Issue #45 – The Gremlin and The Game

This entry is part 10 of 15 in the series The Descendants Vol 4: Confluence

Part 6

“In the game?” The disbelief in the balding man’s voice was tempered only by his respect for Codex and the others. “That’s impossible. Even if you’re being hyperbolic, the system is designed to dump if sensory feedback exceeds pain threshold or the player starts exhibiting nausea symptoms.”

“Impossible?” Codex brushed past the men to get a look at the console they’d been examining. “Do you see the woman in the robe there, mister…” She directed the question to the taller of the trio instead of the doubter.

“Gray.” He replied readily, “Henry Gray.”

His partner, the one who she should have been addressing, balked. “Elliot Hodgeman.” He belted out trying to make himself noticed.

It worked, if only to get Codex to turn her visored gaze in his direction. “Mr. Hodgeman, that woman can bend the fabric of reality in ways science, in its infinite wisdom, still is unable to explain. So let’s not start tossing the ‘I’ word around too much.”

She nodded to the third, silent man at the console. He was heavyset and older with thinning gray hair pulled back into a ponytail and bifocals perched on his nose. “You’re at the keyboard, can I assume you’re the senior programmer here?”

“I wrote the engine.” His chest welled with pride. “Thaddeus Young, Miss.”

“Great. I’d appreciate it if you’re give me a crash course in any custom code, shorthand, and notational jargon you’re using here.” Not giving him a chance to answer, she turned to other assembled heroes with her.

She took a second to think before fully thinking charge. “Okay. Hope, we need to see to anyone that may be hurt. A convention like this is going to have a medical station, it should be very clearly marked. Get to it, and help out.” Hope nodded and struck off in search.

“Chaos,” She continued, inclining her head to her old friend. He nodded that she had his attention. “Some people might be too hurt or too confused to get to help. Find them and bring them to the med station unless they’ve got neck or head injuries. In that case, bring Hope to them.”

“Good call, I wouldn’t have even thought of that.” He said, calling up his powers and flying up to start his patrol. Facsimile didn’t need to be told that this was a mission also suited to her and took to the air as well.

“Occult, your counterspell, if you please, I’m not wild about casting it while these folks are still in the game, but if it comes to that…”

“Say no more.” Occult held up a hand. “I’ll have it ready to go. The only issue is, it’s not going to work if the gremlin’s still effecting things.”

“I’m guessing that the gremlin is actually the ‘strange kid’ these gentlemen saw disappear. If so, it might be in the game too.”

Ephemeral watched everyone else start in on their assignments and sighed to himself. It seemed that his friends were still treating him as if he were fragile, even this long after he’d recovered from his semi-coma. He was grateful that they cared, but he felt he deserved to shoulder his own share of the risks.

“What about—“ He started.

“Ephemeral, you’re here with me.” Codex interrupted. “I need to you psychically probe the system for minds; either the players or the gremlin. These shadow illusions are a survival instinct, so it stands to reason that calming it down should stop the effect if not the illusions.”

He nodded and took up a position at the nearest pod. “I shall do my best.”

***

The little monster was still bawling, using a mixture of whatever its native language was, plus English and fanboy level Japanese, German and Portuguese.

“We need to shut that thing up.” Ron said nervously.

“It isn’t hurting anyone.” Tink shook her head. “I don’t feel good about attacking innocent creatures, even digital ones.”

“Yeah, what if it’s a quest giver?”JC pointed out.

“I don’t care.” Ron said nervously. “Wilderness areas have audible aggression trackers. The more noise you make, the more likely the local monsters will notice and attack. That thing could draw another Beelze-bear and if the game is real and dangerous to us, I don’t want to fight it.”

“It’s been going on like that for ten minutes,” Warrick reasoned. “I don’t think anything’s going to—“

A guttural groaning came from the other side of the brook, accompanied by the sound of undergrowth being trampled under-hoof.

Jamie couldn’t decide if she wanted to glare at Warrick or Ron more. “You just had to tempt fate, didn’t you?”

Before anyone else could react, the woods seemed to part by way of many young trees being uprooted by a set of mighty antlers. These were attached to two and a half tons of shaggy, brown fur lashed with black jagged stripes and heavy, sharp hooves.

“Thunderhoof…” Ron half whimpered.

The monster looked like a moose, but was larger by half with overlarge, bloodshot eyes and curving saber teeth protruding from its mouth. Instantly sighting on the crying gremlin, it threw back its head and unleashed a bellow that carried far into the forest.

The gremlin looked up and tried to crab away in the mud, shrieking at the top of its lungs.

“Let’s get out of here!” Ron started backpedaling up the hill.

“Yeah, let’s…” Tink trailed off as a far away, but easily recognizable voice called her name. “Kareem?” She blurted out, forgetting herself.

“Huh?” JC blinked.

“Sorry, I just… maybe it was the hit on the head.” Tink tried to laugh it off before trying to think in the direction of the voice. Kareem, what are you doing here?

I could ask the same of you, Christina. But that is not the issue. There is strangeness from Faerie about. You might not realize this, but you and the others are trapped in the game.

Yeah, we’ve noticed.

Who else is with you? Is Warrick there?

Yeah, him and JC and two people we just met today. She replied. Listen, there’s a strange monster in the game, a fuzzy green character that’s crying. Could that be the faerie thing?

I do not know what it looks like, but the source of the issue is a creature called a gremlin and it should be in the game with you. In order to stop this, it must be found and made calm. Tink couldn’t tell how she knew, but Kareem was talking to both her and Warrick now.

Gotcha. Warrick sent mentally. And to do that, we’ve got to save him first. Aloud, he protested Ron’s retreat. “No, we can’t let it just stomp on the little guy.” He nodded to Tink and then glanced at JC. “Who’s with me?”

“I would be, but do we still have our weapon skills if we don’t have the interface?” JC asked.

Warrick twirled his daggers experimentally. They span in ways he was sure a normal human couldn’t make happen. “Yes, yes we do.”

JC flourished his spear. “Then let’s rock, brotha. This is going to be one hell of a story to tell Lisa.” One more nod to each other and the two charged down the slope, shouting for the Thunderhoof’s attention.

Jamie hesitated in following Ron up the slope to looks to Tink. “Are they crazy?!”

“Warrick’s got kind of a hero complex.” Tink said with a clever grin. “It’s the reason he plays this game. I bet it’s the same for JC.” She prepared to head after them herself. “And I know it’s the same for me. How about you?” Not waiting for a reply, she hit a patch of soft earth and started sliding down the hill after the others.

Below them, the Thunderhoof, annoyed by the cacophony coming from the increasingly mired gremlin, charged.

Tink whipped the staff overhead, trying hard to remember the proper pattern for the Binding Way of Earth (Type 2) Confessioner power. The soft ground beneath the great beast heaved and rose up, capturing it’s legs an bringing it’s charge to a jarring stop.

The sheer mass of the monster (and likely some hidden mechanics in the game) cracked the earthen mounds at it’s feet, giving it leverage to start pulling free. It was delayed just long enough for Warrick and JC to charge into the space between it and the gremlin.

JC’s boomerang led for them, taking the thing in the throat for what little good it did. Twin short swords followed, intent on carving a pair of gouges down it’s side. They got in about an inch before the resistance of corded muscle nearly tore them from Warrick’s grasp.

“This isn’t working.” JC realized as the thick hide over the creature’s shoulder turned aside his spear. Just then, the binding failed and the Thunderhorn kicked free in a storm of dirt clods.

“Of course it’s not!” Ron screamed from the hillside. “We don’t have the equipment! This thing is more powerful than a boss of our level, we can’t hurt it!”

“Don’t we have a fear, a combat cancel, sleep? Anything?!”

“I’ve got a sleep power, but a Thunderhorn is too high a level for it to work.” Ron shouted. “Guys, just get out of there! I might be able to slow it down for you!” He shook his staff and a mass of vines sprung from the ground, entangling the Thunderhorn’s legs. This in turn was strengthened by Jaime calling up a Biding Way of Air around it.

JC brought his spear’s butt down as hard as he could on the Thunderhorn’s skull and was rewarded only by a jarring ache that ran all the way up his arms and to his back. “We just can’t hurt this thing.” He said hopelessly.

Staring at the barely bleeding X he’d just carved in the monster’s hide, Warrick was forced to agree. “Okay, new plan. Taking down the Thunderhorn isn’t important, getting the gremlin away is.” He sheathed his useless weapons and bit his lip in thought.

It came to him out of JC’s earlier question and Ron’s reply. “Taunts always work.” He glanced at the straining vines and knew he didn’t have much time. “Okay, JC, here’s the plan. I’ll taunt it away, you get the gremlin, get him uphill and calm him down.”

“Say what? What’s this coming from?” JC asked, harried.

“The… I…”

“The devs!” Tink shouted down to them. “Or someone. They managed to talk to us, like in our ears or something. They said we need to calm the gremlin down to fix the system error.” An idea came to here in a bolt from the blue. “Ron! You’ve got a sleep spell?”

“Too high a level!” He shouted, exasperated. “It won’t work. Even if we roll a critical success, the level difference nullifies it.”

“Not on the Thunderhorn, on the gremlin! We have to calm the gremlin!”

He blinked. It couldn’t be that simple, could it?

Vines snapped and a toss of the Thunderhorn’s head dispersed the Binding Way of Air. It bucked and turned toward Warrick.

“Hurryhurryhurry!” Warrick shouted, fleeing backward from the furious beast.

Ron shook his head and focused, trying to remember the routine for casting Slumberblossom. The rampaging monster was almost upon Warrick when he got it right.

The tree the gremlin had been stuck in earlier burst into full bloom, releasing a cloud of pink pollen that rolled out inexorably over the gremlin. The effects were almost instantaneous; the fuzzy green creature slumped over in the mud and began to fade away.

“My interface is back!” Jamie reported.

Warrick’s was too, but there was not time to say so as the churning legs and deadly hooves of the Thunderhoof were quickly filling his vision. “Log out!”

***

Darkness. He felt the seat underneath him, felt the hot, moist air of the pod, made all the more humid by his adrenaline induced panting. Shaking hands felt around the edge of the pod until he found the latch and threw it open.

An air conditioned breeze wafted in and shocked him when it hit his sweat. The light came with it and came near to blinding him as he stumbled from the enclosure.

Once his sight returned to him, it was easy to take stock. Most importantly, and directly in front of him, Warrick saw Occult applying powdered chalk to the gremlin’s forehead. There would be a story when he got home, for sure.

A hand clapped him on the shoulder. Codex. “Are you alright, young man” Now here was a rare moment. Warrick almost laughed at the situation, but then that would ruin the masquerade. Instead, he nodded and decided to put on a good act.

Summoning up every ounce of his inner fanboy, he grabbed his housemate’s gloved hand. “Thank you so much. Holy crap, I got rescued by the Descendants!” He didn’t stop shaking her hand throughout. “I’m a huge fan. Like massive. If you guys had action figures, I’ve have the whole line.”

It was all Codex could do to keep from laughing. “It’s always good to be appreciated. Thank you for the kind words.” She patted his arm until he finally stopped shaking and made her way back over to the SID developers.

Suppressing a smirk himself, Warrick turned just in time to see the gremlin vanish in a gentle pulse of green light. The others who shared his ordeal had all been watching.

“So that thing was the cause of all of that we just went through?” JC asked Occult.

Face obscured by her hood, Occult cleared her throat a few times before answering in a husky voice. “That and more. It’s power brought things to life all over town. The virtual reality was just the topper.”

“Man, I’ve been reading about stuff like this.” Ron scowled. “It’s like we’re being invaded by these things.”

“Don’t blame them.” Occult had to clear her throat again to maintain her voice. “The astral breaches that bring them here are random. Most of them that aren’t animals are more than happy to get sent home. They just… don’t know how to behave in our world.”

“See?” Jamie glared at him. “If we’d followed your plan and attacked, we would have beaten up an innocent creature.”

Ron frowned. “I was wrong. About… pretty much everything. I’m sorry guys.”

Warrick shook his head and extended his hand to the other young man. “Hey, nothing of it. You came through with the sleep spell. As far as I’m concerned, we were all heroes in there.” They shook hands.

Grinning at the camaraderie, Tink spoke up. “You know, if either of you two ever go on the Anvilthorpe server, look up LadyGeare, that’s me, RareEarthSteel,” She pointed to Warrick, “Or UltraNinjaZoid.” She gestured to JC. “I think it’d be fun if we all played together.”

“Yeah, me too.” Jaime agreed. “Maybe we could from a charter. How many charters have actually been in battle together, right?”

JC suddenly remembered something. “Oh, man, we were in there a long time, we need to get to the dealer’s room, War.”

“Huh?” Warrick blinked.

“Brotha! Remember your idea? To get Lisa a present from selling her ticket? We’ve got about ten minutes before the dealer’s room closes!” He didn’t give Warrick a chance to protest before dragging him off.

Occult watched them got without turning her head. The chances of JC finding a decent gift in ten minutes was slim to none. But she couldn’t wait to thank him for being so thoughtful.

***

Codex had just finished up her talk with the SID guys, mostly making assurances to them that she would make sure people knew that the incident had nothing to do with the immersion gaming system itself. As a matter of course, she’d also landed the five players involved free upgrades to VIP accounts.

She was more exhausted from making PR arrangements than chasing the gremlin, but it was worth it, as she’d already worked out a way to arrange things so Laurel Brant could meet and hopefully date Henry Gray.

“Excuse me.” She looked over to find that a man in a suit had fallen into step with her. He was only a few inches taller than she, with graying temples in a head of brown hair and a mustache so closely associated with World War II that she was taken aback that someone, even this far removed from the events, would consider it fashionable.

He took her attention as a greeting. “I’m Travis Morton, public relations liaison for Sanctum Press Comics.”

Codex nodded. “I’ve read some of your books. I understand you’re set to do one based on us too?”

“Yes!” He said brightly. “Great, you already know. But you might not know the even bigger news we’re announcing tomorrow.”

“What bigger news can a comic company have than a brand new series?”

Morton smiled even larger. “You see, we’ve had a discussion with the mayor, city leaders, and local business leaders and we’ve created a tie in event that links up with all the energy that’s going on over the tricentennial.”

“Event?” Codex blinked.

“Yes. We’re cooperating with the city of Mayfield to make the first Wednesday this May, the day the first issue of Prelates of Mayfield comes out, to be Descendants Appreciation Day.”

End Issue #45

Series Navigation<< Issue #44 – It’s Official!Issue #46 – The Juniper Chronicles >>

About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter.

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