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“This is the Creature Tamer?” Zimea gawked at the petite girl who stood no taller than four and a half feet.

    Susie-Q offered her hand. “Nice to meet you!”

    Zimea hesitated but shook and regarded me. “Can I talk to you for a second?”

    “What is it?” I cocked my head as she dragged me away.

    “She’s a child!” Zimea hissed.

    “You don't know that.”

    “And you’re okay with her risking her life, either way?”

    I shrugged. “I’m not okay with it.”

    Zimea punched my arm. “Then why get her involved?” 

    “Ow!” I rubbed my bicep. “It’s not like we have a choice!”

    Zimea sighed, putting her face in her hands. “This game is sickening.”

    “What was your first hint?”

    She punched me again.

    “Guys?” Susie-Q approached. “Rachel's scared.”

    “Oh?” I glanced and found the cat stalking back and forth, back arched.

     Zimea crossed her arms and turned. “Does she even tame?”

    “Yeah!” Susie-Q smiled. “I have the Taming skill!”

    “Doesn’t mean you understand how.”

    Rachel hissed and, In a flash, I drew Scalpel. Something was nearby.

    “Enemies!” Zimea drew her flintlocks.

    Susie-Q scooped Rachel into her arms. “What do we do?”

    Zimea cast me a glare, and I sighed. 

    “Run!” I led the way while Susie-Q followed. We arrived at the alley, and I skidded around the corner. “This way!”

    A shadow leaped across the rooftops above us. We made it to the boarded-up section, and I pulled the broken board.

    I waved. “Over here.”

    Susie-Q squeezed through, and I turned back, looking for Zimea. My companion ran the alley, her eyes trained on the sky.

    Zimea passed by and ducked through the hole. I followed her back onto Main Street. She kept her guns pointed high as I scanned the road. Movement caught my eye. A group of Turned Officers and Hellhounds walked in our direction. We could handle them.

    “Susie-Q, get ready.” I brandished Scalpel.

    “O-Okay!” She stepped back, with Rachel standing before her, hissing.

    Zimea grunted.

    “What is it?” I cast her a sidelong glance. 

    “Something is above us, but I can’t tell what!”

    “We have enemies here, too.”

    A figure soared off the roof and landed in the middle of the road. I spun on the creature, a Rooftop Crawler. I moved to charge but stopped in my tracks. A dagger stuck from the naked humanoid’s back. Its health bar flashed a dark green and drained. After a few seconds the bar hit zero, and it glowed red, exploding away.

    Another figure leaped off a nearby roof, just above the mob of Officers and their mutts. His arms moved in a blur, and dozens of daggers rained upon the unfortunate enemies.

    “Wow!” Susie-Q hopped. “That’s so cool!”

    Zimea’s jaw dropped. “What in the—?”

    I breathed a sigh. “It’s Pan!”

    His cloak flew behind him as he landed. The enemies still stood, yet he turned and walked toward us. One by one, each of the enemies flashed red and shattered. The words, LEVEL UP, popped over Pan’s head, raising him to level nine.

    “Good day.” Pan bowed low.

    “Hey.” I gave a small wave.

    “You are the coolest!” Susie-Q sang. “Even Rachel thought it was incredible!”

    The cat was in her arms, its mouth open wide in a bored-looking yawn.

    “Our Creature Tamer?” Pan circled Susie-Q. He took a dagger and lifted her short cape, then dropped it again. “I see you took my admission of even a child quite...literally.”

    “She’s the only one we found.” I frowned.

    Zimea glared at me. “Zycuh found her.”

    “Either way, it’s good enough.” Pan shrugged. “We need to keep her alive through the Forest. How did you survive when you spawned?”

    Susie-Q’s lip quivered. “I came into the game with a handful of others. Only three made it into town.”

    “And where are they now?”

    She hesitated, choking on a sob. Tears rolled from her eyes. “One got dragged away by Officers, and another searched for him. She never came back.”

    In my mind, I saw the others at the Graveyard gallows. Might that have been them?

    “Now we’re all together, let us form a party.” Pan brought out his menu and slid his finger.

    A notification popped before me. I clicked accept as did Zimea and Susie-Q.

    “From now on, we share experience.” Pan lifted a finger. “If we get any loot, it's divvied up at random. I don’t like the whole greed and need system. It’s so old school. Oh, and if anyone gets a dagger or a hat of any kind, and you don’t need it, hand it over, please”

    Zimea narrowed her eyes. “And if we don’t?”

    “Then you shall force me to kill you.” Pan giggled as he walked by, toward the front gates of the city.

    “He’s joking, right?” Susie-Q pursed her lips.

    I sighed. “No idea.”

    We hurried after him. 

    At the gates, we stood in the street and waited.

    “How often does Charon come?” Zimea tapped her foot.

    “Every ten minutes.” Pan examined his dagger, turning it over in his hands.

    Outside the gates, across the wooden bridge, a large form appeared. At first, shadows cloaked it, but its red eyes flared. Charon’s Nightmare-drawn carriage appeared, with the horse-beast clop-clopping.

    “Spectacular.” Pan smiled wide. “Right on time.”

    The carriage rolled into town and came to a slow stop before us. The elderly driver tipped his hat. “Need a ride?”

    As the doors opened, I almost expected more players to clamber out, but no one came. Why was I surprised? No new players were coming. I still wondered why I received a headset.

    “Well, everyone in!” Pan clapped his hands. 

    I grabbed the door handle, and he slapped my hand away.

    I massaged my fingers. “Ow, dammit. Why?”

    “Ladies first.” He smirked.

    Susie-Q giggled and set Rachel on the inside floor, climbing into the far seat.

    Zimea shrugged. “Dude has a point.”

    I rolled my eyes and glared at Pan.

    He grinned. “Now, you may enter.”

    I stepped into the carriage and sat next to Zimea. Pan came in last and took the seat beside Susie-Q.

    The door shut, and the carriage teleported, now facing the road out of town. We rolled away, heading toward the Forest. Zimea kept her eyes closed, as Susie-Q pet her familiar, Rachel. Pan had a boyish grin on his face.

    I held my arms across my chest. “Why are you so excited?”

    “Getting to go beyond the Forest of Damnation!” Pan nodded. “After finding no intact bridge, I feared I would never get to cross the Cliff of Endings.”

    “There has to be a way. What if all the Creature Tamer’s get killed?”

    Susie-Q lifted her eyes.

    “Tsk, tsk.” Pan wagged his finger. “Don’t scare our little friend. I'd wager Creature Tamers will be the last ones alive. I mean, they can tame any monster they defeat.”

    Susie-Q nodded and buried her face into Rachel’s furry back.

    “That's an awesome power. I should’ve been a Creature Tamer.” I blinked, imagining the usefulness of such a skill.

    “Told you so.” Pan chuckled. “But I hear at level ten you get to choose an advanced class.”

    “For real?”

    “Yes, I look forward to furthering my Assassin abilities.”

    “How do you know?” I raised a brow. “No one has made it that far.”

    “The alpha and beta testers have.”

    “Who are they?” Susie-Q faced Pan, smiling.

    “The ones who designed and tested the original version of the game.”

    “Are they stuck too?”

    “They’re more like a legend.” Zimea leaned her head back. “To those of us stuck here in Shadesburgh, anyhow.”

    “They’ll complete the game.” I sighed. “Guess I wasted my time coming here.”

    “They don’t exist.” Zimea shook her head. “At least no longer.”

    “Sure they do.” Pan put his chin in his hand. “They’re the Gamemaster, the coders, and the digital artists.”

    My eyes widened. “Is Z an Alpha Tester?”

    “Would anyone put themselves into their own trap?” Pan rolled his eyes. “I told you my opinion on Z. A whiny brat in his mother’s basement.”

    “I’m sure he isn’t like that!” Susie-Q set her jaw.

    We regarded her. It was the first time someone had defended the wretched hacker.

    “What knowledge of Z do you have?” Pan leaned back, getting a good look at her.

    The young girl lowered her head. “He might be an angry teen and must have a reason for trapping us.”

    “Some people are just evil.” I frowned. “Don’t think too much about it.”

    “No.” Pan tapped his cane to his hat. “Perhaps we should think of it! Why is Z evil? Why is he that fat kid in a basement? His mother is a no-good whore.”

    Susie-Q scowled. “Don’t talk mean about people you don’t know!” Even Rachel, sitting in her lap, seemed on edge.

    “I need not know her. In real life, it's my job to know people.”

    “What are you?” Zimea eyed him. “A head doctor?”

    “I’ve revealed too much. Let’s not talk any longer about real life. This is as real as it gets.”

    Pan surrounded himself with such an air of mystery, but in life was he a boring, everyday Joe?

    We rolled over bumps, causing Susie-Q to cry out each time. Not much later, we entered the Forest. 

    In my heart, I feared the Damned Werewolves were watching us; waiting. “Will this take us to the Cliffs?”

    Pan nodded, without a word.

    I sat back and found Zimea looking at me. The moment our eyes met, she glanced away. Susie-Q held Rachel aloft, so the cat’s back legs were dangling. She made the cat dance, and it didn’t care. Every so often it yawned again but did little else. I couldn't imagine it fighting. Did each Creature Tamer start with a mundane pet, or did she come across it in Shadesburgh and claim it as her own?

    I had to ask. “My mom had a cat with the same name. Where did you get her?”

    Susie-Q looked up and cocked her head. “What do you mean? She’s always been with me!”

    “You started with a cat familiar?”

    “No, I took her in as a stray ten years ago.”

    “In the game. I’m not talking about your cat back at home.”

    “This is my cat from home.” Susie-Q frowned.

    I looked to Zimea and then Pan for help. Both shrugged.

    I slumped my shoulders. “Fine, you’re a role-player. I get it. But can the cat fight in battle?”

    “She’s gotten me through a lot already.” Susie-Q gave a toothy grin. “She took out the Turned Officers that tried to drag me to the Graveyard. She also beat up a Hellhound.”

    “Creature Tamers have powerful familiars.” Pan watched out the window. “Do not trifle them. When a battle begins, if she can control her kitty cat, then you had best watch out.”

    The tired-looking cat glanced at me from Susie-Q’s lap. It wagged its tail twice and yawned again. The feline always seemed to yawn.

    “Oh goodie!” Pan rubbed his hands together as the carriage stopped. “I think we’re here!”

    He opened the door and stuck his head out.

    “What about ladies first?” I scoffed.

    “Into danger?” He laughed. “Which do you think I am? A gentleman, or a monster?”

    The Assassin stepped from the carriage, reaching his hand back. Susie-Q took it, and she hopped out. He tried the same with Zimea, and she smacked it away.

    Her eyes narrowed. “I see through your facade.”

    “Not very trusting, I see.” Pan grinned, then looked at me. “She has the right idea.”

    Before I could ask what he meant, he left. I followed him out and closed the carriage door.

    Charon bowed and snapped the reigns of the Nightmare. The carriage headed toward the cliff edge, only ten yards away. It continued right over, falling.

    My jaw dropped. “Is it supposed to do that?”

    “Why yes, yes, it is.” Pan pointed back to the road.

    The carriage flashed into existence, facing the other way. It left, creaking, cracking, and bumping.

    “Everything in Dark Days is morbid,” Zimea muttered.

    Pan stood at the edge of the cliff and he motioned for us to join him.

    “This is where the bridge used to be...” He waved his hand. “It’s why we need a Tamer.”

    I peeked over, and it was a long drop. “There must be a bridge repairing quest.”

    “There’s a quest line, maybe. But I cannot find the Quest Giver. I’ve searched the entire forest, and all of Shadesburgh.”

    Zimea shrugged. “Did something off the NPC?”

    “Monsters aren’t programmed to attack NPCs, it seems. Regardless, we're here now.” Pan bowed to Susie-Q. “With a Tamer.”

    “Now what?” She tilted her head.

    “You show us your taming skills.” The Assassin raised his hand. He held a shiny Xynobit.

     I stared, face blank. “What good will that do?”

    “Wait for it.”

    A few moments passed and then came a heavy flapping. We looked to the sky as big, black birds swarmed toward us.

    I drew my sword. “A murder of crows?”

    “No!” Pan held his dagger ready. “Crows form a murder, but these are ravens. This is an Unkindness.”


Bit 12: Quoth the Raven

(click here to go to Amazon to purchase the title)…

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