“What did you just do?” said Lin, with a sudden intensity Britta wasn’t used to. Lin was usually the most composed and unflappable person Brita had ever encountered.
“Nothing bad,” said Britta. “I just teleported them out of the dungeon. I didn’t hurt anyone” She turned to the orc shaman. “They might come back, but it will take them several hours, at least.”
“You can do that?” said the shaman. She sat down on the edge of the altar, which seemed a little disrespectful, looking shaken. The altar was also shaken, by the weight of a giant orc sitting on it. “We surrender.”
The other orcs made disturbed grunting noises. The shaman silenced them with a raised hand.
“What do you mean? Why?” said Britta.
“We can’t defeat you, and we don’t want to endure needless deaths. Take what you want and leave.”
Brita was confused and rather surprised. “I didn’t come here to kill anyone.”
“You’re one of them,” said the shaman. “Killing is all you ever do.”
“I don’t. I didn’t kill those adventurers, and I won’t kill you.”
The shaman looked doubtful.
“She’s telling the truth,” said Lin. “She won’t kill you. She isn’t like the others.” She turned to Britta and looked perplexed. “That teleport… there’s no cooldown?”
Britta hadn’t considered that. A powerful ability usually had a waiting period in between uses, but there was no such restriction for Teleport, not this version of it.
She opened her status screen to check. The spell was available for use.
Unlocking abilities by dubious means led to dubious outcomes, apparently.
Not that there weren’t some constraints.
“No. No cooldown. It does eat up a lot of mana, though.” She had maybe three more uses before she’d be out of MP. She still had two bottles of the blue liquid left, but she’d need a lot more if she kept popping around like that. “I should really stock up on mana potions.”
“Here,” said Lin. She was holding out a blue bottle, a little bigger than the ones Britta had. The bottle was a bit fancier, too. Designer potion?
Mana Regeneration by Calvin Klein. It was only a matter of time.
“Thanks,” said Britta, taking it. She sipped little and then downed the whole thing. Hers had tasted of cough medicine, this tasted like raspberries.
The effect was a little different from what she was used to. There was a burning sensation in her throat and her fingers and toes tingled like she’d just come in from building a snowman.
She checked her status screen — she was back to full mana.
“Wow. That was strong.”
“I have more if you need it,” said Lin. “How did you get that skill so powerful? You’re only Level 5.”
“I know people in high places,” said Britta. “They know all the best cheats.” There was no point denying it was anything else.
“Who are you?” said the shaman. “You aren’t like the others who come here.” She spoke in a measured way, like she was being very careful. Her eyes were fixed on Britta, watching for what? Signs of danger? It was noticeable to Britta that the shaman’s stance was very unthreatening. A deliberate attempt to get Britta to let her guard down?
“I’m a player,” said Britta. “Do you know what that is?”
The shaman looked shocked, but she nodded. “We know how this world works. We may not like it, but we don’t have much choice.”
“You know?” said Lin, her turn to be shocked. “How can you know? You’re…”
“You keep coming back,” said the shaman. “We keep coming back. Death isn’t the end, and several lives give you time to reflect on the purpose of it all.” For a huge pig-faced monster, she was surprisingly introspective.
They were aware of their immortality. They didn’t seem particularly thrilled about it.
“If you know you won’t die,” said Britta, “why do you bother to fight?” As far as she could see, letting the players win and take their treasure would make the whole thing proceed more smoothly. Why even stay and guard a dungeon if you knew the outcome was inevitable?
“Because it hurts to die,” said the shaman.
Now it was Britta’s turn. “They make it hurt? Why?”
“Motivation,” said Lin. “The code is made to work like human behaviour. You need a reason to act. Greed, fear, anger… pain. It makes them more human.”
“It does more than that,” said Britta.
How long had this been going on? From the start? She recalled Stan telling her monsters would abandon villages and move away from areas where players tried to farm kills. It was more than an attempt by the game to make life harder for gamers, it was people trying to save themselves from pain and suffering. No wonder it had become so difficult to level-up.
“You aren’t a blue orc,” said Britta. The shaman was as big as the orcs that had captured them, but her skin didn’t have their distinctive blue tinge. She was more of a pale grey and pale. She seemed paler after talking to Britta.
“You brought them up here from the lower levels to stop players getting any further?”
If you really wanted to stop murderers running amok, you wouldn’t throw your weakest fighters at them and slowly let them get used to facing harder and harder opponents, you would hit them with your strongest people and wreck them immediately.
“It was difficult to fight our instincts and use our brains,” said the shaman. “The higher-ups don’t like it when we do that. It made much more sense. Even financially. If the weaker forces managed to fend off an attack, we would make savings by not having to deploy the blues, but if they’re going to be used eventually anyway, it makes more sense to deploy the blues immediately and save on infantry costs. I’ve been arguing for this for so long and no one has been able to grasp what I was trying to say. Finally, I put it into action myself.”
Britta had thought the L-15 had changed things around for Britta’s benefit, but now she realised that wasn’t the case. The NPCs had been given emotions and motivations to make them more human, and that had led them to the most human behaviour of all — ignore your programming and do what makes the most sense.