War Aeternus 2 Ch1

Name: Lee Race: Human Class: Herald – None

Level: 17 Health: 270/270 EXP: 4002/10500

Primary Stats:

Power 27 (28) Toughness 27 (28) Spirit 27 (28)

Secondary Stats:

Charisma 20 Courage 20 Deceit 14

Intelligence 121 (127) Honor 5 Faith 622

Personal Faith 213

Skills:

Unarmed Combat Initiate Level 7 Swordplay Novice Level 6

Sneak Novice Level 9 Cooking Initiate Level 7

Trap Detection Initiate Level 6 Knife Combat Initiate Level 8

Divine Skills:

Golem Sculpting Novice Level 9

Appreciative Drunk Novice Level 8

Faith Healing

Divinity Powers:

Life in Death

Lee’s heart skipped a beat as he watched three of his spears sail through the air. He needed their placement to be absolutely perfect since any slight deviation from the plan could result in either his or one of his friends being killed. He forced himself to swallow down the lump that had formed in his throat and willed the knots in his stomach to relax, but his body refused to cooperate, and he remained as tense as ever. There was a certain level of stress that came with any fight that promised to be as intense as this one, and until he knew whether or not his gambit was going to pay off, his heart was going to hang suspended in his chest.

Come on . . . Come on . . . Come on . . . Lee’s first spear nailed its target right in the side, but then it just bounced off as harmlessly as if it were nothing more than a foam bullet striking a man in chainmail. The Cragaboom wasn’t even bothered by it. The giant, spherical beast had countless rows of razor-sharp teeth, four thin, metallic-looking, spider-like legs, two actual rock cannons mounted on its forehead, and since it was nothing but living rock, it was far more durable than his spear was damaging. The second and the third spears struck one after the other, but they too careened off of the creature’s craggy exterior without dealing any damage.

“We’re under attack!” a voice yelled. One of the numerous cultists present who worshiped the beast had finally realized what was going on. The clansmen cared for the Cragaboom in the same way that a modern-day American might a cat: they provided all of its necessities and took care of its needs in return for some sort of imagined benefit and a very real sense of security when they slept. The beast had already proven itself useful many times over by protecting them from the town’s militia and other law-bringing forces, but there was one very real problem with the relationship that posed a problem for everyone involved and many who weren’t: the Cragaboom had a very real taste for flesh, and it seemed to treat any humanoid as an especially tasty treat–a treat that the cultists were more than happy to provide.

“To victory, brothers! Come on! Let’s show these bastards what we got!” another one of the cultists shouted in return. With that, the group charged in the direction from which the spears had been launched.

The Cragaboom turned as well, and a large, cylinder-like drill shot out underneath it and plunged into the earth beneath its feet just as two more spears were launched toward the creature. The first missed entirely, flying off wide, but the second struck it in one of its four large eyes, drawing out a long, loud and pained cry.

Come on . . . Come on, you bastards . . . Lee waited anxiously with bated breath, watching as the cultists surged ahead and followed the flow of spears back to their source. Time crept by slowly as he waited for the exact right moment to spring his trap. That’s it . . . a little closer . . .

“Where is he?” one of the cultists shouted in confusion. They had reached the spot the spears had been flung from, but no one was there.

The beast recovered from its wounded eye and twisted about while looking for any sign of its attacker, clearly prepared to fire off the tightly-packed chunks of earth from the twin cannons on its head at a moment’s notice.

“I don’t know, but what in the heck is this?” another one asked, spying the ballista Lee had set up there. He had fashioned a rather large crossbow-like mechanism and secured it to a tripod which he then planted into the ground and rigged to function with the cutting of a string rather than the actual pulling of a trigger.

“It’s a trap!” the man behind him yelled, finally realizing what was going on.

But it was too late. The words hadn’t even left his mouth when a log fell behind them, and a series of long, heavy ropes with spikes threaded through them sprang up from the ground. The weight of the fallen tree snapped the barbed rope against the trees all around the group and then pulled it tight, effectively trapping the nine cultists who were closest to the ballista inside a makeshift cage. One unfortunate man who was too far to the side was caught up in the ropes, impaled by the barbs and hoisted into the air, where he hung suspended, unable to move.

“Crap! Cut through them!” someone yelled. The same man rushed over and began hacking away at the nearest set of ropes, but it wasn’t going to do him very much good. Each strand was thick enough that it would have taken minutes of hard work to hack through alone, but the hardened barbs made it doubly impossible to get a good swing at the actual rope. To make matters even worse for the cultists, Lee had spared no expense in planning the trap: he had wired up dozens of ropes and strung them together to ensure that no one would ever be able to climb over or under and escape.

You can come back now, Lee thought to his telepathically-connected golem and constant companion, Ethan. He let out the breath that he had been holding and felt his heart finally start up again as a bit of relief flooded into him at the first sign of a flawlessly-executed plan. Now, Lee only had one thing left to wait for.

“Those traps better not steal my glory!” Miller boomed in warning from beside him. Lee’s Firbolg friend was vehemently against this type of sneaky, underhanded behavior, and he chose that exact moment to not only voice his complained but also charge the Cragaboom with his spear in hand.

The creature immediately turned to face the Firbolg warrior and fired off the giant clumps of dirt it had prepared from the twin cannons affixed to its forehead. As soon as the first two shots were discharged, it pushed the huge drill on its underbelly into the earth again, quickly pulling up massive quantities of dirt before reaching down, scooping it up, and reloading its weapons. If it weren’t for Miller’s reflexes, which were abnormally quick for someone so large, he likely would have been smeared across the ground by the two-foot-wide projectiles. As he was, however, Miller was nimbly able to dodge the speeding cannonballs of dirt and easily avoid them.

This was the final cue that Lee had been watching and waiting for. He popped out of the woods, a dagger in each hand, and charged forward side by side with Amber.

“Come on, you bastard! Is that the best you can do?” Miller laughed, taunting the Cragaboom as he slammed his spear into the ground and let out his infamous Drunken Shout. The inebriating war cry had originally done nothing more than make everyone within its area of effect drunk for ten seconds, but it had grown in strength until it was an almost-permanent debuff. He couldn’t cast it as often as before since the timer between uses had grown in conjunction with the duration of its effect, but it was much more useful now–especially against monsters. Most creatures had little-to-no tolerance for alcohol, and the Cragaboom was no exception. It began wobbling on its metallic legs as soon as the debuff hit and automatically retracted its dirt drill as it struggled to remain standing.

“Let’s go, you filthy rock! Show me your strength! Drink in the fresh taste of my justice and prepare yourself for death!” Miller’s taunts rang out as he closed in on the beast from in front, and Amber and Lee rushed in from behind. They weren’t as bold as the brash Firbolg, and they weren’t as strong, but they were much faster.

The trio didn’t even make it halfway to the beast before the fourth member of their party made her appearance. Like Lee, Ling had waited until the creature was afflicted by Miller’s Drunken Shout before making her move. She stepped out from behind cover and unleashed a string of arrows, firing them off one after another in rapid succession. Most of them bounced off of its craggy exterior the same as Lee’s spears had, but three well-placed shots struck their intended targets. One by one, the arrows whizzed into the creature’s remaining three eyes and rendered it blind.

“I’ve got your cover!” she called out. “The rest is up to you!” She then turned and concentrated her fire on the cultists after that, leaving her friends to finish off the beast on their own.

Lee didn’t have time to see if she actually hit any of them, but he knew that the foolish zealots wouldn’t likely make it out of his trap alive. They were completely unarmored, they weren’t carrying shields, and they didn’t have any sort of ranged weapons of their own to fire back with. Lee already knew from experience that they were far too reliant upon the ranged abilities of the Cragaboom to take archers as a serious threat. It was magically more accurate the further away its target was, and they had likely never even given thought to a contingency plan in the case they weren’t able to depend on its defensive capabilities.

“Thanks,” Lee mouthed in Ling’s direction as they reached the beast. It was squirming in place, twisting back and forth in agony as it desperately tried to cope with being stricken both blind and terribly drunk.

“Ready?” Amber asked.

Lee nodded, stashing away his daggers as he ran up to the creature and cupped his hands together. “Go get ’em!” he shouted encouragingly.

She placed one foot into his cupped and locked hands, and he used all of his strength to boost her up on top of the ten-foot-tall stone behemoth.

“Got it!” Amber shouted back. She sheathed her daggers as soon as she was aboard, dropped down onto her stomach and began crawling across the beast.

Her job was simple and straightforward: get on top of the creature, make her way to its forehead, and cut away the cannons that were mounted there. The artillery worked using a weird suction system, and they were the only fleshy part of the beast’s body that was vulnerable aside from its eyes and mouth. The brute didn’t have arms or any other way to touch its own head, so as long as nothing interrupted her, the creature was as good as dead at this point. Lee knew that there wasn’t a chance of it surviving Amber’s meticulous cutting, so he just pulled out his dagger and turned toward the incoming cultists.

“I can’t believe you’re letting her get all the credit for the kill!” Miller grumbled loudly, slamming the butt of his spear into the ground. “And we’re going about it in such a cheap way!  We should be fighting it fair and square, mano-a-mano.”

“There are still enemies behind us,” Lee began impatiently. “Do you want to argue while Ling gets all the kills, or do you want to come with me?” He laughed at the rhetorical question since he knew that Miller wouldn’t argue so long as he had something to fight, and he had something to fight fairly.

“Fine!” Miller may not have been fully satisfied with Lee’s answer, but he clutched his spear, turned around, and charged the cultists anyway.

“What are you doing?!” one of the cultists cried when he spied Amber, who was already working away at removing the turrets.

“Get away from the sacre–!” another one of the cultists protested, crying out and raising his sword as he yelled, only to be instantly silenced by an arrow. Another series of arrows suppressed the people on his right and left too before either Miller or Lee could make it to the first person.

Seeing the pattern, Miller finally lost his cool. “NO! I WILL NOT BE CHEATED!” He hurled his spear so hard that it pierced through the last living person and transfixed him to a tree six feet behind where he had been standing. The force of the blow was so powerful that a crack formed in the tree’s trunk.

You have killed the Cultists and the Cragaboom. Your party has been awarded 1 gold, 74 silver, 19 copper, 1 Eye of the Cragaboom, 1 rock gut,  and 2763 Experience. Your share is 43 silver, 55 copper, 1 rock gut, and 690 Experience.

“That was well done, team,” Lee said as he turned and started walking back to Ling, both Ethans swooping down from the air to land on his shoulders. Despite occupying two separate bodies, the two shared a single collective consciousness that was closely linked to Lee’s own–likely since they had been crafted from his spirit–and they seemed to have been influenced by his quirks. His shoulders were his golems’ favorite perch, and they often returned to alight there after a hard-won fight. Old school Japanese RPG-style victory music routinely ran through his head at the finish of every fight, and the little flying mice often performed matching victory dances to go along with it.

“Well done? Team? I didn’t get to do anything!” Miller raged, his face turning red enough to match his hair. “Where is the glory in distracting something?! I want to fight another! We need to hunt another one! I won’t let this be how it ends!”

Lee glanced over to check on Amber and found her still lying atop the now-dead Cragaboom. She was covered in blood, her chest heaving up and down as she sucked in air, and she looked exhausted.

Well, we do need the gold from the bounties these things and their cultists give . . . The loot drops aren’t bad, and the EXP is good . . . “I think that’s possible,” he responded.

“Without your stupid traps and cheats!” Miller demanded. “Justice should not be delivered through such foul means. It sours the effect and spoils any earned righteousness!”

“I actually agree with Miller,” Ling said. “They aren’t really needed. They helped at first, and they were absolutely necessary two days ago when we started using them, but we can handle this without them now. I think it’d be quicker if we just located a camp and cleared it out on our own. I can easily suppress most of the weak cultists without help.”

She was right: they didn’t actually need the traps anymore. But Lee needed them. He needed to perfect them and to understand them. Intricately-planned and thoroughly-prepared traps might not be as efficient as just bashing enemies into the dirt one after another, and they were a waste of time for someone who was already plenty strong, but they were a godsend for someone who was as weak as he still was. Ramon, the traitorous bartender that Lee had stopped during his first major quest, had taught him just how deadly the right trap could be if it was in the right person’s hands.

Augustus, the God of Alcohol and Crafts, had told him that he was over two months behind every other Herald in terms of progress and growth. He wouldn’t come straight out and tell Lee where the others were in terms of power or levels, but he had plainly hinted at the fact that they were likely snowballing in strength. If Lee was going to stop the other Heralds, he needed something that he could use to catch them off guard. He needed to kill them as quickly and mercilessly as Ramon had killed David–instantly knocking him out of the fight with the opening of a single door.

The sound of clapping echoed out from behind one of the trees along the border of the encampment, silencing their conversation and pulling Lee away from his thoughts.

“Very good! Not even a single scratch on your group! Very good indeed,” a man called as he emerged from the woods. He and the four others with him were all grinning broadly as they walked out of the shadows to greet Lee and his gang. “I have to say: we almost couldn’t have done it better ourselves.”

“Almost,” the man on his right, a purple-haired, black-toothed humanoid that Lee didn’t recognize, said.

What in the heck is he? Lee asked his tutorial prompt.

He is a variant of the Human race. While his particular branch of Humans comes from a separate universe than yours, they have no significant genetic differences. The current changes in his appearance and dental deformities were established recently.

I see. Lee nodded along to the tutorial as he read the giant, blue prompt that appeared.

“That’s right. Even your leader knows we’d do it better,” the purple-haired man pressed, mistaking Lee’s nodding along with the system notes for an acquiescence to his group’s braggadocious claim. He flashed a smile, showing a wicked-looking, tooth-filled mouth, and then laughed. “Which is why we’re going to have to get you to hand over the core: so that we can turn in the bounty.”

“I see.” Lee verbalized his thoughts this time, his head still nodding along as he sized up the group. He was uncomfortable with the fact that his pair of golems hadn’t detected them. That meant that their Sneak skill had to be even stronger than his.

When he had reached the Novice tier of sneak, it had given him a unique bonus: Harder to Notice if People Aren’t Paying Attention. It was as if their senses magically overlooked his existence.

It was a small change, but it was the only thing that would have allowed every one of them to navigate around his mices’ vastly superior vision and sense of hearing. Their feat also gave him a rough idea of how they stacked up. They’re probably our level if not higher, he concluded. He wanted to give the others a warning not to act impolitely, but when he turned his head to try and signal them, he realized that Miller was already breathing deeply, red-faced, and smiling broadly.

Crap, Lee thought, backing up a step.

“Easy there,” the one who had clapped said. “We’re not trying to start anything. All we’re saying is that you should hand over the bounty and walk away, boy. Otherwise, we’ll kill you and your friend and then have a little fun with those two girls of yours.”

“Are you kidding me?” Lee shook his head and took another step back, quietly using his inventory to put away his daggers and pull out his tower shield and sword. “You really think that it’ll go exactly how you want it to?”

“I don’t think it’ll go that way,” the Firbolg in front said boastfully. “I know it will, boy. It always does. And what’s a Human like you going to do about it? You’re just going to have to take it–just like those pretty little things next to you will once you’re dead,” he said snidely. “Now, come on, boy. Don’t make me soil my hands by killing one of your stinking kind. Just hand over the bounty before things get ugly.”

“Miller,” Lee started as he shifted another inch backward. “What do you think about having a drink with them?”

Miller was clearly ready to burst, and a quick glance at both of the girls told him that they were having trouble maintaining their calm as well. Each looked as if she were ready to vomit, but their worried expressions eased a bit when they heard Lee.

“I think a drink is perfect,” Miller answered.

“I might have shared a drink with you,” the leader said, looking at Miller pointedly, “if you weren’t hanging around their kind. I’m not about to throw away my dignity like you have. Look, we’ve talked enough. You’ve got ten seconds until we start shedding blood. Ten . . . Nine . . .”

“Buy them a round, Miller,” Lee insisted. He hefted the sword and shield that had gotten him through so many fights and prepared himself as best as he could on such short notice.

“Let me send them straight to Augustus,” Miller said, once more slamming his spear to the ground activating his Drunken Shout. It was obvious from their sudden wobbliness when the effects hit them, but all except a lone Firbolg among them weren’t nearly as affected as the Cragaboom had been. Like most bar-traveling adventurers in this world, they had probably drunk more than their fair share of alcohol, and they had probably spent far more than their fair share of time in bar fights while drunk; so, unlike the monster, which had trouble recovering from the effects of the shout, most of this group was only stunned for a split second. Their eyes glazed over a bit as the sensation of being inebriated hit them in a wave, and they braced themselves for the inevitable conflict.

No one from Lee’s group so much as hesitated. They were all used to taking advantage of the Drunken Shout, and they had long since grown inured to its effects. Lee slammed straight into the Firbolg Leader, throwing his tower shield up in front of him and ramming it into the Firbolg’s body as hard as he could. The giant man was thrown back and sent tumbling to the ground, unable to recover his balance in time. Lee wanted to move in for a quick follow-up attack, but before he could get close enough to swing at the downed man, the purple-haired one came in and stabbed at Lee.

Crap! Lee grimaced, involuntary flinching as the 32 damage attack sank into his arm and then panicking when he saw the weapon flash in front of him followed by the number. It wasn’t a particularly high amount of damage–in fact, it didn’t even make up more than twelve percent of his total hit points–but the combination gave away his opponent’s level. He had seen that exact weapon being sold to a traveling merchant not too long ago, and he remembered it as being nothing more than a simple, steel dagger that did four damage. So, while the roguish-looking, purple-haired bastard wasn’t tricked out in anything fancy–his gear might even be mistaken for a starter’s–he was actually level 26.

The leather armor Lee was wearing blocked 8 damage, so such a weak weapon wouldn’t normally do any damage at all. Simple math said that 8 damage canceled out 4 damage dealt. For him to take 32 damage, the purple-haired Firbolg had to have 36 points in Power. Assuming that he started with close to the same ten base Power that normal Humans did, and assuming he gained one additional point per level, it meant that his opponent had to be around level 26, a full nine levels over Lee.

That realization raced through Lee’s head as he shifted his shield, blocking the second attack and turning it away. He took advantage of the poor follow-up and thrust forward with his sword, stabbing directly into the dagger-wielder’s stomach. A brief look of confusion flashed across the man’s face as Lee’s blade found its target, but it wasn’t enough to deter him from attacking once again. His daggers flashed out in rapid succession a second time, and Lee barely had time to throw his shield back in front of him to stop both attacks. The flurry of attacks continued unabated, and Lee struggled to quickly come up with a plan while he was hidden behind the inch-thick barrier of wood and steel. The speed with which the man attacked was terrifying, and he knew that he couldn’t take him head-on, so he had to come up with something else.

Trying to assess the situation without having to pop out from behind the tower shield, he swapped to using Little Ethan’s two pairs of eyes to get a better grasp of what was going on in front of him. The two flying mice had the perfect vantage point from which to observe the fight. The purple-headed goon was ducking up and down and weaving from side to side, constantly trying to maneuver past Lee’s shield, and the Firbolg that Lee had knocked over was still trying to get back onto his feet behind him. Unlike with the lanky Human on the other side of the shield, Miller’s Drunken Shout seemed to have been much more effective on that lone Firbolg, who never made it more than halfway up before his wobbly legs sent him back to the ground again.

He saw Miller raging as he fought another one of the four Firbolgs, a big, fat man with a unibrow that put Miller’s nearly Neanderthal-level forehead hair to shame. The caterpillar-browed behemoth was doing his best to fight Miller off with a two-handed broadsword, and it wasn’t going well for him. Miller, in an uncharacteristically-calculated manner, countered each of his opponent’s blows without even bothering to go for a strike. Every time the giant blade came in for a horizontal slash, Miller promptly diverted it toward the ground. Each time the man came in for a vertical, downward attack, Miller dodged it. It was strange, but it was Miller’s version of playing with his food, so to speak, and the grin that was planted across his face belied some as-of-yet-unseen point to his defensive game.

Meanwhile, Ling was firing arrows at the pair of Firbolgs that Amber was fighting on Lee’s right. She wasn’t having a great deal of success since one of them had a large tower shield too, and the other had such high dexterity that he was always able to be where the arrows weren’t. Despite her lack of success, every arrow she fired pushed one back just a little more.  Amber was quick–in fact, she was far faster than both Lee and Miller–but she lacked the strength necessary to properly parry and stop attacks. If it weren’t for Ling’s steady fire, Amber likely would have been in trouble, unable to defend herself from both opponents, and he could only imagine what that could mean.

Lee grimaced as the horrid thought ran through his head. No, focus on the fight in front of you. She’ll live longer if we get to her quicker . . . Lee steeled his nerves as he watched the crazy, purple-haired Human try and poke a dagger around his shield. You know what? If he wants to get past me so bad, and I need to end this fight sooner to help Amber, then maybe I should just let him. All I need to do is control how and when he gets past my guard. The goon circled around him once more, and Lee made his decision.

“Miller, I need you to kill that guy off quickly!” Lee shouted, simultaneously sharing his idea with the two rodents circling above. “Amber can’t hold those two off on her own.”

Lee waited a few seconds to make sure the timing was right and then pushed back on his feet as hard as he could, making a little space, and then pulled his shield open to expose his chest. Come on, you bastard. Lee grinned as he watched the fish dive toward the bait. Just as he expected, the man completely lost track of his surroundings as he rushed forward, ready to make quick work of what he thought to be foolish and easy prey. The two mice swooped down onto either side of the man’s head and chomped their teeth into his eyeballs.

Lee closed the gap for his enemy, quickly stabbing him right in the abdomen as he screamed and flung his daggers up to stop the mice. Even with Lee’s sword in his stomach and both of his eyes being chewed at, he still managed to cut one of the mice in half. His dagger jammed into the mouse on his right eye before piercing through its body, killing it nearly instantly and sending a wave of pain through Lee.

You have taken 54 feedback damage through your psychic connection to your Golem.

You have learned the proficiency skill Mental Fortitude. This skill is currently at Initiate Level 1. This skill improves one’s resistance to psychic-based magic attacks.

You have been awarded 2 Intelligence for discovering a new skill without the assistance of class trainers or a manual. Current Intelligence: 123.

“Ahh!” Lee couldn’t help but scream himself as the dagger dug in and his clay creation’s consciousness was forcibly expelled from one of his vessels. The feedback damage was less than twenty percent of his remaining hit points, but the pain that accompanied it made it feel like much more. It felt like someone had taken a dull icepick to his head with enough force to split his brain into two pieces. Nevertheless, the pain didn’t stop him from digging his sword deeper into the man’s stomach, angling it up underneath the man’s rib cage and into his lungs.

The game had a way of rewarding you for striking vital points. If you could stab someone’s heart, slit a throat or stab an eye, the system that determined damage would give you the kill much quicker. So, in this case, a punctured lung would be just as effective as striking someone numerous times. It wouldn’t normally be an instant kill, but with the amount of damage the two rodents had done before one died, it would be enough to guarantee the man a quick death. Lee felt his blade cut through the last remaining layers of flesh as it popped into his intended target, and he quickly withdrew his weapon and backed up a step.

He had never lost a creation before. They had gone through most of his adventures and quests unharmed and unhindered, often striking only at the most opportune moment, and Lee had no idea what to expect now that one of them had been killed. The pain was pulsing through his head like a raging river, and he could feel rage and hatred flowing through the remaining golem with such great intensity that it was hard to put even one or two of his own thoughts together over the emotional noise.

You have killed Slarzar the Spiney. Your party has been awarded 540 Experience. Your share of this 135 Experience.

Ethan, go channel that hatred on Amber’s behalf. Try to kill one of those good-for-nothing scumbags so that she doesn’t have her hands as full . . . Lee closed his eyes and focused, driving out the pain for just a second so that he could send the order. He could see the fight more clearly from the golem’s perspective as the flying clay rodent whipped its head around to take an assessment of the potential targets.

Thankfully, in the dozen or so seconds that he had spent finishing off his own target, Miller had listened to his cry for haste and efficiently disposed of his own. He had cut up the man’s thighs and shins so badly that the corpulent oaf couldn’t even stand up. As if he knew that he was being watched, Miller smiled toward the rodent before executing the now-crawling man by stabbing his spear through the Firbolg’s back.

“Ha!!!” Miller let out a single note of laughter as he pushed the shaft deeper, stilling the bloated Firbolg’s final twitches.

Your party has killed Rotunus. Your party has been awarded 11 silver, 80 copper, a superior-quality steel sword and 585 Experience. Your share of this is 2 silver, 20 copper, and 146 Experience.

“Good,” Lee said to Miller. “Now, come over here and help me hold this guy off so I can–”

“Save your woman? Be the hero? Fine. Deny your paladin the glory that is his! I’ll just have to take solace in knowing that justice has given me the leader of this evil cohort while you double down on heroics!” Miller ripped his spear from his victim’s back and rushed toward the enemy leader at full speed.

The poor guy was clearly the only one in his group who couldn’t handle his alcohol. He had finally stabilized himself and pulled out a spear that was, at a glance, both fancier and larger than Miller’s and had begun to use it as a means to stand up. Lee wanted to dash over and help ensure that the man died before he could enter the fight, but his nervousness about Amber’s situation only grew as he watched her take a slice from one of the Firbolg’s daggers in her lower back.

Crap! He sprinted toward her despite knowing that he wouldn’t make it in time to save her from being diced up as the aggressive, dual-wielding Firbolg pressed his advantage.

Lee’s surprisingly-emotional golem summoned up a wellspring of courage and dived headlong toward the man. Ducking and dodging past the shield-carrying Firbolg, the flying mouse swooshed through the battle and slammed headfirst into the dagger-wielding Firbolg’s bright-orange, hair-covered, elephantine right ear. The blow wasn’t really much to write home about. In fact, it was clear that, even with all of his efforts to build up speed and power, the impact still amounted to as much deadly force as a softly-tossed kitten landing gently in a gamer’s lap, but it was more than enough to create a distraction.

The small ball of clay bounced off the right side of the man’s head, causing it to jolt to the left momentarily as the man turned to see what hit him. Since the sword-and-board user was occupied with Ling’s arrows, it offered Amber a small moment’s reprieve. She lunged forward with a hard right punch, blade still in hand, and her clenched fist seemed to glide across the man’s outstretched arms and reached the man’s neck. The weapon she was holding dug into the Firbolg’s jugular, and a stream of blood came pouring out. The sanguine river only doubled in volume as she retracted the blade with a rough slash.

Unwilling to even give the sorry sucker a moment to realize he was wounded, she stabbed forward again. This time, she slammed her left-hand weapon into his chest, creating a sort of handle, and then snaked the dagger in her right hand through the gap in the man’s leather armor around and into his armpit. Rather than pulling out her blade quickly like she had with his throat, she twisted the blade as if she was trying to clean out a glass, but her hands were too big to get the sponge to reach the bottom. It was gruesome, but not nearly as bloody as her first attack.

Your party has killed the Hammond. Your party has been awarded 19 silver, 76 copper, a 1.75 carat emerald of above average quality and 583 Experience. Your share of this is 4 silver, 19 copper, a 1.75 carat emerald of above average quality and 145 Experience.

Lee kept running even though he knew that he was going to arrive too late. As much a relief as the man’s gory demise was, Amber still wasn’t out of the fire just yet. There was still one Firbolg left standing. He was massive in stature and size and yet nimble enough to continuously shift his shield such that the now-porcupine-looking front caught each of Ling’s well-aimed arrows. He even grinned as he blocked one arrow after another as if he was enjoying himself. Lee knew that this type of quick movement probably wouldn’t be possible in real life and was likely the product of the system enhancing his speed and coordination, but it was still impressive and mystifying to watch.

“Chase the dog’s tail!” Lee called to Ling as he closed in on him. While Ling hadn’t been particularly social lately, constantly returning to her room or home to take care of things whenever Lee was caught up doing something that involved talking, the two had still been training together a lot. They had even developed a series of codes that were to be used when fighting larger bounty monsters in case something unexpected happened or their plans went awry. ‘Chase the dog’s tail’ was one of those codes.

When Lee slammed his shield into the Firbolg’s, breaking off most of the embedded arrows before he was repelled and sent harmlessly back five feet, Ling strafed around so that she was lined up with the man’s back. While she moved, she kept firing one arrow after another at the man’s left ankle and foot. None of the arrows landed, and the man shifted around in order to dodge the incoming fire, but that was exactly the desired effect: to slow him down. Once Ling was in a position good enough for Lee’s liking, Lee rotated in the opposite direction to the man’s right side. This forced the already-frustrated Firbolg to make a decision: he could face Ling and block the barrage of arrows and take a sword in the back, face Lee and take an arrow in the back or try to escape both of them and somehow maneuver around so that the two returned to his front by backing up. Ling would actually have to move much farther than the Firbolg in order to stay at his backside, so backing was a logical choice given the alternatives, and it wasn’t actually an impossible task if he was quick enough.

Unfortunately for him, he found out that his foot had been blocked by the shaft from one of Ling’s arrows as soon as he took a step, and the Firbolg nearly ended up falling backward. Lee struck during that moment of confusion. The man’s shield reflexively moved to intercept the short sword, but as he turned to block, a series of arrows sank into his back one after the other. Ling’s arrows flew quickly and assuredly that she was able to land three hits in the brief moment he had turned to block Lee, and once his guard was disrupted, the impact was enough to prevent him from turning toward her. A chain of pointy, wooden, doom-sticks struck home until his eyes rolled up, and his knees gave way.

Your party has killed Segorn. Your party has been awarded 23 silver, 20 copper, one reinforced tower shield and 512  Experience. Your share of this is 5 silver, 5 copper, one reinforced tower shield and 128 Experience.

Your party has killed Muschap. Your party has been awarded 4 gold, 1 silver, 58 copper and 544 Experience. Your share of this 1 gold,  27 copper and 136 Experience.

Lee was able to finally relax when he saw the system simultaneously announce the last two deaths. He looked over at Miller and then winced when he saw the enemy leader’s mutilated body being tossed to the ground. His eyes darted over to Amber, wanting to see how she was holding up, only to see her squatted down over the body of her enemy, stabbing away at his chest with her knife. Her face was beaded with sweat, the man’s organs were exposed, and blood was flying everywhere, but the only thing he felt was a deep sadness–a sentiment shared by Ethan as he landed on Lee’s shoulder.

Lee glanced over at his remaining companion. Still worried about her, even after losing your other half? The tiny golem’s reactions were sometimes so perfect that Lee believed it could understand and speak his language perfectly, but at other times, it just stared at him blankly as if it never processed anything he said or did. Essentially, his mouse golem’s personality had turned out to be a weird hybrid between those of a cat and dog. Fine, I’ll help you out even if you don’t thank me. Lee leaned down and picked up some clay. It took him a few moments, but he activated his skill and gave his new creation life.

Your mastery of Golem Sculpting has progressed from the rank of Novice Level 9 to the rank of Novice Level 10. Golem Sculpting now allows for the sculpting of two golems. Current Combat Bonus: 165.32%. Golems created by Golem Sculpting may now take up an additional 5% more space. Current Max Space: 5.56 fluid ounces.

There we go. Good as new, Lee thought to his mouse. He knew that Ethan wasn’t the same though. Despite its rage at the people attacking Amber, the mouse now had an ingrained fear of danger after its duplicate’s demise that was even stronger than before. Lee had felt his golem’s death as vividly as if it were his own, and that sudden amputation of an extension of his own consciousness was a wound he would remember as well.

“Woah, so that’s the process,” Ling gasped as she walked over and studied the newly-created mouse, firing off a series of questions that Lee didn’t know the answer to. “That is incredibly neat. The light that comes out of you . . . Is it always the same color? That’s the same color as when you heal us. If you used other magic, would it be the same then too?” Unfortunately, since Lee was a Herald and the supposed son of a god, he was expected to know the answers to each of her seemingly-random questions. He knew that they were rooted in the fact that she was just now discovering the world around her after living her entire life as a mindless, prompt-following NPC, but that didn’t make them any less silly or absurd at times. Whenever he tried answering ‘I don’t know,’ she just pestered him to ask Augustus, a figure who was rarely if ever present to respond.

“I’m sure time will answer that question for you,” Lee responded, brushing off her curiosity without giving a straight answer–which was really the only way to handle Ling’s inquisitiveness.

“But can’t you–” she pushed, momentarily causing Lee to panic as he realized that his tried and true trick from the last week might not be enough until Amber came over and cut her off mid-sentence.

“I think between the magic and the fight, he is just a little drained, darling,” Amber added hastily as she interceded, passing Lee a knowing smile as she did.

That woman knows me better than I do sometimes, he thought as he admired the sight of her lips hooking upward into a lopsided grin.

“That’s not it at all,” Miller proclaimed boisterously, shaking his head as he walked over to the impromptu huddle. “Our Herald is trying to teach the importance of paying attention and not just taking answers as they are given to you. Have you not read any of the great Book of Lee? Even as our Herald, the deity of our order and the divine beacon of our faith, he is not to be the source of all our answers. He is not telling you that he won’t give you the answer but to use your senses and wit to derive it so that you don’t become dependent on others for your knowledge. It’s as the book says in the earlier chapters: taking information for granted without investigating or thinking or questioning on your own and giving up your skepticism is the way in which a people can be easily–”

Lee quickly took a step forward and put a hand on the giant man’s shoulder. “I’m sure they’ve read it, Miller, so it’s probably old news. But what’s new news is what just happened there.” Lee motioned over to the first man Miller killed. “Amber was in dire straits. Why did you take your time on that one?”

“I had to challenge myself, to learn and to test what I could do. I had to study him because”–Miller looked at the Firbolg’s body–“because my justice was too weak.”

“Huh? Because what?” Lee had heard the words through Ethan’s ears and not his own because they had been spoken too softly for him to pick up. He actually felt bad for calling out Miller like this. His Firbolg companion had saved his life dozens of times in the last week, but the fact still stood that Amber might have died because Miller had been toying around with his opponent.

Miller clenched his spear tightly and said, “Because nothing. There is no excuse. Justice should be swift, crushing and unapologetic. I won’t allow hesitation or personal feelings to get in the way of battle again.”

“I’m still curious about what’s going on with these five. Isn’t it illegal to steal the bounty from another group? I’ve never heard of this happening before,” Ling said, crouching down next to one of the bodies. “Even the lowest of the low in Satterfield never once tried to cheat another party out of their bounty from the Hunter’s Guild. That’s like a death sentence there. If even one person reports it, and it’s investigated and confirmed, then the guilty party is almost always guaranteed to be tracked down and assassinated.”

“Yeah, that is a bit weird,” Amber agreed.

Miller and Lee, both foreigners to the world, shared a glance with each other before looking back toward the body that Amber was poking at and Ling was hovering over. He didn’t understand how Miller knew he wasn’t from this world at all to begin with, since Miller never actually referred to him as a player, only a Herald, but he did. It was clear from the way he talked to Lee, how he would slip and talk about the metagame by accident more often than one ever should with an NPC, what his view was.

“Did they say anything to you during the fight?” Lee asked, looking over at Amber. “Or maybe to you?” Lee asked Miller this time.

Amber shrugged. “Nothing.”

“Same. He just said some stuff about, well . . .” Miller, in a very un-Miller-like way, trailed off and shifted around the truth, leaving it unsaid. It was obvious from his facial expression that he was hiding something and that he wasn’t skilled at deception.

“Well?” Lee pushed, hoping it would yield something fruitful.

“Nothing important is all. He was just trying to speak the usual words of a villain,” Miller grumbled. “They’re all the same: the self-righteous, pretending as if they’re divine, yet all the while hurting and ruining the lives of those around them.”

Easy, buddy. That could describe us if you don’t word that more carefully. Lee cringed at the response. The reason he was in a four-man party right now, even though there were over thirty able-bodied men and women who were training every day and willing to join them on their hunts, was because he didn’t want to get someone hurt because of his actions–but that didn’t mean that someone hadn’t suffered on his account. It had been around six weeks since the events of his first trip to this world, and he still saw the faces of David and those who had died trying to help him when he closed his eyes at night. They haunted him any time he tried to sleep, so when Miller talked about self-righteous people thinking they’re divine and ruining the lives of those around them, the words drove into Lee like a two-inch spike through the chest.

“Should we . . . umm . . . report this?” Amber asked, pulling her knife out and beginning to saw off the head of the dead man. “I mean, if we don’t, what if they think we’re the ones that sniped the bounty? The Hunter’s Office says to report any issue, not just issues still existing.”

“That’s a good point,” Lee agreed. He hadn’t dealt with the Hunter’s Office as long as the natives of this world had, so he could only nod and pretend that he knew what she was talking about, but he knew that they meant business. He had heard plenty of stories during his short jaunts through other towns. Players broke the rules, and the whole party was killed in their sleep as a result. “Do we need their heads though?”

“Yeah,” Amber replied as she continued to saw through the man’s bone with her steel dagger. “They might have a bounty on them. If they’re so brazen as to go around trying to snipe our monster hunter bounties, someone might be wanting them dead.”

“Or they may be very important people,” Lee thought aloud. In his world, people who acted however they wanted usually did so because they had the money to do whatever they wanted–like celebrities that could commit a dozen felonies and end up with less than twenty hours of community service and little more than a slap on the wrist and a word of warning. “Toting these heads around looking for a bounty . . .” Lee trailed off, watching how zealous Amber was in disfiguring the man’s neck.

Amber was slowly becoming more and more aggressive as she came out of her shell. Despite her efforts during the assault on the Herald of the God of Books and Stories’ fort, she had generally been somewhat reluctant to jump into a violent confrontation. She had been one of the primary voices demanding reason when Miller wanted to storm in and stick a sword into everyone’s gut and be done with it. She had been the first and last person to stand up for the townsfolk and insist upon the value of their lives when Miller accused them of ‘ruining his mood’ with their hesitation

Now, however, she was slowly beginning to change. It was somewhat inevitable since her days as a prisoner and a sufferer of violence were slowly becoming more and more distant, and it was most readily apparent in the way she tackled her role during fights now. As long as Lee’s group was the one initiating the attack, she was calm and collected. She would keep her head down, stay in her lane, and get the job done without a second word or any fuss. Whenever things went wrong, or whenever they ran across a group of thugs who had sought them out, however, she’d quickly lose her temper and fly off the handle. It was when she wasn’t in control that things started to get out of hand. She hadn’t gone as far as Miller yet–that was to say she hadn’t gouged out a man’s eyes, removed his collarbones, or gutted someone yet with quite the same zealous fervor that the Firbolg would–but she was slowly pushing the boundary between necessity and brutality. When one or two stabs would do the job, for example, thirty or forty seemed to do it better, and she considered that perfectly reasonable.

The thing that worried Lee the most was that she would be sobbing the entire time. Lee thought that it was like some part of her knew she was acting out as a result of her time being imprisoned and equated that loss of control to the time she had spent enslaved. She knew that what she was doing was awful, but she couldn’t stop herself either. It was hard to watch, and no one was brave enough to say or do anything about it. Lee figured that he knew–as much as a bystander could–what she was going through. He knew that she was torn up because of it, but he didn’t know how to help her. The group would simply finish up with whatever they were doing and then step out of the way, wait and watch. Something about what was happening to her echoed against something hollow inside of him–something that he couldn’t put his finger on and didn’t want to deal with himself.

“Yes?” Ling asked, pulling Lee back to the conversation.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. “Toting the heads around could bring more trouble than the bounty is worth. I know that we’re desperately short on money at the moment and need to hire more people, but is it worth taking that risk?”

“He did use the words ‘your kind’ a lot,” Ling mused, ignoring Lee’s concern. “Like he wasn’t the same sort of adventurer we were. That type of pompous talking could definitely be someone from a wealthy family.”

“Hmm . . .” Lee tried to recall the conversation. It had been blocked out by the fact that Miller had acted like he was going to kill everyone on the spot no more than three sentences in. No, that’s not right. This one wasn’t all on Miller. They threatened my people. Miller didn’t push me. I did this because I wanted them dead. The more he thought about it, the more he was not only glad he killed them but kind of wished that he had taken the time to kill each one of them individually, especially their leader. Maybe Amber’s right. Maybe their bodies need to be desecrated, Lee thought as he pulled out a knife and went to the one who made the threats. “I guess that we might as well carry them all if we’re going to carry one head for a bounty.”

“I’d really rather not,” Ling protested. “I think . . . I think I’ll leave that to you three.”

“And if we get a reward?”

“I’ll expect you to buy me and my dad some fried chicken with it, of course.” Ling grinned for half a second, but as soon as her eyes made contact with the sight of Lee roughly hacking the dead man’s head off, she grimaced and turned away.

Out of all the things you’ve seen, this is what grosses you out? Lee just shook his head and kept working. “Doesn’t our church own the largest chicken vendor in Satterfield? Pretty sure we’re taking over the entire town with sales of just chicken and fries.”

“Yeah, but it’s always running out. I feel bad taking from the kitchen when the wait can be nearly thirty minutes at dinner time,” Ling said, tilting her head and watching Amber with a strange expression.

“So, you’re saying you want to save us effort and money and help the church by spending our hard-earned loot on other people’s inferior chicken?” Lee gave her a quizzical look. How does that even make sense?

“She could just be trying to help businesses out. After all, does not the good Book of Lee say–”

Lee cut Miller off right away by saying, “I know what the good book says.”

Ever since Lee had brought back his book, Miller would continuously quote it at him like it was the end of all arguments and Lee had never read it. In less than three days, Miller had transformed from going around spouting ‘Justice, Justice, Justice!’ to quoting ‘The Book of Lee’ whenever he could in an argument. If Lee hadn’t known Miller before he started reading the Book of Lee, he’d have thought that Miller was some sort of philosophy professor who specialized in religious text.

“But helping people aside, I’d still rather cook for you myself than pay someone else to do it for me,” Lee said.

“Well, then, if you insist on being so sweet and hand making my dinners . . .” Ling paused, putting a finger to her lips as she contemplated something. “Then buy the ingredients and make me something I’ve never tried before. Otherwise, I’m going to take all of my reward money and spend it at Bankey’s hole in the wall food joint on those vegetables you seem to hate with such a passion.”

“Fine, fine. If I can find the right ingredients, I’ll make you something new,” Lee conceded. Truth be told, it was what he wanted to do anyway. He desperately needed to raise his cooking skill if he was going to ever unroll the next part of his plan.

“Well, I’m done here,” Miller announced, holding up two freshly-severed heads. “I can’t wait to see how much fried chicken and beer these bounties might get me.”

“There might not necessarily be a bounty,” Ling reminded him. “You guys might just show up at the town looking like a pack of murder-happy vagabonds for nothing.”

“Vagabonds? What vagabonds look as sharp as we do?” Amber asked as she finished wrapping the head in a green cloth. “I don’t care what you say about us looking bad, I think the uniforms Lee assigned us look great.”

“I like them too,” Miller agreed, tugging on his chest armor with his free arm. He didn’t seem to care at all about tidiness and easily gripped the two heads by their hair. The whole group was dressed in camouflage. It wasn’t proper camo, as he had no idea how to get that effect without the Book of Augustus’ help, and he didn’t have a tailoring level, so applying dyes through the book even with his Intelligence was currently not possible. He had considered devoting some effort to making clothes at first but then decided that he didn’t feel like spending a ton of time picking up a variety of skills that would each require large segments of his time, especially considering how each progressive tier of the skills he was focusing on had so far yielded exponentially better rewards. It made much more sense to focus on just one or two crafts and one fighting style and max them out as quickly as possible.
“Well, we’ll find out when we get there,” Lee said, giving his usual shrug as he started heading toward town.

“Wait!” Miller said, stopping him.

“What’s up?” Lee asked.

“You think we could take the long way back? I used my resources to map us out a route that should take us through a dozen Dire Troll camps.” Miller pointed off in a direction that was far to the left of the town. “Won’t add more than three hours to our trip.”

Lee thought about it for a moment then looked up at the sun to confirm the time. “Yeah, that’s good thinking,” he said. That’s good . . . thinking. He mentally said the words again, pausing at the word thinking. Something about the way Miller asked, the way he worded things, felt off to Lee. It didn’t sit well with him. Is it just because it was out of character? he wondered as he stared at his bloodthirsty companion.