War Aeternus 3 Ch2

Chapter 2

 

 

Name: Lee

Race: Human

Class: Herald – None

Level: 26

Health: 360/360

EXP: 3001/37000

 

Primary Stats:

Power      36 (39)

Toughness 36 (39)

Spirit 36 (39)

 

Secondary Stats:

Charisma 25

Courage 20

Deceit 26

Intelligence 161 (177)

Honor 3

Faith 32721

Personal Faith 233

 

Skills:

Unarmed Combat Initiate Level 7

Swordplay Novice Level 8

Sneak Journeyman Level 2

Cooking Initiate Level 7

Trap Detection Initiate Level 6

Knife Combat Initiate Level 8

Mental Fortitude Initiate Level 1

Sleight of Hand Initiate Level 3

Blood Shield Initiate Level 3

Glass Smithing Initiate Level 10

 

Divine Skills:

Golem Sculpting Journeyman Level 1

Appreciative Drunk Novice Level 8

Nectar of the Gods Initiate Level 4

Spirit Smithing Initiate Level 3

Faith Healing

 

Divinity Powers:

Life in Death

 

Titles:

Cheat Code Fighter

The Great Deceiver

 

Lee awoke to the feeling of rough sheets scratching his skin and the pricking of stray pieces of straw that had snuck through the stitching, and his nose was filled with the delectable aroma of oil-frying poultry.

“Ah . . . It feels good to be back.” Lee sat up in his straw-stuffed bed and stretched out his arms. Satterfield had numerous comforts now, thanks in large part to his continuous investments, but the basic amenities of an inn outside of the food and beer–such as decent bedding–still failed to be one of them.

The empty spot in his bed was hard to ignore, and his mood soured the moment his thoughts turned to it. That spot was one that Amber had filled until recently, and it was a glaring reminder of exactly what he had lost. Sighing heavily, he shook his head and slapped his cheeks to stop himself from falling down that pit of despair.

Lee took in a second deep breath and then slowly exhaled. Nope. None of that. I don’t have time to mope. I have a lot to do, and wallowing in guilt and grief won’t get me anywhere. Despite knowing that, however, it was even harder to actually listen to that same advice as he got up and put on his armor. It was impossible to ignore how he felt, but the logical part of his brain told him that there was no sense in starting the day out being so negative.

Much like any other adventurer in a video game world, he never bothered with the basic fashion of everyday clothes in this reality. There was a good chance that he could be attacked at any given moment by a creature ranging from a zombie to a random slime or a raging griffin, and fashionable clothing would do little more than stop a kindly grandmother or a handsy barmaid from judging him; and, more likely, it would get him killed since it offered absolutely no protection in what had already proven to be a harsh and brutal land.

After putting on his armor, Lee stepped outside his room and into the hallway and found Ling in a chair by his door. Her cat, Weiser, curled up in her lap. She had obviously stayed up late guarding the door, and her dad had probably dropped off her cat so that she wouldn’t be alone while she did it. He felt moved by her compassion but wasn’t sure what to say or if he should wake her. The feline gave Lee a ‘don’t you do it’ look as if it could read Lee’s mind.

Yeah, don’t worry, little guy. I’ll let her get some sleep. Lee bent over, gently picked up the two of them together and carried them back into his room, where he had been sleeping only moments before, and laid them down on his bed. He glanced out the window as he turned away and realized that it was still dark outside. The familiar golden-red hue of light that preceded a sunrise was just starting to dance over the horizon, but the sun itself had yet to peek its head over the dark green treetops that lay just beneath the eastern skyline.

I guess Augustus sent me back early this morning for some reason. I wonder why that is. Lee finished tucking Ling into bed, and Weiser shifted from Ling’s lap onto one of the pillows beside her head.

They had been using the main floor of the inn, the restaurant and bar portion of Ramon’s old tavern, as Augustus’s new church, and as he stepped down off the stairs, he realized that it was mostly empty. There were two chefs cooking up a breakfast storm in the kitchen, a bartender setting out plates and cleaning silverware and four patrons. Ling’s dad was there, as Lee had suspected he might be, sleepily sipping a beer at the bar. One of the other guests was the man whom Connacht had sent to fetch Lee, and he perked up as soon as he saw Lee walk downstairs. His eyes searched for a sign of Ling, the one who had blocked him from talking to Lee last time, and he seemed relieved when he didn’t spot her.

The next patron was a regular. He was a farmer in Satterfield who was paid for his trouble with a room and 3 fresh-cooked meals a day in return for supplying Lee’s new church with food. He used to have a wife to cook for him, but she had passed away in the mines while working as a slave before Lee had freed them and killed the Herald who imprisoned them there. Lee knew that it wouldn’t take long for the farmer to cook for himself and that his home was in perfect condition, but he suspected that the man just didn’t want to go back there and have to be alone, that he wanted to be around people.

The fourth patron was the one that stood out the most, even though she was just sitting quietly and staring down into a glass of beer, and she was the only one whom Lee didn’t recognize. Her arms were scratched up like she had tried to climb a barbed wire fence and fallen from the top-most strand. She had a misshapen, broken nose, she was missing a couple of teeth, and her skin was marred with dark bruises where it was cut. A surreptitious glance around the room told him that the bartender and the farmer were both watching her too.

When the bartender saw Lee, he put down the silverware he was cleaning and went over to him right away.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Lord Lee, but . . .” His voice trailed off as he looked over at the girl. “She insisted on being here. She said that she wouldn’t leave unless we forced her to . . . or unless she got to speak to you first.”

Despite her seeming persistence in meeting him, she hadn’t even so much as looked up when he came down the stairs. “When did she arrive?” Lee asked.

“Last night, a little after the moon started making its way down the sky again,” the man answered. His eyes darted between the mysterious woman and Lee as if checking to make sure that she couldn’t overhear what he was saying. “We tried to treat her. We called on the healing women to come and help her with her wounds, but she wouldn’t let us. She fought off any attempt to treat her, almost becoming violent, so we figured we’d end up hurting her more than helping her if we pressed the matter.”

“I see,” Lee responded, now studying the girl. She looked like a broken vessel more than an actual person, and he wondered if, somewhere in that break, her spirit had escaped and there was nothing left. It was the hollow, haunted look in her eyes that gave her away. It was more distant than he had seen in anyone in Satterfield before, even among the people he had rescued. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to meet her.” Lee added a “thanks” and patted the man on the shoulder to let him know that he had done well without wasting more words.

“Hey,” Lee said as he walked up to the girl, pulled out a chair and sat down next to her. “What’s your name?”

“I’m only here to speak to the Herald, Lee,” she responded, taking a small drink from the beer she was holding.

“So, if I weren’t Lee, you couldn’t even tell me your name?” he asked. He was slightly confused over the fact that she was so insistent on meeting him, yet she didn’t even know who he was when he sat right down next to her.

“I’m only here to speak to the Herald, Lee,” she repeated, clenching her beer tightly.

“What if I were to say that I am Lee,” he said as he looked at her face. She never would have been as beautiful as Masha, but Lee guessed she would have been very pretty before her face and body were marred by what looked like wolf or bear claws. The scars were deep and old, as though they had been put there deliberately and slowly, though some looked like they had only recently healed.

“I’m only here to spea–” She suddenly paused, turning to face him. “Are you Lee? Are you the Herald of Augustus?”

“If I am, what do you want to speak to me about?” Lee questioned, trying to understand what had happened to this woman.

“I’m only here to speak to–”

“Okay, okay. I get it,” Lee reached a hand over and rested it on her arm. She flinched away, but she didn’t retreat. He was a stranger touching her, and even though she flinched, she didn’t completely recoil or withdraw. She’s like a beaten dog, Lee thought. He started using his healing magic to patch up the still-grievous wounds that littered her body. “I’m the Herald known as Lee, and I’m here to listen to what you have to tell me,” he said.

The woman stared at her hands as Lee’s magic flowed through her, and her eyes widened in awe as her cuts and wounds stitched themselves together as if they were being sewed shut.

Keeping track of his mana expenditure had become second nature to him at this point, and he quickly tabulated what her level was based on how much mana it took to heal her. He was level 26, and he was able to heal 18 hit points per every 0.5% of his mana, but from this young woman’s health pool, it was clear that she was a much higher level. He didn’t know what her maximum health was, but she had to be over Level 30 if not close to 35. There was also a chance that she could potentially even be Level 40. Each level added 10 hit points, so just a bit of basic math told him this much. She’s such a high level . . . almost as high a level as Dave, the champion of Kirshtein, yet she’s in this state . . . He marveled at her, feeling a little uncomfortable around her now.

“You . . .” She looked down at her wounds. “You are just like I was told. You’re Lee! You’re the great Herald Lee!”

“I . . . don’t know exactly how great I am”–Lee withdrew his hand after healing her–“but could you tell me why you’ve come to see me? Was it to be healed?”

“No, no these wounds were deserved. You shouldn’t have taken them from me. These wounds were proof of my failure. You have robbed me of my failures. You have shamed me, but . . . but you’re here, so I can finish my mission now.”

“Mission?” Lee repeated the word, preparing to pull out his sword and shield as fast as he could.

“Yes, mission. I must tell you . . . She’s coming for you. She’s seen you. She knows of you. She’s watched how great and magnificent of a specimen you are from a distance, and she wants you. She’s coming for you. She will be here to collect you, but you shouldn’t keep her waiting. She wants you. You should go to her. You should! You should go to her right away! I can lead you there. I can show you the way. I can take you to where she is. Come. Come on. Come, let’s go right now! We should go. Right now.” The young woman babbled on, repeating the same phrases again and again as she reached out and grabbed onto Lee’s arm, pulling him toward her.

Lee pulled back with all of his strength, resisting her with great difficulty as he stood up and yanked his arm free. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I have things to do here,” he said, and, as he spoke, the girl slid back away from him as well.

“No, that’s not right.” She shook her head, confusion evident on her face as she looked away from him. “Why are you saying ‘no’? Oh, it’s because you don’t know who she is. I’m an idiot. I’m stupid. I didn’t tell you who she is. It’s Meadhbh, the one true Phouka Queen, Herald of the Divine One. The greatest Phouka mother to ever shepherd a herd to glory.”

“I don’t care who she is. I have business to deal with. I don’t have time to go see her yet.” Lee threw the word ‘yet’ in there, hoping it would at least calm the crazy woman down. He kicked himself for letting his curiosity get the best of him when he could tell just by the way she stared off into nothing earlier that this woman was trouble and that she was crazy. The only thing that stopped him from pulling out his weapons then and there and taking the last step to prep for a fight was that she hadn’t done it yet either. She hadn’t attacked him, and she seemed to want to keep him alive to meet this Herald of hers, so he wasn’t sure he had to fight.

She was such a high level, and she had so many battle scars, so he didn’t want to egg her on into a skirmish, which he very well might lose, until he had the advantage or at least a full understanding of his foe. Only a fool like Miller charges in to meet a battle without trying to get information on his enemy. Lee remembered all too well some of the frustration he had encountered because of his large Firbolg friend’s reckless proclivities during his first jaunts through the land.

“Yet?” She tilted her head, taking a step toward him. “Yet, yet, yet! What business is more important than Meadhbh? What business is more important than you two meeting?” As she spoke, she kept tilting her head further and further to the side. It continued winding around clockwise, well past the point where a normal human neck would have snapped, and her features started changing. The hairs on her arms and face and all across her body grew outward, tugging at her skin and at the fabric of her clothes as they morphed into long white feathers. The plumes on her hands grew longer and longer, quickly transforming themselves into pinions as her arms twisted and changed, forming wings in front of Lee’s horrified eyes.

What in all that is holy’s name is this? Lee stared in shock, the words choking off and dying in his throat as he watched the horror show unfold in front of him.

“Yet, yet, yet, yet,” she repeated. At this point, she had transformed from a five-foot, eight-inch-tall woman into a nearly six-foot-tall owl, her face almost completely upside down as she stared at him. She spit out the words, inches from his face and close enough that Lee thought she might stick out her tongue and lick him, and then her mouth elongated into a beak before splitting in half. “I will, will find you again. She will find you again. Yet is right. Yet is true. I. You. You will. You will come with us.”

Yup. Gonna have to kill her. But as soon as he pulled out his sword and shield, mentally preparing himself for battle, she pushed off against the floor with her massive legs and shot backward ten feet. Lee had his shield equipped and up in front of him in an instant, and the few other patrons in the bar all began arming themselves as well. Instead of engaging, however, she just shot away and burst through the wooden door, taking off into the skies, her wings continuing to grow even as she flew until they reached what looked like a twelve- or thirteen-foot wingspan. Lee chased after her, but by the time he made it outside, she was already so far away that he would have trouble shooting her with a bow and arrow.

“What in the hell was that?” Am I the only one who saw that? That’s not normal, is it? People don’t turn into animals, do they?” Lee wondered aloud as he walked back to the table where she had left her half-consumed beer. There was a piece of paper folded into thirds and secured in place by the mug she had set down when she stood up. “And what the heck is this?” He moved the beer aside and picked up the letter.

“She was a Phouka, sir,” the bartender said. “You can’t tell them apart from normal folk usually, just that they’re a bit taller than most people on average, but she was a Phouka.”

“A Phouka? She did say her Herald was the Phouka mother . . . Do you know more about them?” Lee asked.

“A bit . . .” The bartender seemed a bit skittish about the topic, and he kept glancing toward the door. “They’re . . . They’re usually nothing more than a horror story we tell to our children, but I have heard recently of Phouka sightings, and . . . I can’t believe they’re really here.”

“A myth? Wait, do they all transform?” Lee sat down in the seat that had just been vacated by the girl-turned-owl and signaled to the bartender with his hands that he wanted a beer before opening up the letter.

“Yes, my Herald, they all transform. It is their gift. They may appear to be strong and competent because of their gift, but they’re actually weaker, slower and dumber than most of the other races. The story goes that the weak and physically-failing outcasts of the world started gathering together on a mountain far north of here. They begged the mother goddess for a thousand days and a thousand nights at a shrine they made in her honor ages ago, and one by one, they were eaten by the animals that inhabited the forests of the mountain in the night. There was a group of merchants who traveled to the town in order to deliver food on a semi-regular basis, and eventually, they reported that there was no one left to carry goods to. After a search, it was confirmed that there wasn’t even so much as single soul still living on the mountain. So, naturally, everyone took the outcasts for dead, killed off by the wild beasts of the forests,” the bartender explained.

“But they weren’t actually dead?” Lee saw where this story was headed.

“No. Rather, the truth was found out a year later when a convoy was attacked. It was one of the same merchants who had brought them food several times out of pity, so he recognized what was happening. When the beasts emerged from the forests and slaughtered the caravan . . . Well, they spared only him. He watched the whole thing. He watched as the beasts morphed back into the very people whom he thought had been eaten after the attack and then as they picked up and carried the supplies away. He told everyone, of course, spread the word far and wide. But most people thought he was lying. No one believed him. But then, after a while, other merchants began witnessing similar things, and a few survivors reported the same.”

“So . . .” Lee looked down at the note in his hands. “You’re telling me that they were the weak and the lame of this world, but they were granted the ability to turn into . . . these creatures?”

“Yes . . . And the creatures they turn into are much more fearsome than their normal counterparts,” the bartender continued. “Not to mention, it’s said that their hatred of people, of the world, has caused them to be vindictive. People say that if your child is a bully or harasses other children often for their physical weakness, then a Phouka will come around and snatch him away in the middle of the night and kill and eat him. It is said that Phoukas haven’t forgotten the way they were treated when they were human and that they will come to strike vengeance against any who mistreats outcasts.”

“So before her”–Lee pointed at the broken door–these Phoukas were more or less just a fairytale used to scare kids into behaving and treating each other nicely?”

The bartender nodded. “Yeah, I told my oldest about them when he was picking on a girl he liked out at the farm. I never really thought about them as anything more than an old wives’ tale, a good crutch for scaring kids into doing the right thing.”

“Well, apparently there’s more to them.” Lee frowned as he started reading the letter.

Ulchabhannadhbh, it is with great regret that I won’t be there to meet you when you return to our country’s summit. I am saddened that I must send you away as soon as you have returned, but the mission is urgent, and I am likewise too occupied at the moment to complete it myself. I need you, my most loyal and trusted right hand, to hunt down a Human male by the name of Lee. He has been spotted often in Satterfield and Kirshtein, and his exploits increase in number by the day. He is a Herald like myself, and even though he has just arrived in this land, he has shown abilities and growth far surpassing most of the other Heralds.

He is the one that I have been waiting for. Out of all the Heralds to reach this world, he is the one whose strengths perfectly match my weaknesses. With his abilities, and the powers he can grant others–with the powers he could grant me–I must have him. To this end, I need you to track him down and bring him to me. He is decisive and ruthless, and I have watched as he breaks all order and tradition and continues to hunt others and prove that he is the fittest and worthy of survival. He is the perfect specimen, so do not hurt him. Bring him to me safely, and if he does not come, notify me of his location. I will take care of him after I finish my mission.

Lee furrowed his brow as he stared at the contents of the message. Great. As if my plate wasn’t full enough already, now I have to deal with a crazy cult woman after my powers. He folded the note back up and stashed it away in his inventory.

Connacht’s man had apparently been watching and listening, and he chose just that moment to approach. “If it’s not too bad of a time, I would like to discuss again whether you can make it to Kirshtein. We could desperately use your input at the next council meeting. As the only remaining Herald for the people of Kirshtein, and the only voice for Humans in Kirshtein, your presence would be an invalu–”

“Stop talking.” Lee cut him off, already tired of the explanation and the servant’s bootlicking. “I’ll go. Just stop talking about it.”

“Yes, your Holiness,” the man said, bowing his head. “Connacht will be ver–”

“I said stop.” Lee’s forceful tone silenced him on the spot. “Now, I’m not leaving until later today, so you can go ahead and prepare my accommodations in Kirshtein. If Connacht wants me at his meeting like some pawn he can use, then I expect him to cover some very nice room and board and make his presence available before the meeting.”

“But–”

“Don’t make me kill you before breakfast,” Lee said dryly and watched as the man opened and closed his mouth. “I really don’t have the patience after . . . that to deal with any more problems.”

“Y–” The servant looked like he wanted to say something again, but all that came out was a small yip. Thankfully, he decided against it and instead gave a weak, hurried bow before throwing a few coins on the bar and leaving through the broken door.

The bartender filled another glass with beer and set it down next to the one Lee still hadn’t finished. “Sorry if I am wrong to say this, my Herald, but I’m surprised you were so short with the man.”

“Your name is . . . Dewar, right?” Lee asked, downing the nearly-full glass he had only just started and pushed it to the bartender before pulling the new beer toward himself.

“Yes, sir. I’m proudly one of the first men recruited by the great Paladin Miller.” He puffed his chest out as he talked. “I served alongside you and the others in the battle to kill that bastard who was stealing our people and whatnot.”

“Did you know anyone taken in the attack?” Lee asked, before adding, “And can you get me a plate of bacon, fried chicken and some eggs?”

“Yes, sir,” he responded. The man disappeared into the kitchen for a moment before returning with the food. “And no. I didn’t. Everyone else seemed to, but I didn’t. I just wanted to be there. I wanted to do the right thing, to serve a higher power and make a difference for the town. I figured I don’t have a wife, the lad’s nearly grown, my father has two other sons besides me to carry on the line if something happened, and my mother has been dead for too long to worry about me. Seemed like the perfect time to make my mark in the world.”

“Ah.” Lee nodded as he chewed on a piece of bacon. “That’s about where I’m at too,” he said. “I want to make the world a better place, but that man . . .” He thought back on Connacht’s messenger. “He doesn’t. He wants less to make the world a better place and more to make his lot in the world better. I’ve met his kind before, and I’d have killed him here and now if I had any proof of the atrocities that I think he and his master might commit for the sake of power. So, if I’m rude to him, you’ll have to just remember that it’s for that reason.”

“Oh.” The bartender scratched at his head for a moment and then asked, “So, why are you going to help him at that meeting?”

“I’m not sure what I want to do at that meeting will count as helping him, but I’m going there for the people that believe in me and because I believe in them. I want to make people’s lives better, and I can’t do that if I don’t work with those I hate,” Lee explained. “It’s like your job. You might grow to hate me one day and curse me for what I’m doing, but if I’m the only one willing to pay you, you’ll probably still work for me just so that you can put food on the table for the people you do love and care about.”

The bartender sighed. “That sounds just like my last job.”

“What was your last job?”

“I was a field hand for farmers that treated me like the dirt they toiled upon. Well, that’s not fair . . . They treated the dirt very well, so that example doesn’t hold. I’d say it was more like they treated me worse than if I were trying to steal their wives,” he chuckled, “not that anyone would want to touch my old boss’s wife. She was worse than he was.”

Lee laughed at the image. “So, you might have had more than one reason to go off fighting for a cause?”

“Yeah, and then when Cutty told me that someone had saved a bunch of people, someone who could perform magic tricks like he was a god himself and was off to kill the bad guy stealing women from the town . . . Well, it just seemed right.”

“Did you know any of the women in particular?” Lee questioned between bites. He was really enjoying his meal this morning for some reason.

“I knew a few,” Dewar answered. “I was close friends with this girl named Amber . . .” He trailed off and sighed. “I heard you were there when she died at Kirshtein, so you probably already know that story.”

“Ah . . .” Lee closed his eyes against the image of Amber’s death replaying in his head. It was painful to remember how she had killed the Herald at the cost of her own life, the way she confessed her love for him right before she kissed him and the way she had died in his arms moments later. His body began to stiffen automatically as the memory surfaced, and he had to choke it down again. “I’m sorry.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Dewar said. “These things happen. People die every day.”

“It doesn’t make it easier though,” Lee countered.

“No, no, it doesn’t. But”–the bartender reached behind the counter and pulled out another glass, filling it to the brim before topping off Lee’s–“if the boss doesn’t mind me drinking on the job, we can always have a toast.”

“Well, you know how the boss is about people getting drunk on the job . . .” Lee picked up the cup and clinked his own glass against the bartender’s, and both men downed their drinks.

“That if you’re not drunk, you’re not doing it right?” Dewar chuckled as he put down the beer and wiped his mouth clean of a few drops with his arm.

“Good man,” Lee said. “Now, fill us up another one. I got a feeling I’m going to be waiting here for a while.”

“On the girl? Ling?” Dewar asked as he looked over at the stairs.

“Yeah.”

“Well, I hate to break this to you . . .” Dewar said, eyes still looking at the stairs, “but she’s going to be out for a while if she finally went to sleep. That girl stayed up all night, stopping anyone from coming near your room while you slept.”

“Oh.” She shouldn’t have done that. He knew Ling wasn’t the type that would listen to what he said, even if he had warned her against it. “Well, I guess we’ll be needing a few more beers to kill the time . . .”

After that, Dewar began refilling Lee’s cup whenever it was even close to half empty. Lee didn’t want to leave while Ling was still sleeping upstairs, but he also didn’t want to waste the entire morning, so while he was drinking, he also began copying down notes and making plans for Satterfield. During his last visit, before he had been captured in Kirshtein and forced to fight in the arena, both he and the town had been relatively broke. Now, however, they were loaded. He had sold off barrel after barrel of the divine beer that he was able to craft with his Nectar of the Gods skill, and he had been able to rake in a fortune. He no longer had to be stingy now that he had a steady source of income, and so he began to map out exactly how he wanted to change the infrastructure in the small hamlet town. There were dozens of small improvements that he had wanted to start working on earlier, but he had been unable to afford those, instead prioritizing things like fixing the giant hole in the wall of his new church.

Dewar shared a few drinks with him while he worked, but the bartender’s attention was soon called away to other matters as the morning wore on and customers began trickling downstairs. Ling’s father, Ying, joined him after that, and the two sat together quietly.

Ling awoke a few hours later, and she came down looking a little embarrassed.

“I’m sorry,” she apologized before Lee could even say good morning. “I’ll try not to sleep so late next time.”

Lee shrugged and then rolled up the papers. ““It’s fine. Glad you got some rest. It looked like you needed it. Hey, Dewar, can you pass these on to Henslee? Tell her to take what she needs out of the town fund, but I need these projects finished as soon as possible.”

“You got it, boss,” Dewar replied, nodding and disappearing with the papers.

“I got your breakfast already,” Lee said to Ling as he stood up. “But we’re a little short on time, and we need to make our way to Kirshtein as soon as possible.”

“Are you sure you’re okay leaving so soon? You don’t want to spend more time here? More time . . .” Ling trailed off while looking concerned, something she had done often lately.

Lee took in her changing expression, and he knew exactly what she was trying to say–and not say. You’re trying to ask me if I want to spend more time mourning by Amber’s grave, but you don’t want to finish the sentence. “Yeah,” he said, sparing her the indecision. “I’m fine, and we have a lot of work that needs to get done.”

“Work will always be there tomorrow,” Ling replied. “You can take a day off. It won’t be the end of the world.”

“I can . . .” Lee acknowledged. “But, even if it isn’t the end of my world, it might be the end of someone else’s if I’m not at that meeting. So, let’s just get going. I’ve already had someone fetch the Krunklerump, and it should be ready for riding right away.”

“Okay then . . . ” Ling seemed reluctant to leave so quickly, but she didn’t argue. She just handed Weiser over to her dad, and the two of them shared a brief hug before she left with Lee. The door had been repaired while he waited, but the new, unfinished wood stood out in stark contrast to the rest of the tavern-turned-church. “Did something happen here?”

“Oh.” Lee glanced back at the damaged frame and thought back to the letter in his inventory. “Just an unruly customer. That’s all.”

Ling’s face frumpled up, but she didn’t say anything else. Her face had regained its usual smooth placidity a minute later, and the two of them made their way to where their ride was being prepared. Thankfully, to Lee’s relief, he noticed that someone had taken extra care and provide the most comfortable-looking saddle he had seen yet for the six-legged, wide-ribcaged, turtle-like beast. The first time he had ridden the mount, he had been certain that it was going to cost him his chance at children in the future, and he was happy to see the additional padding.

After exchanging a few brief words with the animal’s handlers, they mounted up and took off for Kirshtein. They were able to set an incredibly fast pace, a thing Lee was both happy and a little uncomfortable about; and, at first, it seemed like they were going to make it there without an issue before the sun even came close to setting–that is, until they caught up to Connacht’s man halfway through the journey.

They found him on the road with a pack of four giant wolves circling around him. Two of the canines had fur as red as Miller or Lee’s hair, and the other two were as golden as a liter of German wheat beer. There was a strange magical-looking glowing symbol right in the center of their canine foreheads. The symbols on the two red ones were identical, and the symbols on the two gold ones were identical, but Lee couldn’t make out either to know what they meant.

“Stay back!” Connacht’s man yelled. “Stay back, or I’ll kill you mangy mutts!” he shouted, waving around a pair of swords that were clearly meant to intimidate the four massive canines.

“What in the hell?” Lee asked.

“Those wolves . . . The symbols are just like the stories. Lee, those are Phoukas! They have to be!” Ling leaned away from Lee to give herself room and pulled out her bow. “Why are they so different in color from each other?”

“I don’t know. I’d never even heard of a Phouka before today,” Lee answered. He had to restrain himself from saying ‘until earlier’ instead and pulled out his sword and shield.

“Herald! Get back on your mount! I can handle this,” Connacht’s man shouted when he saw Lee dismount. You just need to make it to Kirshtein!”

Really? The man’s words shocked him. As far as he was concerned, the dual-wielding human was a dead man walking as soon as the four wolves made a combined effort to attack him. The fact that he would turn down aid and a chance at survival just so he could ensure Lee made it to Kirshtein safely actually motivated him to assist him. Well, looks like I’ll have to find out what it’s like to fight a Phouka sooner than expected, Lee thought as he nervously gripped his sword and shield. He wasn’t afraid to fight, but he didn’t know how these new enemies would behave, and that left him a little on edge about the conflict he was about to engage in.

“Ling, give me some good cover fire!” Lee yelled as he charged toward Connacht’s man.

The four wolves reacted to Lee’s attack by fanning out and maneuvering around until they had the man perfectly surrounded. Rather than holding his position, however, the messenger turned and tried to run, ostensibly under the pretext of keeping the danger away from Lee. The moment he took his first step, the four wolves pounced.

A rain of arrows fell down around him a second later, halting each of the wolves in their tracks before they could reach him. A quick glance over his shoulder showed him that Ling hadn’t even dismounted from the Krunklerump and was firing from the back of the beast. Lee offered up silent thanks to Ling as the salvo continued to rain down. It didn’t appear as if she was able to do much damage, but she was buying him the precious time he needed to clear the distance and reach the messenger. Unfortunately, her attack also warned the giant wolves of exactly how dangerous Ling and Lee might be, and they instantly went from full-on attack mode to a defensive posture, backing up and angling themselves toward the newcomers. Then the two red Wolves charged straight at Lee.

“Support him and keep him safe. I’ve got this!” Lee shouted. He hoisted his spiked shield up in front of him and prepared to receive the first blow. He didn’t know if he’d actually be able to take both of them down at the same time, but he was certain that he’d be able to hold his own against the dogs. He had plenty of experience fighting canines since he had killed so many when he first got to this world, so he wasn’t as worried as he might have been against a less familiar beast. In addition, there was also the shield that was covered with Spiddlendra goo and spikes, a hard-won souvenir from this time in the gladiator pits. The sharp spikes offered him an additional level of safety that his normal shield didn’t, and it had proved its worth many times over already.

He positioned himself so that he could stop the first wolf as it approached. All he had to do was take the initial attack on his shield and then use a bit of footwork to prevent himself from getting hit by the second. As the two wolves came closer, however, something happened that caught him off guard: the lead wolf turned into a human. Instead of an open-jawed canine biting into his shield, Lee was suddenly confronted with a Firbolg holding a large tower shield with both of his hands. He slammed into Lee at full force and without stopping.

There was a series of loud cracks as the spindles were broken off of his shield, and Lee was hammered by the blow. The impact didn’t do any real damage, but there was enough force behind it to send him flying back several feet and onto the flat of his back.

What the–? he started to curse, but the second wolf came in behind the Firbolg, leaping onto Lee’s now-exposed chest and going for a bite at his throat.

No, you don’t! Lee shifted his body and took the bite on his left shoulder instead. Pain exploded from the area, and he could have sworn he felt each of the needle-like teeth as they sank into his skin, shaving off a total of 62 hit points. A sharp, tingling sensation ran down his left arm that was followed by complete numbness and a loss of feeling in his appendage. He briefly tried to concentrate hard enough to send his spirit into his shoulder so that he could heal the wound, but there was simply no way he could risk dividing his focus with the massive beast on top of him. Instead, he punched his sword forward in a short stabbing motion. There wasn’t enough room for him to get a proper swing, pinned beneath the beast as he was, so this would have to do. The over-sized wolf yipped around his shoulder, but it refused to let go of its hold on him. Instead, its teeth somehow dug in even further, tearing away another 62 health

At the same time, Lee swapped his vision and hearing over to the nearby golem, finally reconnecting with his creation. It was normally something he did almost instantly upon returning to this world, but he had been so caught off guard, first by the girl-turned owl in the bar and then preoccupied with his planning, that he had neglected it until now. It was a feeling he had missed greatly while in his original world, and everything around him exploded with new stimuli: the visual and auditory awareness of the battlefield as well as a feeling of connectivity with the three sentient clay golems. As he focused on the fight through one of the nearby Ethans’ eyes, he noticed that the shapeshifting Firbolg with the giant shield was moving in for an attack behind the wolf.

Crap. Lee abandoned any pretext of making another attack and instead focused on using his healing magic to repair the damage to his left shoulder as quickly as possible. The healing started to trickle in, but then the third and fourth wave of 62-damage attacks from the canine took him under half health. Thankfully, the healing also restored some of the strength in his left arm. He used his newly-awakened shield arm to reach around and grab the wolf in a one-armed headlock. Then, in a well-practiced maneuver, he bucked his hips, pulled the wolf away from him, and used his foot to leverage himself around as he twisted his body. The end result was that he rolled over on top of the wolf, and the Firbolg’s attack crashed down into the ground where his feet had been just as he moved out of the way. And he kept rolling. Each turn drove the wolf’s teeth deeper into his flesh and ripped away another 62 hit points, and his healing ability was only recovering 54 hit points in the same interval, but the maneuver kept him away from the other attacker.

The beleaguered Firbolg chased after the two rolling combatants as if he wasn’t sure when or where to attack in order to not hit the red mutt in the process of trying to kill Lee. He might have been able to pull it off if he had an actual weapon, but the only thing he carried was the gigantic wooden tower shield, and that hovered in a perpetually-ready state, threatening to smash down on Lee if he stopped rolling away.

“Ling!” Lee yelled for support as he kept rolling. He was constantly taking damage from the clamped-down canine, and he was losing his mana even faster at a rate of 2% per second. He only had 5 to 6 seconds before he was dead–even with the healing–so he knew he needed back up.

Ling answered the call quickly, shooting several arrows into the wolf on top of him and one into him, which punctured his side and shaved off 20 health. The canine didn’t die from the assault, but the wooden shafts that sprouted from its body prevented Lee and the animal from completing another rotation. The final flip resulted with Lee halfway on top of the Phouka and with it pinned between him and the ground–with the arrows threatening to leverage even deeper. Sensing his advantage, Lee pressed over on top of the creature, slowly digging the sharp points even deeper into the wolf. The beast cried out in a mixture of rage and anguish, and it suddenly began transforming.

The once-massive, hundred-and-eighty-pound dire wolf monster that had pinned Lee to the ground morphed into a dark-haired, waiflike woman who couldn’t have been taller than five foot three if she were standing, and she stared at Lee with glossy, tear-filled eyes. She opened her mouth as if she were going to scream again, but no words or cries came out.

Lee felt bad for her. He could see the agony she was in, but he couldn’t stop the fight to show pity. Instead, he just reached around her body, grabbed onto one of the arrows that had lodged itself inside her, and pushed it deeper, twisting and turning it inside her as if he were trying to stir up a mixed drink

“Die!” Lee hissed into her ear as he continued to turn her insides about with Ling’s arrow. “It’ll be easier on you.”

Her eyes turned lifeless as her body acquiesced to Lee’s command, and a howl erupted from off to Lee’s right. Then, Lee quickly shoved the body away from him and rolled to the side as the enraged Firbolg smashed down with his shield and all the strength he had.

You have killed Sinead. Your party has been awarded a crumpled letter and 1100 Experience. Your share of this is a crumpled letter and 367 Experience.

Lee springboarded off the ground, instinctually trying to re-equip the shield that he had lost somewhere in the previous skirmish, but he realized that it was still on the ground somewhere. Armed with only a sword, he rushed at the Firbolg. The man countered by thrusting forward with his own shield, clearly intent on bashing Lee for a second time, but Lee already knew how this conflict would play out. He veered hard to the right and dodged the massive wooden barrier as it swung around at him. The shield barely missed him, and he felt the massive form of the Firbolg warrior as he flew by. Lee rolled through his dive and came up into a crouch just in time to see the Firbolg slide to a halt.

Lee smiled, facing the Firbolg once more with his sword raised. “Come, then, let’s finish this off, the two of us,” Lee taunted as he watched the raging man approach him.

“SINEEEAAADDD!!!! “I will avenge you!” he shouted in the most Miller-esque fashion a Firbolg other than the actual Miller could achieve.

The massive warrior leapt forward shield-first yet again, but just as the two were about to collide, Lee stepped to the side once more. A corner of the giant shield nicked him in the chest as he moved away, but it was only a glancing blow due to the angle of his dive. The shield’s impact was drastically dulled, doing nothing more than eliciting a shot of pain, and the Firbolg’s fate was much worse. The giant brute’s foot stomped down onto Lee’s dropped shield. The Spiddlendra spikes had been broken off, but the nubs they had left behind were buried in the wood, razor sharp, and they pierced through the man’s flesh like nails into a foam block.

“Ahhh!!!” the monster screamed out in pain, howling so loudly that he was probably heard a mile away. The giant gritted his teeth and sneered at Lee after a moment, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain.

And Lee instantly took advantage of the man’s momentary lapse in judgment. He lunged forward and to the side, neatly slicing around behind the man’s defensive barrier and into his leg.  His blade bit deeply, unhindered by armor, and cleanly sliced through the man’s calf. The Firbolg’s eyes sprang open at the sudden shock as Lee’s blade cut through his leg, but he refused to cry out again. He teetered for just a moment as he fought to maintain his balance before slamming the massive shield into the ground and leaning his weight against it. Seeing his second opportunity, Lee pivoted around and stabbed the man in the back, repeating the fast jab several times until his blade pierced through and found something vital.

You have killed Lugh. Your party has been awarded a battered tower shield and 1321 Experience. Your share of this is a battered tower shield and 440 Experience.

Lee spun around to face the two golden wolves the moment he saw the death notification, and he found that that were still circling around the messenger, nipping at the man as they tried to make it through his meager defenses. Connach’s man wasn’t exactly fending them off, and there were already a few bite marks on his arms and shins, but he had managed to stay alive with Ling’s help. Every time one wolf rushed in, she targeted the other and prevented it from attacking at the same time. Thus, he only ever had to face one of the giant dogs at a time and never both.

Both wolves turned to face Lee as he approached, and one let out a loud, angry-sounding howl of rage when it saw the two dead bodies behind Lee. The wolf launched forward with what Lee suspected was full force, and it was upon him in the span of a second. Lee was getting ready to side step the beast and bring his sword around just as he had done before, but he was caught off guard once again when it shapeshifted into a thin and gaunt-looking woman wielding a pair of daggers. The Phouka was simply too fast, and the transformation didn’t give him enough time to prepare for the change in tactics. The frail woman crashed into him with all the momentum of a leaping wolf, driving both the daggers past Lee’s defenses and into his chest. He felt the air explode out of his lungs as the daggers were driven home, and his vision flashed black as the blows stripped away 200 health. A bleed effect window popped up to let Lee know that he was now losing 27 hit points per second from the attack.

The crazed woman stared into Lee’s eyes and snarled, “For Sinead,” before pushing both her daggers further into Lee’s chest.

Lee stared down at his sword, where it had somehow buried itself in the crazed woman’s stomach, and gasped in a combination of shock and pain as he used his free arm to throw the dying woman off him. He had only just managed to circulate enough spirit to heal his wounds from the last two people he fought against, and now he was almost dead again. In addition, he also had gained a bleeding effect which was speedily stripping away even more. Not wasting any time, he jumped atop her fallen body and stabbed right into her heart again and again until he saw the window he was waiting for pop up in front of him: her death notice.

You have killed Clodagh. Your party has been awarded 2 obsidian daggers and 1101 Experience. Your share of this is an obsidian dagger and 367 Experience.

Divinity Power: Life in Death activated.

He looked over to see Connach’s man on the ground and covered in bite marks with a half-naked, blonde-haired, pointy-eared, full-figured woman lying dead next to him. Lee walked over to the servant and then extended his hand. As soon as he took it, Lee pumped his healing mana into the wounded man and made sure the situation was, at the very least, no longer critical.

“Thank you,” the messenger said. “Thank you so much.”

“Don’t mention it,” Lee replied. “Do you know who they were? Why they were attacking you?” Even if he had saved the man, he still didn’t trust him, and he was going to hold off on opening up the letter in front of him. He didn’t know what was in it, and he wanted to make sure that he had a full grasp of whatever information it had before allowing someone else to have a look at it. As Alexander had taught him more than once, controlling information was incredibly important, and he didn’t know how much he could trust this guy since his allegiance was to Connacht.

“I don’t know,” the man said. “They just . . . They just appeared out of nowhere. One of them stopped me, said I had the right smell, and then they all shifted and started attacking me.”

“I see.” Lee frowned as he looked between the dead bodies. “That’s twice in one day.”

“Yeah.” The manservant nodded. He had been there for the earlier Phouka attack as well. “It doesn’t bode well, but it is just all the more reason we must make it to Kirshtein as soon as possible. If the Phouka are real, and they are out and about and on a rampage, then we need to warn others.”

“You’re not wrong,” Lee agreed. “We do need to tell people what’s going on.” I may have saved you, but do I want you alive and well enough to tell Connacht and the others that this Queen Meadhbh, as she calls herself, is interested in me and wants to be my partner? Inevitably, his ethics won out, and he didn’t draw his sword again. Instead, he walked back to where his old shield was still lying on the ground with a newly-attached foot stuck to it. He plucked off the appendage and threw the thing in his inventory, not bothering to further clean any of the blood off of it.

“Ling and I are going to go on ahead of you,” Lee said as he climbed back up on top of the Krunklerump, and he and Ling quickly rode off.

“I don’t trust that one,” Ling commented as soon as they were out of earshot.

“He tried to protect us by encouraging us not to help him,” Lee countered.

“He was too insistent that we go with him,” Ling pointed out. She had been practically mute since Amber’s death, and the only talking she had done had mostly been to tell that very man to bugger off when the overly-persistent lackey had tried to drag Lee back to Kirshtein instead of giving him time to mourn.

“It’s not him I don’t trust . . .” Lee sighed as he thought back to the earlier fight and how desperate the man had been to complete his mission, so much so that he was even willing to die rather than risk Lee being lost in the skirmish. That was not a man who lacked loyalty.

“But didn’t Connacht help save you and organize the attack against Devin?” Ling knew which direction Lee was thinking.

“Because I am still a useful tool to the man,” Lee answered as he pulled out the crumpled-up letter from Sinead’s corpse and began straightening it. “He’s too skinny, what with that lean and hungry look, to be keeping me around just for the bacon.”

“You don’t trust thin men?” Ling asked. Being curious was in her nature–she always asked questions no matter what was said–and even if she had politely let Lee mourn, that inquisitive nature wouldn’t always stay hidden.

“Let me have men about me that are fat, sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights,” Lee quoted from one of his favorite plays. He knew that she wouldn’t recognize the quotation, but he still hoped she’d understand the thought.

To her credit, she just gave him a ‘hmmm’ and let the subject drop.

The idea of plagiarizing and stealing from the rich cultural history of Earth had actually danced through Lee’s head a lot. Most of the jokes, memes, phrases and other particulars from his world that had attained great fame were dependent on cultural references that the people in this world wouldn’t understand–or on things that might not make sense when translated by the system to their language–but that didn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of things like bacon and fried chicken that would be good in any world regardless. In truth, he had spent quite a bit of time thinking about what he could steal to increase the successfulness of his church. If he could mimic the appeal of some of the rock icons of Earth, for example, then attracting a hoard of zealous followers would most likely be a piece of cake, and he could even do it pretty peacefully.

“You should go for it,” Augustus’s chimed in, interrupting Lee’s thoughts. “There is definitely a crafting section for guitars and the like in that book of mine.”

Augustus didn’t seem to have the ability to just pop into Lee’s head when he was on Earth, so he had momentarily forgotten that the deity was likely watching or listening to every single thought of his and just waiting for an opportunity to interrupt while he was here. “I mean, personally, I really like that little repetitive tune from the block arranging game you played as a kid.”

The block arranging game? What are you talking about? Lee thought for a moment before realizing he was an idiot as he heard Augustus start to hum the familiar tune. Nope, nope, none of that Russian earworm. If that song gets stuck in my head, it’ll be years before it leaves.

“Well,” Augustus chuckled, “do you even play an instrument? Maybe we should start there?”

You know I don’t. But it can’t be that hard to learn one, can it? Lee thought, looking at his Intelligence score. When he first left his home world and came to the competition world, the stat had been dismally low. Now, thanks to learning skills and his fragments of the world stone, he was at 177 Intelligence. That meant that he could learn things significantly faster, as each 1 point of Intelligence was a 1% increase in his ability to learn skills. After talking to others, like Ling, who only had 22 Intelligence and Miller, who had less than 10, he realized that his brain power was one of the abilities he picked up from Augustus. It was likely a divinely-inherited advantage of being a Herald.

“I mean, you can, but which one are you going to pick? Even if you’re learning them two or three or five times faster than someone else, it’ll still take you forever to master an instrument to the extent you could impress anyone,” Augustus pointed out.

That’s true, Lee acknowledged, thinking to himself about how to get around this problem. In general, churches relied heavily on music to influence and capture the masses. In fact, every advertising campaign generally used sound as a key instrument of their push, yet he had nothing yet in this regard. For a world capable of only medieval technology that was rife with constant life-threatening war, it made sense that there wasn’t a lot of proper music and instrument-based songs. After all, it wasn’t like that many would even be able to read sheet music. There wasn’t even any standard method for discussing notes or timing or anything else. In fact, from what Lee was able to tell during his conversations at the Hunter’s Guild in Kirshtein, most bards kept their musical ability a trade secret and charged noblemen heavily to teach them their craft.

Wait! Lee suddenly realized something. That book of yours, it can teach me how to craft anything imaginable, right?

“Yeah, but be careful. This world’s tech limit is pretty strict. You can’t make yourself a robot girlfriend to use since Masha’s not here,” Augustus joked.

But, if I thought about it, it would have the diagrams for anything based on the parameters I used?

“Yeah, I suppose. You gonna craft a bunch of war machines since you can’t play guitar? I know the phrase ‘love, not war,’ but when people can’t fit in with the guitar-playing hippies, they usually don’t immediately turn to war,” Augustus chuckled.

No, not at all. Hold on. Lee paused his little conversation with Augustus, pulled out the book and thought about the self-playing instruments that had been popular in the 1920s on Earth. Even back then, there had been plenty of crank-style music box systems and orchestrions around.

After searching around, he found something that would work perfectly. The musical contraption was a large wooden box nearly a foot and a half deep and roughly the size of a man in height and width with a multitude of vertically-aligned pipes visible on its front face. The pipes all had holes near the point at which they disappeared into the wooden cabinet, about halfway down the height of the machine. Inside the contraption was an intricate series of gears, shafts and wooden arms extending off of flywheels–mechanisms that worked the built-in percussion system and pumped the bellows syphoning in the air that gave life to the instrument’s music. There were also copper prongs aligned in a row parallel and below the pipes. The prongs resembled those of a thumb organ but were much larger, each nearly the size of a man’s finger. The prongs were situated such that, when plucked, they activated corresponding levers that in turn opened and closed the valves of the copper pipes, releasing air through the bowels of the organ and creating a chorus of haunting, ethereal notes.

The genius at the center of the instrument was an intake for sheets covered in a vast multitude of little bumps just big enough to trip the metal prongs when they were brought past them by the rolling of a smooth log inside the machine. The secret of the log’s movement and the pumping of the bellows was a tightly wound spring that, as it gave up its pent-up tension, brought the large music box to life. It would fill Lee’s church with music and was complex enough to leave any visitors in unabashed wonder at its apparent magic.

The only thing that disappointed him was the number and level of skills that were needed to create the various components via the assembly spell. Making it by hand was possible, but it would take a long time to craft everything so precisely. As such, he had wanted to cheat and use the assembly spell instead. The higher one’s Intelligence, the lower the requirements on the skills, yet even with his freakishly-high stat, most of these required a bare minimum of Initiate Level 6 for Carpentry, Engineering and Miscellaneous Crafting, something he took to mean the fashioning of tools like strings or pencils that might not fall under any specific crafting tree.

Welp, looks like I’ll have to put together a project and get this done the old-fashioned way. Although . . . I suppose I could also try picking up those skills. Spirit Smithing has helped me with locked doors and other issues, so there is no telling when I might need some good carpentry and general crafting skills.

“That’s the spirit!” Augustus chimed in. “When you can’t learn a skill like playing an instrument yourself because you’re too lazy to put in the effort, just spend a ton of time and energy building a machine to do it for you. It’ll save you a lot of time in the long run, and you’ll be able to spend that drinking or being with women or drinking with women.”

Of course you had to bring women into it. Lee sighed. I thought you were supposed to be the God of Alcohol and Crafts. Why does it feel like they missed the title of debauchery and whoremongering in there?

“Because they ran out of space on my business card to add the other things. If they had room, they might have even added the God of Handsome Faces and Terribly-Dull and Boring Heralds,” Augustus responded.

Have you actually had more than one? Lee wondered.

“No, the games are so infrequent that it’s honestly like winning the lottery when you get called into one,” Augustus answered, and Lee felt like he could hear a shred of disappointment, as if Augustus wanted these god-killing games to be a normal thing.

Well, speaking of Heralds . . . Lee looked down at the letter that he had straightened out earlier.

“What does it say?” Ling asked as Lee opened up the letter. She was riding on the back of the saddle and was now straining to try and get a good look over Lee’s shoulder to read the contents.

“Don’t hurt yourself. You can read it after I’m finished,” Lee said. He didn’t trust that the woods were without ears, even if he was traveling at a very healthy speed on top of a Krunklerump.

To my pack sisters, Sinead and Clodagh,

I have a great request on this day, for I will be requiring you to travel with great haste over even greater distances to the land between Satterfield and Kirshtein. There, you will find the putrefying sickness of genetic rot that infested the kingdoms of old, and amongst that rot, you will find a man who stands between me and my prize. If not for my own mission, I would already be there to rip his throat out and cull the earth of his weakness, but alas, I must instead trust this mission to you two and your two kin. I am counting on you. Purify the road between those two towns of all disease that cannot withstand your fury, such that only the strong and worthy will come out of the journey alive. Do this for me, and make sure you kill the man with the silken shirt and the scent of mutton about him, for Ulchabhannadhbh has told me that he is attempting to poison the mind of our Herald with the defilement of weakness and corrupt his pure and savage nature. We must save the great Herald Lee before he swallows this poison.

Lee was stunned when he finished reading the letter. He didn’t know exactly what to make of it or exactly what ‘genetic filth’ was, but it creeped him out and unnerved him in a way that he couldn’t put his finger on. For all of the help this strange Herald was supposedly intending to offer him, he found himself wanting to meet her less and less by the hour. And he was also glad that he hadn’t let Connacht’s messenger see it. If he had, Lee’s diplomatic troubles with Connacht would have been multiplied beyond his control.

The worst part was that it implied that, if he ever became enemies with this new Herald, he would be at a severe disadvantage. The Herald had the one asset that could make or break armies in a war: speed. She had it in spades. It hadn’t been more than a few hours to half a day, yet already the Herald had been notified of Lee’s whereabouts, informed of the people near him, along with their intentions and directions, and had enough time to send out a hit squad that beat Lee to the scene. This was an incredibly dangerous situation for Lee to be in, and for once, he was happy with the idea of being in Kirshtein again.

Lee sat in silence, ignoring Ling’s questions, for the rest of the way back to Kirshtein. He had enough on his mind already, even without having to stop and explain everything to her, and he knew that he was likely going to be hunted by more Phoukas in the near future. So, after healing himself back up, he decided that it would be a good idea to have some of his mana in reserve just in case something awful happened. Thus, he spent all but 30% on reshaping a few grams of metal to level up his Spirit Smithing and tried to make the most of the trip.