Fool's Play: Sample Chapter
Fool’s Play is the first book in a new series in the System Apocalypse universe. Written by David R. Packer in Tao Wong's bestselling post-apocalyptic LitRPG universe, System Apocalypse: Kismet follows a different path through a post-apocalyptic world, one of hope, redemption, and second chances.
The cavern was warm—a pleasant change from the snow-covered mountain meadow outside—and Fool smiled as he walked around the first bend. He couldn’t remember if these were properly called “burrows” or “warrens,” but whatever they were, they were much larger than they used to be.
Probably just as musty smelling though. He’d always loved marmots. The hoary marmots in the British Columbia interior were his favorites when he was a kid. He’d loved to walk around them, because they just didn’t care about people. You could walk right up to them and sit next to them, and they’d keep on doing whatever it was they were doing, as if you were invisible.
He’d tried to share that awesome experience once. Decades ago, with someone he loved. She’d laughed. It had been a happy time, but all that was gone now.
So much gone and changed. The System had hit the world like a tidal wave of rage and sorrow and cleared out most of everyone’s lives.
Fool had been ahead of the curve on that. He’d had a manic drive to succeed, but that turned to being manic after a few years, then he’d started to lose touch with reality sometimes. Lost his career, lost his friends, lost his family. Two decades of living as best he could after that. Managed to hold on to his car for the first six months, and after that?
When he came back to the real world, it had been a different world. He’d learned to make what friends he could. He’d learned to scrabble to survive, and to fight for a sense of any kind of continuity. Most people he knew had given up, making it day to day. But not Fool. No matter where his brain or life left, he always fought for the hope of a better future.
Eventually it came, thanks to the same thing that had taken the lives of billions of others. The System came. At first, he thought it was another hallucination. Then there was the voice, whispering a promise of what he’d longed for. Somehow it differed from the other voices, and he listened to it. He’d struggled for the first few days, then Jackal had showed up and helped Fool on his way to sanity. But that voice was still there sometimes. Only now Fool could see it was one of many Skills, assigned by the System. Sort of.
Fool knew he should use his System-assigned Skills to navigate this cave, to search for any hidden monsters or to protect himself from threats, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that. He’d been gifted those Skills, and he resented that. Things like that always came with a price. And in some ways, he knew he still didn’t trust that all of this was real. Some part of him still wondered if he wasn’t stuck in a hallucination.
That was stupid, of course. He knew the flavors of the mind-lies, and these weren’t them. These days, magic was as real as cars used to be. So were monsters. Everything had changed.
Like the Hoary Marmots. The cave was warm from them. Even as they hibernated, they still gave off heat and that musty animal smell. Before the System, they had been big rodents, about the size of a chihuahua, but a lot fatter and cuter. Now?
He walked up to the closest one and ran his hands through its fur. It was like petting a bus, but softer. He gave himself a moment and leaned into the side of the beast, letting the comfort and memory fill one little broken part inside him.
Big, soft, warm creature. A good dozen of them in this cave, all fast asleep. At least until winter ended for good. It had already started down at the base of the mountain. They’d sleep for another week or two at least.
His fingers pulled out of the fur, and the thick, downy undercoat came out in a mat in his hand. He held it up to his nose and took a deep whiff. Musky, but underneath that was the unique smell of the big creature. A delicate aroma that tickled the back of his nose and reminded him of baby powder.
The Hoary Marmots were the perfect example of the good that balanced out the bad of the System, as far as Fool was concerned. They were still monsters, giant and terrifying. The warning squeak they used to have had evolved into a shattering sonic attack that was loud enough to kill. But the System hadn’t really changed their essential character that much. They still would happily ignore you if you wandered amongst them. You just really didn’t want to upset them now. They sure weren’t endangered animals anymore.
Fool considered the luxurious fur for a moment, then raked his fingers through the big creature’s side a few more times. He stuffed the clumps into his pockets. It had much less value than an actual pelt—which could fetch an extremely tidy sum—but there were a few Crafters in McBride who could make use of even these small amounts. Especially one or two of the cute ladies. Every bit helped.
He took one more looked around the warren, but it all looked cozy and secure. Mission accomplished. He pulled the old, non-System radio out of his pocket and clicked it twice. That was the signal to Jackal that everything was okay. Then he froze.
Three clicks in his earpiece. That was Jackal’s signal for trouble outside. For a moment, Fool thought about grabbing another handful of underfur, but Jackal wouldn’t have signaled if it wasn’t something urgent, so he turned around and started his way out of the warren.
The view outside was still epic. They were near the peak, in the Sunbeam Ecological Reserve, and from here, Fool could look down across the whole valley, and up and down the entire mountain ranges on either side. Everything was still mostly sheathed in winter white, and the air was crisp and clear. An absolute silence only added to the majesty.
Fool took an extra moment to take it in, feeling his nostrils and the back of his throat burn with the cleansing cold. He saw Jackal in the same place he had been before. Fool wouldn’t have been able to see him if he didn’t know where to look.
The big man was crouched on one of the tallest piles of rocks. His skin was almost the color of the bark on the scattered trees that clung to life this high in the mountains, and he’d chosen a darker green outfit. Hunched down low, Jackal looked just like one of the folded-over high mountain pines.
Jackal motioned to Fool, telling him to move low.
A good sign. Fool had half expected to come out in the middle of a firefight. Jackal wasn’t quick to sound an alarm and was capable of handling almost any physical situation by himself.
Which made Fool curious. Something threatening enough that Jackal had wanted to warn him about it? And there was still time to head over to Jackal, twenty meters away, but he needed to stay low and not attract attention? Fool’s imagination was in overdrive as he did a low shuffle over to his partner.
Trolls? Giants? Dragons? What could be in the area? Whatever it was, it was probably what they’d been sent up to find.
They’d gotten back from their most recent mission for the Foundation and were directed up the mountain right away. The water supply for McBride had been showing a spike in bacteria. Not much of a problem normally. Good old-fashioned chlorine handled most of the critters that infested the local water, and a fancy System filter the city had sprung for took care of the rest. But old habits died hard, and the worry about the usual filtration methods not working wasn’t a minor worry. Having undrinkable water wasn’t on anyone’s fun list.
The town’s water supply came from a single stream that flowed down from multiple sources in the mountains. The increased bacteria came from fecal matter, or other biological processes like decay. This was unchanged even in the System world. Things still had to break down into component parts, and that worked at the Mana level as well as the pre-System level.
So something was pooping or dying in larger than normal numbers in the watershed area. The Foundation sent teams out to reconnoiter. They had sent Jackal and Fool up to the Ecological Reserve to check on the Marmots, to see if they’d suddenly had a population explosion or if something else had moved in.
Fool made it to Jackal, who had slowly been making his way down from his perch. The look on Jackal’s face wasn’t good.
“Spiders,” was all he said.
That was enough to make Fool’s stomach lurch. He’d always had a bit of a phobia but had mostly dealt with it. And the System had honestly helped with that. The problem was that the Cariboo Mountains seemed to be a favored spot for spiders, and mutations amongst the pre-existing population had come fast and hard. And not all for the bad. Like the Marmots, the Jumping Spiders and False Widows had grown large, but not entirely vicious. Most of the other species though… larger and nastier. Big problems. The first year of the System had seen almost all local resources devoted to cleansing those infestations.
The System seemed to like to repeat itself though, so everyone knew that at some point, the spiders would flare up again. The mountain range was filled with all kinds of damp caverns, caves, and tunnels. Ample space for monsters to breed in privacy.
Fool turned and looked, then wished he hadn’t.
Opiliones. Harvestmen. Nightmares.
Some part of him, deep inside, behind the gibbering, wanted to correct Jackal and tell him they weren’t real spiders. And they weren’t. Opiliones looked like spiders, eight gangly legs and all, but they didn’t have venom, and they had one less body segment. Mostly, they were just a big fat body with a head stuck on. And depending on the species, really bizarre eyes on stalks.
But Fool was looking at one that was heavily mutated, which didn’t help with its looks at all. The legs were of the usual form, all thin and gangly. The body was a flattened oval, and each segment looked like a slab of battleship armor, with a dull sheen that spoke of metal. Each segment was rimmed with spikes, for extra fun.
Big fangs. Huge. No venom dripping from them, just brute size. The thing was big enough, but those fangs were a third of the height of the creature, almost a meter long. And they narrowed right from the start, down to a wicked sharp needle point.
The real creepy thing though was the eyes. Three of them on this one. Wobbling all about on their stalks, like some sort of weird children’s toy. And they had a very unpleasant glow.
“Fuck,” Fool said. “This is gonna suck. Any more, or just the one?”
“Just one. So far,” Jackal said.
Small favor that. Fool turned and looked again. It was a few hundred meters away, up the slope, but heading right for them. Opiliones were mostly scavengers and had a fondness for caves. So, probably, this one and its pals had shown up and discovered sleeping Marmots were a ready snack. Well, time enough to look-see at this one and come up with a plan.
Fool put his resentment aside for a moment. It was time to use his System-bestowed Skills. Talent Scout would give him the basics of the beast.
“Triple threat.” he said.
Jackal nodded. “Eye beams?”
“You got it. Damage, Mana Drain, Health Drain. Armored with a ton of Health too.”
Fool chewed on that for a moment. He had a Skill that would help with this, and off-hand, he couldn’t think of a reason not to use it. And Jackal had the perfect Skill that would put him on top of the creature. Fool preferred not to use the System Skills, but he had no problem with other people using them.
“I’ll blind it, you jump on it. Between the eyes is the weak spot but get out of there as soon as you hit. Those eyes are nasty and can absolutely see every part on top. Head below after that, look for the joint between the body and head. Weak spot there too.”
“Got it. Now get your armor on. Still time.”
Fool swore, but Jackal ignored him. He’d really been hoping that Jackal would forget.
Fool didn’t enjoy fighting. Never had. He also couldn’t bring himself to spend any of the precious points that the System gave him on what he considered useless Skills, like combat ones.
But there was no arguing that the System favored fighters, and real growth came from kills. As he and Jackal had started to really push their Levels, they’d had to farm more and harder monsters to Level up. Fool had made do with buying ranged weapons when he had the funds… but now they were working for the Foundation, and money had become less of an issue. The Foundation didn’t like to lose assets. So they’d “gifted” him a fine set of protective gear and some rather skookum weapons.
While Fool wasn’t a staunch believer in the Foundations’ long-term goals, the short-term ones worked well enough. And the gear they supplied sure helped to make the job easier.
He stopped wasting precious seconds and activated the armor. It was sort of cool: instant-on armor. That part was acceptable. The close-fitting helmet still made him gag when it wrapped around his head though. No reason for it. His vision was still good, and he could probably breathe easier through the filtered air pumps, but his brain refused to believe that at some deep level.
As soon as that was done, he pulled out his latest toy—a very nice warhammer. Modeled after a lovely historical example, but with some delightful additions. Armor-piercing and Damage buffs, as well as Speed and Accuracy. Between the hammer and the armor’s buffs, he was almost as good as a fighter at two-thirds of his current Level. Almost. On a good day. For him.
Jackal had teased him about his choice of weapon, but Fool stuck to his hammer. His teenage years had been spent playing an old tabletop roleplaying game, and he’d never been able to let go of the idea that clerics weren’t allowed to use edged weapons. It wasn’t like his “god” cared, but Fool cared, so that’s what it was.
Besides, the hammer was satisfying. He had to admit he felt a very atavistic pleasure in swinging it around. The smooth steel shaft, the finely balanced brick on the end, even the braided leather strap that kept it on his hand if his grip failed. He’d grown to love the thing.
There was no more time to enjoy the thrill, because Jackal was already moving.
Unlike Fool, Jackal had loaded himself up with nothing but combat Skills. And over the time they’d spent together, Jackal had gone from being a dangerous individual to a very dangerous individual. Fool knew he’d be able to handle the Opilione on his own.
But there was never any point in taking chances, not in this new System world. The System didn’t play fair, it only played for its own ends, for its own inevitable need to spread and fill more and more. Fool was pretty sure that the one arachnid wasn’t the source of the spike in bacteria. One wouldn’t account for it… but a swarm might.
Best bet was to take down this one as fast as possible, before it warned its compatriots.
Fool’s role in this was pretty clear, and he was ready.
“Aziz!” he shouted, sprinting after Jackal. Even running, he could target the burst of light into the eyes of the creature, temporarily blinding it.
As Fool feared, blinding it didn’t stop the Opilione from firing nasty-looking rays from each eye. The Skill had an effect though. Instead of targeting them, the eyebeams spread out across the landscape. Two of the eye blasts didn’t seem to do much, but the third caused epic explosions wherever it hit.
Fool made a note to not get hit by the eyebeams.
Jackal was already at the creature and airborne. His second favorite Skill. He said it was called “Death from Above.” Fool always thought of it as “Scream and Leap” because that seemed more appropriate.
It was what Jackal did, after all. Not that he’d admit it. The screaming part anyway. Jackal liked to think of himself as a silent killer. He was. Mostly. He always seemed to yell like an action hero when he jumped though. Fool thought it was adorable.
In any case, it was absolutely effective. The bug, aside from the heavy armor, had a staggering amount of Health. If Fool’s Talent Scout Ability hadn’t identified the weak spots, they’d be chipping away its Health for a good bit and probably taking loads of damage at the same time. Instead, a single stab by Jackal’s heavy glaive did an impressive amount of damage, reducing the creature’s total Health by a noticeable amount.
It still wasn’t down though. Not by a long shot. Fool wasn’t as fast as Jackal, but he still had more speed than he did in the before times.
Which meant he was on the Opilione right about the same time Jackal was jumping off to try for the follow-up hit in the belly. The timing was about perfect. The temporary blindness of Fool’s System-flashlight to the eyes had already worn off, and the giant bug was tracking in on Jackal.
So Fool whacked it in the leg with his hammer. To his surprise, he actually knocked its Health down by another good notch. The training he’d been doing must have been paying off.
The downside was that the Opilione now knew exactly where Fool was and turned all three eyes on him. And started to blast.
Fool screamed and tucked himself into a hunched over little ball, which had the intended effect. Or at least his “Oh God Don’t Hit Me” Skill had its intended effect. The creature’s eyes flew back up and its alien features somehow managed to look startled. It was a low-Level Skill, but it still came in handy, even if it was only good for a temporary halt to the intended beating.
The monster apparently had slightly more intelligence than Fool had originally assumed, because instead of blasting him with its eyes, it looked around for Jackal.
Fool hadn’t been forgotten though. The Opilione opted to use its fangs on him.
It would have been a fair bit easier to deal with if they were actual fangs, instead of pedipalps. There were cheliricae as well, tiny little claws to shovel food into the critter’s mouth.
Fool really hated the fact that he was close enough to see that. The fangs were actually stuck on the ends of rudimentary legs, which meant they could come in at different angles.
Which insane idiot had mutated an arachnid and put their fangs on legs? The damn System, that was who.
Fool bashed one fang aside with his warhammer. The other darted in from the side and slammed into his armor, which held. Barely. Damage notifications flared. The fang had skittered off, but not before ripping off an entire chunk of his breastplate. The next hit to that area would go right through.
Time to run.
Fool had just started putting words to action, feet skidding on ice, when the beast quaked and shuffled, then disgorged an entire belly full of what looked to be what it used for blood.
Suddenly, Fool was very glad for the helmet and its air purifiers, because even through them, the stench was rather overwhelming. Regaining his feet, he watched as the Opilione flopped over on its side and curled up.
Jackal smiled from where the Opilione had been standing, dropping the butt of his spear and leaning on the shaft. “Were you going somewhere?”
“Hell yes. You think I want to stick around while you play with this thing? This is your job, not mine.” Fool’s smile took the truth out of the words.
Jackal knew Fool would never leave him in the middle of a fight. Fool would run, but he’d always come back. That was just who they were.
It was funny, but for both of them, it had taken the end of the world for them to really find and understand what true friendship was. No way they’d risk losing that. Not after all they’d been through before, and how all that had changed once they’d found each other.
Jackal didn’t laugh, but Fool saw the smile in his eyes. Made him feel like ruffling Jackal’s hair. At least, until he saw one of those hairs move.
Then it was joined by another one.
“Oh shit,” Jackal repeated.
Fool didn’t have to ask what was wrong. He saw it for himself as he turned around.
The tension running through Jackal’s body reminded Fool of a friend who had owned a greyhound. Once in a while, the dog would be let off the leash to burn off some energy, and when it felt the hand on its collar, a tremble went through it. Like a rocket made of bone and muscle, with only a thin sheet of skin holding in the explosion.
That was Jackal now.
Another half dozen Opilione were trundling down the hill toward them.
Fool felt the power leaking off of Jackal as he fired up all of his Skills and swapped out his spear for a pair of swords. Fool had already ditched the warhammer for a heavy, high-caliber rifle. He was a lousy shot, but between his pricy armor and System-add-ons to the rifle, he’d be a factor in this fight.
They didn’t have to make a plan. This wasn’t new to them. Wasn’t new to anyone with Levels like theirs. Not on a Dungeon World, eight months after the System had arrived. By this point, you were experienced or dead.
Being swarmed and overrun? Once a week, it felt like. Sure, not usually as tough as these critters, but bad enough. They’d reached the point of Leveling where most people figured “good enough” and learned to live with the consequences. Or died. Otherwise, you were on track for more Leveling and more fights, until you joined the numbers of the dead. It wasn’t sane, not really. But Fool wasn’t sane, so he just smiled and started pulling the trigger.
He already knew that armor-piercing rounds were the way to go, so he’d loaded up for that. And when he landed a shot, it did a good job at knocking down Health… aided by his “No Fair” Skill that he used to reduce armor just as he squeezed the trigger.
Or at least, that was what should have happened.
If he’d remembered to activate his Skill. Instead, he’d followed his training and taken the shot as soon as he’d seen the weak spot show up. His aim had been okay, even though he wasn’t really trying. He might forget to use his active Skills, but his passive Luck score was high enough that he could mostly be lazy about things like aiming.
Not always though. This time, the bullet went right where it was aimed, just a little to the side of the weak spot he’d noted on the previous Opilione. Without his “No Fair” Skill to knock the armor down though, the high-tech projectile all but bounced off the armor of the creature.
Not entirely, because it was still a fancy bit of ammunition. It cracked off a bit of the shell and took out a spattering of flesh. If it had been a normal, pre-System animal, that would have been enough to make it scream and run away.
As it was, the Opilione didn’t even slow down.
They were close enough that he didn’t even have time to swear. Instead, Fool had to fight against all of his instincts and settle himself. Take his time to aim, activate No Fair, and fire.
The next shot was much better. It punched a hole through the Opilione’s shell, and through his scope, he saw the creature shudder.
Fool had to repeat the entire process until the magazine was empty before he brought down the first one, and he scrambled to find another target before they got too close.
While reloading, Fool glanced up to see how Jackal was doing. The big man had already taken down three of the monsters.
Jackal was dancing through the Opilione like a dervish. He’d been working on that Skill for a while now. It was a strong contrast to his normal fighting style. No scream and leap, nor stoic stand-and-take-it. Blade Dancing, he called it. It was his Class’s first real multiple opponent Skill, and it was working like a charm. He was literally bouncing off of the giant arachnids, leaping up on their fangs, using them as springboards to evade the eyebeams, and all the while laying about with both swords for massive damage. It was impressive as hell to watch, and Fool found himself almost envious of the Skill.
Still, Fool had chosen his Class and Skills with care and foresight. Mostly. He was here for the long-haul, not for the flash of the moment. Even if Jackal looked totally awesome and was mowing down powerful opponents like wheat before a scythe.
Fool gave himself a brief internal shake and got back into the mission. Those spiders would kill them both if they didn’t take them out quickly. He narrowed his vision down to the scope again, picking his targets with care and firing when the right opportunity came. He didn’t even smile when the notification briefly popped up about the kill he’d just scored.
Only two spiders left, which meant that Jackal’s Blade Dancing Skill was not in effect anymore. And now he was outnumbered, a spider on each side. Fool scanned back and forth on both the opponents as Jackal furiously blocked and dodged. The one on the left was the weakest, so Fool put his next few shots into that one. It took four more, plus a few hits from Jackal, before that one was down.
One left, and Fool was out of ammo.
But it didn’t matter, because Jackal was under the last Opilione and slicing up into its weak body joint.
Fool took a quick look all around, but there were no more of the creatures about. He stored the rifle back in his inventory and sauntered over to Jackal.
Jackal was grinning. “Did we sync again?”
“Again! Nice!” Fool laughed.
Level ups for both of them.
And they’d finally broken into their next tier of Skills.
Time to make some choices.