One week earlier:
Matilda Scarletstrike — she used the same name for every character she played — teleported into the World of Warcraft entrance where her team was waiting for her.
World of Warcraft had many entry points, so as to make it convenient for players to get in and out of the game.
Players like her squad of grizzled veterans. They’d fought together in three global wars as well as countless smaller skirmishes and quests. The group had lasted longer than most of her relationships and they knew her better than her own family did.
The portal opened onto a desolate and rocky landscape, fires burning in the distance. She glanced up. The dragons were out. She couldn’t make out the details of the one overhead. It looked black against the sky. But, from the size, she guessed it belonged to the enemy. She waited for it to pass. She was invisible as long as she stayed close to the portal, but as soon as she got a bit further away, other players could see her — and kill her.
She wrapped her cloak tighter around herself. Up here, the wind was icy cold.
About a mile downhill from the portal faint smoke wafted up from a campfire. Noobs. Experienced players knew better than to give away their location like that.
She followed the main path down for a few minutes then turned left between two house-sized rocks and followed a barely-detectable trail to her own squad’s campsite. She’d blazed the trail herself a few days ago but she didn’t even need to look for the faint scratches in the rock walls to guide her through the rockfall. She’d paid extra for her character to have a nearly perfect sense of direction and made up the difference with her own native abilities.
The camp was invisible from the outside. Not magically invisible — just well-hidden in the rocks. She squeezed through a crevasse, climbed over a pile of rocks taller than she was and pushed her way through a pile of dead branches.
There they were. Gistreg and Kundrag, smoking pipes as usual, their axes at their feet. Delimira strummed her harp, her fingers just barely touching the strings so as not to make any noise. Bearscar and the Boar were sharpening their knives. Lianngharnaigh — Lonny — stirred the soup.
She deliberately kicked a pebble while she was still some distance away and they all looked up, hands automatically moving towards their weapons, then relaxed again when they saw it was her. It was never a good idea to surprise a bunch of fighters. Out here, the policy was to shoot or stab first, ask questions later.
“I told you she was coming,” said Delimira, the only one who hadn’t reach for a sword or axe. “I could hear her breathing five minutes ago.”
“It could still have been an animal,” Kundrag said.
“Out here?” Delimira turned back to her harp.
“We thought you weren’t coming,” said Gistreg.
Matilda glanced up at the sky. “Why? Were you expecting me earlier? I said I’d be here around noon, and it’s still mid-morning.”
“No, you know, because of the… thing,” said Bearscar.
“You don’t know?”
Matilda shook her head.
Bearscar looked over at the Boar. “You tell her.”
“No, I’m not going to tell her. She’ll stab me.”
“If I was going to stab you, I’d have stabbed you months ago.” Matilda kicked away the Boar’s boot and sat down on the log next to him. “Come on, coward, spill it.”
The Boar, who had recently celebrated his thousand kill milestone — players, not NPCs — looked down at his hands. “Look, I’m just the messenger, okay?”
“Your reputation score just dropped below two.”
“What!” Matilda jumped to her feet. “You know how many players I avoided killing — even though I was totally provoked — to keep my score up? I’ve kept it at two point five for three years.” She raised her hands and pulled down the in-game menu. Text scrolled in the air in front of her as she navigated through her statistics. “Huh. Two hundred people just reported me for an incident that happened… three years ago? I was barely even there. And they all just remembered now?” She scrolled further. “And they all blocked me? What the hell?”
“It gets worse,” said Delimira.
“How can it get worse?” Matilda scrolled further then stopped, and went back. There it was. Her jerk of an ex-husband had filed a restraining order against her. That, by itself, took her reputation score down by three tenths.
“You can still come on the campaign with us,” said Bearscar.
“Why?” Matilda dropped back down on the log. The Boar swayed slightly as his seat shifted under him and grabbed the wood to keep himself steady.
“With a score this low, most of the players are going to have me blocked by default,” Matilda said. “Thanks, guys, by the way, for not doing that.”
“Well, yes, that’s going to be a problem,” said Bearscar. “I’ll give you that.”
“She could spy for us,” said Kundrag.
“She won’t be able to see much.” Bearscar ticked off his fingers. “She won’t be able to see the players who have her blocked. She won’t be able to see their weapons, or mounts, or other belongings. She won’t be able to hear their conversations. The only thing she’ll be able to tell us about is the landscape and we already know this place pretty well.”
“But she’ll still eat our food,” said Lonny.
Matilda looked at the soup pot. “What’s in there?”
“Basilisk kidney stew.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Well, I wouldn’t eat that. That’s disgusting.” She paused. “Maybe just one bowl.”
Lonny sighed and reached for a ladle.
“We’re planning to head out after lunch,” said Delimira. “Barnaby already told us he’s not coming.”
Barnaby Faremanne — Finnbogi Sturluson in real life — was Matilda’s cousin and her closest friend from childhood.
“Why? He said he was really looking forward to the campaign,” she said.
“He didn’t want to be a burden,” said Delimira. “And the main reason he was coming was to spend time with you.”
“Why would he think he’d be a burden?”
“Last time he came out with us, he stabbed himself twice and got blisters on his feet and you had to carry him,” said Bearscar.
“We were lucky he got killed in the first battle, or he would have really been in the way,” the Boar added, then yelped when Matilda elbowed him in the side.
“It sounds like you guys don’t want me here,” said Matilda.
“No, no, of course we want you,” said Bearscar. “Its just that…”
“Why don’t you go and help some noobs, raise your reputation score first?” said Delimira. “You can teach them to hunt frogs in the blackberry swamp.”
“Or help the starlight fairies gather moondust in Twinkle Forest,” said Bearscar.
“There’s a new farming village in Elfdale,” said the Boar. “You can repair fences for them.”
“Arrgh! I just want to kill someone!” Matilda punched the log under her then stood up. “Anybody at all. I want to slice some throats.” She paced behind the Boar. “I want to carve out some intestines. Punch some dragons.” She turned and paced back. “Wring Roland’s neck.”
“Who’s Roland?” the Boar whispered.
“The ex-husband,” said Bearscar.
“Here’s what you do,” said Delimira. “Go somewhere else. Somewhere without in-world reputation ranks. Get all the killing out of your system. Then come back and help some fairies.”
“Just don’t go to Krim,” said Bearscar.
“I’ve never even heard of Krim,” said Matilda. “Why would I go there?”
“No reason,” said Bearscar. “It’s a lousy place. Pretty much the worst world. Filthy.”
“So why did you bring it up?”
“So you don’t make the mistake of going there.”
“No, you’re hiding something from me.” Matilda leaned down and peered into Bearscar’s eyes. “Your eyelid is twitching. Spill.”
As Bearscar opened his mouth, Delimira raised her hand. “Stop. You promised Barnaby you wouldn’t say anything.”
Matilda whirled around. “Barnaby knows something?” Delimira looked away. “Barnaby is going to be on Krim. No, why would he want me to avoid it? Barnaby knows that someone else is going to be on Krim. There someone on Krim he wants me to stay away from.”
“Ah, shit,” said Bearscar.