“You know, you surprise me, Lee.” The koala made creepily-direct eye contact with Lee as he sipped his teacup. “I gave you twenty-four hours. I let you do whatever you want, and you chose to spend it watching BlueTube, eating by yourself, avoiding games and not even having a single drink. You do know that even prison inmates get a better send off than that, right?”
“I didn’t want to be unprepared for today or tomorrow or whenever it is chronologically that you’re sending me back, I guess,” Lee answered with a shrug. “Why does it bother you? What business is it of yours how I spend my time?”
The koala sipped his tea, pulled out a fancy chain and stopwatch, polished it for a moment before putting it back and then sighed. “You’re a servant of the God of Alcohol and Crafts, and you didn’t make anything or drink anything. It was just painful to watch. I almost used some of my dwindling influence to create a power outage just so you’d get out of your chair.”
Nerd hate, huh? From the God of Crafts? Lee grimaced. He had dealt with those ‘Go outside cause it’s awesome, healthy, and good for you!’ people as a child, and he still harbored resentment toward them for pushing their preference for skin cancer on him. If not for those kinds of people, he would have had plenty of time to practice and would have been able to absolutely crush his friend Paul as a kid in Alley Fighter. “Look, I just needed to make sure I had a gameplan, a way to start your religion. Why are you so upset about that?”
“I’m not upset!” the Koala harrumphed, stamping his feet and shapeshifting into a fox. “You’re just being an idiot and insulting me. I gave you a book with the secrets to making literally anything possible in that world. Granted, it’s not going to be as step-by-step as those stupid videos you watched, but it’s the bible of all crafting. Why do you think it’s so thick? It’s the one magical item I gave you, so just learn how to use it and stop wasting your vacations.”
“Wait, what? It’s magic?” Lee momentarily felt concerned about lending it to Miller, but that fear vanished instantly when he remembered that Miller was a fan of justice. It was highly unlikely that he’d lose or mistreat someone else’s property. “I have to hold onto it? Then how do I convert people? Don’t they need to read the good book to understand you and all that nonsense?”
“What? No. They just need to worship the name Augustus and build their own image of how great I am in their head. The book is a set of guidelines to help you in your task, not something to give out whenever you feel like it or to the first guy you meet with a big spear!”
“Hmmm.” Lee didn’t feel like arguing, so he just nodded along and tried to think of another question. Augustus obviously didn’t want to give out too much information, so Lee had to be smart with what he asked. Even if the god wasn’t telling him everything, Lee had started to believe that there was more to things than met the eye. Augustus had asked him to only convert NPCs but originally complained that his main church base was either old or leaving the church to become players. That means that he originally subsisted on the faith of players alone. So why are NPCs important?
Augustus changed shape again–back to a sloth–and sighed in irritation. “Enough of this. Are you ready to go back? I’ve already pulled the pound of bacon you bought on your shopping spree from your fridge and put it in your inventory.”
“Wait!” Lee threw up both of his hands. “When do I get to come back this time? How many followers?”
“Uhmmmm . . . get me two NPC followers, and I’ll give you another day. Get me ten, and I’ll give you a week. Your choice on when to cash in.”
“And if I can get more? Is there ever a number I can reach that will let me stay in my world forever?”
“You mean am I ever going to set you free from the eternal war? I mean, War of Eternity?” Augustus paused as if thinking for a moment. “How about a town? If you can convert enough NPCs to add up to a town the size of Satterfield, we’ll talk about it. Until then, two people is a day, and ten people is a week. I may change that later, but those are the terms for now. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Good, then are you ready to go back?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Sure. You’ve got around a minute left, so if you wanna sit and talk about your feelings, maybe mope some more or complain again, you’re welcome to do that for another . . . forty-two seconds.”
“Pass.” Lee gritted his teeth. He felt a vehemently-vitriolic chain of thoughts spring up toward the taunting deity but knew voicing them wouldn’t get him anywhere. Before he could even reconsider, he was once more warped through the darkness into the game world.
Lee returned to the game world in exactly the same position he had left it: lying down in his bed and staring at the ceiling above him. It took a moment for him to adjust to seeing the world from two perspectives–his and Ethan’s–simultaneously, but overall the process was rather painless, just jarring. He considered trying to get a little more rest before heading down to breakfast, but a growl from his stomach voted otherwise.
Fine. He rose from his bed and straightened up a bit, looking down at his clothes as he did so. He wasn’t usually one to sleep in clothes, but he had changed into a fresh set of threads since he knew Augustus was going to rip him into an alternate reality. He had been tempted to buy something medievalesque, or at least something passable for defense in this world, but the only way to get something like that would have been to order it online. Without the ability to wait two or three days for shipping, there just wasn’t any hope for it.
Wait, I almost forgot! Lee went straight to his inventory and took out the leather boots he had gotten from the quest yesterday. Come on, prompt, tell me what these fancy ‘fine’ leather boots do. Lee found himself grinning at the prospect of what his loot might be despite his circumstances. Even if he was in a potentially life-threatening scenario, he was still a gamer. There was nothing that could stop him from feeling some happiness during the item inspection.
Fine leather boots offer 6 damage reduction over the surface they cover, reduce energy spent on travel by 15%, and increase the effectiveness of sneak by one rank when worn.
Whoa, that’s actually pretty good. I think? Lee stared at the boots for a moment before hastily putting them on. They don’t look that bad, either. He knew all too well that he was still in the noob phase of this game. As players conquered dungeons and leveled up in most MMOs, their preference on gear would often become more and more influenced by aesthetics. It wasn’t that they didn’t care at the start of the game, it was just that the importance of one stat point far outweighed the need to look sharp. As a player became more powerful, he could afford to let a stat slip a tiny bit or pay the extra money needed so that he could look amazing while still being awesome. At the moment, though, Lee was at that stage of the game where he was willing to run around in a purple tutu slapping people with rainbow trouts so long as it got the job done, and he could live another day.
How about these? He asked the prompt while pulling out the leather pants and the gloves he had gotten from the midnight thieves and the cloth armor and bronze sword he had received from the bandits yesterday.
Leather gloves offer 5 damage reduction over the surface they cover and increase grip strength on weapons.
Leather pants offer 5 damage reduction over the surface they cover, reduce energy spent on travel by 15%, and increase the effectiveness of sneak by one rank when worn.
Cloth Armor offers 3 damage reduction over the surface it covers and also reduces damage from heat or cold based attacks by 5%.
That’s . . . Lee’s mouth watered a little. He wasn’t that impressed with the cloth armor, but the leather armor and the weapon had his eyes darting back and forth between prompts. Compared to the gear he had starting out, which offered no protection and did no damage, this was great. Five points of damage reduction was a lot, especially against low-damage enemies like dagger wielders.
This really could keep me alive. Lee started thinking about how to put together a new fighting strategy to compensate for the fact that he didn’t actually have any leather armor for his chest. He got lost in thought about how to use the loot for a minute until his stomach growled again and reminded him that he was still on a mission.
Oh, right, food. Lee sighed and headed downstairs toward the kitchen. He had tried a practice run or two with fried chicken last night, but he still wasn’t a hundred percent confident that he could pull it off. The only thing that he knew for a fact he could manage with ease was the bacon. After all, bacon was something that everyone learned how to cook before they hit ten in his household. His dad had been the type of guy to make little bacon castles with pancake guards for his breakfast as a kid. Naturally, he had picked up quite a few tricks and techniques from his father, the Bacon King of Breakfast Bacon Castle Land–a name his old man had used for himself way too many times to not begin eliciting groans after a while.
“Good morning!” Ramon greeted him as he came up to the bar. “So what’s the breakfast you’ll be having this morning? I believe you wanted pig belly?”
“Actually, do you mind if I cook my own?” Lee asked, pinning his hopes on the head of the kitchen not being too stingy with his workspace.
“Hmm . . .” Ramon paused and looked around the bar.
For a group of adventurers who needed daylight to hunt, the number that got up early wasn’t nearly what Lee would have expected. Even Miller had yet to come down, so the tavern was mostly empty, and the only other two people to have descended from the rooms were already eating what appeared to be biscuits. Ramon shrugged after a minute and motioned for Lee to come back behind the counter toward the kitchen while giving him a timeframe: “Well, I guess it can’t hurt, but don’t take too long. You’ve got about an hour or so before the rest of the crowd comes down and starts demanding food.”
“Thanks.” Lee smiled while checking off the box on his mental list of steps toward world domination, or at least he hoped it was headed in that direction. “Can I use whatever ingredients I find back there, so long as I pay?”
“I told you, after the assassination attempt last night, you get one free breakfast. Just make yourself at home with the kitchen, but try to hurry up.” With that, Ramen turned and went back to the front.
“He may have said you can eat what you want, but if you touch my beef ribs without paying, I’m going to gut you and hang you like that pig,” a man, around six foot five with a figure as round as the biscuits the customers were eating earlier said as he exited the shadows like a caped superhero trying to talk to a police chief.
How the heck– Lee’s brain couldn’t comprehend how he didn’t notice this massive chef when he first entered the kitchen. “That’s . . . that’s fine, but do you mind if I take some of the chicken?”
“Is that all you’re going to be needing?” the chef harrumphed. “If it’s just chicken, you should let me cook it for you, whelp. I’ve been cooking chicken long before you were a twinkle in your daddy’s eye.”
“I’ll also need a pot, a frying pan, some oil, some . . .” Lee listed out everything he could remember from the video. He was expecting the man to interrupt him at some point and tell him ‘Kid, if you’re trying to fry chicken I know how to do that too,’ but it never happened. Instead, the man just watched intently as Lee prepped the chicken, heated up the oil, and began frying the pound of bacon. He made sure to catch the bacon fat for later. If he couldn’t get his hands on more, this was probably going to be the best chance he had of tasting anything like it.
In theory, it should only have taken him between fifteen to twenty minutes to fry up some chicken wings. Half an hour later, he was still double and triple checking everything. When he was finally satisfied with the preparations, he dropped it all into the oil.
You have learned the proficiency skill ‘Cooking.’ This skill is currently at Unranked level 1. This skill improves one’s ability to manage time and ingredients in the kitchen.
You have been awarded 2 Intelligence for discovering a new skill without the assistance of class trainers or a manual. Current Intelligence: 25.
There we go! Lee was rather satisfied with the unexpected boon. Now to test out my creation, he said, blowing on one of the fried chicken wings a few times to cool it off before sinking his teeth into it. Well, this isn’t exactly Carolina Fried Chicken, but it is definitely good. Lee let out a sigh that was mixed relief over his creation not failing and joy at how good it felt to savor. He then tried the bacon and found that the cast iron skillet had actually left it with a lot more flavor than he was used from his pan back home. Maybe I should invest in one of these when I get back, Lee thought, scratching his chin momentarily as he took another bite of bacon.
“Hey, kid,” the chef who had just been silently watching him the whole time called over, “are you really going to eat all of that?”
Lee looked at the seven pounds of fried chicken and the stack of crispy bacon that was two pieces short of a pound itself and then up at the bear-like chef whose mouth was clearly salivating. “Well, I suppose I could spare a piece of chicken . . .” Lee shrugged and tossed the man a drumstick before the chef could pretend like that wasn’t the intent of his question.
Alright, let’s see if this evil scheme works. Lee leveled his gaze on the man as he ripped the crispy flesh off of the drumstick with his teeth. The man chewed twice, then stopped.
Huh? Why aren’t you chewing more?! Chew, dangit! Tell me it tastes good! Lee felt a bit of anxiety begin to build. If this experiment failed, he’d have wasted half the previous night and a good portion of the time he had spent back in his own world.
After a few more seconds of just holding the food in his mouth, the chef hesitantly began chewing again. Lee began to relax a bit, but the anxiety hadn’t gone away. Then, a moment later the chef devoured the entire drumstick so quickly that Lee wasn’t even sure he had seen it right.
“Good. GOOD GOOD GOOD!” the bear of a man shouted as he started licking the grease off of his fingers. “Soooo GOOD!”
“There is no need to be modest,” Lee said happily. He felt like having some fun at the man’s expense. “You’ve been cooking much longer than I have, right? This is nothing to you! Don’t lie to spare my feelings.”
“Me? Lie? Nonsense!” the chef exclaimed. “Just let me get another piece of that chicken.”
So fried food really is that addicting, eh? Lee did his best not to chuckle out loud and anger the man, mainly because the big man’s arms alone seemed more than capable of crushing him with one swipe. “Please, I appreciate you letting me use your kitchen, but I really wouldn’t want you to stoop so low as to eat a novice chef’s food.”
“Kid, this ain’t no false modesty. Hand over some of that there chicken,” the chef insisted, and his hungry look sent a chill up Lee’s spine.
“Alright, alright,” Lee conceded. He picked another piece of fried chicken out of the bucket he had been using so that he could carry them back to the main room and said, “But just one thing first.”
“Can you consider worshiping the god, Augustus, who taught me this recipe? I’m not forcing you to do anything, just let me know you’ll at least consider it.” Lee waved the food back and forth like an owner taunting his dog with a treat.
“Sounds fair.” The man nodded his agreement as he caught the two pieces of fried chicken Lee tossed his way. “You’ll have to show me how to cook this one more time in the future,” he insisted after he had secured his food.
Lee just laughed as he turned and head back to the bar. “Let’s see if I’m alive tomorrow or not,” he called behind him.
“You better be. You mind if I try some of the pig?” the chef asked just as Lee was about to leave the room.
The coup de grâce? Of course! Lee laughed internally but slowly and solemnly said, “Fine, one piece. But without more prayers to Augustus, this may be the last batch I ever have.” With that, Lee handed over a single stick of bacon.
“Whelp, you’re really starting to . . .” The man paused and took a bite of the food, and his face lit up instantly. “How many more prayers do you need for more of this?”
Win! Lee masked his sly grin and walked back to the bar.
“Sorry about that,” Ramon said, pouring Lee a beer and placing it on the counter in front of the same seat he had used the night before. “Should have warned you about David. He’s a great chef, but he’s kind of particular about his workspace.”
Lee smiled. “Oh, he was no bother at all.”
“That’s great to hear. I’m impressed that he let you walk away with so much food. He must really like you.”
Is that how he treats people he likes? Lee remembered the rather brash start of their interactions. “Well, we got along in the end at least.”
“I know I said breakfast was free and that you could make as much as you like, and I know your friend is big, but don’t you think you overcooked a bit for just the two of you? Or are you planning on taking it with you on your quest?”
My quest . . . Lee’s jubilee was instantly shot as he remembered that he had somehow accepted a ridiculously hard quest to go hunt down the thugs who had been kidnapping the villagers. “I suppose I do have plenty. It’s my fault though. Whenever I’m doing something I love, I can often get overzealous.” Lee tried to look bashful as if this were all an accident while he offered Ramon a piece of bacon. “Perhaps you’d like to try some of it?”
“I must admit: I am rather curious.” Ramon showed no shame as he snatched the piece of bacon and snapped right into it.
“I hope my cooking was decent. Is it any good?” Lee asked while Ramon chewed.
“Any good? This is phenomenal! Is this what you were asking for last night? I give it a ten out of ten in taste and texture, with an eight out of ten in cleanliness while eating. This is definitely better than even Sam’s Soupy Stew top course!” Ramon laid on the praises heavy. “May I have another?”
Lee shook his head at the request and instead offered him a piece of chicken. “How about you try this instead,” he offered, making sure to pick out the fattest drumstick he could find in the bucket. Since Miller was already converted, there wasn’t a point in wasting the best and juiciest parts on him.
Ramon’s eyes shot open as soon as he took a bite, and he made several ‘mmmm’ sounds between chomps. “How did you learn how to cook like this?”
Bluetube, Killing Them Heavily? Lee thought back to the station he had used to find videos on how to fry everything from chicken to ice cream. “It’s one of the techniques taught at the church of Augustus. If you think this is good now, wait till you try it after a few drinks,” he added. “There is even a way to cook pork cutlets with this technique that is to die for while drinking.”
“What’s to die for?” Miller said as he came down the stairs. The Book of Augustus was in one hand, and he was apparently reading as he walked up to the bar.
“This food your friend has made, you’re going to love it.” Ramon pushed the bucket over toward Miller, offering up Lee’s food without even asking Lee first. Then again, the chicken was technically Ramon’s, and Lee had just been the one to cook it.
Miller took a drumstick, head still buried in the book, causing Lee to, out of pure irritation at the disrespect to a hardcover book, snatch the book out of Miller’s hand before he could take a bite and get any greasy flakes of fried chicken skin on the pages. “Hey! Show some respect for books!” Lee demanded. He didn’t mind when people read books to the point the spine broke, left tiny folds at the top of the pages, or even fell asleep on a book and contorting the makeshift pillow so that, any time you opened it, there would always be that page he slept on as the natural split, but he couldn’t stand people eating and drinking around his books. Sure, e-books were so common these days that it was rarely a problem, but he had been, for lack of a better word, a proper ‘nerd’ since he was five years old, and that meant he had hordes of hard and soft back books that he had already paid for and didn’t want to part with until the day he died.
“Sorry, it’s just this book is so amazing. Your god, or, well, our god now, has so much to say on everything. Did you know there are over fifty ways to modify a single spear? Over fifty! Every time I thought I was done reading about modifying spears, I’d turn the page and like it was magic! A new page with new techniques would show up. I didn’t think it was possible for there to be so much–” Miller took a bite of the chicken mid-sentence. “Woah. This is great! Ramon, your cook has really upped his game. I could eat this all day, every day.”
“It’s not my cook. It’s him.” Ramon responded, pointing to Lee. “He says it’s a technique of his religion, so I imagine that might be an option if you’re actually joining his church.”
“Of course I’m joining! It’s the best! I had my doubts when he first told me about it, but after borrowing his bible, I couldn’t be more convinced. There is a god, and Augustus is his name,” Miller stated proudly with a hand over his heart. “No one else but a god could make such a magical artifact.”
One I didn’t even notice was magical until it was pointed out to me. A book that could tell me anything I wanted to know craftwise, and this moron figured it out before me? Lee couldn’t cover up the shame he felt at being outdone by the self-proclaimed champion of justice. “Of course. And I’m more than happy to hear you’re joining the fold.” Lee patted the Firbolg on the shoulder as Miller ripped into another piece of chicken. “Now, the two of us can go out and convert people together.”
“Convert? No, we must do his good work. He clearly gave us this tome of knowledge so that we can destroy evil and lay waste to the infidels who would besmirch the name of our religion with vile and evil acts!”
Lee cringed. “Easy with that infidel word.” I don’t want to be blacklisted from public flights! he thought, even though he knew there would be nothing of that sort around here. Wait, since I get to shape this religion, why not start now? “You’re right that we should stop evil as a way of bringing about the word of our Lord Augustus, but that doesn’t mean you should ever hurt or oppress people for having different beliefs than you. If they don’t believe us, that’s their loss. Just follow the teachings and prove you’re better.”
Miller looked at Lee in confusion. “What teachings? You mean the modifications? The building patterns?”
“The uhh . . .” Lee fumbled around trying to think of an answer but just settled on dodging the question. “Just have some beer and enjoy your breakfast.”
“Huh?” Both Ramon and Lee looked at him dumbfounded, probably wondering why the herald of a religion didn’t have these answers readily.
“Eat!” Lee pushed a piece of bacon in Miller’s face.
“Woah! This is even better than the first thing,” Miller said as he munched on it. “Is this also part of our religious diet?”
Lee nodded. “Yeah, something like that. If we want more, we have to pray–and convince others to pray.”
“Not sure any food is really worth worshipping some random god,” Ramon chuckled, even as he reached for another piece.
Lee pulled the stack of bacon away from Ramon and said, “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t think it’s worth it.”
“Hey now, I just said I wasn’t sure. I need a few more samples to decide.” Ramon managed to grab another slice before heading into the kitchen, probably to ask his chef if he learned how to replicate what Lee had done.
The fried chicken wasn’t that hard to do, and Lee was positive that the chef would be able to duplicate it if he was worth his weight as a cook, but from what he had learned, it was doubtful that anyone would be able to replicate the bacon. After all, the bacon was otherworldly.
“So where did you get all this?” Miller asked between bites. “I remember looking through all the chapters of the book last night, and I didn’t see anything on food. It was all on spear modifications and stuff for how to make a weapon or make it better.”
“That’s because you don’t know where to look,” Lee answered, wiping his hands as thoroughly as he could on his pants before taking the book out and opening it up. If you’re a magical artifact, you’ll show me what I’m most interested in seeing, right? Lee hoped as he continuously wished ‘show me the fried chicken’ in his heart.
The pages in the book glowed a whitish blue color for a moment, and after the glow faded, then the page that Lee was looking at contained a detailed set of instructions for how to make fried chicken. He turned to the next page to see another recipe, and every page he tried after that showed more and more recipes for fried chicken. Along with information on flavor for each different recipe, there was also five categories for taste, ingredients required, prep time needed and difficulty, and each was rated with a number between one and one hundred.
Lee’s eye was immediately drawn to the difficulty description which varied from recipe to recipe and was displayed in two factors. The first number was the amount of Intelligence required, and the second was the level of cooking skill required. Needless to say, each fried chicken recipe needed between 0 and 2 intelligence at most, and null was listed next to each of the cooking skill requirement parts.
It was all incredibly impressive, but there was an additional bit that left Lee startled and captivated. At the bottom of each recipe, there was a mostly-blurred-out section labeled as the Assembly Spell. Despite the fact that the book right in front of him, he couldn’t read the words to any of the actual spells. The only thing he could make out were the requirements listed at the top. The simplest fried chicken recipe he could find required either a cooking skill of unranked level 5 and 50 intelligence or a cooking skill of Novice rank 5 and 25 intelligence. So, Intelligence isn’t just for learning skills faster. It seems you can’t even learn or use certain skills without it.
“Woah, so many different ways to prepare chicken . . .” Miller gasped from beside him. He had been chewing loudly and open-mouth mouthed as he watched Lee flip through the pages. “I wonder what that one tastes like.” He reached across to place his finger on a page with a cajun chicken recipe, but Lee smacked it aside.
“No touching the book while eating! Your hands are oily!” Lee snapped at Miller.
As he swatted away Miller’s hand, he noticed that Little Ethan, who had at some point left Lee’s pocket and was now standing on his right leg as he sat down, wagged a ‘no no’ finger at Miller before crossing his arms. He can’t see you. Lee chuckled at the little mouse, but little Ethan scampered down onto the floor.
Where are you going? Lee wondered, using his connection to see what the little mouse was up to. He strengthened the connection between them and focused on what Ethan was up to. As soon as he did, he realized exactly what the mouse was doing: hiding. Little Ethan could smell a cat and took that as a sign to vamoose. Wait, I don’t remember seeing any pets in the bar last night . . . Lee looked around in an attempt to spy where the cat was lurking, but his eyes landed on a familiar face walking up to him instead.
“Ling.” The word left his mouth as soon as his eyes made contact. She has a pet cat, so the scent is coming from her, not from an actual cat.
“Umm, yes, that’s me.” Ling bit her lip as her eyes darted between Lee, Miller, the book, the food on the plate in front of him, and two drinks Lee had forgotten were there. “Did I come at a bad time?” She asked, quickly adding, “I should go,” before anyone answered.
“You eaten yet?” Lee blurted out before she had a chance to even turn around and dart back toward the door.
“Oh”–she looked back at the food–“I had an egg this morning.”
“An egg? Like, not eggs, not a plate of eggs, not scrambled eggs, but just an egg?” Lee clarified.
“Yeah, an egg.” Ling nodded “I just didn’t feel like eating more.”
Or maybe your dad gave away most of his money on a quest reward so you can’t afford more. Lee wasn’t sure how the quest had impacted Ling’s family finances, but he knew just from looking at her that, while she had no real fat on her, she couldn’t get some of those curves without a healthy diet.
“Wow, I don’t think that would even qualify as a snack! I eat nine to ten eggs at a time and still feel hungry!” Miller’s shock was drawn across his face in exaggerated proportions like he was straight out of a Japanese comic. “You need to eat right away!” he commanded, reaching over and grabbing a piece of chicken from Lee’s bucket and shoving it at the girl. “Eat!”
“I . . . suppose I could try a little of the . . . umm . . . ” She hesitantly reached out and grabbed the chicken. “. . . whatever this is.”
“It’s chicken! Chicken from the god of gods himself, Augustus! Man, I tell you: This church is amazing.” Miller practically spat the words out and then turned his attention back to another piece of chicken for himself. “I see why you’re such a faithful servant.”
“There are more reasons than food,” Lee said, failing to mention that those other reasons were roughly extortion and kidnapping.
“It is . . . It is very good, but maybe a bit heavy?” Ling said as she wiped her mouth.
“So what brings you out here? Need us to find your cat again?” Lee asked with a light laugh.
“No, I just . . ..” Ling clenched her eyes shut and shuddered a bit. “Shannon disappeared last night.”
“What?!” Ramon shouted as he stormed in from the kitchen. “Shannon went missing? When? Where was she? What was she doing outside of her house at night?”
Ling stopped chewing and started to tell the story. “She was trying to meet with her friend, but her dad doesn’t like him, so they went to meet up with each other at night. When she didn’t show up, he just thought that she changed her mind or got caught sneaking out.”
“Well, if she’s missing, why didn’t you say something sooner? Where is her dad? Shouldn’t people be out searching?” Lee asked.
“Well, that’s the tricky part. Everyone went to the hunter’s hall to get volunteers. They’ve already started the search, but . . .” Ling’s eyes stopped shifting around and her gaze leveled on Lee. “I thought you would be more helpful.”
“Because you want my god to find your friend.” Lee spelled it out and said it plainly, even if she wouldn’t. If he could convince the chef to pick up religion for bacon and fried chicken, and Ling to pick it up so that she could save her friend, then that would give him at least one more day back in the real world. “The god you don’t believe in.”
“I . . . I didn’t say I don’t believe in him!” she protested. “I just . . . No one has ever mentioned him before, so it’s natural to be skeptical!”
“Skeptical? Of the god who helped me save your life and asked nothing in return?” Lee cocked an eyebrow as he smiled up at Ling. “What an odd thing to be skeptical about.”
“Well, I mean–”
“Enough with the chat, boy.” Ramon slammed a hand on the counter top. “Go! Go get Shannon before it’s too late. If you can bring her back unharmed, I’ll personally bring Ling with me to every service!”
Lee closed his eyes and sighed. So much for me getting to enjoy my morning before being thrown to the wolves again. “Alright,” he said after making peace with the danger he was committing to. “Let’s get going.”
“Wr-igh-way? ut-at-bout-rek-fst?” Miller asked, his mouth still stuffed with fried chicken.
“Of course right away. Just pack some food and leave the rest for the other patrons. We’re not the only ones who need to eat in the morning.” Lee snatched the bucket of chicken away from Miller’s grasp and gave it to Ramon.
“You don’t have to pack anything,” Ramon said, taking the chicken and setting. He grabbed a box from underneath the countertop and handed it to Lee. “This is a lunch my wife made me before work, so please bring back the box.”
“Thanks,” Lee said, accepting the lunchbox and then immediately giving it to Miller to hold. “And don’t forget your promise,” he said as he took the book from the counter and put it back in his inventory. “It takes a lot of faith and a miracle to get anything from Augustus. Trust me.” Although, I suspect a bear-sized swimming pool filled with beer might appease him in place of actual believers, Lee thought, remembering that the god had assumed the form of a mouse and swam around in a mug of beer.
“Stop acting like we wouldn’t do it no matter what.” Miller grinned in a goofy fashion he stood up. He was trying to play it off as if the kidnapping wasn’t a big deal, and there was no way that anything could go wrong. “We’re men of the cloth now after all.”
“So, where do we start?” Lee asked. “Can you show us her house and where she was supposed to meet her friend?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ll take you there right away.” Ling nodded once and then turned and darted out of the tavern and to the left.
Lee was startled Ling’s sudden decisiveness, so it took him a second to react. When he did take off after her, however, he was pleasantly surprised to realize faster than he would have expected. Ling ran like a high school track star, but Lee had no trouble catching up to her and then keeping pace as well. Normally, he would have been winded after a minute running at the pace he was keeping, but now he was able to complete the entire eleven-minute run without having to do more than regulate his breathing. Even when he came to a stop next to Ling outside of a small house, he didn’t need but a few deep breaths before he was back to normal.
Is this because it’s a game world or because I’ve leveled up? Most of the situations he had been thrust into so where he had exerted himself were so physically demanding and mentally intense that it made sense he wouldn’t have noticed. After all, the last thing on anyone’s mind when someone was trying to ram a sword into his gut was whether or not he was out of breath. He had been preoccupied with more important things like staying alive and not having his guts spilled all over the place. Thinking back, however, he realized that hadn’t been panting and hyperventilating like an office worker without a steady exercise regime would have. All of my stats have gone up by a few points, and their base was only ten to begin with. Does that mean each point is 10% more than my originally-weak arms could handle? Or is it just that stamina functions differently in this world?
“There’s nothing here,” Miller observed as he arrived, pulling Lee out of his introspective on game mechanics. “It’s like the place has been swept clean. The ground has been disturbed a good bit, but no more than it is in most other places around the town. How are we supposed to dig up any clues to where she might be or who might have taken her?”
“That was the hunters,” Ling answered, peering at the same barren ground as the two men. “They took every piece of cloth or stray object they could find for the dogs. They’re hoping one trail leads outside the town.”
The dogs! Of course. The must have bloodhounds or some such that can sniff out trails as well. That means my advantage with Ethan is far less significant that I had hoped . . . Lee looked up at the house hoping to find some clue the others might have missed. It was a rather plain and without much fanfare, just like every other house in town, and there was absolutely nothing to distinguish it from any of the others. Nothing at all separating it and the other houses. It’s not even an outskir–
“Hey, Ling!” A thought crossed Lee’s mind. “The guy Shannon was going to meet behind her father’s back . . . Where is his house?”
“It’s that way,” Ling answered, pointing back toward the center of town. “We actually passed his place on the way here.”
“I see.” Lee scratched his chin. So she was traveling in the middle of the night, but unlike Ling, she never actually left town. “And this happens often, right?”
“Yes, unfortunately. Most of the time it’s when people are out at night or . . .” She trialed off, her eyes beginning to tear up. “It happens a lot–even when people are just in the fields during the day–and it’s terrifying.”
“But are most of the kidnappings in the fields?” Lee felt bad pressing the subject when she clearly wasn’t over what had happened the previous day, but a suspicion was beginning to build in his mind. “I mean, do people go missing in the field more often, or at night more often?”
“I don’t know. I try not to think about it when it happens, but . . .” She looked toward the edge of town and back toward the center. “But it happens more in the town.”
“Hey, easy man. Can’t you see this is hard on her?” Miller intervened, moving over to Ling and putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s going to be okay. We don’t need all of these questions, do we? We’re just going to pray and ask Augustus the great and mighty god for help, and he’ll help us. That’s all there is to it! Right, Lee?”
“Augustus is not the type of god who helps those who can easily help themselves without him,” Lee replied, making up more stuff about the religion. Sorry, Benjamin Franklin, but I’m gonna have to steal your quote.
“That can’t always be the case, especially since we need his help in this situation!” Miller demanded. “Time is of the essence, and a person’s life is on the line! As the herald of a faith, surely you can ask Augustus where this one is just like you did for Ling.”
“We don’t need his help because time isn’t running out as fast as you think; and, unlike with Ling, the answer is already in front of us.” Lee quietly signaled for Ethan to start checking around. “After all, we already know an important detail that I don’t think even your hunters have noticed.”
“What’s that?” Miller and Ling asked at the same time. “There isn’t anything left for them to have missed, is there?” Miller went on.
“Why aren’t we pressed for time?” Ling asked this time, unconsciously rubbing at her wrists where they had been bound the day before.
“Because Shannon is still in the city.” Lee couldn’t help but feel good about this conclusion. All of the countless hours he had spent listening to detective shows while he played games had given him enough confidence to be certain of this conclusion.
“What do you mean?” Miller looked around.
“Well, is there a body of water near here? Perhaps there is a running river close to the town?” Lee tried to put the pieces together before incorrectly assuming.
“Of course. There are creeks and bigger around here,” Ling said.
“Ah, and I’m assuming that out of all the trails the hunters check, they all turn up dead ends, sometimes even circling back to town?” Lee needed to confirm one last piece to his puzzle.
“No, they’ve never found the trail. Not even once. It almost always goes dry. They’re out doing their best, trying their hardest, but by tomorrow . . . They all know that Shannon will still be missing, Shannon’s father will still be crying, and no one will know what to do.” Ling wiped a tear away. “That’s why we need you to use your god, to take this seriously and help us quickly!”
“Ling, the reason no one ever found any of the captured people leaving the city is that’s not how most of them were captured. You were an exception, not the rule. They took you from the field and during the day. They had a clear path to make their escape, and there was no trail from where you were. However, most people don’t leave the town right away. Whoever took Shannon had to know that she would be sneaking out in the middle of the night, when she was doing it, and what path she would take, or they had to be watching. They need a place where people would pass by all the time, somewhere you could hide someone without anyone noticing.”
“Huh?” Miller and Ling both stared at him blankly.
Lee finally just spelled it out. “Someone in the town did the snatching, and they’re probably hiding Shannon somewhere in town until the hunters stop searching.”
“What? No! Who would ever do that? That can’t be. That’s not possible. Our town doesn’t have people like that!” Ling protested.
Miller just nodded along in agreement even though he looked like a five-year-old who had bitten into sour candy and wanted to pretend like it was no big deal.
Lee thought about spelling out the whole deduction for her so that they could be on the same page, but then he remembered how Augustus had mocked NPCs as ‘not really capable of passing a Turing test’ and held back. He was certain Shannon was still in the town somewhere, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to hedge his bets and conduct the city as quickly as possible. On the off chance that she wasn’t, he still would have time to catch up to her outside the town if he was wrong.
“If she’s still in town, how do we find her?” Miller asked.
Lee once more called on his detective show experience to put together a quick plan. “Well, for that, we’re going to need to find all the houses on the path she would naturally take toward her boyfriend’s and then find out what routes people were taking in town when they went missing. Let’s find the houses that overlap on those routes, and then go door by door until we figure out which one is holding Shannon.”
“I know a few of them,” Ling said.
“Do you have a map of Satterfield somewhere that we can draw on?” Lee asked.
“No, but”–Ling looked around, then giving up on finding whatever she was after, just squatted down despite her flowery yellow dress and started drawing on the ground. Given that Satterfield really wasn’t a large town to begin with, she was able to draw out the houses as little blocks and the streets rather quickly.
“So, those squiggly lines on the streets, are those the routes you remember people taking?”
“Yeah, just two of them. I definitely won’t forget Red’s route toward Isaac. Everyone thought they hated each other. Red’s best friend was the only one who knew that the two were seeing each other every night, so it was the town gossip for a while when everyone found out about it,” Ling explained. “When Sam was taken, he was on his way to meet up with his buddy Adam so that the could go see Blaise play at the tavern, but he just never arrived.”
“That’s only four paths, but it’s enough,” Lee said, circling the one chunk of blocks that they all walked in front of. “That narrows it down to at most six houses, so it shouldn’t be a lot of work from there.”
Little Ethan scampered across and climbed back up into the comfortable pocket he seemed to favor. The mouse gave Lee a few mental squeaks, reporting that he had managed to sneak into Shannon’s home and pick up her scent from clothes still in the home.
You got enough to go on, right? Lee double checked. Another series of squeaks gave the affirmative. Are you going to kick me again if I give Augustus credit for your work once more? The mouse merely nodded and crossed his arms inside the pocket.
“Then, let’s go knock on doors and bang some skulls until we flush out the wicked rat!” Miller retrieved his weapon from his inventory and slammed the base of the spear into the ground for extra emphasis.
“It’s not that easy,” Lee admonished him. “We can’t let people know what we’re asking about, or they won’t help us. Right now, not one of these six houses suspects they have anything to worry about from us. Five of them don’t, and the one that does thinks we are too stupid to ever figure out his trick. If we start alarming people, the guilty culprit won’t open his door, we won’t be able to search the house easily, and Shannon might never be found.”
“Oh, then how do we search the house without telling them why?” Miller asked
“Just leave that to me,” Lee said assuredly. For good measure, he added, “And don’t do any talking until I tell you to.” The last part wasn’t actually needed. He just thought it’d be nice to get a break from Miller’s continuous rambling about how great justice was and how everyone needed to be protected and saved because it was the right thing to do. Lee might not be sensitive enough to understand someone like Ling’s feelings at a moment like this, but he could at least guess that even she didn’t want to constantly be reminded about Shannon’s plight after personally getting kidnapped just the day before.
“Okay, but what wil–” Miller started up another string of questions, but Lee cut him off right away by holding up a hand and shaking his head.
“Miller, let me handle the talking on this one, okay? I’m divinely inspired, so I won’t be led astray. Trust in the herald of your faith. You’ve already witnessed some of the great works of Augustus.”
Miller looked like he wanted to say something again, so Lee repeated himself. “Trust in me.” After that, a quiet settled on the group as they walked to the six houses in suspect.
Smell anything from Shannon? Lee asked Ethan as they looked at each of the houses.
Little Ethan communicated by sending a mental image of dug up dirt and Shannon’s smell near one of the doors.
Alright. Let’s sell this, then. Lee clasped his hands in front him, closed his eyes and tilted his head back as if he were looking to the sky. He stood quietly for a brief moment as if he were in deep prayer then pointed at the door Ethan had indicated in one quick, dramatic-as-possible action. “That one!” Lee stated emphatically. “That’s the house!”
“Are you sure?” Ling asked. “That’s Geoffrey’s house. He’s been a really great guy ever since his wedding. He helps out around town all the time.I can’t imagine he’d ever do anything to harm someone..”
How is it that we live in a town where people treat me almost getting assassinated in the night as something normal, but she can’t believe that someone would try to kidnap another person? Lee looked at her quizzically, not understanding where her certainty about the good nature of other people came from when everything he had experienced told him otherwise.
“What’s his job in town?” Lee asked.
“He’s a tailor. Why?”
Well, the proof is in the pudding. Lee simply shrugged, and without explaining what he was up to, he went up to the door and knocked.
“Hello?” Lee heard a voice say from within the house. “Who is it?”
“Hey, sorry to bother you, but . . . umm, I’m kinda in a pickle here. Could you take a look at these clothes? Do you think you could fix them?” Lee pulled out the pants he had taken off earlier when he had swapped them for the leather armor and held them out.
Geoffrey wasn’t having any of it. “What?” he asked, sounding outraged. “I’m busy right now.”
“Look, if you can’t do it, that’s totally fine, but I just need a moment of your time,” Lee pressed. “If you look at it and tell me you can’t fix it, I’ll go away. But I was told you’re the best tailor in town, so please help me out.” Lee made sure to lay on some praise and stroke the man’s ego as he pressed to get the door open with a promise of ‘I’ll go away if you give me a few seconds.’ While people might not be compliant with random visitors, they were usually pretty happy to do what was needed to get them out of their face.
“I said I’m busy!” Geoffrey shouted, refusing to open the door even a bit.
Lee exchanged a look with Ling. Suspicious? A tailor turning down easy business? He could tell from Ling’s expression that she was beginning to have doubts too.
“Sir, I promise I’ll get out of your hair if you can’t fix this, but this is a family heirloom. It’s a one of a kind outfit that I am very attached to. If you can fix it, I’ll reward you handsomely,” he insisted, taking a final stab at getting the man to open the door.
“Huh? Let me see what we’re working with.” The man didn’t exactly open the door but cracked it open wide enough to poke his head through. When he did, Lee had Ethan run between the man’s feet and into the house.
“Oh, it’s right here.” Lee handed the man his nice black slacks as Ethan spied around the place. A few seconds later, he had his answer.
So she’s in the basement. Lee had to stop himself from visibly recoiling when saw the conditions she was being held in through Ethan’s eyes. She was in locked in a cage with a gag stuffed in her mouth, and her wrists and ankles had been tied together with a single rope which was suspended from a hook in the ceiling. It was inhumane enough to make a good and honest, sheltered city dweller like Lee want to throw up in his mouth.
“Son, I have some free time tomorrow, but right now I can’t rea–” Without even looking at the fact there wasn’t a single hole or tear in the pants, Geoffrey was already trying to push Lee away. But before he could finish, the revulsion Lee’s felt reached his throat and had to be voiced.
“RAT!” Lee yelled, pointing at the man as he put his foot in the door.
“What? What the hell are you talking about?” Geoffrey scoffed as he tried to slam the door, only to have it stopped by Lee’s foot.
“There’s a big rat behind you! How can you not see it?” Lee asked. “Guys, get that rat before it causes trouble with Geoffrey’s shop!”
“No, no! Don’t come in!” Geoffrey protested.
Miller just ignored him as he slammed his shoulder into the door, knocking Geoffrey to the ground and charging into the room. Ethan scurried across the floor and back down the stone stairs into the basement where Shannon was kept. “I’ll get him! He’s as good as mine!” Miller yelled as he barrelled through the room after Little Ethan.
“Wait! Don’t go down there!” Geoffrey shouted, this time with much less panic as he reached into a chest near the bed and started pulling something out.
Crap, it’s a weapon. Lee gulped as he slowly pulled out his sword and tried to keep enough space between him and Geoffrey so that he could react easily. He was already playing out all the variations of how the fight would go down in his head.
“WHAT IN AUGUSTUS’S GREAT NAME HAVE YOU DONE?!” Miller’s ear-piercingly-loud yell came from the basement.
He found Shannon. Lee didn’t need to guess at what had set him off.
“GEOFFREY! I’m going to murder you!” Miller yelled from down the stairs. “I am going to rip your arms off, tear your tongue out, and pull every single tooth out one by one . . . You’re a dead man!” Miller’s rage was over the top, and he could be heard stomping up the stairs.
Geoffrey, apparently not one to roll over and die, had pulled out a large one-handed axe and was preparing to rush the stairs and fight Miller when an arrow shot through the air out of nowhere and stuck into his shoulder.
Lee didn’t have to look back to know who the shooter was. When did she bring out a bow? Was it on her the whole time? Seizing the opportunity, he pushed into the building and charged at the freshly wounded man.
Geoffrey grabbed at the arrow and stared at Ling in shock, and he didn’t even have time to react before Lee kicked him as hard as he could, sending the man toppling down the flight of stairs. Lee’s momentum almost enough to carry him forward and down the flight of stairs too, but he was able to regain his balance by grabbing onto the door jam and catching himself.
Geoffrey, however, was in a completely different situation. He immediately slammed into the edge of one of the stone stairs face-first and then continued his trip down the stairs, tumbling head over heels.
Halfway down the stairs, Miller stopped the falling man with a stomp, sticking him in place. Then he slammed a boot down on the man’s wrist, yanked his axe free, and tossed it down the stairs. Once the man was disarmed, Miller lifted him up by his neck and proceeded to beat him with his free hand. “You. Sick. Son. Of. A. Goblin. Whore.” Miller shouted, the words punctuated with both Miller’s grunts and Geoffrey’s sobs.
“Mr. Donovan, please . . . Just . . . Just finish him off. Please, end it quickly,” Ling pleaded. Whether it was just her nature or because of her previous ordeal, she clearly couldn’t stand to watch the brutal scene.
It was like Miller didn’t even hear her. He was so wound up and enraged that he continued his savage assault on Geoffrey despite the young woman’s pleas. After several tense seconds filled with the sickening crunch of blood and bone being hammered, Miller shoved his fist into Geoffrey’s battered and mostly toothless mouth. True to his word, the Firbolg grabbed the man’s tongue and actually ripped it out. When he was done, Miller tossed the barely-breathing man who must have had amazing, cockroach-like vitality to the bottom of the steps pulled out his own two-handed sword.
“I’m just . . .” Miller stalked down the steps and stabbed the point of his sword into Geoffrey’s shoulder joint. Blood spewing out of the wounds, but the man’s arm wasn’t immediately severed. “Making sure he knows . . . ” He stabbed down a second time and then a third, finishing off his work before kicking the body over.
Your party has killed the player Geoffrey. Your party has been awarded 21 silver, one sewing kit and 54 experience. Your share of this is 10 silver, 50 copper, one sewing kit and 27 experience.
You are now level 5. You need 65 Experience to reach level 6. Your level increase has boosted all primary stats by 1. Your current power, toughness, spirit, reflex, coordination, concentration and accuracy have been adjusted to 16.
“That he knows . . .”–Miller began chopping at the other shoulder–“that I am a man of my word. A man of righteousness and purpose must always keep his word.”
“I don’t think anyone will doubt that in the future,” Lee said to Miller as he began descending the stairs. He really did disarm him, rip out his tongue, and beat each tooth out of the poor man’s mouth. Lee felt kind of shocked. Usually, whenever people shouted those type of threats, they were hyperbole. He’d lived a long time as a trash talking gamer and a regular member of the good ole, excessively-violent human race, but he had never seen someone follow through on such a cruel threat.
“You should wash your hands and clean yourself up a bit. I have a feeling Shannon is going to be scared enough as is,” Lee added quietly as an afterthought as he stepped around Miller and moved toward where the woman was being held.
He didn’t have any use for the shirt and pants he had traveled to in the world in, so he quickly pulled them out and made a show of covering his eyes as he approached Shannon’s naked body.
His act was a farce since he had already seen her clearly through Ethan’s eyes, but he felt like the illusion of respecting her decency was for the best at the moment. It took him a moment without the use of his vision, but he was able to cut the ropes that she was bound up with. He started with the ones around her ankles and moved to the ones around her wrists second. As soon as she was freed, he caught her gently in of his arms.
“I’m . . . really sorry about what you’ve been through. These won’t fit comfortably, but please try them on,” he said softly, hurriedly pushing her away and handing her his old clothes. Even now in such a compromising position, he was doing his best to respect her privacy and keep up the illusion. That said, he didn’t Ethan cover his eyes too.
After a pulling out her gag and putting on his clothes, she spent a solid two minutes trying to figure out how the zipper and button for the slacks worked. Finally, she apparently gave up and decided to hold them up instead. “I’m . . . sorta dressed now.”
Lee turned back around to find her doing her best to keep the pants up. Without knowing how to work the belt, they didn’t even come close to fitting her. She was pretty tall for a woman at about five feet ten inches and had brown hair to go with a petite face full of freckles that usually accompanied Irish redheads. The good thing for her was that her figure wasn’t curvy in any particularly way, so not only did Lee’s clothes not exactly fit her, they also hung shapelessly without showing anything of her figure.
“Here, let me help you out with . . .” Lee went over to assist her with the buckle.
“Ah!” Shannon screamed and jerked back involuntarily before he could even touch it.
Lee threw up his hands as if surrendering and did his best to put on a smile. In a calm and even voice, he tried to talk down her panic. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just that those pants have a funny system to stay up. You do it like this . . .” Without touching her, he did his best to mimic the gestures need to button and zip the pants and tighten the belt. Everyone is used to zippers and clasps back home, so I suppose I took some things for granted.
Once she got it, he edged a little closer. “Do you mind? It’ll take just a moment. Close your eyes if you have to. I just need to adjust this so you’re decent,” he said.
She clenched her eyes shut as he made the last adjustments for the belt. She remained incredibly stiff the entire time, and he hated having to do it, but he figured that a moment of pain securing things would save her the trouble and further humiliation of things starting to fall off. When he was finished, he also had her tuck in the shirt a bit and put on a pair of socks.
“Okay, there you go. You’re all set now,” Lee said. When she looked at him curiously, he quickly followed it up with, “How about we take you to your dad?”
Shannon didn’t say anything back. She just pulled a little at her shirt, ruining the tuck in, and then meekly nodded.
He had to admit that she was actually rather cute, all things considered. He also had to admit that thinking about how cute she was after what she’d been through made him feel like he was committing some sort of sin. It was enough to make him berate himself for recalling her previously bare image. No, that’s inappropriate, Lee, very inappropriate. Despite the chastisement, the image didn’t fade.
© Charles Dean and deannovels.com, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Charles Dean at deannovels.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.