War Aeternus 4 ch4

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

 

After a full day’s ride at top speed on the Krunklerumps, the small group was now far away from any sign of civilization and deep into the higher-level monster-spawning zones. Lee spent the better part of half an hour that night working with Ling and his golems to set up traps around the camp so that they would have some small modicum of protection in case one of the monsters decided to water too close. They weren’t anything fancy, and he had serious doubts as to whether or not they’d be very effective against something the size of a Phouka, but they would give him a heads-up and possibly buy some time in the event that something attacked the camp. The last thing he wanted was to have the thing–or things–that snatched up Brigid to sneak up on him as well.

He kept trying to start a conversation with Ling about her recent disagreeableness and her mood, but every time he attempted to broach either topic, she would shut him down almost instantly. No matter what they had been talking about or doing beforehand, she would turn silent and simply nod along with whatever he had to say as if she were only half-listening. She wouldn’t even acknowledge that there was an issue to discuss, and she acted as if nothing was bothering her. The one that that Lee did take note of, however, was that Ling kept stealing quick glances at Jade. She would frown slightly to herself as if she disapproved of whatever it was she saw each time and then quietly return to whatever project she had been working on.

Lee hoped that he was just over-analyzing the situation, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going on with her that he should know about. Something was obviously bothering her, whether she wanted to open up about it or not. He slipped into his tent that night and laid back on the bedroll that he had become accustomed to while camping outdoors. He couldn’t have been asleep for more than a few minutes, however, before he was awoken by Miller’s scream and then felt a Drunken Shout slam into him. The hazy wave of alcoholic bliss snapped him awake, and he was on his on his feet with a sword and shield equipped within seconds. What the hell?

Another much-weaker, blood-curdling wail assaulted his ears before he was even able to make it out of the tent and regain his bearings. He tried swapping between all four of his mices’ vision for some clue as to what was going on before pushing out of his tent blindly, but something was stopping him from using their senses as his own. He was still aware of them, and he knew where they were relative to his own position, but he couldn’t quite form a complete connection to them. The feeling was stifling. It was akin to being a real-time-strategy game and suddenly losing sight of the minimap and having everything covered by a fog of war–only much worse.

The sight that greeted him when he finally made it out was gruesome. He had stepped from the tent just in time to watch a gargantuan thorned-covered blue and purple vine crush Miller’s body. The massive tentacle looked was at least two-stories tall and was easily as thick as a barrel, and it had somehow wrapped itself around the Firbolg’s torso. Lee arrived on the scene just in time to witness the monstrosity constrict itself around Miller’s form and then squeeze until he popped, spraying most of him across the campsite. The Firbolg’s head lolled to the side and then broke free from its body. As quickly as it started moving, another smaller-version of the tentacle shot out from the side of the main vine and grabbed ahold of the decapitated head, catching it before it could touch the ground. Then, in the blink of an eye, it snatched it back to his host where it was absorbed.  

Lee had seen a lot of horrible, appalling and sickening things since coming to this world, but this was among the worst. He was so stricken by the sight that all he could do was stand and watch in abject horror while staring into his friend’s hollow, vacant eyes.

Stop, don’t let yourself get distracted. Lee choked down the feeling of his stomach rising into his throat and tried to pull himself together. He’s a player; death won’t be a big deal for him. He’ll lose levels, but we can grind those back in no time. Gritting his teeth together, Lee steeled his nerves and took a quick look around at the rest of the camp.

The next person his eyes focused on was Dave. The old man had positioned himself in front of Margaret’s tent and was swinging his massive two-handed flail back and forth while yelling obscene profanities that Lee had never heard before and the translator apparently failed to decipher. Dozens of smaller vines were suspended in the air in front of him, jockeying back and forth as they tried to get past his defenses. None were as large as one that had crushed Miller, but they varied in size from as thin as a whip to as thick as grown man’s arm. The wicked tendrils attempted to stab forward in small groups at first, and when they were rebuffed, they attempted to come at him from both sides. Yet, no matter what they tried, not a single one able to gain purchase of slip past his weapon. Dave indiscriminately crushed them all with his flail, and before long, there a partially shredded heap of plant matter in front of him.

Lee was about to offer help when he realized that there were two more people in the party who were still unaccounted for.

Crap! Jade, Ling . . . dang it! Lee mentally cursed as he turned away from Dave and rushed toward Jade and Ling’s tents. As soon as he started moving, the demon plant that had killed Miller twisted about and buried what looked like a large, spiked tip into the ground. Lee felt the ground shake underneath his feet, and a giant row of earth was pushed up as the creature began making its way toward the tents. Then, before he was even halfway to the women, the plant exploded back up from the earth. Its monstrous bulk was now split into two separate forms, and each just as large as first that had crushed Miller like a handful of strawberries.

“Jade! Ling!” Lee called out as he pushed forward. “Wake up, damnit!” The thought of losing either of them petrified him, and he didn’t know how he was supposed to stall the vines, much less stop them.

Stupid, freaking hippy Herald! Lee hurled his sword at the closest vine, hoping to at least distract it even if he couldn’t inflict any real damage, and then charged the other with his shield. At the same time, he also sent a mental command to the golems: Save Ling. His mental connection was far diminished from what it should be, but he was almost certain that he could still get the message through to his spirit-crafted creations.

Skill gained: telepathy? Telepathic communication? – I want a skill here, something that when leveled lets him grit his teeth and communicate whisper mode with people near him.

A spew of purple liquid spewed into the air from the wound as his sword sank into the creature, and a moment later, all four mice converged on the monstrous plant, sinking their teeth into the vine and prompting little tentacles to shoot out in retaliation. Thankfully, the rodents had been receiving steady combat and speed boosts with each level of Golem Sculpting, and they were easily able to scamper out of the way when the purple tentacles tried to snatch them.

Lee reached the giant tendril in front of Jade’s tent while the mice and other vine were fighting, and he rammed into it as hard as he could. He didn’t do any visible damage, and the moment he had made contact, seven arm-sized vines shot from the truck and darted toward him. He threw himself backward, narrowly dodging the attacks from both sides. He wasn’t nearly as quick as the mice, and he knew that it was only a matter of time until he was snatched up the same as Miller.

The vines crisscrossed past one another, sailing through the space he had formerly occupied, and then swung around again for a second attack. Lee quickly materialized one of the kegs of beer from his inventory and dropped to the ground in front of him before jumping back another step. Like tiny spears, the vines pierced straight through into the barrel, sending a shower of beer and splintered wood flying up into all directions. The divine brew soaked into the ground as the vines swung around again, but the wooden booze bomb had bought him a little more time.

Lee was preparing himself to dodge back and out of the way for a third time when something unexpected happened: the vines stopped their movement and then began pulling away. The appendages retracted back toward the master tendril much more slowly than they had while attacking, and Lee lunged forward with his backup sword, slicing through four of the vines before they were able to escape his reach. The three remaining creepers were snatched back toward the trunk, and the creature emitted something that sounded like a combination between a loud hiss and a scream. The parent trunk began swaying back and forth like a tree caught in a hurricane wind, and Lee hesitated with his attack, his eyes darting around to see what might have happened.

What in the heck? Dave cut through dozens without this reaction. Then he noticed something incredibly peculiar: the ground around the base of the stem was an unnatural shade of dark brown. The earth there was broken and dry, and there were large cracks running through it, almost as if it were a completely parched desert that hadn’t seen rain in months.  Even the ground that had been covered in beer was dry and crumbling to dust.

A new theory popped into his head, and Lee instantly went into motion. He pulled out another keg of beer and threw it at the murderous plant just as he charged forward. The malicious weed stopped careening back and forth long enough to break the barrel mid air, but then seconds later, the mouthless monster was once again swinging around and making the same high-pitched shrieking sounds.

Lee didn’t stop himself this time. Taking advantage of the plant’s inability to handle alcohol, he started hacking and slashing at the main vine, cutting through it faster than a seasoned woodsman hacking away at a sapling.

That’s it! That’s it! Did you stupid, freaking hippy’s— Lee’s thoughts were stopped by another scream–not the plant’s, but Ling’s. His head quickly snapped around toward her tent, and he learned that the other stalk had given up on removing the four pests assaulting it and had instead turned to attack its original target. The massive plant had apparently reached into the tent with a pair of smaller tendrils and grabbed ahold of the young woman before yanking her out into the open and hoisting her up into the air. A third vine shot forward and pierced through her stomach, abruptly cutting off her scream and turning it into a choked gargle.

Crap, the beer! Lee turned his attention away from the monster in front of him and produce another barrel from his inventory. He dropped the cask of brew on the ground and then shoved forward with all of his strength, sending it rolling toward the second plant and Ling. As if sensing the danger, several large tentacle-like vines burst forth from the group, stopping the keg from reaching them or shattering as Lee had intended.

He strained against his diminished connection with this golems, desperately searching for the missing link in his mind that allowed him to control the creatures. It took every bit of concentration that he was able to muster, but he was finally able to maneuver one of the rodents in front of Ling. A fourth vine that had been headed for Ling’s heart struck the golem instead, stabbing through the metallic rodent as if it were made of paper mache.

Lee’s world was rocked as his summon was destroyed. A giant wave of pain slammed into his head as the mental connection was severed, and he involuntarily dropped down to one knee while grabbing ahold of his head.  

The agony was so intense that everything seemed to flicker in and out of existence for a moment, and he had to fight to stop his vision from blacking out completely. The wave of pain subsided after a moment, and Lee was pushing himself back to his feet before he was even able to see properly. He staggered forward with dark patches swimming in his vision only to watch helplessly as several more vines ripped through Ling’s body. She stopped moving completely after the fourth stabbed through her, no longer struggling against the vines holding her captive. Blood leaked from her mouth and poured out from the wounds left by the vicious vines and began staining the dry, dusty earth below her.

No, no, you can’t die! Lee wanted to scream, but his throat was too tight, like he couldn’t breathe, and his legs refused to carry him forward. No! No! This can’t happen again! His heart began racing in his chest, and he felt a tingling sensation spread across his skin as it grew flushed. The prickling quickly turned into an itch, and his eyes sprang open. Then, all at once, he sucked in a massive breath of air.  

He began pulling out every barrel he had on him and hurling them in all directions. The kegs shattered as the hit the ground, covering it with deadly libations. Then, putting away his shield, he closed the distance to the second trunk that had killed his friend and began hacking away with everything he had left in him. It didn’t take more than a few seconds before the thing was dead. He spun around in a fury only to find that the first monster he had been working on seconds before had already been killed by Jade. She just stared at him and silently put away her magic blood-made katana.

“She’s dead,” Lee said, looking back at what was left of Ling. One of the vines was still in her, the green tentacle worming its way through her pierced body, out her back, and around her waist. “She’s dead.”

Then, turning to the three remaining golems to whom he had charged her safety, he gripped his sword tightly, his heart still beating at a mile a minute.

The little mice were supposed to watch the camp and keep it safe while he slept. They were supposed to fight the monster while Ling woke up and collected herself. They were supposed to save her. They were supposed to lay down their lives to protect her if need be. They had failed several times. Just looking at them now kept his heart racing. They had failed; he had failed. Ling would be alive if he had just gone straight to her. If he had been faster, if he had been smarter, if he had fought harder, she would be alive. Jade could take care of herself–she was a Herald. She didn’t need his protection the way Ling did. Gritting his teeth together in anger, Lee had to forcibly pry his eyes away, only then remembering that Dave was still alive and fighting somewhere behind him.

Lee turned on his heels, ready to spring into action, but it was already too late. Dave was dead. One of the monstrous plants lay on the ground a few feet away from where his body was being ripped apart. He may have successfully shredded one of the deadly creatures, but three more were currently at work desiccating his body.

Lee looked over at Jade with every intention of telling her to run since he was out of beer, but before he could get so much as a word out, a vine shot up from the ground some twenty feet away and shot toward her. The golems acted in concert this time, throwing themselves in front of the onrushing tendril and blocking the damage at the cost of their lives– and Lee’s mind. The pain of one mouse dying had been enough to knock him down, and all three at once was almost more than his mind could handle. Pain exploded inside his head, instantly forcing him to his knees, and he felt the warm flow of blood as it flowed from his nostrils. Lee curled up into a ball, clutching his head with both hands, and struggled to stay conscious. He vainly looked up for Jade through blotchy vision and tried to focus on her despite the world spinning in circles, but everything flickered in and out of existence as the darkness threatened to take over.

“Interesting,” a voice said from behind Lee. “That was unexpected. I had thought you would try to save one while letting the other die. Didn’t think you’d be so arrogant as to split your attention between them.” Lee’s sight cleared enough for him to make out the image of Plonk. The dirty hippy Herald was casually tossing a fruit in the air with one hand while grinning at teeth-flashing smile down at Lee. “You really stunned me, lover boy, treating them so equally. You just can’t give accept the possibility that like one more than the other, can you?”

Lee pushed himself up onto his knees and feebly swung at him with his sword. Plonk didn’t even try to dodge the weak attack. Instead, the steel passed through him as if he were nothing more than a mirage. Then he vanished. “Come out, you bastard!” Lee yelled. He felt a lingering emptiness where his connection to his golems normally was, but the pain was beginning to subside now. And he was filling that gaping hole with a red-hot burning rage fueled by loss. “I’m going to murder you! I’m going to cut your bones out of your stinking flesh one at a time and make sure you die nice and slow!”

“That’s not very nice,” Plonk taunted as he materialized in front of Lee again in the exact same spot.

Lee didn’t give him a chance to say anything else. He shoved off with one foot and drove his sword directly through the ethereal Plonk. Once again, the Herald vanished as if he were nothing more than a wisp of smoke when Lee tried to take him down with a single blow.

“You know, it’s really hard to speak if you keep doing that,” Plonk remonstrated with a mocking laugh. He reappeared twenty feet away this time, pulled a few fruits out of thin air and began juggling them. “Which isn’t nice considering how much effort I put into coming here.”

Lee charged the Herald like a bull being led along by a matador’s cape, unable to stop his rage from propelling him forward. Plonk’s body shimmered and shifted until he had suddenly turned into the woman that Lee had met in Kirshtein, the dream-invading messenger.

“Oh, don’t look so surprised,” she said with a giggle. She changed form again, this time into Ling. “If you haven’t figured it out already, we’re in a dream. You should try to relax more.”

Lee was stunned by the realization, and he faltered in his steps until he was at a standstill. The signs had been there, but it had all seemed too real. The emotions evoked by the dream cut far deeper than anything during the day had, and combined with the physical sensations, it was nearly impossible for someone to tell it apart from reality.

“Wow,” she snickered, “I’ve never seen someone’s confusion so clearly displayed on their face in a dream. Most of them just act like a plumber’s pipe, letting all the crap flow through them without moving so much as an inch, but this is just too much fun. I love this. It’s a new twist! I’ll have to take this as a consolation prize for not getting a hard answer out of you. Indecision is so annoying.”

“What do you want?” Lee demanded. His gripped his sword tighter as he debated whether or not it was worth trying to attack her again. He doubted that there was much to gain, but he wasn’t sure if there was anything to lose either.

She smiled knowingly. “To make you happy, of course. Or, to be more precise, to find out what makes you happy. I’ve been wondering about that for a while. You have something I want, but I have no idea what it is you want. I give you everything, and you’re miserable; I take everything away, and you’re miserable. I can’t even get you to decide if you like the girl behind door A or the one behind door B, so you’ll have to forgive me if I’m just at a loss as to what makes you tick.”

“You”–Lee glanced purposefully over at what was left of Ling’s corpse–“killed her in front of me to find out what I want? Do you think this is some negotiation tactic? That I’m going to be happy-go-lucky after this and still be okay working with you? Why didn’t you just come to me with what you wanted? We could have worked out a deal.”

“Oh, I don’t expect to ever come to you and negotiate. We’re not going to be friends. But, one day, you will come to me once I find out what makes you tick. Her voice became softer and more sultry as her form shimmered and reappeared next to him. She pressed her body against him and whispered into his ear, “I’m telling you what is going to happen because I know that I will soon know you.” The tone, combined with the feeling of warm breath brushing against his ear, sent a tingle through his body. “I know you will to come to me of your own free will. You will beg of me on bended knee, you will grovel, and I will make you mine like so many before you.” She gently turned his head until he was facing her and kissed him right on the lips. Then she was gone.

As soon as she vanished, so did the dream. Lee sat up, covered in sweat and instinctively wiped his mouth. Why the hell are all the women here crazy? And why the hell does my head hurt so badly? Lee grasped his head in both hands and winced from the pain. Neither of the previous two dreams where that woman had appeared had left him with a splitting headache, but this one was somehow different.  All of his senses had functioned clearly, and his muscles were tense from the action, as if he really had been in combat. Furthermore, as he quickly confirmed, his skills hadn’t just leveled in the dream: they had leveled outside of the dream as well. Either that or he was still asleep. Lee didn’t have a clue what had just happened, but he knew for certain that he wasn’t comfortable with anyone having so much power over him.

He pushed himself up, stepped out of his tent and looked around at their camp. The tents were organized differently than they had been in the dream. Whereas they had been placed somewhat haphazardly, these were positioned around the campfire at every cardinal direction. There was a golem posted on top of each, facing out into the wilderness and acting as sentries. What in the hell was that? Why didn’t I remember that we had set up differently before I got stuck in that nightmare?

“Same reason when you close your eyes at night and suddenly find yourself butt naked in a classroom: you don’t ask yourself, ‘Why am I still imagining myself in school when I graduated fifteen years ago?” Augustus answered.

Did the others have the same dream? Lee wondered, looking over at the occupied tents filled with his snoring comrades.

“Jade didn’t,” Mary’s voice answered this time. “She’s currently reliving . . . memories . . . back in snoresland, but nothing unusual. Not what you just went through.”

“I’m still surprised you didn’t catch on that it wasn’t real when Mary’s little anime-spawn didn’t start talking the second she woke up,” Augustus said. “I was watching, like, ‘Come on, man, come on!’”

You were watching? Why didn’t you just tell me? Lee asked, but he had an idea what the answer was already.

“Dreams are their own world. We can view, but we can’t interfere,” Augustus explained. “I couldn’t communicate with you no matter how much I wanted to make fun of you for that snot-covered face of yours.”

Was I crying? Lee racked his brain to remember.

“No, but I figured it was only a matter of time before that wench made things difficult for us. Honestly, this is why you need to just go around murdering everyone. Then people won’t be able to play with you as much,” Augustus answered.

“He can’t murder Jade . . . or Ling. I like Ling,” Mary demanded.

“No, but he could have murdered that girl the second she tried whatever that spell was on him in Kirshtein,” Augustus responded. “Coulda stabbed her right then and there and saved himself the literal headache. Had to be all poised and collected, sparing her just ‘cause she was pretty and batted her eyelashes. Well, look at what it’s done for him.”

“This coming from the same guy who lectured his Hearld for an hour on how he needed to show preferential treatment to women and to try and bed every one he could find?” Mary asked incredulously, her snide voice overlapping with Augustus’s.

“Hey, why not both? He coulda double-stabbed her–it’s a thing–but now he’s left with a crazy woman running through his head, treating him like a lab rat while she tries to mentally dissect him. That’s just not right, and it’s definitely not the end result he would have gotten if he just slept with more women,” Augustus argued.

“How in the world does sleeping with more women stop this? I swear, you must be drunker than your namesake implies.” Mary’s nagging voice echoed through Lee’s already-ringing head. “You need to show discipline and learn to raise a son right. He’s such a good kid, and here you are trying to send him into the depths of depravity where even you don’t venture.”

“What? There is nothing depraved about sleeping with plenty of women, drinking tons of liquor, and enjoying all the finer points in life. This woman would have no way to enter his dreams at all if he didn’t have dreams, and he wouldn’t have had any if he had satisfied his urges until and passed out properly.” Augustus paused, and Lee heard him take a long swig from something that was likely alcohol.

“I swear, how you managed to spawn such a grea–”

Mary went on, but Lee just started tuning them out. This wasn’t the first time they had bickered back and forth like an old married couple in his head. Even if they weren’t sleeping together, as Mary insisted was the case, they were indeed close partners.

“What in the heck did you do to get them that fired up?” Jade asked as she popped out of her tent. “Why is Augustus going on and on about sleeping with people to prevent bad dreams and Mary talking about how women will just put a spell on us? And what the heck is with that look? Who died?”

“Oh . . .” Lee scowled, suddenly hyper-aware of how he must look now that Jade had pointed it out. Even if it was just a dream, watching everyone die was affecting him. He sighed heavily, deciding that he might as well share his issue with Jade. “Alright, well . . . it’s kind of a long and a short story.”

He summarized up everything that had been going on as best as he could, filling her in on the crazy dreams and meeting the messenger. Somewhat surprisingly, she didn’t make a single quip the entire time, instead just sitting and listening quietly.

“Yarg, or yorg, or york,” she replied as soon as he let her know he was done telling the story. “What if it’s like those brain-slug-parasite things? She might be using one of them to mess with you, and it’s not even her.”

Lee looked at her skeptically. “You think that . . . between a parasite that she controls which somehow wormed its way into my brain and some magical curse in a fantasy realm filled with magic . . . that the parasite is the more logical option?”

“I mean, come on. It could be both. If our world has that . . . toxoplasmosis thingy–or however you say that weird brain-eating parasite thing cats dump on their owners to brainwash them–then why can’t there be a magically-enhanced version of that here?” Jade argued. “I mean, if cats and their brainwashing parasites can make men drive worse than any stereotype about women, lose their concentration, and have a much worse personality, then why can’t some magically-invasive parasite here give you bad dreams?”

“That’s . . . not . . . wrong . . .? But I’d still think it would have to just be magical. I don’t remember her pulling out any bugs or transferring anything into my head.”

“Either way, whether it’s a bug or a curse, we gotta get rid of it. Can’t have creepy lady stealing my image to move your heart,” Jade grumbled. She pulled out one of the glass knives that Lee had given her when he was trying to get her to use less of her blood before battles and used it to trace a line down the middle of her hand, reminding him of a little kid who was about to make a blood pact in elementary school.

“What are you doing?” Lee asked. He watched as she shaped the blood that oozed out into several small droplets, each attached to her palm by a thin fishing-line-sized cord.

“I’m gonna find out if there is a parasite in your head,” she answered, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She flicked her fingers toward his face, sending the dozens of tiny balls flying straight toward him.

Lee reacted without thinking, automatically throwing his arm up to protect his face. Fighting hundreds of battles in this world had worn away his instinct to close his eyes when being attacked, however, and the tiny balls took advantage of that vulnerability. They wormed their way around his eyeballs and massaged their way into his brain. His vision was filled with tiny red tendrils of blood linking him to Jade, and he could smell the slightly-metallic scent that he had come to associate with it, but he couldn’t feel a thing. He watched helplessly for a moment, the feeling of apprehension growing, until he couldn’t stand it any longer.  He reached up to grab at them, but Jade cut him off with a curt warning.

“Stop! You have no idea how much mana I’m putting in these little guys to make them this responsive!” she shouted. “I’m not the sorc in that snowstorm’s devil game. I don’t recover that fast!”

“Fine . . . just  . . . hurry up,” he insisted. He resigned himself to the fact that he was going to have to wait until she was finished, and it quickly turned into a battle against his own natural instincts as he fought the urge not to blink.

The tiny red blood cords were so small that a touch single touch would shatter them, and closing his eyes for even a second would definitely break their connection. It was bad enough since they had entered through his eye socket; that alone made him twitch with the desire to close his eyes. Knowing that something was probing his brain, however, was more than a little unsettling and didn’t make the task any easier.

“No problem,” she replied, her voice stern. Her eyes closed in concentration, making her look far more serious than usual. The thin ropes of blood all lit up bright red and started pulsing, and Lee felt a tingle dance across his brain. It was like someone had dropped a lump of his grey matter on a Tesla coil, causing tiny bolts of lightning to dance across it. It was one of the most creepy, awkward, and uncomfortably-surreal experiences of his life, and yet there was something oddly pleasurable about it at the same time. It was as if he were receiving the best head scratch of his life, only from the inside-out.

Minutes of Lee’s life passed by in this bizarre state, and then Jade finally opened up her eyes. She pulled back her hand, and the tiny red micro-orbs withdrew from Lee’s skull back into her palm. “There is nothing in there,” she explained. “Nothing at all.”

Lee let out a long breath of relief that he had been holding in throughout the entire process, gratefully blinking several times. He took another deep breath, settling his nerves back down, and began to recover a bit. “Nothing at all? How can you tell?” he asked curiously.

“‘Cause. It’s kinda hard to describe, but I know what’s what when there is something off or icky with someone’s blood,”  she said confidently, pushing her chest forward as she did. “If something were there that shouldn’t be, I’d know. It’s one of my magic’s special powers. I’d also be able to heal whatever was wrong, just like I saved you from that near-death experience you had after you got beaten by that giant were-kitty.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Lee replied. “So, if I have a clean bill of health when it comes to the bugs, then can we agree it must be something magical?”

“Maybe,” Jade agreed, leaning in closer. “But perhaps you should show me what that kiss was like, just for reference. You be her, and I’ll be you. Just lay it on me like you’re painting a wall.”

“That’s . . . not how I would describe a kiss. Ever,” Lee said, laughing. “But no, that’s also not happening.”

“Psh. First, you’re hooking up with some girl in real life, and now you’re making out with some random floozy in a dream. You know, I’m being really patient here, but you best not forget whose husband you’re going to be,” she insisted, waving her hand back and forth with each point.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee answered somewhat drolly. The serious side of Jade was gone, and it had been replaced with the absurd version he had come to know. “But do you have any ideas about the curse?”

“Nah. What do you think she even wants? She said she wants to use you, but what for? Wouldn’t it be easier to just kill you? I mean, like, she’s either using Plonk already, or she is Plonk, or maybe she’s after you like Meadhbh was, but in some weird femme fatale sort of way?” Jade went into a rant, rattling off possibilities, but then stopped abruptly. “You attract a lot of those super-crazy, fun-for-a-night, fight-for-your-life type of psycho girls. You know that? I mean, first there’s the cat chick, and then there’s that girl we’re off to save . . . You really gotta hang around better people. Saner people. People like me: the cool-headed, blue-haired cutie who’s the reliable type that every anime M.C. should always pick from the start and just skip the dozens of chapters of awkward will-they, won’t-they.”

“Like you? Saner?” Lee shook his head. “I think I can only deal with one of you. But it’s a good question: What does she want? What can one Herald offer another that could be gained and used and relied on, even if the Herald were forced? It can’t be a fight. If she wanted a soldier, there’s no way you could guarantee that a Herald would do what he was told. He’d find a way to support her enemies or to take her out himself if that were her angle.”

“She could want you dead?” Jade offered.

“Nah, if that were the case, she would have just tried to kill me already. There has to be something going on . . . something that has her jumping through these hoops and using this roundabout method.” Try as he might to come up with a reason, all he did was draw a blank. The only point in keeping someone alive–another Herald whom he wouldn’t be on good terms with, no less–was just to let them fatten up before the slaughter. If that was the case, she wouldn’t need to learn his weaknesses and understand him so intimately. None of this would be necessary.

“She could just want your beer,” Augustus said, chiming in with his own opinion. “That type of crazy could use a beer . . . or two or ten or twenty or however many it takes for her to black out and get lost in the woods so that no one has to deal with her again.”

“Personally, I don’t know how you keep attracting these people. Is it something every M.C. just does naturally? It’s like you put out an ad on Greg’s List: ‘Wanted: Sociopathic woman with no morals to try to seduce and murder me through creepy magic’–and then, when the katty kitty didn’t get the job, a new applicant appeared,” Jade grumbled. “It’s making it really hard to raise flags with you if other women keep popping up and stealing my thunder. I need to murder them all, every one of them, so I can get some peace and quiet to plant flags slowly and steal a march before the next harem member arrives.”

Her right eye twitched as she commented on killing them all, giving Lee a slight cause for alarm.“You’re not going yandere on me, are you?” Lee asked, suddenly concerned about Ling and Brigid’s health.

“Oh, the NPCs? Nah, they’re fine. They can be concubine one and two. In fact, we can get you ten concubines if you want. But I want at least three men to massage me, feed me grapes and fetch me wine while I play video games and watch the end episodes of our favorite anime,” she insisted. “And one of them needs to be called Javier, and one needs to be called Sven, and one needs to be called Marco Polo, that way I can call out to him whenever I need.”

“That’s . . . not okay,” Lee said with a shake of his head.

Completely missing the fact that Lee was talking about having a harem full of concubines, Jade misread his response With a sigh, she retorted, “Well, you know, that’s a little sexist. I’m letting you have an infinite number of women to bring to bed, and all I’m asking is for a few guys to pander to me with chocolate and goodies while I watch my show, but if you insist . . . Fine. Fine! You greedy, chauvinist pig-dog! Have it your way!” She crossed her arms and harrumphed loudly. “I’ll just have to settle for four loli-maids. But I get to pick out their costumes! Is that fine with you, Mr. Sexist Anime Standards?”

“That’s . . . That’s fine . . . But . . . that’s not . . . what I was–”

“Oh. It’s the food and anime. You didn’t want me to watch it without you.” Her played-up irritation and mock outrage suddenly changed to a large grin in an instant. “Well, that’s fine. You can watch it, and I’ll have one of my loli-maids get you wine and grapes and massages too. You shoulda just been clear with what you wanted. Or, like, just get your NPCs to dress up like maids maybe?”

“Jade, can we stick to the topic?” Lee asked, trying to cut this tangent off before it went too far.

“How are anime, maids, massages, alcohol and food fed to you while you lazily lie down and enjoy a body that never ages or gets fat not topic? What is wrong with your priorities?!”

“Jade, if you say one more word, I’m spoiling the end of Fushigi na Koukou,” Lee threatened. He had managed to see it before his last warp back, and she was still behind. It wasn’t just that anime either. Although they both came from the same timeline on Earth, she had been pulled in to the game months before he was. Not only had he managed to finish entire seasons of her favorite shows before he ever came to this world, but he had also completed others several during his return trips home. He’d never run out of collateral he could use to instantly mute her.

“Not fair,” she grumbled. “But fine. You want to stick to the topic? Then we need to go save NPC1. Or is she NPC2? Oh, God, which one comes first, Ling or Brigid? I met Brigid first, so she should be my NPC1, but you met Ling first, so she should be your NPC1.”

“How about we just stop that here and go save her? Sound good? Good.” With no end in sight to the motor mouth’s rant, he just left it at that.

Lee went to Dave’s tent first, fully intent on waking the old man first that they could an early start to the day. The old man had apparently fallen asleep without even managing to get all of his limbs underneath the protective covering. Lee kicked the foot that was sticking out from the opening as a way of knocking, and when the raucous snoring was suddenly cut off, and Lee knew that the warrior would be up and on his feet within moments. He roused the others afterward, and the six of them set off before sunrise. Lee chose to ride double with Jade, letting her steer the krunklerump while he focused his attention on scouting the area with his golems. If there were any clues in the area, any sign as to what might have happened to Brigid, he was determined to find it.

Unfortunately, nothing came up. Despite the mices’ superior senses, he couldn’t even come up with a single scrap of her clothes or a whiff of her scent.

Other things, however, seemed to be out of place. At best, he was only able to estimate how far she would have been able to travel in a day under perfect conditions. He also had a good idea of where she would have stopped if something had gone wrong.  That meant he had a ‘red zone’ to work within those two points. Somewhere within that zone, he found what was undoubtedly a suspicious trail that branched off from the main pathway. The trees on all sides of the path cut by the creature were flattened as if they had been rolled over by one of Jade’s larger blood golems, and while he couldn’t pick up so much as a whiff of Leprechaun blood, it was plainly obvious that several animals had been squished at the same time.

Along the three-fourths mark of the distance he estimated she’d have been able to travel in one day from Satterfield, he found a suspicious trail.

Little Ethan was in full bloodhound-level-tracking-and-identification mode, and he was able to pick up on the fact that one of the beasts that had been killed was a Krunklerump, and that knowledge left Lee a little shaken. The trail was at least a week old, and the lack of rain in the recent weeks was the only reason the golems were even able to catch a whiff of the Krunklerump’s lost bodily fluids.

He brought the group to a halt as he explained the situation and relayed what little he knew to them. “It’s not certain to lead to Brigid,” he concluded, “and whatever it is it could likely kill us all without effort, but I think we need to hunt the lead down. I think we’ll find what we’re looking for there.”

“So, there is a giant monster roaming around with the power of one of Jade’s meanest blood golems, if not more, and you want us to go after it because it might have something to do with a piece of booty you’re chasing?” Dave asked.

Lee scratched his head. “Well . . .”

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve done nearly-suicidal things for a woman before too, especially one of those bartending, leather-wearing, tight-lipped Leprechaun types . . .” Dave started off into space mid-conversation for a moment, seemingly wrapped up in a memory, before finally returning back to the present. “However, I at least knew what type of honeypot I was getting at the end of her red-haired rainbow. This is just you chasing into the unknown for potentially nothing.”

“I would have you mind your lecherous tongue!” Margaret said, stamping her foot. “She is not to be fantasized about like some common tart!”

“It’s potentially nothing, but it could be something,” Lee countered, ignoring Margaret’s outrage. “And it’s our only lead. We have to find out where she is soon. Brigid is a strong, calculating general. Someone like her doesn’t go missing out a reason. Something is definitely afoot, and I don’t want any of you to end up dead tomorrow from a plot that we easily could have uncovered today. And I certainly don’t want her to die if I have the ability to stop it.”

“I second Lee on this,” Ling said, stepping up to his side. “He’s right: If this monstrosity’s trail is the only lingering hint of Brigid’s fate, we should follow it.”

“Indeed!” Margaret said, “My sister’s, your dear comrade’s, fate hinges on us pursuing all probable clues. I say we chase this lead post haste.”

“Stop acting like you have a say in this, you flagless NPC,” Jade snapped at Margaret before turning to Lee. “Yet the exclamation mark over this NPC’s head is strong. If I were writing this game and went through all the trouble of setting up this grand quest for the players, I’d definitely make the clue obvious. A buncha fallen trees that could be seen from an airplane and a whining NPC telling us we have to chase them are rather obvious hints.”

“So, you’re okay with us chasing down whatever this thing is? Even without knowing exactly how strong it is?” Lee asked.

“Of course! We just, like, spent two weeks on an epic adventure through the wild lands of a foreign world and painted it red with the blood of monsters, both human and beast, as we slew our way across the land only to find our princess was in another castle. Now, knowing where the princess we are destined to rescue might be, we must ravage our way through a horde of super-tough minions just to fight the final boss–and that thing is clearly the final boss. If it wasn’t super tough and impossible to kill, we’d just end up having to find our princess in yet another castle,” Jade let go of the reins, stood up on the back of the beast, and began spinning around like a dancer on stage as she got caught up in her own description. “Then, when we finally do rescue her, you’ll be forced to choose between the fair princess of your dream that you’ve been chasing the entire game and the beautiful, innocent maiden that’s patiently waited for you, always caring about your needs from the side!” She clasped her hands together and stared off into the sky longingly for a moment before solemnly lowering her head. “Who will the hero choose?”

“You mean Ling?” Miller asked, drawing a blush from the young woman. “She has indeed shown patience and selflessness rare in any innocent maiden. It is good of you to compliment others so readily. Justice demands that we not only hurt our enemies to the point that we are bathing in their blood but that we also show concern and affection toward our friends. This is good of you.”

Jade coughed for a second. “That’s . . . not what I . . . I mean. Of course, NPC here”–Jade threw an arm around Ling, who seemed to enjoy that fact, much to Lee’s surprise–“is the picture of beauty and calm, but there is also the weird-yet-cute woman with a very weird-yet-unique–”

“You mean Margaret, Brigid’s sister?” Dave interjected with a grin that stretched from ear to ear. “Ditching the princess for her sister? That’d be sort of low, right? I mean, not saying I wouldn’t, but what type of game you pulling, Jade?”

“That’s . . . not what I was . . .”

“Easy, Jade,” Lee said. He couldn’t help but chuckle at her obvious annoyance and reached out to ruffle her hair. “He’s just pulling your leg. No need to turn into the frustrated tsundere we’re about to save. That role is already filled.”

“Well, fine. But my vote is to chase the Little-Bobby impersonator and find out where it is. I already know that the only reason it’s so massive is that we need a lot of EXP before a boss fight,” Jade said.

“Last vote,” Lee said, looking over at Miller.

“Even if the beast does not lead us to Brigid, or she has been eaten and ground and milled between its teeth, we should still go hunt it down and kill it. A monster is a monster, and its presence threatens the villages and people nearby,” the Firbolg answered. “If my vote matters, I say we defeat this thing, whatever it is, hack and saw its head from its giant body, and post its skull at the gates of Satterfield to remind all those who would wish our people harm what happens when they choose to raise a hand against the people of Augustus, the one true God of Alcohol and Crafting.”

“I still love that guy. He’s the best.” Augustus chimed in, followed by a fit a laughter. “I swear: Sometimes, I just wanna come down in proper form and see what I can talk him into. Maybe I can get him to find the largest marshmallow ever and see if he can eat in one bite, just get him to stuff and squish it into his mouth and then get him to read Lee’s little holier-than-thou-art preachy book without swallowing or eating it.”

“What is wrong with you?” Mary chastised. “He’s like one of the few followers you have that’s actually devout. Don’t mess with him!”

“But what’s the fun if I can’t grief him? I bet I could talk him into leaping off the roof of a house and into a pool of water with a layer of thin ice. Oh! Or I could tell him that one of those wacky, inflatable, arm-waving guys has to be punched to death in the name of justice or else a great tragedy will occur. We could even add several of them and use a little magic to get them to chase after him. That would be hilarious!.”

Will you two quiet down? We’re making a big decision, Lee grumbled at the pair of them.

“What? It’s not like you are actually going to make some big life choice. You’re gonna listen to Miller’s sound advice, just like you were planning on from the beginning, and go kill a big monster and hang its corpse up to impress your neighbors,” Augustus remarked.

“Yeah, you two are pretty in sync these days. Not sure why you even asked the group,” Mary added, for once agreeing with Augustus.

Lee looked over at Miller. We’re in sync? What? No, he’s much more of a violent, gung-ho type than I am, he thought to himself before turning his attention back to the group.

“Well, that settles it. Let’s go play a game of monster murder bowl. Winner has to spend five minutes charging up his attack while looking constipated and yelling out silly random syllables before he fires!” Jade exclaimed. She jumped down off the krunklerump, patted Miller on the back and skipped off ahead of the group.

“Isn’t that too far south to be the right direction?” Dave asked after Jade had exited in the most happy-go-lucky fashion possible.

“That’s ‘cause it’s not,” Lee replied, chasing after Jade with a sigh. Luckily for him, skipping in the woods was not conducive to maintaining a decent pace, and he was able to reach her rather quickly.

The group made their way toward the tracks that Little Ethan had found and then followed them for over two hours. Lee finally brought the group to a halt once he spied what was waiting for them and had everyone dismount. He stealthily led the group ahead the final two-hundred meters, opting to leave the mounts behind so that they wouldn’t spook their target. They reached the edge of a small clearing, and Lee signaled for them to halt once more.

“What in the hell is it?” Dave asked.

The gigantic form was curled up in front of what appeared to be a cave, and it was absolutely massive. If someone took a dozen school buses and wrapped them together with steel cables, it would start to approach the size of the beast. Its body was fat and circular like a boar’s, and its skin was saggy with wrinkles folded over wrinkles, creating the appearance of moldy-spotted leather pants. Its large flaps hung nearly all the way to the ground, stopping three or four feet from the surface, where the monster stood quietly in place. Its tail was long and plated with a large spiked ball at the end as if it were that of an Ankylosaurus, and it had a long elephant-like trunk with two large horns jutting forward from the top of its head instead of tusks protruding from its jaws.

“It’s a Fathachscamalsealgair,” Margaret replied. “Although, in the past, peasants just called it a bi-corn due to its double horn. The annals of the first eight years of the seventh Dragon King of Birnefeld make mention of them, detailing the catastrophic damage their riders did to the kingdom before they were finally killed by the first Hero of Birnfeld, who saved the army and spared people from the great troubles.”

“Ugh. So much uglier than its unicorn relatives,” Jade remarked, making an exaggerated gagging sound to go with her statement.

“What’s a unicorn?” Margaret asked, glancing up from pulling things out of the sack she had brought. “I’ve never heard tell of one before. Is it perchance from the kingdom that allowed a blue-haired creature like yourself to be born without killing her?”

“Margaret, I like the way you look, but if you say something like that again about Lee’s woman, looks or no, I’ll smash your head in with this flail before anyone in this party can protest,” Dave replied quickly. He patted the weapon at his side for emphasis.

“Aww . . . you recognize that I’m Lee’s woman,” Jade cooed, beaming with pride. “Thank you, Dave.”

`“What a callous thug!” Margaret retorted, somehow managing to sound like she was yelling despite her hushed voice. “To use brute force to try to intimidate a woman half your age!”

“Say what you want, but the threat’ll either work, and you won’t mouth off again, or my flail will, and you won’t say mouth off again. Same desired outcome. You fancy-coated government types seem to have forgotten exactly how persuasive a good flail, or even a good fist, can be. Sad thing is: you go yapping again, and you won’t be alive to learn your lesson.”

Ling scoffed and looked over at Lee like he was somehow supposed to put an end to the threats and bickering, but Lee just gave Dave a slight nod of approval instead. Can’t have someone constantly belittling those around me. Good job. He kept the comment to himself, however, so that Miller wouldn’t overzealously take things too far in the future.

“Do you know if the monster has any abilities other than being incredibly large?” Lee asked. “And, at that size, how did it get here without crushing far more trees?”

“It probably didn’t land until it saw its prey, only letting itself fall onto its unsuspecting victim at the last minute when the thing wouldn’t have enough warning to attempt running away,” Margaret explained.

“Land?” Lee asked, Jade, Ling, Miller and Dave all looking over equally as confused as he was.

“Yes, land. It’s a flying monster, so it clearly would hunt from the sky,” Margaret said arrogantly. “Did you think perchance it would lumber around on the ground when its speed and talents are much more suited for the air?”

“That . . . That can fly?” Lee asked.

“Yes,” Margaret said certainly. “The stories all tell of it flying from town to town, so it certainly must! But . . . it does seem to confuse me how that would be possible.” Margaret frowned slightly. “No matter,” she continued, undeterred and without waiting for anyone else to say anything. “I will diligently record your fight as you discover the beast’s secrets, and I’ll be certain to notify your successors of any susceptibilities upon which they may capitalize to avenge you and complete the quest.”

“Put down your pen and paper, woman,” Miller ordered. Margaret had already fetched those two tools out of her bag and had started drawing the monster without even waiting for their responses. “There will be no second time. We shall immediately vanquish this foe in the name of justice, and no one shall dare attack our people for fear of how great and mighty we are!”

Margaret pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at Miller as if she wanted to say something, but she glanced over at Dave before replying, “Yes, yes. I’m sure. But I shall still take notes just in case . . . For posterity’s sake, you understand.”

“Fine. Waste your paper, woman,” Miller scoffed. “As for me, BATTLE AWAITS!” he shouted, hoisting up his spear, releasing a drunken shout and charging forward.

Does he seriously not plan on strategizing at all? Lee cringed as four pairs of eyes turned to look at him, each waiting for him to approve the reckless engagement that Miller was dragging them into so wholeheartedly.

“Battle it is,” Lee declared, weighing his options. Setting trap or some other machination would have let him gain an advantage from the onset of the battle. He might have been able to study the monster’s attack patterns or figure out how it responded to different scenarios. Now, despite having noticed the lumbering oaf careening toward it like the town drunk at last call, it didn’t appear to be in any rush to either engage or flee. That meant that it was either confident or had no reason to worry. Lee shook his head slightly and sighed. I really need to sit down and have a real talk with that guy.