War Aeternus 4 ch2

Name: Lee Race: Human Class: Herald – Statesman

Level: 39 Health: 490/490 EXP: 15267/127000

Primary Stats:

Power 49 (56) Toughness 49 (56) Spirit 49 (56)

Secondary Stats:

Charisma 31 Courage 22 Deceit 31

Intelligence 303 (348) Honor -2 Faith 36777

Personal Faith 437

Skills:

Unarmed Combat Novice Level 4 Swordplay Journeyman Level 7

Sneak Journeyman Level 10 Cooking Novice Level 1

Trap Detection Initiate Level 8 Knife Combat Novice Level 2

Mental Fortitude Initiate Level 3 Sleight of Hand Initiate Level 7

Blood Shield Novice Level 8 Sewing Initiate Level 8

Glass Smithing Novice Level 10 True Patriot

Carpentry Novice Level 4 Delegation

Masonry Initiate Level 7

The Statesman:

Territories:

Satterfield (+10: Savior)

Defensive Strength Rating:18 Economic Strength rating: 14

Population Rating: 5 Territory Rating: 12
Tech / Utility Rating: 22 Influence / Tourism Rating: 15

Public Persona:

Kirshtein (-4: Brutal Enforcer)

Birnefeld (1: Uncertain Assistant)

Divine Skills:

Golem Sculpting Adept Level 4

Appreciative Drunk Journeyman Level 4

Nectar of the Gods Novice Level 5

Spirit Smithing Novice Level 4

Faith Healing

Ignis Veritas

Spirit Builder Initiate Level 4

Divinity Powers:

Life in Death

Titles:

Cheat Code Fighter

The Great Deceiver

The Aggressive Mile-High Chef

Man of Many Sighs

“So, if you had to pick between In Another World with my Laptop and How to Summon an OP Guy with No Spine, which premise would make for the better anime?” Jade asked. The two had decided to take a route that Jade and Dave had plotted to maximize the amount of experience they could get on the journey, and it had led them off the main road and through the woods. Now that they were closer to Birnefeld, however, there were no more giant, walrus-sized toothy tentacle-covered plant monsters trying to kill them, and the expedition had turned into a peaceful nature walk, a sure sign that they were near a town.

“Neither,” Lee answered.

“What? Neither?” Jade asked in shock. “Are you telling me that they’re both so amazing that you can’t decide?”

“Yeah, neither. They’re both terrible. They’re the type of show that’s success is like half the reason anime is terrible most of the time too.”

“Anime?! Terrible?! You can’t say that! Anime is like the butter-toasted cracker and overly-sweetened chocolate-hazelnut paste of my existence! Don’t you dare insult my waifu!” Jade snapped. She created a blood sword from the copious amounts of gore drenching her clothing, assumed the samurai stance, and assumed the most serious expression Lee had ever seen on her face. A second later, she turned and hit Lee on the shoulder.

“Ow!” Lee grimaced, rubbing his shoulder where he had been hit.

“My name is Jade. You have insulted my waifu! Now prepare to die!” she declared, butchering an attempt at a manly Spanish accent.

“I’m not sure I have six fingers,” Lee replied, taking a stab at guessing her reference. He correctly caught and continued Jade’s allusion, but he could see Miller and Dave in the background holding their heads in annoyance. It had been a bit dicey the first time Jade had gone on a tirade, stamping her feet, yelling, making threats and manifesting her blood katana, and both Dave and Miller had reacted, thinking that she was actually serious. They were both so used to this type of exchange now, knowing she would neither start an actual physical confrontation, that everyone just ignored her.

“Yeah,” she giggled, sheathing her sword. “I loved that movie so much.”

“I miss those types of classic films,” Lee continued. “Everything I saw that was worth half a grain of salt was either a remake of a good movie from the past, with worse acting and better graphics, or an adaptation of a great comic book. It’s like, why can’t they just admit that they can’t write worth squat? And then just take more great fantasy or VRMMO action-based books and make movies out of them?”

“I know, RIGHT?! I mean, at least when they remade movies over and over again back in the day, it was only the plot structure with prettier actresses and new dialogue. Now, they even copy half the lines. Ugh. Such lazy writers. But you’re not off the hook! How dare you insult my precious anime! It’s so amazing. In a world of bad movies and boring television that makes me want to sleep before WebCinema can ask me if I’m still watching, anime is the savior! It’s the hero from another world here to save the day!” Jade was practically shouting at this point, adding extra flare to her already overly-dramatic performance by spinning in place with her hands her hands in the air as if she was either trying to catch something.

“It’s really not that great though,” Lee grumbled. “I mean, I love it more than regular TV and watch it all the time . . . Hell, before I got this world’s amazing translation system, I even thought about learning Japanese just so that I could listen to it in the background while I game and still know what was going on. But, that said, but anime’s just the best option out of a series of bad choices.”

“Blasphemy!” Jade shouted, throwing her arms over her head in exasperation and turning away from Lee. “I will hear no more of your blasphemy, you heretic!”

“Oh, come on! They spent five minutes during the first twenty-minute episode of that ‘summon an OP guy with no spine’ anime focusing on skin play between girls whose collective wit couldn’t match a ten-year-old’s. Then they put in another three to five minutes of intros, outros, and next-episode-nonsense. And the stuff in between had zero direction! Double twenty-minute episodes, and the plot did what? Move the main hero from the summoning circle to the town and establish that he’s a high level? Give me some great writing, and we’d have three characters fleshed out in the same amount of time.”

“This is all sacrilege! How can you be so cruel and call yourself an anime fandom member? I thought we both shared this love!” Jade pouted. “My good will has been wasted on you!”

“Oh, I like anime a lot . . . but those two are awful,” Lee corrected. “Half of anime is bad; half is great. Like, remember that German time machine one? I watched it like five times in a row. It was amazing!”

Jade’s eyes lit up, but before she could say anything, an unexpected person joined the conversation.

“I want to see it,” Ling said.

“Huh?” Jade asked, turning toward Ling.

“I want to see it, the . . . thing you are talking about,” Ling stated, dead serious. “The . . . anime?”

“Oh, yeah . . .” Lee looked over at her curiously while scratching his head. “I don’t know how to actually make that happen.”

“You could try bringing a laptop or something back next time you make a bacon run?” Jade suggested. Her tone was pleasant enough, but her expression could kill. It seemed as if they had come from different points in the same timeline from Earth, several weeks apart as best he could tell, and he had seen a good bit more of her favorite shows before Augustus brought him here as well. To make matters worse, she was rather ill content with the fact that Lee had managed to make it back to the real world and watch the season finales for several shows she had been following prior to being stuck in the game.

“I can’t. You know the system’s hard ban on electronics within this world,” Lee reminded Jade.

“Then how do I see it?” Ling asked. “I want to see this anime you claim to watch a lot. It is a show, so it should be easy to reproduce, right?”

Lee looked over at her quizzically and scratched his chin in thought. “Ling seems to be on to something, actually.”

“Oh no. You’ve got that look. That’s the same look you had before you came up with the bacon boom-boom trap we used on the two-headed ursine giant. It’s the same look you had on your face when you figured out how to kill all those wolves  . . . I’m telling you: That look is no good. Stop scratching that fast-growing stubble on your chin and kill that idea now. Our poor NPC companions are still trying to get the ??? guts off their clothes from the last idea that coincided with that very look.”

“I’m not an NPC,” Miller argued. “But I agree with the foul-mouthed, funny-haired woman. Your schemes spell nothing good and offer no justice. Stop thinking so hard and just kill things head-first in battle.”

“I’m not coming up with an idea for violence,” Lee grumbled. “I was just thinking . . . what about books?”

“What about them?” Jade asked.

“Well, we could release a ton of books to our followers, give them something to do when they’re not fighting, crafting, drinking or farming,” Lee explained. “We could even find how-to manuals for Satterfield with every piece of non-electrical modern tech.”

“That’s not a half-bad idea,” Jade agreed. “We could bring them how-to books for drawing manga, wait a few years until they master the art after practicing day and night and then open up our own manga company! Then we could sell manga written here in our world, and we could sell manga from our world to these idiots!” She glanced over at Miller, an idea clearly brewing. “They probably have nothing as amazing as great manga where they’re from. We’ll make a killing in gold and cash!”

“You’re really worried about cash in the real world?” Lee tilted his head. “You don’t think that, with all of your abilities still working over there, you can’t come up with a way to make a lot more money a lot more easily?”

“Oh. That’s right. But still, the idea to sell it here is valid, right? I mean, the concert hall we set up with the auto-playing organ-box-thingy has been a huge hit in Satterfield. Wouldn’t manga only double down on our success?” Jade thought aloud.

“Well, I was going to start with books instead of something like manga since pure text can be read aloud and enjoyed by a group, but yeah. That’s a good train of thought,” Lee said.

Ling, however, simply let her face fall as her eyes drifted to the ground in front of her. “I want to see them all . . .” she muttered. Then speaking more clearly, she continued, “I want to try the foods you’ve had, see the things you’ve seen and hear the music you’ve listened to. Each day I’m with you, you talk about things that seem even more fantastic than your powers, yet all I’ve had is your bacon and your beer. Knowing but never experiencing . . . It feels a little hollow.”

“I don’t know what I can do, Ling,” Lee answered honestly. “Maybe, when this war is over and we’ve gathered all the stones . . . but I don’t know if even then. I’m sorry . . .”

Jade placed a hand on each of Ling’s shoulders and looked her hard in the eyes. “Aww . . . My sweet, naive little sea-bound NPC mermaid, our world and all its whatchamacallits aren’t really that great. But I promise I’ll find your poor deprived self some manga one day. Just for you.” Then she hugged Ling. “I’ll find you the best of manga. The ones with extra shading. That way, Ms. Kuudere, you can learn to agree with me and tell Lee how much of a horrible big doofus he is for insulting my beloved anime.”

Ling looked rather awkward, trapped as she was in Jade’s hug. She didn’t return the gesture, but she didn’t try and fight her way out of it either.  “Thank you,” she responded at last.

“No worries,” Jade said as she broke off the one-sided embrace. “Now, let’s go get some barbecue. I’m hungry.”

“Wait now, there’s no reason to rush off,” Dave interjected. “You two gals can carry on hugging for a while longer if you like. You know, maybe get a little bit more friendly? Don’t mind this old man over here while you do.”

“I don’t know what to do with you,” Lee said, laughing at Dave.

“What? Am I wrong?” Dave replied, chuckling heartily, his eyes still on Jade. “I’ve had no broads to talk to or flirt with, what with your girls being the only chicks for chatter, so I’ll take–”

“You really shouldn’t finish that sentence,” Lee said, stopping him early. “Jade might kill you in your sleep.

“Some deaths are better than others,” Dave replied with a smirk. “A beautiful woman killing me in my bed? Can’t imagine that one not being to taste.”

“Eww!” Jade somehow managed to look both disgusted and repulsed–two expressions that were both extremely uncommon for her. “But yeah, I guess it is just the smell of barbecue, but who is cooking?”

Lee pulled out his map and handed it to Jade. “We’re less than a mile or two from the town of Bellowmehardsong. I’m assuming it’s someone there,” Lee said. “We can stop by if you want. Stay the night. It’s less than a day’s journey to Birnefeld after that.”

“Mmm . . . I could definitely use some good food. Delicious, sweet-roasted anything would be good about now!” Jade continued.

“What? You don’t like my cooking?” Lee asked, giving a little mock gasp as if hurt.

“Lee, you may literally have a magic touch when it comes to the kitchen, but I’d like to eat a domesticated animal and not some twenty-eyeballed spider head tonight,” Jade grumbled.

“I second Blue Hair,” Dave said. “And we’ve been out of beer for half of a day, and I’m starting to sober up.”

“I don’t remember any of you ungrateful lot complaining this morning,” Lee murmured.

“That’s cause we still had beer in the morning,” Dave said patting Lee on the back. “Any food is not only delicious with beer, but also welcome. Now that it’s gone, we need to go stock up and get a real bite to eat.”

“Fine. But the town looks a bit busy,” Lee countered.

The group had exited out of the forest during their conversation and then made their way back to the main road. They had been able to turn toward the city and pick up speed after that, and now, they were able to see the town in the distance. There were dozens of merchant caravans lined up along the main thoroughfare, and people milling about in the streets, buying all manner of things off the backs of the wagons. The problem was that, based on the information Lee had been given, that shouldn’t have been the case. The town was thoroughly unremarkable and certainly not a trading hub.

“Yeah, it is a bit active for a backwater border town,” Dave commented. “Usually, you only see people this active if there is about to be an attack.”

Miller pulled out his spear while looking toward the town eagerly.

“Then we must head over there now and make sure that the town is protected and justice is upheld!” he took off running after that, leaving the others in his dust.

“Don’t worry,” Dave said knowingly, “kids will grow out of that phase eventually, and they become much less energetic with time. Just chalk it up to ‘boys will be boys.’ Old men like us used to be less even-tempered as kids too, you know.”

“Yeah, Grandpa Lee,” Jade snickered.

“Maybe you shouldn’t rush over there if there is going to be a fight,” Ling warned despite the fact that one of their party members had already charged toward battle.

“What?” Lee asked in surprise, turning to look at her. Dave and Jade turned toward their quiet companion curiously as well. as he and the other two turned to face their quiet companion.

“I think you should just avoid the fight if there is going to be one,” Ling said. “Don’t worry about it this time. If there is a battle, it isn’t ours.”

“What are you talking about?” Lee asked, clearly confused.

“The villagers don’t appear to be in grave danger, so you don’t . . .” Ling trailed off as she looked down and studied the ground for a moment before lifting her gaze to meet Lee’s. It was as if she was having a hard time saying what wanted and getting her point across for some reason. “You don’t need to go. Let Miller, Jade, or Dave handle it. They can take care of it for you,” she clarified. She emphasized the last part, making sure that everyone understood that she believed the villagers should be helped but also that Lee shouldn’t be the one to help them.

“Well, that’s not real kind of you there, lass,” Dave said cautiously. “I make one harmless, lecherous comment, and you go throwing the rest of us all to the fire while you hang back with your boss. Letting us risk our lives all on our lonesome . . .”

“She doesn’t think you’ll die, old man. She just doesn’t want us interrupting the two lovebirds as they talk about . . . deep . . . subjects,” Jade giggled.

“No, I’ll help. I just don’t think Lee should go,” Ling said matter-of-factly. “It’s not that I’m worried that he’ll die–or that any of you will. It’s unlikely that anything could defeat us this close to a town unless we somehow ran up against another Herald.”

“Oh?” Dave’s ears perked up. “What ya keeping our shield holder in the back for then?”

Jade slowly moved closer, squinting her eyes and scrupulously studying Ling’s face. “Yeah, why you being weird then, NPC?” she asked.

Ling’s eyes darted back and forth between them, clearly frustrated. Finally, she her gaze settled on Lee. “I am just worried about you. I shouldn’t say anything, but the way you tortured that man who set off the bombs in Kirshtein, the way you smiled at his screams. . .” Ling shuddered slightly. “I don’t think you should rush off to help these people. I think other people’s problems are weighing on you too much already.”

I smiled when I burned him? Lee tried to recall that exact moment, but he couldn’t, not very well, anyway. But he didn’t doubt her words either. Burning that Firbolg bastard and then healing him so that he could do it again had felt right. “That was a one-off incident,” Lee replied, trying to shirk the issue.

“It wasn’t,” Ling insisted. “What about the child Phoukas? Even if they were monsters, they were children! But you killed them without the slightest hesitation! And when we were in the square with the protestors around Amber’s statue, you wanted to butcher everyone there! You’re changing, and I don’t think you realize it.”

Lee frowned. He knew she was right to a degree, but he also knew that he couldn’t help it. It was a necessary part of living–and staying alive–in this world. “Ling, helping people has never been wrong. Killing those who harm society . . . it’s how we met. I haven’t changed; I’ve just grown stronger. He opened his mouth as if he was going to say something else, but instead, he just left it at that and turned to follow after Miller. “Now, come on. Waiting here might cost a good man his life.”

When they reached the town, the group discovered that hundreds of regular folk were standing around while dozens of armed people were hard at work loading up wagons and carts. Even at first glance, it was immediately obvious that Lee’s assumption about a bustling economy was completely wrong. These people were emptying the town wholesale.

Lee grabbed the first townsperson he could, a fat, clean-shaven Dwarven fellow with chest hair so thick it was popping out of his shirt collar in tufts, and asked, “What is going on? Are you people evacuating?”

“No, no attack. Nothing so threatening as that,” the man answered hastily. It just so happens that these gentlemen wanted all of our belongings, so they’re taking them.”

Lee blinked once in confusion and then quickly counted what must have been dozens unloading the houses and shops of everything valuable from food to weapons to dried lumber. “What? They wanted your . . . stuff . . . and you’re letting them have it?”

“Just letting them take it? No, of course not,” the Dwarf answered cheerfully. “We’re helping them. Honestly, it’s easier that way.” The man actually seemed happy about the fact that they were being looted wholesale. His entire town was being robbed blind by what was clearly a group of players acting like bandits, and he was jovially helping them do it.

Lee was flabbergasted by the bizarre situation. “Why? Do you owe them?”

The Dwarf pulled on the collar of his shirt with both hands, exposing more of his prodigious chest hair, and looked down to kick a rock. “No, our town isn’t full of neither gambling derelicts nor debtors. We’re just a group of people making the best of a bad situation. Even if it’s difficult to do. No, one day, we caught a young man going through one of the houses: crouching behind boxes like we didn’t know he was there, breaking all of our glasses and flatware and pilfering all of our belongings . . . it was rather awkward.”

“Oh!!” Jade exclaimed. “You mean like someone in that game with the magic triangle and the annoying floating thingy that always told me to pay attention to it! I would totally have been that person if I had realized NPCs were just NPCs when I first got to this world.”

“Jade!” Lee snapped, stopping her random tangent.

“Anyway, he took a good bit of our stuff and then cleared out in the morning. We supposed that was that and went about our day, but then a larger party came through and had their way with our town that night. Then the party got larger the next night, and . . . Well . . . this is the fourth day in a row, and you can see how many there are. At this point, we’ve just given up on the idea of keeping our stuff. We figure that we’ll make a big show of not having anything this time. That way they won’t be back again.” The man smiled wanly and shrugged resignedly. “If it doesn’t work, then I suppose we’ll be out here again tomorrow until it does. Not much more they can steal from us anyway.”

“Oh,” Lee replied, “so you mean that you don’t want to fight them because they’ll win? That makes sense. But, if they take all of your food, how will you survive? Isn’t a death in combat better than a death by starvation? I’ve been stabbed to death, and I’ve gone hungry before. Trust me: The first is easier to deal with and over much quicker.”

“If we have no food, we’ll just go to the church and get more. We can always pray for more food. Even if they were going to kill us, it just wouldn’t be right to fight back. Haven’t you heard the teachings of Plonk? You should never fight back. Violence is the path of evil. It is better to die a good man than to live an evil life by the blade.”

“But . . .” Lee paused and looked around. “What if your actions cause others to die? If you do nothing now, who is to say they won’t do this to the next town or to a town too small to even have the option to fight back if they wanted?”

“I can only be responsible for my actions, and I can only influence myself. You should really go to church sometime: it would do you good to learn a few things. I can take you tomorrow if you like. We’re going to need a lot of food to make it through winter, so we’ll be on our way to start our prayers before the sun even breaks over the horizon.”

“How many people live here?” Lee asked.

“Oh, give or take twelve hundred” the Dwarf answered. “But it’s not going to be an issue. The church in Birnefeld is always supportive of those who diligently practice the faith. They’ll fix us up with more food in no time, so there’s no need to worry about us.”

Lee looked around once again, trying to take it all in and accept the fatalistic point of view that the Dwarf was espousing. Armed men were brazenly looting a village, and it wasn’t just the valuables being stolen: it was every down to the smallest crust of bread. These people were willfully letting someone take away their livelihood. Some of the stronger adults may have been able to make it for a while if they were forced to forage off of the countryside, but there was no way that the younger children or older adults would be able to survive. Lee had no idea what winters were like in this world, but if they were anything compared to some he had experienced back home, he very much doubted they would be able to scrounge up much food at all. They were literally throwing themselves into the mercy of the church and expecting to be provided for. To make matters worse, some of the plunderers were even getting handsy with the women. And that was something that Lee couldn’t stand.

“And everyone agreed to just let the bandits do whatever they wanted? To take everything? I mean, there can’t be more than forty of them at best. Even if they’re armed and you’re not, you could easily have stopped them with so many people.”

“We could have, but we have decided not to. It is not our way, and we would not condemn ourselves to raise a hand against another living being. Anyway, traveler, we appreciate your concern, but there really isn’t any nee–”

“STOP!” one of the bandits yelled, finally catching sight of them. One of the thieves walked toward Lee’s group, a big smile on his face. “You lot, you been checked yet?”

“Checked?” Lee snickered. “You mean for items of value?”

“Yeah, you been checked?” The man looked Ling up and down and then gave her a wink along with a lecherous smile. “No, don’t bother. I can tell right now that shield on your back is worth a penny. Hand it over.”

“No, I don’t think I will,” Lee answered.

The man took another step forward and leaned in so closely that Lee could smell his foul breath. “Suit yourself, but I’ll be telling the leader about this. You’re gonna give us that gear the easy way or the hard way, and you should know which one is best for both of us.” You don’t want to do this the hard way, do you?”

Lee stood there, mouth agape, and processed everything. He had initially wanted to help defend these townspeople, but he had been greeted by a pacifist who seemed both cheerful and content with the situation instead. Now, he was the only man out of place: the only one who wasn’t satisfied with the status quo. And that put him in a bit of a moral quandary. If he did something to help, he was likely going to have to kill the bandits, and that would cast him in an ill light for the residents. Choosing to do nothing, however, mean that he would be responsible for every person who was subsequently hurt.

A sly smile crept across Lee’s face and then continued to grow. “What’s the hard way entail?” he asked. “I’m not used to densities in my path.”

“We’ll just take it by force,” the stranger answered.

“You’re not going to try to kill me?” Lee asked with confusion.

“No need. Why would we?” This time, it was the man who snickered. “We’ll take your weapons and everything else you own, wait until you replace everything, and then come back again.  You’ll know the drill next time, and then we won’t have to be so rough.” Then, turning back to Ling, he added, “But I’ll be rough with you if you want it.”

This is where you sigh, right? You sigh, complain to me and the gods, and then spend five minutes thinking the issue over, right?

Lee was stunned more by the system’s derisive and mocking interrupt than by the bandit’s insanely-offensive comment, and it took him a moment to catch up with what he had read. The system was right, however: He really was trying to restrain himself and just sigh. He was trying to control himself so that he wouldn’t justify Ling’s concern. Moreover, he was indeed stuck in an ethical dilemma and. You’re right, Lee answered after a moment. Then, after hesitating for a brief moment, he drew his sword. Why bother with all of the thinking? If I have to choose between being today’s bad guy or tomorrow’s failure, why not just pick the quicker option that produces a much more certain result?

Oh, my. You’re going to massacre them, aren’t you, Despot? That is the adult way to handle this. Let me get some death prompts ready. I’ll hit you with them at the end of the fight like usual.

The bandit looked as if he had just won the lottery when he saw Lee draw his weapon. “That’s right, just hand it over an–”

Lee never let the man finish speaking before he jammed his sword into the man’s chest, piercing the tip underneath the man’s sternum and digging it into his vital organs.

“Low-level trash,” Lee muttered. Then, with a chuckle, he shoved forward, forcibly clearing the man’s body off of his blade.

Third-Party Candidate (Undecided): 29 Seconds Remaining

Next buff – (Unknown): 29 seconds

The pacifist Dwarf turned pale and took off running toward the closest building. As he ran, he screamed, “You can’t! You can’t! You can’t kill them. In the name of Plonk! NO!!”

The Dwarf’s screams drew the attention of everyone, bandits and townsfolk alike. The townspeople, upon seeing that a fight had broken out, mimicked the dwarf and began yelling a series of wild protestations, all variations of “NO!” “OH NO!” and “IN THE NAME OF PLONK, NO!” They hastily scampered into different homes, shut their doors, and loudly bolted them tight. Within seconds, the only people to remain in the streets were the bandits.

“Where’s Miller?” Dave asked quietly as the bandits turned toward them. “You think he might have run into one of those houses with a girl? Getting under a good woman is always a good solution to any problem.”

A quick check via his golems’ eyes let Lee know that Miller was already making his way toward the group from a few blocks away, spear in hand and ready for action. Lee was mildly curious what he had been to, and why he hadn’t confronted the main group of bandits headfirst, and made a mental note to find out later on once this was resolved. “No, he’ll be here,” Lee answered.

“If you say so, but I don’t know if he’ll make it in time to have any fun with us,” Dave answered, already twirling his two-handed flail in expectation of a fight. “There are only around forty here . . . so, first one to ten wins?”

Alright, let’s put the Third-Party Candidate on Dave, Lee thought as he assigned the buff. Dave was nearly unkillable in close combat, but there were several archers visible, and with one blue circle and two white ones, Third-Party Candidate might give Dave the edge he needed to hold up against ranged attacks.

“That NPC killed Glenn in one attack!” one of the men shouted. The bandits had begun forming up into groups while Lee searched out his Firbolg companion and exchanged words with Dave, and Lee was left with the impression that they had at least some semblance of what they were doing.

“Yeah, that was insane,” another one of the players commented. “He didn’t even look like he was trying. Maybe we should be careful . . . or just leave,”.

“I’ve heard of this before,” a third player chimed in. “He’s a roaming boss.  From what I’ve heard, there are apparently super-powered NPCs that roam around and hunt down players . . . He has to be one of those. We need to get out of here.”

“What are you talking about?” another asked derisively. “The loot on a boss must be crazy. Stop making this difficult.” He was holding shield that was even larger than Lee’s, and from the way he began issuing out orders and organizing them right in front of Lee and Dave as if the dumb NPCs would politely ignore their strategy, it was obvious that he was the leader. “Main tank groups A and B, you take their two melees. Group A, since you’re the best geared, you occupy that shield user. He seems like the main boss. I think the old man with a flail is just an add. Archer groups A, B and C, focus on the black-haired archer in the back.”

“Roger that,” the men replied. There was a rustling of feet as the men shifted into position and the leader stationed himself in the middle of the pack, and then six six melee fighters charged Lee and Dave.

The melee fighters appeared to be well equipped–their gear all either steel or high-quality iron–but they weren’t like the military groups that Lee had run into in the past. Rather than favoring swords and shields, they appeared to use a varied assortment of weapons. Indeed, out of the six men who had moved first, one was even using the odd combination of a sword-breaking sai and a net. Additionally, there was a young woman wielding a whip, which caused Lee to grumble at the memory of the last time he had encountered such a weapon in a dark alleyway in Kirshtein.

“Crap,” Lee muttered as he ran through how to handle the situation. He had no idea what level these people were, but even if they were as easy as the one he had already killed, he still preferred to handle them one at a time or in groups of two if he could. “Ling, focus your fire into the back lines if you can. If we’re lucky, it might force some of their fighters back to defend their rear.”

“Got it,” Ling answered back, letting loose two arrows before the enemies could even nock their own. Her attack was a success, and Lee watched in amusement as two of the bandits died instantly. Their heads rocked backward as Ling’s powerful shots struck each in an eye, and their bodies were dragged down backward.

“YES!!! CORPSES!” Jade shouted jubilantly, casting her magic and starting the process to summon her Blood Golem. The ability to summon Little Bobby, as Jade preferred calling her golem, was one of the most powerful skills Lee had ever seen. That monstrosity could flatten entire armies under the right circumstances, but it had three key weaknesses Lee and the group had to be aware of when Jade began the summoning. First, the golem was only as strong as the number of corpses lying around that could accrete to form the monster. The more bodies on the field, the stronger it would grow. Second, unlike Lee’s hive-minded golems, Bobby would decay and die in a relatively short amount of time. The last and most crucial detail was that it was not an instantaneous summon. Gathering up bodies into the golem took a few seconds, and during that time, Jade required a level of concentration and undivided focus that left her a sitting duck on a battlefield.

The second she began casting, the enemy leader noticed her role and switched his damage-dealing ranged units’ target. “They’ve got a caster!” he yelled in warning. “Focus the woman with blue hair!”

Seconds later, two arrows sprouted from Jade’s right leg and one from her left arm. She gritted her teeth through the pain, trying to maintain her concentration, but it wasn’t enough. Her spell was disrupted, she failed to summon Little Bobby. “SUGAR-STUFFED SANTA ELVES!!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.

“I got you!” Lee answered back. He stepped in front of her and held up his shield with every intention of stopping any more arrows from making it through. At the same time, he signaled his golems to enter the fight. He had recently reached the Adept rank in Golem Sculpting, and he was now able to summon a fourth flying metal mouse. In addition, the mice had grown to the size of small dogs and had gained their own limited inventory system.

“Crap! They’ve brought out monstrous flying bat summons! What the hell are those?!” one of the members shouted

“Raid leader talks only!” another man shouted in response.

“He’s secured the caster! Switch back to the archer!” their leader called. “Main tank group, show some hustle! Get on that boss so that he can’t intercept arrows for their caster! The faster you can peel him away from her, the better!”

What the hell? Is this what raid bosses are going to feel like in the real world when artificial intelligence developments allow sentient game systems? Lee wondered, cursing the situation and hating the efficacy of the enemy commander’s orders.

“Lee!” Ling shouted out, calling for help just before two arrows struck, one in her side and one in her shoulder. She had created some distance between herself and Jade the moment the anime-loving woman had been called as a target, and she was now a short distance away as a result. The damage wasn’t life-threatening, but the injuries would slow her down and give her a ‘crippled’ status effect due to the parts of her body that had been struck.

Crap. Lee placed his hand on Jade and began healing her as fast as possible. He wanted to help Ling, but if he moved and Jade took an arrow, then her spell would fail for a second time. What are you going to do? You can’t let Ling die . . .

He was caught in the middle of a tough situation. He was used to having three big bodies in fights, but with Miller still out of the action and Dave engaged with the group of melee fighters, Lee’s strategy had suddenly deviated from the norm. Then he realized that he could likely use one of his golems to protect Ling the same way he was doing now. His newest golem was constructed from metal, and it would likely be able to block arrows the same as his shield.

“Lee! I’m not going to last here!” Ling called out again. Hobbled as she was, there was no way that she was going to be able to outmaneuver the enemy archers. Despite the range, they were fairly accurate with their shots. Luckily, his golem arrived just in time. The dog-sized rat planted itself on her chest, protecting her vitals and instantly deflecting away half a dozen shots that almost certainly would have been fatal. The rain of arrows continued falling, and after the tenth arrow, the golem died.

Pain exploded through Lee’s psyche, an agonizing reverberation caused by the golem’s death. Even with his Mental Fortitude skill, it was too much to take, and he dropped to a knee and let out a scream.

The dead mouse slowly crumbled apart, dropping all of the items that it had been holding for Lee in its inventory. It had been constantly scavenging for food, gnawing on wood as it leveled Lee’s Carpentry skill, and swallowing dirt as it tunneled through the ground to help Lee set up traps. Its inventory was limited to roughly 10.5 square feet of space, but it had been nearly filled to the brim. As the mouse died, all of its loot dropped like a popped piñata and piled up in front of Ling, effectively creating a mound of debris that was big enough for Ling to crouch behind and avoid future volleys.

“The summons!” the raid leader shouted as he saw Lee drop to a knee in pain. “Killing them leaves the main boss stunned! DPS groups A and B, don’t let up on the archer or caster! His summons are blocking for them, but don’t try to shoot around the creatures! Kill the little fiends. DPS group C, ready yourselves for the raid boss to be stunned! The moment one of those critters dies, let loose everything you’ve got at him!”

What the hell? The words bounced through his head jumbled in between radiating jolts of pain. He quickly raised his shield and caught several more arrows intended for Jade. “Blue,” he grunted to the girl behind him, “you better finish! I can’t hold on forever!”

“I hope that’s the first time you’ve told a woman that!” Dave shouted back over his shoulder. While Lee and the two girls were struggling to hold on, Dave seemed to be having a field day. He had taken out three of the fighters almost instantly, and it had taken less time for him to smash their heads like watermelons tossed off a highrise than it had for the man to spout off his poor joke at Lee’s expense. Now, he was basically toying with others. The man using a net and trident was doing his best to land a thrown on Dave, but the old man was dancing around avoiding it. The young woman was still trying to crack him with the long whip, and each time Dave dodged a throw of the net, the whip snapped dangerously closer to the trident user.

Dave had Lee to thank for his greater success in the battle, however. The buff that Lee had given him wasn’t defensive as Lee had hoped. Instead, it had created an illusory version of Dave’s two-handed weapon. The ethereal flail floated along at Dave’s right side and swung in horizontal arcs, pushing back a man using a long spear.

Lee wasn’t the only one to see Dave’s unstoppable advance. The enemy commander, after watching three of his men die so quickly, panicked. “Tank group B, get away from him! Don’t engage! He’s too strong!” the commander called. “DPS group C, switch over fire toward the flail guy! Don’t switch back until the main boss is stunned!”

The archers adjusted themselves and turned to fire on Dave, but they never had the opportunity. A spear soared in from the side and slammed into one player, punching through his body and into the man next to him. A second spear immediately followed, and then another. In a matter of seconds, eight of the archers were dead.

“TO THOSE WHO HAVE HARMED MY METAL MOUSEY FRIEND, PERISH IN THE NAME OF AUGUSTUS!” Miller yelled as he threw another spear and let off a drunken shout.

The enemy’s well-put-together lines buckled under the irresistible wave of inebriation. Men wobbled in place, struggling to keep their balance, and some hit the dirt outright. Lee could tell at a glance which members of the raid group were teetotalers: over half of them seemed completely incapacitated by Miller’s stronger-than-ever ten-second inebriation debuff.

A small salvo of arrows was shot at Dave, but only three of the projectiles came anywhere close to striking him.

“It’s an area of effect debuff! This fight is too tough! We need out!” the commander shouted, sizing up the situation. “Retreat toward the forest! Tank groups A and B, cover their exit but don’t delay! Get out as quick as you can!”

“I don’t think so,” Jade proclaimed, finally finishing her spell. With the addition of Dave’s and Miller’s kills, her blood golem had finally reached a decent size and now towered above the scene at over fifteen feet tall. The visual effect of all the bodies in the area being dragged to the center of the battlefield by some unseen hand and transformed into the grotesque golem left a few of the players stunned or quaking in fear, and several others fell to their knees and retched up their lunch, the wave of intense inebriation and the grotesque sight too much for them to stomach. Those who fell behind were quickly abandoned by those who fled in terror.

Dave and the Third-Party Candidate version of his flail had made short work of the three remaining tanks that were supposed to contain him, and he surged forward faster than an Olympic sprinter as he charged into the mob of fleeing archers, cutting them down from behind. Sensing his opportunity now that the pressure from the archers was off, Lee shifted his stance and took off after their commander, quickly pushing himself into a full sprint.

“Don’t run! Little Bobby wants to have a special night with you!” Jade shouted after them. Her maniacal laughter echoed around the small village before her anger took over.  Lee could only imagine what was going through her head after having been the target of so many arrows, and he secretly smiled to himself as he felt her gleeful bloodthirst. Her flesh golem curled into a ball and rolled over players with its giant squelching mass, snowballing in size with each fresh kill. “He’ll hold you tight for the rest of your short lives!” Jade screamed amid continued cackling.

As Dave’s Third-Party Candidate buff faded, Lee was given another to pass around: Early Registration. He didn’t know what it was, but it had four green circles, and he tossed it onto Dave again. Dave began to glow with a green light as the phantom flail disappeared, and his speed suddenly seemed to double. He quickly intercepted the group of tanks with Miller, who had made finished off the remaining stragglers who hadn’t been able to flee with the main group, and the two went to work taking out the second group of melee fighters. A few arrows whizzed by Lee’s head as Ling began taking shots at the flee bandit’s backs, and Lee sent the remaining three golems to help out where they could.  The trio swept in from the side and made themselves useful by tripping the bandits as they ran and attacking any exposed skin.

The tide of battle had swept in Lee’s favor, and that left him alone to engage the enemy leader one on one. Somehow sensing that he couldn’t escape, the man came to a skidding halt and turned to face Lee, throwing his shield up defensively. “Please don’t,” he pleaded as he backed away, hiding behind his shield.  “Please just let us go. We won’t rob this town, I swear. We won’t rob any town again . . . Please! Let us leave! We wouldn’t even have robbed this town if they hadn’t told us we could,” the bandit begged.

“You’re clever,” Lee noted, recalling the early stages of the fight. He took his time as he moved closer and closer to the cowering leader, taking his time as his companions cleaned up the rest of the group. “I wish I could use you.”

“If that’s what you want, I’ll serve,” the man responded hastily, continuing his slow retreat. “I’ll serve gladly! I promise. I promise: I’ll serve and do whatever you say. Just let us go!”

“Don’t kill any that aren’t running!” Lee shouted, stopping most of the violence almost immediately. Over three-quarters of the bandits were dead, but the few who were still alive instantly stopped when they heard Lee’s command and froze where they were.

“Thank you! Thank you so much. I promise I’ll serve faithfully!” the leader said, putting away his weapons and lowering his head.

“You’re not off the hook yet,” Lee said. “Stick out your hand.”

“Huh?” Despite voicing his confusion, the bandit leader did so without a second’s hesitation, and Lee grabbed onto his wrist.

“Do you know what a Herald is?” Lee asked.

“I’ve heard of them . . . They’re players with special powers that represent gods. Don’t . . . Don’t tell me . . . You’re a Herald?”

“Yes, and this is your last chance. You can back out now and take a death here, or you can serve me forever.” Lee stared down at the man, considering how to make sure the hook was properly baited as he waited for the man to bite. The man had promised to do whatever it took not to die, but Lee knew that, in the grand scheme of things, this game of the gods would last decades if not centuries. The few months of experience that anyone had spent in this world paled in comparison to what Lee was asking. Lee knew that this man was clever, and the price he was asking didn’t match what was being sold. “And . . .” he added, his eyes blazing with an idea, “if you serve me dutifully, I’ll show you the path to true power. After all, that man”–Lee nodded his head in Miller’s direction–“was a Level 1 player less than a week ago.”

“Him?” the bandit asked skeptically.

“Yeah, him. You want to be like him, right? You want to achieve power, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes. You’ve died before, and you wait like cowards by the towns to prey on the weak. But I can teach you a better way. I can make you better. Now, tell me: Are you in? Are you willing to trade your soul for the opportunity?”

The man gulped. Most players probably weren’t that religious–they treated Heralds as exploitable opportunities or simply people to be avoided–but the idea of the soul was undeniable in this world. Lee had essentially put him in a hard spot, tempting the man with what he most wanted and what he feared most to pay. Lee knew that he most likely could have used physical violence to threaten the man into doing what he wanted, but he wanted to make sure that this choice was of the man’s own free will.

“I’ll do it. I want that power,” the man finally answered. His eyes were wide open now, and his gaze was fixed on Lee as he lifted his head. “I’ll serve you until the end of the game if you teach me.”

“Then we’ve struck a deal,” Lee replied. He then used his Ignis Veritas skill and burned the man’s wrist deeply, leaving behind the same emblem that he had seen plastered across the banners in his dream.

The man yelped as the fire burned him and reflexively jerked his hand away.

Lee stepped forward, put a hand on the man’s shoulder, and used his healing to eliminate the burned tissue and heal the man’s wrist almost instantly.  “Don’t worry. It won’t be there in the morning. It’s not a scar for your flesh; it’s a brand for your soul.”

“That . . . What does it do?” The man’s eyes were so wide now that they were threatening to pop out of his head as he stared down at the spot on his wrist where the scar had been seconds before.

“It’s to make sure you don’t stray from service. If you do, and I feel you have failed me . . . Well then . . .” Lee chortled to himself as he softly whispered a description, speaking so low that only the man could hear. “That blessing I have given you will turn into a curse, and instead of granting you power, it will ignite your entire being with my holy fire and force you to suffer a slow and agonizing ten-day death. Then, when you respawn, I might just activate it again.” Lee laughed viciously, watching as the man stared up at him in horror. “But don’t worry. That’s only if you disappoint me by returning to your old ways. If you don’t, then it’ll serve as a beacon of power, and when you join my church, it will help aid in my service.”

All of the things he was saying were completely false, but Lee had practiced selling the holy speech so many times now that he was well versed in how to lie to someone’s face. He knew that this man would never be a true believer, but he hoped that a mixture of doubt and fear would keep him from straying. If nothing else, he hoped that he had given the man sufficient reason to be enthusiastic about staying.

The man gulped, pressing his hand over the spot where the burn had been. “I’ll never . . . I’ll never stray, my lord! I promise: I’ll serve faithfully and bring you honor and glory!”

“I know you will,” Lee answered as he patted the man’s shoulder and let out a sigh. “Now, I trust your group has a spot to meet up in case of death?”

“Uhh . . . Yeah, we have a place. It’s not too far. It’s a town to the north of here. Quiet place. We meet up at the tavern there. Since most of us have died, we’ll all be making our way there as soon as we leave here.”

“Good. What’s your name and level?” Lee asked.

“I’m Faustus,” he answered.

“Well then, Faustus, you might not know this, but even though I have taken the lives of several Heralds, I’ve only been in this world about a month. I had a late start, and I don’t have any players under my command aside from the Firbolg. From now on, as the first guild leader to join my ranks, you’ll be my general.” Lee was trying to make the moment feel formal, and he used the conferred rank to try and sooth any animus over the fact his group had just slaughtered such a large portion of theirs.

The man’s eyebrows shot up at Lee’s words. “General? You mean, I’ll be commanding more men?”

“As many as will join my service. I want you to handle all player relations for those who serve me.” Lee pulled a few copies of The Book of Lee from his inventory. “And this”–he handed the stack to Faustus–“is your new bible. Learn it. Become faithful adherents to Augustus, and

“Augustus is great, but don’t forget to praise Lee. He is a god in his own right,” Miller added as he walked over. “In fact, he actually died–full on dead–and came back to life at full health without a scratch on him. He’s a blessed one, and he wrote this book himself.”

Faustus expression shifted from perky to dubious as he looked at the books that Lee had given him. He quickly stashed them into his inventory, and it was clear that whatever excitement came with being a general was extinguished by the idea of joining a cult.

“I will do as you say,” Faustus said. “I will not fail you. We will all be faithful adherents.”

“That’s what I like to hear. Now, what level were you before you all died?” Lee asked.

“I’m the highest level at 27, my lord,” Faustus answered. “The other higher-level players . . . they’re all dead. But–”

“27?” Lee frowned, making a show of his obvious displeasure. “That’s terrible. Too low. A pathetic number. You are to raise that to at least 35, and you will raise your men to a decent level as well. Report to me as soon as you have accomplished this, or else I will be very disappointed.” Lee made sure to slow down and stress the word ‘disappointed.’

“I . . . I’ll get it done immediately, but how will we find you once we finish restoring our levels and strength? And I get to Level 35?”

Lee shrugged. “I do not hide my presence, and my power draws every eye around me. If you ask around, you should be able to find me easily. At the moment, I’m going to Birnefeld. If I find more players willing to join my cause in the meantime, then I’ll send them to join your party. Do not take too long to return to me. ”

“Yes, Lord,” Faustus replied. “I’ll have someone travel there regularly to see if you’ve sent anyone for us.”

“That’ll be all then.” Lee was about to dismiss the man when he suddenly had a thought. “Actually, one more thing.”

“Yes, Lord?” Faustus asked.

“That man: the one I killed first. He disrespected my friend in a way that I find extremely inappropriate. Beat him for me. No need to kill him, but make sure he learns his lesson.” Then, as the former bandit was about to leave, Lee granted him one final favor. “Wait,” he called. When Faustus turned around, he took out some money tossed it to him. “To get your gear up to pace as well.” Faustus bowed his head in a ‘thank you’ nod and left.

After the bandits cleared out, Lee was left alone once again with just his core group. The townsfolk who had stuck around either refused to leave their huts or were so far from town that even a napalm bomb dropped on Lee wouldn’t be close enough to singe one of their hairs. Lee turned to Ling and put a hand on her shoulder so that the could up her injuries. “There,” he said pointedly. “They won’t be bothering the town, and we won’t have to deal with them coming back for revenge.”

“Yeah . . . Not sure how fanatical I’d be if you most of my boys and lit me on fire, but hey, maybe he finds you just to his fancy,” Dave said.

“Maybe,” Lee replied with a dismissive shrug. When he glanced back at Ling, he realized that she looked despondent, pursing her mouth as if she wanted to say something but couldn’t.

Before he could ask what was wrong, however, Jade spoke up. “Hey, since they’re working for you, do we have to give back the money and items we got from killing them? I mean, you already gave them some cash, so we don’t have to be nice in the future, right?”

“No, we don’t owe them anything,” Lee answered. “They’ll be paying us in time if all goes well, not the other way around.”

“Ah, that’s good. Because this ring is totally boss. Look at it!” Jade held up a weird bone charm with a single green stone on it. She slid the ring onto a finger and looked up at Lee with a huge grin on her face. “It’s all gothic, necro-nonsense with pretty colors. It’s perfect for my Blood Queen theme.”

“Isn’t that finger–”

Dave jumped in before Lee could finish and answered his unspoken question. “Lass, that finger is special. It’s the finger you put the jewelry of dead relatives on,” he said with a chuckle. “Don’t tell me you’re saying that one of those weak guys was your daddy? You’re not into saplings, are you?”

“What?” Jade blanched. “No, this is not a dead relative finger. It’s . . . It’s . . . It’s the finger where I’ll only put the rings that Lee gives me.”

“Oh no, kid, I knew it: she is gonna marry and then kill you.” Dave started chuckling again, and this time Miller joined in with a boisterous laugh of his own.

“Actually . . .” Lee began correcting them, but the other men’s laughter drew out a snort and snicker from him too despite his attempt at a sensible response.

“That may be the case where you backward hicks are from, but I’ll definitely keep wearing the ring even after Lee dies,” Jade replied, clearly unfazed. “And Lee is the only one who needs to know what it means.”

Lee sighed. “But I didn’t give you that ring, did I?” he asked.

“Well, you’re in charge of loot distribution, and you said I could keep it. Same diff, right?” Jade sidled in closer and cozied up to Lee, causing Ling’s frown to deepen. Then, so only Lee could hear, she whispered, “And if you want to give me a real one, I’ll be happy to replace it.”

“Alright, enough with you.” He pushed the playful girl off of him in as friendly of a manner as he could muster. “We need to find out who is divvying up supplies, stock up and head into town.”

“Why not just take what’s on the crates?” Dave asked. “They were giving it away anyway. If they ain’t got the guts to defend what’s theirs, who’s going to complain if we walk off with it?”

Lee honestly considered that line of logic for a moment. The loaded-up loot no doubt offered a great number of useful items, but Ling cut short his consideration quickly.

“No, that’s not who we are,” she insisted. “We need to pay the owners for what we take. That’s the right and proper way to handle this.”

“The right and proper way she says,” Dave guffawed at the idea. “There is nothing right and proper about this situation. Girl, those townsfolk woulda traded you in a matching bed to those men in exchange for a minute’s peace and quiet. They’re worse than the bastards that died under WN1.”

“They are still victims, and we shouldn’t take advantage of them. We have a chance to do what’s right, and we should,” Ling protested.

“I’m going to side with her, Dave,” Lee said. “We’re not here to spread ill will or ruffle feathers.”

“Only cause you’re sweet on her,” Dave added. “She takes care of you, so you take her side. I respect that, but we both know I’m right.”

“No, justice demands we return the stolen items to those who have been robbed,” Miller stated. He stamped the butt of his spear onto the ground for emphasis and let off another Drunken Shout at the same time.

Dave spat on the ground as he turned to look at the closed doors. “Justice says that we should kill those cowards too. You say they’re victims; I say they’re guilty. Just like the bastards who watched as Humans were rounded up and sent to jail to be starved, beaten, spit on and killed in Kirshtein.”

“Nevertheless . . .” Lee hadn’t realized that Dave was still foaming with hatred. It was clear, that it wasn’t directed at Firbolgs in general–after all, he got along just fine with Miller, and the two often even drank together–but it was definitely directed at the cowardly and apathetic people who had stood by and allowed such tragedy to happen in Kirshtein just as much as it was at the actual perpetrators. “We’re here to spread the name of Augustus and establish a foothold here. Grudges are a luxury of those with power, and in Birnfeld, we have little to none.”

Dave took a deep breath. “Fine,” he conceded. “Pass me that barrel of beer you’ve been keeping for emergencies, and I’m going to go to the tavern and see if I can’t improve my view with an easy girl. Maybe I’ll find me one of those Dwarven lassies, fill her with some beer and play spin the bottle.”

Lee provided Dave with the keg, hoping it would diffuse the situation some. “Go ahead. We can sleep here for the night. They said they’re going to be heading out to see that Herald in the morning, and I don’t know what problems Birnefeld is having, but I think meeting him is a good place to start. Let’s stay here for the night and leave with them in the morning.”

“Then I shall go find out if their beer is worthy of Augustus!” Miller proclaimed, putting away his weapon and dashing after Dave in the direction of what looked most like a tavern in the small town.

“What about you two?” Lee asked, looking over at the two girls.

“I think after we get the supplies, we should continue to practice formations and train,” Ling said, finally not glowering. “Tomorrow’s fight might be deadlier.”

“Ms. Teacher-Girl has it right,” Jade agreed. “But so does Dave. We should get drunk and kill stuff at the same time. We need a training montage to celebrate recruiting our very first group of players to the Lee’s Fried Chicken troop franchise.”

“I don’t think you should have recruited them,” Ling said, her lips curving downward yet again.

“What? Stop being the morally-sensitive and confusing character. First, you want him to stop murdering people, and then your face is all ‘oh em geesie, my main squeezie just stabbed the wannabe,’ and now you’re saying he should have killed them all?” Jade responded, voicing Lee’s thoughts perfectly as Lee turned to watch the two begin their argument.

“Those types of people, the . . . players, the bandits, the slavers: they’re all the same. Why are we working with them?” Ling asked. “That’s exactly what the Herald in Satterfield did.”

“Is she saying ‘Herald in Satterfield’ cause you didn’t even bother to learn his name?” Jade asked. “I mean, he was your first, and you didn’t learn his name? I’m definitely going to learn the name of my first. It’s only polite the first time you do something so serious with a guy.”

Lee just shook his head and ignored Jade. “Ling, my recruiting them was no different than a soldier picking up a sword. The sword is an instrument of death, but what’s important is who wields it and how it is used. We need their kind if we’re going to do the most good in this world,” Lee explained.

“You mean if you’re going to kill people who you find inconvenient or who offend you.” Ling stated it as a matter of fact and clearly not a question. She stared Lee in the eye, but after no one responded, she looked down at the ground to her left. “Just . . . promise me you won’t become like that bastard in Satterfield. Promise me you won’t ever just kill innocent people because you don’t like them like you tried to do at Amber’s statue.”

Lee paused for a moment and measured the weight of her words before finally answering. “I promise I’ll always act with purpose,” he said, carefully wording his response. He could lie to a lot of people about a lot of things, but he couldn’t lie to Ling. He also, for some reason, couldn’t bring himself to fully agree to what she was saying, so he found that answer to be a middle ground.

“Thank you,” Ling said, letting out a sigh of relief. She clearly didn’t catch Lee’s wordplay and simply trusted in his intent.

“Don’t mention it,” Lee answered. “Your opinion is important to me, Ling.”

“Stupid NPC stealing a romance flag from me . . .” Jade complained. She turned to leave, and Lee and Ling followed into the forest to level up before nightfall.