War of Eternity: The Beginning Ch11

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Name: Lee Race: Human Class: Herald – None

Level: 10 Health: 200/200 EXP: 1333/2000

Primary Stats:

Power 20(21) Toughness 20(21) Spirit 20(21)

Secondary Stats:

Charisma 8 Courage 20 Deceit 2

Intelligence 61(64) Honor 1 Faith 26

Personal Faith 39

Skills:

Unarmed Combat Initiate Level 3 Swordplay Initiate Level 5

Sneak Initiate Level 4 Cooking Initiate Level 1

Trap Detection Initiate Level 1

Divine Skills:

Golem Sculpting Novice Level 1

Appreciative Drunk Novice Level 1

Faith Healing


While the rest of the stat increases didn’t matter much, Lee couldn’t stop staring at the change as both his Golem Sculpting and Appreciative Drunk had both finally leveled up to Novice Level 1 at the exact same time.

Your mastery of Golem Sculpting has progressed from the level of an initiate to the rank of Novice Level 1. Golem Sculpting now allows for the sculpting of two golems instead of one. Current Combat Bonus: 71.03%. Golems created by Golem Sculpting may now take up an additional 5% more space. Current Max Space: 3.41 fluid ounces.

Your mastery of the Drunken Appreciation skill has progressed from the level of an initiate to the rank of Novice Level 1. Appreciative Drunk now adds +1 additional power for each level of mastery past the novice phase.

Under Drunken Appreciation, your inebriation penalty has been changed from -50% intelligence, -30% coordination, -30% to -39% intelligence, -19% coordination, -19% reflex. You also have received an additional +1 to Power, +2 to Courage and +1 to Charisma until your inebriation fades.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. Both of the bonuses were incredible. The +1 power would be a flat damage boost to any weapon he used, but the real coup de grâce was the boost to Golem Sculpting. The ability to form a second golem of identical proportions to the first was nearly unbelievable. The shock on his face must have been evident because both Ling and Miller stopped to look at him. They had been moving farther into the beast land, but now they were at a dead standstill as he studied the bonuses.

“What is it?” Miller asked. “Do you hear something? Did we forget to kill something? It might just be twitching, you know. Some of the bodies will continue to twitch even after they’re long dead. But don’t worry, they’re harmless, and it will go away soon enough.”

“No, that’s not his ‘prey is near’ face,” Ling said, holding her chin as she examined Lee’s face as if it were a clue to a murder mystery on a crime drama. “This is the ‘something good is about to happen’ face.”

“How can you tell?” Miller asked. “I mean, aren’t those the same? Prey being close by would be something good, right?”

Lee felt the blood rush to his cheeks as he realized that Ling’s face was only inches away from his own as she studied him with eagle eyes. He gulped once and shook his head to free himself from awkward air. “No, I uhh . . .” Lee paused. Do I tell them more about my power? People must have clearly seen the winged rat saving the day earlier even if no one explicitly said anything about it after the fight. It’s already been seen, and–

Lee lost himself in the mesmerizing trap that was Ling’s beautiful brown eyes. No, no keep your thoughts straight. We have killing to do. He pinched his own hand to break the spell and regain his concentration. “I just leveled up a very important power. Come on out, Ethan.” He gestured to the mouse that had only recently returned. With a small squeak, Ethan jumped into the air and flew down out of one the trees, landing on Lee’s shoulder a moment later.

“What in the blue goblin taint of Alkasim is that thing?” Miller asked, his eyes and mouth opening wider than the time when he discovered fried chicken. He extended one of his giant fingers toward the creature and asked, “Is it friendly? Have you always had it? Does it wage tiny wars and kill giant snakes near green walls like the legends say?”

Miller wasn’t alone in his excitement. Even Ling’s eyes had turned into saucers as she stared at it. The happiest one of all, however, seemed to be Little Ethan. Lee felt the mouse’s desire to do a little dance coming through loud and clear as its gaze bounced between the two curious people. The tiny rodent even stood on its two hind legs and bashfully stroked out its tiny clay whiskers with its front paws.

“It’s not just friendly . . .” Lee bent over and picked up a piece of dirt, removing a few bits so that it was almost the exact same size as Ethan. “It’s also practically a part of me.” He watched the curiosity bloom on their faces as he began to mold the dirt in his hand to be the same shape as Ethan, injecting his spirit into the clay and letting it fill up the earthen vessel. When he was finished, the newly created golem stared up at him from the palm of his hand with a pair of beady eyes. While Lee was trying to think of a name for the second mouse, he realized the tiny new creature was standing in the same posture and looking at him in the same way that Ethan did.

Wow, you two are so similar, he thought to Ethan. Both of the mice simultaneously shook their heads, and moving in perfect unison, they held up their tiny fingers. They moved closer so that their paws touched briefly, only for one to pull away with no fingers up and the other with two.

Wait, that’s too ordered, is this . . . is this some sort of hive mind mentality? Lee asked, getting a nod from both mice. You’re not just two identical mice? he pushed for clarification, but the mice shook their heads. Hive-minded mice. The thought took a moment to process.

“Woah, that is so cool,” Miller exclaimed, and then he began rapidly firing questions at Lee while he was still trying to figure out what was going on with his rodents. “Can they kill something? Since they’re practically a part of you, can they shoot flames? Can they carry a coconut? Do they eat cheese?”

“Uhhh . . . They don’t eat . . . I don’t think. Anyway, let’s hold off on questions. The only thing I’d like is for you two to keep this a secret. It’s one of my special talents that I’d rather not share with others.”

“I understand,” Ling answered without pushing the issue further. She simply reached out and extended a few fingers so that she could pet the original rodent’s head. When her fingers came in contact with it, both he and the other started twitching their hind legs like dogs getting their belly rubbed. “I won’t say a thing.”

“Wait, are you going to use them to cheat on gambling games? Do you these mice secretly run casino scams with you? Wait! I know! You keep them hidden because they’re usually busy running a miniature gladiator arena where they murder and sacrifice other small creatures and insects in the name of Augustus!” Miller’s speculations caused Lee to almost drop the new creature as he laughed, imagining each of these things.

Actually, he’s right. We’d be great at gambling, Lee thought to the pair.

In truth, he was struggling with wrapping his head around the concept of Ethan existing within two bodies at the same time. If it weren’t for the fact he had already become used to seeing the world from two pairs of eyes, the concept of one being in two bodies would have been rather disconcerting. What’s worse, he was in three at the moment. His brain was being flooded with images and other sensory information from not only two points, but three. It taxed his brain to sort and organize everything appropriately. It had been rather easy to accept that he was seeing the world from two different perspectives when he had first created Ethan, but he was having trouble acclimating himself to a third position as well.

He winced as he held his head. This, this will take a lot of getting used to. He wasn’t sure what a migraine felt like, but for the two minutes before his brain began to adjust, he imagined he was as close as possible to actually having one.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Does that hurt your head when I pet him?” Ling asked as she quickly retracted her hand.

“No, it’s just part of the process. I’m sorry. I didn’t expect it to hurt this much when I created another one. It wasn’t like this last time.”

“So I guess it’s out of the question for me to ask for one too? I wanted a miniature paladin one! I was going to make him miniature armor and miniature spears and give him miniature boots so that he could march over his miniature victims with me.”
“I think the world has enough miniature things.” Lee laughed at the idea, but both Ethans’ ears perked up as they listened. In coordination, the two mice turned to look at Lee. What? No. I’m not making you tiny sets of armor. What the heck ideas are you giving my pets?! He glared at Miller for a second.

“Okay, fine,” Miller agreed, his spirit clearly dropping like a popped balloon. “No miniature mice men soldiers.”

“So, I can still pet him?” Ling asked.

“Yeah, have fun.” It was hard for him to say no to her, so he allowed the two mice to jump off him and onto her. Ling immediately began nuzzling into them. She looked so cute that he was tempted to focus on what the mice were feeling and experience what nuzzling into Ling must be like, but the idea didn’t sit well, somehow feeling like a violation, so he focused his attention on Miller instead. “Let’s just get back to killing. We’re losing daylight.”

“That sounds great,” Miler agreed, scratching at his forehead. “I have been wanting to test which is more effective: breaking a bear’s rib or breaking a bear’s limb. Doesn’t matter which, but I have a feeling that Augustus demands that I come up with the best way to kill a giant bear.”

“Are there bears around here?” Lee asked, looking from side to side. The wolves weren’t particularly tough now that the group was larger, and they were a much higher level, but he had no idea how mean a bear would be. In most game worlds, especially ones like Dungeons and Dragons, bears could absolutely destroy someone while wolves often only ranged from very manageable to tough, so Lee wasn’t too keen on finding out how vicious or fierce they might be in this particular universe.

“There’s only one way to find out,” he said, defiantly letting out a drunken shout at the same time. “We go and murder a ton of things until the scent of blood draws one out of hibernation and lures it into a great battle of life and death where it wrestles us for survival like the suns and moons wrestle the sky for the right to shine upon our faces in victory!”

Huh? “You do know that the sun . . .” Lee wanted to correct him but brushed off the notion immediately.

“Don’t bring science into art, especially not the holiest art of battle! Just embrace it!” Miller preached, pushing farther into the woods.

“Yeah, just embrace it!” Ling giggled once before proceeding to ignore both of them and continuing to play with the mice.

Fine, I’ll just embrace it–whatever that means. Lee harrumphed and followed after the oaf.

—–

An hour or two later, Lee had managed to make a fair bit of progress. He had reached level 11, and he had raised Swordplay up to Initiate Level 7. His other skills didn’t seem to progress at all, but the extra two points to intelligence and the extra point to each of his primary skills didn’t hurt.

Even though this type of continuous combat was no different than what he often did when he was at home on his computer, it was a lot more physically and mentally taxing. It wore him down and left him fatigued in a way that no other thirty-six-hour-straight video game grind session ever had before. The strain of constantly worrying about whether or not he was going to die, if his neck was exposed, if something could get under his armor and bite at his sides, or if his special parts were within reach of a wild dog had left Lee exhausted in a way that he wasn’t used to. He felt like an old woman in a soap opera, and the only thing on his mind was grabbing a bottle of something alcoholic, a book, and resting.

They returned to his newly acquired bar a few hours later and found the four girls, the two guys and several newcomers sitting at the tables drinking and chatting quietly.

He was a bit surprised, since he had expected at least a few of them to remain with their families for the day. But, instead, it seemed like they brought their families to the bar with them.

Three men he didn’t recognize were patching up the parts of the bar that had been destroyed in the fight against Ramon, another was cleaning the bloodied floor, and someone had removed Leprechauns’ bodies at some point. He also noticed that there wasn’t a single from the first group to come down the mountain present.

“Did you already kill them all?” Amber asked excitedly, blurting out her question the second she saw them. She jumped up from her seat and slammed her hands down onto the stone table she had been sitting at. “Is that . . . Did you three already murder their Herald?”

Lee was puzzled for a moment, but then he realized he was covered in blood from head to toe. His armor was so brown and red from the mix of fresh and dried blood that he couldn’t even tell what color it originally might have been. Neither his face, arms, hands nor even his hair was much better. He remembered being trapped under a wolf at one point, the creature’s full body weight pressing down on his upper body and sword arm and stopping him from getting a clean blow in or from wiggling away. He had been doing everything he could to stop it from biting his face in half when Miller came up from behind it and shoved his spear right through the dog’s skull. The point of his spear had exited from the canine’s eye cavity and spewed blood all over him.

That was only the most memorable of several instances that had left him in dire need of a shower, so he could only imagine what he looked like now. He was actually a little scared to use either pair of the golem’s eyes to confirm what he was already sure about.

“Oh, no, this is . . . We were training. I don’t know how tough tomorrow is going to be, but it won’t be easy,” Lee said.

“We could put it off another day,” Ling suggested. “I’m getting much better at fighting. Another day for training might be a big help. We could teach these guys a bit and help get them ready for the battle,” she offered. “I can show anyone who is an archer some of the tricks I picked up if it would be helpful.”

“No, we will kill that Herald tomorrow. I can’t put myself in your shoes or know what you went through, but I do know that I don’t want anyone else to go through it again. We’ve already lost a day as it is, and we need the night to recover. Let’s not lose any more time than we have to. I don’t know what he’s planning, but I can guarantee you he’s making preparations of some sort: buying mercenaries, hiring guards, something. I don’t even want to know what else he might be up to,” Lee said as he went to the kitchen.

Miller had eaten all of the fried chicken earlier, so he immediately started rummaging through the freshly cleaned kitchen for something that he could cook up to go with the group’s beer.

Yep, I need a long bath, maybe some wine, and a good night’s sleep on a nice mattress with high thread count sheets. Lee went over the list of things he wanted to do between now and the siege tomorrow in his head. As soon as he closed his eyes, he was planning on asking Augustus to help him use some of his faith to go back to the real world so that he could get a little bit of a detox from the rather tough grind that he had gone through these last two days.

“So, you want me to warp you into the real world so that you can spend some time with your family before your suicidal death march on a well-defended fort tomorrow?” Augustus’s voice asked out of nowhere while Lee was picking pieces of vegetables out of the oil he had used to cook them in.

“Yeah. That’s possible right?” Lee asked.

“Sure. Just remember not to be touching anyone, and let me know when you’re ready,” Augustus confirmed.

Well, that’s easy enough. I’ll just do it at bedtime.

Lee carried a plate of fried veggies and other assorted fried foods into the main room when he had finished cooking. He passed out the food and then sat down next to Miller and Ling at an otherwise empty table to eat. They didn’t talk much, each devouring their food like crazy while washing it down with beer. Lee kept stealing glances at Ling the entire meal, trying to figure out what she was thinking about. He wasn’t sure if she noticed, but after she caught his eye when he looked over and gave him a smile, he decided that he should stop there. If he kept it up, he was sure it’d start moving the scale of creepiness closer to stalker than he was comfortable with.

He wiped his mouth when he finished and stood up, ready to head to bed, but Ling stood up as well and followed him. He thought it might have just been a coincidence, but she remained behind him, even as he climbed the stairs to the second floor. He stopped when they reached the top floor and asked, “Did you not want to sleep at your own home?”

“I won’t feel like you’re safe if no one is nearby. They’ve already tried to kill you once while you were asleep here,” Ling said. “Also, our house doesn’t have a bathtub, and I’m . . .” She looked down at her body and frowned. “I need a bath.”

“Wait, are there two bath tubs? Or are we supposed to share one?” he hoped his second question didn’t come off as a creepy sexual advance.

“Don’t worry about that. My brothers set up one of Ramon’s fancy bathtubs for you and Miller already,” Amber said as she snuck up behind Lee. “Since he’s still drinking and talking with the others, you can go first.”

Holy crap, it’s another ninja! Lee nearly jumped out of his skin when she appeared. “Oh, uhh . . . thanks,” he said as she opened a door for him to show a metal bathtub filled two-thirds of the way up with a tiny fire under it.

“I’m sure you’ve never seen one like this, but it has a special draining system so we don’t have to lift it up to toss it out. All you have to do is push that lever, and it’ll empty on its own. But since Miller is coming up after you, be careful not to hit it. He’ll probably want to clean up too.” She smiled, and it was so warm that it probably could have melted ice

Lee nodded, having trouble taking his eyes off the girl. “Yeah, I’ll be sure not to hit that lever.”

Amber extended an arm in offering and said, “We’ve got two bathtubs set up for girls as well if you want to join me, Ling. I haven’t cleaned up yet, either.”

Ling’s eyes darted between the door, Lee, and Amber’s arm, but then she nodded and took the other girl’s arm, and the two stepped into the room across from his own.

So, you go from ogling Ling all day to staring at Amber in two seconds? Lee kicked himself. Can’t you at least pick one girl you like and stick with her? He couldn’t help but feel guilty. A part of him believed any connection he had with Ling was nothing more than that of his role as a leader, her fellow party member and the guy who had saved her. He was an inch away from being positive that anything else he was picking up was all in his head, but the idea of instantly switching his interests to Amber still bothered him. Even if she does have those hips . . . and legs and . . . Nope, nope, nope. Just go take your bath and relax, Lee. He slapped both sides of his face, walked into his own room, disrobed and slid into the giant bath tub.

“You wanna warp over now? You might not get another chance. All you have to do is lean back and go to sleep. That shouldn’t be too hard after a day like yours, right?” Augustus asked, the god’s voice taking away any chance he had at a bit of peace. He knew that the deity was probably always watching, but it was an entirely different thing to have someone talking to him while he was naked. “Oh, stop acting like that,” Augustus continued when Lee moved quickly to cover himself up. “You have nothing to be ashamed of! You’re part of my blood, after all.”

“Still, you could at least learn when to give a man some peace!” Lee grumbled.

“Whatever. Do you want to go to your home world right now or not?” Augustus asked.

“No, I’ll wait for bedtime. This will do for now,” he said.

“Suit yourself, but you should know . . . your mother was planning to buy some brownie-bottomed cherry-glazed strawberry cheesecake to give to you at the hospital. You really don’t want to miss out on that. I know the bakery she has programmed into her phone, and it is delicious,” Augustus said.

“They let animals eat there? Maybe I shouldn’t have any.”

“Hey! HEY! My human form’s face is not that ugly!” Augustus shouted in mock protest. It was clear from his tone he wasn’t mad.

“How would I know? I’ve never seen you as anything other than an animal,” Lee retorted.

At the mention of the word ‘animal,’ he noticed the pair of mice shook their heads vehemently while raising tiny fists at the nothing. Fine, fine. I won’t compare you to Augustus.

“I have no idea how those things got so much personality. Normally, golems are only supposed to blindly follow exact orders. But suit yourself,” Augustus said. “I’ll be waiting for you to make up your mind, but I don’t see why you’re stalling.”

Probably because I want to talk to Ling again before I go to the other world, Lee admitted to himself before settling back into the tub.

—–

He actually dozed off while relaxing, so he wasn’t sure how much time had passed before a knock on the door came.

“Lee! Are you decent? I’m coming in in a minute!” Miller shouted through the door. “I’ve got a towel for you, but I don’t want to interrupt any of your weird deity-power-stuff if you’re summoning some sort of devil in there.”

“No, no summoning going on in here,” Lee answered, standing up.

As soon as he did, Miller walked in and tossed him a towel.

“Ling left for the night, and she asked me to tell you that she’d do something awful if you left without her in the morning, but I don’t feel like repeating it.”

Drats. She left cause you fell asleep. “Wait, I thought she said she was staying here?”

“She was, but her dad came and got her. Anyway, sleep well. I can’t wait to hear about the murder plan you have for tomorrow.”

“Yeah, the murder plan . . .” Lee had forgotten that he even needed to come up with one. This isn’t exactly the type of homework you can turn in at the last minute! I need to actually put together a strategy . . . But how exactly does one siege a town? Augustus, you got any ideas? He actually expected the shapeshifter to be reading his thoughts. No? Nothing?

Miller scratched at his chin as he submerged himself into the water. “It better involve me killing someone in at least one new and unique way. Lately, I feel like I’ve really hit the end of my rope on creative kill styles.”

“Sure thing. I’ll do my best,” Lee said and left, making his way to his room. He couldn’t make out much due to the lack of lamps, but the light from the hallway illuminated enough to show him the direction of the bed, and that was good enough for him. He made his way over to it in the darkness and flopped down, only to have half his body land on something lumpy.

“Owe!” The queen-sized bed squealed as Lee did a mixture of jumping and falling off it.

“I’m sorry! I fell asleep waiting,” a voice said from within the sheets.

“Who is there?” Lee asked. “What’s going on?”

“I’m sorry. It’s me! Amber! Please don’t kick me out! I just don’t want to sleep alone,” she pleaded.

“Why don’t you sleep with one of the other girls then?” Lee asked. “I mean, I’m–”

“A guy? I know. I just thought about everything this morning when my friend almost died under that door. I can’t stop thinking about all the stuff they did to us, how they treated us, and I thought about how you came and saved us.” Her voice was clearer now than he had heard it so far. “I just thought that, if you were here, I’d feel safe. If I was with one of the girls, I’d feel like I was back at the mine. Please, just let me stay here tonight. I don’t want to be by myself. It’s terrifying and scary and . . . please, just let me stay.”

Lee sighed. Oh, what a burden it is for me to have to sleep with a hot girl in my bed. Let me cry about it. He chuckled silently to himself. Sharing a bed with someone other than Ling felt wrong, but he still wasn’t sure where he even stood with her.

“Well, we have a busy day ahead of us, so just make sure to get some rest,” he said, climbing back into the bed and lying down on his side and facing the wall.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Ha ha ha ha, told you that you should have taken the warp back earlier.” Augustus laughed as the girl scooted over to his side of the bed and snuggled up to him, essentially turning him into the little spoon in an impromptu cuddle. It’s something he’d normally complain about as any man should rightfully be the big spoon, but given her condition and how men had treated her, he didn’t complain. There was also the fact that he didn’t want to wake up in thirty minutes with a completely numb arm.

“Go ahead, look that way. I’ll take a picture and send it to Miller and Ling. I bet they will both will get a kick out of that face you’re making right now,” Augustus taunted.

Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, old man. Lee glowered at the wall since he couldn’t exactly face the noncorporeal Augustus, but then the glower and his consciousness faded moments later as he quickly fell asleep.

He turned over when he woke up, still expecting to see Amber in bed, but she wasn’t there. Instead, he saw that the outer layer of his armor that he had haphazardly tossed on the floor before crawling into bed was neatly stacked in a chair next to a now-open window, and a cup of tea and a plate of leftover food that he had cooked the night before had been placed nearby.

“I could get used to waking up like this,” he thought aloud as he took in a breath of the fresh morning air. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t have preferred my bed back home, but this ain’t bad.”

“Still going to think that way when I tell you Ling was the one who brought up the food and tea? And she saw you and Amber in the bed together?” Augustus cackled.

“What? Really?” Lee bolted up and started putting on his armor like he had just been caught cheating.

“No, I’m just messing with you,” he laughed. “Amber woke up from a nightmare about an hour ago and gave up on sleeping. She’s been super productive ever since, and she was the one that brought it up.” His cackle continued echoing in Lee’s ear. “But you should have seen your face when I suggested that. Priceless! You know I’m taking pictures of all your best moments? We can sit down one day, deity and demigod, and have a nice time scrolling through them. We can even show them off at family gatherings. You’d like that, right?”

“You know I’m possibly going to die today because of your stupid religion? Could you at least cut me some slack?”

“Well . . . I could. I already have, actually. I used a little of your accumulated faith to bring over a ton of pre-cooked bacon and waffles for you. I know you probably wanted to save all the faith for trips home, but I went ahead and made an executive decision. If you’re going to die in my name, at least no one can say I didn’t treat you right if you die with a belly full of bacon and waffles. Don’t worry about the syrup: the chef had a bunch of fruit sauces in the cupboard. Stupid health nuts and their love of fruits. Anyway, check your inventory and have some fun. These people here have been eating the same health nut stuff for so long that a good slab of bacon and some waffles might get you another zealot.”

“Thanks,” Lee said and headed downstairs. When he arrived, he noticed that everyone was already awake and eating.

Even Miller was acting rowdy and energetic despite the fact that he had stayed up for thirty-six hours and consumed over a dozen twenty-ounce beers the night before. It was enough to guarantee most men a hangover, yet there he was in the middle of the room, ready to announce Lee’s presence right when he came down the stairs.

“If it isn’t the man of the hour! The man with the murder plan!” Miller shouted happily. “Now, tell us who and how we’re going to kill today! Is the fort a long way off? Are there things to kill in between us and it?”

CRAP! I knew I forgot something! Lee stared at Miller and the expectant group.

“Well, before we get to that, I’ve got some goodies straight from Augustus for everyone. He said that, since you might die in his name, the least he could do was send you out with a full belly of the best food.”

Lee walked around to each person there and loaded their plates up with bacon and waffles. Even though there were around thirty people, he still had plenty of leftover bacon and waffles in his inventory afterward.

“More food? For a god of alcohol, you think he’d bless us with a beer sometime,” one of the people Lee didn’t recognize said. “That is, I thank Augustus for such a wonderful gesture,” he quickly added, correcting his attitude when every eye in the room swiveled to him the moment he complained.

“Easy on the man. He brings up a good question, but he’s missing something. You see, we’re not here to celebrate or worship.” Lee grabbed a beer and chugged it in order to get the charisma bonus from Appreciative Drunk before starting his speech. “We’re here to have one last solemn meal with friends and family before we go to what will inevitably be the last confrontation for at least some of us.”

He hated that he couldn’t give rousing speeches like they did in books and movies. If my charisma is high enough, will it matter how bad my speech is? He carried on, passing out bacon as he moved around the room. “Which is why I’m not going to give you a speech today about winning. That’s not what today is about. I’m not going to tell you that we’ll be celebrating victory tonight or toasting a wonderful and amazing triumph. No, tonight will be a war of survival, and there will be no victory for the defender. Tomorrow will be worse than today, no matter what we do, but we still have to go out there and do it.

“That’s why Augustus didn’t bring you liquor: because you need a clear head when you commit yourself to this. Don’t let yourself be pressured or forced into the fray. Go in with both eyes open. That way, if it is your turn to die, you can die with a clean mind and sound conscience. If you don’t go, if you don’t risk it, well . . . ask the people who came back from the mines what happens in the world where this other Herald wins. Ask them what will become of your life if he has his way, and we don’t stop him. Even if it isn’t your life, it’ll be your neighbor’s, your friend’s or your wife’s. I’m here representing Augustus and telling you that today is not about victory: it’s about survival. And we will survive. Tomorrow, those of us who make it back will sleep comfortably in bed with the knowledge that no one is going to kidnap our daughters in the night or take our uncles from the fields. That’s what we’re fighting for, and that’s why I’ve called you here to join me.” Lee stopped and took a deep breath as he looked around at everyone. He felt awful lying about this, but he did his best to make sure his face didn’t show it.

“You’re here is for the same reason I had the captured kill the guard when I rescued them: because Augustus won’t do it for you. He sent me here to free your town from these chains. I came back to life to lead you to this battle, but I can’t make you fight for it. I will show you the way, but like Augustus, I will not do it for you. You need to muster your courage, rally your strength and conquer your enemies. When they are all dead, and their ambitions of your destruction are laid before your feet, then you shall be able to have peace once more. That’s the battle that awaits you, and that’s the reason you have to do it with a clear mind.”

Lee finished his speech and waited while everyone quietly thought it over. After a moment without any reaction, he sat down and looked at Miller, who was watching everyone else and was just as quiet as they were.

The silence persisted for almost five minutes until Miller broke it. “Oh, come on!” He stamped the ground in frustration like he was known to do, but no drunken shout accompanied it this time. “He’s rescued your loved ones, he’s brought you the best food on earth . . . I mean, this bacon is amazing, and I don’t even know what to make of these blue-dotted fluffy treats, but they’re delicious too. He’s even brought you the gift of a noble, guilt-free battle where you can kill as many people as you want, and this is your reaction? Don’t tell me I’m eating and drinking with a bunch of cowards. Is that it?” Miller’s frustration and anger was a stark contrast to Lee’s earlier calm demeanor. “If you’re not angry and ready to go out there and kill the bastards responsible, then I don’t know what is wrong with you, but I don’t want you drinking with me and pretending to be devoted to my god. My god wouldn’t tolerate this, so if you’re not pumped up and ready for battle, then you should get out of here before you dampen my mood and take away from my glory.”

His speech was angry and threatening, but silence persisted for another twenty seconds until Amber spoke. “We know what awaits us. We’re not strong, and we’re not fighters. We’re farmers, hunters, gatherers, and also, though not by choice, miners. We sew, stitch and work leather. I know that battle is easy for you, but it isn’t for us. It’s easy for you to talk about it, but be easy on them. If they weren’t committed, they wouldn’t be sitting here with you. But that doesn’t make the decision any easier when we know that half of us dying would still be a good battle.” Her voice was like a melody as she pleaded with Miller for patience.

“I don’t need excitement or glory. I don’t care about the risks. Just let me kill until I die,” Henslee said from her side of the table.

Yep, full suicide watch for her. Lee’s expression sank. “Look, if you want to come with us, that’s fine. If you don’t, no one will think less of you.”

“I will,” Miller said, contradicting him.

Lee glared at Miller and repeated himself. “I said, no one will think less of you.”

“Fine, no one will think less of you. Except you. You’ll think less of you,” Miller said. “Whatever. Don’t ruin my mood. Bacon, beer and . . . What are these things?”

“Waffles. They’re blueberry waffles,” Lee replied.

“Right. Bacon, beer and blueberry waffles before battle should have us all pumped up, so don’t ruin my mood with this atmosphere. Drink, be merry, and have fun. Tonight, we go kill some people in Augustus’s name. What could be better?” Miller added on one last note before he ecstatically dug into his food as if it were the first meal he had eaten in a month.

“I’m probably the weakest guy here,” one of the two men who had stayed behind yesterday began, “but I would be dead already if not for Augustus. If it means that someone else won’t suffer, I’ll do it. I’ll even act as a shield for someone who is going to carry the torch and free the town from this dreadful cloud that hangs over us. Just don’t ask me to pretend like there is something glorious about killing people or dying. Nothing good will happen. It’ll be a roll of the dice that decides which one of us on either side never gets to see their family again and has a group of people that love them that will cry over them not coming home.”

“Hmph.” Miller didn’t like that view at all. “Whatever. Lee, tell me about this fight plan and how we’re going to butcher them inside the castle so these people can feel better going into battle.”

“I’ll tell you when we get closer to the fort,” Lee answered, brushing off the question. He might not have been good at much, but his love for games had made him put off homework for so long that he had more or less become a professional when it came to procrastinating.

—–

Once they got started, delaying the inevitable is exactly what Lee did: even once they got on the road, he drug his feet and took his time as he tried his best to figure out how to siege the fort. The town had proven itself overly generous. The people were more than willing to give him whatever he thought he would need in order to get the revenge that they so desperately craved, but the problem was simply that there weren’t any proper supplies to be had.

He had been able to buy lumber, ladders, and enough rope for a serial killer to practice his craft on an entire town, but those were only the most basic of necessities. There was no one who knew how to craft siege engines like the trebuchets and battering rams that he had heard and read about in movies and books, and he didn’t even know how he’d use the lumber, but his gamer instinct always nagged at him to buy and pick up every miscellaneous item with the pretense that it might be useful in the future; and, if tabletop gaming had taught him anything, it was that he always needed to have rope on hand. He was certain that it would all be useful by the end of the day.

“Okay, Lee, we’re here,” Miller declared gleefully. “Now, are you going to tell us the grand plan to destroy this stronghold and kill everyone inside already? I’ve been itching to know what your next big butchery scheme would be since we burned those guards alive.”

“Well, about that . . .” Lee rocked back on his heels and studied the fort for a moment. He had seen it several times through Ethan’s vision, but now that he was there himself, he was hoping that some grand idea might suddenly come to him.

The fort itself was surrounded by a flat, grassy area that had likely been created when all of the lumber that had been used for its construction was cut down and cleared away. The small plain of grass extended about one-hundred and fifty yards before it reached the fort and provided a natural advantage for the defenders since it meant they had a clear line of sight for a good ways, and there was nothing for attackers to hide behind as they approached. To make things worse, the only way in or out that he had found so far was a heavy wooden door. He had briefly considered constructing something to break the door down with, but it looked like it was thicker than the average main character in an anime was when it came to relationships.

“You see . . .” He kicked at the ground, suddenly rather interested in moving a particular rock as he tried to add some extra seconds to his stalling. “First, we first start with . . .” He looked up at the group. “We start with getting the ropes over that wall. But, to do that, we’ll need to . . .”

At that point, Lee started making stuff up as fast as he could. He had no idea what he was talking about, but it was all derived from one crazy scheme he had heard or seen before, and it all sounded good. So good, in fact, that it wasn’t just Miller who was confident about the plan by the time he was done going over everything.

After summing up the plan, the large group made their way to the very edge of the clearing before the fort. While they lacked tactical training and real-world experience operating as a group, they did all have a ton of gear. The town blacksmith had been very kind in donating shields and armor to the ragtag group of commoners, so they were at least able to put together a semi-effective formation. They formed up into two lines, with each person holding the rung of a ladder in one hand and a shield in the other. The most immediate problem was that some of the shields were far too small to be useful in such a situation–in fact, some were super-small bucklers–so there were plenty of gaps in their defense. Lee was obviously concerned with how weak the formation looked, but it was the best that could be done with what they had.

“Don’t worry about them,” Amber said as she came up behind him. “We’ll be there to back them up before anything goes too wrong.” It was the first time she had spoken to him outside of a meeting since the night, and he almost wished he had made it a point to speak to her sooner so that it would be a little less awkward and a little less right before the battle started.

“Yeah, they will be okay, but will you?” Lee looked at Amber before letting his eyes drift to Porter, Miller, Henslee and three other people whose names he had yet to learn.

“We’ll be fine,” Amber said reassuringly. “My mother said that fate always kills the good ones first, so I’m probably last in line to die.”

Huh? Lee was taken aback. He had no idea what would make her say that. She had yet to strike him as anything other than a kind and considerate leader, not the type to be considered a bad person at all. All through the march, and even during the planning and organizational phase, she had been as optimistic and helpful as possible, often making suggestions or helping to assuage other people’s fears–just as she was doing for him now.

Then again, I’ve lied to everyone about a religion so . . . “If you have to be a good person to die in battle, I’ll end up immortal.” It was Amber’s time to look confused, but Lee just laughed at the bad joke.

“Umm . . .” Amber’s mouth twisted around for a minute as she chewed on her lip, apparently at a loss for words. “I’m going to get ready. I was going to wish you luck, since I don’t know how many lives you have left, but if you’re immortal, and I’m last in line to die, I suppose I don’t have to worry. See you after the fight, Mr. Boss Who Cannot Die.”

Lee winced as he heard the words leave Amber’s mouth. Now that you’ve phrased it that way, it’s completely a death flag, you idiot. You might as well have been the one in a detective flick who finds out who the mystery killer is and says that you’ll let me know the next day.

“Yeah, see you after the battle, Miss Bed Warmer.”

“Miss Bed Warmer?” Ling asked as she came up right as Amber was leaving. “Did you . . .? And her . . .?” Her head snapped back and forth between the two like an indecisive dog that couldn’t decide which car to chase.

“No, we didn’t have any fun. She just needed someone to keep her company. She’s still–”

“Oh, yeah. I understand.” Ling let out a huge sigh for some reason. “She said she’d keep you safe last night, but I suppose that path can be walked both ways.”

“Yeah, it can. Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”

“I am, but can you promise me something before I go?” Ling asked.

“Sure? I mean, if it’s within reason.”

“When this is over, I need to talk to you about blue boxes. I need to talk to you about this world and what’s going on,” Ling said. “I’m sorry if my reason for wanting to be near you, to stick around you, has been selfish curiosity, but it is. Please don’t die until you answer my questions and take responsibility for what this religion has sprouted in my head.”

Lee forgot to hide the obvious displeasure he felt as he responded. “So, that’s why you’ve been so insistent on staying with me.”

“No, that’s not the only reason, it’s just . . .” Ling stopped talking mid-sentence and looked at the people around her. “Nevermind. We can talk about everything later. Good luck, and please don’t die.”

Lee watched her leave and return to the group she was supposed to be with. He was already over the well-wishes and whatever misfortune they might bring.

The once-large group had broken up into four smaller groups. The first group was the one holding ladders and carry shields, the second was made up of Amber and her squad, the third was Ling and the town’s five best archers, and the final group, which Lee had to say was the most ridiculous and pointless, was Miller and Lee, whose job was as dumb as this whole plan that Lee had concocted haphazardly under pressure. He wanted to kick himself for not just admitting that he didn’t have a plan and consulting with the group until they came up with something, but he was convinced that he had made the right decision in the end. As far as he was concerned, it was better to maintain high morale and confidence rather than wasting a bunch of time coming up with a plan that still might not work or even be any better than this one. Sure, he could have shuffled some of the blame off onto the others as well if they all came up with the plan and it failed. Now, he was the one who would have to carry the responsibility of failure and the guilt of all the lives lost.

Lee looked over at his buddy and asked, “Alright, Miller, you ready?”

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” Miller grumbled.

“Oh, come on, this will be great!” Lee laughed at Miller’s rarely-seen grumpy face.

“Why don’t we just take the whole fort by ourselves? Why do we have to let them get all the good kills?”

“Relax, this was the best decision, so let’s go do our part.” Lee patted the oaf on his back, and the pair walked out ahead of the others, weapons held at the ready, and then started sprinting toward the wall.

No status updates until after the fight, Lee reminded giant-blue-box-generating-overseer. He didn’t want to see any ‘you have lost a personal follower’ type messages.

As you wish, all status messages shall remain delayed until after the completion of your battle. This will not delay the acquirement of items or level ups, only the message notifying you of these instances.

Ethan, get ready. This is your part, Lee thought to the two mice stuffed in the bag of rope on his back.

“Enemies at the south wall!” one of the guards shouted loudly enough that Miller and Lee could hear them.

“Looks like they finally noticed us!” Miller sounded almost happy again as the two guards on the south wall started firing arrows at them.

Lee ducked behind his looted tower shield as soon they began firing arrows. He expected Miller to do the same, but the oaf didn’t pull his shield out right away. Instead, he began shouting something that sounded like a mix between gibberish and profanities. He didn’t know if the lack of translation to English had to do with the fact there was a mature language filter or if there just wasn’t any direct correlation between the words he was saying and any particular phrase in English.

“Get your shield out, man!” Lee yelled over at his friend, who did as he was told just in time to block an arrow. His shield wasn’t half as large as Lee’s, since he had customized a small buckler with the symbol of a beer mug, foamy top included, in front of a spear. When Lee had asked about it earlier, he had informed him that it was going to be the symbol for the Paladin order.

“Life isn’t fun without some risks,” Miller said as they got closer to the wall.

“East wall! East wall! Enemy ladders on their way!” Lee heard the shouts he had been waiting for since they spotted him, finally letting him know that the second group had been spotted. Well, they got a minute head start, that should be enough.

Lee was worried for his clay friends, but he had to stick to the plan. Each of the mice that made up Ethan grabbed the end of a rope and glided out of Lee’s bag and onto the ground before scampering away at a ridiculous speed. Arrows whizzed by, missing the two rodents by a good margin, and Lee was suddenly grateful for the fact that the archers couldn’t hold a candle to a seasoned marksman like Ling.

The two rodents reached the wall well before Lee and Miller and began climbing up it, towing the rope behind them.

“Get the oil! We’ve got a summon climbing!” one of the archers yelled.

“Can’t! It’s on the east wall! Just hack it off when it gets to the top!” another one of the enemies yelled, but the suggestion was futile. Both of the mice were easily able to top the wall while towing a sixty-foot rope behind them. Once there, they wrapped the ropes around one of the first battlements available and then took to the sky, no longer burdened by the weight of the rope. He knew that they would be cut away before either he or Miller made it to the wall, but he had three more identical sets of ropes in his backpack.

This whole scheme was really just a ploy to pull guards away from the other groups. He was hoping that they could distract enough guards on this side that the other groups would be able to scale the walls without having to face as many archers. The other groups, however, weren’t doing so great. As soon as the mice took to the sky, Lee peered through their eyes at the other groups, and he felt his stomach sink. He saw three men either dead or injured from the arrows, down on the ground and unmoving, and two others at the front who had arrows sticking out of them. One had an arrow in the side of his stomach, and the other had an arrow protruding from his thigh.

There were also two dead archers on the battlements–one had an arrow stuck through his mouth and out the back of his skull, and the other had his left arm pinned against his chest by an arrow–yet their losses didn’t look nearly as bad as his.

Lee signaled the mice to return and grab another rope from the backpack.

“We should have gone with the group carrying the ladder. There’s no way we’ll make it up,” Miller observed.

“We’ll be fine,” Lee said just as they reached the wall and held up their shields to block the projectiles.

“We’re sitting ducks, and the ropes are cut. Let’s just go join the ladders,” Miller insisted.

“We’re supposed to be bait, so just wait for a bit. We’ll join them soon enough.”

“But we won’t draw first blood!”

“Victory or brutality. Which matters more?” Lee asked in frustration as another arrow thunked into his shield, the arrowhead piercing through the wood and giving him a fright.

“I wouldn’t expect someone who can rise from the dead to understand, but a victory without brutality is just a game of waiting until they come back even more wicked than the last time. It’s not enough to pull the weed up by the roots: you have to soak it in poison too. If you don’t, you’re just waiting for the garden and everything else that was beautiful to die and be replaced by foul corruption.” Miller’s words, coated in a solemn and collected tone that didn’t fit the oaf’s usual persona, caused a chill to run up Lee’s spine.

Lee didn’t know what to say, so he just stood there in silence while his mice did their job and secured the ropes at the top again. He didn’t have a fancy retort or even a good response. He had always just taken Miller’s violence as the effect of someone who really liked to role-play the hero. This was more than that, though, and he wasn’t prepared to admit that the Firbolg was right, so he said nothing and stared out at the field they had run through moments ago.

Once the rope was clear, he broke the silence. “They only left two people to handle us at the top, and the rest are headed toward the ladder team. This is your best chance at that brutality you want.”

“Good. I want to be the first one over that wall!” Miller stowed his shield, grabbed the rope, and began his climb upward.

Lee wasn’t far behind him. He felt uneasy about throwing his shield away as he began to scale up the rope as fast as he could. It was the one exercise in gym class he hated the most when he was a kid, and he would always slack off when it was his turn, but now he was climbing that rope as if his life depended on it. Halfway up the rope, he heard screams from the other side. He hoped it was the enemies, but he had a bad feeling that it was his men given that it sounded like it wasn’t far off the ground rather than at the top of the wall.

He wanted to use one of the mice to check on it, but they were both doing everything they could just to fend off the two men trying to cut the rope he and Miller were climbing. It was a rather interesting dance, as they would fly close enough to the men to bite them, and as soon as the men turned their attention to them, they’d fly away again. If either of the guards had been willing to risk having a mouse rip at his neck or taking the damage of a few bites, both Miller and Lee would have been dropped back down to the bottom. It was a good thing that they were occupied with the two small rodents because Lee really didn’t want to know how fall damage worked in this world.

He heard a few more words of gibberish from the guards that were followed by a sentence that actually made sense. “Get someone over here! They’ve scaled the walls! We need help on the south wall!”

“Busy on the east wall! The ladders are up and secure, and they’re starting to climb up now! Wi–” The guard never finished his sentence.

Since Lee and Miller had scaled the wall, the mice were free to scout again, and he quickly used to them to confirm his fears. Two of the townspeople, now unrecognizable, had been burned alive when a boiling substance had been dumped on them. Their bodies were sprawled out next to one of the ladders, so it was hard to tell if they had started climbing before the oil came down on them or if it had been had poured on them while they were setting up the ladder. Either way, the result was the same.

There were two people at the bottom of each ladder, securing them against the walls so that the guards wouldn’t be able to topple them over, but there was little chance of that actually happening now. Amber and her group had made it over another wall, and they had begun killing the guards off as quickly as they could get to them. Her group had assaulted the fort on the opposite side from where Lee was, and the commotion created by Lee and the other group attempting to scale the walls had been enough to draw the guards away from her position. The battlements were now littered with bodies from where she and her group made their way around, slaughtering the guards as they went.

“We need to make it to that side,” Miller shouted, looking at the guards who had begun gathering together in a tight ball as they prepared to launch a counterattack.

“Yeah, let’s get to our people,” Lee said, staring at the enemies in front of him.

They’re both archers. This should be rather easy.

As if proving his point, Miller slammed into one of the guards so hard that the man was knocked clean off of the battlements and into the fort’s courtyard. He then stabbed the other with his spear and hoisted the man over the side of the wall they had just climbed. In the matter of a few seconds, the Firbolg had managed to fling the two full-grown men around like a pair of rag dolls. If the initial damage hadn’t been enough to kill the guards, the two-story fall would be.

“Go! We’re missing out on the fun!” Miller shouted as he rushed toward the fight.

Fortunately, or unfortunately for Miller, Amber and her group had proven to be rather efficient in their task, and they had dismantled everyone by the time that Miller finally reached them. When he reached the pile of dead guards, his discontent was plainly evident on his face. “We shoulda stuck with one of the other groups,” he complained.

Lee ignored the comment and looked at Amber instead. “Good job,” he said, patting her on the shoulder. “I hope all of your fights go this smoothly.”

“Thank you!” Sh smiled back at him, and though she meant it honestly, her visage was made more than a little creepy by the fact that she was covered with blood from the people she just murdered.

Lee turned his attention to the inside of the fort. There was a good-sized four-story stone keep set at the center, although it only had a large wooden door instead of an iron gate, and there were paneless windows littered across its front. They weren’t hardly large enough for a person to fight through, and they were obviously designed to allow archers to shoot out without taking too much of a risk.

“Alright. So it looks like they aren’t going to defend the courtyard, and they’ve already retreated into the main keep,” Lee observed. “That means we can definitely bump up the schedule on our attack plan. Do you have enough material to get started, Henslee?”

“I’m going to help her,” Miller insisted.

“Well, don’t start just yet. We need to make sure we’ve got everyone over the wall and accounted for first.” He genuinely hoped that the gung-ho barbarian wouldn’t start the next battle prematurely–a hope that was diminished with one look in the Firbolg’s eyes.

“Let’s at least head down to go check out our target,” Miller said, putting an arm over the much smaller woman. She flinched at his touch and gave him a glare but didn’t say a word as the two walked down the stairs from the battlements and into the courtyard.

Lee started handing out directions to everyone as they came over the wall, positioning them just where he wanted in the courtyard.

Finally, Ling came over the wall last. “Is that everyone?” Lee asked her. He felt like a bus driver who had been forced to deal with elementary school kids as he ushered everyone into position.

“We lost five to arrows, two to oil. The rest are all up here with you, so yes, that’s everyone,” she responded.

“Five? I only counted four?”

“There was another casualty near the tree line. He tried to retreat after being struck and made it to the woods before dying of blood loss.” Her lips twisted into a frown, making her look more disgruntled and upset. “I hope no one holds his last act of cowardice against him. It took real courage to charge to the front like he did.”

You’re asking others not to judge him, but it sounds like you already have. Lee had turned to follow her gaze toward where she pointed at the treeline, but he didn’t say anything. “Those trees . . .” He pointed to an area in the distance as he spoke. “They’re rustling like we have enemy troops incoming.”

“What rustling?” Ling asked. It was a fair question. Lee hadn’t actually seen any rustling of leaves, he’d seen the actual movement of people through tiny flying mouse eyes. He just didn’t explain it because there were more people around than only Ling. He might have been willing to share his secret with Ling and Miller, but he still didn’t know how much he could trust everyone else.

His face twisted into a scowl that matched the one she had worn only moments ago. “They’re there, and a good number will be here in the next ten to fifteen minutes at the latest. Sorry, but it looks like we won’t be able to take you into the main battle at the keep. Round up at least ten able-bodied archers. Guard this wall, and don’t let them through the gates.”

“But what about you? Are you going to be able to kill the–”

“I’ll be fine,” he said, cutting her off. This was one of those times he didn’t have the luxury of arguing with her. “Just get it done. If you fail, if they penetrate this fort, we’re going to be pincered between two sets of troops. We’ll be smashed into pieces. Let’s get moving!” he shouted to everyone else. “If you’re not holding the wall with Ling, let’s go! We’re on a tight schedule now!”

“Yeah, boss!” Miller’s mood perked up at the idea of a rushed schedule and a fight looming even closer. “Let’s go kill a false prophet!”

“Death to the bastard!” one of the other remaining people yelled, and then several more added in those unique gibberish profanities.

He didn’t care that they were cursing, just so long as morale remained high. It seemed to have wavered just after they took the walls, likely due to their lost comrades, but it was coming back now and stronger than before. The gathered crowd was much smaller due to their losses and the removal of Ling’s crew to the walls, so morale was that much more important.

Lee knew his friend was eager to rack up any amount of glory, so he turned to the larger man and said, “Miller, I’ll let you do the honors of starting us off.”

“You sure he’ll come out?” Miller asked. “I still have a few promises to keep.”

“They’ll come out,” Lee assured him.

He pulled out a piece of wood and held it over a fire that one of the men had started. Henslee and several others did the same, each grabbing a piece of lumber and lighting it up. Once the wood was lit, they began tossing them at the base of the large wooden keep door. It didn’t appear to have been treated with anything and was dried out from too much time in the sun, so it quickly caught fire. As the flames began to build, MIller began taking pieces of the flaming wood and tossing them at the slits and into the keep. A few bounced off, but they were able to pick up them up and hurl them inside before the flames went out.

One by one, more and more flaming pieces of wood were hurled into the keep. Lee was beginning to think it was all pointless, until, at last, he heard coughing. Everyone around him immediately stopped what they were doing and began equipping their shields as they stared at the door and waited. From the sounds of it, there were at least a dozen men inside, and they were likely to come barging out at any moment.

“Keep throwing them through the windows!” Lee urged. “Don’t let them have a break from the smoke!” He knew that nothing had caught fire inside. The door might have been made from wood, but nothing else in the keep was. It was constructed from stone and wasn’t likely to catch fire. They needed to create as much smoke as they could, or no one would be forced out of the building.”

Finally, from the other side of the door, he heard, “Well, just break it down!”

The wooden door was already well on its way to being consumed by flame when it was struck, so it wasn’t much of a surprise that it exploded in a spray of sparks and embers when the door shattered a moment later and knights rushed out. The first two out of the keep were clad in shiny, silver full plate, though they were missing helmets, and another wearing gold armor rushed out behind them. Clearly the one in charge, he yelled, “Protect the Herald!”

Given how close they were in size compared to Miller, along with the angular shape of their foreheads, Lee guessed that all three enemy knights were Firbolgs. As such, they likely had whatever racial bonus it was that made Miller so strong.

Lee looked over at his friend as he realized this. “Well,” he said, “you wanted a fight, Miller. Don’t give them time to talk! Lead your order of would-be paladins into battle!” He also took the opportunity to make sure that his two mice were nearby. He had no idea what would come out after these three men, and he didn’t want to be caught unaware and have to find out the hard way.

“Gladly!” Miller’s face lit up like a Christmas tree as he charged forward, everyone else quickly rushing behind him. Unlike previously, he actually carried the small buckler on his left arm in addition to his spear this time.

Miller dodged past the first two silver knights and slammed shoulder-first into the gold knight. His opponent was much bulkier than the people he had tossed around earlier, and while he was knocked back, it was only two steps. The knight dug his feet into the ground, and without losing his balance, he pulled out a large two-handed sword and swung straight down at Miller. Miller did his best to move to the side, but he wasn’t fast enough. The sword sliced down into the back of Miller’s arm, catching him in the triceps. To Miller’s credit, he didn’t scream. He seemed a bit shaken by the blow, but he still adjusted his spear and swung horizontally, hitting the knight in the ribs. Unfortunately, the normally deadly spear bounced off the other man’s plate armor harmlessly without so much as making the man flinch. The attack might as well have been a stick smashing against a rock for all the good it did.

The knight responded by bringing his sword around in a horizontal arch of his own that was aimed at Miller’s chest. His attack didn’t have half as much speed or acceleration as it had before, however, so Miller was easily able to duck under it. Lee watched as Miller stumbled back a few steps and then used his lower position as a form of leverage, pushing forward and tackling the knight to the ground.

The gold plated figure landed unceremoniously on his rear with Miller on top of him. It looked like the two were about to get into an old-fashioned scuffle, but Miller sprang back to his feet with an uncanny speed that belied his large frame. The knight managed to push himself halfway back to his feet before Miller kicked him squarely in the chest, sending him right back to the ground.

The knight scooted back, putting distance between himself and Miller, and tried to stand up again. Miller dropped a drunken shout, and the knight swayed from side to side before falling over for a third time. He opened his mouth as if he were going to say something, but Miller’s spear went right through the man’s mouth and out the back of his head.

Lee’s Firbolg friend turned toward him, flashed his teeth, and declared, “Justice needs no gear advantage!”

Yeah, justice. That’s what it is. Lee just laughed despite the fact that he vehemently disagreed. He had played enough games to know that there were times when raw skill just couldn’t overcome a gear advantage.

There were two other fights that had been going on at the same time as Miller’s. Henslee has rushed in right after Miller, pulling out her two daggers and charging one of the other two knights. The larger man leveled his sword at her, but she pressed onward anyway, undeterred by the threat of the sword, she allowed herself to be gored by the awaiting blade. Her momentum carried her forward, pushing her along the weapon’s blade, until her body slammed to a stop against the hilt.

Despite her suicidal move, the smile never left her face as she buried one knife in the Firbolg’s neck and grabbed ahold of his arm with her now-free hand before he could pull away. Henslee buried her remaining dagger in the Firbolg’s eye, clearly using every bit of strength she could muster from her aged body, before ripping it out and plunging it back in, time and time again. When it was finally done, Henslee turned and stared straight at Lee. She mouthed a few words that he couldn’t understand and then fell over, flat onto her back.

One townsman, who had witnessed the event with as much horror as Lee, panicked and rushed over to her. He started trying to bandage her wound, but Lee knew that it wasn’t going to accomplish much. She was as good as dead already. It was only a matter of time until she passed from this world into the next, but he wasn’t going to stop the man from trying. In the end, it was just as gut-wrenching to watch him futilely try to save her life as it had been to watch her suicidal assault.

The third knight did a much better job of staying alive that the first two had. He had been rushed by three people, and he was able to completely block one with his shield while parrying the other two with a succession of quick movements. He began slowly backing away from the three combatants almost immediately, heading back toward the smoldering entrance to the keep. His movements were mesmerizing to watch, and Lee felt like he could learn a lot by studying this knight’s movements.

Then, out of nowhere, he parried two incoming blades in such a way that his own sword was lined up for a thrust, and he swapped to an offensive attack. He lunged forward, stabbing one man in the shoulder before pulling back and parrying the next series of attacks. He took a hit on his shield as he performed the maneuver, but it was ultimately as harmless as all the others had been. The girl attacking him howled in rage and anger at the sight of her injured friend, but his calm blade had no problem stopping her wild attacks.

The man who had been stabbed fell back, holding onto the wound and wearing an open-mouthed expression of shock as he tried to see where he had been stabbed.

The knight probably would have won right then and there if it wasn’t for the fact that Miller had used his Drunk Shout at just that moment. The knight wobbled on his feet, clearly affected by the intoxicating spell, but the young girl didn’t show even so much as the slightest signs of being inebriated. She struck out with her sword one final time, slicing the knight’s throat open before he could regain his senses.

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