War Aeternus 4 ch3

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

 

Lee re-formed the golem that had been destroyed during the fight and then spent the remainder of the day with Jade and Ling killing everything around the town that was worth even a single point of experience. Neither Miller nor Dave seemed to be bothered by the townspeople, despite their fatalistic, pacifist attitudes, so Lee decided to leave them there until morning. If he were lucky, the drunken duo might be able to pick up some information about this unknown Herald the villagers seemed to follow.

Just to be on the safe side, and so that he could get as much grinding in as possible, he opted to sleep outside of the town. He very much doubted that anyone from the village would make a move on him, but he had already had far too many encounters with Heralds’ followers to want to stick around in close proximity to them.

Strangely, he woke up somewhere different. Rather than finding himself in the tent and sleeping roll where he had fallen asleep, he realized he was in the sort of straw-stuffed bed with rough cotton sheets that were common throughout the game world. A quick glance around the room didn’t provide very much information. The room itself was tiny, and there wasn’t a single piece of furniture aside from the bed that might give away where he was or how he had gotten there.

Where am I?

He also felt something he hadn’t felt in this world before: hunger. He was ravenous. The empty, hollow feeling was worse than anything he could remember ever experienced on Earth, and it certainly wasn’t something that he was familiar with while in the game. He swung his leg over the side of the bed and tried to stand up, but he never found the floor, and his foot never connected with anything. Curious, he peered over the side of the mattress only to realize that his leg was missing below the knee. He tried to activate Faith Healing to fix the missing appendage, just as he would for any other would, but he couldn’t form a connection with his spirit. Normally, it was was a simple as breathing.  All he had to do was think about it, and he was able to tap into the massive reservoir of power. Now, however, it was just gone. He had no magic left at all.

“What in the hell?” he groaned. He was hating this situation more and more by the minute.

Finally, next to the bed, he spied two crutches. Of course. They wouldn’t have wheelchairs in this world.

Getting off the bed was tough, and it took several attempts, but he finally managed it after awkwardly trying to stand up without their assistance several times first. Getting the hang of walking took even longer, and he was only slowly able to make his way across the narrow room and out the door.

He studied the unkempt, wild-looking fields of fallow farmland for a moment, and something felt instantly familiar about them. The fields were ringed with woods, and a mountain was visible somewhere in the distance over the treetops. Satterfield. The realization struck him, and he was reminded of the mines he had explored during his first visit to this world–and the slaves who had dug them.

He was about to start heading into town when he heard his name being called out from far away.

“Lee!” the soft female voice repeated.

He turned his head and saw a woman approaching through the fields. She was carrying something in front of her, and as she came closer, Lee recognized her right away.

“Ling!” he called out to the woman.

“Lee! What are you doing out of bed?” Ling asked. “I told you I’d find some food. It just . . . It takes me a bit longer than it used to.” She came closer. “You should rest. I finally got one,” she said, holding up a fat rabbit with her right arm. He realized then that her left shoulder bore a massive circle-shaped scar that her tattered clothes did little to hide.

“How did you fire a bow with that injury?” Lee asked, seeing the way she avoided moving her arm. Upon closer inspection, he noticed it wasn’t just her left shoulder that appeared injured: she was also clearly favoring her left side as if her right were injured. “With those injuries . . .”

“I managed,” she responded, beaming a smile at him while proudly holding up the rabbit. “Even if I can’t shoot like I used to, I can still fire one off when needed. I can’t let my Lee go hungry.” Her stomach rumbled as if on cue, suddenly talking louder than she was

“I think you need it more than I do,” Lee noted.

Ling quickly shook her head at the idea. “No, it’s fine. I already had one on the mountain. I’ll have some of this one, but you need it more.”

“No, I don’t,” Lee argued insistently. He suddenly felt really awkward about the whole situation. Why is she treating me like this? Why is she sacrificing herself for me? “Really, I think you need it more.

“Really?” she asked, looking at him strangely. “This isn’t like you. You never argue. Don’t start acting up now and just enjoy the meal. I worked hard to get this for you.”

She walked past him and into the door he had only just come from moments ago, and he reluctantly turned to follow her. He hobbled back through the door and made his way to one of the two chairs by the small fireplace that also doubled as a stove.

I never argue with her? About  . . . her sacrificing herself for me? The words struck Lee hard as he contemplated their deeper meaning.

Ling went straight to work preparing the game with the same love and care that Lee could only remember his mother putting into a meal. She was careful and precise with each cut, working hard to make sure not a single piece of meat or fat was lost as she skinned the animal.

Lee couldn’t help but feel useless as he watched her. She’s always doing things like this for me without my even asking. His eyes roamed her body as he tried to make heads or tails of how she, one of the best archers he knew, could have gotten those wounds. It took him a moment, but then he realized what injuries they were. They’re the wounds from the fight yesterday. She took an arrow to the shoulder and one to the side . . . because I chose to protect Jade instead of her.

He was slowly becoming cognizant of the fact he was in a dream, no matter how realistic this one seemed. He should have understood he was dreaming earlier, but he was so used to waking up in different worlds that his brain had automatically accepted everything around him.

The moment he grasped the situation, he heard a clapping from the doorway. “Well done, little Lee,” another woman said. It was the messenger from Birnefeld, the one he had met in his dreams before. She was just as beautiful as ever, but this time she was dressed in a drab brown dress befitting a peasant, not a messenger. “Although, I must admit that I thought you’d be happier.”

“Happier?” Lee asked, finding the statement a little silly. “I’m hungry, legless, and being taken care of by someone I am of no help to at all. How does that make me happier?”

“But isn’t this what you wanted? To be a commoner? To be no one special? You were a great lord, and you were miserable. Now, you are a nobody. And you are just as miserable.”

“Did you have to make her suffer too?” he asked. Ling seemed to be entirely unaware of the conversation going on merely a few feet away from her, and she continued her work skinning the dead rabbit. It was if Lee and this woman didn’t exist at all. “I know it’s just a dream, but isn’t that a bit much?”

The woman giggled. “I’m not the one who made her suffer. You did. You always do. This dream here”–she twirled her finger around in the air to indicate the surroundings as a whole–“is your making, not mine. I merely whispered to your brain and asked it to take away everything you thought made you special and then concoct your dream from there. This is what it came up with.  As for her . . . Well, she’s the only person you truly think will stay with you when everything else is gone.” Lee felt a pain in his gut at her words. “Those wounds are your doing too. They hold significance for some reason.” She tilted her head and looked at Ling curiously as if seeing her for the first time. “I wonder what it could be. Although, I do have to say that your choice in women is wonderful. I truly understand now why my first attempt to tempt you failed. Such a beautiful woman, and even in the worst possible scenario, your mind believes that she’ll still be with you.” The messenger stroked Ling’s hair with one hand.

“Don’t touch her,” Lee snapped. He wanted to stab her, but he couldn’t reach her due to his missing leg.

“Touch her? This is just your imagination. She’s not real. This one might as well not even exist.” The messenger waved her hand, and Ling completely disappeared. “But, it really does makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” She waved her hand again, and Ling reappeared. “Why is she the one that’s still with you and not any of the others?”

“What do you mean?” Lee immediately kicked himself for biting at such a leading question.

“Well, the you in front of me is the you that was never special to begin with. No powers, no abilities, no Heraldic status or responsibility. You’re just a no one that no one expects anything of. So why is she still here? It’s as if she would be perfectly content if the real you retired tomorrow and built some cabin in the woods. The others . . . Well, without your being special, they wouldn’t have even given you the time of day. I suppose that’s friendship, though: no one really wants to be friends with a nobody in this world. They weren’t ever your friends at all.”

“You’re wrong,” Lee replied, rejecting her words. “You’re mistaken about them.”

“Am I?” she shrugged. “It’s not my brain that built this scenario. I’m not the one you need to convince.”

“You’re not wrong that they wouldn’t be here with me in this world, but they are my friends,” Lee answered back. “My abilities and what I’ve done with them–both right and wrong–are what makes me who I am. I’m not the same person if you take those things away, so why would they be friends with me? It’s not that they used me for my gifts, but that my powers were the catalyst behind our connection: the icebreaker that let them get to know me and build our friendship.”

“Lee?” someone called in the distance.

“Hmm . . .” She sat down on the edge of the bed and rested her chin in the palm of her hand as if she were pensive. “That’s a good point, but that doesn’t explain her,” she countered, lounging back on the bed. “If none of your friends are here, then is she really just a friend?”

“She’s . . .” He trailed off, unable to find the right word to describe his relationship with Ling. None of the ones he could come up with were actually quite right.

“Lee?” the voice repeated, much more clearly.

“Educational,” she finished for him. Her body slowly began fading away, the same as it had in the last dream. “You truly are fascinating. I just had to come and see how you took to having nothing, but lo and behold, your mind doesn’t even seem to think that’s possible. It’s quite an obstacle for sure.” The world shook and broke apart with her as she disappeared, shattering into millions of pieces around Lee.

“Lee?” Ling’s voice broke through the haze, and he felt himself being rocked back and forth as she shook him awake. “Lee, are you okay?”

“Hngh?” Lee groaned groggily as he sat up. He peered into the dark for a moment before realizing that he was back in the tent in the makeshift camp that they had set up after grinding all night. He might be used to traveling back and forth between worlds at a whim, but suddenly coming awake in the middle of the night after such a realistic dream was slightly disorienting. He automatically reached down and felt around, making sure that his leg was back to normal. “Yeah,” he answered after a moment. “I’m fine. Why?”

“You were tossing and turning and mumbling incoherently in your sleep,” Ling explained. “I was worried you were having a nightmare, so I thought I should wake you up.”

“Thanks,” Lee said, lying back again. “You’re always there for me.” The words feeling like tiny daggers in his back as they rolled off his tongue.

You’re always there for me, but am I always there for you?

——

Lee was grateful for a rather uneventful morning. He and the girls met up with Dave and Miller in town, and then the five of them went to meet the Herald along with the town’s main representative, an old Leprechaun woman, and a handful of villagers. Lee was eager to hear what the drunken duo might have learned overnight, but he chose to keep quiet for the time being since the townsfolk were already another Herald’s followers. That meant that he was left to ruminate on his thoughts about the previous day’s events and the dream.

He knew he was walking into a trap, but he couldn’t see the full picture yet. He had no idea what the mysterious messenger was after, what the purpose behind the two dreams was, or even how they worked. And it irked him. All of his senses had been left intact–he had been able to see, touch, smell, and interact with surroundings in such vivid, minute detail–that he had trouble distinguishing between the dream world she created and the real world. He glanced over and Ling and wondered if the messenger had somehow found out about yesterday’s fight about Ling’s injuries or if she had been telling him the truth when she said that it was his own mind that created that dreamscape.

Am I going to run into her when I meet this peace-preaching Herald, or will I see her at the court? The only thing he knew about her was that she creeped him out.  She scared him a way that nothing else had in this world, and it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from pursuing the challenge and chasing after her, even if she was leading him into a trap. He felt like a self-aware moth, cognizant of the flame as his feet carried him closer to this new enemy.

“We’re almost there,” one of the female Dwarves said, bringing Lee out of his thoughts. She was a pleasant contrast to the Hollywood portrayal of Dwarven women, which seemed to depict them as barrel-chested brutes to match the menfolk. She was barely over five feet tall, but she had a beautiful, angular face that might have fit better on an elf from modern-day fantasy and dainty features. In addition, she possessed all the appropriate curves one expected from a woman. “It can’t be more than a mile from here.”

He had been so lost in own thoughts, mulling over what his dream meant and what that woman was up to, that he had become unusually unaware of his surroundings. At the Dwarven woman’s comment, he finally began to note the path they were on and what was around it. They were following a narrow but well-worn trail through a field lush green grass that was easily two feet tall, and there were hundreds of towering fruit trees on either side of the well-trodden trail that stretched as far as the eye could see. Large woven nets had been strung between the trees to catch the ripe fruit as it fell, and they were now loaded with piles of fruit left suspended in the ropes, ready for anyone to pluck.

What in the world is this place? Lee was beginning to understand why the townspeople thought that fighting the bandits wasn’t worth the risk. All they ever had to do was just walk through these fields and take whatever they liked. Kirshtein was struggling to acquire a steady supply of food for all of its people, but the people of Birnefeld only had to take a leisurely stroll through a single field and come up with enough fruit to feed thousands for weeks. He stared at the lush fields and the unharvested fruits with a mixture of curiosity and awe. Why has no one taken any of this? Why didn’t the bandits just come here instead? “This is pretty far from the main town,” Lee observed at last, leaving his real questions unasked. “Does the Herald have his own city?”

“If he were in town, these trees would sprout from his neighbors’ homes. They would destroy property and make a mess of things, so he decided that it would be better for him to just move rather than to try to curtail his spirit and abilities. He has such wondrous gifts,” the Dwarf replied proudly.

“Can’t blame him,” Dave responded. “No man can stop the woods from growing when the sun rises,”

Lee was going to return the pun, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the orchard around him. He was mesmerized by the fields of opportunity. “But why does only one fruit grow here?” Lee asked. “Are there other fields for different crops?” He knew that single-crop fields were popular in his world, but in a land where most people didn’t have refrigeration and storage methods, it made sense to diversify the gardens.

“It’s just the easiest one to harvest,” the woman answered. “It’s too much effort to harvest other stuff. It’s better when the plants just drop the food into your mouth.”

Lee scoffed that that comment. Thanks to his abilities as a Statesman, he had developed Satterfield to the point that it was now both one of the most advanced and well-defended towns in the land. He regularly had to sequester off fifteen to thirty-five percent of his total mana just so that Spirit Builder could function properly and continue developing the town in his absence, and he was constantly grinding mobs or inventing new ways to come up with coin so that he could keep the projects rolling. Of course, the results were amazing: the fields practically plowed themselves and only need only two people now whereas it used to take twenty; the mills needed only a single person to operate; and the town had running water, showers, bathhouses, heated floors in public buildings and its own form of public transportation as well as many other innovations. Being absent such a large chunk of his mana pool meant that he had to constantly be aware of how he was using his abilities in combat. His inability to heal himself due to the missing mana had almost cost him his life on one occasion, and it had severely hampered it on others. Lee had put in a lot of work to get Satterfield to the point where the residents could focus on things besides agriculture, but this place was a lazy man’s utopia, created with what seemed to be no effort at all.

“You know, if they weren’t full of fruit, I bet those nets would make great hammocks,” Jade commented from the side. “It would be so nice to just grab a good book or a touchpad loaded with anime and spend the entire day relaxing on one of those nets. They look big enough and sturdy enough for us all to just lay out on the same one.”

Lee nodded in agreement with the thought, surprised that Jade hadn’t worked in another one of her inappropriate comments. He turned to ask what Ling thought of the nets, only find his eyes filled with a vision of the injured, impoverished Ling from the night before, not the woman in front of him now.

“What?” Ling asked as she saw the way Lee was looking at her.

“Nothing,” he mumbled, moving his gaze back to the fruit. “Just thinking we could all use a day off.”

“If you want to spend the day lazing about, I’ll go hunt down some food for us,” Ling said. “I think a slow-roasted rabbit covered in that bacon you brought would go well together. I’d love to make some for us if we have time.”

“That’s okay,” Lee said. “We have plenty of food with us. No reason to push yourself.”

“Push myself?” Ling shook her head. “It’s easy to hunt. There would be no pushing at all.”

“Yeah, it’s not like the little buggers could outrun her arrows,” Jade laughed. “I’m telling you: Non-playable Ling here is definitely not someone I’d want to go up against in a game of darts. I’d either end up on the floor naked or broke . . . depending on what we were playing for.”

“Back in my day, two women playing a gambling sport . . . Clothes would always be–”

“That’s enough, Dave,” Lee interjected, immediately cutting the old man off. “I’d rather not think about the women from back in your day.”

“He thinks my women aren’t worth thinking about,” Dave responded with a chuckle, reaching out and giving the Dwarven girl’s rear a smack. “Shows what he knows.”

Lee resisted the urge to comment further. Instead, he tasked his golems with scouting the area and gathering every bit of information they could find. He was certain that there was a trap waiting for them somewhere ahead, and he wanted to know everything about what was coming before he had to deal with it. Despite how complacent and pacifist he villagers claimed to be, he very much doubted that they were completely innocent. There was a very good chance that they were only the first cog in the Herald mechanisms, duplicitous pawns in some grander scheme designed to lull him into a false sense of security.

Could that woman in my dreams have been the Herald? Was she only pretending to be a messenger? Did she lure me here because this is where she has the home-field advantage? Where she can kill me the easiest?  Maybe the trees are the trap? Maybe the grass is too? His paranoia was running rampant, but neither his eyes nor the golems immediately came up with anything.

Then he saw it: hundreds of people lazing about in hammocks just like Jade had suggested. Someone had stretched large tarps across certain the hammock in certain places, clearly designed to ward off rain, and Lee could spot it furled up in others. Long poles had been erected in the center of the tarps, giving it some small semblance of support and the ability to shuck off rainwater and prevent it from pooling, but there was nothing else resembling any form of actual shelter or any sign of civilized life. There were no campfires, tables, chairs or anything that indicated this was a domesticated society comprised of anything other than non-nomadic hunters and gatherers. There were only people–nearly naked people gorging themselves on fruit.

“So, that’s an Aes Sidhe,” Lee commented as they drew closer. He instantly spied several blonde men and women with sharp, angular features whose noses and chins jutted out from under slightly-recessed foreheads. He had encountered Aes Side before, but this was the first time that they hadn’t been trying to kill him and he had the luxury of studying them. Their characteristics were enough to distinguish them from being Human, but not enough to make them stand out in a crowd if one wasn’t looking for the racial difference.

“Have you never seen one before?” Jade asked from off to Lee’s side.

“They all left Kirshtein with a false Herald before Lee showed up to help people,” Ling explained. Their blue-haired companion only a rough idea of their past exploits and had never bothered to ask for any particular details or pay attention when they were given, so Ling was often tasked with filling her in on the details.

“That’s a good NPC,” Jade said, patting Ling on the shoulder. “Way to be a helpful information giver.”

“The only information giver would be Ramon, but he’s still in the mines doing forced Labor,” Ling explained.

“Not exactly . . .” Dave walked over to one of the nets, pulled it down and grabbed a fruit that rolled out. “I didn’t say anything ‘cause I figured it was none of my business,” he said around bites, “but when we left town, Henslee had him teaching her and others how to make and deploy traps around the walls.”

Miller groaned and let loose a Drunken Shout at the mention of traps. Lee had forced Miller to use such sneaky means of attack, and even used him to activate them on occasion, but the subject was still a sore one. For Miller, traps were ‘not a just way to fight’ even after a month of seeing their effectiveness.

“He should still be in the mines,” Ling said quickly, a note of alarm in her voice.

“He’ll have decades ahead of him serving manual labor,” Lee explained, “so a few weeks teaching people useful skills shouldn’t hurt. I didn’t know anyone else I could turn to, and even after experimenting with several variations myself, I’m still not up to his level with the mechanisms.”

Ling scowled at him but she didn’t immediately contract him. Finally, she huffed and said, “Fine. But this shouldn’t count against his total sentence.”

Good to know there is some vengeance still in your bones.

“Man, what in the name of Russell was that?” a man called out from the center of one of the beds.

Lee had forgotten that Miller’s sedulously-leveled Drunken Shout was now easily large enough to encompass the entire area. The thousand men and women resting in the hammocks and the townsfolk escorting them had been slammed hit with a wave of inebriation. Lee and his cohorts were used to the effects of the drunken cry, but the barely-clothed people of Birnefeld weren’t. Their reactions varied from closing their eyes and relaxing to scrambling around on the hammock as if they had been caught in a storm at sea, and those unfortunate enough to have been caught on the ground stumbled awkwardly as they fought to remain upright.

“That never gets old!” Jade giggled. “Look at all the NPCs’ faces! They don’t have a clue what just happened to them! That debuff is pure gold.” She devolved into cackling, and even going so far as to point a finger at the dizzy-drunk revelers.

“And who . . . are you?” the same man turned his eyes towards Jade, his eyes zeroing in on her while the others fought to regain their senses. “So beautiful.”

The sword materialized in Lee’s hand before he even had time to think about what he was doing. A compliment wasn’t something to be angry about. In fact, they were so commonplace and superfluous in most cases. In fact, attractive women often treated compliments as par for the course and expected them in social encounters. They brushed off praise or just cringed inwardly behind a mask of smiles as they made their exit when some guy blurted a compliment out, rarely giving it a second notice. But this wasn’t such a world. In the entire time Jade had accompanied Lee, she had never been paid a compliment. Not even by him.

She was stunning, to be certain, but it was a matter of respect toward her as a Herald. Lee had never made a move on Jade, he saw her as his woman in a way. It was the same with Ling.

“Easy there!” the man called out, raising his hands up in a sign of surrender. “We don’t need to fight. I was just stating a fact, friend. I had no idea that you would be so angry. Relax. I won’t say it agai–ahh!!!”

Lee had only pulled out his sword at first, but as the man had begun to apologize and surrender, his felt compelled him to draw out a glass dagger. The beautiful weapon, glowing purple with the magic of his Glass Smithing skill, spun through the air a second later and sank into the man’s leg.

What the hell? Why did I do that? Lee asked the system, feeling played but not confused. He already knew the answer: The only times he had behaved and spoken without control had been when one of his negative stats had forced him to.

Did you think Charisma and Courage were the only stats that could impact your decisions? You’re a dishonorable man, the scum of society. Of course your negative status would eventually come into play.

Did it come into play, or did you? Did you just want me to stab him?

Oh, I’ve wanted to stab him since he first showed up in this world of mine, but no. I can’t make you do anything. This was all you and your poor decision making. Now let’s take a moment to enjoy his crying. I think you’ve almost dug out a tear.

“Ahh . . . Son of a . . .!” the man groaned in pain through clenched teeth. He grabbed onto his leg with one hand and pulled a fruit out of thin air with his other. He immediately sank his teeth sunk into the fruit, and Lee watched as the man’s wound closed up in mere seconds. “That was . . . That was not cool, brother. Violence is never an answer, not even as a last resort. If you don’t like something someone does, just relax and talk to them about it. With enough time and the right intentions, we can solve all of our problems through discourse, brother. We’re all people after all. We all should go home alive if possible.”

What the hell? Are you kidding me? Lee stared at this guy. The words coming out of the half-naked man’s mouth were all sensible, and he was still calm, collected, and trying his best to reason with Lee even after being stabbed, as if an injury were no problem at all. That healing ability means that he’s definitely a Herald . . . but if he’s the Herald, who was that girl? He noticed that the fruit the man was eating was the same as the one falling from every tree around him. “Wait, do . . . all of these heal?” he asked, looking at the orchard around him.

“Those? No, of course they don’t. Only the fruit from my personally-grown trees heal people, but it takes too much mana and energy to grow those,” the man explained. “It’s much easier to just aid already-grown trees so that they bloom and harvest faster.” He turned and pointed to a specific tree that was much taller than the others, standing above the rest of the orchard. The towering tree had a trunk that was three to four times larger than any other. A golem arrived a second later, giving Lee a closer look, and he realized that it also had its own net. Unlike the others in the orchard, however, it was poorly designed, and he could see where numerous fruits had slipped through, only to be left untouched and rotting on the ground.  

I just stabbed him. Why is he acting like he’s giving a tour? Lee glanced over at his companions to see if he was the only one so confused by this man’s strange behavior. They each returned his gaze in turn, accompanied by a shrug. Is this a trap too? Is this part of his plan to lull me into a false sense of security, perhaps get me to eat poisoned fruit? Lee turned back to the suspiciously-chill guy, and his eyes narrowed as he tried to find a weakness or chink in the pleasant, friendly facade this Herald was wearing.

“So,” the man continued, turning to Jade. “What brings a Herald as”–he paused, glancing quickly at Lee–“unique as you to my humble town of Birnefeld. You’re not here to kill me yet, are you?”

“Wait, you think I’m the Herald in charge?” Jade laughed. “Oh man, copper tongue here is just too smooth. Don’t be such a trope. Stabby McNoFeels over there is the Herald in charge of this expedition. I’m just his number one waifu.”

“Really?” The new Herald looked confused, his face twisting for a moment. “Hmm . . . That’s interesting. With those wonderful blue locks of rebellion, I didn’t take you as a one-man woman who would settle for tradition.”

“I’d be careful there, boy. You weren’t fast enough to dodge the first dagger. You sure you wanna try dodging a second?” Dave asked.

“He has done nothing wrong and poses no threat,” Ling said, suddenly protesting on the strange Herald’s behalf. She was simply making a statement of fact, but she was also clearly trying to stop Lee from just stabbing the friendly fruit-eater to death–a thing that she was apparently afraid of actually happening.

“When you say it like that . . .”–Dave chuckled to himself as he raised his flail–“I kinda want to hit him even more. Better the boy do something wrong than nothing at all.”

“I could try out the yandere role . . .” Jade produced a vial of blood, popped it open, and created a dagger. She held the sanguine weapon up to her face and smiled wickedly, impersonating a serial killer in both her reverse grip on the blade and with unnaturally-wide eyes. “I’ve always thought that’d be fun. Yanderes seem like such great characters, going around killing anyone who messes with their perfect love. And I’d get his Faith . . . Mine keeps going up, but it’s been a while since I’ve done active recruiting. This would be much easier.”

“This is not how civilized people talk!” the man said loudly. He wasn’t exactly yelling, but his voice was much higher in volume than either Jade and Dave’s. He raised his hand, and a tree sprouted up from the ground. It wove its way through the net and created a sort of mesh armor that surrounded him. It had enough gaps that Lee could see through it, but those same openings were so small that they’d likely stop anything larger than the point of an arrow. “Do you people have no shame? You talk of my life as if it is some item for you to pick up off the ground; something for you to use and discard at your pleasure. I am a living, breathing, sentient creature who has feelings. I feel pain, I feel love, and I truly feel that life should not end so quickly or easily at another’s whim.”

“That is roughly how the Book of Lee treats senseless murder too,” Ling added.

“Well, I’m not one to profess religion to other people since each person should have agency in their own life–so long as that agency does not result in violent and socially-destructive behavior that might infringe on another’s ability to choose–but I do like the sound of this book. There need to be more faiths and creeds that espouse nonviolent beliefs.” The man spared Ling a smile before turning back to Lee. “And you should try reading that book. Maybe it will convince you of the importance of respecting others.”

Ling didn’t go so far as to nod or show approval, but she gave Lee a sideways look that let him know she agreed with what this man was saying.

Ugh, Lee grumbled internally.

“Kinda awkward now, you know?” Dave said. “I mean, you stab him, but he’s still alive, and now we’re getting lectured by this weed-growing fruit-boy when we could have just been on our merry way and avoided this uncomfortable moment here if you had just killed him off.”

“Your words may be harsh, but since you’re not following them up with actions, I applaud you,” the man said. “Now, you, my foreign friends”–he looked at Ling while talking–“are welcome to stay here tonight. We have plenty of space and an endless supply of food. You can have as much as you want. But, I must confess, I am curious as to what has brought you to our heavenly grotto.”

“Wait, super-gonna-smash-it-bro,” Jade said, holding out a hand and stopping Dave before he could take action. “I gotta know before you guys do anything . . . What? I mean, I get why Glasses the Peace Pipe here is trying to stop violence with her smoking-hot self, but what’s with you? You’re a Herald, right? Don’t you know that we’re supposed to kill each other off in that whole ‘there can be only one,’ kinda way in the end? This isn’t the anime where we fight some new evil threat each episode only to have that worst person ever join our crew the second the arc ends because too many people sympathized with them since, ya know, the main characters are so boring that they put insomniacs to sleep without their supporting cast. Ya know that, right?”

“I’m kind of curious as well,” Lee added, seconding Jade’s question. “Even if senseless violence isn’t okay, Heralds killing Heralds isn’t senseless. It’s not random or unexpected either. It’s our entire purpose here. It’s why we exist in this world.”

“If you believe that, then why are you two traveling together?” the man asked. “You’re both Heralds, so shouldn’t you kill each other?”

Jade and Lee exchanged glances. His question wasn’t wrong. By all accounts, their logic dictated that they should kill each other. “The world stone fragments,” Lee answered. “Are you collecting them?”

“No, I have no world stone fragment, and I don’t plan to collect them,” the man answered. “I, Plonk, am opting out of this entire nonsensical game of violence. Why must I dance this dance of death just because they have asked me to? Would it really be so bad if everyone refused to participate and worked together to create order and harmony instead? I think the question that must really be asked is this: What prize is worth so many lives?”

Lee was stunned. If he had been asked this the first day he came here, he might have actually answered selfishly, saying something along the lines of home, freedom, and the power to not be afraid. There were a hundred different things that had motivated him when he first came to this world, tugging and pulling his heart in all directions. But, now, it was a singular purpose that he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“You mean, if every Herald chose not to fight, there simply wouldn’t be any of these wars?” Lee asked, seeking to clarify Plonk’s point. “You think that time will pass by peacefully in this world if we stop fighting each other?”

“Indeed,” Plonk answered, turning his nose up at Lee’s group. “Just because I am asked to fight, it doesn’t mean I will. I will not behave like some gladiator thrown into the sands and forced to perform for the entertainment of my cruel and unjust puppeteers. I will have none of it, and neither should you. If you insist on quenching your thirst for combat like an adrenaline junkie whose hubris needs feeding, then go to the woods. Be the hero and slay the demons and monsters that threaten the safety of our village on a daily basis.”

Lee couldn’t help but look over at Dave when Plonk mentioned being forced to fight like a gladiator. He and the old man had shared had an all-too-real experience with that exact situation in Kirshtein. “You’re mistaken about this world,” Lee answered back, somewhat coldly. “Even without all of our self-inserted religions burgeoning across the kingdoms, wars will still rage. This world isn’t the one you think it is.”

“Even so . . .”–Plonk’s eyes drifted to Jade–“rebellion is in my blood. I cannot in good conscience accept the way of the world and do nothing.”

“It seems like doing nothing is something you’re pretty good at, coward,” Dave snapped.

“Staying here, preaching the word day in and day out, isolating myself from the war and resisting the temptation to join you on the battlefield? That is certainly not nothing, and it is certainly not a coward’s work. It takes a great deal more courage to not bend when unarmed than it does when you are the one holding the sword.”

Lee bit his tongue and stopped himself from feeding the argument. “Well . . . I’ll leave you and your flock to the busy work you seem to be up to. I’ve eaten up enough of your time for the day.”

“You’re headed to the council then?” Plonk surmised. “You’re the Herald they’ve sent for, right? The one who is supposed to rid them of their three problems, aren’t you?”

“Good day,” Lee said with finality, his way of not answering. Instead of carrying on the annoying back and forth banter with the philosophy adjunct, he mentally checked his bearings, turned in the direction of Birnefeld’s capital and walked off. His business wasn’t Plonk’s business, and he wasn’t in the habit of giving away information to someone whose sugary smile and honeyed words were likely all a facade.

“Yes, we are,” Ling answered for him though. “We’re headed there now to help out the town.”

“Oh, wonderful. I have business there. I’ll be going in that direction. I plan to preach the good word tonight and tomorrow before returning,” Plonk said. “I’ll come with you.”

“That would be–” Ling began answering again, but Lee stopped her.

“No.” Lee stopped in his tracks and turned, speaking so loudly that it might have been mistaken for yelling. “If you follow me, I will gut you where you stand and hang you from your entrails. Don’t let me see you, or you’ll be dead that instant.”

“Well now, I might let you follow along if you agree to bring along half a dozen or so of those women with you.” Dave nodded in the direction of the beautiful, practically-naked women littered across the rope hammocks behind them. “It’s not like they’re busy or anything. Actually, you can just send the women, and you can stay here.”

“We’re leaving,” Lee said with finality.

“But . . .” Ling started to protest, her shell of obsequious silence having certainly cracked in recent days. “There’s no harm in–”

“There is for him,” Lee interjected. “Come on. We’ve got places to be.”

“Fine . . .” Ling acquiesced, but she remained where she stood for a moment as the rest of the group walked off without her. She remained rooted there for a brief moment and then caught up with Lee and the others, once more taking her place at his left-hand side.

“NPC maid,” Jade said as they started their half day walk to the town, “even though I could use one less competitor in the harem quest for first wife, I think you should be careful of him. Honeyed words and crap theories are the best way to catch open-mouthed flies.”

“I felt that justice demanded his death,” Miller said, “but his words didn’t feel wrong.”

“See? Open-mouthed flies,” Jade whispered to Lee. She used the quiet exchange as a chance to smoothly steal his hand, sliding hers over it and grasping it tightly for a moment before letting it go.

Lee was surprised by how physically forward Jade was being, not just making advances verbally now. However, since she had already let his hand go, he decided to let the issue go as well, opting to walk in silence the remainder of the way as he let his thoughts marinate on the issues that Plonk had brought up, wondering if he might have ended up the same way if Satterfield’s condition had been different when he arrived.

—–

It took the party half a day to make it to Birnefeld, and Lee quickly realized that Birnefeld proper was a step above Kirshtein in every way. The city was situated on the top of a small hill, and it was a magnificent sight to behold. Its walls had a metal coating that ran up the first ten feet of a forty-foot wall, and the rocks had been pressed together with mortar so tightly that it was hard to see any individual stone. The only indications that it wasn’t one solid piece of stone were the grooves that had been hewn in to allow the rock to expand. The gates were even drawstring as a moat stretched around the city to prevent siege towers from easily helping troops onto the wall. The city was even on top of a hill, albeit a small one.

The bustling city was night-and-day different in contrast to the thousands of lazy, unmoving people littered about around Plonk’s grotto. Lee had become so accustomed to seeing scantily-clad men and women lazing about that it was almost welcome to see fully-dressed people going about their business again. The center of the forest of fruit trees had held the highest concentration of unworking, lethargic nearly-naked people, but there had been dozens of similar camps with the same setup along their walk. Their appearance so frequent, in fact, that the small group had passed a different one every ten minutes or so.

“You think Satterfield will ever be this grand?” Dave asked as they passed through the gate and entered the city.

Once inside, Lee also noted that even the buildings on the inside were nicer than those in Kirshtein. They constructed from stone, and they still had wood, thatch and tile roofs, but each was larger. The streets were wider, and everything was more uniform, as if it had been built on an actual grid rather than from haphazard planning and circumstance. “At the moment, I’d rather live in Satterfield. Honestly. As nice as stone homes in a large city are, you can’t beat having a bigger house, running water and fresh food,” Lee said. “All things Satterfield has that this place doesn’t. Even as large as these homes are, they’re still piled on top of each other.”

“But more people means more drinks, more food and more women when you live in a big town,” Dave countered. “Can’t beat the lure of a good drink or the allure of a good woman.”

“The son of the God of Alcohol and Crafts needs no cesspool of sin and wicked thoughts to find the best beverages to imbibe,” Miller stated definitely. “He can make them wherever or whenever he wishes.”

“Hey,” Dave said, stopping Lee with a hand on his back. “Isn’t that one of yours?” He indicated a red-haired Leprechaun woman who had been surrounded by five much taller men, who seemed to be giving her a hard time about something. Lee couldn’t make out what they were saying, and he could barely see her face for more than a flash when one of the men shifted position, but he knew exactly who it was from just that glimpse.

“NPC!!” Jade yelled out, jumping out from her spot next to Lee and darting through the crowd. “NPC!!! Is that you? Come on, Lee, our tsundere NPC is being bullied! You get to save the day and win the girl at the same time! This is awesome! I was so worried that the plot had hit a lull and that it was just going to be a bunch of walk, talk, kill, and lose all of the fun, awkward tension of our favorite NPC supposedly being amazing but not being able to take care of herself at all. Come on, knight! make sure your armor is shining!”

Lee was surprised to hear such enthusiasm from Jade about Brigid. He knew that she didn’t actually hate Brigid, but he didn’t think that Jade would light up this much at seeing her.

“What sacchariferous alcoholic odor is assaulting my nostrils?!” the Leprechaun woman shrieked as they grew closer. It was in a much higher pitch than Lee was used to hearing from her, and it gave him some pause to hear the normally-composed general in such a state. “And blue hair? Eyes as wide as her consistently-open mouth? Gentlemen, it seems I may have need of your services once more today!” She pushed one of the men to the side so that she could get a clear view of Lee. “The Herald who is likely responsible for my sister’s departure is here in the flesh!”

“Herald?” one of the men asked in surprise. He turned toward them at the Leprechaun’s insistence, and he turned slightly paler when he caught sight of Lee. “Woman, we told you we’d help you find that wretched, straight-laced sister of yours, but no one agreed to fight a Herald. No way. I’m out!” He held his hands up to Lee and began back away quickly. “Hey, easy. I’m leaving.”

“Yeah, I’m with Leon,” another said. “We agreed to look for your sister, and you’ve already paid us for our efforts . . . Ain’t no amount of money gonna matter if I’m dead.” The man shook his head and walked away as well.

“Nick, Nathan, let’s get out of here! I hear Kegan has a dice game going on at his sister’s place,” another said, and the three remaining men all turned and left with the first two.

“Matt, you better not pick on the bard again,” one of the leaving adventurers said as they left.

Lee turned to meet the woman who had Brigid’s face but not her voice or attitude.

“Well, if it isn’t the foul-smelling, drunken reprobate himself,” she chastised, pulling out a pair of twin daggers. “First you and your psychotic flunkey use my sister, and then you capture her, hold her for ransom, and then you . . . kill her? What stomach-turning morals you have. I, Margaret, third advisor of the house O’Carroll, may not be strong enough to do you in myself, but I will not stand by idly in the presence of my sister’s murderer!”

Lee cocked an eyebrow, rather confused by the greeting and exactly who this woman was, even if her appearance and words made it obvious. “Killed your sister? What are you talking about?”

Jade’s mouth hung open even wider than normal, aptly matching the woman’s description of her. “Wait. Is NPC dead?” she demanded. “Who said NPC is dead?!”  

“False ignorance is a coward’s disposition. Do not dare to feign it in front of me. I know your kind well, and you are no coward, so speak the truth that I may face my sister’s demise nobly!” She threw her dagger at Lee before he could even open his mouth to explain himself.

Lee nimbly moved to the side, and the point-black projectile scraped past his shoulder. It barely left more than a scratch and only shaved off a paltry three hit points. “Margaret,” Lee began, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’m not here to fight. I was actually hoping to find Brigid myself before heading to the council. I have no idea where she is, but I know for a fact that she was fine when she left us in Satterfield.”

Margaret looked apprehensive, still holding her remaining dagger tightly as she seemed to bounce between the desire to stab Lee where he stood and the urge to put the dagger away. “Alright,” she said with a sigh. “Fine, I will cease aggressions momentarily, but know my capitulation is not born from pusillanimity, but rather hope that, despite your degenerate drinking patterns, my sister’s words that you held duty above all else hold truer than her statements regarding your handsome demeanor.”

“Dang, Lee,” Dave said. “You managed to make her mad enough to stab you after one sentence and then calm her down completely with the second. You’ve got to teach me your magic.”

“Look, I don’t know what I can say to convince you of my good intentions toward your sister, but I think it’d be easier if you just told me what’s going on. When did your sister go missing? Why did you think it was me that took her?”

“Brigie’s missives have ceased coming, and the date at which her epistlic journal said she would arrive has passed. Since her last letter was written in your company with the stated intention of leaving, I could only conclude that you refused to acquiesce to her departure and demanded she stay, another concubine for your divine harem.”

“If you’re so certain I took her”–Lee looked in the direction the men had fled toward–“then why did you pay them to look for her? It seemed like they had a contract with you to search for her, but they never got close to me and didn’t seem to know I could be a part of this.”

“An individual anticipating failure should still plan for success,” she scoffed. “If my sister’s life could be retrieved through risk, then so be it. My heart and coffers will empty before I admit defeat, but that does not mean I will blind myself to logic. You, an inebriation distillery of a man, are the most likely reason for her disappearance . . . or were until you appeared here sans Brigie and with that startled, apish grin across your face.”

“You should know to whom you speak!” Miller exclaimed. He pulled out his spear and slammed it on the ground, sending a wave of Drunken Shout through the area. “Address Lord Lee, son of Augustus and the one true Herald of these lands with respect! How dare you insinuate that anything but pure justice and honor courses through his veins!”

“Ack!” The woman’s knees buckled, and she her remaining dagger dropped to the ground as she grabbed for her head. She wasn’t the only one suffering. Dozens of people around them fell over, and many more stumbled around as they fought to keep their feet underneath them. A few unfortunate kids face-planted after being hit by the wave, and Lee cringed as he thought about how awful that would be back in his own world. “This is . . . worse than Brigie described. My head . . . How do you . . . My head . . .” She fell forward onto her hands and knees, barely catching herself before her own face smashed into the ground.

“That’s right! Fall before the justice of Augustus! Know thy place and pray to the God of Alcohol for mercy that I do not press that pretty nose of yours in and then dig my thumbs into the hole and rip your face in two for your insolence!” Miller shouted into Margaret’s face.

“Easy there, buddy.” Lee rested a hand on Miller’s shoulder and gave him a light pull backward before the Firbolg really did kill her. “She’s family of a close friend and just worried about her sister.  But”–he then turned to Margaret–“the big man is right. You should be careful what you say and whom you say it to before your tongue cuts your neck in half. The next Herald might not be as kind as I am. He might be more like . . .” He paused and pointedly looked over at Miller. “Well, you get the picture.”

“The barbaric despot hides his threats so shallowly beneath his words,” Margaret pushed herself to her feet, still clutching her head. “If you really are a friend of Brigie’s, then I implore you to prove it. Show me with your actions what your words claim and return to me my beloved sister.”

“What was the last letter you got from her?” Lee asked, skipping straight to the details of the matter.

“She wrote nearly two weeks ago that she would be returning through the ??? pass on her way back to Birnefeld. She said that her mission was a success, crediting you and the people of Satterfield for the victory, and instructed me to inform the council that, as soon as she returned and debriefed the king, she planned to leave once more to fetch you and bring you to the kingdom to meet the ruling body.”

“Can you show me that pass on a map?” Lee asked, pulling out the one that the lady had given him in Kirshtein.

“Here.” She traced a route over a mountain road north of the route Lee had taken to reach Birnefeld. “This was her stated thoroughfare. Lacking dispatches following her departure from Satterfield, this is the area in which she went missing. Otherwise, I would have received a secondary set of communications from her after she broke camp.”

“You two talk that often?” Lee tried to remember if he had ever seen Brigid send a letter during their last excursion.

“We talk often enough. That is how I knew of you and the blue-haired woman beside you,” Margaret said.

“Lee, we’ve already picked up the quest. Let’s just ditch the townswoman and go find our NPC,” Jade said, pulling on Lee’s shirt. “I also really don’t want to have to attend that stupid council meeting where they yammer on and on and barely give you one good plot device. It’s such a drag! Like, if you’re going to make me attend a lecture, at least make sure the skip dialogue button is still in working order.”

“You have a meeting with the council? That was was scheduled? You’re not just going to crash unannounced? I am perplexed. When did this occur?” Margaret’s eyes grew slightly wider in surprise, and she quickly scanned the map that Lee still held out once again as if she had suddenly realized something. “And where did you get this map? Its . . . Its creator was intimately acquainted with our vulnerabilities. This isn’t right. Why are the weak points in our gates and walls drawn out so clearly on it?”

“I was told it was your town’s map, so I just assumed all the details on it were expected. As for the council meeting, I wasn’t given all the details. I was just told that your town had a problem and that I should go attend the council meeting after bringing myself up to speed,” Lee admitted, her earnest surprise catching him off guard. “You said you were an advisor for a council member. They did invite me, right? They do know that I’m on my way, right?” Lee sighed inwardly as he began to feel of that mysterious woman’s trap clamping down around him.

“There was no notification. We assumed that you were a hostile party and had killed her to help reduce a potential threat when Brigid went missing that,” Margaret replied. She pursed her lips together as she studied the map, now much more interested in what details it might hold. “This is not one of ours, which means that, while your arrival is aptly timed, it forebodes an ominous threat. Nothing good can come from pieces being deftly moved without the pieces themselves being party to the motive.”

“Then that’s all the more reason for us to depart as soon as possible,” Lee said, turning around and heading back toward the gate he had entered from.

“Wait!” Margaret called. “You must take me with you!”

“No,” Ling said from the side, speaking up for the first time in a while. “Lee likes to kill people who follow him.”

“That’s . . . I must go. If my sister is captured, I want to be there when she is rescued,” Margaret demanded. “Please, let me come. Do not shirk your responsibility as a man.”

“I trust her,” Jade said. “She doesn’t have a mustache or anything . . . or at least not one we can see . . . Maybe I need to take off her skirt to see if she’s the evil twin or not,” Jade said, chuckling. “But, yeah, bring her along. It’s always good to have NPCs to chuck at overpowered enemies. Good ole’ disposable bits of no-problem cannon fodder.”

“Jade, where are you going?” Lee asked as he watched the blue-haired woman zip away from him.

“To the exit? We gotta save NPC. You don’t know this, but you, me, and NPC are all blo–” Then Jade stopped, her face going pale and flattening out as if she were about to reveal a secret that couldn’t ever be discussed. “I mean, she’s one of us. Let’s go!”

“Yeah, but don’t you think it’d be better to get mounts first?” Lee gestured down at the map of the city he was still holding, making it clear he knew exactly where they were. “We don’t have that much time.”

“When I find the bastard that attacked Brigid, I’m going to rip his throat out, string it through his eye sockets, and yank until either the skull or the spine breaks. I have dozens of spears in my inventory, and I will find a home for each one of them in the bowels of those who defile the spirit of justice!” Miller was extra angry as he trudged ahead, matching his pace with Jade’s.

“Miller,” Dave said, laughing from off to the side. “How is it that you play monster and monster hunter with friends all day while drinking but can’t ever mellow out? I’m telling you: This is why you struck out with that Dwarf last night. You’re so focused on violence that you didn’t even notice her advances.”

“Lady Justice is the only–”

Lee interjected, cutting off Miller before he could start another one of his long confessions to Lady Justice. “Alright, Miller. We get it. Come on, guys: Pick up the hustle. Let’s go find Brigid.”

Even as Lee was talking, he was sending out orders to his golems, instructing them to move ahead of him. They could easily outpace even the fastest Krunklerump thanks to their size and ability to fly, and they would be able to begin scouting the region within a day. Hopefully, they would be able to find some clue that would indicate what had become of the missing redhead.

Lee was a little hesitant to share a mount with someone he didn’t know–someone who had pulled a dagger on him the moment they met–but he reluctantly agreed to let Margaret come anyway. He just couldn’t stop himself from wanting to help her.