The control room for the United States Foreign Conflict Resolution Task Force was somber. It always had the breaths-held feeling of a NASA control room in the moments before a launch, and now, Dimple thought, this must be what it was like to wonder if your mission would be scrubbed—if all of your years of work would turn meaningless in a single heartbeat.
They’d just received a new readout of the leaderboard: both the global board, and the deeper analytics that mediated dozens of international arrangements and allocated thousands of resources. Team USA had fallen three places in the leaderboard, to number 14—probably a direct side effect of putting in a new player at a much lower level.
The light was dim, the better to see the rows of screens monitoring power supplies, freight shipments, tax and tariff rates, troop deployments, and a dozen other things. Dimple’s gaze swept from screen to screen, trying to identify what had just been lost.
Beside her, the recently decanted player Gregory Dudek grimaced. “Are you sure she’s going to be worth it?” Dimple knew that he really meant: You should have left me in the game.
Her fingertips rose to just brush one of the status screens. Power was already being diverted as a result of the change in rankings. The lights were going out all across the Eastern Seaboard.
“I’m sure,” Dimple said. “I’d bet all of our lives on it.”
“You already did,” Greg said.
Tandy | Class: Veiled Archer | Level: 1
HP: 32/32 | Status: Normal
XP: 45 | Next Level: 1,000
The dead rose from the ground, soil falling away from naked bone in dank clumps. Any idiot could tell they meant ill from the way they grasped their rusty, pitted weapons, if their mere existence wasn’t already proof enough. There were six of them in all, crawling up from their graves.
Tandy didn’t say, “I tried to warn you,” but she sure wanted to.
“Goddammit,” Ben said.
Dante pulled out his ridiculously oversized sword. “Get behind me,” he said. “Both of you!”
Ben backed away, out of striking range, and pulled Tandy along with him.
Dante hacked at the first skeleton to free itself—the one with the Viking helm. Ribs were crushed under the force of his blow. It was a strong hit, but it still only did 2 HP of damage. The undead Viking staggered, then raised his axe. Dante dodged away just as the axe whistled by where his skull had been.
Three more skeletons drew closer.
“Etta, Bless them!” Dante shouted.
“What the hell is Bless?” Etta backed away from the creatures erupting from the ground.
“It’s a cleric ability,” Dante said. “You should be able to Bless them and it’ll give them damage!”
Etta waved her arms in an elaborate gesture whose meaning was cryptic. “You told me to focus on healing spells. I don’t have a Bless anything.”
One of the creatures stabbed at Dante and scratched his arm. He winced and swore out loud. But it was only a 5 HP hit and Dante had a pool of nearly 100 HP, so he could safely play at this holding action for a long time. He swung again, and again only did 2 HP. But the skeleton hit him again for another 5. It could keep this up longer than Dante.
The three stragglers pulled out rotted bows from the earth and began to fire at the living folk. The first volley flew harmlessly into the night; skeletons, it turned out, weren’t great shots.
Ben threw a small knife at one skeleton, but it missed the mark and fell somewhere in the grass.
Etta had grabbed her weapon—a short, knobby club—and swung it at a skeleton like a baseball bat. The thing scattered in pieces across the packed earth. But according to its HP bar, Etta had done only 5 HP of damage. A little better than Dante, but not by much.
Slowly, as if drawn by magnetism, the bones began to reassemble. “Well, that’s no good,” Etta said.
“I noticed.” Dante swung at the crowd of skeletons to keep them at bay, though a few more of their jabs got through to him. “How do we kill these things without Bless?”
Tandy looked around, desperate to find a way to help, level 1 or not. Her arrows wouldn’t be any use against skeletons—they’d just clatter off the bone, doing minimal damage like everything else, assuming she could even hit them. But then she remembered—“Fire!” she shouted. “The undead are vulnerable to fire.”
She darted toward the campfire and took up a flaming branch. Then she ran back to the skeleton and thrust the smoking branch toward it.
She could only just make out the damage notification through the brightness of the flames: -30 HP. The skeleton’s bar was halfway empty.
The creature struck back. The rusty sword darted in and out, like a snake’s tongue. Tandy took 27 HP of damage,...