War of Eternity: The Beginning Ch12

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Name: Lee Race: Human Class: Herald- None

Level: 11 Health: 210/210 EXP: 1920/2500

Primary Stats:

Power 21(22) Toughness 21(22) Spirit 21(22)

Secondary Stats:

Charisma 8 Courage 20 Deceit 2

Intelligence 63(66) Honor 1 Faith 26

Personal Faith 39

Skills:

Unarmed Combat Initiate Level 3 Swordplay Initiate Level 7

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

 

The sound of clapping could be heard from inside the keep as the last and final of the three shiny knights died. A young man wearing a white T-shirt and jeans walked out of the building. He couldn’t have been older than twenty, and he had pale skin, sunken cheeks and lanky arms.

“I suppose it’s about my turn to make an appearance if the script is right,” the man said drolly. He had about as much enthusiasm in his voice as a student letting his teacher know he was present during roll call.

“Yeah, I guess it is. I think it’s about my turn to kill you too,” Lee said, looking around at the people surrounding him. Henslee was dead, a man he didn’t know had been run through with a sword, and he hadn’t done anything but watch. He knew that he had to make this his fight. If he didn’t, and if it wasn’t, he’d lose them forever. If he just let the group shoot this man until he was dead, then everything he had worked for would be wiped out: saving the villagers wouldn’t matter, the followers he had gained would be lost, and all the faith he had gained would be wiped out. He had seen the pain that these people had been through, and he had seen them willingly throw their lives into the path of danger time and again. There was no way they would stick beside someone who claimed to be the son of a god but was unwilling to risk anything with them. “Your death will be by my hands,” he promised.

Lee looked over at Miller, and the Firbolg nodded back knowingly. He knew the Firbolg wasn’t happy about the lack of life and death fights, that he’d wanted more. “How about you take a few people and make sure Ling can hold that wall,” he said after a moment’s thought. “Another army is coming with reinforcements, probably one he called back from another slave pit when he realized we were going to make it inside. Don’t let them make it over the walls.”

“Aww . . .! Is the boss concerned about the safety of his future wife? Don’t worry! I’ll keep your woman safe.” Miller laughed loudly as he stamped his spear and headed toward the battlements with half the people that had circled the opposing Herald.

What? Wife? What are you talking about? Lee watched him leave, mouth agape.

“Oh, no, that reaction is just terrible,” the opposing Herald observed, shaking his head. “You’re not one of the dense characters, are you? The type who has a woman around you for days but still can’t summon the courage to ask them out or tell them how you feel? That just won’t do.”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” Lee said flatly.

“Oh, but it is my business!” The Herald smiled broadly as he pulled a book out of thin air. “I consider it to be very important to know the backstory of the villains I defeat. What were your motivations? What type of person were you before you fell down the criminal path? You know, the things that humanize you so that no one is forced to put up with two-dimensional characters when everyone reads the story of my path to greatness.”

Lee didn’t wait for the monologue to finish. His opponent was unarmed, and this was likely the best chance he was going to get, so he wasn’t going to waste it. He charged straight in and lunged forward at the last possible second, hoping to finish him off in one swift go. Just before his sword made contact, however, a flash of light appeared, and his sword was blocked.

“Now, now. That’s no good! Attacking the unarmed is just another point in villainy. Come, now. You really need to give me something to work with,” the Herald said.

The light faded just in time for Lee to see the tail end of a horse-sized European dragon with large wings and bright red scales covering every inch of its body worm its way out of the open book the Herald held.

“So to help you understand the importance of character, let me tell you a story about a dragon who guarded a precious trove of gold. The dragon had stolen the gold, you see, but not because it was covetous or greedy. No, it understood that it was a soft, shiny, malleable rock. It knew that it could shape it with fire, that it could turn it into anything it wanted, and it enjoyed playing with it.”

Starting to see the terror that was this Herald’s power, Lee went in for another attack. He had trained against animals as much as people, so when the dragon attacked, he had a rough idea of how to handle it. He knew that the creature was simply too large, and likely too fast, for him to be able to dodge its attacks completely, so he used his sword to block them instead. He twisted the short sword around in his right hand so that he could use it as a makeshift shield, and when the dragon’s front claws wrapped around it, he stabbed forward with the short sword in his other. It was a move that he had already practiced countless times against the wolves, and he was thrilled when one of the dragon’s scales chipped away and allowed his sword to sink several inches into its chest.

The dragon roared in pain and snapped its head forward, biting down on Lee’s exposed left shoulder. He was lucky that only a few teeth actually managed to bite into him, and he was even luckier that it was a fairly superficial wound as far as dragon bites went. If he had been any closer to the beast, or if it had a better position to begin with, its long teeth would have penetrated through into his organs, and that would have been game over. Still, the teeth sank through his thin armor as if it wasn’t even there, stripping him down to 70% of his life.

“But the dragon wasn’t the only one who wanted the gold,” the Herald continued, even as Lee battled it out with the monstrous reptile. “In fact, there were several people who desired the gold for their own greedy, nefarious purposes. One of these was a vicious and terrible knight, the kind of wicked man who would do his best to stab people in the back.”

Lee’s eyes flashed open with the implications, and he tried to dodge as soon as the words left the Herald’s mouth. Held fast as he was by the dragon’s gaping maw, however, there was nothing he could do. He tried and failed to shed the dragon off of him, but the dragon’s gaping maw held him tight. The phantom sword from struck him in his lower back and stripped off another 5% of his health. He twisted around and found a black-plated knight.

“And, while the knight was good at backstabbing, he was also a fearsome fighter in his own right. He was a famous jouster who believed that he could kill even a dragon with a single thrust of his lance.” A light trailed from the book to the knight as he spoke, lifting the black knight into the air, creating a horse underneath him and transforming his sword into a lance.

Lee heard a series of ‘ooh’s’ and ‘ahh’s’ from the people behind him. He knew that it would be hard for anyone who hadn’t been raised on special effects and video games to not be impressed. He had seen the mystical and the magical effects of Hollywood displayed on the silver screen his entire life, and even he was somewhat mystified by the display.

“I think you should really just put down the kids’ story,” Lee said, although he didn’t hold out any hope that the Herald would actually listen.

“It’s not a kids’ story; it’s a bedtime story. You know, the kind that puts people to sleep.”

Lee winced at the horrible pun. “Well, forgive me if I don’t share your love of ‘knight time stories.’” Lee couldn’t help but keep the wordplay going as he tried to roll away from the jousting horse. Somersaulting around was about the only thing he knew to do in order to not be gored or trampled, but unfortunately, he came up right in front of the dragon, who was waiting with teeth and claws spread wide. He threw his swords up as quickly as he could in an attempt to block the creature’s attack, but he simply wasn’t fast enough. He managed to thwart the dragon’s attempt to bite him again, but its long talons still ripped across his chest. He was lucky the armor stopped them from impaling him, but the damage was done. The swipe took him down to 31% of his life and sent him reeling back several feet.

“Isn’t it fun to relive your favorite stories?” the Herald asked.

Lee finally realized that all his getting knocked around hadn’t been for naught. He was now within twenty feet of the opposing Herald. He stole a glance at the dragon, which was just beginning to pounce at him again, and charged toward the Herald without any more hesitation.

He couldn’t see it, but he knew the dragon was up to something the moment he turned away from it. He heard the sounds of the air as its massive wings whooshed through it and hoofbeats as the knight circled around to place itself between Lee and the Herald.

So the Herald is the weak spot. Lee swallowed what felt like a pound of hot air as he summoned up the courage to do something stupid. He was going to take whatever blow was necessary to go right through that horse and just hit that herald. Just one hit! That’s all I need! He stared at the weak, shaggy-looking, glasses-wearing appearance of the enemy. I can do this, Lee told himself one more time and started toward the knight.

‘WOOSH!’ The dragon let loose with a fiery blast before he even made it two steps. He felt the pillar of heat just before it hit and then the searing pain as it scorched his flesh and charred his skin before melting his flesh into the armor he was wearing.

That stupid freaking dragon. Lee wanted to scream, but the pain was so bad that the only thing he could manage was a torrent of curses. All he could do was grit his teeth and focus on his task at hand. He was down to less than ten percent of his health already, and he was veritably staring death in the face with a dragon behind him and a knight in front.

Yeah, maybe now is the time to call for help from my followers. Lee rolled to his right just in time to dodge a second spout of flame. The dragon was apparently bent on turning Lee into a well-seared slab of meat.

Lee’s thoughts raced for ways to finish the fight, a way to save this scenario, but the truth was that he had run out of options. He was effectively pinned in place. The dragon has me hemmed in from the back, the knight is stopping me from charging forward. Even if I throw my swords . . . If I . . . The sounds coming from the dragon behind him let him know that he was only going to have one chance for this to work before he was fried on the spot.

He dropped his swords and darted for the Herald.  The knight was guaranteed to stop him if he tried to run past it, but he wasn’t running anymore. He equipped one of the few daggers he had held onto, and as soon as he was in direct view of the enemy Herald, he threw the dagger as hard as he could–not at the Herald, but at the book. He didn’t hold much hope that it would hit, but he put every bit of strength he could into the throw to make the blade fly as fast and as true as possible. He had never played sports in his life. He had never tossed around a football or played catch with a baseball. His only real hope was that his coordination and reflexes were corrected enough by the game system for his aim to be just good enough.

The dagger pierced through the book with a small thunk, and the Herald dropped it. Lee watched as it twisted around in the air, finally landing page-first onto the stone floor. The knight just laughed, and Lee heard the dragon behind him charge up the final blast it needed to burn him alive.

Looks like I was wrong. This death promised to be much worse than the last one. He had been at peace the last time he died. He had been accepting of it. Now, all he wanted was just to punch that smug summoning Herald in the face for using such an awful cheat skill.

The blast never came. Instead, the knight twisted into shades of light, as if it was a picture on a camera coming in and out of focus, before being sucked into the book along with the dragon at the same time.

“That wasn’t very kind. That book had a lot of great stories, but . . .” The Herald shrugged as if nothing was wrong and pulled out another book. “It’s no matter. I have plenty more stories to read you.”

Lee didn’t wait for him to even open the book as he rushed forward, once more equipping his swords and throwing the noob weapon from his left hand straight at the Herald. No, don’t you read another page! I just stopped myself from dying to that awful thing! Don’t you do it! He felt his heart beat a thousand miles an hour as he got closer. Twenty feet wasn’t that far. It was less than a large living room, but given how much adrenaline was surging through his veins, and how scared he was of another page being read, Lee perceived it all in slow motion. The twenty feet may as well have been closer to a hundred for all it mattered to him.

“You see,” the Herald began, pausing briefly to dodge the incoming noob sword. “Back in the day, there used to be a–”

The Herald was cut off by Lee’s real sword. He swung at the book with every ounce of energy left in his body, and finally, he felt the pull against his blade as the book was rent in half.

“Now that’s just not right!” The Herald took a step back and pulled out another book, but no sooner had this one entered his hands than Lee had already swiped it down too. He reached out with his free hand and grabbed the Herald.

“Hey!” The man panicked. “Get your filthy hands off me!”

There were a few different lines that went through his head as he stabbed the Herald through the gut: ‘Storytime is over,’ ‘It’s time to book you,’ or even the cringe-worthy, ‘This is one book I’ll have to put down.’ He would have probably even gone with the last one, but there were people watching–people he needed to turn into zealots–and that would never happen if they heard how ridiculous his puns were. Lee loved dad jokes, but he knew that no one would take him seriously once they heard his.

The Herald stared at him coldly and said, “Your weapon, so crass and Philistine. Do you really not know?” He jerked away just in time for Lee’s second strike to miss. “Stories can be used as a defense too, and a good parable at the right time can shield one from the slanderous swords and stones of others.” A light formed in front of him when he finished speaking, and a massive golden shield appeared, blocking Lee from seeing what the Herald was doing. “More than that, they are better than any weapon. A weapon forces you to risk a confrontation, but a well-placed story in the right ear can act as a shot from afar, safely striking down your opponent without you ever having to lift a finger on your own.”

Easily recognizing the pattern, Lee backed up, equipped his tower shield, and held it up in front of him. His instincts proved right as, seconds later, a volley of arrows struck his shield.

“A shield that acts like a wall? You think it will save you from the words and stories of men?” The Herald laughed. “You should know that no wall is great enough to stop the winds from carrying the words of men to and from the lands. The more a man tries to shield himself from gossip and idle stories, the more vulnerable he becomes to the slings and arrows of accusation.” Lee’s shield became ethereal, almost completely fading away from view entirely and leaving him exposed. He tried to equip another shield as soon as it happened, but he couldn’t remove the ghostly item on his arm.

“Where you can’t stop them with a wall, you can drown them out with noise so that no one can tell truth from lie. Then doubt will become your shield where lies cannot,” Lee said. At this point, he saw thirty-odd arrows coming toward him from behind the Herald. He thought he was dead for sure, but this gamble paid off just as well as the last one. His shield re-materialized and the arrows turned ethereal, no longer solid or tangible, and they  passed right through him and his shield

There’s a reason for the pause between everything he says and the impact. It has to give time for a counter-argument. Lee felt like he had taken in a breath of refreshing air for the first time since the fight started. He’s not overpowered; he’s not broken. His ability has a weakness, and he can be killed. He suddenly realized that the people around him were cheering, urging him on to finish off the Herald.

The Herald dropped his shield and said, “Whether or not an accusation can be nullified in a wave of gossip, one must still admit that a good tongue is sharper and more deadly than any sword.” He stuck his tongue out, and Lee watched as it extended well past any woman’s expectations, dropping further and further until it reached three feet in length before stopping.

The Herald grabbed his elongated tongue and pulled, and with a snap, the part of his tongue that had been hanging out broke off. The part he held in his hand formed a soft handle, and the rest stiffened up straighter than if it was cloth ironed with all the starch in every 1970s commercial. A moment later, Lee saw that the tongue now shone and reflected light perfectly, clearly a hiltless sword.

Lee did his best to reinforce his own blade, saying, “That may be the case, but no quick tongue can ever truly defeat reason and the presence of good, visible, physical evidence against a case. Even if you concoct the best stories, it won’t matter if people can see that your case isn’t justifiable from the evidence at hand.”

“We’ll see if that’s really true,” the Herald taunted.

Using the two-handed sword, he lashed out at Lee. Lee blocked the attack with his own sword, not trusting the shield he had created to hold up, and felt another wave of relief when he realized that his own sword was going to hold up as well. He tried to counterattack, but before he could strike a blow, the golden shield maneuvered itself directly between them. Lee’s blade bounced harmlessly off the shield of light like it was a wooden stick striking a brick wall.

“Hahaha! No matter what you do, my parables will defend any point I make. There is always an anecdote to justify whatever I want!” The Herald laughed, and the cheering ceased as everyone saw exactly how defensively sound that light was.

“A parable might defend your case, but it could also just as easily illuminate the weaknesses. No matter how good a story is, it will have a flaw to be nitpicked, a weakness in the metaphor to be undermined, and the parables you use as defense are no different,” Lee criticized. He watched as his words left his mouth as slow-moving red rivers of light and pasted themselves onto the Herald’s shield, covering it in thin red lines from one side to the next. They were only the size of a number two pencil at best, but Lee was confident that he could hit them, assuming that his opponent wasn’t a genius swordsman.

The shield rotated to the side allowing Lee to see the wicked sneer plastered on the Herald’s gaunt face. “I can’t stand it when a villain keeps using one twist after another to stay alive. It’s simply a bad plot device. You should die peacefully and let the story go on to a better arc.”

You’re the one delaying your death with these cheap magic tricks! Lee furrowed his brow as he stared angrily at the Herald. He wanted to yell, to give him a piece of his mind, but words were important in this fight. If the Herald’s magic worked to its full extent as it had previously, it’d just prevent him from dying and give him another chance at lasting longer. He couldn’t risk saying anything out of place since it wasn’t only the Herald’s words that mattered.

Seeing that his provocation hadn’t worked, the Herald lunged forward with a straight thrust. Lee angled his body right and risked it to see if his shield could absorb the blow from the sword without turning to paper and being cut right through. He knew that he’d be fine, even if the shield failed, since he had stepped to the side, so he felt comfortable taking the risk.

There was a thwack of tongue on wood as his shield turned the attack, but as soon as he went for his own retaliation, the giant golden shield swiveled around in front of him, once more separating the two. This time, Lee adjusted his blade as quickly as he could and, ignoring the Herald, aimed for the red lines on the shield. His sword cut through one, and the shield split in two, parting so that there was a clear foot of space between the top and bottom half of the shield where the red line had been.

“That’s not okay.” The Herald’s temper was no longer as steady as it was before. His thrust, having been deflected by the shield, had left him in a position where he couldn’t even counterattack properly. “You should know that the hero in every story wins. It’s how it’s supposed to be!” he shouted angrily, going for a low horizontal slash.

Lee parried the blade and sent it straight to the floor before following up with another attack at the shield. He hit another red line, and the golden shield split further, the space originally left by his first slash growing a new foot wider.

“Who said you were the hero? What story have you ever read that insinuates that?” Lee asked against his better judgment. “You kidnap people, force people to work, kill people you disagree with and build castles in the middle of nowhere. You might as well have called it an evil lair and waited for your death at the hands of the first good knight to take up the case.”

The Herald’s face scrunched up. “That’s . . .! I brought the people more than they deserved! Education! Entertainment! Meaning!” he yelled as he made another poor attempt at striking Lee.

Lee realized how sloppy the man’s swordsmanship was. “You never did your own fighting, did you? You’ve relied on your powers the whole time, haven’t you? You’ve never tested or trained yourself, have you?”

“What use do I have to train? Haven’t you read? Most good stories feature a hero who is physically inept and vastly unqualified yet able to defeat opponents who have worked hard their entire life to master a skill! And after only a day or two of training!” the Herald quipped, his face turning redder than Erik the Viking’s beard.

Well, technically, I qualify there too. Except, this just means that neither of us has ever trained before. Lee parried another attack and cut again at another red line on the golden shield. He realized that the gaps were large enough for him to almost ignore the shield completely at this point, but he patiently waited and cut through one more so that the split was large enough for him to step through comfortably. Then, as he sidestepped his opponent’s thrust and parried it to the side, he grabbed his opponent’s wrist with his shield hand and pulled him directly onto his waiting sword.

The Herald started to laugh, and Lee knew he was up to something. “You think you’ve won, but the best part of a sto–”

The Herald began to use another one of his trump cards, but Lee wasn’t going to let that happen. Instead of letting him finish, he punched the Herald in the mouth with the hand that was holding his sword.

“Ow, stop that! You’re not supposed to interr–”

Lee didn’t have any patience left. He punched the restrained man again. He didn’t want to waste any more time toying with him, so Lee thrust forward for the other Herald’s neck. High as he was on his victory, however, he was too slow. The Herald turned his tongue-like sword and stabbed into Lee’s side, even as Lee’s own sword sliced into his throat.

Luckily for Lee, the Herald had been too weak to actually drive home to the blow. He watched as his own health dropped from thirteen to nine and then stared at the message as it popped up and let him know that he was taking one point of damage from bleeding every other second. That gave him twenty seconds to live. His only comfort was the fact that his own blade had cut the Herald’s throat, so he wasn’t the only one with a timer.

“You’re such a bastard.” Lee watched as the Herald’s mouth opened and closed in shock, the look of pain and disbelief in his eyes growing as he processed his death. “I hope you rot in hell,” he added before releasing his grip and falling over. The minute he hit the ground, it felt like he had been used as a punching bag by a heavyweight boxer. He had been running on adrenaline alone, and it had basically been the only thing keeping him on his feet and ignorant of all the damage his body had taken.

Stupid. Freaking. Dragon. Stupid. Freaking. Knight. Lee sighed, staring at the sky. “It’s time for me to die again.” He spoke the words aloud as he realized that it was inevitable now.  He had won, and the other Herald was dead, but there was nothing he could do to stop himself from bleeding out. He had tried to use the same strange healing he had used on Ling in the mine to help cure himself, but it didn’t want to work for him.

“Just . . . take care of Ling and listen to Miller for me,” he said to the crowd who had gathered.  

Divinity power: Life in Death activated.

What? What the heck?

Divinity power: Life in Death will both cease life-threatening damage over time effects and slowly regenerate the user’s hit points, so long as the conditions are met.

What conditions?

The enemy that caused the injury resulting in the damage over time effect must be killed.

The fancy blue box prompts were rather enlightening, and the news was a load off. He had six health left when the effect kicked in, and he realized now that the Herald must have taken a full minute to die. For some reason, that brought a little comfort to Lee.

“The wound is closing up,” he heard one of the people say as they crowded around him.

“Is it over?” he heard others from inside the keep ask.

Lee raised his head to see a few dozen people, all chained and dressed in clothes that might as well be potato sacks, starting to file out of the keep. “Did he finally die? Are we free?” one of them asked.

One of the men who had just witness the confrontation said, “Yes! This man, The Herald of Augustus, came and saved you!”

“He’s not just a Herald, he’s the son of a god! He came back from the dead!” another yelled.

“I mean, the other one had magic and seemed . . . more divine. Are you sure he’s a god? He doesn’t seem that impressive.” one of the men who had followed Lee from the village asked, ignoring the newly-freed and frightened prisoners who had been held inside the keep.

“People!” Lee said, bracing himself as he stood up. He might not have been dead, but he still felt awful. Low hitpoints had a very real and physical feel, and it wasn’t pleasant. “Please, put your priorities straight. Who or what I am doesn’t matter. Can’t you see them?” He pointed over to the three or four individuals that had actually left the keep, and the dozen or so behind them that were still timidly waiting inside. Their arms were bound, their feet were shackled together, and their faces were gaunt and miserable. “Why must you worry about who is what or what matters when so many are injured and suffering right in front of you?”

“Oh . . .” the villager who boasted about Lee’s divinity at the beginning began with a start. “I’m sorry, Lord. I’ll go right away.”

He rushed over to the group, pulled out a dagger and began working the lock on the closest victim to him as best he could, yet the others just stood and watched. They were wide-eyed, curious and confused, but after a minute, they joined him. They began taking off their shirts from underneath their armor and giving them to the prisoners, passing out food, and doing what they could to remove the locks and chains. The small group of observers was finally doing something useful.

Lee walked over to where Henslee was bleeding out. She was stretched out on the ground, and a man was sitting beside her, holding a blood-soaked bandage over her wound. Lee was no doctor, but even he could tell that she was going to die very soon. “I see you did very well for yourself, Henslee,” he said, kneeling down beside her.

She took a ragged breath and coughed up a mouthful of blood. Even as the blood dribbled down the side of her mouth, she smiled. “Does this mean I’ll finally get to be with David?”

Lee shook his head and placed a hand on top of her chest. “I’m afraid I still have a need for you.” He had only used the method of healing once on Ling, but due to the nature of this world’s systems, he was able to execute the heal on Henslee without any issue at all. It was far easier than it had been the first time, but the process left him drained. He watched as over half of his spirit bar depleted and his energy was transferred into Henslee as her wound was healed.

Ethan noticed it first, and with a little mental squeak, he told Lee to pay attention. The people were lined up just inside the keep, watching him intently. “He . . . He can do that? Not only did he come back from what should have been a fatal wound, but he even brought her back too?” one asked in awe.

“I told you: he’s a god,” his staunch defender, Foster, reaffirmed.

Lee did his best to ignore them while they gossiped about how divine he was or wasn’t and focused his attention on the woman he had healed.

“You promised me . . . if I died . . . . that I could . . . you promised me!” Her smile faded to anger as she glared up at him. “Why would you heal me?”

“Because it’s what David would have wanted. He told me when we were fighting giant beasts in the tunnels. He was worried that he might die at any turn, and he told me that he wanted you to live a long life no matter what happened to him.” Lee was lying, but he didn’t know what else to say. This woman was hell-bent on death, and her method of fighting would get her there sooner or later.

“He would say something like that.” Her anger subsided, melting away as she suddenly became interested in the ground off to her side. “That idiot. Why did he always have to be first, to try the hardest? Why did he have to go right as we . . .” For one reason or another, she didn’t finish her sentence. She just broke down crying. The man who had bandaged her up looked around awkwardly and then excused himself.

Lee sat where he was, crouched down beside the her, equally unsure of what to do. “It’s going to be okay. He’s not suffering. You have but years here, but you will have an eternity with him later. Treasure the time in this world as a chance to become a better person for your time in the next one.” Lee continued to use his tongue as a shovel to dig a blasphemous hole straight to hell. Augustus, why couldn’t you let me convert them to the proper religion? You bastard!

“But . . . I don’t want to wait,” she sobbed. “I just want him back. Why couldn’t you have healed him?”

“Because it was his time to go.” He always hated hearing that whenever someone said those words to him. He always felt like it was the dumbest excuse anyone had ever come up with, and now he was guilty of committing the same offense. “And it’s not yours. You need to be strong for him. You need to become a person that everyone looks up to and help as many people as you can. That way, when you get there, he’ll be that much prouder of you.”

“Okay,” she answered, but then just laid back, tears still rolling down her cheeks.

Alright, the battle’s over, so show me what you got, Lee thought to the prompt. He had asked for all messages to be held until after the fight, and he was grateful that he had when a flood of kills popped up. Before he could sort through the death notifications, skill ups and the EXP and the loot from all the kills, his eyes were drawn to three specific status message notifications.

The first was relating to his killing of the Herald, mainly because it looked nothing like the other status messages he had seen for kills.


You have defeated the Herald of the God of Books and Stories. As the slayer of a Herald, all of his excess faith shall be awarded to the god you serve. You have also been granted the final boon of a now-dead god: three blank pages from his Book of Endless Dreams.

The second one let him know that the whole thing was finally over. The status message he had been hoping to receive when he first rescued the poor peasants from the slave camp at the mine.

You have completed the quest: Save the villagers from the kidnapping threat. Your party has been awarded 15 gold, one engraved steel sword, one engraved pair of bracers, one unknown silver ring and 15,000 experience, of which your share is 5 gold, one unknown silver ring, and 5000 experience. Your Charisma has also improved by 10 for going above and beyond in the aid of strangers. Your Honor has improved by 4 for honoring your word and completing the quest as you promised.

Your reputation in Satterfield has increased significantly. 

The last of the three major notifications though, was what caused Lee no endless amount of worry.

Your personal faith has dropped due to your followers dying from 39 to 37.

Lee’s heart skipped a beat when he saw the change in personal faith. He didn’t know if that was lost from people who died during the initial siege, or if it was people who had just died defending the battlements, so he rushed straight up the stairs and back to the top of the fort wall. As he climbed the stairs to the battlements, he found himself staring at a single man surrounded by a sea of red.

Miller, covered in wounds, stood tall and proud with his spear planted in the ground. Ling was leaned up against the wall with Amber and several others, each dyed as crimson as the next, and there was so much blood that he couldn’t even begin to guess whether it was theirs or someone else’s. If it wasn’t for the occasional arrow protruding from a body part or a visible gash in the clothing, it would have been impossible.

“What in the . . .” Lee’s mouth hung agape as his eyes darted from body to body. They were littered everywhere. The soldiers that had come to reinforce the fort had turned into a horror show’s worth of mutilated decorations across the ground, and Ling and his other followers were just staring blankly. “What happened here?”

“Victory,” Miller said as smugly and arrogantly as he could. “Victory happened here.”

“Yeah, but . . . Did we lose anyone?”

“Three people,” Miller answered quickly. “Three people died that shouldn’t have died because we delayed justice.”

Was it anyone I knew? Was it someone I traveled with? That I drank with? Or just someone’s family who had come along to help because they believed in me? It was a rather cruel thing for him to realize that he somehow valued one set of lives over the other simply because he knew them better. Yep, that’s life for you.

“We came as soon as we were rested and ready for battle,” Lee argued.

“We could have marched straight here yesterday. The rest is why those three died,” Miller countered.

“The rest is why others lived,” Lee countered. He didn’t know why he even felt the need to argue with Miller. He could just as easily ignore him, but given the shell-shocked expressions on the survivors’ faces, he didn’t want to trash whatever morale they had left by miring it in self-doubt. “Trust me: This was the right decision.”

Even though he was arguing about whose fault the deaths were, Miller still looked rather pleased with himself. “I’m sure if you say so, and if Augustus says so, then it is so.”

“Either way, it was a victory. Their Herald is dead, we’ve freed more people, and we’ve won the day.” Lee wanted to keep the news as positive and upbeat as he could.

His eyes landed on one of the few men that had come with him. The poor man was loaded up with arrows like an overused pincushion. It was brutal to even look at. Lee didn’t know how the poor guy had turned into an arrow magnet whereas the others were fine, but he didn’t really want to know either. He counted his blessings that they hadn’t lost more.

“Then your victory was as glorious as mine was!” Miller declared, slamming his staff into the walkway. “Tonight, we’ll have to celebrate our conquest over drinks to honor Augustus.”

“Yeah.” Lee nodded, finally moving over to Ling. He healed the few wounds she had before proceeding to the next person. “We’ll get around to that, I’m sure. But, well . . .  Look. I need you to do something for me. I need you to pack these people up and get moving.”

Miller looked at Lee curiously.

“Get moving? Why? We haven’t even finished raiding the keep and taking his loot.”

“I know you don’t want to hear this, and I don’t want to be the coward here either, but we have a lot of injured, tired and worn out people. We need to get back to the town and let them rest up,” Lee said. “You and I can go out after that and have all the fun you want. We can loot and raid and kill our way there and back as much as you like, just help me get the townsfolk to safety first.”

Two of your personal followers have become zealots. Your personal Faith has increased by 12. 


Current Personal Faith Total: 49

“Okay, fine,” Miller said, bending over and grabbing two of the hurt people Lee hadn’t gotten to healing yet and tossing them over each of his shoulders like they weighed less than a feather, and then he proceeded to bring them down the stairs and to the Keep’s gate, where a lot of people were now waiting. Since Lee was already nearly out of stamina, he was happy to not have to help them out. He was sure they’d all be fine. Other than Ling, whom he had healed first, he had prioritized the ones he helped by the severity of their wounds.

Ling watched him heal one last person then stood up and offered him a helping hand as he finished healing the people against the wall. “Are you okay?” she asked as he took her hand.

He shrugged. “Yeah, I had a pretty tough fight, but I came out okay.” His divinity skill hadn’t fully recuperated his health, but it had gotten him back up to over a third of his life. “I’m just gonna need a good night’s rest soon . . . That is, if Miller will let me have it without forcing me into another fight,” he chuckled. Yeah, his cooperation will cost me. It always does one way or another.

“A good night’s rest with Amber?” Ling asked pointedly, but Lee felt that there was more to the tone of Ling’s question.

“Ling, Amber is going through stuff, and she doesn’t want to be alone at night. There wasn’t much more to it. I might as well have been a night light by the bed for a kid afraid of the dark. Don’t read too much into it.” Lee had expected this topic to pop up eventually, and he cut it off quickly. He wasn’t sure how much she’d understand or accept, but honesty was the best policy. “I like Amber, but much like with you, I don’t really know her.”

“Yeah, about things we don’t know . . .” Ling trailed off as her eyes followed the ground. Then she looked straight back at him with renewed focus. “You need to tell me now. I want my explanation.”

“Am I allowed to tell her?” Lee asked Augustus, whom he was positive was listening.

“You can tell her as much as you want. It’s not like you know much to begin with,” the laughing voice of the trolling god quickly replied.

Ling didn’t say anything, but she seemed to have the gist that he was asking a higher authority for permission.

“Well,” Lee started, “in the place I come from . . . I wasn’t a god. I wasn’t the son of a god, and there wasn’t even Augustus. But, there were boxes like those status messages. Just, they weren’t in reality, they were in games. You’d receive them to notify you about the mechanics of a fake game world. Then, one day, I got stolen away by a crazy lunatic of a deity, Augustus, who claims he is some distant grandfather type figure in my lineage.”

Lee carried on with as much honesty as he could. He was happy that Ling had been the only one to stay and wait on him after he wore himself out healing. He was comfortable telling her this information for some reason–likely just the fact she was pretty and he knew her–but he didn’t want to blab all of this stuff to the rest of the world. “He took me to a coliseum and made me fight to the death with a zombie. Once I won, he sent me here and told me that the only way to get back to my homeworld was to build up believers for him in this world. If I didn’t do that, I’d be stuck here forever.”

“Oh . . . But the boxes?” she pressed.

“Yeah, I don’t get it either. From what I understand, this world is run by a system–a god of some kind–that regulates the functions and physics of every interaction. The deity who built this world was really into the game format from my old world, and so this world mirrors that.”

“So are you saying we’re in some kind of game like one from your own world?”

“No, I thought that might be the case at first, but this is a fully fleshed out and real world. Everyone and everything here is real, and death is definitely real. When I die, when you die, we’re dead for good. The only exception are certain people this god has selected who don’t permanently die: they just start over from scratch with a new life somewhere else.”

“Oh . . .” She appeared to be taking the news rather well, but Lee had no idea what was going on inside her head as her eyes slowly but surely drifted toward the ground between them. After a long pause, she asked, “Does that mean you plan to leave us?”

“Huh?”

“You said you were converting people to Augustus’s religion because you needed to do that to get back home,” she repeated his words. “Does that mean you plan to leave us for good once you get enough followers for Augustus?”

“Oh, that.” Lee put on his best poker face. He didn’t want his mixed emotions on the topic to bleed through. “Well, I’ve actually been back to my own world a few times already. I go at night sometimes, so no one notices. But I have to, and not because I plan to leave you all. I think you’ll be stuck with me for a long time. I go because there are things in that world that you don’t have here.”

“Ah.” Ling looked relieved. “Okay, I understand. So, do you believe in Augustus? Really?”

“Yeah, I have met him, after all. He’s . . . crazy. The worlds he made and threw me into, the forms he’s taken . . . He definitely has a lot of power, and he’s definitely real. I never knew he existed before the day he brought me here, but I promise you that he is a real and powerful god,” Lee asserted.

“Awww, now you’re just flattering me,” Lee could hear Augustus saying while chuckling softly.

“Okay. Thank you,” Ling said, nodding.

She seemed to be nodding a lot, but Lee understood how difficult this all was to swallow. He had been in her place, to some degree at least, at the start of this adventure. Baffled, confused, and feeling like her sense of reality was being distorted: that was him when he first met Augustus.

“Is there anything else you want to talk about?” he asked her.

“No, I think I’m good for now. Let me process this, and . . .” She paused and stared up at him with big doe eyes that made sure he’d have trouble refusing whatever request she made. “Please don’t leave us for your homeworld.”

“I won’t,” he said.

“Okay,” Ling answered and walked away, down the stairs toward the rest of the group.

“That’s good,” another voice came out of the shadow near him. It startled Lee enough that he nearly had a heart attack–if that was possible in this world. “That you’re not leaving, that is. Because I need a night light by my bed.”

“Holy–” Lee calmed himself. Being startled in this world was definitely not a good thing. Anything that could make him jump could also just as easily kill him before he realized what it was or that it was even there.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you or eavesdrop,” Amber said with a laugh. She was still just as blood-drenched and injured-looking as before, so he had no idea how or when she had managed to meld into a shadow while still dripping the occasional drop of blood from her armor to the ground. “I just didn’t know when it was okay to make myself known when you two were having that awkward conversation. I guess my mother is right: if I don’t speak up and make myself known, I really am invisible.”

He wanted to argue with her, but he had completely failed to notice her. “That’s fine. No harm, no foul.”

“Do you want a hand down there? It looks like everyone is expecting a speech of some sort.” Amber pointed at the gathered crowd that was growing larger and larger by the gate. They had opened up the fort, and everyone was putting their stuff together and getting ready to depart.

“Yeah, I suppose we should head down there,” Lee said.

“Mhmm.” Amber put a cheery face. It was disconcerting seeing someone so bloody standing in the middle of enemy bodies with such a happy-looking face.

Lee didn’t take more than two steps toward the stairs down, however, before she herself stopped him. “But Lee,” she said, causing him to turn around and look at her again.

“Yeah?” He was worried that she’d want to ask a bunch of questions like Ling had since she had overheard their talk and probably had plenty of curiosity bothering her too now.

“I need you to stay too.” She gave him a playful smile before adding, “And it’s not just because you’re a lamp by the bed.”

“I suppose that’s good to hear.” Lee wasn’t exactly sure how he was supposed to answer that, but he wasn’t comfortable with leaving a silence hanging between them either. Still, the two didn’t exchange another word as they descended the stairs.

It turned out that Amber was correct: everyone was expecting a speech. Several were munching on food that Lee had insisted they bring, most had bandages on one body part or another, and a few were shuffling around with a general sense of malaise. As soon as he walked up with Amber, however, they all stopped whatever it was they were doing and stared at him expectantly.

Yep, awkward and uncomfortable, just the way I like things before I make a grand speech, Lee chuckled. He was starting to get used to this feeling, even if only a little bit, but not enough to stop his cheeks from turning slightly red as he looked around at the crowd. “So, I am told that, after victories, you’re supposed to say something meaningful. I told you to take care of others first, and you have, and I think that’s more meaningful than anything I can say. But, now I suppose I have to get around to giving a few words.”

“Are you re–” A member in the audience quickly elbowed the newcomer in the stomach, silencing the question before it could even finish.

Thank you. I’ll have to tell enough lies as is. I tell enough lies as it is, so don’t make me just repeat another for the sake of it.

“And for these words, I want to say you should look to the person on your left and right, because they were the ones that carried us to victory. They were the courageous ones who ran through a field of arrows, who climbed walls and killed fearsome enemies, just to make sure that you and your loved ones, your neighbors and that guy down the street who you really don’t like but you can’t put your finger on why can all sleep soundly tonight. They fought hard and risked their lives against a small army so that you won’t have to be concerned with who was kidnapped or why they were captured each morning when you wake up.

“That’s why they fought,” Lee continued. “They didn’t fight because of me, because of my religion, or because I have a god who makes the best bacon.”

Lee realized that he needed the words to be true even as they left his mouth. People hadn’t stepped up to become conquerors or murderers because he had asked them to. People hadn’t died because he had wanted to kill a Herald in some game.

When he continued, he was speaking as much to himself as he was anyone else. “I also promise you: They didn’t fight because they liked to. Well, most of them didn’t just fight because they liked to.” He paused and shot Miller a knowing look before continuing. “No, they fought for you, they fought for their family, and they fought for a better town. So, I’m not going to cheapen their victory with paltry, meaningless words or empty platitudes. I’m only going to say that you all did a great job and that those who died will not suffer.”

One of the people from Satterfield who hadn’t been there at the mines stepped forward and asked. “What do you mean? Isn’t being stabbed or shot to death with arrows pretty much suffering?”

“In death,” Henslee answered for him. Her eyes were puffy and her nose was red from where she had been sobbing earlier, but there was a little more brightness in her expression.  “Those who lived a good and noble life or died for a good cause get to go somewhere amazing. So long as they didn’t take their own life and were good people and good followers of Augustus, they’ll go to a great and wonderful place without pain and suffering.”

“She’s right,” Lee agreed. “And if they died trying to save and protect their fellow man or while doing a great deed for other people, it’s a place they will absolutely be welcomed into. Augustus and I will take good care of them there.”

“Ah,” the man said. Several others nodded along like Ling had done earlier when Lee explained the mechanics of the world to her.

“Look, I can answer all of your questions in due time. I’ll be more than happy to go over the finer points of the afterlife, of what it means to serve Augustus, and how great fried chicken and waffles are. I’m sure there are plenty of questions, but the first and most important thing you need to understand is that this religion isn’t one you have to follow. I am not the Herald we just killed. I won’t lock you up in chains, force you to work or beat you if you don’t listen to me. I only ask that you at least follow the tenets of what it means to be a good person and what it means to help others out, even if you don’t follow Augustus.”

“And not to blaspheme Augustus. ‘Cause then I’ll kill you,” Miller added. Rather than take him seriously, however, several people just chortled and laughed while the newcomers all seemed nervous or scared by the statement.

“Now, if you do choose to join, you’re welcome to pack your stuff up and head back to Satterfield with the rest of us. There is a bar with plenty of full kegs, lots of fried chicken and a little bacon. We can talk about the religion there.”

Lee turned without waiting for the crowd’s reaction and began the walk back to town. He knew that he was going to have to address the rest of the big topics eventually, but for now, he was going to put it off as long as he could. Procrastination would provide the last-minute answers he needed like always.

You two are so spoiled. Lee shook his head at the two rodents when they flew down and crawled into his backpack, but the two mice only chuckled back at him. Fine. I’ll treat you well this time since you worked so hard earlier. He wasn’t sure what a smug mouse face looked like, but he knew they had one on.

 

—–

 

It didn’t take much convincing to get Miller to sideline the ‘More experience! More killing!’ urge and settle for drinking instead once they made it back to the bar. Not many were in the mood to party or joke around, but the Firbolg managed to find his groove anyway.  All he had to do to get the Firbolg off his case was remind him that it was customary to have a drink for each person who died, and then after five drinks, the friendly giant forgot all about everything else.

The townsfolk were kind enough to make some space and living quarters for the Herald’s hostages that chose to follow Lee back to Satterfield. Most of them went to the new homes they were offered and slept, but some of the more fit and healthy ones gravitated toward Miller in the pub and went to drink with him.

 

Within an hour though of getting back, the news had spread. Lee didn’t jump on the opportunity to do any more speeches, didn’t bother with preaching and was only having a beer with a few people, yet somehow his Faith had crept up to 452. Even though a good portion of that was from the other Herald, it was still impressive. What was even more impressive was that he had managed to boost his personal zealot score up to 11, and the number of personal followers he had jumped up to 29. He had half-expected some type of halo to appear over his head whenever this happened, or at least some type of boost to his stats, but he got nothing. There wasn’t a single change at all despite having 95 personal faith.

As much as he wanted to spend time celebrating with everyone else, he still chose to head upstairs rather early in the night.  The day’s events had taken their toll, and it all seemed to catch up with him as soon as he sat down. He didn’t even make it up the stairs, however, before Amber came up behind him.

“Sleeping already?” she asked as she crept up to him.

“That was the plan, though I thought about a shower first,” Lee said, rubbing his arms pointedly. They were still covered in dirt and blood, and he hadn’t even taken the time to wash up yet.

“Shower?” She looked at him confused.

Ah, that’s right. “I mean a bath.”

“Oh, yeah. I suppose that now is the best time to go if you didn’t want to deal with dirty water in the bathtub.” She nodded, her eyes looking back down over to the room. “I think they’ll have to change the water entirely after your friend takes one,” she laughed as she eyed Miller. “I think the fighting turned out to be less messy than eating and drinking.”

“Yeah . . .” Lee shrugged. It was kind of funny, but he was still worn out from this world. He needed to figure how much time he had earned so that he could go back to his own world. Once there, he’d be able to take a really nice, long, hot shower. He was even looking forward to pigging out on some Chinese food and playing games with his buddy Wolfe. He wasn’t sure how any of it would pan out, but he knew that any amount of time in the world he had come from was going to be a glorious break from the stress in this one.

“It’s not like you, though. You eat with an aversion to mess like I’ve never seen before. The fork and knife are commonplace, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one insist on using them for everything like you do,” she said, continuing her stray observations as the two walked up the stairs.

“So, if I’m going to sleep, are you joining me again?” Lee asked, not making light of her issue even though he really wanted to give her a suggestive wink and throw in a crude pun.

“If you don’t mind. I was hoping to slip into something more comfortable this time, though,” she said, actually winking at him.

Lee felt bad now for missing a chance to make a rude joke himself but didn’t pass up the opportunity twice. “You don’t have to put anything on at all if you don’t want to,” he chuckled.

“Well, well . . .  So there a man in there somewhere.” She laughed as she leaned into his arm as the two walked down the hallway. “I’ve heard that holy men have thoughts as dirty as their faith is pure.”

“Who told you that holy men have dirty thoughts? Did that Herald before me ruin my reputation?”

“Nah, just some of the poems and ballads that the bard Blaise sang when he made his trip through our town. He told me that I need to be careful of any Herald or religious figure because they’re all perverted con men,” she explained. The words were clearly accusations, but her tone was so playful that Lee didn’t mind at all.

“Well, then I don’t have to worry about warning you ahead of time before you come to bed with me tonight.” Lee’s pushed a little into her as she leaned against his arm, knocking her slightly off balance. She adjusted by actually grabbing onto his arm.

It was a sensation Lee liked, but the hallway was small and those short exchanges were more than enough to fill the time needed to reach the bathroom. Bathroom . . . The name actually makes sense when there is a bath inside.

“I’ll let you do your thing. I’m going to . . . I’m just . . .” She looked over at the other bathroom. “I’m just . . . Yeah. I’ll see you in a bit, but don’t mind me if I don’t sneak in until after you’re asleep so you don’t get any perverted ideas.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Lee laughed and stuck out a hand to pat Amber’s head. “You just do your thing and relax. You worked hard today. You did good, and you helped a lot of people, so you deserve to be comfortable tonight.” What kind of creepy line is that? Lee wanted to kick himself for saying something so awkward, but it made Amber smile. He didn’t know if she was just humoring him, but it was a beautiful enough smile that melted his heart a bit.

Alright, bath time to scrub off all those dirty thoughts. Lee fortified his willpower and headed into the bath.

His feet had no sooner touched the water than he heard the familiar voice of the shapeshifter. “So, you going to take my advice and warp back now? Or are you going to wait for Amber to warp-block you again?”

“How long do I have this time in the other world?” Lee had to ask. Please don’t be a month or two at most, he thought.

“You can take as long as you want this time. You’re not going to age anymore, so it doesn’t matter. Take a day, a month, a year. It’s fine,” Augustus answered. Based on his tone, Lee imagined a monkey shrugging at him while spinning around in an office chair.

“I’m . . . not going to age?” Lee found this news both amazing and frightening. Immortality was both a blessing and a curse and one he never thought he’d have to contemplate outside of a drinking game.

“You’ve awoken your divinity seed. I can pull you back to this world anytime you want. It’s not like the timelines are connected between this world and yours,” Augustus explained. “You just have to pick a date when you want to come back, let me know while you’re sleeping, and I’ll rip you back into the game world. You’ll be sitting in a tub stark naked like you never left at all.”

“Sickness? Health issues? What about those?”

“Look, you’re not going to have any of those problems. In fact, unless you do something incredibly stupid, I can’t imagine a single possible way for you to get killed. So, as far as I’m concerned, we can wait as long as you want once you get to that world to come back to the War of Eternity. Now, are you going to go or not? I mean, I understand if you don’t want to go. Beautiful women want to join you in bed. That alone seems promising enough that I’d be hard-pressed to leave if I were you.”

“No, I’ll take your advice about leaving while I have the chance this time . . . so long as you make sure I have another pair of clothes when I get to the other side. I’m pretty sure I’ve still got a family member or two near me in that hospital room.” Lee tried his best to remember. It had been so long, and so much had happened, he couldn’t quite remember what he had been doing when Augustus pulled him back to this world.

“Fine, fine. But you’re taking the fun out of this. I was hoping to send you into a bathroom stark naked and force you to awkwardly flash a few family members just to get out,” Augustus laughed at his own idea.

“Yeah, that does sound like you,” Lee agreed. “In fact, maybe I should specify that you should return me in the same attire I left in.”

Augustus laughed at whatever diabolical idea he had. “So, I can’t send you back in a pink tutu that was meant for someone much smaller than you?”

Despite himself, Lee laughed as well. “Same outfit you warped me over in, thank you.”

He didn’t even finish his sentence before he was back in his hospital bed and saying ‘thank you’ to his parents while laughing at a joke they didn’t get and had never heard.
The oddest part was the immediate ceasing of the sensation of being wet. Going from being fully submerged in a nice hot bath to being dry and on a bed with a hospital gown on.

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