Thursday, December 3, 2015

Being more than a Simulacrum (Part 13)

Just before Place closed the door, Joss asked, “Sneaking out on me cuz?”

“If I were sneaking,” Place said, “you'd have had a harder time telling that I was doing something.” She paused a beat, using it to turn to Joss. “I'm not saying you wouldn't have noticed, but it would have been distinctly harder.”

“But ya're going somewhere, right?” Joss asked.

“Yup,” Place said. “I'm going to a different peak so that I get better reception when I meet some people in an online game.”

“What game?” Joss asked.

“Everlot,” Place said. “The one that Ron--”

“--got trapped in and Rufus was legendary in,” Joss finished. Because of course she knew. She was Joss. She might have missed out on some the details the first time she learned about it --because she, like most people, had had a blindspot the size and shape of Ron Stoppable-- but once she became Ron's biggest fan there was little doubt that she'd learn all the details.

“That's the one,” Place said.

“I've never played it.”

“Want to?” Place asked. “I mean, I can't promise that the group will want an extra member, but we'll never know if we don't ask.”

* * *

Joss looked at the device that seemed like a metal headband with blinking lights, “So these won't get us--”

“Trapped in virtual reality? No,” Leela Place said. “These are Wade-tech.”

Leela Place put her 'circlet' on and Joss followed her example.

The mountain was gone, and they were in a stylized world of straight lines and sharp corners. Still, it was easy enough to tell what was what. They were in an evergreen forest atop a rock outcropping, and beyond the forest a castle was visible.

Leela Place had become a stylized version of herself, though in peasant clothes--

“I thought that the immersion caps took a picture of the clothes you were wearing or some such,” Joss said.

“It was a bit more complicated, than that,” Leela Place said, “but since your clothes are supposed to be part of your game equipment, and game status, Wade made sure his wouldn't do that anymore.”

“So it would break the game to simulate normal clothes?” Joss asked.

“Not break,” Leela Place said, “but it would mess with the gameplay and game balance.”

Joss nodded. The one exception to Leela Place's drab appearance was an impressive looking sword with a glowing blue blade.

She looked down at herself and saw that she was in the same peasant garb, less the sword.

“So, who are we meeting?” Joss asked.

“Leela!” Jim and Tim said in unison. Joss and Leela Place both turned to look at the source of the voices.

“J, T,” Leela Place said to them.

Joss looked over her other cousins. Both of the twins were in outfits much more impressive than Joss and Leela Place's own. Matching chain-mail armor, Jim with a green tunic over his, Tim with a red tunic over his. Joss wondered if they ever switched colors just to confuse people.

“Joss?” Jim and Tim asked when they saw her. Then they looked at Leela Place.

“Are you,” Jim started.

“in Montana?” Tim finished.

“Actually we're,” Joss said before realizing that maybe she wasn't supposed to say. She looked to Leela Place, “Am I allowed to tell?”

Leela Place cocked her head to one side in thought, the immersion stuff obviously made it so one didn't have to bother with game emotes, and then said, “I don't see how saying the country could hurt.”

“We're at an undisclosed location in Japan,” Joss said.

“Cool,” Jim and Tim said in unison.

“So are ya'll who we're meeting?” Joss asked.

“They're not all of them-all,” Leela Place said.

* * *

“So --J, T-- I take it you got Wade to forgive you for hacking his network?” Felix heard Leela ask.

“He doesn't mind hacking so much,” one of the twins said.

“So long as you don't spike him,” the other, presumably, said.

Feliz looked to Wade's virtual form, decked out as a wizard. Wade shrugged.

“Cousin Joss have to get an ok from the others too?” a twin asked.

“Or was that just us?” the other asked.

“We haven't asked them yet,” Leela said.

They reached the outcropping. “Well, you can ask us now,” Felix said.

“We're here,” Zita said.

* * *

After introductions were made, Zita got to outlining what had brought them to these woods.

Yes, Leela had asked if anyone had objections to Joss joining in, but they weren't going to turn the girl away when she was right there. Besides, they could use the seventh member for what they were going to try tonight. Any help would be desperately needed tonight.

“That castle belongs to Ravenna Ening, calls herself 'Rav',” Zita said.

“Because she likes the fact that it makes her full name sound like 'ravening',” Felix added.

“Charmin'” Joss said.

“We're not convinced she knows what it means,” Wade said.

“I think she does and she's just counting on her followers to not know,” Zita said. “She expects people to think savage and vicious not, you know, hungry.”

“It's not like Everlot has a built in dictionary and thesaurus,” Felix added.

“She fancies herself the princess of this region,” Zita said, “and has a pretty loyal base of fans to back up that claim. Mostly lower powered players flocking to someone who they think is cool, but she's got a few heavy hitters too.”

“As fun as it might be,” Felix said, “we're not going to unseat her tonight.”

“She has a shipment coming in tonight,” Zita said, “the convoy will have to come through these woods to get to her castle. We're going to hit it, rob it, and set the cargo free.”

“What kind of cargo do you set free?” Joss asked.

“Lots of types,” Felix said.

“In this case,” Zita said, “a dragon.”

That clearly shocked the various Possibles.

“Dragon artifacts are worth a lot in the Everlot economy,” Zita said.

Wade conjured a spreadsheet.

“So,” Zita continued, “our good princess Ening could be planning to use the captured dragon as a way to get a lot of gold or barter without having to work for it. More likely, she just plans to put the dragon on display.”

“Plenty of people will be impressed with her if she can boast that she has a live dragon she can poke with a stick,” Felix said.

“It may just be lines of code on the Everlot servers,” Wade said, “but treating it that way is just plain wrong.”

“So we free the dragon,” Joss said.

“Hika-bicka-boo,” Jim said.

“Hoosha!” Tim and Leela said in unison.

* * *

Place and the others surveyed the convoy from a distance that they were reasonably sure was safe. Granted the only reason they could do the surveying was that Wade had cast a spell that let them see through trees, which served as a reminder that one's normal intuition about such things might be entirely wrong. In front of and behind the convoy were some guards on foot. Given the distance and how closely together they walked, Place couldn't get a solid count of them. Cavalry was easier. If she assumed that the far side had the same numbers as the side she could see, then there were two per ordinary cart, 12 roaming, and 16 around the dragon, leaving them outnumbered six to one by the cavalry.

The dragon was in a giant cage, pulled by at least a dozen oxen, at the center of the convoy. The cage featured bars that were probably two feet wide and also had a glow around it.

“What's the blue glow?” Place asked.

“Fire rebound spell,” Zita said. “If the dragon tries to attack with its breath, the flames will bounce off the spell and come right back at it.”

Place nodded.

“Why are they so spread out?” Joss asked. “One group probably can't even see the next given the twists in the path.”

“Accounting,” Felix said.

Jim and Tim said, “Huh?” in stereo.

“Ening isn't big on group cohesion,” Wade said.

“Because if her underlings started being more loyal to each other than to her, they might notice that she doesn't really contribute much,” Zita said

“So getting each cart to the castle counts as a separate quest,” Wade said, “and they stay apart so that each can claim they defended their cart on their own.”

“Isn't that going to be a problem for our plan?” Place asked.

Zita's plan called for a three pronged attack. A group at the front would stop the convoy and try to draw enemies toward them. As soon as the convoy came to a stop a second group would attack the back, again trying to draw as many foes as they could into that fight.

Finally the third group would attack the center, which would hopefully be far less defended than it was now as a result to the distractions at the front and back.

While there were doubtless other impressive treasures in other parts of the convoy, the dragon was the prize, so the strongest guards would likely stay with it in the center. Thus it made sense for the strongest group to be the one to attack the center. That was Zita, Wade, and Felix. Place, Joss, Jim, and Tim would have to provide the attacks at either end.

“We think it'll be different this time,” Zita said, “since they'll all get in trouble if they loose the dragon.”

“It looks sad,” Joss said.

Place focused on the dragon itself. It was a fairly standard design, probably lifted from the movie Reign of Fire --which Ron always insisted was worse than the original Rule of Pyr-- and it did look rather sullen.

“They're programmed to fly free, horde treasure, and occasionally fight knights and such,” Wade said, “I very much doubt this situation is giving it positive feedback.”

“It was designed to be an NPCP, not a captive,” Place said. “Whatever personality it does have, it wasn't designed for captivity.”

That was about when Place realized she'd lost everyone. Finally Zita asked, “NPCP?”

Made sense, it was a term she made up on the spot, why would they know it? “Non-player-character player, it's not an exposition font, a quest giver, or an obstacle. It's supposed to be playing every bit as much as we --the actual players-- are, just with different rules, objectives, and probably different expletives when it's killed and has to restart from the last checkpoint.”

Wade nodded. “That's more or less right.”

“Thanks,” Place said. She looked back to the convoy but Wade's spell soon wore off. “I think Zita's plan should work. The twins take the front, Joss and I take the back, the rest of you in the middle.”

Zita, Felix, and Wade all nodded.

“How are we,” Jim said.

“going to stop them?” Tim finished.

“You two have been building rockets out of video games for so long,” Place said, “don't you think it's about time you built a rocket in one?”

She couldn't see it, but she was sure that the twins, sitting at their computers --which happened to be right next to each other-- in reality, looked at each other and exchanged truly malicious smiles before their in-game avatars dashed off.

“J, T,” Place called to them, hopefully not loudly enough to alert the convoy.

They turned back. “Yeah, sis?” they asked as one.

“Two things,” Place said. “First, good luck. Second, it doesn't have to work; it just has to explode. Loudly.”

“Hika-bika-bo?” Jim asked.

“Hoosha!” Tim answered.

* * *

Joss watched her cousins head off to do something, apparently explosive.

“They make rockets out of videogames?” Joss asked Leela Place.

“My best guess,” Leela Place said, “is that they re-purpose the electronics for their guidance systems.”

Joss nodded. Made more sense than using them for the fuel.

“Joss is the only one newer than me,” Leela Place said to the others, “so she's in desperate need of equipment before we're up.”

“Weapons?” Felix asked.

“I was thinking more like a grappling hook,” Leela Place said.

“Ohh, are you gonna be a thief?” Zita asked Joss.

Joss was caught off guard and stammered, “No-no, I'm-- I want to be one of the good guys.”

“It's just a character class, Joss,” Felix said.

“It really does go with a lot of the sorts of things Kim did,” Wade said, “sneaking, crawling through air vents--”

“Fighting style that focuses on dodges and speed rather than packing a powerful punch or being able to take a hit,” Leela Place said.

“It's nothing about good or evil,” Zita said, “just the class your character is.”

“I do have a grappling hook,” Felix said.

* * *

“That was loud,” Joss whispered.

“The twins usually are,” Place said. “Remember, we don't move until--”

“Good and stopped back here,” Joss said.


“I do have a question about that, by the way,” Joss said.

“Now is the time to ask,” Place said.

“If we're at level zero,” Joss said, “then how do we beat them?”

“Two things," Place said. Then amended, "No; three. We have three advantages over normal newbies.

“First, the circlets mean we. . .” and Place realized she'd lost Joss. “The portable immersion caps,” Joss nodded that she was following this time, “mean we don't need to memorize any controls; we think, virtual body does. Second, they're going to underestimate us when they see what we're wearing.”

After a pause Joss asked, “And third?”

“We're Possibles,” Place said; “it doesn't matter if their level is nine, ninety nine, or nine thousand if we don't let them land a blow in the first place.”

“Dodges and speed?” Joss asked.

“Yup,” Place said. “Keep it a question of skill, not how hard they hit or how much health you have.”

“And count on the circlet to translate real-world skill into button-pushing skill?” Joss asked.

Place nodded. Then some shouts had her taking a look at the extreme rear guard of the convoy. They'd stopped. She said to Joss, “Now get up a tree and follow my lead.”

* * *

Joss stood in the branches above the two rearmost guards, they were obviously annoyed with the delay.

She then saw Leela Place walk into plain view and give a casual greeting to the guards. The response seemed disproportionately rude:

“What do you want, knave?” said with venom and disdain.

“Oh . . .” Leela Place said, “forty gold pieces, a hundred and fifty XP, and one live dragon.” That threw the guards. Joss made sure not to giggle. “Why, did you think you could help?”

“How do you know of Princess Ening's dragon?” One guard asked.

“Don't mention the dragon!” the other said.

“Can we just skip to the combat already?” Leela Place asked.

Joss didn't watch, her job was different; she moved forward through the trees.

The sound of combat beneath her would doubtless draw additional guards. That was why she was in the trees. She found what she considered a good spot and watched the path ahead. Soon enough six guards appeared rushing toward the fight. They were in heavy armor: full plate armor.

“Dodges and speed,” Joss whispered to herself then descended behind the guards.

“Hey!” Joss yelled at the six. “You missed me.”

Now six well armed and well armored warriors were headed toward her.

She ducked a longsword from the first and rolled straight into the legs of the second.

That knocked the second into a third and stopped her roll setting her up to lunge at the fourth, which meant that by the time the first was ready to take another swing at her she'd knocked down half of the group and disarmed one of them.

She decided not to keep the sword she'd wrestled from the fourth. It was heavy in her hands and would slow her down. She threw it into the woods then flipped over the next swing from the lead warrior, planted her feet on the warriors' chest-plate, and kicked off hard to flip back into a combat stance.

Only two members of the group hadn't hit the ground and they were the farthest from her.

It was going well, if slowly.

* * *

Place looted the bodies of the characters she'd knocked out. She figured they should be grateful she hadn't just killed their characters. She did get some gold, but the find that interested her the most was a pair of daggers. They'd make good weapons for someone pursuing a fast style.

She ran toward the sounds of fighting up the trail to catch up with Joss.

When she got there she used the sword of Elsinore as a club on the armored heads of the two enemies nearest her. Joss seemed to be doing a good job of handling the four nearest her, but Place saw more coming down the trail beyond Joss.

“Heya cuz,” Joss called.

“Got you some presents,” Place said, tossing the daggers to Joss, “watch out behind you.”

Joss caught the daggers, shoved the enemy nearest her into the the other three, and looked up the path in one smooth motion. “Got it,” she shouted back to Place.

* * *

“We've taken down twelve already and haven't even reached the rear cart of the convoy yet,” Joss said as she searched the unconscious bodies. “If the others are having as good of a time--”

“They won't be,” Leela Place said while she searched.

“No?” Joss asked as she stood, there hadn't been much worth taking.

“These ones were to stop us before we got within striking distance,” Leela Place said. “Some people believe that the best defense is a good offense, but from what we saw when we were watching earlier, the defenses were set up by someone who thinks the last line of defense ought to be the strongest.”

Joss thought that through. “So these were the weakest.”

Leela Place nodded. “If they'd been better they'd have been rewarded with the mobility of a horse. Plus, the heavy hitters will be staying with whatever loot they're guarding, with the majority around the dragon.”

“That doesn't explain why twins would be having a different experience,” Joss said. “If the fore-guard is the same as the rear--”

“I don't think it would be,” Leela Place said.

Joss didn't follow. “Why not?”

“It's just a guess,” Leela Place said.

Joss wanted to understand the reasoning behind the guess, though, and so she said, “But?” in a manner she hoped would provoke elaboration.

“Well, they're nearly at their destination, so they'd be expecting any attack to come from behind them instead of in front of them,” Leela Place said.

Joss nodded.

“In that case the twins are probably fighting the tough opponents by now,” she said.

“Why should they have all the fun?” Leela Place asked in a way that sounded almost conspiratorial.

Joss smiled. “Onward!” she ordered, one of her daggers held aloft like a sword. Then she and Leela Place charged away from the defeated rear guard and toward the convoy they'd been guarding.

* * *

Jim eyed the six knights on horseback who had halted his advance. Them being arranged two by two wasn't optimal, he'd rather have one row six wide, still, it was better than single file.

“We are the elite guard of her majesty Princess Rav Ening,” the guard in front on their right, “do you honestly hope to stand against us alone?”

“Two things,” Jim said. “One, I wouldn't be sitting right there if I were you.”

“And two?”

“I'm not alone,” Jim said the moment it was too late for the guard to doge the log that slammed into him from his right. Everlot didn't have the most accurate physics engine in history, but it did have enough that hitting someone with great force would send them on a pseudo-parabolic path at a vaguely appropriate speed.

In this case that translated to the guard who was hit being flung into the one next to him and both of them landing pretty far afield from their horses.

The horses themselves were fairly simplistic NPCs, nowhere near as advanced as the dragons, and were programmed to respond to any stimuli considered “highly unexpected” with something with the outer appearance of panic.

The AI, insofar as there was one for such a simple implementation, was no less calm than if it were taking its rider to a designated destination, and with that knowledge in hand Jim and his brother had had a lot of fun messing around with the horses of Everlot. The only things equivalent to comfort or discomfort in the horse-programming were related to food, direct physical harm, and kind or harsh treatment from riders.

Normally Jim and Tim made use of those limitations to have guilt-free great fun with strange situations, and even kept the horses, when they were dealing with horses, happy by giving them digital apples. At the moment it meant that, since a loud noise followed by no longer having riders was related to none of the horse comfort-discomfort variables, the “animals” were internally unperturbed, but causing a fair amount of havoc.

This, in turn, caused the horses farther back to switch into “it looks like panic” mode, and soon none of the guards had their attention on Jim.

By the time Tim called out, “How many did I get?” Jim was in the center of the four remaining mounted guards.

Jim, dropped a bottle containing a fog potion, counting on it to break on the ground, and shouted, “Just two!”

* * *

Tim ran toward the fray and saw that Jim had already spooked the horses of the local guards. The twins chain-mail weighed them down less than the plate armor of the guards, but if they wanted true mobility they'd need at least two of those horses.

Tim threw a “battle hammer” at one of the mounted guards and, when the guard fell, decided to concentrate on that horse. He selected an apple in his inventory and headed toward it.

“Down!” Jim shouted and Tim obeyed, narrowly avoiding a sword. Apparently someone had regained control of their horse more quickly than Tim had anticipated. As soon as he was on his feet Tim threw the apple at the offending rider's head, watched with satisfaction as the rider was knocked over, and decided to focus on that now-empty horse.

* * *

“Surrender!” shouted the guard with a sword to Jim's neck. Jim wasn't fazed. In real life he and Tim would have won by now, but Everlot didn't favor quick knock outs. The two that were hit by the rocket-log, sure, but the rest simply took longer because that kind of extreme force was hard to bring to bear.

Besides, in order for the sword at his neck to do damage it would have to be pulled back and swung, a move that would take enough time for Jim to duck it. Putting the sword to his neck was a losing move. Posturing amateur.

Still, Jim needed a moment longer. So he asked, “Why?”

“You can't hope to-- What the Hell!?” the guard said as Jim finished cutting through the girth of his saddle. The way he just slid around the horse was a bit absurd, but the trick never got old. Everlot programming allowed the girth of a saddle to be damaged for a reason, yet no one ever seemed to expect it.

“Hop on,” Tim said from somewhere behind him, and soon there was a horse beside him.

Jim mounted it and headed toward the first cart in the convoy, “Sorry, I can't stay,” Jim called to the guards they'd left on the ground.

“Stuff to steal, people to see,” Tim said.

* * *

“I hate waiting,” Zita said.

“This was your idea,” Felix said.

“I know I just--”

“It's working,” Wade said. “Sort of. Maybe.” He was looking at images appearing in a smokeless fire he'd lit.

Zita walked closer to get a look at the images.

After a bit of looking she said, “They've taken out all of the infantry, and the twins brought down half a dozen mounted soldiers.”

Wade nodded then said, “Six mounted units are making their way towards Leela and Joss,” he paused in a way that Zita knew wasn't final even though he seemed to want it to be, then said, “the rest are staying with their carts.”

Zita groaned. The plan wouldn't work if a majority stayed at their posts. “How many is it again?” Zita asked.

“Sixteen at the dragon, four on every side, two on each of the other carts,” Wade said as he looked at the swirling images.

“Meaning thirty, and they'll all consolidate at the dragon when we attack,” Zita said. “Ten to one odds.”

“Once the others reach actual treasure,” Felix said, “the guards on the ordinary carts will move to help. And then it'll be easy.”

Felix's confidence, Zita knew, was because things weren't going too smoothly. Felix always said that that tended to be when things went catastrophically wrong, often adding an, “after all,” to the end of the statement.

* * *

Magic words tended to require characters of a certain level or objects of power. Given that they hadn't leveled up even once, Leela Place and Joss were dependent upon the second. One of the guards had had a magic telescope, and the magic words were apparently usually in extremely basic Latin. At least that's how Leela Place had explained her decision to say random phrases in a dead language to the magic telescope.

Then Leela Place stopped and was silent for a bit.

“Looks like there's only cavalry left,” Leela Place said. “We got the attention of six of the roaming guards, the cart guards are staying with their carts.”

"D'you know you're not even pointing in the right direction?" Joss asked.

Leela Place shrugged, “I didn't program the game.”

Joss found she had nothing to say to that.

“The easy way would be to hang back take the six mobile ones before we engage the ones staying with the rear cart,” Leela Place said.

“So I'm guessing you're not planning that,” Joss said.

“I was thinking we both go in the trees this time,” Leela Place said. “We drop directly on the cart, and then fight out from there.”

Joss nodded. It would have the advantage of being unexpected, at least.

“Grab some rocks,” Leela Place said.

Everlot rocks, those that weren't part of the landscape, came in conveniently throw-able size.

Joss grabbed several.

* * *

Jade Fire didn't like this. There had been no news on exactly what the loud bang was, nor the second, smaller, bang. They'd been stopped for too long. Staying on the move was the only way to keep this much treasure safe in the open.

The rear guard had engaged an unknown enemy after the sound of fighting from the two walkers she called the “caboose” who stayed well behind as a sort of early warning system. The rear-guard had not reported back. Now the rear contingent of the free cavalry was heading back to investigate, but she and her co-guard of the last treasure cart would have no idea what was going on until they reported back. If they reported back.

As soon as the free cavalry's hoofbeats faded, Jade heard a sound in the woods. Then another.

She didn't see anything, though. She rode her horse back and forth to see more angles. Maybe it was nothing.

Another sound.

Jade called to her co-guard, some macho creep she'd never bothered to get to know, “I think we're being flanked!”

“Yeah,” came the reply.

Jade started off the trail and into the woods when she heard a crash behind her.

* * *

Place and Joss landed on the cart more or less as one, facing in opposite directions, ready to jump toward the guards on horseback they'd distracted with the rocks.

The choice of direction was pragmatic. Joss had the grappling hook, so she was faced off against the one who had charged away. Place was facing the one who took a more cautious approach and was thus closer.

She jumped and swung her sword as one and landed on the horse's rump while smashing the guard with the sword.

The guard gave a yelp, but managed to not fall off the horse, instead hanging onto the left side of it and trying to get back up while Place struggled to get to the reigns.

“Clever,” the guard said. Her voice was notably female.

“So this isn't a 'boys' only' club,” Place said, whacking the guard with the sword again.

“How could it be?” the guard said as she grabbed onto Place's leg and gave a yank. “Our leader's a girl.”

Place had been prepared for blows, she hadn't expected to be pulled, and soon found herself trying not to slide off the horse's left side with the guard. She sheathed her sword; she'd need both hands to climb back up. The guard took the opportunity to land a punch on Place's side.

Place grunted then said, “One spoiled brat does not an egalitarian society make.” She threw a punch but it was halfhearted and easily blocked, the important thing now was to get back on top of the horse. If it went into panic mode with her in this position things could go downhill fast.

“The princess--” the guard said.

“Self proclaimed princess,” Place said.

A punch came in with a fair degree of anger behind it, Place blocked it without trouble.

“Princess Ening is worthy of the title,” the guard said.

Place gave one final yank and was back on top of the horse. Now she needed to get the reigns.

“Worthy people don't mistreat animals,” Place said. She punctuated her next word with a kick to the guard's head, “Dragon-napper.”

The guard grabbed on to Place's leg, but Place was ready for it this time and responded with a whack from the sword.

“It's a sword, not a club,” the guard grumbled.

“Did you want me to slice and dice you, whoever you are?” Place asked.

“Jade Fire,” the guard said, not letting go of Place's leg, “and I just don't like the idea of a knave who,” Jade started to climb up Place's leg, “doesn't even know how to use the weapon she obviously doesn't deserve--”

Place hit Jade in the helmet with her sword's pommel; “It was bestowed upon me,” she said, “by the true Queen of Everlot.”

“Like you know Zita Flores,” Jade said, not actually making any efforts to change the situation.

Place didn't particularly like having someone hanging off her leg, but she accepted the apparent break in the action --it might give her a chance to get the reigns-- “Known her for years now,” Place said. “Sort of.”

“Sort of,” Jade spat.

“I've got her sword,” Place said; “who are you to talk?”

“Jade Fire, Elevated Elite--”

“'Elevated Elite'?” Place said, practically laughing.

“--of her majesty Enings--”

Place was still on “Elevated Elite” so she offered up, “Extremely exceptional excellent exclusive elevated elite elect--”

“You,” Jade spat, giving a yank on Place's leg, apparently the conversational truce was over, “Will,” Place was ready for the yank and stayed atop the horse, but this just meant that Jade pulled herself upward and grabbed onto Place at a higher level, “Not,” Jade yanked herself up again, “Mock” Jade straddled the horse and landed behind Place, again latching onto Place, “Her Maj--”

Place did not want Jade behind her so she drove both of her elbows straight back. Given that Jade was in armor this probably did more damage to Place than Jade, but it was worth it because it freed Place from Jade's grip.

There was a severe penalty to the damage of any blow when trying desperately not to fall off of something, be it a cliff, a wall, or a running horse, but safely on the horse Jade would do full damage and no amount of skill would allow Place to go blow for blow against someone whose level surpassed her own by as much as she guessed Jade's did.

She needed to be somewhere with more space to maneuver than the back of a horse, that meant plan B.

Before Jade had time to recover from the elbows, Place launched herself forward, onto the horse's neck.

“What are you--” Jade didn't have time to finish asking; Place dropped off the horse and took the bridle with her.

Place picked herself up and watched the horse take Jade away, “Later your esteemed eminence,” Place called; “I have a dragon to free.”

How long before Jade came back depended largely on whether or not she tried to regain control of the horse without reigns, or if she just jumped off and returned on foot.

Place didn't care. She just had to get back to Joss.

* * *

Joss threw her grappling hook as soon as she landed, then braced hard. The hook caught on the guard's armor, as planned, Joss braced herself against the treasure cart, as planned, the line went taut, as planned, the guard stopped moving away while the horse continued onward, as planned. The guard landed with a satisfying thump, as planned. After a moment of slack and calm the line was taut again, it took everything Joss had to avoid being pulled off the cart, and the entire treasure cart flipped over, not remotely as planned.

As she dug herself out of a pile of gold, grabbing a nice looking necklace on the way, Joss slowly became aware of a very loud, very angry, guard returning from where he'd landed.

She'd let go of the line to her grappling hook, so his attempts to reel her in that way had failed, but that just meant she'd have to defeat him to get the hook back.

He had full plate armor, an obscenely large sword, and a vocabulary Joss wouldn't repeat even in impolite company.

His first swing splintered the overturned cart and made Joss feel better about her chances. It was a powerful blow, obviously, but it was also a slow one. If he kept to attacks like that she wouldn't just be able to dodge them, she'd be able to tap-dance on them.

Sure enough, the next swing was just as slow, and she decided to jump on his sword where it embedded itself in the ground. “Missed me,” she said.

Having apparently run out of profanity and obscenity, the guard simply growled. Then he aimed a blow at the empty ground on the side of him opposite Joss. Since she didn't jump back off the sword in time the effect was to launch her over his head and into the trees. It also dealt her some damage, but it was negligible in the scheme of things.

“Sill here,” she called down with bravado that was at least half false, “ready to surrender yet?”

More words Joss would never repeat, many of them aimed at her sex and gender and having no bearing on the situation at hand.

Joss looked around. The Everlot rendering was hardly subtle so what she wanted shouldn't be too--

There was a large dead branch she was sure she could take down with a well timed and well placed jump. Now just to get the misogynist under it.

“I'm over here, dimwit,” Joss said when she was near the dead branch, “Please direct all insults in this direction.”

Sure enough, he came exactly where she wanted him. She jumped, the branch broke, it and she came down on the guard, and that was about when the six mobile guards on horseback made it back to find the cart overturned, one of the guards incapacitated by a large branch --which they might mistake for a small to medium tree-- to the helmet, and the other guard missing.

Which caused Joss to wonder, where exactly had Leela Place and the other cart-guard gotten to?

There would be time for that later, though, as right now the six guards on horseback didn't look happy to see her.

Joss wasn't sure how to respond and went with “Um, howdy?”

That didn't seem to be the response they were looking for and Joss barely had time to grab the downed guard's sword before she was ducking their swords. Actually, she was mostly staying very low and dodging horses. The size of the guards' horses and the size of their swords left a two foot tall safe zone near the ground unless the guards dismounted or leaned too far for safety.

Additionally, even in the low areas they could hit, they couldn't do it with great accuracy or range, and if they tried for force Joss would be long gone before the sword reached where she'd been.

Attempting to simply trample her just got their horses in each others' ways.

It was the fact that Joss was so used to robotic horses that made this strategy even possible. The simplistic AI used to control the Everlot horses was so many orders of magnitude more basic than the AI used to control the horses at the Lazy C that she didn't even have to try; being able to see several moves ahead, thus always stay at least three steps ahead, came without effort.

The guards finally seemed to realize that their initial haphazard strategy wasn't working and pulled back so they could get back to trying to trying to defeat her rather than trying not to run into one another.

This changed everything as it meant that the horse's AI would have fewer variables consider and thus player input would play a far larger role. That meant Joss could no longer tell exactly what the horses would do, not even close actually, but it didn't matter; this was what she had been waiting for.

She stood up and waited for one of the guards to make a move.

When one did, picking up speed as the horse made for the empty space to her right so the guard could lean over a bit and get a good swing at her, she simply used the sword for a massive over the head blow. It was slow, powerful, and the kind of thing that would be easy to dodge if you weren't on a charging horse trying to lean in for a blow without falling over.

One guard down, five to go.

The remaining five wouldn't make the same mistake, which meant that the sword was fairly useless to her now. She dropped it and ran for the treasure cart's remains. That should provide for various new possibilities in combat.

* * *

Zita was talking with Felix about the logistics of an upcoming real-world get together when Wade said, “That's interesting.”

Zita had once been told that “That's interesting,” or perhaps, “That's odd,” which generally meant the same thing, was usually a more significant phrase in science than, “Eurka!” Of course she asked, “What is?”

Felix asked, “What did you scry?”

“Leela and Joss tricked the six into overshooting them then attacked the rear cart,” Wade said.

“What about the twins?” Zita asked.

* * *

“Does this seem like it's going slowly to you?” Jim asked Tim after exchanging another set of blows with one of the guards around the first cart of of the convoy they'd come to. Next up was to circle the horse back around, go by the guard again --no difficulty there as the guard would do the same-- and hope that one of the blows in that encounter actually changed things. Unlike the blows in all the previous encounters.

Tim responded with a bored, “Yup,” and Jim decided that it was time for a new strategy.

Instead of circling back to his opponent, or Tim's opponent, he went by the front of the cart itself jumped onto it.

The driver, a knave who wasn't equipped for combat, jumped off and wisely ran away. There was a reason they hadn't included the cart drivers in their tally of enemy combatants. Having one of them secretly be the greatest warrior of the bunch would require imagination their opponents seemed to lack.

Jim signaled for the horses pulling the cart to go forward.

“He's stealing the princess' treasure!” one of the guards shouted.

“Of course I am!” Jim shouted back. “Did you think we were fighting you for fun?”

“You people are way too under-powered for this to be fun in itself,” Tim said.

“I'll show you--” the second guard started.

“Ignore him!” the first guard snapped. “He's trying to distract us while the other one gets away.”

* * *

“Are the guards farther back following?” Zita asked.

The wonders of computer generated pryomancy showed that they were.

“And the guards in the rear?” Felix asked.

“They got aggressive quickly,” Zita said. While the front guards approached the twins cautiously, essentially each pair moving forward one cart and leaving only the cart closest to the dragon unguarded, the rear guards appeared to be massing for a single assault on Leela and her cousin.

“I don't think Leela and Joss can handle them all at once,” Wade said.

“They won't need to,” Zita said. “We go now.”

* * *

When Place made it back to the road there were three unconscious guards on the ground.

One appeared to have a tree on top of him; another had a massive dent in the chest-plate, perhaps struck by a ridiculously overpowered (and thus absurdly slow) blow; the third was among various treasure objects all about the size of softballs.

Joss was fighting four guards like a whirlwind of dagger and gold.

“Need some help?” Place asked.

The guard nearest Place turned toward her, it was a mistake, Joss used the distraction to knock the guard to the ground and then used the fallen guard as a platform to vault off of, landing near Place.

“Grab some gold chains,” Joss said, pointing to the demolished treasure cart. “They hate it when you use them to tangle up their swords.

That explained the gold.

Place headed for the cart as advised, and opened up a “details” window as she looked at the assorted treasures. That's when she really understood Joss' use of gold. Treasure had no durability value. No value meant nothing to subtract from when it was hit. A good thing if you don't want the rewards of your quest to be ruined when someone drops them on the floor, but a massive oversight in combat. The thinnest of jewelry would be able to take a sword blow without deforming or breaking.

Granted Everlot physics wasn't advanced enough to sew treasure into unbreakable armor and was advanced enough that trying to use an unbreakable nondeformable treasure sized thing to keep from getting hit would fail because the blow would just take the form of unbreakable nondefomable thing hitting you as hard as whatever you tried to block, but --given the work that had gone into rope and tangle calculations, mostly for reasons of magical vines-- it was still a huge oversight to let ropey tangly things like gold chains, be they anklets or elephant decorations, be completely impervious to all forms of harm.

Place wondered how long it would take after this battle to get a patch addressing that.

For the moment though she just took the longest treasure chain she could in her right hand, equipped her sword in her left, and joined the fray.

Which was about when a horn was blown somewhere up the path and two of the guards said, “The dragon,” in unison while a third said the same about a half second later.

* * *

Three against sixteen hardly made for good odds, but they had separated the other 26 riders from the dragon remarkably easily, all things considered. When Zita finished setting up a trap for the riders who returned from the rear, Felix tried to ask her, “Do you think--”

But Zita cut him off with, “Don't jinx it,”

“You do think,” Felix concluded.

“What?” Wade asked, apparently done with his trap as well.

“Nevermind,” Zita said. “Ready?” When Wade responded with a nod she said, “Attack.”

Zita started with a ground attack using the aspen power wand, and that's about when things went sideways.

Wade and Zita had a heated discussion of whether it should even be in the game --apparently the copyright status of Lovecraft's post-1923 work was in dispute; Felix just said, “I knew things were going too smoothly.”

He jumped at one of the mages summoning the creature in hopes of interrupting the spell before the summoning was complete. In a single fluid move the mage somehow managed to dodge the attack, get off his horse, land in a perfect defensive stance on the ground, and enchant his horse into becoming a hydra of the Lernaean sort.

Felix swore, Zita cast something --along with multiple riders-- into a dimension window, Wade went flying, and someone blew a signal horn.

* * *

With the distraction of the horn, the Place and Joss had little trouble dealing with the four guards. The key feature of the sword of Elsanor, it seemed, was that it was incredibly powerful and light. Unlike most very powerful weapons, it didn't slow one down. So with Joss setting the guards up, all Place had to do was wack them in the helmets. They weren't all that powerful anyway, if they had been they'd have been assigned to guard an individual cart. It was when the four were dealt with that Place and Joss were presented with a different problem entirely.

“How is it possible that not one of them thought to secure their horse before getting into a fight on foot?" Place asked. She didn't ask Joss, she more asked the universe.

She and Joss were, quickly, looking through the treasure to see if there were any combat-useful things in it. They might not make it to the main fight as fast as she liked, but Place wanted them to be as helpful as they could be once they got there. That meant constantly being on the lookout for new equipment that might be better. She was about to check the stats on a scepter when someone shouted behind her.

"Who the Hell do you think you are?"

"Hi, Jade," Place said, turning to face the warrior and handing the scepter to Joss.

"You're going down knave," Jade spat.

"You have no idea who you're messin' with," Joss said.

"Yes, I think I've established that," Jade sneered.

"She is Leela Place, I'm her cousin Joss, and you're in over your head," Joss said.

Kim Possible had a habit of giving things barely modified names, for example "Pals" instead of "Friends", I'm more of a "just say the name of the thing" person, having the real movie Reign of Fire mentioned as a knock off of fake movie title via thesaurus-like means Rule of Pyr is me playing with that.

This whole episode, which was meant to contain more story (the entire game session) is inspired by a line from episode six (last episode of the first season) of the original Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio show:

It is a planet with an ancient and mysterious history, in which the most mysterious figures of all are, without doubt, those of the Great Circling poets of Arium. These Circling Poets used to live in remote mountain passes where they would lie and wait for small bands of unwary travellers, circle round them, and throw rocks at them. And when the travellers cried out saying ‘why didn’t they go away and get on with writing some poems instead of pestering people with all this rock-throwing business,’ they would suddenly break off and sing them an incredibly long and beautiful song - in which they told of how there once went forth, from the City of Vassillian, a party of five sage princes with four horses. The first part of the song tells how these five sage princes - who are, of course, brave, noble, and wise - travel widely in distant lands, fight giant ogres, pursue exotic philosophies, take tea with weird gods, and rescue beautiful monsters from ravening princesses, before finally announcing that they have achieved enlightenment and that their wanderings are therefore accomplished. The second, and much longer part, tells of all their bickerings about which one of them is going to have to walk back.

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