War Aeternus 4 ch1

Name: Lee Race: Human Class: Herald – Statesman

Level: 36 Health: 460/460 EXP: 20923/99000

Primary Stats:

Power 46 (53) Toughness 46 (53) Spirit 46 (53)

Secondary Stats:

Charisma 31 Courage 22 Deceit 31

Intelligence 261 (300) Honor -2 Faith 36724

Personal Faith 435

Skills:

Unarmed Combat Novice Level 2 Swordplay Journeyman Level 4

Sneak Journeyman Level 8 Cooking Initiate Level 10

Trap Detection Initiate Level 7 Knife Combat Initiate Level 10

Mental Fortitude Initiate Level 2 Sleight of Hand Initiate Level 5

Blood Shield Novice Level 3 Sewing Initiate Level 7

Glass Smithing Novice Level 8 True Patriot

Carpentry Novice Level 3 Delegation

Masonry Initiate Level 6

The Statesman:

Territories:

Satterfield (+10: Savior)

Defensive Strength Rating:15 Economic Strength rating: 11

Population Rating: 4 Territory Rating: 12

Tech / Utility Rating: 21 Influence / Tourism Rating: 14

Public Persona:

Kirshtein (-4: Brutal Enforcer)

Birnefeld (1: Uncertain Assistant)

Divine Skills:

Golem Sculpting Adept Level 2

Appreciative Drunk Journeyman Level 4

Nectar of the Gods Novice Level 2

Spirit Smithing Novice Level 2

Faith Healing

Ignis Veritas

Spirit Builder Initiate Level 3

Divinity Powers

Life in Death

Titles:

Cheat Code Fighter

The Great Deceiver

The Aggressive Mile-High Chef

Lee cautiously crept up the narrow stairwell with a sword in one hand and a beautiful archer in tow behind him. He paused before taking each step, carefully inspecting each polished wooden board for pressure plates or trip wires, and then tentatively shifted his weight forward once he was certain there was no trap waiting for him. The clamor of steel striking steel, the baleful moans of the dying and wild battle cries of those still fighting to survive provided the perfect cover for his stealthy approach, but it was the shrill, piercing laughter of one of his companions that echoed up the hallway and set his nerves on edge.

He had asked Jade why she insisted on carrying on like that as she butchered people, and she had said it was expected. The villain needed to laugh, she had asserted, at which time Lee pointed out that they weren’t the villains, but Jade had simply ignored him. She had replied that villains were sexier, so she wanted to try that attitude and outfit on for a change in hopes of better seducing her future husband—apparently still Lee, at least in her mind—despite the fact he had told her clearly that he had a girlfriend back in the other world.

The two cleared the last step and made it into the hallway of the second floor, and Ling’s hand immediately lifted off of his back where it had been resting. He heard the sound of her bowstring being drawn back, and she whispered, “Careful! I hear something up ahead.”

“Yeah, I can almost smell them,” Lee responded, which was a half-truth. He couldn’t actually smell anything, but the four golems with him could. Their senses were far sharper than his own, and he had become accustomed to experiencing the world through their eyes and ears—and this case noses—when his own proved inadequate. He knew that there were people still on this floor and that one of them was very, very drunk before they ever arrived.

The tension of the bow relaxed slightly, but Ling still held it at the ready with an arrow nocked just in case. “What room do you want to start with?” Ling asked.

“The second one on the right,” Lee answered. There was something odd about the two rooms on that side of the hallway, and he knew that there was likely a trap waiting for them there. He had no way of knowing what it actually was since his golems were now far too fat to sneak underneath the door, but the almost-imperceptible sound of people trying to hold their breath gave it away.

He crept closer to the door on his right with Ling as his shadow, and he heard the scratch of their clothing against the wall dividing the two rooms. Yup, it’s definitely a trap.

The two edged past the first door and stopped outside the second. He looked back at Ling and gave her the signal for one of their maneuvers, but she just looked at him confusedly. Crap, we haven’t done this in so long. I’ve been leveling with Jade lately instead of practicing with Ling . . . Well, whatever. The snake lure was the perfect move, but the expression on her face told him that it wasn’t going to happen until they practiced it again.

Welp, here goes nothing anyway. Lee raised his shield, The Cannon Rush, and slammed into the door. The weak wooden door shattered inward thanks to his level-enhanced strength, and he burst into the room. There were several shocked Firbolgs and Leprechauns waiting for them lined up against the far wall, but his experience with this group told him that none of them were likely to be near his level.

Not waiting to lose the element of surprise provided by his impressive door-splintering entrance, Lee pivoted toward the nearest Leprechaun and charged. He cleared the distance across the room in only a few steps and slammed into the lanky man shield-first. The spike affixed to his shield impaled the Leprechaun in the center of his chest, and the lanky fighter was thrown backward into a nearby Firbolg by the combined forces of Lee’s momentum and the strength of his swing. The two fighters started a domino-like effect in the tightly-packed group, with each man toppling into the one behind him, that culminated with a loud clicking sound as the final Firbolg’s rear struck the floor.

Lee heard the shrill sound of a woman’s scream, and he had just enough time to turn toward the source before an explosion rocked the room. The adjoining wall just to their right blew outward, sending fragments of wood and mortar flying through the air, the floor underneath him reverberated with the force of the explosion, and the glass windows rattled in their panes. A wave of intense heat struck him first, and then a thick black cloud of dust and smoke billowed out and filled the air.

The timbers above started groaning loudly under the additional strain of suddenly being forced to hold up the third story of the building without a valuable load-bearing wall, and the floor sagged down as broken struts began to give way beneath as well. The floor hung suspended for a brief moment, as if fighting against the inevitable, and then it too completely collapsed. Rubble and debris rained down, adding to the already thick cloud, and two women who had been tied up and held as captives on the first floor were buried underneath the section as it collapsed.

Lee felt a sudden impulse to leap down and help the women, and guilt and shame welled up in his heart as he realized that they were likely innocents who had been caught in the conflict because of him. Gritting his teeth against the swell of emotion, he choked the sudden surge of remorse back down and turned his attention back to the fight at hand. Those women were either dead already, or they would survive long enough for him to finish what he came here to do.

Taking advantage of his enemies’ terrified reaction to the blast, He pulled out his sword and finished off the Leprechaun that had been impaled on his shield moments ago. “Don’t just stand there!” the Firbolg in the back yelled. “Kill those filthy cledors!”

His foes snapped to their senses as the dust from the explosion began to settle.

Lee backed up and placed himself halfway between Ling, who was still positioned in the doorway, and the group of enemies that were trying to form up in front of them. He heard the snap of Ling’s bowstring behind him, and arrows began whizzing past his head as she carefully picked her targets from amongst the disoriented Firbolgs. Her wicked barbs disabled two of them almost immediately, stopping them before they were even able to get to their feet. As she had on so many occasions before, she quickly turned their shoulders and thighs into something resembling pincushions. The two men collapsed back to the deck, clutching their wounds and writing in agony.

Spurred on by their fellows’ ill fates, two other men regained their footing and pushed forward cautiously.

“Seal the mountain pass,” Lee shouted, passing orders and preparing himself for their little play.

“Balderdash,” Ling replied, letting him know she wasn’t prepared for the move.

Well, it’s not the first time I’ve gone into a fight with no plan. Lee readied his blade as he eyed the two men. To his dismay, he saw three more begin to creep forward from behind those as well. Thankfully, he knew that all he had to do to win this fight was protect Ling. Given enough time, she could maim or kill every single person in the room. The problem was that it was going to be almost impossible to keep her completely guarded with such limited space to work with. There were only about ten feet between her and the closest Firbolg, and that distance was rapidly shrinking.

The first two men were both swordsmen, one of whom was using a buckler, and that was whom Lee decided to focus on first since there was a chance, however small, that he might be able to deflect one of Ling’s arrows. Lee lunged forward prepared for the worst and slammed into the man shield-first, meeting the duo before they could advance any further. The Firbolg went flying back onto the floor, and Lee was left staggering, trying to bring himself to a quick halt. He had misjudged how much strength it would require to throw the man off balance, and his momentum threatened to carry him forward as well.

The other swordsman tried to take advantage of Lee’s bad footing by swinging around with a downward chop aimed at Lee’s right side, but Lee somehow managed to parry it with his own blade while still off-kilter. He pushed the man’s sword down into the floorboards, and a second later, one of Ling’s arrows found the artery in his neck. She dropped a second arrow into the man carrying a shield whom Lee had downed and then turned her fire on the other three men. Her first two arrows struck one of the Firbolgs in the chest, piercing him through the sternum and taking him out of the fight almost immediately.

Lee pushed the dying Firbolg away from him before the man could take any parting swings at him and instantly turned toward the next two attackers. They had hesitated when they saw Lee advance on the duo, and they had faltered again when Ling shot down the man in line next to them. Now, they were stopped dead in their tracks, uncertainly looking between themselves as if they were questioning whether or not it was worth it to continue. They had the advantage of numbers, but Lee and Ling clearly outskilled them. Before either found their courage and pressed forward, however, the last three remaining Leprechauns moved forward to join them, and that was apparently all the encouragement they needed. Seemingly satisfied with a two-to-one numbers advantage, they all rushed forward together.

Lee acted without thinking and hurled his sword at the closest man. He wasn’t fond of his backup weapons and preferred not to ever let go of his finely-crafted sword and shield, but he found that it was sometimes useful to treat weapons a bit like disposable objects during fights, much like Miller did with countless spears. The blade spun end over end once and then sank into the man’s chest. By the time the sword sank in, Lee had already withdrawn a second sword from his inventory and turned to engage the next closest man. He deflected a hastily made slash, planted his rear foot, and then drove forward with his shield. It was a simple but deadly maneuver, and it was one that he had become accustomed to using ever since his time in the gladiator pits. The pointed spike affixed to his shield stabbed into the man’s chest and pierced through his heart, instantly killing him.

He didn’t even have time to savor this small victory before someone else struck out at him. Lee diverted the attack with his shield and stabbed forward with his sword, punching the tip of his blade into the man’s shoulder. He had just enough time to pull back and dance out of the way as another attack came in from the side. Rather than fully retreating, however, Lee rebounded and pressed forward again. The overly-eager Leprechauns had started to chase after him, and he was caught off guard when Lee suddenly changed from flight to attack. The man had overextended himself, attempting to reach forward and stab Lee while he was retreating, and Lee was now able to take advantage of the mistake. He pushed the Leprechaun’s outreached blade to the side with his shield and then stepped inside the man’s guard, allowing the other two to slip past him on either side. Lee brought his sword around in a chopping motion, and he was rewarded by the sound of bone snapping as he cleanly severed the man’s arm at the elbow. Lee shoved forward again and drove his shoulder into the Leprechaun’s chest. The man groaned loudly in pain as the air was expelled from his lungs, and he went flying back into a heap on the floor.

Dismissing the wounded man for the moment, Lee quickly stashed away his shield and equipped a secondary sword. He wasn’t accustomed to fighting with two weapons, and he wasn’t fond of stowing away his shield, but he needed to deal out as much damage as he could at the moment if he was going to save Ling.

Currently, the archer was desperately trying to fend off a flurry of sword strikes with the shaft of her bow. While she was quite adept at defending herself against a single opponent, it was only a matter of time until someone either landed a lucky strike or they tired her out.  Fortunately, the doorway she had positioned herself in preventing them from surrounding her. Neither swordsman had much room to work with, and they were limited to stabbing thrusts in the attempts to reach her.

Lee covered the distance between them in a second, launched himself into the air, and buried both of his swords into one of the Leprechaun’s backs. The man was thrown off balance and was carried forward by the unexpected assault, and there was a loud crack as his head collided with the wooden doorframe. Lee twisted his body around as soon as his feet were back on the ground, grabbed the Leprechaun by the waist and hurled the man away from Ling.

He turned to the final swordsman, his heart still racing at the thought of Ling getting struck by a potentially fatal blow. Fueled by adrenaline, Lee grabbed the last remaining man and hoisted him into the air. The man started kicking and flailing his arms the moment Lee grabbed hold of him, but there was little that he could do to break Lee’s iron grip. One painstaking step at a time, Lee turned and dragged the man toward the opening in the wall left by the explosion. Then, just before he reached it, he turned and shoved the Leprechaun as hard as he could. The shocked swordsman hurtled through the hole with so much force that he thudded off the wall of the building across the narrow alley before falling limply to the ground below.

Lee was just preparing to launch himself down toward the ground to finish the job when he spotted the man and then the spear-wielding madman Miller. The mighty Firbolg landed on top of the man and proceeded to stab him first through the chest, next in the throat and then finally in the head, driving his spear into the man’s face again and again until the poor soul’s skull was reduced to a crimson slosh of stuff loosely contained in the halves of his split cranium. Looking down at the grisly sight, Lee couldn’t help thinking the man’s brutalized head now resembled a bloody bread bowl.

“He’s  . . . He’s dead.” Lee turned around to make sure that Ling was okay. Thankfully, she appeared to be fine except for a few minor cuts, most likely self-inflicted as she fought to keep the swordsmen away from her. Her bow staff had numerous deep notches cut into it that would likely render it useless, but making her another one wouldn’t be a problem thanks to his Carpentry skill.

“Good,” Ling answered, slinging her bow over her shoulder.

“We need to keep clearing rooms,” Lee said, checking the bodies once over again to see if the group’s leader was among the slain. He had received a very-well-drawn picture of this cell’s leader with the intel they had gathered before the mission, so he felt confident that he would recognize his target. The only questionable suspect was the one whom Miller had mutilated, but from what he remembered before tossing the Leprechaun out of the building, he wasn’t the man Lee was looking for. “The leader wasn’t here.”

“Lee, I–”

Lee held up a hand to cut her off since already knew what she was going to say: she needed another weapon since she didn’t want to risk using a damaged bow. He quickly turned and finished off the last two men, shoving his blade into their chests and ending their lives before taking two of his spare swords from his inventory and passing them to her. Ling excelled at using bows and arrows, but she was proficient with swords and reasonable capable with unarmed combat. When Lee had first come to this world, she had taught him quite a bit during their sparring sessions, and her skill still showed when it needed to—even if Lee felt a lot more comfortable with her sniping their foes from behind him.

“Thanks . . .” she muttered quietly, hesitantly taking each offered hilt.

The two began clearing rooms one by one after that, and Lee made constant use of his three golems to sniff out any potential traps. The second story proved to be completely empty, so they made their way up to the third, which more closely resembled an attic with a steeply-slanting roof rising up from low walls. It was the largest open space in the building that they had come across, but it was mostly empty except for a dozen bookshelves lined up along the walls, a desk and chair in the middle of the room, and a single waiting occupant. A Firbolg man sat at the desk, holding a drink in his left hand and clutching the end of a taut rope in his right.

“So, the filthy cledor rats have fin—”

Lee didn’t bother letting him finish. He hurled his sword across the room and straight into the Firbolg’s wide chest. The man flinched away at the last possible moment, preventing the blow from being fatal, and he jerked hard on the rope he was clutching when he instinctively reached for his chest with his right hand.

Lee tensed up in anticipation of another trap being sprung, but when a few seconds passed without incident, he relaxed a bit.

The Firbolg’s face scrunched up in pain, and he looked up at the rope helplessly, like he had been betrayed by a friend and his final lifeline had been cut.  He tugged on it a few times, but there wasn’t very much strength behind his movements. “Why is . . . Why is nothing happening?” He gasped out the words around a mouthful of blood that spilled down his chin as he spoke.

“Faulty rigging on your trap?” Lee quickly stalked across the room, making sure to keep his shield up in front of him. This man was unarmed, and given how easily the sword had sliced through him—sinking clear through the man’s body and chair alike—he was clearly just as low of a level as the people Lee had already taken care of on the second floor, but that didn’t mean he was going to present an easy target either.

“It . . . You . . . This is your fault!” the old Firbolg screamed, and a feverish light entered his dying eyes. Lee might have missed the man’s heart, but he had pierced his lung instead. The Firbolg was dying, and they both knew it. Every word he spoke was short and raspy and filled with excruciating pain. “We’ll purge you vile Humans from glorious Kirshtein!”

Lee was used to fighting life or death battles in this world. The game in which the competition between Heralds took place was particularly brutal and was easily more violent than any Lee had played as a kid, but as he stared at the man in front of him, he felt an emotion that was still uncommon to him despite the violence that surrounded him on a daily basis: hatred. He would never forget how he had felt when he had first encountered the slavemaster Herald who had tried to swallow his starting town whole.  He vividly remembered the revulsion and disgust he had felt, and now, the same murderous anger boiled up in him at the sight of this new piece of scum, and he couldn’t stop himself from grabbing on to the man’s neck with both hands.

So, this man killed dozens of innocent people, and he is nothing but puny and pathetic . . . This is how fragile the vilest of people can be . . .

The Firbolg had acted as a conspirator to Devin, the Firbolg Herald who had made it his mission to eradicate all of Humanity from this world, and he had been one of the many complicit politicians who had created trumped-up charges in order to imprison and execute innocent Humans within Kirstine. The coward in front of him has persecuted, tortured killed innocent men, women and children just to get wealthy and garner power for himself.

Lee relinquished his hold on the man’s throat and quickly changed tactics. He reached down with his right hand and began healing the man’s chest, while the blade firmly in place with his left. The Firbolg’s eyes grew wider at first, and clarity returned to them through the pain as the fervor diminished. Lee couldn’t imagine how it must feel to have a wound try and close itself up while being unable to expel the blade. He was effectively rending the man’s lung open time and time again as it tried to heal itself but was unable to.

Lee stopped healing and instead channeled a new skill he had been practicing quite often lately: Ignis Veritas. It took roughly 0.5% of his mana to start up a flame and convert his spirit into a form of heat, but he could control the intensity of the heat being generated by limiting how much mana he dumped into the ability. Lee slowly increased the heat flowing out of his hand, searing the Firbolg’s flesh so badly that the pain not only drew screams out of the man but also produced the smell of charred meat. Smoke from the Firbolg’s burning skin assailed Lee’s nose and filled it with the stench of the blackening flesh.

“What are you doing?” Ling asked, worry in her voice. When he didn’t answer, she became much more urgent. “Lee, what are you doing?”

But Lee didn’t respond. He just kept burning the Firbolg, using one hand to char the skin as he reached up and used the other hand to heal the wound so that he could burn the man all over again.

“Lee, just kill him!” Ling yelled over the screams. “Lee . . . Stop it! This isn’t you! Lee, enough! He’s defeated. Finish him off so we can get out of here!” she pleaded, but Lee just kept up the cycle: burning, healing, burning, healing, burning, healing. He watched the man writhe, cry and then break down in agony before him.

He probably would have kept going, but ran across the room and stabbing the rebel Firbolg through the heart, instantly killing him. Even if he could heal grave injuries, Lee couldn’t raise the dead.

Feeling the life fade from his victim, Lee loosened his grip and finally letting go. He reached down and pulled his sword from the bastard and then stood up straight and looked over at Ling.

“Lee, that isn’t who you are,” Ling said softly. She placed her hand on Lee’s back, and her own eyes flickered back and forth slightly as she stared straight into his.

Lee shrugged. His rage began to fade, he started coming back to his senses. “Maybe,” he answered nonchalantly, refusing to agree one way or the other. He wanted to avoid a real discussion on the subject, so he turned left without saying anything else. After a moment, Ling followed.

They didn’t make it even halfway to the steps before a boom thundered up from below. Crap! Was it delayed?! Lee panicked. He turned around and shot toward Ling, who was a couple paces behind him. He scooped her off the ground and slung her over his shoulder while pulling out his shield with his left and then he ran back toward the desk as fast as he could. He remembered enough from the instructional videos they forced him to watch as a kid that you get under the desk and put something over your head the moment a structure felt like it was about to collapse. There was no chance that Ling was trained similarly, so he basically had no choice but to carry her along with him without wasting the time to explain what was going on. Once they were underneath, he turned the shield away and attempted to block the opening and cover up as much of his body as he could. Then the building began to collapse around them.

Giant pieces of debris fell from the roof, mortar and plaster crumbled from the walls, and the floor trembled. Lee felt his stomach sink as the floorboards sagged, and then they began cracking with loud splintering noises. Then they gave out completely. He and Ling were unceremoniously dropped down from the third floor to the second as the boards broke, bits of stone and wood striking them on the way down.  They landed with a loud thud, and he felt the force of the impact reverberate up his spin. He fervently hoped that this would end of their trip as he began healing him and Ling, but he knew better. Most of his mana had already been spent torturing the Firbolg, and he focused what he had left mostly into Ling as the second floor fell away beneath them. When they hit bottom, Lee struggled to push away the massive pieces of stone and wood that had collapsed onto them during the descent and free up some breathing room.

“Well, that went swimmingly,” Lee thought aloud.

“Bleeding,” Ling said as she looked up at him. “You’re bleeding.”

He looked down at her. She was perfectly fine. Then he checked his health bar. Half health and dropping. The bastard really tried to bring the whole place down on top of me. He used some of his remaining mana to heal himself enough to stop the bleeding. System, could you turn notifications back on? I need to see what happened.

Are you sure? I thought you said that you didn’t want to be distracted during an important fight?

But the fight’s over, Lee countered. So how would it distract me?

If the fight is over, then why is your weapon still drawn?

What are you talking about? My weapon isn’t drawn. . .  Then he realized what the system was talking about. Oh, come on. Cut me some slack. It’s a natural reaction when a guy is pinned against a woman, Lee grumbled back at the system.

You should try to learn strategic thinking. Problems only arise when you don’t anticipate them and take preventative measures.

Can you just show me the status messages, please, Lee asked as nicely as he could, remembering to be polite and say ‘please’ so the system didn’t snap at him, withhold information, or feed him incorrect information as he imagined she very well might.

Fine. Here you go. Still, you really need to get that problem taken care of.

Thanks for the advice, Lee replied with a sigh. He looked through the death notifications, the loot list, and his own status messages for skill increases. Pretty good fight, but this operation was still too deadly.

Lee felt the ground around him shift again, and he peeked around his shield to see Miller, covered in blood that Lee knew likely wasn’t his, tossing rubble off of him one rock at a time. Even though Lee was a higher level than Miller, his Firbolg companion was still probably stronger. The strength difference wasn’t just due to Miller being a different race: his Power stat was also affected by his class, Paladin, and by a boost that had occurred when he had activated his own divine bloodline in a hate-filled rage. The moment he had tapped into his lineage, his anger had given him enough strength that, even outside of the game, he had been able to rip his own brother in half with his bare hands. That same strength was evident now as he easily tossed aside the piled-up clusters of debris covering Ling and Lee.

“Thanks,” Lee said as he moved out from under the remains of the desk and looking around at the collapsed building. Thankfully it wasn’t a do-it-yourself assembly kit . . . That stuff wouldn’t have survived that. “Did everyone make it okay?”

“One of my Paladins died and . . . we’re still missing three people,” Miller said, starting to sift through the debris again.

“Who’s missing?” Lee’s eyes darted back and forth as he mentally ran through the list of people who should be with them. Okay, so we’re missing two more Paladins and . . . “Crap! Jade? Jade, stop joking around and come out!” Lee shouted. He couldn’t see her anywhere, but he knew there would have been a notification of some kind if she had died.

Augustus, is Mary fine? I can’t see Jade anywhere, Lee asked his trollish deity ancestor. Augustus watched over Lee’s every move and generally listened to his every thought. He was hoping that he’d hear Mary through the divine communication channel Augustus used to talk to him. If the Goddess of Blood was alive, her Herald was too. Mary would also be able to tell him where Jade was so that he could save her if she was seriously injured. However, silence was the only reply he got.

“JADE!!” he shouted again as loudly as he could. As if finally answering his call, a pile of broken bricks, lumber and stones in the started moving. Debris fell away, and hands shot up from the ground like the undead rising from the grave in a 1980s horror flick.

“Braaiiiinnnnssss . . .” a soft called from the pile.

Lee turned and watched as five dead-looking Firbolgs emerged from the rubble and started lumbering toward Lee rather awkwardly.

“Braaiiiinnnsss . . .” the voice called again from behind the walking corpses. “We . . . neeed . . . braiiinssss . . .Give us your . . . brains . . .”

Lee stared in disbelief at the five zombie-like entities that had crawled up from the wreckage and were making their way to him. “Seriously?” he asked aloud, his voice filled with disbelief and skepticism. Ling, Miller, and the nine remaining Paladins stood frozen, staring at the shuffling corpses with a mixture of horror, confusion and wonderment drawn across their faces.

“The dead . . . They’re dead, right? What sort of foul beast profanes the natural cycle of life and comes back to die a second time?!” Miller shouted while pulling out a spear and throwing it at one of the zombies. It ripped through the head of the lead zombie, removing it clear from the dead Firbolg’s shoulders, but the creature continued slowly shuffling toward the group slowly closer to the group

The zombie’s body shifted slightly toward Miller, and the soft voice behind the revenants continued its chant: “Braaiiinnnsss . . .”

A magical red string appeared in the air that circled around the head that Miller had cut off and pulled it back toward the body, reconnecting the dead Firbolg with his now-pierced skull, the spear still firmly lodged through one of its eye sockets.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Lee stated flatly. “Are you really doing this?”

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I won’t stand for it!” Miller declared. “This is an injustice against the very fabric of reality!  Life is life and death is death. CORPSES! CHOOSE ONE OR THE OTHER, OR I SHALL SHRED YOU ALL INTO OBLIVION ONE STAB AT A TIME UNTIL NO SORCERY CAN PUT YOU BACK TOGETHER AGAIN!” His voice boomed out so loudly it echoed off the buildings around them. Whether on purpose or just by reflex, Miller also let loose his famous Drunken Shout when he had exclaimed his warning, and it left the whole party not only confused by what was happening but also inebriated.

Lee sighed and shook his head as the drunken haze passed over him. “Jade, will you stop messing with Miller already?”

“Braiiiinnnssss . . .” the soft voice called again, persisting despite the sick joke growing old.

“If you keep it up, I’m just going to have to pull you out of those rocks and spank you in front of everyone here,” Lee warned. The bodies faltered, swaying back and forth where they stood uncertainty, and then dropped lifelessly to the ground in crumpled heaps.  The pile of rubble where they had risen up shook as a cute blue-haired girl popped her head out.

“Do you promise?” she asked eagerly. “I could definitely give that type of exhibitionism a try if you’re game!” She grinned from ear to ear as she gave Lee a wink and suggestively tugged on a tear in her shirt to reveal some cleavage.

Are you preparing for battle again?

Lee just sighed. You really need to learn a different joke, he grumbled.

I’ve learned every joke in existence. I merely repeated this one because it had the highest chance of effectively irritating you.

And why are you trying to irritate me this time? Haven’t I said ‘thank you’ enough? I sincerely appreciate all the hard work you do, and I have voiced that fact, so what have I done wrong now? Lee eyed his surroundings, watching Miller gather the men up and taking note of where all the bodies were. He couldn’t help but notice the face of one of the men that had died. The dead Paladin was a fresh recruit, no older than nineteen, and he had shown noteworthy combat prowess in the training sessions. It was a shame to see him dead less than a week after signing up.

Another person will take his place soon. You need to stop dwelling on death so much in this world. When one soldier dies, another will take his place.

Even if another one takes his place, he’s still dead. Lee had to hold himself back from roaring the response at the system.

Are you really going to get broody every time I explain how this world works? You think more than any other Herald in this game. Where one thought would suffice, you force twenty. Where problems don’t exist, you make them. I should . . . Yes. That’s exactly what I will do.

You have achieved the title Man of Many Sighs. +1 Depression.

Depression isn’t a stat, is it? Lee asked, stopping himself from sighing again to prevent the name from being too accurate. I mean, how does that even take shape? How come there isn’t a

If I say it’s a stat, it can be a stat. Who do you think writes your dumb character sheets? As far as what it does? I don’t know. I’ll assign it a function later. Or not at all. In fact, upon further consideration, I’m just giving you the title Man of Many Sighs, and you shall receive no bonus stats to go with it. Happy?

Lee couldn’t help but smirk at the irony of that last question. I don’t think anyone likes to have the title Man of Many Sighs, but sure. I guess I’m happy you haven’t given me depression, so thanks for that at least, he added, hoping the conversation would end there.
No response came from the AI, so Lee got back to business. “Alright, Jade, you go murder stuff to your heart’s content outside the city. Just make sure to be back in time. Miller, go run drills with the Paladins, and be back at the bar for the usual debrief tonight. I’m going with Ling to report this and attend that stupid council meeting,” he said to the people who were now simply waiting on orders. “This might not have been a flawless success, but it was still a victory, so . . .” Lee paused, eyeing the anxious people around him. He pulled the two kegs from his inventory that he had filled with delectable brew the day before and passed them out to the expectant followers. “Here. Everyone can have a round on me.”

“No bacon?” Milled asked, clearly disappointed..

“Not until we can do this without a death,” Lee snapped back.

——-

Lee sent a mental order to the golems under his control to go ahead of him and scout for any potential dangers and then made his way back toward the center of Kirshtein. The council session would begin soon, and while Lee loved being late to pointless meetings and treating every minute of tardiness as a gifted piece of time from heaven itself, he had to be at this one. They were scheduled to discuss tax on trade between Kirshtein and the flourishing Satterfield, and Lee needed to do his best to prevent that. He had built up the town’s Economic Strength, Influence and Tourism stats thanks to his Statesman skill, and he wasn’t about to let a potential tariff from their chief trading partner sour the town’s economic growth. Farmland wasn’t going to pop up out of nowhere, and he had already used his abilities as a Statesman to provide the farms with irrigation, so there was little else that he could do to continue improving the town or increase the production of raw materials. The town needed a steady trading partner that was able to keep up a constant demand for the finished goods it was producing. Otherwise, Satterfield would lose its ability to continue growing at such a rapid pace. He had to rely on trade, or he’d have a quickly stagnating town.

“I’ve heard that your house-clearing party went well,” Connacht commented as soon as Lee and Ling walked into the council room. Connacht was one of the two remaining Human household leaders who sat on the council, and he always assumed a certain familiarity with Lee as a result.

Lee looked over at Connacht and nodded. “Your intel was good. We found them, but the party didn’t go so well. The bill was higher than anticipated.” Lee’s euphemism was about the most polite way he could think of to mention the fact that innocent people, as well as one of his own, had been killed during the course of the fight.

Connacht frowned, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “Indeed. Preliminary reports mentioned that they saw a building collapse on the southwest side of town, right around the area where your mission was.”

“Lord Lee!” Bronagh, the head of the other remaining Human faction called out enthusiastically from one of the council chairs. “I’ve saved you a seat right next to me!”

As the leader of the House of Alastar, she actually had a good deal of authority. Now that Devin was disposed of and the majority of his followers hunted down and killed, her influence had grown even more. Members of the fallen houses who had no other place to go, along with numerous others who had been imprisoned or forced into hiding, had flocked to her and Connacht’s banners following the uprising. Her house, unlike Connacht’s, had even begun sheltering Dwarves and Aes Sidhe that had been abandoned by their own patrons. Bronagh had added so many non-Humans to her faction that even some of the more sympathetic Leprechauns and Firbolgs who hadn’t approved of their own factions’ anti-human actions joined her swelling numbers.

Lee forced himself to smile with his eyes as well as his mouth while he walked over and sat down next to her. “Thank you for that.” He moved his butt back and forth in the chair, surprised at the silk-cushioned, down-stuffed, comfortably-padded chair, which was the type of luxury that really gave new definition to upper class in this land.

“No problem,” she replied, beaming at him. “I knew you’d actually make this meeting, and we still have a lot to talk about.”

“Not sure what’s left to talk about. I’ve just finished killing all the remaining rebel scum, and I’m just here because I heard we were talking about trade deals.”

“Exactly: trade. I think we need to expand our influence among the other cities of the Spicy Noodle Chicken Surprise Empire through trade. I think that, if we can open up trade partnerships, we can spread your religion at the same time, and we ca—”

“She wants to send you off to another kingdom again,” Connacht interrupted, throwing out a summary of Bronagh’s thoughts as he sat down across from her with his own group. “She’s not the only one who thinks that way either. While she has good intentions, every non-Human but Ungus Bec is on the same page. They all want you out of town.”

“Why do you think they want that?” Lee asked. He studied Connacht, trying to see if he would reveal anything past the plain meaning of his words. The two had a simple, unspoken understanding, and Connacht was a trustworthy source of information, but the man gave Lee a very uncomfortable feeling whenever the two worked together. As long as their mutual ambitions were aligned, the prince would stay friendly and helpful. However, Lee worried about what would happen when those interests diverged.

“I think the better question is this: Why would they risk letting you actually stay in town if they had a choice?” Connacht asked, leaning back in his chair. “The power vacuum is an issue, Tigernach’s dead, and they probably want to use you in order to seize power in these tumultuous times.”

Bronagh was the one who would directly benefit from his presence, so the council wanting him gone made sense. The fact she also wanted him gone didn’t. What could she gain from sending me off if there actually is a power struggle?

“He’s not entirely wrong,” Bronagh said. “That is the reason they want you gone. My problem is different though. I’m worried about Korinin and Cowtiptopia.”

“Huh?” Lee blinked. He knew of the towns. They were both satellite villages within Kirshtein’s domain, just like Satterfield. “What happened with them?”

Bronagh sighed as if it were a topic that weighed heavily on her. “Nothing yet, but they’ve rejected our good will, and I’m concerned about them. They’re not the only two towns to shut their doors.”

“Is it because Devin died?” Lee asked. He was trying to think of why a town would risk shutting itself off from the kingdom it was part of.

“No, it’s the opposite. When Devin was in power, a lot of . . .” Bronagh trailed off and looked over at the other council members, the Leprechauns and Firbolgs, before looking back at Lee and lowering her voice. “A lot of our people fled to the towns during Devin’s rise, and they started to board up and seal off their gates to outsiders. Walls have been erected, militias have been formed, and the last diplomat that was sent from Kirshtein was killed before he made it within a hundred yards of the gate.”

“The diplomat was a Firbolg,” Connacht said. “He should have expected as much given recent events. Wounds can’t be closed as fast as they can be made. She wants you to go open up their doors, return them to the fold, and improve her house’s standing.”

“No!” Bronagh said sternly, her eyes hardening and nostrils flaring slightly. “It’s more important than that. If we allow these villages to remain segregated from the central population, we’ll lose cohesion and—”

“Farm supplies. We’ll lose cohesion and farm supplies,” Connacht interjected from the side, interrupting Bronagh again. “I say don’t visit them.”

“But they’re Humans. Don’t you usually do anything you can to protect our kind?” Lee liked the little back and forth between them: It was educational, and Bronagh was cute when she was frustrated. But nothing about this made sense. Despite how high his Intelligence stat was—as the system often pointed out—he didn’t have the Wisdom stat needed to put everything together without help.

Connacht crossed his arms over his chest and snorted as he looked over at the table. “Which is why I say leave them be. It’s better for everyone that matters if we don’t send you on a diplomatic tour to repair a fragmented kingdom.”

“But without Lord Lee’s guidance, how will they ever come to learn of the wonders of bacon, good beer and the right path toward happiness and a blessed life?!” Bronagh demanded. “Our armies need their well-priced food, and they need Lord Lee!”

Connacht glared at the woman, and his cold voice carried notes of vitriol as he spoke. “They’ll need the food more if winter ever comes, and crop growth slows down. The food isn’t going to spoil. Their leverage will only grow as time passes. I say let them stay as they are. Not to mention”—he turned from Bronagh to Lee—“your own hamlet stands to benefit from their lack of participation. Those foolish villages have yet to invest in proper infrastructure like you have. You can step in and benefit greatly by supplying the needs of armies.”

Lee had to suppress a grin. Connacht had basically given him a golden bullet in the upcoming negotiations. He could practically set a tariff on incoming goods while still demanding free trade on outgoing ones if he used this information correctly. Satterfield’s success would be guaranteed. As much as he wanted Satterfield to grow, however, he couldn’t risk handling Kishtein so harshly. Satterfield was his home base, but Kirshtein hosted a far larger number of his followers, and he had to be concerned about them as well.

“You’re heartless,” Bronagh snapped to Connacht. “These people need our help, not our schemes. If Lee, the savior of Humanity, personally went there to plead with them, it would benefit everyone. How can you discourage this?”

“You seem to have forgotten that we still have to deal with the swine watching our every movement across the table.” Connacht nodded his head at the two leading Leprechauns and the dissenting Firbolg who had been eyeing the trio ever since they sat down. “That’s why everyone gains from him remaining here, and no one of import suffers from him leaving.”

“Except me,” Lee said. They were overlooking the fact that neither of them actually had any say in whether he came or went. “I suffer if I stay static.”

“How so?” Connacht asked. “I know that your kind needs battle, gear, and followers. All of these can be procured without you ever leaving the confines of the city. How do you fall behind at all by staying? With you and the blood queen”—a name Connacht often used to describe Jade—“here, we can expand the empire and secure Kirshtein as a stronghold for Humanity at the same time.”

“Skill, battle experience, world stone fragments . . . They’re all outside the city walls,” Lee answered. He didn’t doubt that he could level inside the walls. He could put together a large party of incredibly-skilled fighters and send them off to kill whatever he wanted while sitting at home leeching experience. But EXP wasn’t the most important thing. Levels were crucial in the early stages of most games, but what he needed now was skill and practice, and with the EXP-grinding machine Jade with him, he was much faster than the fighters ever could be.

“Exactly!” Bronagh exclaimed, misunderstanding him. She seemed to think that he was going to depart on the mission she had mentioned earlier to go see the other two towns and solve the hostile relations between them and Kirshtein. “That’s why we should put together some favorable terms and have you go at once! With you, the great Lord Lee, the Hero of Humanity, making the trip personally, it’ll be no time at all until we’ll have the kingdom of Kirshtein unified once more!” Bronagh beamed proudly, looking incredibly satisfied.

Lee sighed. Woman, you expect too much of me. “For those towns . . . I think I’d actually just rather send a delegation myself.” Then, to be extremely clear in the matter, Lee said, “As representatives of Satterfield, not Kirshtein.”

“What?” Bronagh’s eyes opened in shock. “That’s . . . That’s not right. If you’re leaving but not going to settle that problem, then . . . where are you going?”

Lee wanted to tell her that he planned on using the Hunter’s Guild to find out where the most fiendish beasts were and would then grind the monsters into oblivion to raise his levels and skills, but he could still feel other councilmen’s’ beady eyes, and he didn’t want privy to his actions.

“Humans, I believe it is time we begin addressing the matters at hand if you are quite done,” Faelgusa, a leader of one of the two Leprechaun houses, finally called out to them. It was time for the meeting to start, and the three of them couldn’t get away with having their little pre-meeting discussion any longer.

“Yes, what is first on the agenda? Should we talk about your growing food demands?” Lee asked, a sly smile on his face.

“That can wait,” Faelgusa responded, somehow managing to look happier than Connacht had been when Devin died. “I think we need to instead address a far more important issue: one that directly affects the safety of our people and will provide such a wondrous opportunity for the citizens of Kirshtein and you in particular.”

Oh no. Lee leaned away from Faelgusa, unconsciously putting distance between him and the slick-haired Leprechaun. Anytime someone begins a sales pitch, they have something to gain if you take the bait.

“There is no reason for that face, Lord Lee,” Calbrainn added. Lee didn’t fail to notice that he wore a smile that was almost identical to the one smeared across Faelgusa’s face. “While he is presenting the situation as an opportunity, it’s more appropriate to say that we have been given the chance to eliminate a potential future threat before it grows.”

“If this is such a grand opportunity, then is there a reason that you two seem to know about this issue while everyone else seems to be just as surprised as I am?” Lee turned and took a quick survey of the rest of the room. Aside from the Leprechauns, every single person at the table appeared to be puzzled. Their attention was focused on the Leprechauns, and many were wide-eyed and open-mouthed in either shock or curiosity.

“That might be because they lack . . . our channels,” Faelgusa explained slowly. “You see, Lord Lee, since you’re the Herald of our town, we’ve been making strides to repair our . . . rocky relationship with you. This recent possibility that we are about to present”—Faelgusa exchanged a glance with Calbrainn and the two of them both signaled to a guard at the door—“is one we hope can help add a little red back to our coats.”

Huh? Lee had never heard the expression before, so didn’t know what to make of it. He could glean what it meant, but given the sensitive nature of politics, he didn’t want to guess incorrectly. What in the hell is he talking about, Augustus? Can you translate this for me?

That’s rude. Why did you ask Augustus?

Lee’s throat automatically tightened up when the system responded instead of Augustus. Uhh . . . Lee blinked. I just didn’t want to bother you with . . .

With translating colloquial expressions and idioms into your common vernacular? The very thing that is a fundamental part of my job?

Well, you help me so much already . . . I didn’t want to create any additional stress, you know? You’re so great at—

My job? If I am so great my job, then why aren’t you allowing me to do it? Why must you outsource my responsibilities and obligations to that foul-tempered, shapeshifting cretin of a deity you are stuck with?

Lee didn’t know what to do at this point. While he would normally nod, agree and move on to avoid any confrontation—a skill taught to every American that ever had to deal with the news—he couldn’t do that here. Augustus could hear every word he thought, so if Lee so much as even humored the system, he’d be in trouble with his gatekeeper—the only one who had the power to warp him back to Earth. Moreover, Augustus had, at least recently, been very helpful with advice too. I mean, he’s not that bad. He seems like a decent enough guy, Lee thought back at the system.

He is a half-wit ignoramus devoid of manners and courtesy. He does not deserve such a polite and considerate Herald.

Lee bit his cheek, stopping himself from speaking. What the hell? Is this a fight between two divorced people. The only good thing that he had discovered was that the system didn’t hate him. Well, in that case, I’m sorry. Could you please tell me —

Le was interrupted by a snicker. “It’s an expression that basically means the same thing as ‘mending fences.’ It comes from the fact that Leprechauns who fought side by side would end up having red ‘dye’ from the same person on both their jackets. In this way, it goes past just restoring neighborly relations and means something more akin to ‘building a battle-brother relationship,’” Augustus said, chiming in with a jolly chuckle before Lee could finish or the system could give a response. “Old shapeshifting ignoramus: one. Sassy computacutie: zero.”

Ah. Lee nodded to himself in understanding. So, system, does that mean that colors are very important for Leprechaun manners?

Indeed they are. Red coats, shirts, and scarves can be ways to symbolize friendly relations with others; brown wardrobes can be a way to express humility; and blue is a color that should be avoided at all costs in polite Leprechaun culture.

“I see. Here I am all helpful, and you’re still turning to that heartless robocalling telemarketer that’s still upset about me not listening to her last time?” Augustus grumbled, but Lee could tell he wasn’t serious from the trollish laughter that followed.

Wait, why should blue be avoided? Lee asked. It was a very friendly color and generally was the go-to color for representing teamwork where he was from. Blue was a color that basically symbolized everything wonderful.

The reason is that they don’t have butterflies on most Leprechaun homeworlds.

. . . So?

There are no animals, insects, or even flowers with blue pigment, skin, hair, fur or feathers. Even their eyes lack the color. As such, wearing blue is doing something that is against the natural order for them. It is their color of rebellion. It is a common choice for those wishing to usurp monarchies or start an uprising.

Oh. Lee made sure to make a mental note of this odd fact. The connection between the color blue and discord might seem like such a small detail in the other world where colors and symbolism lost their importance in the chaos of fashion, but here it could very easily get him killed if he didn’t pay attention.

“If I could get your attention again, Lord Lee,” Faelgusa said, drawing Lee’s gaze back into the world around him, “the opportunity is urgent, and I believe we should discuss it now.”

“You still haven’t actually mentioned what the opportunity is. You’ve just kept pontificating on the fact that there is one, and that it is great. Spit it out will you,” Lee couldn’t help but act a little cold. He had already shut this pair down several times, and there was no way they would have good intentions toward him. He had a feeling this was a trap, and he hated having to hear it, as if the words themselves were snakes out to bite him.

“You see,” Faelgusa began, “there is a great opportunity that has come up. ??? from the kingdom of ??? has a daughter who has just reached a marriageable age. She is the first daughter, elder to the eldest son, and this would be a perfect opportunity for you to grow our kingdom’s influence and solidify a relationship with ???. Seeing as the kingdom is directly south of our own, this is the perfect opportunity for us to expand relations with them.”

“Nonsense,” Ungus Bec countered immediately. “Don’t try to dupe our Herald. Everyone from here to the tip of the empire knows that ???’s waifish daughter has had more mens’ mouths on her than a worn down beer mug at an old tavern. If the Herald is to marry, he should do so with a strong, respectable woman so that we can healthy strong offspring that can lead our people to greatness.”

“You mean a Firbolg woman, don’t you? Is there some councilman who has a daughter you’re going to try to pawn off on Lee? Or perhaps we should go lower, to match a human station, and find a fitting barmaid?”

“What? Never. This is a man who has seen the glory and place of Firbolgs despite his human heritage. There is a sixth daughter of Queen ???, rule of ???. She will reach womanhood soon, and she would be perfect for Lord Lee. That would improve Kirshtein’s standings with a good kingdom, one of proper heritage, and let the people of Kirshtein further know that even their Lord and Herald chooses Firbolgs first above all others.”

“And by then, we could just throw my fellow Leprechauns, the Dwarves and the Aes Sidhe into the streets as you two try to create racial dominance over my people!” Faelgusa grumbled. “He needs to create strong ties with more Leprechauns.”

“Racial dominance over someone’s people like . . . the one against Humans that existed when I first arrived?” Lee asked, interrupting the tense exchange.

“That’s . . . That’s not what I meant,” Faelgusa grumbled. “We didn’t have a say in that. It was . . .”

“Yesterday, so let’s not keep that talk around. Now, as much as both of your ideas are interesting, I’m never going to marry a child—not for politics or any other reason.” Both Faelgusa and Calbrainn smiled as if they had won some fight, only to frown immediately after as Lee continued. “I also don’t plan to wed any woman I don’t care about, much less one I haven’t met.”

All three of the denied parties began to stammer and blurt out objections in conjunction, talking over each other so loudly that Lee couldn’t make out any of their words.

There wasn’t any point in humoring them, so Lee just looked over at Bronagh and smiled. She seemed far more pleased than Lee had imagined, especially since he had already told her he wasn’t going to stay.

“Lord Lee is not someone you lot can buy off or manipulate,” she said patronizingly, sneering at the three scheming councilmen in the same tone that a kid might have right before sticking out her tongue at someone. “You should know your place.”

This one is going to be trouble.

“Excuse me,” a man at the door to the chambers interrupted. “I have just received word that there is an important guest that has requested an audience with the honorable Herald Lee.

“Tell them to wait outside,” Faelgusa grumbled, the others all nodding their agreement. “Can’t you see that we’re in the middle of an important meeting? Nothing this person has to say could possibly take precedence over crucial matters of state.”

“I am afraid that the representative of Birnefeld has insisted the issue is rather time-sensitive,” the guard continued. “She has requested to meet with Lord Lee at the earliest possible occasion.”

Lee’s ears perked up at the mention of a female representative from Birnefeld. Wait, is it Brigid? He hadn’t seen her since they parted ways in Satterfield, but she had crept into his thoughts more than once. She was the only Leprechaun whom he had traveled with, and she had grown rather close during their time together, assisting him in saving Satterfield and risking her life more than once on his behalf.

“Birnefeld is a good town . . .” Faelgusa began, but Lee could already see the Firbolgs, Bronagh, and Connacht getting upset at the idea of letting her into the council chambers.

The last time Brigid had shown up as a representative from Birnefield, she had let herself into the chambers during a meeting with little regard for procedure. Lee knew that no one present would have forgotten that incident, and likely no one had forgiven her for it either. “I think I speak for my own time, and I shall see her myself,” he stated firmly, deciding to put an end to the discussion before it could go on any further. He pushed himself up from his chair and started toward the door. “If you’d be so kind, lead me to an empty room and escort her in.”

“But, Lord Lee!” Bronagh protested. “We still have much to discuss.”

“There will always be much to discuss. For now, I am going to trust that my friend wouldn’t tolerate the politics of this town if the issue wasn’t dire.”

“Indeed,” Connacht replied, nodding once in agreement. “I suppose we shall have to wait until you return from Birnefeld then with another Herald’s head on your belt.”

“I don’t think that’s what this is about . . .” Lee trailed off, leaving that thought unspoken. Brigid make it seem like they didn’t have a Heralds to rely on. That’s why she was interested in me to begin with, right? What Herald could I possibly have to kill in Birnefeld? Who, if anyone, is he referring to? Lee followed the guard as he was escorted to a private room. Once there, the guard promptly left and went to fetch the representative.

He didn’t have to wait more than a minute before the guard returned, but Brigid wasn’t behind him. It was another woman. She was stunning with piercing green eyes and jet-black hair that glistened like obsidian in the moonlight. Lee actually hesitated for a moment. He was used to being surrounded by gorgeous women, but this young woman’s features were so perfectly sculpted that he momentarily lost his train of thought.

The uniform used for Birnefield messengers was similar to one worn by the Roman legion: a white cloth tunic trimmed in gold that was worn underneath a metal cuirass with baltea straps and matching leather boot. Lee had actually enjoyed wearing the outfit when he had posed as a messenger and infiltrated Brigid’s army during, but the set he had worn had possessed its own unique flaws. Clothing always had tiny idiosyncrasies and imperfections, small patches of dirt that inevitably stuck to the boots, the lower hem of the tunic, sweat stains from work and fighting, scuffs on the boots, etc. The game world lacked proper ironing techniques and starch, and there were wrinkles across every uniform Lee had ever seen. Captivated by her as he was, Lee didn’t fail to notice that her uniform was impeccably neat and orderly as well—truly just as flawless as she was. The tunic clung to her figure and slender body as if it had been custom tailored just for her and this was her first time ever wearing it.

Lee scowled at the sight of her, but quickly caught himself and forced himself to looking away and out of a window as if he were entirely disinterested instead. The fact that both her uniform and features were so perfect and unblemished unsettled him.

“Lord Lee, I apologize for inconveniencing you in such a manner,” she said, coming to attention in the center of the room. “I come bearing grave news from Birnefeld.”

“Which is?” Lee asked while keeping his eyes directed out the window as if looking in her direction might put him under a spell. He didn’t mean to sound terse, but his reunion with a former comrade had somehow instead turned into what clearly felt like another trap—one far deadlier than those currently being laid out for him in the council room.

“Lord Lee,” she repeated, taking a step forward. “I apologize for being rude, but your presence is needed immediately in Birnefeld. The country is on the verge of war with another nation, and without your assistance, the king fears that the outcome will be less than favorable.”

Lee nodded once but still refused to turn and look at her. “I see. Which kingdom? Why? What is the disposition of their troops?”

Lee risked spying on her through Little Ethan’s eyes as he reached behind her back and dexterously produced a leather cylinder seemingly from thin air. It was the type of case that messengers would use to protect important documents while traveling, and it was one that Lee had become far too accustomed to seeing in this world. A moment later, she extracted several maps and letters, which she extended to him in offering.

He finally turned and took the letters from her, reluctantly meeting her piercing gaze while struggling to calm his heart and mind. He didn’t understand why just looking at her—even being around her—made him feel so uncomfortable. “Thank you,” he said as he took the notes from her and began to peruse through the information.

This doesn’t make sense . . . The population of Birnefeld is approximately the same as the aggressing kingdom. Why are the two militaries’ numbers so wildly different? Even if I consider the casualties that I caused them during the attack on Kirshtein, they should still be fine . . . Lee casually flipped through the maps and notes that the messenger had brought him, quickly coming up with several more unanswered questions.

“Your Lord,” the woman said, taking a half-step closer to him. “I am also to present you with one more gift should you acquiesce to the request of the king and agree to serve in the war.”

“Ah, you brought money then?” Lee glanced up from the documents his head and looked directly into her eyes. He very much doubted that she would be able to work an inventory like Ling had learned to do, and it wouldn’t have been possible to carry very much on the Krunklerump, so gold was the logical bribe.

“No, the king is still amassing the bounty you shall be rewarded,” she said.

“Then . . .” Lee glanced behind her then met her gaze once again. Maybe a weapon? While I don’t need one, there are always Paladins that could use an upgrade. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be—

“Myself.” The single matter-of-fact word struck all other his thoughts from his mind. “I am here to present myself to satisfy your needs in all aspects to the best of my ability should you agree to the king’s request.”

“You mean . . .”

“If your question is whether or not I mean to warm your bed and pleasure you with my extensive talents, then yes. That is what I mean,” she reaffirmed with the same flat, straight-to-the-point tone she had earlier.

First wives, now concubines . . . Is everyone trying to throw girls at me? “There is no need for that,” Lee responded with a shake of his head. It wasn’t that he hated the idea of sleeping with a woman—especially one who was willing—but he had Masha in the other world waiting for him. Even more to the point, he didn’t want to be around this woman. Extreme beauty might leave many men uncomfortable or even avitated, but this gorgeous woman created far more than just the average awkwardness a man felt around a woman who was too attractive. It was as if some sixth sense was telling him to be careful about even staying in the same room as her. “You may return ahead of me with news for your king: I’ll be heading to Birnefeld as soon as I wrap up here and organize logistics for the journey.”

She, to her credit, didn’t show an ounce of displeasure as she nodded at Lee. “Thank you for hearing our people’s request. I shall report this matter at once.” With that, she turned and walked off.

Lee followed her every movement with his eyes until the system notified him of a skill update.

Mental Fortitude had leveled up to Initiate Level 3 during his conversation with her.

What in the world was that? Lee shook his head and tried to regain his composure. After he was certain that he was thinking clearly again, he found the guard and instructed him to relay the news of his imminent departure to the rest of the members of the council. He also had the man deliver a discrete note to Connacht requesting that he send Lee any and all information on Birnefeld as soon as possible, preferably before he left the city. Lee needed to know if the intel they possessed matched the reports that had, in such a generous and trusting fashion, been openly handed to him via the messenger.

Next, he told his Paladins that they’d be leaving soon. He was tempted to take the full regiment of greenhorn holy warriors with him, but he didn’t want to lose too many of them if things went awry. Despite the information that he had been given, there was no way for him to know exactly what he was walking into. This world was medieval at best with his communication, and there was no telling how accurate any of it was—or even if it would be valid by the time he reached Birnefeld. Dave and Henslee had put several systems in place so that the Paladins would continue to level and recruit while he was gone. In the end, he decided to only take his inner circle: Miller, Dave, Ling and Jade.
Since it was late already by the time he had let everyone know what was going, collected all the information he needed and finalized all the preparations, Lee retreated to Tigernacht manor in order to get some shut eye. Ling naturally followed close behind, and she eventually settled herself into a chair just inside his room so that she could keep an eye on both him and the door.

“You know,” Lee began as he watched Ling settle into her usual spot, “you don’t have to do that. Dave has plenty of guards, and I can handle myself in a fight.”

She shifted in her seat as if uncomfortable. “You’re attacked at night quite often, so it’s better to be safe.”

Well, she’s actually right. It doesn’t seem to matter where I go, be it Satterfield, Kirstein, or the Dwarven city halfway up a mountain in the middle of the wilderness, people keep trying to kill me during the wee hours of the morning. “Well, I could get more security here. You really should get some proper rest. We have a long night ahead of us,” Lee insisted.

Ling ignored his suggestion and simply settled into her seat, tightly gripping her bow and closing her eyes. “Goodnight.”

—–

Lee awoke to blaring trumpets and the loud bang of doors being thrown open. When he opened his eyes, he was immediately aware of the fact that he was somewhere completely different than where he had gone to sleep. He wasn’t in a bed, and he wasn’t lying down: he was sitting upright on a comfortable, cushioned surface. It took a moment to parse together everything else after that. His brain was fogged and hazy like he had been up drinking all night.

He was in a vast room so large that the golden marble tiles seemed to stretch out endlessly in all directions around him. A single strip of black-edged red fabric extended forward from his chair between large red pillars with black footings. The towering columns stretched all the way up to the ceiling, which was at least two- to three-stories high and solid black with gold drawings inlaid across it. Lee took a moment to study the images—which were of dragons, panthers and other creatures—but his eyes were eventually drawn back down by the soft sound of leather boots trodding along the thinly covered floor.

This time, when he looked down, everything was different. His chair had somehow been transformed into a throne that was situated upon an elevated platform, and there were dozens of beautiful women on either side of him. Each was wearing an outfit that would make any princess cosplayer jealous and any man lustful.

There was a woman approaching from far-off, a row of guards stationed on either side of the red pathway, each dressed in golden plate armor that was trimmed with red and black with a spear in one hand and a shield in the other, and there were rows of people standing at attention behind them facing the wall behind Lee. Each person stood completely still and held their heads lifted as if they were wearing needle-tipped collars that prevented them from moving their heads so much as an inch without being poked.

It was then that Lee realized who was approaching: the gorgeous envoy whom he had met earlier in the day. She was wearing a black dress that puffed out slightly at the waist in place of her oddly-pristine military uniform, and she was stunning. She smiled sweetly exposing her pearly-white teeth as she came to a stop about ten feet away from the platform and bowed her head ever so slightly. “Greetings, Lord Lee. I’ve come as you requested. I am ready to . . . serve your needs.” Her voice was as alluring as her outfit: the timber was as smooth and as rich as velvety chocolate as it rolled across Lee’s eardrums, leaving a tingle in his head even as the sound faded.

“Lord . . . Lee?” he repeated. The familiar title felt entirely new and foreign in this clearly-royal context. As tempted as he was to give in to the fantasy, he recognized the situation now as the only thing it could be: a dream. This was a world either created by his mind in the middle of the night or one crafted by Augustus to mess with him. As such, he couldn’t help but feel irked by the title ‘Lord Lee.’ Such a grandiose appellation was the wish of children. Only a child would wish to be called by the ruler’s name: to be the king, the emperor, the lord and ruler. For Lee, that childish dream had faded. This was a world of suffering and of violence, and the longer he stayed here, the farther he had waded like Macbeth through a river of blood to achieve his goals. Those words felt like a plague to him. They weren’t a praise, a compliment or even truly a noble title declaring his station in the world. They were a weight cast around his neck drowning him in a sea of blood and responsibility. Rank and station might offer power and authority, but they came with a very real moral cost. Someone with deficient character might not feel the toll, but Lee felt it.

“Mhm . . . ,” the woman purred, coyly smiling up at him. “Lord Lee, the ruler of an empire, the conqueror of a thousand lands. That is who you are, after all, isn’t it? I’m not in the wrong palace, am I?”

Lee looked around at the throne room again. The scene and scope were so majestic and grand, each detail so perfect, that he felt as if he were on the set of the most expensive Chinese film of the decade. “I am Lee,” he replied, “but I am no conqueror.”

“No conqueror?” She laughed, and even that came out sweetly. “My lord, if you aren’t a conqueror, then what are you?” Her sly smile broadened until it was entirely devoid of her earlier coquettishness. “You crush your foes through blood and violence, subjugating them to your will. You break the enemy until only your people remain, and raise your banners over the graves of your enemy. Is that not the definition of a conqueror? You conquered a Herald in Satterfield. You liberated a town of Dwarves only to send your emissaries to them and secure them under your banner. You ruthlessly hunted down the people of the Firbolg Herald in Kirshtein until the whole town was nothing more than your footstool over which you, their spiritual and military leader, now reign supreme through fear. How are you not a conqueror?”

“I did what had to be done,” Lee replied. “I did not conquer; I freed. I did not murder; I killed. You confuse me,” Lee said with a sigh. “You see me as a man who fights to wear the crown . . . but that’s not who I am.” Slowly, the people surrounding him began to disappear as from his dream. “I do not battle to pick up ornaments; rather, I struggle to put down the blade.”

“Dishonesty doesn’t suit you, my king,” she laughed. “You can’t live without control. You can’t exist without the burdens you use to define yourself. You just haven’t accepted this truth.” As she spoke, her form slowly started to disintegrate and blow away. It started one grain at a time, grew to a hundred, and then the remainder disappeared. The entire throne room followed suit, disappearing as if it were a mere trick of light until nothing was left behind but an empty, pure-white room devoid of even the slightest variation in color or the tiniest shadow.

“This is who you are without your crown,” the woman spoke into from nowhere, her voice echoing off walls Lee couldn’t see. “Your sense of right, your need to force who you are on others—that is what colors and shapes every part of your reign, my king.”

Lee awoke for real, lying in his own bed exactly where he had gone to sleep. He quickly looked over to Ling and found her awake in the chair where she had fallen asleep earlier, watching him intently.

“Something wrong?” she asked. “You were mumbling in your sleep.”

“Nothing,” Lee answered, shaking his head slightly. “It was just a dream.” But that explanation didn’t feel right. It had been to real, too surreal, and it had left him with an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. That wasn’t just a dream, was it? he asked Augustus. It was too vivid to be just a regular dream . . .

“No, I don’t think it was either,” Augustus agreed. “Be careful: Not all Heralds attack from the front.”