War of Eternity: The Beginning Ch1

War of Eternity: The Beginning

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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, thought wasn’t needed for this part of his 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. His dormant brain would occasionally turn on during a heated online debate, and he could feel the familiar old cogs in his head dust themselves off when he was trying to figure out why a particular line of code didn’t work, but past that, it never saw much use.

The problem was that he just didn’t have much use for it these days. He had worked tirelessly during his university courses, learning all the necessary and seemingly unnecessary bits of higher-level mathematics, and he had proven to be rather adept when it came to parsing out the necessary logic needed to construct algorithms and functional programs. After he secured his position with the firm, however, he found that he rarely had the need to push himself. He wasn’t creating any new, ground-breaking methods, and most of his work revolved around maintaining systems that he had already put into place and keeping them updated as necessary. Random quirks and unusual errors occasionally showed up, but most of those were easily solved. In short, he wasn’t being challenged, and he wasn’t going to challenge himself by recreating the wheel or by giving up a lucrative and secure position.

The mind-atrophying banality of his repetitive existence wasn’t just limited to work, either. There was so little change or variation in his day-to-day routine 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, playing MMOs where all he had to do was hit the same four keys over and over again in the same order or the calls he made to his parents, Lee could pretty much predict what was going to happen and how things would play out. As 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. Things were familiar; things were comfortable.

He managed to autopilot every annoying part in his life, whether it was dealing with his overbearing manager or filing eight TPS reports on Mondays, and the good parts were magnified time and time again as his nest egg continued to grow, and he expanded his creature comforts. He didn’t just play video games on a computer, he played them on the fastest computer money could buy–one he built himself. His bed felt like a sculpted cloud, his TV was large enough to almost entirely cover one of the walls in his apartment, and his food was almost exclusively takeout from a great hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant he had found. Even his favorite chair was perfectly contoured to his every facet. As someone who spent most of the day sitting in a chair, whether at home or at work, he had researched the perfect one for almost half of a year before finally pulling the trigger. Its soft memory foam coddled him into an almost trance-like state as soon as he plopped down on it. It was amazing, and it was the perfect end to each day.

With all of these things to look forward to, it simply didn’t make sense to try and rock the boat or change things up. His life was perfect the way it was, and perfection wasn’t something someone changed just because it was repetitive.

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 breakfast and read the news on his smartphone. He was oblivious to the leashless dog that followed him onto the subway during his trek to work, and 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. Taking notice of any of these abnormal behaviors would have required that he turn on his brain, and his higher mental functions were already comfortably on hold as he began yet another day on autopilot.

That’s why, with his brain snoring through the day, he didn’t notice a small mouse as it crawled up the wall of his cubicle and scrambled across his desk to stand 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 and put one of its tiny paws in front of its face as if to suppress a laugh.

“Hahaha, noob,” Lee responded by reflex upon hearing that someone was level zero. Slowly, a gear began to turn upstairs as he realized he had just responded to someone; yet, no one was around, and he wasn’t wearing a headset or even playing a game. He looked away from his screen in search of whoever had spoken as he gradually processed what he had heard.

Huh? Who? Level zero? His brain slowly but surely started to shake away the rust as his autopilot failed to handle the all unexpected data points. Who in the heck is level zero? Who said that? His eyes searched the room around him before finally finding the anomaly and resting on the small white mouse.

Lee stared at the tiny creature blankly and without blinking as he waited for all the gears to warm up. He simply couldn’t come to grips with what was in front of him, and his mental functions failed to register the connection between what he was seeing and what he had heard. Both were so unexpected and out of place that his senses and his conscious refused to associate the two things. “Mouse,” he said finally, uttering the one word like it was the most foreign concept he had ever come across.

“You’re very perceptive, aren’t you? Yes, I’m a mouse. At least, I am for now, anyway,” the mouse answered in a squeaky voice, his tiny laughter piping through Lee’s ears. “Would it help if I were something else?”

Lee took a deep breath and tried to say something smart or witty in response, but all that came out was: “Mouse.” He wanted to say more. His brain had warmed up enough that it had reached a point where he knew something was out of place. He wanted to shout for people to come and look so that 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 for a third time: “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 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. 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 and confusion were outweighed by the sharp pain and the adrenaline that shot through his veins. He snapped 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.

Lee toppled over his chair as he stood up and pointed at the primate. “Someone! Help! There’s a . . . a monkey! Hey, someone help! There’s a monkey loose in the building!”

“You can keep yelling and throwing your arms around like a wild ape, but it’s not going to help you, you know. If you haven’t noticed, you’re the only one in here working at the moment.” The macaque shifted shape again, changing form like liquid poured from one glass and into another. It morphed into a sloth and climbed up into the chair in the cubicle next to Lee’s and then sat back and reclined leisurely. “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 specialized form of torture to keep an employee awake.”

“S-sloth!” Lee gasped this time, his eyes darting around the room. This can’t just be me. There has to be someone else who can see this besides 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. They’re taking the time to enjoy themselves while you pick up the slack–not that you would even realize it. I can’t imagine someone like you would have a very high intelligence stat at level zero, would they?” The sloth smiled snidely. It reached up with one of its clawed paws, and a gourd-shaped vessel materialized out of the thin air within its grasp. The small creature took a large swig from the gourd as if it were a flask and made it vanish again.

“W-what the . . . No way. Th-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. Mice and sloths don’t even have human voice boxes. How could they talk even if they knew how? This has to be–”

“An elaborate prank?” the sloth cackled. “That’s rich. That’s really rich! Do you really think any of these miserable 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. Otherwise, there’s no way you’re ever going to have the intelligence score needed for meaningful discourse.”

Everything around Lee went quiet–deathly quiet–as if Lee had put on soundproof headphones over earplugs.

“Wh- what’s going on?! What in the heck is this?! What did you do?!” Lee was practically shouting at the top of his lungs, 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?! Can anybody hear me?!” he screamed again.

Darkness began creeping in at the edges of his vision 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.

“Yes, I can hear your stupid whining, you idiotic human, but it’s taking me a minute to convert you over to the system. Will you just shut up and let me finish executing the program?” a disjointed voice answered, sounding like a disappointed parent scolding a small child. “I swear, you humans always scream and shout like that’s somehow going to be helpful. Every. Freaking. Time. Has screaming ever helped you? Ever? Any time? No? That’s right. I didn’t think so. Hmm . . . It seems that I can’t get your stat screen to display correctly until you level up. It keeps rejecting the full conversion . . . This system just isn’t built with the proper parameters to handle someone like you.”

“You know, it’s really kind of hard to gain levels in a game you’ve never even heard of, much less bought! And what is all this?!” Lee was growing increasingly annoyed with his smack-talking captor, and despite his condition and seeming out of body experience, his natural instincts began taking over once the word game was mentioned.

“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 primitive 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 when he heard himself yelling incoherently. No one ever enjoyed hearing a recording of their own voice, and the garbled noises he had made it even more embarrassing.

“Yeah, that’s right. That’s the appropriate face to make when you realize that you sound worse than a talking dog. 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 his tormentor sloth finished insulting him. Everything began to fade in around him, one tiny blocked pixel at a time, until Lee was able to make out that he was standing in an arena–a giant coliseum, actually–just like the one in Rome. It had to be at least three hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide, and it felt empty and barren without a single soul in sight across the wide red sands.

“Where . . . Where am I?” Lee asked in alarm. Even though he had been in reasonable control of himself only seconds ago, this was just a little too much for him to handle. His heart started pounding in his chest, and he felt like he couldn’t get a solid breath of air. Unable to understand what was going on, Lee began hyperventilating. This was just too much for anyone to comprehend, much less accept. One minute he had been dutifully working away in his office, following his normal routine, and now he was in some foreign place holding conversations with a talking animal.

After a few minutes passed without anything happening, however, a nascent sense of curiosity started to override all of his confusion and fear. He began to calm down and control his breathing once more.

“What’s going on?” Lee called out around him. “Is anyone out there?” His heart was still beating a mile a minute, and he was gulping down air as fast as he could, but at least he had some kind of control now. He looked around him warily, hoping to find 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 from side to side. 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–probably something 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.

The zombie cracked his neck as soon as he was fully materialized 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.

“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, no I’m saying you need them. You don’t have any brains! How in the world do you living folks consider us to be mindless? Look at you fumbling and stumbling and bumbling around like some uncoordinated idiot. Do you want me to go kill the morose halfwit now?” the zombie asked, twisting his head around at an awkward angle to address the sky.

A blue status window exactly like the ones from the games he played popped up in front of Lee.

You have received Every Noob’s Starting Sword.

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

The zombie didn’t hesitate. He ran across the field, open-jawed and teeth ready as he came for Lee. He wasn’t exactly a full-on speed demon, but he definitely wasn’t a walker, either.

Grotesque scenes of a zombie tearing into flesh flashed through Lee’s mind, and he silently cursed himself for watching so many zombie shows over the years. He hadn’t even been in a fight since his dad made him take martial arts lessons after being beaten up a lot in his younger days, so he could only remember the most basic technique: he turned and ran 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!”

“How was I supposed to know that?” Lee shouted back defensively as he ran. “Dead bodies are supposed to decompose and turn to crap after thirty days, not run around! Who the hell thought that zombies having endless stamina made sense? Aren’t dead people just bodies that don’t work? Hence the dead part? So how is it that they now have qualities far surpassing living bodies that never shut down in the first place?

Realizing that the deity obviously knew more about the zombie than he did, however, Lee heeded the god’s advice and turned around to face the monster.

“Oh, for Pete– The sword. Get the sword out. It’s in the leather pouch fixed to your waist. Just, seriously . . . Ugh.” The voice sighed impatiently and in frustration. “Just look in the pouch and pull it out.”

Slowly comprehending what was expected of him, Lee slowed his run and did just that: he reached for the brown pouch that had appeared on his waist without him even noticing it. The small leather satchel didn’t appear to be large enough to hold more than a wallet and loose change, but as he opened it, a window with a grid popped up. In the upper left corner, he saw a short sword taking up three of the little squares of the grid. He reached his hand out and tried to grab the sword, but his hand just harmlessly passed through it.

“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 at least that much.”

Lee did as he was told, and as he pulled, a full-length short sword slid out of the pouch. Despite himself, Lee was actually amazed–not just that it had worked, but that it seemed so natural. He slowed to a halt and turned to face the undead creature. He felt somewhat powerful as he held the weapon in his hands–like he was somehow safe and right with the world. That was until he saw the zombie’s expression.

“Just keep running,” the zombie groaned as it approached.

Thankfully, there was still some small space between them. 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 to growl irritably.

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

Lee ignored the zombie and struck out again, taking another swipe at its hands and then stepping back 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 away his grasping hands and back away safely before the undead creature could reach him. It wasn’t a very effective technique, but it was sufficient to keep him alive for the time being–and that was by far the best outcome he could hope for at the moment.

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

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

“Fine, fine. I’ll even this up,” the voice called down. “It was getting boring watching anyway,” he said. “You know, I watched a dude with a spoon slaughter a fully-armed barbarian this one time, and you can’t even kill an unarmed zombie with a sword? For shame.”

Crap! Lee’s eyes shot open in fear 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 instinct and quickly swung downward as hard as he could. He was rewarded for his effort by cleanly slicing through the zombie’s wrist. The walking corpse’s dismembered 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 using his remaining hand, pulled it free and began using his teeth to pry the amputated appendage off the blade so that he could get a better grip on his new weapon.

“There.” The zombie 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 edged 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. He stabbed out toward the undead creature, but the monster used his own blade to neatly parry the attack to the side.

The zombie laughed, his jaw opening slightly wider each time as it slowly unhinged a little. “Wow, you really are bad at this! Have you never used one before?” 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 he did. The zombie then lurched forward and slammed his shoulder into Lee for a second time, sending Lee 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 ribs. Rather than showing any signs of pain or fatigue, however, the zombie simply grabbed onto Lee’s hand, held it firmly, raised his own weapon, and struck down.

“Here. Got one more function fixed!” the voice 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 a wave of sharp pain and a dull throb that emanated up his side.

A notification popped up to in his vision:

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 profanities as the blade sank in. He felt the cold steel puncture into his abdomen, and he involuntarily clenched his stomach muscles and doubled over, grasping at the wound as soon as the blade was withdrawn. The world spun around him as his vision swam, and his entire focus seemed to shift down to that singular spot on his body. He gasped for air, drawing in several quick, shallow breaths, afraid of rupturing the wound and making it worse. He collapsed forward into the dirt and curled up into a ball, visions of death prancing through his head.

Some small part of his brain, however, refused to give in to the flood of emotions and instead latched onto the flashing blue box that had appeared and what the text it contained actually said.  51 points of damage. Health. Hit points. The idea slowly wormed its way through to his higher conscious, and he suddenly became aware of the fact that the spot in his stomach felt more like a pinch now than a gaping wound.

The initial shock of being stabbed began to wear off when he realized that he wasn’t going to bleed out and die, and reason began to take over as his overexcited brain began to cool down and function logically again. How many health points do I even have? How come I’m not freaking out more over being stabbed? Shouldn’t that hurt more? No sooner did he think the questions than a bar became visible, letting him know at least one answer: 37. He had 37 out of 100 hit points left, and they were bleeding off quickly. He only remembered seeing the one prompt from the stab wound, but he guessed that the earlier knockdowns had actually done damage too.

“Ahh . . . That was a fair bit of fun,” the zombie gasped in satisfaction. He had already turned and backed away as if the fight was over and done with.

Lee gritted his teeth and watched the decaying creature as it shambled away. He clutched the wound in his stomach as if it would somehow stop the bleeding and slowly pushed himself back to his feet, using his sword for support.

He had to do something, or he was going to die. He didn’t have the faintest clue what that might mean, but he knew that wasn’t something he wanted to experience or figure out firsthand. He clearly had absolutely no experience fighting with a sword, and his one successful blow had been as much luck as skill. So, he did the only real move he actually 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 stumbled forward, grabbed ahold of the zombie’s crusty suit, and used his head, literally smashing the zombie in the face with a headbutt right on his decaying nose.

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 of urgency. He didn’t care 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.

“You. Are. Not. Eating. My. Brains! Dangit!” Lee shouted, his words punctuated by the sound of his forehead repeatedly smashing against the zombie’s skull. It took a half a minute, and he knew that he was on the verge of death, but after ten or twelve hits, he felt the zombie’s skull cave in.

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, Brian. You have been awarded 59 experience. You have reached Level 1! Your level increase has boosted all primary stats by 1. Your current power, toughness and spirit have been adjusted to 11. You are 91 experience away from Level 2.

“Huh, now isn’t that funny?” the voice 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 were you thinking?! I don’t know who you are or what sort of ‘god’ you must think yourself 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 are 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 the 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 finished, 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 being said.

Lee glanced at the giant stat screen, his consternation at being ignored growing by the second. The pop-up 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.’

Lee looked at the insulting moniker with a combination of annoyed curiosity and outrage. 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?

“Yeah, you’re noticing the NPC part, aren’t you? Well, 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 coliseum’ 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 shape-shifting creature 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 possible without yelling. “Where 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 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 mouse 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 coliseum specifically, to see if you were worth keeping alive,” the mouse squeaked. “What’s going on is that I am a god, 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. He was about as close to lashing out and stomping on an animal as he had ever been in his entire life, but he somehow knew that it was a horrible idea. Even if he was successful, it would mean that he was just stuck wherever he was without a way home.

“Yeah, that sums it up.”

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

“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 the conversation. “Because, thanks to War of Eternity, I’m almost out of followers! Every, single, stupid teenager gave up on the real world! All they do is spend their days playing games instead of going to church! They forsook me for those stupid games! You know, I barely have even six or seven churches left. And they’re completely occupied by skeletons!”

“That’s . . .” Lee wanted to sympathize, 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 lumbered 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 and their hands skillful, and yet they all forgot me! That’s why!”

The bear growled, a low rumbling noise that sounded of irritation and annoyance. “You don’t get it, do you? Of course not. You’re too stupid to possibly understand. People used to worship me. They attended church and services because they knew what was good for them. Oh, of course they thought it was just another form of entertainment, but they have forgotten all about that now. The play their little games, and they pass their time on the Internet sharing every facet their lives with strangers, but they never stop to say a word of praise or thanks anymore.”

“Uhh . . .” Lee took a step back from the bear, suddenly uncomfortable with how close he had become.

“Let me spell this out simply,” the bear growled. He pawed at the ground once, tearing up a large chunk of red dirt, and the alcohol-filled mug appeared in its place. The bear plunged his snout into the cup and raised his head, guzzling the contents down its throat. “When people’s lives are good, they forget the gods. They have no use for a god in their lives. They think they are responsible for their own fortunes, so they stop bothering to even believe.”

“So . . .” Lee still didn’t understand how he fit into any of this, or how it was his problem. Whatever problems this 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 your 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,” Lee answered exasperatedly. “Just tell me what you need already so that 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 with a massive clawed paw. “I think I’m the first god to really figure it out. The way War of Eternity is designed, even though it’s sometimes questionable as to whether or not NPCs would pass a good Turing test, they count as beings and add up to a god’s faith marker,” he said, lips curling back into a sly smile.

“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, and he stumbled backward a few steps under the load as he caught the heavy container. “And get ready for War of Eternity because this conversation is done as far as I’m concerned. 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.

He noticed that the book took up only one space as he opened his inventory, 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 as the world began fading to black. Well, this stinks, Lee grumbled to himself as he watched his surroundings completely disappear. The bear sat back on its rear haunches and waved goodbye as it took a long swig of beer before finally fading from his vision along with everything else.

What the hell?

—–

The world slowly came back into existence, and his senses began returning to him. It was slightly disorienting being engulfed by a pitch black void completely devoid of sound, feeling, or vision, but he adapted just as quickly as he had before. He felt a sinking feeling in his stomach that was accompanied by a slight lurch, and he found himself standing on a wooden bridge in the middle of a shoddy dirt road that connected what appeared to be two small Scottish-styled hamlets. There were small stone buildings with thatch roofs, a few of which had signs hanging in front, but little else he could see aside from small homes 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, completely 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 major city had never afforded him a visit to the countryside, so everything around him was both foreign and curious to him. As he stood gawking at the rustic scenery with all its quaint charm and idyllic imagery, someone suddenly bumped into him. It wasn’t just a tiny graze, but a meaty shoulder straight to the face as a massive, seven-foot-tall something-not-human passed by him.

What the hell was that? That’s not a human. That’s not anything I’ve ever even seen before! Lee was too shocked by the appearance of the giant, slightly-orange-skinned humanoid to even register outrage at being shouldered in the face and shoved out of the way.

That is a Firbolg. Their race is indigenous to the northwestern 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 noticed 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 coliseum. 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 and quit–to find some way to hide away–and yet another wanted to do anything and everything he could to get back at the self-proclaimed 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 and exotic language to War of Eternity, you have been awarded 5 Intelligence. Your new Intelligence stat is 10.

Intelligence increases the rate at which new skills are learned, and patterns are recognized by 1% per level.

Wait, ten? Shouldn’t it only be five now? It literally just told me that it was zero when Augustus showed it to me. Lee wanted to bring up his status screen once more to investigate, but he was distracted by two girls passing by as soon as he finished reading the prompt.

“Do you think there is something wrong with that NPC?”

“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.

Lee blinked. So this really happened . . . No, this is really happening. 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. 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 he’d forget about how surreal this death trap was if he could just focus on the task. At the moment, his stomach felt like it had twisted and turned in on itself, his heart was beating far faster than it should, and his chest 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?

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 was greeted by his first decision prompt as he opened the massive book:

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 dumbfoundedly at the prompt. Yes, I would like to absorb the contents, he thought at the book, hoping it would work. Sure enough, he 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 Initiate Level 2. Golems created by Golem sculpting are now 5% more effective in combat. Current Combat bonus: 15.00% Future golems created by Golem Sculpting may now take up an additional 5% more space. Current Max Space: 2.2 fluid ounces.

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

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

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

Golem sculpting? OK, so I’ve learned it, but how– Lee was about to ask how to make the golem or 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 only 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 own 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 the 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 unconsciously 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 had been barely passable as clay before was now a solid, shiny brown substance that would have made any potter jealous. The mouse, no more than two and a half inches long, silently tilted its head to face its creator. Then, as it opened its tiny argil eyes, Lee’s world split in two. At once, he knew the details of his own face and the world behind him as the mouse saw it. He could see everything the mouse saw. He knew everything the mouse knew. So, this is Golem Sculpting, Lee marveled. And just what am I going to name you? he asked the little mouse in his hands.

The tiny creature didn’t make a noise, but Lee would have sworn that it had squeaked at him in response. Then, Lee realized that he had heard the golem with his mind, not his ears. Miraculously, he 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 . . . Hmm. . . How about Ethan? The mouse squeaked 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 asked, hoping that 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 that it was. It was a special skill learned from the God of Alcohol’s book, but that didn’t make it any less 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?

Of the three quests, two of them reward 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 . . . 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 to, reflected, or impacted by one’s level or race.

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 spend time studying the system so that he could find a solid place to start from, such as choosing a profession or class or whatever he was supposed to be, 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 mouse he had created. It was strange to think of a golem as anything other than an unfeeling automaton, much less as a sentient creature capable of being afraid, but thanks to the effects of the book he had read, he knew that it was.

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 had perched itself on his shoulder. Ethan slid off of Lee’s shoulder and into his breast pocket, curling up into a tiny ball.

Lee quickly turned around and grabbed the cat, catching it midair and stopping it from destroying his fresh creation. Its claws 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. When he finally had his hands wrapped around the devilish creature, he also made sure to hold the pesky pet at arm’s length and as far away from him as he possibly could. The feisty creature continued trying to swipe at him with its claws, scratching and tearing at his arms, but there was no way for it to deal any serious 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 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?” Lee 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 caught 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 such a low level zero,” the man grumbled. “I’m usually the best at finding things–I can always locate anything–so this really shouldn’t have taken as long.” His accent was an incredibly odd mix between a British talk show host and a northeastern American news anchor, and it 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 he was 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! “Can you share the quest?” he asked, honestly not knowing if that was possible. When he asked, he could see 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 answered. “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: ‘Cattywampus Catch.’

“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 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 morsel 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, 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 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, switching the topic as quickly as he could. “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’ve already picked up my secondary profession,” he bragged. Every additional word that flowed out of his mouth seemed to be filled with more pride than the last.

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, the narrow ridge at the top with a fat bottom on his nose, those low cheekbones, those long and lanky arms and large torso . . . 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 they also receive penalties to coordination and reflex.

The prompt verified his assumption, albeit with unnecessary and 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-Donk or something, but that’s too far in the future to worry about right now . . .” Miller trailed off and thought for a minute. “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?”

“Something like that. I . . .” Lee paused. This is awkward. My parents 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 rebuild the great Church of Augustus.” He just went 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.”

Clearly not interested in religions. Lee sighed. He had kind of hoped that Miller might take joining the religion as a quest if the Firbolg viewed him as an NPC and thus a quest-giver. 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 questions, but while the AI would confirm that there were ‘places one could purchase food,’ it wouldn’t 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 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 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. “So, 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.

Miller showed what looked like genuine shock at the news, raising his giant, red unibrow as both eyes shot open. “Really? You . . . you were kidnapped and robbed? That’s awful! 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, I’ll buy you a beer at the cheapest tavern in town after we turn this quest in. I know exactly where it is since I’m staying there. Their lodging is so cheap that I can’t imagine the split income off this quest wouldn’t be enough to cover it.”

Excellent. Lee smiled. Free sustenance and a guide to where I can get lodging. His happiness flickered as he thought about the fact that it meant he would be sleeping here in this strange world and not in his own comfortable bed with his perfect down feather pillow and 1200-thread-count sheets. No matter what, he was stuck in an unfamiliar land with no real timeframe of when he could return home. That thought stifled whatever little joy he got from the prospect of not going hungry and sleeping outside.

“Thanks a lot, man,” he answered. “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 want the cat back tomorrow? He didn’t have much time to think about it or use the information to puzzle out how other quests might work since Miller took an abrupt right turn into one of the houses, and they came 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: ‘Cattywampus Catch.’ Your party has been awarded 35 coppers and 350 experience, of which your share is 18 coppers and 175 experience. Townsfolk in Satterfield have a slightly better opinion of you.

Your Charisma has also improved by 1 for helping out an old man in need. Charisma improves how positive others will naturally view an individual and improves prices when buying or selling by .25% where applicable [Will not allow the other person to take a loss from the transaction]. Current Total: 1

You are now level 2. You need 66 Experience to reach level three. Your level increase has boosted all primary stats by 1. Your current power, toughness, and spirit 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, the feline continued to follow him with its sharp, amber-yellow eyes.

“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 turned 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, and 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.

A member of your party’s 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 it.

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

“No,” Miller said, shaking his head. “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.”

So, there isn’t an in-game message system? How do party members meet up for questing without one? Maybe there is, but it just doesn’t work for NPCs. He felt assured that was a much more reasonable explanation than there simply not being one.

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

“Sounds good to me.” Miller nodded his agreement, 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 even started 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 much to go on, but at least it was a definite starting point for their second quest.

 

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