War of Eternity: The Beginning Ch2

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As they left the town and began walking through the field of yellow flowers, Lee became painfully aware of the fact that his only combat instrument was incredibly inadequate. He knew well enough that, if there was one situation in which people got attacked in any games, it was walking through tall grass near well-occupied towns. He half-expected to be attacked by either a band of roaming insects twice the size of a man or some random kid who was way too into watching beetles fight and had decided to tame some of the larger beasts as a step up in his pet abuse future.

“Erm . . . Miller,” Lee began, “if you don’t mind my asking, how much damage does your spear do?”

“Well, it only does fourteen damage, but it’s still only a level one weapon. It doesn’t have any magical properties or additional stats, either. Why do you ask?”

Fourteen damage versus the three that mine does? That’s ridiculous. If a level one starting weapon does fourteen damage, I might as well call this stupid sword the Blade of Failure.

Would you like to rename Every Noob’s Starting Sword?

No, Lee answered the prompt. Then he sighed and said, “No reason. I was just curious, that’s all.”

The duo spent almost a full half hour combing through the field trying to find the girl without much luck. Lee used his little pet Ethan to try and cover ground as quickly as possible, but even with the additional pair of eyes, it wasn’t much use. The tall grass was more of a hindrance than he had anticipated, especially to the small mouse, but after a while, they were fairly certain that the girl wasn’t going to be found in the field. Lee was just about to give up and suggest they change their search tactic when something unexpected happened.

Due to prolonged use of Golem Sculpting, Golem Sculpting has been promoted to Unranked Level 3.

Golems created by Golem sculpting are now 5% more effective in combat. Current Combat bonus: 15.7%. Future Golem’s created by Golem Sculpting may now take up an additional 5% more space. Current Max Space: 2.315 fluid ounces.

Due to improving Golem Sculpting, you have received +1 intelligence. Current Intelligence: 15.

So did it level up because I was actively sending commands back and forth with my golem, or did it just level up because the golem is still active? Lee wondered, but no helpful prompt answered his query. He also wondered what the biggest animal he could make with his Golem Sculpting that would be.

As if showing off after his level up, Ethan squeaked twice into Lee’s mind and alerted him to the fact that it smelled blood–human blood. Lee used his connection to see what the mouse saw, and was surprised to find that it was more than just a little. There was a patch of torn red fabric on the ground, about the size of a man’s fist, and both it and the ground around it were swathed in dark red blood. The trampled grasses and obvious bloodstains made it evident that there had been a struggle.

“Hey, Miller, over here,” Lee called over to his companion. He still hadn’t told the other man about Ethan, and he had no intentions of doing so until he was sure that he could trust him, so he had to walk around aimlessly for a moment in order to make it look like he had just stumbled up the fabric of his own accord.

“What is it?” Miller asked.

“Was the daughter wearing a red dress?”

“Uhm. . . Yeah, I think so. I just remember that her clothing didn’t fit that well . . . like she was hand-me-downs that were too large for her. Why do you ask?” Miller queried as he started looking for what Lee had spotted.

“Oh, just . . .” Lee reached down and carefully picked up the red fabric. “I think we might be dealing with more than just a simple ‘your cat has been found.’”

Hey, Ethan, Lee thought at the mouse. Do you think you can find the trail of the blood? He didn’t know if the mouse could understand him one hundred percent, or if it could even take orders, but the mouse emphatically chirped out a string of high-pitched noises in response as soon as Lee asked, so he figured it somehow received the message. Alright, go take care of that.

“Seriously, how did you spot that? First the cat, and now this? I would have had to have been crawling around on my hands and knees to spot this.” Miller was wide-eyed and clearly amazed. “It’s like you’ve got eagle eyes and a canine nose or something.”

“Or something.” Lee just nodded. “If she’s been taken, then we need to alert the people in the village and let them know what direction they went. I’m sure someone in town can help us out,” Lee posited.

“What are you talking about? You were kidnapped yourself! Can you imagine what they’ll do to a girl? We have to save her! We can’t let her be in their clutches when night comes. A good and righteous man would never wait to take action when a life is on the line!”

Yeah, but what happens if we die? Then no one will even know what happened to her. Lee resisted the frown that was trying to cover his face with disappointment. What are you, like five? Come on, man. We can’t pull something off just because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t you have public service announcements where you’re from? ‘Contact authorities first. Do not act on your own’ and stuff?

“I just . . . I just don’t think we’re combat ready enough to take this task on,” Lee said again. “I mean, my weapon is kinda poor, and I’m only level two. . .” He started listing out excuses, but the Firbolg slapped him on the back and pointed toward the forest bordering the field.

“I have an extra starting sword, but does she have an extra life? Will justice even remember her name as they ravage and abuse her? We can not let this happen! Do you not want to spread the name of your god across the great and wondrous kingdom of Spicy Chicken Noodle Surprise? This is where your story begins!” Miller’s tone was clearly trying to add gravitas to the situation and inspire Lee, but all it did was make him want to shrink away from the challenge even more.

What are you talking about?! he wanted to yell. I’m a freaking office worker–at best! I haven’t done martial arts in two years, and I almost died to a stupid zombie! My health still hasn’t even recovered from that damnable cat! His health had slowly risen back up and was now sitting at a comfortable 104 out of 120, but with the prospect of death looming around the corner, he was still not eager at all to risk an encounter with anything worse than that furball. However, instead of yelling out all those complaints, all that left his mouth was his last logical argument against the option: “But what if we die before we save her?”

“Have faith! If anything happens, your god will surely protect us and her,” he said, his giant baseball-mitt-sized hand still resting on Lee’s back.

Why did I have to live such a yes-man life? Lee grumbled. In order to avoid pointless confrontations that often did little more than waste time and energy, Lee had just been accustomed to nodding his head and agreeing with people no matter what his internal dialogue said. He simply had no experience in properly rejecting someone’s proposal or idea–a trait he really wished he had right now. Why couldn’t I be more like my buddy Cadwe? He could talk people out of anything. “Look, I just . . . ”

“Don’t worry. Shake that fear off and walk the righteous path. I’ll be with you the whole way, and nothing will keep us from success,” Miller continued, refusing to budge even an inch from his crazy plan. The guy was completely ignoring the fact that it was a level 10 quest and most likely way above their ability at the moment. “I can’t do this without you, but if we don’t do this, then what bandits might do to her . . . I can’t bear to think it. I’m going with or without you, but I could use your help and your faith.”

Lee sighed. There are probably a bunch of level ten bandits–or worse–definitely a fight to the death, and I’m being dragged around by a guy just to save some NPC. I don’t want to take a penalty as a result of dropping a quest midway through, but . . . Lee cringed. Ugh. “Fine. Let’s go,” Lee agreed, finally acquiescing to Miller’s need to do the right and knightly thing.

“Excellent!” Miller cheered triumphantly. “‘Cause I had no idea which way to go once we got into the forest, and that place is huge. Do you have any ideas?” Miller asked. “I mean, you’re good at finding stuff, right? Oh, and before I forget, here’s that sword I promised.”

You have received Adventurer’s Starting Sword.

So that’s why you pushed so hard to bring me with you. Lee just shook his head as he opened up his inventory to look at the sword. Wait, this sword is only four damage? What the hell? Do I need a two-handed weapon? At least I have two weapons now, and this one does more damage than the other.

“Yeah, I got an idea of which way to go,” he answered. Although he might not personally have any talent at tracking, little Ethan was already proving to be a better bloodhound than the real thing. The mouse had picked up the scent left behind by the blood and was scurrying after it as fast as his tiny mouse feet would carry him.

Lee grumbled to himself before just giving up and going after the mouse. Miller followed right behind, and Lee led them along the trail of blood into the forest. Lee briefly hoped that the forest wouldn’t randomly spawn mobs out of nowhere like the JRPGs he loved as a child, but that optimism was quickly dashed as soon as it occurred to him, and he once more found himself being overridden with a wave of fear from Ethan.

Crap, Lee thought as he used his connection with the rodent to understand what was causing the intense emotions.

Oh no, he gulped. I thought I avoided this when the tall grass didn’t have anything in it.

“Hey, Miller, how good are you at fighting beasts?” Lee asked as he readied both swords.

Miller slammed the butt of his spear into the ground proudly. “I will, of course, be excellent! I have the power of my spear and the protection of a holy man!”

You have got to be kidding me. Did you drag me around on this quest because you didn’t care if you got an NPC killed? No, of course he doesn’t care if an NPC gets killed. Would I? I’ve played dozens of games where I led NPCs to their death just to complete an objective. I just never even considered bad luck or karma or the fact that I might actually be in their position one day.

“How ‘bout you go in front of me,” Lee offered. Gauging by his efforts against the zombie, he wasn’t in any position to be charging head-first into battle and was already trying to figure out how to how this fight as defensively as possible.

Little Ethan came scurrying back a moment later, and no sooner had he crawled up Lee’s pants leg and into his pocket squeaking in fear than three wolves slowly stalked around the trees in front of them. Two of the beasts immediately began circling the pair while the third planted itself in front of them, baring its long canine fangs in a menacing gesture.

“Wolves! This is great! They’ll be a great way for us to sharpen our blades and test our mettle!” Miller shouted, charging the closest before it even had a chance to try and attack them.

Miller’s spear flew forward in a blur as he lunged in, quickly stabbing the lead wolf between its shoulder blades before yanking back his weapon and attempting a second attack. As soon as he made his move, however, the other two dogs leapt forward, gnashing at his arms.

Although he experienced a fleeting moment of panic as Lee watched the wolves attack, he quickly realized that, to his surprise, the dogs they weren’t able to draw any blood. Miller’s leather armor was apparently sturdier than Lee had suspected at first glance. Indeed, it seemed to hold up fairly well under the repeated attacks from two canines.

The lead dog leapt forward, and Miller brought the haft of the spear around to thwart the wolf’s advance, using it as a makeshift barricade. With the dogs positioned as they were, however, there was no opportunity for Miller to find an opening for an attack. Rather than being able to use his spear as an offensive weapon, he was instead forced to use it defensively. In a rather awkward fashion, Miller was doing his best to both bludgeon the wolves and push them away at the same time, and despite his moderate ability, there was never enough room between his opponents to turn his spear and use it the way it was intended.

Lee could tell just from watching that Miller was having trouble keeping his balance. The three wolves were apparently doing everything they could to not only rip him apart, but they were also pressing up against him in an attempt to topple over the massive Firbolg. Two of the wolves had raised up on their hind legs, and every surge forward threatened to send the massive fighter to the ground. In response, Miller widened his stance as best as he could and dug his feet further into the ground.

Once it was clear that he wasn’t the beasts’ first target, Lee darted over with as much speed as he could. He sliced downward with both blades into the wolf’s back as soon as he was within striking distance of the closest wolf, and was rewarded by the sound of the wolf yelping out in pain and releasing its bite on Miller. The wolf yelped as the two swords dug into its flesh and released its bite on Miller. Lee felt a surge of excitement run through him for a moment, thinking his attack was a stunning success that had killed the beast, but his elation quickly disappeared as the injured wolf jumped back and switched targets. The beast paused, lowering itself until its snout was almost touching the ground, and pounced toward Lee. He stabbed forward blindly, sinking his Blade of Failure into the wolf’s gut as it bounded through the air, but that didn’t stop the beast from landing square on his chest and knocking him over onto his the flat of his back.

He lost his grip on his Blade of Failure as the wolf collided with him, so he used the Adventurer’s Starting Sword to try and stab at the beast. Without much mobility, however, he was only able to weakly jab at the wolf’s ribs with his sword hilt as its jaws snapped toward his face. Lee narrowly escaped a bite that would have torn his face off as he shifted to the left. He pushed off with his left hand and managed to roll the wolf off of him, and wildly slashed at the wolf before it could respond. The only problem was that the slash had no power in it. Without being able to squarely plant his feet on the ground and push through his attack, and the cut didn’t even draw blood. Within seconds, the canine was back on its feet. Lee tried to make use of the small distance between him and his assailant to stand up, but the wolf dashed toward his legs and began snapping at his ankles. He kicked the mutt in the face a few times as it continued to try and sink its teeth into his skin.

He could feel the adrenaline coursing through him, pushing him through the pain and helping him ignore the scraping on his back as he shifted his body over and over again, kicking and backing up at the same time against the aggressions of the wolf. Finally, after fending off the ninth attempt from the mongrel, he decided to try something new. When the wolf came in for another attack on his feet, he pulled his leg back all the way to his chest instead of trying to kick it again. The wolf came even closer, and Lee used all of his effort to do one of his most dreaded exercises as swiftly as he could: a sit up. He pulled his whole upper body off the ground, reached forward with his free arm, and grabbed its head just as it started to sink its teeth into his thigh.

Ahhh! His brain screamed as the teeth pulled fresh blood up while he yanked the dog head forward. The dog immediately switched from biting his leg to trying to free itself from the headlock it was suddenly caught in. It scrambled backward and fought to turn itself about, but Lee refused to let the dog’s head leave his grasp. He held on as tight as he could and smashed at the dog’s face with the pommel of his sword. It wasn’t exactly headbutting a zombie, but smashing things in the head had proven effective before, so he continued with gusto until things got gooey.

You have killed the ravenous wolf. Your party has been awarded 9 copper, one wolf hide and 42 experience. Your share of this is 4 copper, one wolf hide and 22 experience.

Finally. Lee took a deep breath as he stood up, grabbing the sword that had been knocked out of his hand earlier and looking over at Miller. Miller was doing his best to fight off the two remaining wolves, but for the most part, it seemed like he was just taking the biting from one wolf on his arm and twisting the spear so that other, the one he had injured with his first and only attack, couldn’t bite anything but the wooden shaft. Lee came in to help, this time going for the injured one.

Rather than repeat his mistake of simply slashing it, he put away his Blade of Failure and switched his Adventurer’s Starter Sword to his right hand. Then, when he approached, he leapt forward and grabbed onto the scruff of the dog’s neck with his free hand. He yanked the wolf off balance and away from Miller, and without ever letting go of the animal, he stabbed his sword into the wolf’s soft belly. At first, it felt like the wolf was going to break free from his grasp. It bucked and writhed around, simultaneously trying to break free and swing its head around to tear at Lee’s wrists, but gradually, Lee felt the wolf’s life slowly give away. At last, the prompt let him know the kill was successful.

You have killed the ravenous wolf. Your party has been awarded 8 copper, one wolf hide and 42 experience. Your share of this is 4 copper and 21 experience.

One more to go, Lee thought, turning to see that he didn’t actually have to work on this one. Miller had taken advantage of the fact he now had a free arm and simply reached out and, rather than using a weapon to smash the wolf, opted instead to just use his brute strength to lift the dog and repeatedly thwack it into the ground over and over again. Lee just watched in captivated horror.

Your party has killed the ravenous wolf. Your party has been awarded 9 copper, one wolf hide and 42 experience. Your share of this is 5 copper and 21 experience.

You have learned the proficiency skill ‘Unarmed Combat.’ This skill is currently at Unranked level 1. This skill improves one’s reasoning and execution of unarmed abilities in combat.

You have been awarded 2 Intelligence for discovering a new skill without the assistance of class trainers or a manual. Current Intelligence: 17.

Alive, Lee thought as he bent over and braced himself on his legs and panted. The pain and fatigue that had been suppressed during the battle washed over him all at once. He had been aware of the sharp, deep pain in his thigh from the bite when it happened, but now it felt ten times worse. He had seen the prompts pop up during the fray, letting him know how much his fall, the bites, the nips and cuts from the wolf’s advances had done to him during the engagement. It was all plainly visible, but the adrenaline from the near-death experience had stopped it from entering his stream of consciousness until post conflict.

“See! We’ve done it! Success is ours!” Miller grinned as he looked up, using one of the dead beasts as a prop for his foot while he posed and inflated his chest. “Justice has prevailed, and victory is ours! I told you we could do it so long as we had faith!”

Vomit. I want to vomit. Lee blinked several times as he looked up at the overly-confident warrior in front of him. Who the heck even talks like that? He caviled internally, but he couldn’t argue with the results: they had won. Sure, his thigh still had the wolf’s last dental mold fresh in it, and his chest wasn’t doing much better, and he was now down to 64 health out of 120, but they had won.

“Don’t look so glum. We must celebrate our victory! Unless . . .” Miller bit his lip as he looked down at Lee, who was looking at one of the animals that had almost killed him. “Unless you, as a man of the cloth, need to say a prayer for the enemies you have defeated? Do you need to make sure their souls go to the proper place?”

Huh? Lee looked back up at the Firbolg and then down at the wolf. No. Lee forced himself to take a deep breath. “This is just my first time killing something that wasn’t already dead,” he said, realizing how dumb the sentence sounded as it left his mouth. “I mean, I’ve killed a zombie before, but not something that was technically still alive.”

“Oh, did you not have to kill anything for food in the re–” Miller bit his tongue, clearly stopping himself from saying ‘real world.’ “I mean, did you not have to hunt or kill animals as a child? I figured, in this harsh environment, there must have been at least one time you had to kill a chicken?”

“No . . .” because Chinese takeout comes ready to eat. “I never had that experience.” And even if I did, it’s a dog! I mean, it’s a wolf, but it’s pretty much just a wild dog! Who could ever be okay with killing a dog? Lee stared at the pooch’s corpse in horror. I did that. I murdered a dog. I’m going to hell. War and killing were never justified–not even in the movies. The one exception, however, was if some random kid killed a dog. At that point, any character, and especially the main character, was free to go on a seventy-plus kill streak and be completely vindicated in his behavior by every movie goer. That was the strength of the dog-loving culture that had infected Lee’s bones since he was a child, and that was the pull on his conscience as he stared at the dead animal in front of him.

“Wow, you really must have been very poor or very dedicated to the cloth to forsake the taste of meat.” Miller misunderstood what he meant as he reached over and picked up one of the animals and put it over his shoulder like the one hundred and fifty-pound animal didn’t weigh more than a regular school backpack. “I’ll tell you what: Tonight, after we rescue Mr. Ying’s daughter, I’ll cook us up a hearty meal of dog meat so good any man in Satterfield would die for just a bite of it.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea . . .” Lee’s frown deepened. Can you at least keep calling it wolf meat? I know they look similar, but please don’t call it dog meat!

“Nonsense! It will taste like nothing you’ve ever eaten before. Trust me, people kill for flavors this delicious. We can even cut aside some of the fat for you to offer to your god,” Miller insisted.

“Let’s . . . Let’s just get on with the quest.” Lee was about to turn it down outright, but then he remembered that he had, in fact, killed the animal. More importantly, he remembered that didn’t have a clue as to what he was actually going to do for dinner. Food was still a big concern, and he was just waiting to see how long he could get away with not eating in this game world.

Once that was settled, Lee set Ethan back on the trail of the missing daughter. The small mouse had scurried out of his pocket without him noticing during the fight, and it was ready waiting next to a tree a small distance away.

They tracked the girl for a mile and a half before they finally found the bandit camp. From what he could tell, the encampment wasn’t heavily occupied. There were four men sitting on logs around a campfire joking around, and although two were decked out in leather armor, none of them was holding a weapon. Each one had some type of armament nearby, but from Lee’s estimate, he’d have two or three seconds at the minimum before they reached it–and he was already trying to figure out a way to get to the weapons before they did.

“This has to be the place,” Lee said as he studied the men. The mouse says the trail of blood ends here.

“Ah, and there is Ying’s daughter!” Miller motioned, pointing behind the bandits while pulling on Lee’s shoulder.

Lee followed the finger toward a rock just a little distance away from the bandits where, instead of the young child Lee had expected to see with all the talk of ‘daughter,’ he found himself staring at an incredibly beautiful, full-figured, young, human woman with ivory skin and black hair. Compared to how bland the father had looked, Lee had serious doubts as to whether or not this particular woman was the right one.

Wow, he thought. His brain stopped for a moment as he stared at the gagged woman in a red dress and watched as she struggled against her restraints. No, no don’t lose focus. Deal with the bandits first. He had to actually pinch himself to get his attention back to where it needed to be. He had lived in a city with millions of people for a long time, but this was the first time he had seen a lady like her.

“Okay, I think we need to find a way to get their weapons from them before the fight starts,” Lee whispered to Miller, trying to formulate a plan.

“What? No, we need to charge in there and show them the fury and power of justice. Only when defeated head-on by the righteousness of those who do good will they be able to learn the errors of their ways!”

“But . . .” Lee could feel Miller’s irritating optimism drawing cringe-wrinkles across his face as he tried to deal with it. “No. Look, just no, man,” Lee blurted out, finally putting his foot down on something. I am not going to get myself killed because you need to act like the hero. “What we’re going to do is this: We’re going to do our best to sneak up on them. If we can stab two of them before the fight begins and get to the weapons of the other two before they can react in time, we’ll have a quick and easy victory. How about we go with that?”

“But sneaking around, stabbing people in the backs, stealing their weapons and fighting with an unfair advantage unfairly . . .” Miller’s face crumpled up like he had just drunk a bottle of lemon juice. “How does that not make us the bad guys?”

“Miller, look at me,” Lee said, then pointed toward the girl “That’s how. We’re not kidnapping young women and bringing them away for God-only-knows-what unspeakable acts. We’re killing people who do that and rescuing young women. Now, look at her,” Lee said, firmly pointing at the girl yet again. “Tell me, do you think she wants us to fail to save her the right way or just save her any way possible?”

“Well . . .” Miller looked like a child who had just been scolded by a parent. “Umm, I suppose . . . I would . . .” He bit his lips again. “I think she just wants to be saved and doesn’t care how.”

“Good. Now, what do you think the chances are that you can take one of them by yourself before they realize you’re there?” Lee asked.

“These tactics will besmirch our reputation and dignity as knights!” Miller protested again as the two of them watched the group continue to joke around.

“Miller, do we have to go over the importance of making sure that girl gets home to see her father?” Lee expertly wielded the guilt card to keep his gung-ho knight friend in check.

“Fine, I can do it. I’ll kill . . .” Miller paused, squinting to make the figures out more clearly. “I’ll kill them using your dishonorable method.”

“Good. So, when we jump them, we need to make sure to stop the other two from getting their weapons,” Lee said.

“I’m still not okay with this plan,” Miller protested quietly once more, but he gripped his spear anyway.

“But you’ll do it?” Lee pressed. He needed to know that Miller wouldn’t mess it up at the last minute due to some belief in a higher sense of honor or moral conduct.

“But I’ll do it,” Miller grumbled.

The four men in front of them were split into two groups. Their tents and supplies were on one side of the campfire, the girl was on another side of the campfire on a rock, and the kidnappers occupied the remaining two sides in pairs, each sitting on a log. Of the two closest to them, one of them was wearing a long, black robe while the other one was wearing brown leather armor very similar to Miller’s. The robed guy had a quarterstaff near him, and the man in leather had two swords like Lee’s nearby.

On the log adjacent to them, to Lee’s left, were the other two men. They were both just wearing regular clothes. Their garb wasn’t even the type of tight-fitting clothing that one might expect someone to wear for battle, just loose brown garments like they had taken potato sacks and decided that wearing them a good fashion choice. In front of those two lay a couple bows and two pairs of daggers.

Okay, so those two must be the more roguish of the group. . . That means the ones directly in front of us are probably the brutes meant to absorb damage, Lee reasoned. He wasn’t used to battle, but after his two short skirmishes, the reality of his situation had begun to set in. Although some small part of his brain still refused to accept what was going on, another even larger portion had been ruminating on how he might handle another battle with a zombie like Brian. His aimless slashing had been completely ineffective, his attempts to stab the zombie had resulted in his weapon being knocked away, and smashing into his opponent had required him to absorb a heavy amount of damage while pinning his opponent to the ground. Knowing that, it was hard to digest what he should do. Quick, piercing attacks seemed like the best option, but those were going to be even harder to pull off than simple slashing cuts with his sword.

“Let’s get that pair.” Lee pointed to the two closest to them as he readied his weapons. His reasoning was that, even though he’d likely be able to kill the unarmored ones much faster, it’d be much easier to deal with daggers and bows than swords and a quarterstaff in melee combat if he could take out the armored ones earlier.

“Excellent! I’ll get the robed one and then proceed to educate those other two hellions on why they shouldn’t behave in such an atrocious manner.” Miller’s eyes regained their earlier zeal, causing Lee to worry about whether or not he understood the point of a sneak attack.

And if you have the fourteen damage weapon, why am I the one attacking the guy in leather? Lee frowned. He had already won one argument though, and it was clear from the battle with the wolves that Miller was much better at defense than offense, so he didn’t press the point.

Maybe his armor will protect him against the daggers if things don’t go smoothly and I can peel one of them off after?

“Alright, follow my lead.” Lee made sure little Ethan wouldn’t move as he crept forward, encroaching on his first target. He thought they were doing a good job at masking their steps, but as they rounded one tree after another and made it halfway to the enemies, the daughter made direct eye contact with Lee and started to scream as loud as she could with the cloth gag tied into her mouth.

Are you . . .? You idiot, you’re going to get us caught! He did his best to hasten his steps toward his target, weaving between the trees until they were finally upon their prey.

All four of them turned to face her, and one of the men in leather stood up and shouted, “You can yell all you want, wench, but no one is going to save you out here! We’re over a mile away from the road! Who is going to hear you?”

So, you were useful after all, Lee thought appreciatively when he realized that his sneak attack would be flawless now that the noise from his final steps was being masked by her muffled cries. He rushed in and stabbed both of his blades into the man’s back. He wanted a clean kill, but neither of his swords fully penetrated. Instead, after piercing the leather and digging into the man’s back, both blades seemed to get stuck. The man shouted, blood gurgling out of his mouth and cutting off his scream. Without an experience or loot popping up, however, Lee knew that his foe was still alive and breathing.

He could already see the other two reaching down and readying themselves to join the fight in his peripheral vision, and he didn’t want to draw the fight out any longer than he had to. It felt like he had stabbed a tree and his swords had stuck deep into the wood to a point where he couldn’t pull them free. With his weapons buried in the man’s body, Lee took a cue from zombie Brian and used his shoulder to slam the man, knocking him to the ground face-first. As the man yelled and tried to turn over, Lee took the initiative and placed one foot firmly on the man’s back. Not only did it stop the man from turning over, it also gave him the extra bit of leverage he needed to wrench his swords free. Then, as soon as his blades came loose, he stabbed the man in the neck. It still didn’t go through, and the man just yelled. He expected him to be unable to move after the attack, but all four limbs twitched and flailed, and Lee stabbed him again.

Why the heck isn’t this going through and killing him? As soon as he thought of the question, he realized the answer was probably something incredibly intuitive to most gamers: because he still had hit points left. It was just like when Lee played first-person shooters. He could shoot his opponent square in the face with a shotgun, but he’d live because they had enough hit points to take the bullet. Luckily for Lee, even though the opponent had enough health to be stabbed in the back twice, and then repeatedly have his neck poked at, he still couldn’t help the fact Lee had him solidly pinned to the ground and was attacking as viciously and quickly as possible so that he wouldn’t have a chance to retaliate.

You have killed the Bandit. Your party has been awarded 38 copper, one quarterstaff and 62 experience. Your share of the loot is 19 copper and 31 experience.

You are now level 3. You need 225 Experience to reach level  4. Your level increase has boosted all primary stats by 1. Your current power, toughness, spirit, reflex, coordination, concentration and accuracy have been adjusted to 13.

As you are currently in combat. Health bonuses from leveling will not take effect until after the battle has ended.

That’s right! Die you slimy piece of– Lee’s inner monolog was interrupted by a loud thunking sound. Pain instantly shot through his leg, and the AI notified him that he had just lost 27 health, not to mention he received his first status effect:

Due to the injury sustained by your knee, your left leg has been crippled. All movement involving your left leg will be retarded 50% until the wound is healed. Use of this limb may cause further damage, the rate of which will vary based on the activity.

An arrow to the knee?! Lee ignored it momentarily, dropping two more slashes into the man under him. His assumption that he was close to getting the kill shot paid off as the final attack cut bit deeply into the man’s neck, nearly decapitating him.

You have killed the Bandit Leader. Your party has been awarded 62 copper, one piece of leather armor, one bronze sword and 90 experience. Your share of the loot is 31 copper, one bronze sword and 45 experience.

After the kill shot landed, Lee looked over at the archer just in time to see that he was about to be struck again. He jumped to the side and dodged the arrow, but that seemed to only further agitate the arrow lodged in his knee and caused him an additional point of damage.

I need to get rid of this thing, Lee thought as he hobbled toward the archer that was already notching another arrow. He put away one of the swords and then gripped the shaft of the arrow in his leg. He had every intention of pulling it out, but he was having trouble summoning the courage he needed to deal with the pain. Removing the excruciating dart from his knee became a secondary concern as he looked up to see the archer taking aim at him a third time. You have got to be kidding me.

Lee groaned in a combination of frustration and pain. There was little he could do but watch as the archer knocked the arrow for what would most likely be a fatal shot. He doubted that he would be able to dodge out of the way again, and every instinct told him to rush the guy and close the distance between them. There was always a chance that the archer would panic and spoil the shot, but there was no way he could cover that much ground while hobbling around on one good leg.

Just as the bowstring begin to slip off the archer’s two fingers, the butt of Miller’s spear swung around out of nowhere and cracked the bowman across the face. The well-aimed blow struck the man across his cheekbone, causing him to pull slightly up and to the side just as his arrow left the bow. The errant missile whizzed past Lee’s ear, making him grateful for the fact that he was rooted in place. He released a tensely-held breath and decided that he had better just rip out the arrow of his knee.  

“Break it! Don’t pull it out!” Miller shouted.

Lee heard him just in time, right before he actually tried yanking the arrow out of his leg. Fine. He held the shaft steady with one hand and sliced it in half with his sword. It wouldn’t do anything to improve his movement, but he took comfort in the fact that at least it wouldn’t wreck his entire leg if he fell down face-first.

For his part, Miller had apparently finished his first target much quicker than Lee and had made it to the last bandit before he could grab his bow. Instead, the enemy had apparently grabbed a pair of daggers and the two were engaged in a strange sort of combat where neither could strike the other. Every time Miller pushed forward for an attack, the man jumped back, and every time the man tried to slip past the spear, Miller pulled back. As a result, neither side was doing much in terms of actually landing a blow and was always dancing backward and staying out of reach of the other. The way they were going back and forth and circling around, it had probably been a complete accident that Miller had saved Lee by smacking the archer in the face.

“A hand?” Lee shouted as the archer smoothed out the arrow and aimed another shot at him. He was certain that the archer wouldn’t miss a second shot from less than 8 feet away.

“I have you, brother!” Miller broke away from his back-and-forth with the dagger wielder long enough turn and to swing his spear in a wide horizontal arc that slammed the archer in the back. The bandit was pushed off balanced and shoved forward a few steps, giving Lee the opportunity he needed. Lee staggered forward as best as he could trying to close the gap quickly, taking four more points of damage and dropping him to 33 health.

Lee didn’t manage to completely reach the archer, but when he got within arm’s reach, he pulled out his second sword and tried to and stab the archer. The other man twisted to the side and parried the blade away with his bow. Lee regrouped and went in again, this time with both blades stabbing in from opposite sides in a pincer attack. The archer responded by quickly swinging his bow down between Lee’s two swords and striking him across the forehead. The sudden blow left Lee momentarily stunned as well as taking off another 5 health. Slightly dazed from the hit, Lee’s attack was thrown off target and lost a good bit of its impetus, but he was still fortunate enough to feel both swords connect.

The archer swung again, trying to strike him on the head a second time from a diagonal angle, but Lee was prepared this time. He turned the bow to the side using one sword before the attack could connect and stabbed forward with the other. With his bow already occupied, the archer was unable to parry the attack. Lee’s sword pierced upward and into the archer’s armpit, drawing forth a string of blood that resembled flung paint.

“Fie! You son of a fish monger!” the archer cursed at Lee as he turned and went for a thrust with the end of his bow. Lee twisted his body, letting the bow’s upper limb jab past him,` and instinctively responded by delivering a roundhouse blow up and into the archer’s chin. He took a single point of damage as the bow slid across his gut, but his punch, weighted with the blade, knocked the archer clean over and sent him to the ground. Lee immediately plunged both swords down through the man’s flimsy brown robes and into his heart.

You have killed the Bandit. Your party has been awarded 38 copper, one piece of cloth armor and 62 experience. Your share of the loot is 19 copper, one piece of cloth armor and 31 experience.

Miller’s assistance hadn’t come without a price. As soon as he turned his attention away from his own target, his left arm was exposed. The dagger wielder lunged forward and used a rapid succession of attacks that sliced up Miller’s forearm. As Miller turned back to face the other man, he was forced to carry his spear with only one hand and in a rather ungainly fashion. It was clear from the pained expression on his face and the awkward stance he assumed that Miller wasn’t doing well.

“Rapscallion scum,” Miller muttered through gritted teeth and used a quick series of jabs to push away the bandit once again.

“Hey! Your buddy is dead,” Lee called over to the dagger user as he readied his weapons for one final attack. It turned out to be unnecessary, however, as the moment the dagger-wielding scoundrel turned to face him, Miller took the opportunity to land a thrust right under the man’s sternum. Heaving back on his long weapon, Miller used all his strength to heave the man into the air. The man screamed and shouted in mortal agony as he was lanced through, but there was nothing he could do to save himself as his body was slowly pulled down the spear by gravity. Little by little, the point dug further into his gut until it exited through his spine.

Your party has killed the Bandit. Your party has been awarded 38 copper, one piece of leather armor and 62 experience. Your share of the loot

You have learned the proficiency skill ‘Swordplay.’ This skill is currently at Unranked level 1. This skill improves one’s reasoning and execution of sword-related abilities in combat.

You have been awarded 2 Intelligence for discovering a new skill without the assistance of class trainers or a manual. Current Intelligence: 19.

You have learned the proficiency skill sneak. This skill is currently at Unranked level 1. This skill improves one’s ability to stay hidden, move silently and act undetected.

You have been awarded 2 Intelligence for discovering a new skill without the assistance of class trainers or a manual. Current Intelligence: 21.

For your bravery at challenging and defeating a group of significantly higher enemies, you have been awarded 5 Courage. Your current Courage is: 5.

What does courage do? Lee asked as soon as he saw the skill.

Each point of Courage improves pain tolerance by 1% and reduces the likelihood of being influenced by a fear-based attack by 1%.

“Victory is ours!” Miller shouted triumphantly as he lowered the corpse and kicked the man’s dead body off of it. “I told you justice would give us mastery over these wicked cretins! I knew we could do it!”

“You’re not upset about the method?” Lee asked.

Miller’s triumphant expression dimmed, but he didn’t disparage Lee further for using an irreputable method like a sneak attack.

The two of them looked at the corpses one more time before exchanging a look and sharing a laugh. For Lee’s part, at least, he wasn’t chuckling because he thought anything was funny. On the contrary, he felt closer to death than he had yet, his knee was in agonizing pain despite the new bonus to Courage, his heart was racing a mile a minute from the stress and exertion, and he hated the fact he was trapped in some game in some random world in the middle of nowhere where a crazy Firbolg kept signing him up for things just because they were in the same party.

Yet, for some reason, the relief from not dying was so thorough and satisfying that it felt like a weight had been picked up off of his chest. Lee couldn’t help but chuckle. This was even better than living through the wolf attacks. What if I’m actually a closeted adrenaline junkie? Am I going to end up climbing mountains and jumping out of planes just so that I can get as close to death as possible without actually dying?

Even Ethan seemed pretty pleased with the situation, and Lee could tell through the psychic bond that they shared that the little mouse was standing on his hind legs and clapping from the sidelines.

Lee and Miller both had been so caught up in the post-battle high that they had a momentary memory lapse on the issue that brought them out in the first place: Ling. When they turned around, though, they quickly remembered darted over to the rock where she was gagged and bound.

Lee knelt down in front of her, took out his sword, and slowly cut her ropes. He was a little worried she would either cut herself on his sword trying to run away or dart off as soon as the ropes were removed, but she remained still after she was freed. She stared at him fiercely until her hands were free and then pulled out the gag while Lee cut the ropes binding her legs. She stood up slowly when he was done, obviously being cautious, and immediately stepped back to put some distance between herself and the two men.

“Relax, we’re not here to hurt you,” Lee said, putting away his sword and backing up.

“Who are you?” Ling asked in a high English accent.

Lee did his best to talk as softly and calmly as possible, not knowing what was going through the woman’s head. “I’m Lee, this is my–”  

“I’m Donovan Miller!” Miller shouted and jumped forward with exuberance, thumping his chest with pride as he introduced himself.

She jumped a little at Miller’s outburst and eyed them both suspiciously. “Why are you here?” she asked apprehensively, slowly beginning to edge around them toward the recently deceased.

“Your father, Mr. Ying, sent us to find you when your cat didn’t show up,” Lee answered immediately. He wanted to reference her father’s name to build trust with her so she would know they weren’t just random, murderous adventurers. There’s no telling how people from this world normally act toward one another. For all I know, she might think she’s in an even worse situation than before–despite us freeing her from her captivity. After all, we did just kill four people in front of her.

“Why would he ask you two to save me?” She made it to the body of an archer and carefully picked up the bow and a few arrows, her face still deadpan as she watched Lee and Miller.

“Wait, that was your weapon?” Miller asked as she did that. “You’re an archer?”

“Huh?” Lee looked at Miller.

“You can’t just pick up other people’s stuff, the uhhh–” Miller clearly stumbled over the use of the word game, pausing as he tried to think of a correction before giving up. “It will disappear if you do.”

It? Lee wanted to ask, but he was still more concerned about the girl, so he just ignored Miller’s explanation and continued the dialogue with Ling. “He didn’t think you were kidnapped, actually. I’m sorry to say this, but no one knew. We were only looking for you to tell you that we found your cat and that you could come home,” Lee explained, keeping both his hands raised as she held the bow above her legs, her fingers tightening around the riser.

“My cat. You found Weiser?” Ling’s exclaimed excitedly, and her beautiful face lit up for the first time since they had freed her. “Show me! Where is he?”

“Yeah, we found your little bud.” Lee grimaced at the memory of the flesh-tearing cat ripping up his arm when he first ‘found’ the grimalkin. “He’s just not with us right now.”

“Oh.” Her expression soured.

“Yeah, we left him with your dad, who is probably very worried about you,” Lee added. “You should probably be heading back.”

“Ah, yeah.” Ling pursed her lips. “Do you think it is safe?” she asked.

“How about we escort you? Neither of us is that familiar with Satterfield”–a statement that might have been true before they spent all day meeting every single person in the small town during their quest to find Ling–“so how about you lead the way back?”

“Of course.” Ling nodded her agreement. “Just follow me.”

What were the chances of things feeling so close to home? Lee wondered as he stuck his hand out and let it brush over the all-too-similar vegetation. The sun was starting to set, and a familiar orange sky covered the vast expanse above them as they walked back. Lee found it oddly comforting to stare up at the sky, knowing that, even out here in this random gaming world of another random universe that he had been pulled to by some attention-seeking deity, some things hadn’t changed. The sky was still blue, the sunset was still a myriad of orange hues cascading across the sky, and the grass was still green.

When they arrived back at town, Ling’s father was waiting for them at the edge of the village. “Thank you so much!” he said to Lee and Miller, not even asking about the situation, why his daughter’s hair was ruffled, her dress was torn and covered and dirty, or why her hands shook as she held the bow like it was her last lifeline. All he said was, “Thank you, thank you, thank.” He repeated the two words several more times and hugged his daughter as if the sight of her and the fact that she was in the shape she was in was explanation enough. “I don’t know how I can ever repay you!”

You have completed the quest: ‘Get the Pussy, part two’ Your party has been awarded 1 silver, 19 coppers, two pairs of fine leather boots and 1100 experience, of which your share is 59 coppers, one pair of fine leather boots and 550 experience. Your Charisma has also improved by 4 for helping out an old man in need. Your Honor has improved by 1 for honoring your word and completing the quest as you promised. Townsfolk in Satterfield have a better opinion of you.

“You are now level four. You need 65 Experience to reach level five. Your level increase has boosted all primary stats by 1. Your current power, toughness, spirit, reflex, coordination, concentration and accuracy have been adjusted to 14.”

Miller enthusiastically spoke up for both of them and said, “It was our pleasure! With Lee’s god leading the way and my trusty spear in my hand, we were able to easily hunt down the wicked men who had taken her and bring them to justice!”

“Well, thank you either way. I cannot tell you how grateful we are to have Ling back safe and sound.”

“Your god led the way?” Ling asked when father stopped embracing her to shake hands with Miller as he thanked the man.

“Uhh . . .” Lee froze. Wait, should I try my hand at proselytizing again? If she converts, I might be able to finally go home. Lee’s eyes shot open. A chance to see my family again sooner than expected! “Well, yeah. My god, the great God Augustus.” He felt sick complementing the deity that had thrown him into the awful situation to begin with, but he pressed on. “He, in his benevolence, told me where to find you.”

Little Ethan, who had climbed back into Lee’s chest pocket as they started to walk back to town, gave Lee a swift and exceptionally tiny kick at the mention that the ‘god’ had been the one to find her.

I know, little guy. I’m sorry. I had to lie, though, Lee apologized to his little Golem Sculpture mentally. If there is a chance I can convert her, I have to take it.

“He’s not kidding, either.” Miller, a man of no faith, quickly stuck up for Lee. “He was able to just head straight to you as if his god was right in front of us showing the way. He even knew exactly when we were about to be beset by wolves and gave us plenty of time to prepare!”

Yep, I forgive you for putting me in two near death situations just because I’m an NPC. Lee had a newfound respect for his knightly friend, though Ethan wasn’t happy that the god had once again been given credit for his actions.

“Wow, your god did all that?” Ling asked in awe.

“Yes, as I’m sure your god often helps you . . .” Lee said, awkwardly trying to probe her about her religion with the same tactic he had used in the past to find out if a girl was single or not.

“Umm, well, actually . . .”

“We don’t believe in any god, but if yours saved my little Ling Ying”–Mr. Ying took Ling’s hand in his own–“then I’m willing to consider hearing about him sometime.”

Yes! YES! SUCCESS! Lee did his best to not burst with exuberance right there.

“I’d be more than happy to teach you too about Augustus.” Lee went into his best full-on salesman mode. “He is the God of Alcohol and Crafts, and, as such, his teachings are useful in all facets of everyday life.”

“That does sound interesting, but let’s talk about it more tomorrow,” the old man responded, beginning to brush Lee off.

Lee couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy at the old man’s words. After all, this was the second time someone had that same reaction as he began talking about religion.

“For now,” Mr. Ying continued, “my daughter has been returned to me safe and sound, so I’d like to take her back to the house, get some food in her, and let her have a good night’s rest. Does that sound good, Ling? Weiser is waiting for you at home.”

“Yes, that sounds wonderful!” Ling’s expression had brightened a bit when she saw her father, but the mention of her cat made her flash a dazzling smile.

Ugh. If everyone keeps ditching the second religion is mentioned, how am I ever going to find a convert?

“That doesn’t sound like a bad idea for us, either,” Miller said, patting Lee on the back and turning to him. “I promised to show you the cheapest tavern in town and buy you a round of beer, but after today’s harvest, we can stay at any inn in town!”

“The cheapest one is fine,” Lee insisted quickly. No matter where they stayed, he was sure he would be preoccupied with his life back home and how he had ended up in this situation. There was no point in wasting his hard-earned money on what would likely be a lugubrious night.

“Are you sure? We should celebrate! We should go to the nicest restaurant in town and eat like the kings we are! For, today, we saved a life and ended four men who had no problem enslaving one!”

Miller’s personality and good mood were somewhat infectious–but only somewhat. “I’m fine with the cheapest,” Lee assured him. “We should save our money for something worthwhile, something that can help the community.” And why am I talking like I’m going to be adventuring with him often?

“Spoken like a true man of the cloth. I knew we could get along from the moment we met,” Miller stated.

No, you didn’t. You were hesitant about even splitting the original quest reward with me. Lee grimaced at the memory, but he nodded to Miller and offered a small, differential laugh. “Of course, it was certain to happen. Now, about that tavern?”

“Are you sure you don’t to do another delivery quest first? There is still sunlight,” Miller pressed. He was likely just as close as Lee to hitting level five and wanting to knock that out before he logged off.

Lee was about to try his hand at arguing with him again, but then he remembered he didn’t have to. “I’m pretty sure you said you’d show me the tavern and get me a beer after we finished returning the cat. Now we’ve finished another quest, and you’re pushing for one more? Don’t tell me you’re the type of man to go back on your word?” Lee smiled as he delivered the fatal shot to Miller’s hopes of further questing.

“But . . .” Miller stared open-mouthed at Lee. “No, my bad. You, umm . . . Humans just usually don’t take me up on these things.”

There is the word ‘humans’ again, his go-to substitute for NPCs, Lee thought to himself, mentally taking notes of what Miller was saying. He was very interested in how and what made NPCs so different in this world, aside from the fact they could die, and players would likely just respawn. So, now it’s just a question if the ‘things’ he was referring to was whether NPCs had a good long-term memory or not, whether they normally acted disagreeable with players, or whether they pushed to cash in on player-promised gifts and rewards. Lee scratched his chin as he noted the details.

“How long have you been . . .” Lee trailed off as he realized that he couldn’t just ask ‘How long have you been in this world?’ he knew that he was registered as an NPC, and that’s what Miller saw him as, so until he learned how he was supposed to interact, he had to play it safe. Instead, he asked, “How long have you been in Satterfield? Is this your first time to the Spicy Chicken Noodle Kingdom?”

“Oh, yeah. I just arrived this morning.”

“So have you had many dealings with, uhh . . . humans before? How long have you been in the kingdom?”

“No, I suppose I haven’t. Not that any of us, umm . . . Firbolgs have.” Miller stepped around the word player again. “A lot of us just started in the last few weeks, perhaps two months at the most?”

This news caught Lee’s interest. Considering how dire Augustus had made the situation out to be, he had long taken it for granted that the game had been around for a long time. If nothing else, he had imagined that this was at the least a finished game. Given the fact that the kingdom was named Spicy Noodle Chicken Surprise, and the king’s name was Red Ramen, basically another random food item, it was only logical to assume that this game had been around long enough for players to take control of various different aspects. He never would have imagined that it was still a fresh release or names like those had been chosen by the developers.

If Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games had taught him anything, it was that there was a very finite amount of time once a game was released until it was conquered unless a game developer interfered. Often, the game developers would have to put in serious time locks just to prevent extreme players from clearing out all the content before the first two weekends were up, so two months was probably plenty of time to conquer a game. That said, it didn’t take away the startling nature of it at all.

“I see,” Lee answered. He was still kind of in shock that he was getting to experience a game this amazing and state of the art, even if it had managed to almost kill him twice in less than twenty-four hours so close to its initial release. This was a game no one else he knew would even know about. “But”–Lee decided to mess with Miller and see if he could get more information on NPCs at the same time–“if not a lot of people know about how to deal with us . . . umm, humans, then how is it that you were so sure I wouldn’t hold you to a promise? Or is it just that you break a lot of promises?”

“What? No, of course not! I’d never break a promise without the other party being okay with it!” Miller protested.

“Like the first time we did a quest, you mean? When you accepted the quest for both of us instead of taking us right to the tavern as promised?” Lee’s grin would have been ear to ear as he watched the giant, lanky man squirm under pressure if he hadn’t put every bit of effort he could into suppressing his amusement.

“So, the tavern is just down this way . . .” Miller sidestepped both Lee and the conversation, jaunting off in front of him as he led the way establishment.

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