July 13th’s Section
Eliza pulled up hard on the reins to her Blue-Drake and felt it fight against her. The massive, winged beast was willing enough to let her climb aboard its back and carry her as a passenger, but the prospect of responding to every nuanced flick of her heels or tug of the reins with a battle raging around them was still beyond its capabilities. It was newly spawned, skittish by nature, and had proven itself to be far too green and untrained to be pressed into service. The sound of mages’ fireballs as they hissed past and exploded in the sky above them had set it on edge early on, and she had been forced to spend as much time preventing the mount from fleeing the engagement outright as she had actually fighting.
She wrapped the stiff leather around the palm of her left hand in order to get a better grip and jerked upwards on reins the as hard as she could with both hands. She felt the thick, corded muscles underneath its wings tighten under her command and the rush of air surge around her as the serpent finally responded to her commands.
“By the name of the Great Lord . . .” Eliza muttered, stopping just short of actually cursing the foul beast. She had managed to regain control before it reached its intended target, a cluster of well-protected mages in the enemy’s backline, but not before completely breaking formation and leaving the ranks of her own comrades far behind.
The sergeant is going to kill me for this. Eliza cringed at the thought as memories flickered through her mind of the first time she had seen one of the other soldiers disciplined for failing to perform his duty admirably during battle. Poor Edward had been dressed down in front of the entire army and hundreds of the newcomers for failing to kill more than one hundred and eighteen people during the siege of Mt. Lawlheima by War General Alex himself. Not only was he shamed by having his failure put on display for all to see, he was busted back to training maneuvers. The message was clear, and everyone present had easily picked up on it: either perform to the Great Lord’s expectations or suffer the consequences. Ever since then, discipline within the ranks had been steadfast.
Eliza felt a small thread of panic threaten to race through her, and she almost shuddered as she briefly considered what her punishment would be if she was caught this far away from her assigned squadron. No. Not now. Focus on the fight. There is no room for fear on the battlefield, and I don’t have time to think about what might come later. Maybe I can still save this somehow. She pushed those concerns out of her head and forced down the feeling before it could take root and overwhelm her.
She pulled up on the reins again, and her Blue-Drake responded with furious flaps of its wings as it flew further upwards. When she finally reached what she felt like was a safe height, she leaned forward from where she sat astride the Blue-Drake and craned her neck until she could peer down at the enemy’s formation below her. Nothing she saw indicated that The Holy Alliance was using any tactic similar to what they had during their previous few engagements.
Quietly whispered doubts had wormed their way through the encamped army the night before when scouts returned with their reconnaissance of the enemy’s position just before dusk and were sequestered in with the commanding officers until well after midnight. Typically, those meetings lasted only a short amount of time as they quickly gave their reports and were dismissed. The unusual length of time it took to deliver the information had raised more than a few eyebrows in curiosity and set tongues to wagging. The murmurs were quickly silenced by commanding officers, and, despite a few remaining naysayers, morale had remained at an all-time high. The Great Lord’s army had never been defeated in battle, and there was no reason to believe that today would be any different.
Looking down at the battle below her, however, Eliza had more than enough reason to believe that those few voices may have raised legitimate concerns. The Holy Alliance had fortified its position at the southern end of a mountain range and occupied the mouth of a small canyon that served as the entrance to the only pass that allowed easy access into the chain of mountains. The sheer cliffs to the east and west prevented them from being attacked from any direction other than a direct, frontal assault, and control of the pass ensured that they never had to worry about a force flanking them.
Ground troops were deployed in long, fan-shaped formations around the mouth of the canyon, and they were forcing the Demon army to fight into a fortified position with an elongated front line. Bulwarks and palisades had been erected, providing the defenders an additional advantage, and, so far, they were proving their worth as the advancing army struggled to overtake them. If the front lines crumbled, and the defenses were lost, Eliza guessed that they would slowly retreat backward, swap out with reserves, and move back through the pass. If the Demon army wanted to press the attack, they would then be forced to fight along a narrowed front and under fire from above.
Clusters of magicians and archers were stationed just inside the canyon, along the sloping ground that led up to the canyon’s vertical walls, where they could safely lob volleys of arrows and spells at the Demon army as it approached. These small groups were the key to The Holy Alliance’s defense against the advance of the Demon army. They were the primary defense against attacks from the Blue-Drake squadrons, the first to launch attacks into advancing troops at the onset of battle, and would provide cover for ground troops if they had to retreat.
Constant barrages from the air in previous battles had taught the enemy the importance of protecting their soft, high-damage backline. As long as their casters and bowmen were in position and protected, they were fairly successful at both preventing the Drakes from engaging from above and controlling the flow of battle. As it was, they were perfectly positioned. The walls of the canyon forced the Drake squadrons to attack from either directly above or into the mouth of the canyon and expose themselves to constant ranged attacks from below.
Eliza tugged on the reigns of her Blue-Drake, and thankfully, her mount responded with only a small amount of resistance as it turned back towards her own lines. It was clearly uncomfortable with even being this close to the source of the enemy attacks, and she knew that if she gave allowed any headway it would probably resume its dive headfirst towards the closest group of spell casters. Its natural instincts told it to attack anything it perceived as a threat, and a well-placed salvo of explosions from a group below had been more than enough to garner its attention and cause it to break away from the rest of her squadron in an attempt to attack them. Older, battle-tested mounts didn’t have that problem. After a few engagements and some careful training, they were usually more than complacent in following their rider’s commands on the battlefield. They become as inoculated to the violence and death as we are, she thought wryly.
She was no tactician, but she had been in more than her fair share of fights. She was often in the vanguard on the front lines, right in the thick of the fighting, and she had as much combat experience as any other soldier in the army. Perhaps it was because she so high above the battle, so far removed from the chaos and action, but the outcome of this battle seemed obvious if something didn’t change: they were going to lose. Even from her great distance above the ground, she could tell that the fight along the frontline had degraded from an organized effort into a brawl as soldiers fought to overtake the defenders’ position. Even if they somehow managed to push the defending line back and forced them to abandon their fortifications, it was going to be far too costly. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what the death tally was going to look like just from attempting to storm those palisades.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that the Great Lord insisted on using the newcomers and their strange new abilities, after all, she thought wryly. Up until this moment, she had been as opposed as anyone else to opening up their ranks to the crops of newcomers that had mysteriously shown up. These strangers to her world seemed to just show up randomly one day and never leave. They hailed from any and every race around the world that she had ever heard of, as well as a few she hadn’t, and they all seemed to possess some strange predisposition towards violence and destruction. They held no regard for any of the rules and customs that governed towns or societies, and entropy seemed to surround them wherever they went. They acted as they pleased, took what they wanted as if they were entitled to it, and never gave a second thought to anyone other than themselves or their own goals.
Most mysteriously, the rules of death didn’t seem to apply to them. She saw men that she had slain on the battlefield reappear time and time again in different battles. They carried their weapons and waged war as if they were still among the living. But that was impossible. She had experienced more than enough death in her life to know its look, its touch, and its feel. She knew what it felt like to kill someone, to know when they were dead. But they just kept coming back.
July 14th’s Section
The Great Lord had been the first to suggest harnessing that power for themselves. Naturally, not a single Demon was keen on the idea. The Great Lord had rescued them from destruction. He had saved them from a terrible fate at the hands of these senseless and murderous newcomers and lifted them up from the ashes of a ruined life. They had chosen to follow him and pledged both their lives and loyalty to him. Surely, his great strength and wisdom, his prowess on the battlefield, and his determination were more than enough when combined with their own strength to defeat any ally that came before them. Demons detested the idea of having to work together with the filthy, reckless newcomers. But they Great Lord willed it, and even though they didn’t understand his reasoning, they had acquiesced to his will.
Looking down at the carnage unfolding below her now, Eliza finally began to understand. As long as the newcomers who had pledged their loyalty to the Great Lord continued to haunt the battlefield after their death, they could be of use to the cause. They could afford to carelessly throw away their lives attempting to overtake a well-defended position. The impact of the war and the death tally of her own people was much lower as long as these children were willing to throw away their lives, and that was more important than anything else. They had already lost everything once before the Great Lord appeared, and they had come close to losing it a second time. Too many of our own have already passed away at the hands of these newcomers and because of their war. If they are willing to die for the Great Lord’s cause, let them. They are good for nothing but war and violence anyway.
A ball of flame burst harmlessly below her, turning into a fiery explosion before fading out, but it was enough to get her Blue-Drake’s attention and break her out of her thoughts. Stop it, Eliza. You’re wasting time. The shock of the unexpected attack set her Blue-Drake further on edge, and the beast shook its head back and forth as it chomped at the bit and tried to get control away from her again. She patted its neck reassuringly in an attempt to calm it down, but she knew that the nervous animal wasn’t going to quiet down anytime soon.
Eliza scanned the air trying to find the rest of her squadron. They had been assigned to the right side of the line before her mount had let her astray, and their orders had been to support that position with as much aerial coverage as possible. Unfortunately, the entire duration of the battle had been more of a test of patience and perseverance as ranged fire from the enemy’s backlines prevented them from getting anywhere close enough to do damage to the Holy Alliance’s front lines. Any time they attempted to move in close enough for an attack, the mages would train their spells on them from their position safety within the mouth of the canyon, and the squadron would be forced to turn away before they could do any damage.
At last, she spotted what looked like the right group of Drakes hanging back on the edge of the battle. They were grouping together at the moment, probably being issued a new set of commands. It was rather unusual for them to be stationary during a fight unless new orders were coming down from above. Good, she thought as she considered the situation. I don’t have to waste time chasing them down or trying to catch up them, I can just fall in and resume the fight. Then a new idea occurred to her. Maybe someone has finally figured out a way for us anything other than a distraction.
Eliza pointed her mount in the right direction and leaned forward, pushing the Blue-Drake into a glide toward the spot where the small group was gathered. She felt a small bundle of nerves tense up in her midsection as the mount made the simple maneuver. Soaring through the skies was an immeasurable pleasure she never could have imaged before being accepted as one of the Drake Riders, and she secretly thrilled at the speed, the freedom of being in the air, with every move she made. The horizon tilted up until it disappeared out of sight and all that she could see was the battle below her grow larger as every second passed.
One of the many blessings the Demons had received from the Great Lord after they accepted his pact was a heightened sense of vision. What had seemed blurry and distant before was now clear as day, and even as she plummeted towards the earth, the long, stretched-out lines of soldiers quickly turned from a glimmering mess of steel and dark leather armor into individual bodies writhing against one locked in combat. Even from her height, she could see their weapons rise and fall as they struck out at one another. She could see soldiers as they fell under the blows from a combination of blows from a sword or a spear to the gut. She could see the hood of a soldier fall back and leave his head uncovered as he rushed forward from the Holy Alliances secondary line to reinforce a gap that had formed in the forward formation.
Scanning the battle, she could see the – Wait . . . a hood? She jerked her gaze back to the soldier just in time to see him stumble forward over a dead body and automatically catch himself on a staff. He paused, heavily leaning on the long wooden weapon for support, and then began his route again. And a staff. This isn’t right. Eliza couldn’t stop the uneasy feeling from building inside of her this time. If the enemy is moving mages to the front line, it means that they are confident enough in their ability to protect them. Having mages this far forward means that they will have almost total control over the entire battlefield. The ground soldiers can’t even break the defensive fortifications, much less reach casters back there. The Blue-Drake squadrons will have to withdraw from the battle entirely or risk being burned out of the air before they ever came close to their target.
I have to warn them. They can’t be allowed to move in anywhere close to. . . She buried her heels into the scaly sides of her Blue-Drake and jerked up hard on the reins in an effort to stop the beast from descending any further. She had planned on intercepting the group, not moving to where they were now, and she had to change course before she was too close to the battle. Her Drake, however, wasn’t too keen on the idea. It had already seen the source of his frustration below, and it wasn’t going to let it go again without a fight. The Drake let out an ear-shattering roar and fought against her for control. It banked hard to the right, turning them parallel to the lines of combat below them, but didn’t completely stop their descent. She pulled back hard to the left on the reins again in an effort to turn the beast in the right direction, and the blasted creature responded again by letting out another mighty roar rolling over onto its back. She felt her world shift around her as she was carried upside-down and the sky and earth swapped places in her vision.
Eliza felt the bundle of nerves that had been building in her stomach finally explode and give way into full-blown panic. She automatically squeezed her legs around the beast’s shoulders using all the strength she could muster and locked her fingers around the leathery reins. I can’t control it!
As if her mount could read her mind, the Blue-Drake rolled over once again, and with two mighty flaps of its wings, finally stopped their descent. She could feel her stomach flip-flop a second time as the world once again righted itself. Realizing that she was back upright, a thread of hope raced through her. I can save this! She quickly gasped in a deep breath, hoping to calm her racing heart, and reached back to brush the hair that had fallen forward to cover her face. No matter how many different ways she tried, she just wasn’t able to keep it tied back and out of the way. Some of the other women had decided to cut theirs short, but she just couldn’t bear to part with hers.
She had no sooner moved the stray locks out of her than a fireball exploded in a fiery mass just to her left. She could feel the wave of heat wash over her and the blast left her seeing spots in her vision out of the corner of her eye. Too close! I have to—The Drake went crazy underneath her and began thrashing back and forth from side to side in the air. Eliza was left grasping hold of the reins with a single had as the winged serpent bucked wildly. She was only vaguely aware of the second fireball as it streamed past, narrowly missing the Blue-Drake’s wings as it passed by, and exploded just above her.
That did it. The Blue-Drake abandoned all pretext of remaining in the air or letting her regain control and dove towards the field below.
Oh shi— Small parts of her adrenaline-filled brain began registering a host of different problems all at the same time. She had no hope of regaining control over her Blue-Drake. They were in a death spiral headed straight down towards the ground. The single mage had turned into a cluster of mages. The cluster of mages was surround by archers. They were all standing with bows drawn and aimed directly at her. Despite the fact that she had no idea what to do about any of them, she was somehow able to take miraculously it all in at the same
She watched fireballs streaked up towards her, hissing their promise of a scorching death along the way. She could vaguely make out the sounds of their sizzle and the pop over the rush of wind filling her ears as they streaked past her and exploded in the air above. A few sporadic chunks of snow and ice joined them, but they were quickly halted after the first round and replaced by a flurry of arrows as she drew into bow range. She whizzed past them all at breakneck speed, clinging tightly to the back of her Drake for all she was worth.
Am I really going out like this? Shock and desperation flooded into her as the inevitability of her situation hit her.
A large, fast-swirling vortex of blue appeared directly in front of her. It wasn’t overly large, but there was no way she was going to be able to avoid it. She had a split-second to recognize the spell for what it was and make her decision. She let go of the Drake and pushed away from it with every bit strength she could muster. A layer of frost immediately formed against her skin and clung to her armor as she into the passed the churning whirlwind. She felt her neck snap to the side and patches of colored light swam through her vision before the spell’s icy fingers grabbed ahold of her and jerked her into a different direction. Her body protested the sudden shift in movement and momentum, but there was nothing she could do to stop it. Her body was thrown around and spun about like a rag doll as the frozen current claimed her for its victim. Chunks of ice slammed into her body, pummeling against her armor, and she could feel their sharp edges rip into the exposed skin on her hands and face as she was sucked around and around.
Then it was over. The vortex disappeared as magically as it had been summoned, and she was thrown free. She was vaguely aware of her body, beaten and bruised, as it seemed to hang suspended in the air for a brief moment before returning to its downward plunge. She crashed down into a group of fighters and everything went black.
July 21st’s Section
“Mmm . . .” Eliza yawned and stretched, resisting the urge to open her eyes just yet. She could feel the warmth from sunlight streaming from the canopy of trees overhead, and she could hear the sounds of birds chirping in the forest. There was nothing better than taking an afternoon nap, and no place better than the small grove a short walk from town. It was the perfect place with a small babbling stream nearby that wound its slow path down the side of the mountain and lots of soft grass and moss for laying out on. She had spent many of her afternoons here lazing away the day when she was younger, and it was refreshing to be back again. Now that she was older, she had more responsibilities in town that kept her busy, and with the way that things were going with the war, there was no telling when she might have the chance to be back again.
She let out a soft sigh and finally gave in and opened her eyes. It didn’t take but a moment for her vision to adjust to the soft light that filtered down from above as she sat up and began brushing herself off. She had a bad habit of rolling over as she slept, and experience had taught her well that small bits of trash and leaves would cling to the clothing she wore at even the smallest opportunity. She smiled as she recalled the lectures her mother had given her when she would return home without dusting herself off. ‘A young lady shouldn’t be spending her days out rolling in the leaves,’ she would say. ‘What will people think of you? It’s just not proper!’
She fished a small twig out of her long golden-brown hair that had gotten caught while she napped and idly tossed it toward the brook. It landed silently with a few small ripples and slowly began moving along with the current. Can’t I just stay here forever? she pondered. Something about the place made her feel safe and brought back memories of better days. . . Days when things weren’t so rushed and confusing . . . when she still held onto dreams of living a quiet and happy life . . . But those days are probably gone now . . .
Another sigh followed, much heavier this time, as she came to her feet and inspected her dress. Not perfect, but it’ll have to do. She brushed her hand over the fabric a couple times to smooth out a few wrinkles and began making her way down, back toward town. Just as she was about to leave the small cluster of trees, she turned and looked back behind her, trying to take it all in. I just want to remember this, to hold on to it. Things up here were always the same: simple, quiet, and peaceful. No matter what changes went on in town, she knew that she could always count on this place remaining unchanged.
It wasn’t a long trip back to down, but she had to be careful to waste too much time. She couldn’t get a clear glimpse of the sun through the leaves from where she was, but she had a pretty good idea that it was late in the afternoon now. She would be expected to show up for her shift at the bar before it was completely dark, and old man Peter, the bartender, was a stickler for punctuality. There wasn’t ever any real threat of her losing her job if she was late, but he wouldn’t hesitate to lecture her on the importance of how being on time meant being ten minutes early. The talks weren’t so bad, but they always turned into him talking about his son. The man was obsessed with every little thing his boy did, and the barman felt like it was his responsibility to keep everyone else informed as well.
Just as she was about to exit the woods and step onto the roadway that lead up further into the mountains, she heard voices come up from below. She ducked behind one of the larger trees and watched the road, hoping that they would pass by without noticing her. I’ll never hear the end of it if someone catches me out here. . . She couldn’t make out what they were saying at first, but their voices became clearer and more distinct as they drew closer.
“. . . can’t believe how amazing this is,” a man’s voice said in amazement.
“You mean that you can’t believe how far we’re having to travel just to find something to kill?” a second answered, much more glumly than the first.
A hunting party? Heading out this late in the day? I know that things have been stretched a bit thin in town with all the new people suddenly showing up and most of the men being drafted into the legions, but why are they leaving when it’s almost dark?
“Really? It doesn’t seem like it’s that far. We only just left town a few minutes ago.”
“How many games have you ever played where you had to actually hunt down mob spawns in the starter town? Aren’t they supposed to just spawn everywhere so that they’re easy to find?”
A hunting game? They’re hunting for sport? Not for food? Eliza crouched down behind the tree and pressed up against it. She had heard of a few people in the capital that would hunt down animals as part of some strange contest, but she never imagined that she would actually see them. Food in the capital was much easier to come by because so many people went there to trade, and from what she had heard, people never even had to leave the city to find good meat.
“It’s just a bind point, man. You know that this isn’t like anything else we’ve ever tried. It’ll take some time to get things going at first, but it will be fun after that, I promise.”
Something feels off about this . . . I can’t even understand half of what they are saying. What are ‘bind points?’ Wait . . . ‘mobs?’ Isn’t that what they said? They want to kill an entire herd of animals? Or. . . Eliza’s brow furrowed together as she tried to puzzle out exactly what these people were up to, and she pressed her lips together in a thin line of determination. The last thing she wanted was to be caught out here by anyone, much less two random people out looking for things to kill, but something inside her told her that she had to figure out what these people were up to. If they were somehow related to the war that was going on, she had to know. It was rare, but not completely unheard of, for there to be traitors working for the Black-Wings.
Eliza peeked her head out from around the corner of the tree and risked a glance down the trail. The two men were just coming around a bend in the roadway and into her line of sight. She quickly jerked her head back out of fear of being spotted, but she was astonished by what that short glimpse had shown her. There’s no way . . . Did I really see that right? She slowly snuck her head around so that all she could just make them out from the corner of vision and watched them as they worked their way up the trail.
“Yeah, well, you’d think that the devs could have been a little more considerate. Who wants to do all this work for just some noob spawns? I didn’t realize I was signing up for an Oregon Trail simulation,” the second man complained again.
The other man beside him actually threw back his head and laughed at his companion. “Are you afraid of dying from dysentery?”
She pulled her head back and stared off into the forest in front of her. These people are crazy. All thoughts of them being spies for the Black-Wings of White-Horns immediately disappeared. She wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t double-checked, but these two idiots were walking around in nothing but their cloth breeches. The one who had been complaining the entire time had a rudimentary bow slung over his shoulder, but she hadn’t even seen a quiver with arrows. How is someone supposed to hunt for game without arrows? What good can you even do with a bow if you don’t have something to shoot from it? The other guy with him looked to be equally as helpless and was only carrying a small short sword in addition to a tiny round shield strapped to his arm. They aren’t even wearing shoes! What kind of hunters are these people supposed to be? She clamped her hand down over her mouth and tried her hardest to stop from giggling at how absolutely absurd it was.
“Wait, did you hear something?” the complainer asked.
“Nani?” the other responded inquisitively in a slightly high-pitched tone.
“What? I said I thought I heard something,” he repeated.
“What are you even saying?” he asked impatiently. “Did you hear that noise?”
“Sumimasen. What noise?”
“Somewhere over here. . .” he said, and the footsteps started coming closer.
Eliza held her breath. How did they hear that? Did I really giggle?
“I don’t think there’s anything this close to town. From what I’ve read, there should be a group of Ogres just up the way a bit. We should start hitting them fairly soon if we just keep walking a little further.”
“No, I swear I heard something,” he insisted.
I can’t stand it anymore. I have to know if they’re talking about me. Ugh. What a mess. At least I know that they aren’t spies. She peeped around the corner of the tree she was hiding behind and found herself only a few inches away from one of the two men.
“Ahh!” The man screamed and stumbled backward, arms flailing wildly, quite a few steps before falling flat on his backside beside his companion.
“Eep!” Eliza immediately jumped to her feet and stared at the two men. The one who had fallen over was frantically trying to get to his feel and remove the bow from his back at the same time, not that it would have done him a lot of good without any arrows, and the other was staring at her blankly.
“Uhh . . . Hello,” she said quietly and put on the best smile she could muster. It was embarrassing to be caught by someone while you were hiding out and listening to their conversation, even if they were really weird, and she could feel a tinge of red enter her cheeks. It didn’t help matters that they were so scantily dressed.
“H-hai,” the young man who was still on his feet responded, rubbing the back of his head and looking down at the ground.
“Dude, what’s wrong with you?” his friend asked, finally untangling his weapon and scrambling to his feet. He shoved his friend’s shoulder, forcing him to take a step to the side and look up.
“Nanda yo!” he responded harshly.
“You realize that you’re American, right? You know that I know that you’re American, right? Stop wasting time and get her!” he shouted and pointed at Eliza.
“What?” Eliza gasped. “No, no.” She held her hands up in front of her and took a few steps backward. Being caught was embarrassing enough, but being accosted by two barely-dressed men was something else entirely. Images of foul things flashed through her mind, and she felt her heart start to race as panic built inside of her. “I’ll just . . . I’ll just be going this way,” she said quiet and began edging her way down the hill and away from the two creeps.
“What are you doing?!,” he man with the bow shouted again. “You have the sword! Don’t let her get away!”
“Wh-what? W-why?” he asked sheepishly. “You want me to attack an unarmed girl?”
“A girl? She’s clearly a mob!” he insisted.
“N-no, I don’t think so,” the other man retorted. “I r-really don’t think she is.”
“What do you mean you don’t think so? What else would she be doing out here?!”
“Maybe she’s another player.”
“She can’t be a player, look at her name!” The man waved his bow around in circles towards Eliza as if he were circling some imaginary object only he could see.
“W-what? What do you mean? H-how can you tell?”
“They’re different. Mob’s names are different, right?”
“H-how should I know? We haven’t even found one yet.”
“Maybe there’s a test we can perform. If you would just get it over with and kill her, we’d know for sure.”
“W-what? A-attack her? W-what if she’s another player?” He turned and looked down at the ground again, kicking a loose rock across the ground. “I don’t want to be known as a player killer on my first day . . . Maybe we could just ask her?”
“What? No, no. Just no. You can’t just ask someone whether not they’re a mob. How would you know if they’re telling the truth?”
“M-miss,” the man said without looking up. “Are you another player? Or are you a mob?”
Eliza had managed to edge her way around the two men, but she had been struck dumbfounded by the quick exchange between them. She had been standing, wide-eyed, watching them, but now began backing away slowly again. These two aren’t spies. They’re idiots. Complete loons.
The other man sighed heavily. “I just said you can’t do that. How do we know that she’ll answer honestly? I’m telling you, we have to test this!”
“Bu-but how? D-do you want to see if she floats?” he looked up at the other man questioningly.
“To see if she floats? Seriously? That old gag again? We’re not trying to figure out if she’s a mob, not a witch!”
Eliza turned, lifted up the hem of her dress, and began moving down the path as quickly as she could to get away from them.
“Wait, what if she’s a quest giver?” he questioned excitedly. “I just remembered what a blue name means! It means she’s an NPC! Why else would someone be all the way up here alone? Maybe she’s a rare spawn we just stumbled across!”
Eliza wasn’t there to see it, but both of the two men had turned to look at her with eager expressions on their faces.
“Hey! Wait! She’s getting away! Why didn’t you just attack her!” he called out after her. “That could have been our first kill! Wait! And why do you always start stuttering when there’s a girl around?!”
But Eliza was gone. It wasn’t long before she reached ground that she could sprint on, and she hiked up her dress above her knees and quickly put her legs to work carrying her back to town. She could feel her heart thudding in her chest when she finally approached the large wooden gates of the town. There were two guards out front, both of them clad in chainmail and holding spears, and one of them was just beginning to light the lanterns that hung on either side of the gate. The one watched her approach and quickly stiffened to attention, stamping the butt of his spear into the ground to alert the other that someone was approaching. They both quickly moved to block her path.
“Greetings, citizen. What is the nature of your visit to Valcrest?” he called out to her.
“Stein,” she gasped, slowing to a stumbling walk and entering into the flickering light cast from the lanterns. It wasn’t nearly dark yet, but the illumination still helped. “There’s . . . there’s two naked men out there,” she pointed back in the direction she came from. “They’re. . . I think they’re crazy or something,” she panted, trying to get her breath back. Then the rest came out in a rush, “They’re talking about killing a bunch of people or animals or something and using nonsense words I can’t even understand and you have to stop them.”
Both of the two guards stared at her, mouths agape, then Stein said, “Oh, it’s Eliza. What are you doing outside the walls this close to night, young lady?” he demanded. “You know how dangerous it is to even leave town with this war going on, much less after dark!”
Eliza stared back at him. “But . . .”
“And shouldn’t you be getting ready to work your shift at the bar?” he asked sternly. “What are you doing dawdling around out here? Don’t tell me you’re going to blow off poor Peter, the man’s been swamped with all these new people that have been coming in lately. You know that he’s counting on you to be there!”
“But . . .”
“Don’t you ‘but’ me, young lady. You know better! You’re not a child anymore!” he scolded.
Eliza finally had a bit of her breath back, and she used it to sigh. This is how they always were. It’s just how they thought. They were good-hearted men, but duty and obligation always came first with them. They were perfect for their positions as guardsmen, and it was only by a stroke of luck that they hadn’t left for the legion with most of the other men.
Stein reached out and rested his hand on her shoulder, and his face softened. “And don’t worry about those guys. They came through here a little while ago asking about camps and loot and buffs and spawns and sorts of other nonsense. They’re two of these newcomers, and I think we can agree that they’re all a bit odd.” He squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and said, “Now, get to work, young miss.”
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