Stupid brother. Why attack No-No? Torunn thought. His father’s blood coursed through his body and urged him to destroy the No-No, but he knew better. It had killed his brother with one stomp, and Torunn knew it could do the same to him. Even if it took two stomps, the result of attacking the No-No would be the same. Instead, he rushed into the clearing and picked up the fat human cub and hefted him onto his shoulders. Torunn sprinted to the edge of the clearing and glanced back at his brother's body. A tear started to well in one of his eyes just as he saw his brother’s body fade and disappear. Torunn had seen many deaths before but never once had he seen a body disappear like that. If he was surprised though, he didn’t have time to show it. A name tag popped up into his vision, reminding him of the impending danger.
The beast must have gone into an enraged state when it lost one of its horns. Torunn sprinted into the wall of tall grass and continued in the direction of his village. The fat human cub thrashed and screamed on top of Torunn's shoulders. His screams allowed the Enraged No-No to follow them. Torunn contemplated dropping the human cub but decided to test one more theory first. He ran in unpredictable patterns instead of a straight line to make sure it was the human cub that was drawing the creature to them. The No-No followed without missing a beat; it’s giant body able to travel much faster in the Savanna than Torunn. Sure now that he wouldn’t survive with a screaming human cub, he dropped it, hard. As suspected, the human cub couldn’t handle any more injuries and passed out. Torunn hefted his limp body back onto his shoulders and soon lost the No-No in the Great Savanna.
Torunn arrived at the outskirts of his village where the clearing started and the tall grass ended. He dropped the soft human cub on the grass side and made a mental mark of where he was. Torunn knew the cub would be seen as a threat to his village without a Mark and doubted his father would grant another. Now safe from the No-No, Torunn did the only thing he could do. Screamed and ran around until he found his mother.
He found her in the Chieftain’s hut with his father and Frode. Freydis reached out and took Torunn into an embrace. Torunn began to speak out and tell everyone what happened, but it came out an indistinguishable garble of grunts and growls.
James woke up with a start and shot his hands in front of his face to guard against the rhino’s foot. His expression screwed up, and his body tingled with anticipated pain. When the heavy foot of the rhino never came, he opened his eyes. Above James was not a rhino’s foot or even the endlessly pristine sky of the Great Savanna. Instead, James saw wooden logs stacked on top of each other, broken up by large wooden beams with various trinkets hanging from them. They fluttered in a comfortable breeze. James's gaze traveled from his wooden sky to the wooden wall and eventually, the dusty wooden floor. Placed on that floor, by someone that James's suspected would use them to sleep on, was a pile of high-quality furs. James vaguely remembered them. Relief flowed through his body as he realized he must be around some friendly Martyrs. That relief quickly turned to panic.
James jumped to his feet and spun around where he saw Dreng, Frode, and Freydis all staring back at him. Dreng wore his regular face of focus that always seemed to be on the edge of violence. Frode’s face appeared to be an equal mixture of curiosity and panic, but James couldn’t be sure. While similar in most aspects, Martyr facial expressions were not as easy to read as a human's. Martyr faces were generally harsher and had a serious tone to them even when they were smiling. The exception to that rule was Torunn, whose animated smiles and chuckles were lively and unburdened.
When James’s gaze fell upon Frey, she gave him a comforting smile. James could see Torunn had made it back safe and was now strewn over his mother's shoulder, fast asleep. She patted his back twice with her heavy hands, and his head rose. Torunn turned his head and looked at his father, then followed the Chieftain's gaze back to James.
“Uh oh,” James whispered to himself as Torunn leaped from his mother’s embrace and charged. Once again, James fell prey to one of Torunn’s perfectly executed flying tackles.
James awoke for the second time that day with a start. This time he was in his hut on his pile of common-quality furs, a fact that was surprisingly comforting. His nerves were run ragged by everything that had happened, yet he felt like he just got back home after a long and terrible vacation. He was happy to be back to his normal life. Of course, James realized that this wasn’t actually his normal life, but he refused to dwell on that fact since he needed a semblance of normalcy. Instead, he laid back onto his pile of furs and tried to figure out how his day took such a harsh turn.
First, he woke up in a great mood since there were no Ingos to bother him. He enjoyed the morning before he set out to find a new place to level up with Torunn. Then they trekked through the tall grass of the Great Savanna until something ran past them. They followed the trail and discovered a human was running around frantically. The other human ran right into the Giant Deer Rhino and got attacked. James jumped in to save it then blacked out. He woke up again in the Chieftain's hut where he quickly blacked out for the second time after being tackled by his game brother.
“To sum it all up, I am weaker than an actual human cub,” James said to himself. He opened his notifications and realized he didn’t pass out the first time; he had died.
Attention: You have died. Waiting to respawn.
Attention: You have re-spawned. For the next 12 hours, you will be in a constant state of shock.
You have passed out from receiving additional damage while in shock.
It looked like the penalty for dying caused him to pass out when Torunn tackled him. He was happy to know that he could respawn in the game and not have to worry about being ejected and losing his job. Still, though, there were many questions he wanted to answer. What happened to the other human? What do the adult Martyrs think of him respawning? He let out a sigh, stood up, and left the tent in search of answers. James grabbed the soft hide of the flap and moved it aside. Seconds after he stepped through, Torunn appeared behind him.
“Weird, I didn’t even know you were in there,” James said as he grasped Torunn’s shoulder. He could tell his game brother was shaken up by his death and subsequent respawn. There was no way he could even be mad at Torunn for tackling him and causing him to pass out. Even though they were becoming decent hunting partners, Torunn was still only a cub in this world.
“What happened to the other human cub?” James asked. Torunn looked confused for a moment, then panic overtook his facial expressions, and his mouth hung open. Torunn grabbed James’s wrist and tried to lead him somewhere, but when they turned, they saw the whole village standing there and looking at James. Torunn let go of James's wrist and slowly disappeared back into the tent.
“Coward,” James whispered back to his fleeing game brother.
“Human cub!” a voice boomed. It was Dreng. He was standing outside the entrance of his hut. James immediately trotted off in his direction and realized Dreng never actually waved him over, even though James thought he did. Dreng’s voice and presence were enough to get his point across clearly without needing any extra communication. When James got within twenty paces, Dreng ducked his head and turned into his hut. James followed diligently.
Dreng, Frode, and Freydis were all seated inside the hut. They stared at him for a long while. A few days ago James would have crumpled under the weight of their combined stares, but he had been through a lot that day and was already numb from the stress. Frode broke the silence first.
“Uh. I am not sure. I died, and then I came back... somehow,” James answered.
Dreng scoffed, "Tell us what is going on here, Frode,” he barked.
Frode looked angry himself for a moment but answered his Chieftain’s command anyway.
“As both of you know, my father was a great Shaman. He attained such a mastery of intelligence that many believed him to be mad. In fact, Martyr history remembers him as the Mad Shaman. I will admit, I used to think he was mad as well,” Frode paused in contemplation.
“Used to?” Freydis gently inquired.
“What does this have to do with the human cub?” Dreng barked again, getting impatient.
“I will get to that,” Frode answered before turning his gaze to Frey, “Yes, Freydis. Most of his rantings were unintelligible. But I believe they were so because we could not understand them, not because he was mad. We did not have the capacity to understand the concepts in which he spoke. So it was not that his speech was unintelligent, it was that we were.”
Dreng’s blood boiled at the apparent insult. After all, his race was wise, intelligent, and fearsome. Years of growing his wisdom and the fact Frode stood by his side for years through many hardships was the only reason he didn’t smash his advisor.
Frode continued, “So by the time my father spoke of immortal humans entering our world, no one listened to him. My father was trying to warn us, but we didn’t let him. He took his knowledge to the grave and couldn’t do anything to prepare us.” Frode dropped his head in shame. Freydis reached out with a giant hand and laid it on the advisor's shoulder.
“How did you get here,” Dreng challenged James.
Before James could answer though, Frode spoke back up with a wave of his hand, “It is no use, my friend, the human cub does not know. I spoke with him the night we spotted him navigating through his menu. That is the night I suspected my father's prophecy might be something other than the rantings of a mad shaman."
“Why didn’t you warn us then?” Dreng interrupted.
“I was not certain the prophecy was true or that James meant any harm to us. From what I could remember my father spoke about human cubs that could spend stat points like adults, human cubs that could command the elements. It was clear James was spending his stat points, but I decided to test him on his fire mastery, to make sure he fit all requirements of the prophecy. The human cub can start fires, but he cannot command it. That is why I didn’t say anything.”
“But then James died and respawned next to you. Confirming your father’s prophecy,” Freydis added.
“Yes,” Frode confirmed meekly to the Martyr group. Then he turned to James and solemnly asked, “What is your purpose here human cub? Can you command fire?”
James opened his mouth to answer, but only a whimper left his mouth.
Attention: You have been frozen in fear.
James’ body instinctively cowered. He flexed all of his muscles to fight against the debuff. James's joints cracked under pressure, but it was no use. No matter what he did, he couldn't move his body.
“I…” James stuttered as he thought of what to say. He decided to go with his whole, woke-up-here-with-no-memory spiel. “I do not know why I am here. I have no memory of my past. But I can tell you that I mean you no harm.”
Freydis gave her mate a harsh look, and Dreng finally released his ability. James regained control of his body and stood up, forcefully distilling the anger he felt from being made to cower like that and turning the raw emotion into courage. He knew he wasn't in a position to show weakness anymore. Instead, he needed to show wisdom and patience.
James cleared his throat, “You accepted me into your clan as a cub. You have placed trust in me that I WILL NOT betray-”
“What about the fire?” Frode interrupted.
James shrugged off the interruption and answered truthfully, “I do have a fire mastery skill, but I do not know what it is for.”
Frode sunk back into contemplation while everyone awaited his response. When it never came, Dreng stood up.
“When Freydis backed up her decision to name you our cub with blood, I knew I should trust her. If there were any doubt in her mind of your intentions, she would not have been able to fight as long as she did.”
Frey nodded at her mate’s statement.
Dreng continued to uncharacteristically speak to James, a fact that was not lost on the human cub, “We will be looking into the merits of this so-called Prophecy. But, in the meantime, we have a larger problem. The Oana are getting bolder and will soon find our encampment. If you are truly immortal and have our interests in mind, I charge you with getting stronger. You will travel east. There you will find a small village with plenty of monsters to slay. Grow stronger and then come back to help us deal with the Oana.” Dreng paused in contemplation, “You may also find something of greater value. Information. Do you accept?”
James's mind whirled. He certainly wanted a new place to grow and level up. It was one of the goals he set out to accomplish just that morning. But that goal was of little interest compared to the promise of information.
Information for what? James thought. Would he get answers to his steadily growing list of questions about the game? Would he figure out when his brother would enter the game? After a moment, James decided that pondering Dreng’s statement for too long wouldn’t help much. He was already on thin ice, so James didn’t inquire further. He would have to go east to find answers, that much was clear.
James straightened his back and said, “I accept."
“Good. Now leave us, James,” replied the Chieftain.
Quest Accepted - Travel due east until you find a small village. Grow stronger & smarter, and then return to Dreng.
Whhhaaat, James thought as he left the Chieftain's hut. Did he finally call me by my actual name?
Torunn was waiting twenty paces outside the hut. James sighed and took in the scene in front of him. The sky was a dark shade of purple with red and orange streaks outlining clouds on the horizon; his day was almost over already. Torunn stood and started running in James’s direction. James braced himself for the next tackle, determined to catch Torunn mid-air and slam him. His game brother could take a beating and loved to horse around, so James figured they both would get a much-needed laugh. Torunn just kept running through and passed right by James like he wasn’t even there.
“Dang, that hurts,” James said as he grasped at his broken heart. Torunn’s tackling hurt, but being ignored by him hurt more. A few moments later, Torunn came out of the tent flap dragging something behind him. He tugged and pulled until his body was almost parallel to the ground. Finally, the Martyr cub's prize came out of the hut door flaps. It was Frey’s hand. He was pulling his mother out of the hut. She only moved when she wanted to move, but Torunn didn’t seem to realize this and kept tugging with an ignorant determination. Frey finished speaking to Dreng and Frode and finally let herself get towed out of the hut. When Torunn neared James, he quickly grabbed his wrist as well. However, James could actually be pulled by Torunn and was soon struggling to stay on his feet.
Torunn dragged his mother and brother to the edge of the village, right up to where the flattened grass ended and was allowed to grow wildly again. In fact, the border of the Martyr village looked like a battle zone. One where the flat grass waged war against its tall and densely packed brethren. James got a feeling that the wild grass had the upper hand. Torunn let go of his wrist with a grunt.
“Here,” Torunn stated before disappearing into the grass. After a minute or so, James and Frey looked at each other in confusion. Just as James remembered the other human, he heard a scream in the distance and a ruffling in the grass. Another minute later, Torunn re-appeared from the grass wall with the human from earlier on his back.
Frey gasped and suddenly leaped into the grass. She landed on her side and rolled in a circle a few times. From James’s perspective, it looked like she was afraid of the other human. A moment later, Frey’s arms burst out of the grass wall and scooped the three cubs up. She placed them down into the clearing she made with her rolling body and sat down. Placing a giant finger to her mouth, she hushed everyone.
James was sitting down in the clearing facing Frey. His brother was to his left, and also sitting down. Both of them sat and waited to be prompted by Frey. Utterly confused and terrified, the new human was seated as well, but with his back turned to Frey. James watched as he slowly gained his bearing and became aware that there was something behind him. James could almost see the hair on the human's neck begin to stand up. To keep him from screaming, James spoke.
“Hey, man, I am human too. Uhh...”
But James was too late. The other human slowly turned around. He saw Torunn first, the creature that kidnapped him, left him for dead, and then recaptured him in his sleep just moments ago. His face twisted in fear, but he kept slowly turning his body until his gaze fell upon the lower half of the towering adult Martyr. The human lost his composure at the site of the giant Martyr and let out a desperate and pitiful scream. Frey merely sighed, scooped them all up again and sprinted further into the Great Savanna.
They all rode in Frey’s arms for what James guessed to be about twenty minutes. The new human promptly passed out again, overwhelmed by his exposure to the game. Finally, Frey set them all down and began rolling in a circle again. As James sat and watched the lumbering creature roll around, he mentally remarked at how surreal the day had been. He was worried about the human but was equally relieved that his entrance into the game wasn’t so dramatic. He was attacked, and passed out, but only once in the beginning. This poor guy must have spent the whole day in and out of consciousness. The few brief moments he spent awake were spent sprinting from danger.
Frey completed her last roll which came entirely too close to James. He tucked his legs into his body and used them to complete a backward somersault. Torunn, however, was not so lucky. The Martyr cub was kneading some new herb he found in his hand when his mother rolled into him, completely flattening him into the ground. James watched as she passed over him and then sat back up. Torunn sat up soon after with a shake of his head and went back to mashing his herbs.
“Listen up, little cubs. This new human will not be allowed into the village. James, with everything we spoke about in Dreng’s hut...“ Freydis took a moment to brush some grass from her hair, “Dreng will not allow another human in. There is just too much to lose and too many things he does not know. I know he would rather kill the human than have another loose end to deal with.”
Realization dawned on James. “Are you-” He paused while struggling to swallow through his dry mouth. “Are you kicking me out of the village?”
“No, my human cub. You are always welcome in the village. But I cannot protect this new human, so you and Torunn must.”
“Wait, wait. Where will we stay?” James asked as he looked around the clearing.
“You must build a shelter for the night. Then wait for the other human cub to wake up, get him strong, and then go east to complete Dreng’s quest. When you return, come to see me.”
Torunn took a break from his herbs just long enough to give James one of his seemingly-random, knowing nods.
“What if that Giant Deer Rhino comes back for me?” James asked, struggling to vocalize his sudden feelings of fear and abandonment into legitimate concerns.
“Giant Deer Rhino?” Frey asked, confused, “Oh, you mean the No-No. Those creatures are friendly and will only attack you if you wander too close to their clearings. They root around and eat vegetables from deep underground; they don’t even eat meat. Just avoid them, and you will be fine. Anything else, young cub?”
“Umm, any tips for making a shelter?” James asked. He was trying to stall for as long as possible. The sun was fully set, and he wasn’t looking forward to spending the night in the Great Savanna without the protection of a full grown Martyr. Frey stood up and ran off without warning.
“Great. Guess we are on our own,” James said to Torunn, who was too engrossed in his herb smashing to respond.
James watched as his game brother picked herbs, sat down and mashed them, looked around, and then walked to a new spot and repeated the process over and over again. James stood and began walking around the clearing that was to be his new home.
“We need to renovate,” James joked to himself. The clearing was easily 400 feet around with a small tree in the center. The tree wasn’t much taller than the grass that surrounded it before Frey flattened it all. James thought that he easily could have walked head first into the tree if he went this way earlier in the day. He wondered how many other hidden trees were in the Great Savanna that he simply walked by without even noticing.
James looked around for something to build a lean-to with but didn’t find anything else made of wood other than the tree. James paused as the ground began to rumble. He looked at Torunn who didn’t seem to notice.
“Hey,” James whispered. “Do you feel that?”
Torunn met his gaze, nodded his head up and down, and then went back to his herbs. Before James could panic anymore, Frey jumped into the clearing. She carried a bundle of trees like the one in the center of the clearing. James let out a sigh of relief. For a second, he honestly thought he was going to die again, after only spending five minutes in the Great Savanna at night. Frey set the bundle of trees down and sat down next to James.
“Listen, James. Use these trees to create a rough shelter. Create a fire, and you will be fine. Work with Torunn, he is smarter than he lets on, and a great fighter if you need it. I don’t want Dreng to be suspicious of my absence so I must...” Frey paused as Torunn flew through the air head first and impacted her chest. James figured the Martyr cub must have heard his mother say that he was smarter than he let on, and was upset at being outed. Torunn bounced off Frey's chest. She caught the Martyr cub before he could hit the ground, and pulled him into an embrace.
Frey continued, “I must go, James. Be strong.”
With that she returned the Martyr cub to the ground and ran off, the ground rumbling underneath her.