War of Eternity: The Beginning Ch1

War of Eternity: The Beginning

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Friday, April 21, 2017
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Monday, April 25, 2017

4.19.2017

Lee’s brain slowly shut itself off as he sat at his desk typing out code like a copy-paste machine. After all, much to his disappointment, thinking wasn’t needed for his particular job. He had needed the squishy stuff between his ears to get his degree, to get his internship, and to subsequently land himself a job as a paid employee at the company, but after that, it felt more like an accessory than an actual requirement for his life. His dormant brain would turn on occasionally in a heated debate online, and he could feel the familiar old cogs in his head dusting themselves off when he was trying to figure out why a particular line of code didn’t work, but past that, it was useless.

The mind-atrophying banality of his repetitive existence wasn’t just at work, either. There was so little change or variation in his routine on a day-to-day basis that there were times when Lee felt like he had more in common with the computer in front of him than any person around him. Whether it was his job, his home life, his socializing with his friends, or even the calls he made to his parents, Lee could pretty much predict what was going to happen and how things would play out. As dull and mechanical as his life was, however, he just didn’t see that there was anything to gain by changing things up. There wasn’t any profit to be had or friends to be made by shaking the system. As they were now, things were comfortable; things were safe.

He was so used to his routine and the fact that nothing ever changed, that he didn’t notice any of the small, exotic and unusual behaviors that a few animals began to exhibit around him one morning. He was blissfully unaware of the statue-still crow perched on his windowsill that stared at him as he slowly munched on his cardboard-turned-cereal breakfast and read the news on his smartphone. He was oblivious to the leashless dog that followed him through the subway on his trek to work. He didn’t even catch sight of the squirrel that chased him onto the elevator and stood quietly between his feet as they went up a dozen floors together. All of these things would have required that he turn on his brain to notice them, but his higher mental functions were comfortably on hold as he began yet another day on autopilot.

That’s why, brain still snoring through the day, he didn’t notice a mouse as it crawled up his cubicle and stood in front of his computer as he continued to click and clack away on his mechanical keyboard.  

“I still can’t believe it. Level zero?” the white, beady-eyed mouse squeaked before putting one of its tiny paws in front of its face to suppress a laugh.

“Hahaha, noob,” Lee responded by reflex upon hearing that someone was level zero. Then a gear turned upstairs as he realized he had just responded to someone, but no one was there, and he wasn’t wearing a headset or even playing a game. He looked away from his screen in search of the speaker as he actually processed what he had heard. Huh? Who? Level zero? His brain slowly but surely started to shake awake the rust as his autopilot failed to handle the all unexpected data points. Who in the heck is level zero? he asked himself just before his eyes found the anomaly.

Lee stared at the small mouse blankly and without blinking, waiting for all the gears to warm up. He just couldn’t come to grips with what was in front of him. “Mouse,” he said finally, uttering the one word like it was the most foreign concept he had ever come across.

“Yes, right now, I’m a mouse. You’re very clever aren’t you?” the mouse asked in a squeaky voice, his tiny laughter piping through Lee’s ears. “Would it help if I were something else?”

Lee, still staring at the rodent, took a deep breath and tried to say something smart or witty in response, but once again all that came out was: “Mouse.” He wanted to say more. He wanted to shout for people to come and look so he could confirm that it wasn’t all entirely in his head. He wanted to ask what a mouse was doing talking to him. He wanted to ask what was level zero. There were hundreds of thoughts, questions and words bouncing through Lee’s head as his once dulled-out-of-existence gray matter came back full force, but the only thing that managed to escape his chamber of thoughts was that one word yet again: “Mouse.”

“Oh, dear me.” The mouse released a tiny sigh before jumping straight at Lee.

Lee flinched, raising his hands and bracing for the inevitable rodent impact to defend himself–only to have nothing happen.

“Will you quit monkeying around and pay attention to me?” a Japanese macaque asked with a hearty chuckle as it spun Lee’s chair around to face him.

“Monkey . . .” Lee muttered. His eyes spread open even wider, and his mouth hung agape as the macaque’s head tilted from side to side, inspecting and examining Lee’s now-stiff body.

“Seriously? Is this thing broken?” the macaque asked. “Do humans come with reset buttons? You work in some sort of primitive IT job, right? You should know how to reset yourself, right? Maybe your internal cache is stuck, and you can’t hold more than one word in the memory box at a time . . . No, that can’t be right,” the monkey asserted, grabbing a handful of Lee’s hair and pulling.

Lee’s shock was outweighed by the adrenaline that shot through his veins and snapped him out of his confusion-induced torpor the moment the macaque’s hands pulled on Lee’s ruddy locks, causing him to instantly jerk back and swat the hand away.

“Oh! We’ve uncovered a new ability!” the primate chuckled, withdrawing its slapped hand.

“Someone! Someone! There’s, there’s a monkey! Help, there’s a monkey loose in the building!” Lee knocked his chair over backward as he stood up, pointing at the primate.

“You know you can keep yelling and throwing your arms around like a wild ape, but it’s not going to help you. If you haven’t noticed, you’re the only one in here working at the moment,” the macaque said as it shifted shape again, changing form like liquid pouring out of one glass and into another. It morphed into a sloth and sat back on one of the office chairs. “There really is just no way to get comfortable in these, is there? I don’t know how you sit in one for so long. It’s like some special torture to keep an employee awake.”

S-sloth!” Lee yelled this time, his eyes darting around the room looking for anyone else. This can’t just be me. I’m not going nuts, am I? Lee’s brain scrambled as he tried to find another witness to the madness that was going on in front of him.

“It’s really only you here . . .” the sloth taunted derisively. “Everyone else is in the break room enjoying themselves while you pick up the slack. Not that you would even realize it. I can’t imagine someone would have a very high intelligence stat at level zero, can you?” The sloth smiled snidely, pulling a gourd out of thin air and taking a large swig out of it.

“No, no this can’t be happening!” Lee’s voice elevated as he refuted what every sensory organ on his body assured him was real. “This isn’t happening. This is a joke, right? This is a prank. This is, this is a trick. This has to be–”

“An elaborate prank?” the sloth cackled. “That’s rich. That’s real rich. Do you really think any of these cretins are going to waste their time on anyone besides themselves? Much less you? Look. This isn’t going anywhere. If we’re going to ever get around to a productive conversation, we need to raise your level to at least one so that you can get a profession and start working on that intelligence score needed for meaningful discourse.”

When the sloth stopped speaking, everything around Lee went quiet–deathly quiet–as if Lee had put on soundproof headphones over earplugs.

“What, what’s going on?! What in the heck is this?! What did you do?!” Lee was practically shouting now, but the words felt strange and eerie as they left his mouth. It was as if he were underwater, and the sounds were almost entirely muted before they ever reached his ears. “Hello?!” he screamed again.

Starting at the edges of his vision, darkness began creeping in until everything turned black, and he was blind. Then the floor beneath his feet disappeared and numbness set in. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t see, hear or feel anything. Even his heartbeat was gone. It was as if he were dead, his senses had failed, and the reaper had forgotten to take his consciousness along with the rest of him.

“Where am I?!” he screamed in a panic. “Someone help me! Please!”

No answer came, and the same void persisted. “Where am I? What’s going on? Can anyone hear me?” He continued to yell, but there was no way to know that his body was even responding. He put every inch and fiber of his will into flailing his arms in hope that someone would walk back into the abandoned office and notice something was wrong with him.

“Yes, I can hear your silly, stupid whining, you idiotic human, but it’s taking me a minute to convert you over to the system all the way. Will you just shut up and let me finish executing the program? I swear, you humans always scream and shout like that’s going to be helpful. Every. Freaking. Time. Has screaming ever helped you? Ever? No? That’s right. I thought so.” The disjointed voice sounded like a disappointed adult scolding a child. “Though . . . It seems that I can’t get your stat screen to display correctly until you level up. It keeps rejecting the full conversion because it isn’t built with the proper parameters to handle someone with a literal level of zero.”

“Full conversion? Level zero? If it’s not working, just send me back already!” Lee yelled at the voice, angry at being insulted. This had gone far past any prank that Steve or Larry, the two office bullies, would have been able to pull off.

“You really should stop talking until I figure this out,” the voiced cautioned. “I can hear you, and I understand you, but you sound super dumb right now. Another quality you humans all share: as soon as you forget how to hear, you suddenly forget how to speak. I mean, seriously, this is you.” The voice was replaced with a sound that was clearly Lee’s voice but garbled and all over the place.

Lee cringed as he heard himself yelling incoherently.

“Yeah, that’s right. That’s the appropriate face to make when you realize that you sound worse than a talking dog on YouClip. But, no reason to exist as muffled data any longer. The conversion just isn’t going to work until we level you, so . . . here we go!”

The world around Lee began to be restored even as the tormentor sloth finished insulting him again. It faded in, tiny pixel by tiny pixel, until Lee could make out that he was standing in an arena, a giant colosseum, just like the one in Rome. It appeared to be almost three hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide and felt empty and barren without a single soul in sight across the wide red sands.

“Where . . . Where am I?” Lee began hyperventilating, but after a few minutes passed without anything happening, a nascent sense of curiosity started to override all of his confusion and fear. “What’s going on? Is anyone out there?” he called out around him, his heart still beating a mile a minute as he gulped in air and looked for some sort of escape path.

“I’m out here,” the voice returned. “And don’t worry. I’m going to send you some company soon enough. Someone with a level and intelligence score almost as low as yours,” the sloth’s voice responded and started to chuckle again.

“Huh? Send me someone smarter?” Lee looked around, nervously turning his head and trying to spot anything or anyone nearby. What’s coming? What’s going to happen to me? Is the person he is sending going to kill me? There was no way Lee was going to trust that this shape-shifting thing, whoever or whatever it was, was friendly. He felt like he was in the third act of a horror movie and something was going to pop out of the sand at any moment–like a giant sandworm from one of his favorite movies, Dune–and eat him.

“Yeah, with how obtuse you are, that just isn’t very specific, is it? Someone smarter could be anyone,” the voice laughed. “Well, here we go. This should do it,” the voice said with finality.

Then, no more than ten feet in front of Lee, a hand began to materialize out of thin air. The pale, grayish flesh continued to extend backward to create an arm, a torso, and a body, and after a few seconds, an entire zombie stood in front of him. It wasn’t an overdone zombie from a B-rated flick, where the makeup artist had more fun with the costumes than the writer had with the script, but rather just a gray-skinned corpse with patchy hair, decaying flesh, a funny smell, white eyes and a partially-missing nose.

As soon as the zombie was fully materialized, he cracked his neck and began pulling at his clothes–a disheveled blue suit with a dirt-covered tie, loafers and shirt–like he wasn’t sure what they were.

“Zuh-zuh-zombie!” Lee cried out in panic, slowly backing up in disbelief. “What the heck? It’s a freaking zombie! I’m going to die!” Lee was now entirely certain that this was not a prank and that he was going to die.

“Brains . . .” the zombie moaned, dragging the syllable out as he stared wide-eyed at Lee. “Braiiinssss . . .”

“No! Don’t even try it!” Lee shouted, scrambling backward. He had watched enough B-Rated zombie movies to have a good sense of fear about the direction this was heading. “Don’t even think about eating my brains!”

“Eat your brains? No, I’m saying you need them. You don’t have any brains! How on Earth do you living folks consider us to be mindless? Look at you fumbling and stumbling and bumbling around like some uncoordinated idiot.”

“I . . . talking zuh . . . Talking zombie!” Lee shouted as he continued to back up, stumbling and falling on his rear.

“That’s where we’re at? You seriously haven’t gotten over that fact yet?” The zombie face palmed. “Oh no, I’m a zombie. Wooooo. Let’s all scream and shout, point and laugh, and act like I took away your ice cream every day when you were a baby.” The zombie used the hand he had just face palmed with to pinch the top ridge of his nose. “Okay, who summoned me? Why am I here? You want me to kill this buffoon, is that it? I can do that free of charge.”

“I summoned you,” the sloth boomed out across the colosseum, and Lee was just as terrified by it as he was of the zombie. “But don’t kill him just yet. I need to tweak one more thing.”

“You summoned me?” the zombie asked. “You know, it’s kind of rude to make a priest into a zombie, right? I mean, once my god hears about this, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble!”

“Brian,” the voice boomed back. “I am your god. I am he who calleth the banners of war and conquest to lay waste to the cities of man!” The voice echoed through the colosseum, its previous humor and dismissive tone gone, replaced by a much deeper and more powerful voice with enough bass to shake the sands they were standing on.

“But I didn’t follow Klenman, the god of Conquest. I worshiped the god of Alcohol and Crafts,” the zombie, apparently named Brian, responded back.

“Yeah, that’s me. Name one war that would have been possible if the participants weren’t drunk enough to do it, and they hadn’t crafted the right weapons to use,” the voice snapped back. “Every other god is useless before me. With the right technology, even a foolish and petulant child can kill the greatest of fighters, outwit the smartest of men, and outlive even the immortals!”

“I’m pretty sure the bishop that talked me into being a priest promised me virgins and fresh spirits when I died if I served you in life willingly. What’s with this ridiculous outfit?”

“Did you ask him what gender the virgins would be? Did he tell you they would be compliant? And did you not think for a minute that spirits might just mean people’s souls, not more booze? You really should have paid more attention to the contract you signed when you joined the order,” the god’s voice laughed at his servant. “This is perfect! zombie Priest: achievement unlocked!”

“Guys, ju-ju-just argue on your own! Send me back! I don’t want to die!” Lee kept scurrying backward, flat on his rear still after stumbling to the ground while trying to back up as quickly as he could.

“Ugh, fine. Do you want me to go kill the morose halfwit now?” the zombie asked. “You can’t tell me, god of dumb drunks, that he isn’t annoying to listen to.”

A blue status window exactly like the ones from the games he used to play as a child popped up in front of Lee.

“You have received Every Noob’s Starting Sword.”

“Who was that?!” Lee shouted, spinning around and looking all over the place wildly for the source of the second mysterious voice.

“Oh, for Pete– The sword. Get it out. It’s in the leather pouch I just fixed to your waist. Look in the pouch,” the god of booze and building stuff spoke to him once more. “Go ahead, pull it out.”

Slowly comprehending what was expected of him, Lee did just that: he reached for the brown pouch that had appeared on his waist. He opened up the container that, on the outside at least, did not appear to be big enough to hold more than someone’s wallet and some loose change. Yet, as he opened it up, a window with a grid popped up, and he was able to see a short sword taking up three of the little squares on the grid that appeared in front of him in a three by one format. He tried to grab the sword out of the grid, but nothing happened.

“Oh, wow. Just put your hand into the pouch while looking at the sword, grab, and pull up,” the voice instructed him. “Please tell me you can do that.”

Lee did as he was told, and as he pulled, a full length short sword came out of the pouch. Holding it in his hands, he felt somewhat powerful, safe, and right with the world. That is, until he saw the zombie’s expression.

“You gave him a weapon? So, what, you want this to be a fair fight? Do I get a weapon too?” the zombie asked. “No, no I get it: pick on the harmless guy who lived a good life and got dragged back into reality by a used car salesman of a god.”

“Well, we have the colosseum, we have the participants, and I have my drink. I say, let’s begin this. Round one! Fight!” the god called out.

The zombie didn’t hesitate, and he quickly proved that when compared to the bumbling slow-walking zombies or the runners of TV, he wasn’t one of the full-on speed demons, but he definitely wasn’t a walker either. He ran across the field, jaw open and teeth ready as he chased Lee. Lee, who hadn’t been in a fight since his dad made him take martial arts lessons after being beaten up a lot during school, panicked and started to run the other way.

“Seriously? You’re going to run? You have a sword!” the god called down. “And why do you think that’s going to help? He’s a zombie! He doesn’t need stamina. You do! I don’t care if good cardio is one of the rules of surviving a zombie apocalypse. By the time he inevitably catches up to you, you’ll be out of breath, tired and defeated. He’ll be still just as fine as he was when he started, you freaking imbecile.”

I don’t want to die! Of course I’m going to run! Lee chanted in his head as he ran, but listening to the god, the criticism made sense. He’s right. If I don’t want to die, I need to face him now, he gulped, turning around to meet the zombie who was chasing him face to face.

“Just keep running,” the zombie taunted as it closed the distance between them. “It’s fine. Look, I’m too scary. Boogah boogah boogah!”

Thankfully, since Lee had been scurrying back for quite a while before the zombie started his death charge toward him, there was still some space between them, even if Lee wasn’t the best runner.

Lee took a deep breath, raised his sword, and charged the zombie. He swung as hard as he could at the zombie’s outstretched hands as they reached to latch onto him. The blow connected, knocking the hands to the side and causing the zombie growl irritably.

“Ugh!! Don’t do that,” the zombie complained. “That’s not cool. I don’t know how long it’s going to take to regenerate from those scars!”

Lee ignored the zombie’s words and struck out again, taking another swipe at the hands and then taking a step backward as they once more reached out for him.

Again and again, they repeated the same scenario. The zombie would reach for him, and Lee would swat his grasping hands away with the sword before the undead creature could reach him and then back away safely. It wasn’t a very effective technique for dealing damage, but it was sufficient to keep Lee alive at the moment, and he gauged that was by far the best outcome he could hope for.

“This is not fair and equal representation! Give me a weapon so I can show this noob how to fight!” the zombie growled as its continuous attempts to grab and latch onto Lee were met with a flurry of sword swipes.

He’s moaning and complaining, but it’s not doing much. I’m barely hurting him! Lee’s brain kicked into overdrive as he tried to figure out a way to kill the thing in front of him.

“Fine, fine. I’ll even this up,” the god called. “It was getting boring watching anyway,” he said. “One time, I watched a dude with a spoon murder a fully-armed barbarian, yet you can’t even kill an unarmed zombie with a sword? For shame.”

Crap! Lee’s eyes managed to shoot open even wider than they already were as he heard the voice and watched a sword appear in the air above them. They grew even wider again when it fell between the two combatants and landed blade-first in the ground, penetrating the earth by a good foot.

The zombie reached for it as soon as it struck the dirt, his decayed hand clasping onto the sword’s pommel. Lee reacted on fear and quickly swung downward as hard as he could with his blade. He was rewarded for his effort by cleanly slicing through the zombie’s wrist. The now-dismembered walking corpse’s hand was left in place, firmly clasped onto the hilt of the buried sword.

“I’m going to have to teach you manners,” the zombie grumbled as he lurched forward, shoulder-first, into Lee. Stunned as he was from the success of his swing, Lee was unprepared for the abrupt change in tactics. He took the attack on his chest and was forced to stumble backward in an awkward attempt to keep his balance for a brief moment before losing the fight against gravity and collapsing onto the ground. Taking advantage of the space provided, the zombie grabbed the sword and pulled it free using his remaining hand.

While Lee fumbled to stand up, the zombie was busy using his teeth to pry his amputated appendage off the blade so he could get a better grip on his new weapon.

“There.” Brian smiled, showing pieces of his own flesh in his teeth. “Time to kill you now and see just how little brains you have.” Lee hesitantly backed away as the zombie came closer, flashing his creepy grin and giving the sword a few practice swings.

“Die!” Lee shouted as the zombie came in striking range, hoping the word would give him courage. Once more, he lashed out at the zombie. His sword went in a straight path, stabbing toward Brian, but the monster used his own blade to neatly parry the attack to the side.

“Wow, you really are bad at this. Have you never used one before?” the zombie laughed, his jaw opening slightly wider each time as it slowly unhinged a little. The zombie then swung again, horizontally, knocking Lee’s sword to the side.

Lee tried to reposition his blade back in front of him, but the zombie’s handless right arm swatted the blade away almost as soon as it was back in front of him. Brian then used his right shoulder to smash into Lee a second time and sent him falling back onto the ground.

“Don’t worry. All that experience in the dirt will prepare you for what’s next,” the zombie taunted as he lunged toward Lee in a chopping motion. Lee rolled to the side, spinning in what he believed was the most athletically-impressive moment of his life before raising his sword and thrusting it right between two of Brian’s ribs.

The zombie, rather than showing any signs of pain or fatigue, simply grabbed onto Lee’s hand, held it firmly, raised his own weapon and struck down.

“Here. Got one more function fixed,” the god called out right before the zombie’s sword returned the favor and stabbed Lee in the stomach. Lee felt the cold blade slide in accompanied by wave of sharp pain and a dull throb that emanated up his side.

A notification popped up to remind him:

“You have been stabbed and are now bleeding. You have taken 51 points of damage from the stab and are losing 1 point of health per second from the wound.”

Holy son of a–! Lee’s mind drifted into a string of profanity as the blade went in, but once the initial shock of being stabbed wore off, he found himself wondering: How many points of health do I even have? No sooner did he think the question than a bar became visible, letting him know the answer: 37. He had 37 out of 100 hit points left, and they were bleeding off quickly. He only remembered seeing the prompt from the stab wound, but he guessed that the earlier knockdowns had actually done damage too.

Lee didn’t know what to do, so he did the only move he still remembered from years of martial arts classes that cost him hours and hours of his life for a hypothetical fight that never occurred: he used his head, literally smashing the zombie in the face, right on his decaying nose, with his forehead. The prompt appeared again, letting him know that he had taken a point of damage in the process of headbutting the zombie, but that only increased his sense urgency. He didn’t care either that every time he moved the wound in his stomach hurt enough to make him want to die. He watched his health drain two more hit points, one from bleeding, one from smashing his forehead into the zombie.

“What the–” The zombie tried to say something, but Lee cut him off before he could.

“I. Don’t. Want. To. Die. Dangit!” Lee shouted, his words punctuated by the sound of his forehead smashing against the zombie’s skull. It took a half a minute, and he could tell that he was on the verge of death, but after ten or twelve hits, he could feel the zombie’s skull cave in.

Thank you, dad. A lifetime of forced after-school activities finally came in handy for something other than filler on a college application.

“You have killed the zombie priest. You have been awarded 59 experience. You have reached Level 1! You are 91 experience away from Level 2.

4.20.2017

“Huh, now isn’t that funny?” the god chortled. “He was only worth 59 EXP? I thought he would have been worth way more, given your level difference. Oh well. Here. I will even heal you as a reward since . . . Well, we got you past level zero! Hooray for that, right? Let’s check out your stats! Maybe now they won’t share the common denominator of nothing with your online dating inbox.”

“What? My level?! You think healing me is just going to make this alright? I ALMOST DIED, YOU FREAKING JERK! What the hell are you thinking!? I don’t know who you are or what sort of ‘god’ you claim to be, but you have no right to just grab random people and–” Lee shut up as the massive wound in his abdomen instantly faded away.

“You know, if you keep up that yelling, I’m going to summon five or six more zombies. The big, evil, mean, super-fast kind that can kill entire squads of knights. You know, like zombie bunnies?”

“Zombie bunnies? Are you kidding me with this?! Not zombie bears, not giant zombie dragons? Zombie bunnies is what you’re threatening me with?” Lee yelled back, his frustration growing. “Look, man . . . woman . . . sloth, monkey, mouse or whatever you are, just send me back already! I lived through your stupid trial, didn’t I?”

“You don’t think zombie bunnies are scary? They have teeth like . . . they can leap like . . . Look at the bones!” the voice said in a Scottish accent.

“Huh?” Lee looked around for bones, but didn’t find any.

“That you don’t get my reference makes me want to kill you with a horde of zombie bunnies even more. Or at least manifest a centurion or two to throw you to the floor. Well, unless . . . You don’t happen to have a holy hand grenade on you? No, of course not. I’d have noticed,” the god said, laughing at its own joke.

“Just send me ba–” Lee was cut off when another blue screen popped up in front of him.

“There we go: your stat screen. Here, take a look at it,” the god said.

Lee glanced at the giant stat screen, his consternation at being ignored growing by the second. The popup had all his attributes listed–a much larger list than he could quickly go through–his level, his EXP, his inventory and even a special note about his lineage. But what caught his eye, however, was his name. ‘Lee the NPC.’  

What? I’m not an NPC! I am a player if anything. I’ve been playing games for decades. How can I suddenly be an NPC? Lee looked at the insulting moniker with annoyed curiosity.

“Yeah, you’re noticing the NPC part, aren’t you? Well, you see, about that . . . You see, when I was trying to convert you over to War of Eternity, I kind of had to register you as an NPC since your stats were too low to just manually register you as a player. It’s the first time I’ve ever run into this problem, but I figured you’re about as smart as the NPCs are, so no big deal, right? I mean, the only minor downside is . . . Well, if you die in the game, then you know, you’ll be dead in real life too.”

“What the heck? How is that only a minor downside? And not a giant downside? And what the heck is War of Eternity? I’ve never even heard of that game. Just freaking send me back already! I’m pretty sure my boss won’t accept the ‘Well, I was kidnapped by a mysterious voice claiming to be a god that made me fight zombies in a Roman colosseum’ excuse as just cause for being absent from work!”

“What? Your boss wouldn’t even know you were missing if I returned you after what appeared to be three weeks or three years for you. Since we’re not in the same universe or on the same space time continuum at the moment, all I have to do is just return you back to your own time later, to the exact moment I took you away anyway.” The god suddenly appeared, taking shape as a bear this time, its voice now sounding like the announcer in every movie trailer.

“How would that even work? What are you talking about? We’re not on the same space time continuum? You still haven’t answered me about the game. What is War of Eternity?”

“Oh, come on. How do you spend all day on computers and not know how this works. Alright, moving on . . .”

“No, tell me!” Lee insisted, talking at the bear as loudly as was possible without yelling. “Where the heck am I, and what have you done to me?”

“The real question is: what makes you think you have the right to talk to a giant with that tone? What makes you think I won’t eat you right here and now?” the bear asked, standing on his two hind legs. A giant wooden mug the size of Lee’s head appeared in one of its paws, complete with foam spilling over the sides, and he took a swig before setting it down on the ground in front of him.

“You keep talking big, but I don’t get why. This is how you are acting  . . .” The bear shifted into a giant dragon from western mythology and extended its large brobdingnagian wings. “And this is how you should be acting . . .” The dragon, whose voice had echoed through the coliseum with even more bass than it had when he was intimidating the zombie earlier, shrunk into a tiny, white mice with beady red eyes.

“You get the picture?” the mouse squeaked out as it climbed up the side of the cup that he had set down as a bear and dove into the drink. “Ahh, swimming in beer. Nothing beats it.”

“You’re not answering my questions. What’s with these stats?” Lee looked back through the list. “It says I have zero intelligence. How do I have zero intelligence if I am capable of knowing something? Anything? That doesn’t make sense! And what does spirit do?” Lee berated the mouse with questions.

“You don’t have any intelligence because you haven’t learned a single skill. Every skill you learn goes towards improving that stat, which goes toward improving your ability to learn skills. Leveling up skills also improves this, but . . . You know what? Forget this. What type of gamer needs a tutorial? Didn’t your father ever teach you that real men don’t use tutorials? They just press buttons until something good happens and then figure the rest.” The mouse wiggled its tiny arms inside the beer, diving under so Lee couldn’t see it.

“What?! I’m not through with you! Don’t just ignore me!” Lee shouted at the giant mug of beer. “If you’re not going to answer me, then the least you could do is send me home!”

“Dear Lord,” the mouse piped as it popped back up. “Or dear me, depending on who you used to worship. Do you ever shut up?”

“I’ll shut up if you just explain what’s going on and why you brought me here!” Lee huffed.

“Well, I brought you here, to this collosseum specifically, to see if you were worth keeping alive,” the mouse squeaked. “What’s going on is that I’m about to forcibly inject you into War of Eternity, and you’re going to do what I want if you ever want to go home and see that loving family of yours or those two sad friends you spend Friday night playing video games with. That’s not a threat. Well, I mean, it is, but it’s also a promise. Do you understand?”

“You’re kidnapping me, and I have to do what you say in order to go home. Is that about the sum of it?” Lee spat, his anger boiling over the top.

“Yeah, that sums it up.”

“Well, if you’re a god, then why do you need me to help you out?”

“You want to know why? You want to know why?!” the mouse roared out in tiny squeaks as he crawled out of the cup, looking rather menacing as his body transformed back into a bear without causing a single pause in conversation. “Because, thanks to War of Eternity, I’m almost out of followers! Every, single, stupid teenager gave up on the real world! They started spending days and days playing VRMMOs instead of going to church! They forsook me for that stupid game! You know that I barely have even six or seven churches left in the real world? And they’re completely occupied by skeletons!”

“That’s . . .” Lee started to act sympathetically, but the god didn’t even give him a single moment to speak.

“The youngest member to show up to church in the last year was a hundred and ninety two! The oldest member sleeps in a coffin just to make the job easier for the undertaker.” The bear’s voice grew louder and louder as it walked closer to Lee. “That’s how bad it is! And that’s for me! The god of freaking alcohol and crafts! I am the god that made their drinks delicious when they were thinking up the game, and made their hands skillful when they were building the game, and yet they all forgot me once it was made! That’s why!”

“So . . .” Lee still didn’t understand how he fit into any of this, or how it was his problem. Whatever problems the god was having were his own, not Lee’s. But the bear continued his tirade over him before he could get more than a single word out.

“So you’ll do what I say, or you’ll never see the light of earth again,” the bear shouted. “And if you ask me too many stupid, annoying, inane and asinine questions, I’m going to bring you back here from wherever you are in the game and then leave you here to rot with zombie Brian until your corpse and his are indistinguishable.”

“Fine. I get it. I’ll do what you say. Just tell me what you need already so I can go home.” Lee had a dozen more questions, but the god’s angry tone made it clear that he wasn’t going to put up with any more of them.

“I thought I already did? Don’t you understand? I need followers! In fact, that’s your first mission. You need to go out into the world and convert one person, any person, to be a follower of mine. Do this, and I’ll let you know what I need of you next. Heck, I might even send you home for a day or two if you get me a good enough believer–preferably a really hot woman.”

Lee’s jaw dropped at the last line. He’s a lecher too?! “So, any believer? An NPC believer counts for you?”

“Yep.” The bear patted himself on the chest proudly. “I think I’m the first god to really figure it out too! The way War of Eternity is designed, even though it’s sometimes questionable if the NPCs could pass a good turing test, they count as beings and add up to a god’s faith marker,” he said, beaming.

“And that’s why you’re kidnapping people, forcing them to fight to the death and then throwing them into War of Eternity?” Lee asked the bear.

“Look, I’m tired of the questions, and the loading process is about to be done, so I suggest you take a drink of this.” The bear tossed him a small, wooden keg, the barrel of which was as large as Lee’s chest, right at him, knocking him back a few steps as he caught the heavy container. “And get ready for War of Eternity because as far as I’m concerned, this conversation is done. Have fun, and don’t die!”

The god took another swig of his beer and was just about to leave when Lee thought of something important he had forgotten: “Wait!”

“What is it now?”

“Your name? What’s your name? How do I convert people to you?” Lee asked in a panic, still holding onto the keg.

“Oh, yeah! Wait, crud, I forgot that with the last guy. With so few followers, my memory is already fading. Looks like I have to make a trip, but here you go. You remember how to access your inventory, right?”

“You have received the Book of Augustus, holy text of the God of Alcohol and Crafts.

As he opened his inventory, he noticed that the book took up only one space, but the weight marker next to it read out 11 lbs. That was well over twice the weight of any previous textbook he had owned in high school or college.

“Do I actually have to–” Lee began to ask if he was really required to read the book, but he once more found himself unable to hear his own words, and the world began fading to black. Well, this stinks, Lee grumbled to himself as he watched his surroundings completely disappear. The bear in front of him waved goodbye as it sat back on its rear haunches and took a long swig of beer again before finally fading from his vision too.
—–

4.21.2017

As the world slowly came back into existence, he found himself standing in the middle of what appeared to be a pair of connected scottish hamlets. There were small dirt roads, thatched roofs set upon stone buildings and little to nothing else besides housing and farms.

Where in hades am I? Right as the thought left his head, another prompt popped up:

You are in the town Satterfield within the southern kingdom of Spicy Noodle Chicken Surprise. Spicy Noodle Chicken Surprise is a kingdom founded and still being currently ruled by King Red Ramen of the guild ‘Heroes of Eternity.’

He stood there puzzled by the prompt while trying to take in the sights and figure out where he was at the same time. His office career in a city hadn’t afforded him a visit to anywhere country at all, so the sights were both foreign and curious. As he was gawking at the rustic scene with all its quaint charm, someone suddenly bumped into him.

It wasn’t even a tiny graze, either. Lee got a meaty shoulder straight to the face as a massive, seven-foot-tall something-not-human passed by him. What in the hell was that? That’s not a human. That’s not anything I’ve ever seen before, Lee thought, too shocked by the appearance of the giant, slightly-orange-skinned man walking past him to register outrage at being shouldered in the face.

That is a Firbolg. Their race is indigenous to the north western kingdoms. They receive a bonus toward the rate at which they gain nature-related skills and skills related to the use of two-handed melee weapons. They receive a bonus to power, but receive penalties to coordination and reflex.

Wait, is this thing just going to prompt me every time I ask a question about what’s around me? Lee wondered, noticing that his internal monologue had spawned two separate prompt answers. He half-expected another prompt to appear to answer that question as well.

Guess not, he sighed. He was still shaken from the experience at the colosseum. The pain might have left his gut, but the memory of it was still incredibly fresh. Even thinking about it now made him feel a phantom pain where the wound had been. Part of him wanted nothing more than to just curl up where he was a quit–to find some way to hide away. Another part entirely wanted to do anything and everything he could to get back at the god who had forced him into servitude. Most of all, however, he just wanted to find a way back to the office–back to his comfort zone–where he could sit back down, click away at his computer, and go about the dull but comfortable existence he was used to.

As he stood there, staring at the road in front of him, unsure of what to do, another prompt appeared.

Your language translator is now on. You will be able to understand and respond in all written and auditory communications using common languages within War of Eternity. War of Eternity’s Language Databases have also now been updated to include the exotic language: English. For contributing a unique exotic language to War of Eternity, you have been awarded 5 Intelligence. Your new Intelligence stat is 10.

“Do you think there is something wrong with that NPC?” Lee heard two human girls passing by him as soon as he finished reading the prompt.

“I don’t know. I did the quest, but the reward was terrible.”

“Yeah, the quest rewards in this town are the worst. There’s not a single good quest anywhere. It’s so annoying!” The girls continued to complain as they walked out of earshot of Lee.

What the hell is going on? Lee blinked. So this really happened . . . No, this is really happening. Lee gulped. No, don’t shrink, he told himself, taking slow steady breaths. Don’t shrink. You can do this. I will find a way home. He took another deep breath.

Just think of this like a game, he told himself. You’re level one, you’re in a village you don’t know, you’re surrounded by people and races you don’t know, and you have a quest. What do you do? Lee thought for a minute about how to approach the problem. He was certain that if he could focus on the task, then he’d forget about how surreal this death trap was. At the moment, his his stomach felt like it had twisted and turned in on itself, his heart was beating far faster than it should, and his chest to felt like someone had dropped a fifty pound weight on it.

I’d try to stack quests! he thought after a moment. Every RPG I play, I try to stack as many quests as I can so that my rewards build up like crazy for each trip back to town! Of course, that’s how I always tackle my MMOs. Lee was strangely comforted by the idea. Some bit of normalcy, no matter how small, was probably the best thing for him at the moment.  Are there any easy quests around here though?

There are several attainable quests within this vicinity. Many of the quests are restricted based on level and occupation. Currently, lacking a primary damage profession or a secondary crafting profession, only three quests in the town are accessible to you. None are recommended for your level.

Okay, so I have a game index in my head. Lee was now more certain than ever of how the prompts worked. He took out the Book of Augustus, and as he opened the massive book up, he was greeted by his first decision prompt:

This book contains detailed knowledge about the God Augustus, his history, and many special and unique skills relating to crafting and drinking. Would you like to absorb the contents of this book?

Absorb the contents of this book? Lee blinked. You’ve got to be kidding me. This can’t be that easy, can it? He blinked a few more times as he stared at the prompt dumbfounded. Yes, I would like to absorb the contents, he thought at the book, hoping it would work. Sure enough, he momentarily felt a sharp pain in his head, followed by sudden clarity. Where before he had no idea about anything related to Augustus, he could now list off the dates and times of the founding of his church, the feats of Augustus, and even the ceremonies needed to show worship for Augustus–all of which essentially revolved around getting drunk with other people and talking about cool ideas for stuff to make. Augustus was essentially the god that everyone at Lee’s old college had worshiped without even knowing it.

“You have absorbed all the knowledge you are capable of understanding from the Book of Augustus. In doing so, you attempted to learn many skills, but were unable due to lacking proficiencies in crafting skills.

You have learned the skill ‘Golem Sculpting.’ This is a hidden skill only accessible by heralds from the Church of Augustus.

Due to learning it through a manual, Golem Sculpting has been promoted to Unranked Level 2.

You have learned the hidden skill ‘Appreciative Drunk.’ This is a hidden skill only accessible by members from the Church of Augustus.

Due to learning it through a manual, Appreciative Drunk has been promoted to Unranked Level 2.

You have been awarded 4 intelligence for learning 4 skill ranks. Your current Intelligence: 14.”

Golem sculpting? I’ve learned it, but how– Lee was about to ask how to make the golem, or how to access the skill, but then he just felt stupid. He didn’t have much confidence in his abilities, but so long as clay was available, and he had time to imbue it with his spirit, he was positive he could sculpt a golem. He suddenly realized that it wasn’t only a skill that he had just learned: it was like the knowledge had existed in his head all along.

I might be able to handle some of these quests with a golem, he reasoned, still trying to focus on the game mechanics of this world rather than dwell on his circumstances. Looking around him to see if there was any usable clay or dirt, he was able to spot several places on the side of the road with some good, soft earth. He took a few lumps of it, walked over to a nearby stream, did his best to make something close to a fist or two worth of clay out of it, and then sat down to try his hand at Golem Sculpting.

So, if I have this right, I’m just supposed to let my spirit flow into the dirt and then channel that into shaping my Golem. As he continued to shape the golem, his mind was drawn back to the image of the talking mouse that had started this whole venture. Before the mouse had interrupted him earlier, he was just a regular office worker. Now, less than an hour later, he was a zombie hunter shaping a handful of dirt into a hopefully magical piece of clay that would do his bidding. By the time he was able to shake the image out of his head, he was done, and there, sitting in his hands, was a tiny clay mouse.

The dirt that was barely passable as clay before was now a solid, shiny, brown substance that would make any potter jealous. The mouse, no more than 15 centimeters long and consisting of one solid color, silently angled its head to face its creator. Then, as it opened its tiny argil eyes, the world felt like it split for Lee. At once, he knew all the details of his face as the mouse saw it and the details of the world behind him. What the mouse could see, he could see. What the mouse knew , he knew. So, this is Golem Sculpting, Lee thought. And just what am I going to name you? he asked the little mouse in his hands.

It didn’t make a noise, but he could swear it squeaked at him in response. Then he realized he had heard the golem with his mind, not his ears, and again, he miraculously knew that this was another aspect of the relationship between a golem and its creator.

Well, how about Minsc? he thought as he looked at it. No, that won’t do. You’re not a gerbil. How about . . .  He gave it a moment’s thought. How about Ethan. When he came up with the name, the mouse once more squeaked, or rather he could hear the mouse squeak appreciatively even if no sound was actually made. It was a strange feeling, like listening to an inner monologue that wasn’t his own.

After that was settled, he only had one more pressing question: What exactly is Appreciative Drunk? He hoped the command prompt would fill in the blank.

Query cannot be answered. Appreciative Drunk can only be understood while under the influence of alcohol.

What the? I can’t even know what my own skill does unless I’m sloshed? Lee blinked. That can’t be right, he grumbled, but he knew it was. After all, it was a special skill learned from the God of Alcohol’s book, but it was frustrating. How am I supposed to even get a drink anyway?

There are seventeen establishments selling alcohol within the Satterfield area, none of which contain a beverage which you can afford with your: 0 copper.

Well, I guess that answers that. Lee frowned. Do any of the three quests give me money too? he asked the prompt.

Of the three quests, two of them dole out an appropriate amount of money upon completion for efforts rendered. One has no tangible reward.

One has no reward? Then what is the point of doing it?

Quests without tangible reward often boost one’s fame, one’s reputation with the town, one’s influence over the denizens of a region, and, on rare occasions, there is a chance to permanently boost one of the secondary stats.

Influence over the denizens of a region . . . Lee got caught up on those words. That would be really helpful with my quest. Wait, what are secondary stats?

Secondary stats like Intelligence, Charisma, Faith, Honor, Courage, Fame . . .”–the list continued for a while–“are non-combat-related stats. These stats improve one’s ability to learn or execute skills, perform secondary professions, interact with other fellow NPCs, improve status effects, or assist in travel and exploration of the world. These stats can be leveled up through non-EXP related activities and are not directly tied, reflected, or impacted by one’s level or race.

4.22.2017

Oh. Having just entered this game world, there was so much to do, so much to learn, and so much to contemplate. He wanted to keep studying the system and find a solid place to start from, such as finding and choosing a profession, but he was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of panic. Only, it wasn’t his own; it was fear flooding into him from the little golem mouse he had created.

A cat. Thanks to the bond between him and the mouse, Lee instantly knew what the small golem was afraid of. Even if it wasn’t currently in his view, he knew that there was a cat stalking toward the mouse that was now perched on his shoulder.

Lee quickly turned around and grabbed the cat, stopping it from destroying his fresh creation. Its claws struck out and dug into his arm as his hands wrapped around the leaping feline, tearing away far more flesh than any normal house cat could have managed.

What the hell? Lee thought as he instinctively threw the cat down. The persistent grimalkin rebounded quickly, launching another offensive against Lee’s poor little Ethan. The golem darted off Lee’s shoulder and into his pocket as Lee, much more aware of the cat’s hostility now, did his best to grab the little lunging leopard of a housecat and restrain it so that it couldn’t attack again. He also made sure to hold the pesky pet as far away from him as he possibly could. The feisty creature continued trying to swipe at him with its claws, and while it was able to scratch and tear at his arm, there was no way for it to deal any actual damage. The prompt popped up to display that some of the furball’s scratches were dealing between one and two hit point each, but it wasn’t anything to worry about.

“Hey! Stop it!” Lee yelled at the giant, evil kitten while looking around for the owner. “Quit it!” he grumbled. I do not need to lose all my hit points to some undomesticated rat exterminator chasing after dirt. Should I just let Ethan die and avoid taking any extra damage? I can’t kill it, can I? I mean, people worship cats back home on the Internet, so it stands to reason that it’s probably similar here too, right?

Just as he was about to give up and let the cat take his precious little golem, he heard someone shout out to him. “Hey! You’ve got to be kidding me?! How did you find that little bugger? I’ve been going all around town looking for him! Do you mind letting me have him, please? I’ve been looking forever, and I really want to just be done with this.”

“Huh?” Lee turned, still firmly gripping the cat, to see a tall, lanky dark-skinned man clad in solid leather running up to him. His first instinct was to get rid of the annoying, far-from-domesticated feline, but as he went over the words that the man used, he realized it wasn’t actually his cat. Wait, why does he want him? “What do you want him for?” he asked instead, deciding not to be generous even as the cat stripped another hit point off of him.

“For the turn in, of course? I’m still wondering how you got the cat. I’ve been searching all day since the quest was first made available. It was a level ten quest that seemed ridiculously simple, but it’s already eaten up like six hours of my time. I don’t know how a quest this difficult got ranked at level zero,” the man grumbled. His accent, an incredibly odd mix between a British talk show host and a north eastern American news anchor, startled Lee just as much as finding out that the cat was related to a quest.

He doesn’t know that the cat is trying to kill the mouse in my breast pocket. But if he’s the one holding him and not me . . . Lee scratched at his chin. He wanted to help this guy out, and he wanted to get rid of the cat, but he also was still painfully aware of the fact he had no idea where he was–and that wasn’t the only unanswered question he still had. There were several others like how he would get food, if he even needed food and water, where would he stay for the night, and how was he going to ever find someone to be a follower? That was why, even despite the fact that the small, damage-over-time-dealing disease of what should have just been a ridiculously cute furball was causing him no small amount of pain, he wasn’t ready to just hand it over.

This cat is my first opportunity! he thought. “Can you share the quest?” he asked, honestly not knowing if that was possible. When he asked, he could see the mixed emotions spread through the lanky man’s face. Ah, so it’s not without a cost. Completing a quest with someone else reduces the individual’s reward. I wonder if it’s a straight split.

“Yeah, I guess I can,” the lanky man said. “Here, join the party, and we’ll split the reward.”

Donovan Miller would like to invite you to his party, do you want to accept?

“That seems fair,” Lee said, immediately replying yes.

‘Donovan Miller has shared the quest: ‘Get the Pussy.’

“Lee, eh? That’s a good name. I’m Donovan Miller, but call me Miller,” the lanky man said, extending a hand.

Lee looked at the hand, curious if Miller wanted him to attempt shaking it, or if he wanted him to hand over the cat. Should I hold onto the cat just so he doesn’t ditch me? “Nice to meet you, I’m Lee, but . . . I can’t really shake hands with you. You know, holding the cat and all.”

“Ah, yeah, sorry.” Miller pulled back his hand and awkwardly scratched his head with it. “Well, let’s go turn this in.”

Lee was thankful that the cat had stopped scratching him less than a minute after he accepted the quest, and he was able to carry it without much effort. He still didn’t hold it next to his chest, though, since he was worried that it might change its mind on being peaceful and go for the little bugger sitting in his breast pocket. That said, he also didn’t want to hand it over to Miller, so he just started following the guy down the dirt road with his arms held out while carrying the feline, fully aware of how ridiculous he must look.

“You know, if you don’t like cats, I can hold it for you,” Miller offered.

“No, that’s okay. I just don’t want to squish . . .” Lee paused for a moment. He didn’t want to tell Miller about his golem because he still didn’t know if he should fully trust him. He had also started the sentence on reflex since he was used to living in a world where death wasn’t a likelihood around every corner. “I didn’t want him to squish my little statue. I had spent a bit of time crafting it, and I’m afraid he’ll break it.”

“Oh, okay,” Miller nodded. “That makes sense.”

“So, leather armor,” Lee noted. “I’m taking it you’re a rogue of some sort?”

“Well, actually”–Miller reached into a brown satchel that was almost identical to Lee’s and pulled out a long spear, probably a few inches taller than the six-foot-eight-inch man. “I’m training to be a knight. I’m going to be the greatest knight in existence!”

“Training to be a knight?” Lee blinked. “So you don’t have the profession yet? What are you now?”

“Oh, I’m only level three. I need another seven levels before I can unlock profession choices. Though, I did already pick up my secondary profession,” he bragged. Every single additional word that flowed out of his mouth seemed to be filled with more pride than the previous, and as he stuck his large chin so far forward that it eclipsed his already bulbous nose.

As Lee studied the other man’s features, he realized he had a lot in common with the previous Firbolg that had bumped into him. That sloped forehead, narrow ridge at the top with a fat bottom on his nose, those low cheekbones . . . He’s just like the guy who bumped into me. Is he a Firbolg?

That is correct. He is a Firbolg. A Firbolg is a race indigenous to the north western kingdoms. They receive a bonus toward the rate at which they gain nature-related skills and skills related to the use of two-handed melee weapons. They receive a bonus to power, but also receive penalties to coordination and reflex.

The prompt verified his assumption, albeit with unnecessarily repetitive detail.

“So, is that why you picked a Firbolg?” Lee asked, trying to get a better understanding of how the game worked.

“Picked? No, I’ve been a Firbolg since I was born. Honestly, when I’m a much higher level, I might try to quest for one of the blood-fused hybrid races like the Dragon-Wings, but right now, that’s too far in the future to worry about,” Miller said, then paused. “Why? Did you find a way to change your natural race to a different starting one?”

“Oh.” Lee didn’t want to let Miller in on his secret, the fact he wasn’t from the world that invented the game or the game world. It’s my secret to keep, and I don’t know what negative effects can come from letting others know. Accordingly, he just made an excuse: “No, but I heard you could.” He thought about adding ‘on the forums’ since that was how he often learned stuff too, but he bit his tongue on the detail instead.

“Ah, well, if you’re doing quests, you must be one of the soldiers leveling up to become a knight too!” Miller said excitedly. “Are you going to join the royal army? Work your way up the ranks to serve in Red Ramen’s Royal Guard?”

Is he assuming that because NPCs don’t usually level up with quests? So the only ones that do are the ones being generated to fill the holes in the country’s military, which means that the military probably has a lot of NPCs. If player versus player exists in this world like it does in the games on mine, then NPCs either respawn after they die or are generated at full maturity.

“Something like that. I–” Lee paused. This is awkward, my mother and father used to tell me never to talk about religion outside of a church. How am I supposed to just bring it up?

“You?” Miller pressed.

“I’m trying to grow stronger so that I can help found the great Church of Augustus.” He just went out with it. What’s the harm in telling him this much? If he joins right now, that means I’ll have completed my first quota, right? Lee didn’t see any risks at first, but then his brain quickly reminded him of a very real possibility.  Wait, will I be killed as a pagan for not being part of the local religion?

“Oh, that’s cool.” Miller pursed his lips and looked away for a moment. “You do you, man. You do you. But, hey, at least you helped me get the cat.”

4.25.2017

Clearly not interested in religions. Lee sighed. He had kind of hoped that Miller might take joining the religion as a quest since apparently he was an NPC to him. I still have to find a way to get a convert, but I’ve never done anything like that before. They walked in silence for a moment, and Lee started going over some of the questions he still needed to answer, specifically about lodging and food. He asked the AI several of them, but while the AI would confirm that there ‘were places one could purchase food,’ it would not actually tell him where or offer a map. He asked for more detail about the three quests, and the prompt assured him that the quests existed but wouldn’t lead him to them or tell him anything beyond that. After frustratingly trying to get a single piece of specific information from the prompts, he finally gave in and decided to try asking the braggart.

“Well, I don’t mean to be rude, but where is a great place to get food and supplies? Or a cheap place to stay?” Lee asked.

“Wait, don’t all of you, err, people”–Miller was clearly avoiding using the word NPC to describe Lee–“have knowledge of local town events and stuff?”

“You We people?” Lee asked, pretending to show mock outrage.

“I mean, you know, humans,” he clarified. “I just, umm, humans are generally really well informed is all.”

You meant NPCs, you liar. Lee chided at him internally as a grin appeared across his face. This guy is so polite. I bet he is the perfect stooge to bring around and show me places, Lee thought. “S,o where are some of the good places in town? I just got here, and I was”–What’s an appropriate truth–“I was kinda taken away from all the money I had.” There we go. No one can say I’m a liar since I really was ripped away from my comfortable life and subsequently all my bank accounts.

“Really? You . . . you were kidnapped and robbed? That’s awful!” Miller showed what looked like genuine shock at the news, raising his giant red unibrow as both eyes shot open. “I’m so sorry that happened to you. That must have been a dreadfully terrifying experience. How did you ever manage to get free?”

“I’m not sure I have,” Lee answered. After all, he was still a prisoner in the game world thanks to that annoying deity.

“No wonder you’re so religious.” Miller paused. “Well, how about after we turn this quest in, I’ll buy you a beer at the cheapest tavern in town. I know exactly where it is since that’s where I’m staying. Their lodging is so cheap that I can’t imagine the split income off this quest won’t be plenty enough to cover it.”

Excellent. Lee smiled. Free sustenance and a guide to where I can get lodging. His happiness flickered though as he thought about the word ‘lodging’ and the fact that he’d be sleeping here and not in his own comfortable bed with his perfect down feather pillow and 1200-thread-count sheets. He’d still be here, sleeping in an unfamiliar land with no real timeframe of when he could return. That thought stifled whatever little joy he got from the prospect of not going hungry and sleeping outside. “Thanks a lot man,” he said though. “I appreciate it.”

“No problem. It’s the least I could do. If it got dark before I found the cat, my quest would have failed,” Miller said.

So there are time limits to the quest. That’s odd. Would they not need the cat tomorrow? He didn’t have much time to think about it or use the information to puzzle out how other quests might work. It wasn’t even a minute later that Miller took an abrupt right turn into one of the houses, and they were face to face with a man who was obviously the original quest giver. He was a small, bald, attenuated man with hollow cheeks under a scraggly black beard.

“Oh, oh, thank God! You’re back! I was worried sick!” the man said as soon as he saw them holding the cat. When he came over and took the cat from Lee’s hands, the friendly prompt appeared.

You have completed the quest: ‘Get the Pussy.’ Your party has been awarded 35 coppers and 350 experience, of which your share is 18 coppers and 175 experience. Your Charisma has also improved by 1 for helping out an old man in need. Townsfolk in Satterfield have a slightly better opinion of you.

“You are now level two. You need 66 Experience to reach level three. Your level increase has boosted all primary stats by 1. Your current power, toughness, spirit, reflex, coordination, concentration and accuracy have been adjusted to 12.”

Thank Go . . . Lee was about to silently express his relief, but the turn of phrase sent a chill down his spine as he remembered what deity he was currently being forced to serve. No, don’t thank him. This is his fault to begin with. “It was no problem at all. I’m just glad I could help,” Lee said as he stepped back away from the cat. Even though some distance had been put between the two, with the man holding the cat now, the sharp amber-yellow eyes of the feline didn’t stop staring at Lee for a minute.

“It seems he likes you. That’s good. He only likes good people, and he always scratches the bad ones far too much. I can’t even have friends over if they aren’t good people,” the man said, causing Lee to twitch as he realized that meant the cat thought he was evil. I’m down to less than seventy-five health thanks to your cat!

“Well, we were just happy to be of service,” Lee said, and both he and Miller both began to turn around when the man stopped them.

“Wait, before you go, you didn’t happen to see my daughter out there, did you?” the man asked. “She was devastated by the disappearance of our cat, so, well, she went out to find him, but I haven’t seen her since. There’s no chance you saw her when you were out, did you?”

“The one who was with you when you asked for help this morning?” Miller asked.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” the old man replied. “Have you seen her?”

As the old man pleaded with them for information, the familiar blue box once more was in front of Lee with new text:

Mr. Ying’s daughter Ling has disappeared. Will you help find her and let her know that the cat has already been returned safely home? It would mean a lot to Mr. Ying. This quest will provide no monetary compensation. Quest Level: 10.

“No, we haven’t, but we absolutely will go out and let her know the cat is home safely. You have our word! We’ll get on that right now!” Miller emphatically agreed before Lee could even finish reading the text.

Your word has been given for the success of this mission. It will generate additional experience and stat compensation when completed, but you will suffer a penalty if the quest fails or completes without your assistance.

What the . . .?! How could you just sign us both up like that? Lee so badly wanted to yell at Miller for just putting his neck out there too, but given the client was right in front of them, he was forced to just bite his tongue and smile as they left the building.

“I can’t believe you–” Lee was getting ready to chew him out, but Miller just interrupted him, assuming he was going in another direction.

“Got us a chain quest? I can’t either! How great is that? All we have to do is find one girl in a tiny, little town. How hard can that be? This is great!” Miller’s wide grin was grating to look at.

Well, since we’re already stuck on the quest, and I still need to stay in this guy’s good graces until he shows me that cheap tavern to stay at . . . Lee decided to just roll with the punches for once.

“Well, do you want to split up? I can take the east side of town? You can take the left?” Lee offered.

“No, because if one of us finds her, there won’t be a way to let the other know that it happened. We need to both be there during the turn in.” Miller shook his head as he explained.

So there isn’t an in-game message system? How do party members meet up for questing without one? Lee wondered. Maybe there is one, but it just doesn’t work for NPCs? he concluded, assured it was a much more reasonable explanation.

“Well, you want to start asking random people?” Lee tried a different route. “Surely someone has seen her?”

“Sounds good to me,” Miller nodded, and the two of them started to do just that. They asked every person they could find on the street where Ling might be, but no one knew. Finally, after half an hour, they started even asking people who were in their homes, knocking on doors to see if anyone had seen which way she might have gone earlier in the day.

Lee was ready to give up hope when someone finally gave the answer he needed: “She went into the fields east of town, where the tall yellow flowers grow, hoping to find her cat among them.” It wasn’t close by, but at least it was a definite starting point for their second quest.

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