hundred miles in diameter. Much of it was covered in forest, although there was Lake Mile in the east and the plains of the starting area. But the most memorable landmark on the map was the river. This massive current of water ran straight through the middle of the map, north-west to south-east, effectively dividing the map into two pieces. It even cut straight through Mount Ironheight, the three mile high mountain that rose from the exact center of the map and that served as the most inhospitable area in the entire world.
The two pieces of map were known as the Starter side, because it was where players first spawned, and the Wild side, which was mostly untamed wilderness, as well as containing the most dangerous areas on the map, with fewer players to help defend towns.
Outway was only a few hundred feet from the bridge that served as the easiest way across the river. Most of the game was centered around this bridge, as without it the players were confined to a single side of the map. On the Starter side, there was a town similar to Outway known as Bridgehaven, which had originally been built to house the people constructing the bridge. Now, it served as the largest town in Undead Online, a central area for nearly every business in the game. Its proximity to the bridge made it well suited as a holding town, a place to store supplies before they made their way across the bridge.
Meanwhile, Outway was typically the first destination for these supplies. Because of its location, it served as a staging area for almost anything that had to do with the Wild side.
Which was why Frosty and Carrion were now making their way into the town.
The message had come through a few hours before, sent to any Rogue Hunters willing to be added to a mailing list. It didn't say what was happening, only that there would be a meeting in Outway. Since it was only sent to Hunters, it was pretty clear there was someone who needed to be hunted down. But who?
The town was bustling as they made their way through it, weaving through the vendors and porters. Outway was as close to a trade town as UO had. Anything that was being transported into the Wild side for distribution in towns made a stop here, and many people were happy to offload a few items along the way. You could find nearly anything, and you could get most of it, as long as you had something to trade.
In time, they found themselves in the town square, a hub of activity that served as the center-point of a center-point. There was a hastily built hut in the middle of it all, constructed specially for this meeting. In six hours, it would be torn down and the wood handed around to anyone who needed it.
The crowd inside was just beginning to break up as they walked in. Apparently they had just missed it. They stood around for a minute, uncomfortable and still confused, until they saw Ashfiell, a friend and a fellow Hunter leaning against the wall in a corner. They made their way toward him.
“Ash!” Carrion called out. The Hunter looked around in surprise before nodding at them.
Ash was an interesting character, to say the least. He had shockingly white-blonde hair, pale skin, and light gray eyes. The general color scheme of him was why he was known as Ash. He was also half-insane. A full-bladed scythe, his only weapon, leaned against the wall next to him, a testament to how weird he was.
“What's going on?” Frosty asked.
“ForSaken got got.”
“He got... You mean he's a Rogue now.” Carrion deciphered.
ForSaken was a linesman, someone who dedicated their time to exploring the wilderness, claiming territory back from the horde. Undead Online was a difficult game. You started with a single town and you had to expand outward, taking land and killing zombies as you went, trying to survive in a world that only wanted you for your brains. Linesmen were the driving force behind it, running around behind enemy lines, so to speak, thinning the herd and surveying the land. They were considered the best players in the game, because it wasn't an easy job to do, walking around out there with no one watching your back. And ForSaken was widely considered to be the best of them. If the didn't take care of this, it could definitely be a problem.
“Well, it's not too bad. I mean, we just have to catch him before he migrates to the Starter side. He can't exactly get across the bridge by himself.”
“That's the freaky thing though. He was already on the civilized side when he got nommed.” Ash replied.
“What?” Carrion asked, surprised. “What's a full time linesman doing over there? He's supposed to be over here doing, uh, linesman things.”
“Who knows. All I care about is that there's an uproar. You know how it gets around here when someone big goes down. All the crazy chicks start flocking to the bridge, looking to hunt.”
“To hunt him, not you, man.” Frosty chuckled.
“Okay. So, I can't help but feel like this is all kind of blown out of proportion though. I mean, it's not really that bad.” Carrion said skeptically.
“C'mon man, you know who's on everyone's minds right now. You remember what went down with Kiari.”
Kiari Retriel was an old lineswoman from more than a year before. She was incredibly good. She had just come off of the PvE pro circuit when she started playing, and she was nearly unstoppable. She was a guiding hand in the construction of the bridge, and without her saving everyone's butts it might never have gotten finished. But then, fourteen months ago, she was caught out defending a village from a massive horde of zombies. She single handedly saved all three hundred players in the small town. And then, when she died under a crowd of hundreds of zed, her Rogue promptly destroyed all three hundred players that she had just saved. The way she could tear through a crowd meant she could ruin entire towns by herself. The resulting wave of Rogues ripped through the still developing Wild side, cascading through the map like a tsunami of death. They forced their way along the bridge and onto the Starter side.
Now, in most MMOs there's not a hard game over. You die, you respawn outside the dungeon, and you try again. There's no way to truly lose. But in UO, this isn't the case. It's a constant struggle of living versus dead, because if the amount of live players drops below thirty percent of the total population, then the game ends right then. The servers are shut off and the map data is completely wiped. Then, six months later, it all comes back on. But now everything is gone. It's an entirely new world, and the players have to start over from scratch. All the work you've poured into it over the years is just gone. It's like forgetting to hit the save button.
Carrion shuddered as he remembered the waves of zombies that had come with Kiari's turning. It was the only time he'd seen the population count drop below forty percent. It was the closest many players had ever come to seeing the game over screen.
“I remember hiding in a cave, watching Frosty take potshots at passing randoms, waiting for the Grace Period to kick out.”
The Grace Period was what players called the three day respawn time. To keep the game from becoming impossible and so that players didn't spend weeks at a time waiting to respawn, Rogues would deactivate after three days, letting their player log back in. Because of this, most game ending scenarios only have a few days to end it all. When Kiari's time was up, she spawned back in and rallied everyone, taking back the map. But she was so shaken by what her Rogue had managed to do that she stopped playing, scared of her own strength. No one knew what had happened to her after that.
“But come on.” Carrion continued. “Kiari was special. I mean, ForSaken and her have both spent time on pro circuits, but Kiari was on a different level. For one thing, she was a PvE player. She was a master at these open world games. Saken's just a PvP guy. He can kill pretty much anyone in a 1v1, but he's not exactly a town wrecker like Kiari was. He's better at small scale stuff, taking people out. He should have been a Rogue Hunter. You know what I mean?”
“Whatever you say, Carebear.” Ash said, enjoying the way Carrion grimaced. The ashen Hunter fell silent for a minute, thinking. When he spoke again, it was shocking how normal he sounded.
“Saken's got one advantage Kiari didn't though. She started on the Wild side, with five thousand experienced Hunters and linesguys to try to stop her before she could cross the bridge. The fact that we managed to take out so many of the Rogues she had with her went a long way to keeping it all going. But Saken, he's already there. We lost the chokepoint of the bridge just because he had already crossed it. And now we can't even find him. We have twenty thousand noobs over on that side, woodcutters and blacksmiths and all, just waiting for him to show up and knock on their doors. All it takes is for one town to go down, then another, and another, and suddenly we're,” He waved a hand at Carrion, “Hiding in caves. Throw a dart at the map, buddy. Throw two. Hell, put the darts on a table and throw the map at them. We could lose a lot of people just because all the good guys are over here instead of over there. Even every linesman and Hunter in the game couldn't stand up to twenty thousand Rogues with ForSaken at their head. Whatever. I gee tee gee. See you guys later. Hey, Frosty, you up to come drinking later?”
“No!” Frosty exclaimed, then caught himself. “I mean, nah. I swore on my grandmother's grave, no more tequila after I came home and put on mom's wedding dress.”
“Yeah, I gotcha.” Ash laughed. “Okay, I'll see you two later.”
As he walked away, Carrion leaned against the wall. In his head, he could see a plain of burning grass. A horde of twenty thousand zombies was marching across it, ForSaken in front of them, marching to end the game. Marching toward him.
He shook his head and grabbed Frosty by the shoulder.
The smell of running water was thick in the air, fresh and clean. The bridge stretched more than 700 feet across brutal water and tearing rapids. Standing on even ground, they could barely see the other side. Just like always, Carrion couldn't help but stand for a minute and stare in awe. Made of wood and steel, it was the biggest project he'd ever been a part of. And it was the same for many players. It was such an achievement that several big gaming magazines had included it on top ten lists of amazing player built objects, giving a good amount of fame to UO and the players involved. For a while, people had even bought Undead Online just so they could come look at it. But time passes and memory fades, and sightseers see the sights and get bored of it. After a while, everything went back to normal and the players, themselves included, moved on with expansion.
As they moved onto the pathway of wood, the sound of the river drifting up and into their ears like being on the sea, his mind drifted back to his early days in UO.
Sasa, an old gaming buddy of Dallas even then, had tried it out and fallen in love with it, insisting that they play it. They did and dropped into a time of massive productivity. They had started during the construction of the bridge, when everyone had the same goal in mind. The single-minded determination, the sense of community, it didn't take long for them to fall in love with it like Sasa had.
He fondly remembered those times, logging in at 10 PM, protecting towns of builders and hunting down the Rogues that had popped up during the days work, rallying around the little spit of wood extending onto the water as waves of zombies came from nowhere and everywhere. Sometimes he missed the days when there was so little of the world to explore, when everyone knew who you were and you knew that whatever you were doing, you were helping in your own way. These days, the players were sprawled out over sixty percent of the map, and it wasn't very difficult to find someone who didn't remember your name.
Inevitably, his mind drifted to what came next, the dark days where, with the high of finishing the bridge still fresh in their mind, the players were eager to keep the comradery going. Towns popped up like flowers in spring, everyone working tirelessly. But in those days, everyone was afraid to spread out too much. The new guys, the sight seers who wanted to walk the famous hand-built bridge, skewed the game into the zombies' favor, dying and being saved and dying again. And that meant it was only a matter of time until it all crumbled.
It happened in the month after the bridge was completed. In the massive migration of linesmen that poured across the bridge, Kiari was turned defending one of the newly built towns, and because everything was all clustered together, the infection spread like wildfire, moving almost as fast as the wave of information warning of it.
After that, everyone realized that, contrary to what they thought was the best way to play, they needed to spread out, letting information move faster than the average horde. Message boards were created, mailing lists put together. And, gradually, everyone moved farther and farther apart. Friends went days and weeks without seeing each other instead of mere hours. And now that everyone had seen what a single Rogue could do, there was always that sense of fear toward the stronger players. No one wanted to admit it and no one meant for it to happen, but they couldn't stop themselves. The seeds of distrust had been sown.
Carrion's mind was pulled back to the present as they walked off the bridge, that little half step down feeling like the confirmation that he'd just crossed something that had taken three months of withering, hard work to complete, something he'd actually had a hand in making. A satisfied flush came over him.
Bridgehaven had come into sight during the last third of the bridge. Eight thousand people lived in Bridgehaven, making it the third largest town in UO, trailing behind Outway and just after Ashville, the starting town. Like Outway, it was part trade center and part way station, but it had a higher permanent population than Outway, which served as a layover point for anyone traveling across the bridge to and from the Wild side. It was a bustling town to say the least, as close to the bridge as Outway but safer on the opposite side of it, with a hundred different occupations meeting and merging there, from woodcutters to blacksmiths to informants. And this last trade was why Carrion and Frosty were making their way through the maze of stalls and houses.
Soon enough, they were in front of a little shack that made a dual business of food and gossip. The owner was a girl who went by the name of Bridelle. She made good food, but her real talent and passion was information collecting. Over the course of the years, her easygoing but standoffish manner had helped her strike up friendships with hundreds of people all over the map, making her a literal well of information.
They found her behind the counter, a pair of oven mitts still on her hands from where she had been working on the oven. Her gold hair was slightly blackened with soot from a grease fire, which did nothing to dampen her good looks. While Carrion leaned his elbows on the counter, Frosty retreated to a table. He always enjoyed watching the two barter. If it could be called that.
“You here to eat, Kerry?” She asked, wiping down a tin cup.
“No. We're hoping you have some info.”
“About?” He winced as he felt her slipping into the shrewd business mode that made her one of the best informants in the game. Frosty gave him a thumbs up and a trollish grin.
“ForSaken. Anyone seen him lately?”
“That depends. You have anything to trade for that information?”
“Then go away.” She proclaimed loudly. “I'm tired of giving you information for nothing.”
“Oh, come on Brid, this is important. Please?”
“Fine. I haven't heard anything in about three hours, but someone told me they saw him six miles east of Bushtown. He tore some Hunters to pieces then skedaddled south-east.”
“South-east? Where's he going, the edge lands?”
“Do you have anything to give me for that information?”
“I can give you my body.”
She seemed to consider it for a moment. “That would get you about... Six letters of it.”
“Aw, come on, you're killing me here.”
“Fine, fine. This is just conjecture here, but I think I know where he's going. You know Caster Call?”
“The mining town?”
“That's the one.”
“Why? There's like six people there.”
“Exactly. Now, like I said, just conjecture, but ForSaken came from Player versus Player, right?”
“So he's not Kiari. He's used to the little fights, not trying to take down an entire town. So, he wants a small town to begin with, somewhere that doesn't have a lot of firepower. Then he can take those people and attack another town, then another.”
“And then it cascades.”
“And then it cascades.” She confirmed.
“You're a genius Brid.”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Flattery will get you nothing, Carriall. But keep talking like that, and I might not regret giving you free info so much.”
“Thanks for the intel, Brid.” He tapped the counter and walked away. Frosty joined him as they left the little shack.
“I'm telling you, she loves you.” Frosty said as they walked down the street.
A few hours later
The storm clouds were dark against the midday sun, throwing the expanse of trees into shade. Carrion looked at them, thinking hard.
“We should find some shelter. It looks like it's going to be a bad one.” Frosty said as they stopped under a large oak tree, a few drops of rain spitting to rest on them.
Carrion thought for a second longer, then smiled.
“What? You have that look you get when you've figured something out.”
“If you've figured out we need shelter, what are the odds that the best linesman in the game wouldn't as well?”
“You have something in mind?” Frosty asked.
Carrion didn't answer. He waved his hands through the air, pulling up and navigating menus that only he could see. After a minute, he found what he was looking for.
“There's a windmill a mile south of here.”
“Good old Ace.”
The Ace Windmill Company was one of the more unusual collections of players in UO. For fifteen hours a week, they spent their time constructing windmills all over the map, usually getting one done a week. The ones closer to towns were fully functional, but most of them were purely for shelter in storms like this. No one really knew why they did it, but Carrion had a running theory that either a player was paying them, or Chariot Games, the developers of Undead Online, were giving them a pay check for it. Either way, it was pretty rare to walk for more than an hour or two without seeing one of the, admittedly pretty awesome, buildings.
“Well,” Frosty continued, “Let me point out the flaw in your deduction. You found that thing with Ace's finder app. Rogues don't have those.”
“ForSaken once told me he has them memorized. His Rogue would be the same way.”
“All of them? There's like a hundred and fifty of those things. It's a long shot, at best.”
“He's the best. And he spends so much time out in the wilderness, he kind of needs it. Besides, we need shelter anyway, so what do we have to lose? Unless you want to walk all the way to Caster Call in the rain.”
“Good point. Okay, lead the way windmill man.”
It took a solid twenty minutes of running, during which the light sprinkle of rain turned into a full force downpour. But finally, soaked to the bone and shivering from simulated cold, they caught sight of the windmill through the trees. It was a majestic sight, the thirty foot tall building rising from an empty patch of ground, the wooden mill blades slowly turning in the wind.
But more important than the building itself was the crowd of zombies milling around in front of it. One or two would have been a normal occurrence, but there were over a dozen. Way too many for it to be random. There was definitely a Rogue in there. And since they were already on his trail, it was almost certainly ForSaken.
They crouched behind a tree to make a plan, water streaming from the leaves all around them and pattering against the ground, a natural buffer that meant their voices wouldn't travel to the zombies twenty feet away.
“Well, I guess you were right.” Frosty said.
“Yeah. Now we have to get in there.” Carrion replied.
“First, we need to take down the mobs.”
“Yeah, and we can't shoot our way in. That'll let him know we're coming.”
“Well, he'll know we're coming soon enough anyway. I'm more worried about myself, actually.”
“What do you mean?” Carrion asked.
“Come on man, I'm a sniper. There's nothing for me to hit once you're in there. Besides, you can't take him alone, so I have to go in with you anyway. And I'm no good in a close-in firefight. I'm not exactly rolling in advantages here.”
The sound of rain muffled the sounds of the forest, but they both still heard the snap of the stick breaking. Moving at the same time, they whirled to face the person who had been sneaking up on them, Carrion going low and Frosty high, providing two targets so they couldn't be taken out at the same time. In an instant, all three of them were looking down the barrels of someone else's gun.
There was a tense moment of standoff as Carrion and Frosty realized the stalker wasn't a Rogue. But no one lowered their weapon. There was no reason for a traveler to be this close to a horde of zombies, let alone the same Rogue they were after. He was a Hunter.
“Back off, both of you. This is my kill.” The young man said dangerously. His black hair hung in tresses from a helmet, his clothes seemed easy to move in. And he seemed ready to move, himself.
Frosty's natural hardiness kicked in as he sighted down the barrel of his rifle. “No. Just walk away from here and no one will get hurt.”
Carrion slowly set his gun down. Rogue Hunters typically didn't have anything against working together. For the most part, it wasn't a competitive job. But this guy and Frosty seemed to bounce off of each other. “Let's just calm down.”
“Screw that. This one's mine.”
A name floated up from the depths of Carrion's mind.
“You think you can take ForSaken alone?” Frosty asked.
“Hey, lets just put our guns down, all of us.” Carrion spoke slowly. “Getting shot won't do anything anyway. There's no friendly fire this close to zombies.” This made it easier for groups to take down large hordes, since you couldn't get shot in the back by accident.
“Shut up. Back away from here, both of you.” The Hunter repeated. “It may not kill you, but it will definitely let the zombies know we're here.”
“Go ahead, if you think you can survive the horde.” Frosty replied.
“Hey, look.” Carrion began, slowly rising to his feet. “There's no point fighting. Why don't we just team up?”
“Why don't you shut up?” The Hunter replied.
“Hey! Don't talk to my bro like that.” Frosty snapped, his trigger finger tightening. The collective heartbeat of the three seemed to get a little faster.
“Calm down!” Carrion raised his hands. For a second, no one talked. Then the Hunter lowered his guns, spitting to the side. Frosty slowly put his rifle away. “Does this mean you've decided to work with us?”
“I prefer to work alone.”
“And I prefer to work with people I like.” Frosty replied. “Sometimes, you have to do things you don't like, you know?”
“Carrion Carriall. Sader, right?” Carrion extended his hand. He retracted it when the Hunter just looked at it.
“Sader Corbery. And yeah, I know who you are.” He paused for a beat, then gave a little half smile. “And I guess it couldn't be helped if we happen to attack the same windmill at the same time.”
“And it also couldn't really be helped if we happened to make a plan about attacking said windmill beforehand, right?”
The smile grew. “Well, sometimes these weird things just happen.”
“Good. Because now that you're here, I think we can actually pull this off. Here's my plan.”
The clearing around the windmill was still, the occasional shifting of the zombies the only motion to attract the eye. The rain cascading from the blackened clouds hit everything, soaking into the ground and streaming from leaves and the hard planes of the windmill. Water sprayed into the air from where the blades were spinning, propelled by gusts felt above the treeline. It felt like a picture from a fairytale.
Carrion huddled behind his tree, Sader behind a second. Anxiety twisted in his gut as water streamed from his clothes. It took him a second to figure out why. He'd been on hundreds of hunts before, but this was the first time he'd gone up against someone like ForSaken. He tried to steel himself for the coming battle, but his breath caught until he forced himself to calm. He nodded to Sader and counted the seconds on his fingers, breathing on each one. Finally, he took the last breath and the two burst from behind their trees.
Frosty's rifle went off behind them and one of the regulars dropped. They adjusted course, guns blazing and widening the hole in the ranks. They ran straight into the crowd, ducking and weaving as half-rotted arms swung and reached for them. Then, like the clouds parting to let in sunshine, they were through. They didn't pause. The groans of alerted zombies were loud behind them, the shuff-shlip of dozens of feet stumbling across the soaked ground letting them know they were being followed. Then they were through the left-open door of the windmill and everything from the outside world was muffled.
Clean wood stretched up all around them, the smell of sawdust and sap still strong from when it had been built eight months before, soft and comforting in that strange primal way. The bottom floor was simple. It was just an open room twenty feet across, a single support beam rising into the ceiling fifteen feet above, a dirt floor dry except around the edges where runoff water made its way through the ground. There was a staircase beside the door that spiraled its way along the walls of the windmill. After a glance, they took it.
ForSaken sat on the ground, waiting patiently for the storm to pass. His weapon, an M16 assault rifle, lay across his knees. The sound of regulars shuffling through the small complex of rooms soft in his digital ears. Fuzzy logic streamed across computer-driven synapses, crunching scenarios, working the world like a game of chess. Then, without warning, the boom of gunfire echoed up and to him. He slowly got to his feet, in no hurry. His foes would come to him, soon enough. Soon enough.
They crested the staircase silently. A block of wood served as a thick railing, separating them from the rest of the floor. They huddled behind it to catch their breath and look around, peeking from behind the edges. A few rooms were sectioned off to the right, but the rest of the space was open. A few shadows were shifting in the rooms. Regulars.
Meanwhile, their target was standing in the middle of the open space, watching the staircase. Carrion pulled back behind the railing, dropping low. He jerked his head to the side, pulling Sader closer.
“Fifteen feet that way.” He gestured.
“I saw. We can just take the shot from here. Stay down.” Sader raised his assault rifle, flicking the safety off. Slowly, he crouch-walked to the opposite side of the railing, peeked around, trying to sight...
But as soon as he poked around the corner, a wave of gunfire ripped through the railing, bullets peppering the air around him, coming within millimeters of killing him. As one tore through his helmet, coming within a hair of hitting him, he pulled back, cursing. He settled against the wood, panting from the surge of adrenaline.
“Okay. I guess we can't do that.”
“Lets just pull out and go to plan B. We can't get to him from here.”
The change in Sader was immediate. Rather than responding, he seemed to withdraw. A muscle tweaked in his jawline.
“What's going on up there? If you're coming out, come out.” Frosty said over their comms app, having listened in on the whole thing.
“No.” Sader said, voice low and dangerous.
“Sader, come on, what are you doing?” Carrion grabbed him by the shoulder, shaking him.
“We can do this.”
“Sader, come on. We mess up here and all that happens is Saken gets away and Frosty has to hunt us both down. Lets go.” Carrion turned to leave. He made it a few steps down before Sader's furious scream echoed in his ears. He whirled, expecting to see the Hunter fallen, blood streaming from a wound.
Instead, all he saw was Sader's tail end scrambling over the railing. He stood there for a second, unable to comprehend what he'd just seen, then he burst into frenzied action himself, letting out a stream of curses.
“Sader!” He yelled as he sprinted up the stairs.
“What's going on in there?!” Frosty shouted in his ear.
“Change of plans.” Carrion leaped up the last stair. He caught sight of Sader sprinting at ForSaken, the Rogue raising his gun. “Do it now.”
But Carrion was already running, the voice in his ear disappearing in the sound of gunfire.
ForSaken was puzzled. He'd displayed the clear upper hand, driving the Hunter back into cover. So much time passed that he'd begun to think they had retreated altogether. But then, just as he was about to make his way from the windmill, one of them leaped over the railing, gun already firing. He rolled to the side to avoid the gunfire, then brought the M16 up. He didn't have to sight, not at this distance. The gun bucked in his hands, and the reckless one went down, thrown off his feet. He switched targets, taking aim at the second who was rushing toward him. But then something happened that ForSaken couldn't have expected.
Carrion saw Sader go down, his blood spraying into the air. ForSaken raised his gun again and Carrion knew he'd gone too far. He couldn't bring his gun up in time. In slow motion, ForSaken's trigger finger tightened-
And the first explosion rocked the windmill! Everyone inside was thrown off balance, then the second explosion came and the whole thing began to topple, the creak of snapping wood louder than the explosions. Then the world seemed to tilt, the floor no longer flat, the entire windmill falling to the ground.
In a flash, ForSaken spun. He raised his gun and fired a mighty burst of bullets, one of the walls splintering and snapping. He let the gun fall to its strap then, with a devil-may-care recklessness, sprinted at the weakened wall. He jumped the final few feet and tore straight through, disappearing as if by magic. The whole thing took less than five seconds.
Meanwhile, Kerry reached Sader. He knew that if Sader was going to die, it would have happened already, and he would already be turning into a Rogue. Since he wasn't, he knew the dynamic healing system had kicked in and stopped the Hunter's death march. He fell to a crouch beside Sader.
“Why?” Came the whisper. “Now we're both dead.”
“That's a stupid question.” Carrion answered, wiping sweat from his brow, glancing around wildly, trying not to panic. “Because you're my friend. And I'll never stop fighting to protect my friends.”
Sader gave a soft chuckle. And then it began.
Carrion's stomach lurched as the windmill began to turn, continuing its fall. The world seemed to twist, turning and tumbling and spinning and spinning as he tried to think, but then the world seemed to click into place and the thought struck him. He knew immediately that it was the only thing to do. Already, the staircase was beyond reach, the tilting of the floor making it impossible to get there. But there was a another way out.
He picked up the fallen Hunter, straining to shoulder his weight. Then he waited. The windmill continued turning, and turning, and turning, the incline getting steeper and steeper. Then, just as he began to slide across the wood floor, he began running downhill. The walls rotated and rotated, his vision skating over wooden panels and walls. Then the windmill fell too far and his feet left ground, his heart pounding as he and Sader fell toward hard wood.
It's about to hit the ground! The thought flashed through his mind, followed by an image of them both buried inside a thousand pounds of splintered wood. Nothing could survive-
But then, as if by magic, the windmill gave the fateful half turn he needed it to and ForSaken's hole lined up right beneath them. They crossed the final few feet...
And sailed through perfectly!
Suddenly, they were outside, trees all around them. They fell through the canopy of leaves, seeming to float forever. Then the ground rushed to meet them. For half a second, Carrion wondered if this would kill them, after everything that had just gone right. Then they slammed into the dirt. It was soaked through and mostly mud, which was the only reason they survived.
Even so, he felt the creak and pop of his legs sandwiched between man and ground, then the instant tingle and numbness of broken bones. But he ignored the feeling of nothingness -He saw the shadow of the windmill on the ground all around- and forced his legs to extend, throwing them forward. They inched through space -The shadow grew dark and impossibly large- and then they were in the clear.
With the crack and smash of a thousand planks of wood breaking, snapping, and splintering in the same second, the windmill crashed into the trees. It sounded like the world was ending, an endless roar of destruction punctuated with the thuds of debris flying down all around them. It was like being in a bubble with a rock slide inside it. Wood rained down on them, battering them into the ground. It went on so long that they thought the debris would be the end of them, but then finally it was over and a cloud of dust billowed over the two.
They laid there for a long minute, gasping in the dust laden air. In the aftermath of so much noise, neither could hear anything, the world reduced to the grass beneath them, the smoke around them, and the dull beat of their own hearts. Then a breeze picked up and the dust began drifting away, revealing a sky full of retreating clouds, visible through the now empty space in the forest created by the fall of the windmill.
They breathed sighs of relief as the world came to a still, the last of the debris hitting the ground. Somehow, they had survived. The battle of the windmill was over.
Twenty minutes earlier
“Let me get something straight here. You want me to destroy the windmill. With a sniper rifle.” The disbelief was plain on Frosty's face.
“Is it not possible?” Carrion asked. Frosty pulled a bullet from one of his pockets to examine it.
“Maybe. If I-”
“Hold up right there.” Sader said. “I don't care how many of those bullets you have, it's not bringing that thing down. So, what about these?”
He pulled two spheres from his pocket. Rings dangled from a small protrusion at the top. Grenades. Carrion looked at him in shock.
“Where did you get these? There's no template for them so if you want to make them, you have to actually know how.”
“I know a guy who knows something about explosives. He mostly makes mining grade stuff, but every now and then he gets the stuff to make a few of these and offloads them onto me. So, you think these will work?”
“I would not be surprised.” Frosty carefully took the grenades, sliding them into a pocket. “So, I think we're ready to go.”
As they took their positions, Sader had a little laugh. “Bring down a windmill with a rifle. Ridiculous.”
“We're alive!” Sader panted, his voice dull in his battered ears. He pushed himself up, careful not to cut himself on any debris. “I can't believe that worked.”
“Of course it worked. I'm a damn genius.” Carrion joked, pawing at his ears. Suddenly, he heard a pop as they flexed and whined, his hearing back to normal. His ears healed, he heard a shout.
“Kerry? Sader?” Frosty called, searching the debris for them. Their comms app was still going, so he knew they were alive, but he didn't know where. Carrion called out and his brother appeared over a mountain of rubble. “Holy crap. How did you get out of the windmill?”
“Magic.” Carrion answered, still panting. Then an uncharacteristic look of fury came over him. He turned to Sader. “What the hell was that? You almost got us both killed in there.”
“I... I'm sorry.” A pained look crossed Sader's face, but Carrion ignored it.
“You're sorry? That was the dumbest thing you could have done right then!”
“Kerry!” Frosty snapped. “Calm down!”
“I'm sorry. It's just...” Sader trailed off. “Back before I was a gamer, I was in the military. I was good at it, enjoyed the action.” Carrion picked up on where this was going.
“Hey,” He began, but Sader kept going.
“I was part of a Quick Response Team in the Army. My team was like my family. I called some of them my brothers.”
“Sader, come on man.”
But now tears were crowding around the edges of the older Hunter's eyes. “And then one day we were sent into a bad area. Out intel was faulty, and we ended up getting separated. Most of us made it out, but one of us didn't. I wanted to go back in, but we needed a hasty exfil, and I was ordered not to. The next time I saw him, he was in a pine box. Ever since then, whenever someone tells me not to go in, to just back out, I... I can't stand it.”
Sader's hands clenched into fists. Carrion was speechless. He couldn't find words to say. But Frosty stepped forward.
“Hey. No harm, no foul. Right? Yeah, you did something stupid. But it's all good in the end, right?”
“Yeah.” Sader said softly, the tension slowly leaving him. He wiped his eyes.
“But for the record, there is a difference between someone's life being on the line and getting a game over screen. You gotta go all in for one, but the other's not so bad. Roger?”
Sader gave a sad half smile. “Got it. Sarge.”
“Good.” Frosty looked up at the sky. The sun was getting lower, indicating it was about 3 PM. “We gotta get going. Can't let him get too far ahead of us.”
“What happened to ForSaken?” Sader asked.
“He popped out behind the windmill, out of nowhere. Then he started running. I got a shot in, but it just slowed him down. He's still going east. Caster Call's looking more and more likely.”
The two started walking away. Carrion called out. “Hey, Sader.”
“Yeah?” Sader asked.
“Look. About what I said earlier. I'm sorry. It was overkill.”
“Don't worry about it, kid. You were right. It was a stupid move. Come on, lets go.” They both moved to follow Frosty, who had stopped to watch the affair with something approaching satisfaction.
But Carrion stopped as an icon began pulsing in his IHD. He pulled it up with a wave and looked at it in consternation.
“What?” Frosty asked.
“I got pinged.”
“Pinged? By who?”
“Lets find out.” Carrion popped the icon, bringing up a chat room app. Apart from him, there was only one person in it. Seiji Kenjima. The name wasn't familiar. He started thought-typing.
Who is this?
Just a sec. The reply came. After a second, Frosty stiffened, then began messing with his own menus. His name popped up in the chat room alongside the other two.
Your other guy doesn't have this app. Loner. Seiji typed.
What do you want? Frosty asked.
I was watching. I guess you guys aren't strong enough yet. I'd like to help with that.
I'm starting to lose my patience. Who are you, and what are you talking about? But then Carrion started piecing it together. Before he could say anything, the reply came.
Haven't you figured it out? It's all in the name. SEIji KENjima. I'm ForSaken. Now, about that help.