“Are we fighting to kill, or just to maim?” Matilda asked. The fighters arrayed in front of her — and, now, also sneaking up behind — were armed to the teeth. Literaly, in one case, though having a knife in your mouth seemed more dangerous to its wielder than anyone else. She saw a familiar tattoo on an exposed forearm — the same tattoo that one of Tiny Timmy’s friends had. Possibly Tiny Timmy too, but she hadn’t undressed him to check. “You’re with the Armforge Guild, right? Don’t you have a battle to get to?”
“She’s right. We can’t afford to be out of commission for two weeks,” said one of her attackers.
“What are you talking about? There are six of us.”
“She took down Tiny Timmy.”
“He was drunk and had just eaten his way through a whole Funhouse buffet. I mean, look at her.” The six would-be attackers stared at her. They were armed with swords and knives but not armored. It wouldn’t be particularly efficient to chase someone through the streets while wearing chainmail.
Matilda backed up slightly and noted that she was now in the middle of the street. Cudgel Drive, one of the back streets that led between the King’s Armpit and the Mercenary Guild. Taking the back roads allowed her to avoid the pedestrians and the vehicle traffic on Upping and Lothbury streets. It was also harder to avoid pickpockets and a someone randomly stabbing you in the back when you had to constantly push past people. Krim’s few residents all seemed to be concentrated on Upping, Lothbury, and maybe a couple of other streets, from what Matilda had seen so far.
If her attackers had planned ahead, they could have an archer hiding somewhere near by. She turned around slowly. There were a lot of dark windows and shadowed doorways. The whole area had an empty, abandoned feel. Krim’s founders had probably put up a lot of empty buildings, hoping that people would show up.
“Do you know what the problem with Krim is?” Matilda asked.
The guy in the center crossed his arms. “Enlighten us.”
“You don’t know how to handle pain. You’re all used to places like World of Battle, where it’s dialed way down. And back in real life, I bet none of you had ever been in a real fight. Am I right?”
The attacker on the far left rushed at her. She stepped around his lunge and put a stiletto through an eyeball. “I bet the first time you punched someone on Krim you broke your hand and haven’t punched anyone since.” She easily deflected a punch the next guy through at her and jabbed him quickly in his Adam’s apple, then turned and sent another knife into another attacker’s open mouth. “It helps to remember that pain will end.” She sliced through the throat of a fighter who tried to grab her from behind. “One way or another.”
There were two left, one of whom raised both hands, fingers splayed wide open, and started backing away.
“Some people have a mantra to help them deal with the pain,” Matilda told the last fighter, kicking him in the side of the knee. The man collapsed, and she stomped on his other knee with her full weight. Then she stepped back and waited for him to stop screaming. It took him a while, giving her time to collect and wipe down her knives.
When his screams had settled down into moans, she knelt next to him.
He tried to pull out his sword, which she easily took away. He tried to roll towards her and she slapped him with the flat of the sword, then held it up to the light. “It looks a little dull,” she said. She tossed the sword up a few inches while holding it lightly by the hilt. “It’s a little tip-heavy. I’ll donate it to the guild. They can always use practice weapons.”
The fighter grabbed at her and she broke the little finger on his left hand and waited again for him to stop screaming. “Now, who sent you?”
“That really hurts,” the fighter sobbed. He fell to his knees, cradling his injured hand.
Matilda wrinkled her nose. “Did you just wet yourself?”
“I don’t want to die,” the man sobbed.
Matilda stepped back. “It’s just a game.”
“It doesn’t feel like a game.” The fighter wiped his nose with his good hand. “I want to go home.” He looked up at her. The smeared snot had combined with Krim’s dirt to leave muddy trails on his face. “I’ve changed my mind. I don’t want to go to war. I’m scared to die.” He looked around at his dead fellows — one of whom wasn’t completely dead and was still twitching slightly — and visibly shivered.
“They’re not really dead,” Matilda said, fighting the urge to pat the man on the head. “They’re probably back in the real world, at some bar, drinking, talking about what they’re going to do with their next two weeks until they can come back to Krim.”
“I heard sometimes, if you get killed online, you can have a heart attack in real life and die,” the fighter said.
“That’s a fairy tale.”
“It’s in the Krim Terms of Service,” the fighter said. “I looked it up. It’s real.”
Matilda shook her head. “I’m sure your life support system will keep you from dying. And if you do die, it’s not so bad. Your life insurance kicks in, and you get to live online full time. It’s great. I died two years ago, I don’t mind it a bit. In fact, I don’t even want to go back to having a physical body. I love it here. Just think of all the money you’ll save on food and rent.”
The fighter wiped his face again. “Actually, it’s the same for me. I died in real life about five years ago. Freak mining accident. But I don’t want to die again. Once was enough for me.” He staggered to his feet. “I’m getting out of here.”
Matilda stepped up to him, her knife at his throat. “Not before you tell me who sent you.”
The fighter looked around then took a few hesitant steps away from his still-dying friend. Then he whispered, “If I tell you, will you let me go?”