Flat and pebbly earth slowly replaced the tall grass of the Great Savanna as the party approached the village. The small buildings visible from James's location were made of wood. They resembled something more human than the usual construction James had seen in the Martyr village.
“Humans?” Patrick gasped.
“It looks like it…” James murmured. The two players exchanged glances before sprinting the remaining distance to the village. James was determined to ask questions, and it was possible that these humans could be from Earth and have answers.
“Hey!” Patrick yelled and waved his arms in the air as they approached.
The villagers didn’t seem to notice. James could now make out a tall building at the back of the village, nestled right up against the mountain. Two rows of buildings, houses, and shops flanked either side of the party, and a straight road sat in between the rows of buildings that led right up to the burning building.
James looked around and saw that most of the windows were all boarded up, Something’s not right here, he thought.
“Hey! Why are you ignoring us?” Patrick asked a wandering villager while grabbing his shoulder. The villager whipped around with a snarl. James could see its face was a pale blue.
“They are zombies!” James warned, but it was too late. The undead villager got a grasp on Patrick. The redhead collapsed to the ground in an attempt to avoid being bitten. Torunn tackled the undead off Patrick and James noticed it received a debuff.
Disoriented - Agility reduced by 20% for 30 seconds.
James and Patrick descended on the undead creature with their swords until it stopped moving. As they did so, more undead began to surround the party. Torunn tackled the nearest, right before it could bite James, and the two humans swung around. James had trouble thinking of a plan. The possibility of seeing more humans and getting information about the real world blinded him. Torunn picked up the slack for his game brother and effectively crowd controlled the approaching herd. James looked around, struggling to see something, anything that would trigger him to form a strategy. Name tags appeared above all the undead humans.
“Friggin’ Zombies,” they read, over and over again. There must have been at least thirty. James chastised himself. If only he thought to read their name tags before running into the village. It might not have said zombies then, but it still might have given him a clue.
Suddenly a beam of light covered the huddled party as they awaited their gruesome deaths. It sparkled and spread warmth through James’s body. Pleasant tingles arrived every time a sparkle touched James’s skin, the contrast of feelings causing his hair to stand on end.
“Over here!” someone yelled from deeper in the village.
James looked over the heads of the cowering and screeching horde of undead to see a man and a woman standing at the entrance of a fortified building. The man was waving at him as the woman stood behind the man making strange and exaggerated movements with her hands.
James pushed his party in the direction of their two saviors, and the beam of light followed them as they went.
“Get in!” the man shouted. The party dove into the house and the new pair of humans dragged a heavy bookcase in front of the door, locking them in. The man turned and rested his back against the bookcase with a sigh. “We are safe. They haven't been able to get to us in here.”
James composed himself and then interrogated the dark-haired man, “Are you human? What is going on here?”
“If you mean to ask if I am from Earth, then the answer is yes.”
“What happened? Why are we all trapped in this game?” James said, wasting no time getting to the point. James got momentarily lost in the realness of the game when the undead attacked, but now he was back to his usual self and able to think again.
The man that saved the party shot a glance at his female partner when James mentioned the game. The woman was inconsolable on the floor and didn’t seem to hear anything over her sobs, however.
“Let’s go in the back room and talk. She just lost everything she has ever known,” the man said. “Can the Martyr stay here?”
James didn’t know how the man knew Torunn was a Martyr, but he asked his game brother to protect the female human anyway. James grabbed Patrick and followed the man into the back room.
“What’s going on here?” James asked harshly.
“Slow down, hero,” the man said while holding a flat hand out to James. “We are going to be here for a while so you might as well relax. My name is Alex."
James closed his eyes and let out a long sigh. He knew this man was from Earth, and therefore his ally, but he was still very close to exploding. He wanted answers. Answers about Earth, the people, his brother, and if he would be spending the rest of his life in the game. He didn't have time for pleasantries.
“I’m Patrick, a player as well, and this is James. Torunn is the name of the Martyr in the front room,” Patrick said, pointing at each member of the party as he said their names.
Alex shook his hand with a smile.
“Why are you so happy?” James spat out.
“I am attempting to see the silver lining in an otherwise shitty situation, James,” Alex seethed in reply. “You’re welcome for saving your life, by the way.”
“Why are we stuck here?” asked Patrick.
“Apparently, the world has ended,” replied Alex nonchalantly.
“How did it end? Is Earth still there and are we are just stuck here unable to log out? Or is Earth somehow completely gone and our consciousnesses are digital now? There is a big difference between the two” James picked up the line of questioning.
“Both,” answered Alex. “We cannot log out; the game doesn’t have the capability. Besides, our bodies are probably all dead. So effectively, Earth is gone as far as we are concerned.”
“I don’t believe you!” James said, raising his voice.
“Everyone processes it in their own way,” Alex said, shrugging and assuming his nonchalant demeanor once again.
“He is right though, James,” Patrick chimed in glumly.
As the party moved back into the front room of the barricaded house, James pulled out his pile of furs and sat down inside them. He was disappointed in himself. He wanted to be strong but just ended up embarrassing himself. He contemplated how thinking of the possibility of an entire small village of humans living together gave him hope. Then he contemplated how that hope was smashed and the way it left him. They were all in the same boat. No one knew exactly what was going on, but everyone was processing the little information they did have the best way they could. Except everyone seemed to be processing it much better than James. He surmised it was because he entered the game before everyone else. He never really had time to process anything that happened on Earth, and that was partly because he didn't believe anything at all happened. At least he didn't until now.
James apologized to Alex for his difficult behavior and received a wave in return. Looking around the room, James noticed that the woman seemed to take a liking to Torunn, who had managed to calm her down.
“My name is James.”
“Lilly,” the blonde woman responded from her corner of the floor.
“Were you casting that light spell earlier?” James asked, noticing everyone's ears perk up to listen in for the answer. Lilly let her head drop, and James could tell she wasn’t really in the mood for conversation, so he decided to ask her more at a later point. He changed the subject, “Would you guys like some furs to sit on?”
Alex nodded, so James pulled out a dozen or so and split them between the two villagers.
“Alex, you said something earlier that made me curious,” Patrick said. “You knew Torunn was a Martyr. How could you possibly know that already?”
“Ah, now we are getting to the juicy questions.” Alex smirked, before admitting, “I helped create this game…”
James’s head swam from the night before. Alex had handled the player’s bombardment of disdain and questions rather well, and he had even managed to acquire some ale to appease everyone. James looked up from his fur pile within the little room and immediately regretted doing so. His head rebelled against him and attempted to explode every time his heart beat. Once his headache disappeared, he needed to formulate a plan to get out of the undead village.
James recalled the events of the prior night. Alex admitted he had no involvement or knowledge in the fact that everyone on Earth was transported into the game world. He did admit to knowing a good deal of game lore, though. James wasn’t sure if he trusted Alex yet, even though they briefly bonded the prior night over ale, admiring James’s Wisdom strategy. James admitted it was nice to talk with someone that understood his commitment to investing in Wisdom. It was especially nice when that person knew a lot about the game lore and confirmed that Wisdom was the way to go, in most situations.
Still, even with Alex's small amount of insight into the game, they need much more information. Alex truly didn't have any clue that people would be forced into the game, and he had no clue that anything terrible had happened on Earth. For the time being, they needed Alex to be a member of the party. He wasn’t the only person they needed either.
Lilly had an interesting and equally tragic story as the players from Earth, even though she was an NPC. When she finally opened up to the group and recited her story, Alex explained that the NPCs were designed to be real people. They were so advanced that the main difference between them and the humans from Earth was that the NPCs were not aware of Earth. Alex explained that the only other difference was that the NPCs were all connected to the world in a way that allowed them to give quests, but that the NPCs were not aware of that connection. James mentioned the quest he received from Dreng. Alex said that it was likely Dreng just felt like he had an inexplicable hunch that James and Torunn needed to go east. In reality, the NPC network alerted the nearest NPC that had access to a player with a subconscious message someone needed help in the east. The person that needed help was Lilly.
Alex further explained that Lilly probably did not want to discuss her story because it was still unfolding. This was her town. It was where she grew up. It was where she ate her meals and where she had her first kiss. Still, recounting what she knew to James and Patrick seemed to help her process the situation better. She was still distraught, but she wasn’t inconsolable anymore. She was mourning, but still knew she needed to take action.
James recalled how Lilly said it all started with the rain. He remembered because he thought it was weird that she said she had never seen rain before that day, just like Torunn. That fact confirmed that it had never rained in the game world before that point. She said the rain disturbed something in the mountain. Villagers started disappearing, so others went out to find them, and they disappeared too. Her family stayed though, as they were some type of royalty, James couldn’t remember how she framed it exactly. Her parents acted strangely the day before the undead attacked the village in force. Lilly wept as she painfully recounted how they sacrificed themselves to save her in an explosion of golden light that killed the majority of the undead.
Lilly also said that she had never been able to cast spells before and only realized she could when she cast the spell that saved James, Torunn, and Patrick.
Lilly explained that she met Alex by happenstance the day before the undead attacked. The village was under-populated at that point, so they ran into each other occasionally and discussed conspiracy theories on what was happening. She explained that when her parents died, Alex found her, grabbed her and barricaded them in the small house.
With a final sob that James was sure would haunt him for the rest of his life, be it in the game world or not, she said, “We are the only ones left."
One more question still plagued James. How big was this world if all of humanity was transferred here and he had only run into two other players so far - Patrick and Alex? The thought made him feel small, but there was an even more terrifying possibility. What if they didn’t manage to transfer everyone to the game? What if only a tiny portion of humanity was able to be saved from the mysterious apocalyptic event that supposedly plagued Earth? He shuddered at the thought and decided that lingering on it without any hard information would only be detrimental to his mental health. It was entirely possible that Earth was still there somewhere and just his country was put into the game for some reason. Still, James didn't want to linger on that either. That would only give him hope. He just wanted information and didn't want to feel hopeful or depressed. He could feel however that he needed to once he accomplished his mission, found his brother, and figured out what the heck was going on with the game and back on Earth.
James – Level 9 (2 levels gained since last open)
Constitution, Level 6 – Controls how much health you have
Strength, Level 5 – Affects your ability to use weapons, lift objects, and your size
Endurance, Level 5 – Controls how much endurance you have
Agility, Level 4 – Controls your movement abilities in battle, dodge, critical strikes, and unarmed combat damage
Will, Level 5 – Controls how low your HP can drop before you go into shock, and more
Intelligence, Level 15 – Controls the data you can gather from your interface, the world, and more
Wisdom, Level 10 - Controls the rate at which you gain all types of experience, and more
4 statistic points ready to distribute. (4 gained recently)
James noticed his Wisdom description now said, ‘all types of experience’ instead of just character experience. He invested 3 points in Wisdom and 1 in Agility. The increase in dodge and critical strikes that Agility gave him might be what he needed to get out of this house safely.
Sneak, Level 4 – Visibility & sound decreased by 4% while sneaking
Skinning, Level 14 (2 levels gained recently) – Time to skin & error rate decreased by 14% while skinning. Error rate when skinning tougher skinned creatures reduced by an additional 50%
Cooking, Level 13 (3 levels gained recently) – Food is 13% more delicious. Stat buffs from meals that award them increased by 13%
Fire, Level 9 – Your mastery of fire is increased by 9%
Short Swords, Level 17 (3 levels gained recently) – Damage done with short swords increased by 17%
Short Sword Ability “Jump Strike,” Level 6 (2 levels gained recently) - Chance to stun 55%
Small Shields, Level 8 (3 levels gained recently) Chance to fully deflect or block an attack increased by 18%
Equipped Items - No Changes.
James added starting fires to his to-do list so he could find out what happened when he reached Level 10 in Fire Mastery. Alex had made it clear last night he couldn’t provide any insight into the leveling and progression system, as it was classified and he didn’t have the security clearance or need to know. That was the moment James explained to him what his stats did and advised Alex to invest in Wisdom so he could level faster. James gagged at the memory and swore he could smell the ale just from thinking about it. Unlike Patrick, James was pretty sure Alex would accept his advice and follow the strategy. James realized it was a good thing Patrick decided to ignore the advice because he quickly became a competent fighter. By the time the party had got to the undead village, the redhead no longer lost his grip on his great sword and managed to slightly out damage James - even with his 17 levels in short swords. The thought led James to reconsider his short sword and shield combination. Torunn had been doing an excellent job doing the thing he loved most in battle, which was tackling and annoying the hell out of things. It was effective at disorienting their enemies and getting their attention so James and Patrick could do damage. Since James no longer took damage since Torunn was effectively their tank in a way, James did not need his buckler or shield skill. James decided he would always keep a shield in reserve just in case he had to fight solo, but he would be on the lookout for another fighting style.
Patrick emerged from his sleeping sack with a stretch and a long, drawn out, “Good morning!”
James winced at the noise and groaned, “Quit yelling."
The quiet talking between the two was enough to wake up the rest of the party who all seemed in good physical health. James chastised himself for being the only one that had drunk enough to be hungover. It was especially dangerous since they were trapped in a house that was surrounded by undead creatures.
Not exactly a good time to let loose there, James, he thought.
“What? Are you hungover?” Patrick asked.
James ignored the question. Torunn retrieved some herbs from various pouches on his belt and began to mash them up in his hand. James watched in pain as the Martyr cub added a small amount of water to his hand and held it up to James.
“Drink,” grunted Torunn.
James looked at the concoction in Torunn’s cupped hand and fought back a gag. He trusted Torunn but drinking from his hairy paws was a line he wouldn’t cross even with his closest of actual family members - if they had furry hands. Still, maybe that was the price he would have to pay for making the mistake of drinking so much at the worst possible time ever. James clamped his eyes closed and let Torunn pour the concoction into his mouth.
“Ugh, we really need to get you some bottles or something, maybe a mortar and pestle too," James commented after swallowing the concoction.
Weak Debuffs Removed.
James’s eyes went wide as he read the notification. Was being hungover a debuff here? And had Torunn discovered a way to remove them? Forgetting the fact that Torunn would be filthy rich if he was back on Earth, James was happy that one of his party members had such a useful ability. James climbed out of his fur pile and stretched, appreciating his newfound health.
“Alright, we need to get out of here. Anyone have any suggestions?” Alex asked the room.
“Wait. Where would we go?” Lilly asked, seemingly realizing for the first time that she would have to leave her village.
“I am not sure, Lilly, but we cannot survive here for much longer,” Alex said as he watched a gloomy expression take over her face. He added, “Maybe we can get stronger and come back here. Rebuild this place up. But for now, we need to focus on getting out.”
Lilly didn't look up from the floor, but she did give a slight nod.
“I was granted a mark that allows me to summon an adult Martyr to aide me. It has a cooldown of one month, so I was saving it. I can’t see a better time to use it than now,” James offered.
“Interesting!” Alex replied. “So, we call the Martyr, fight our way out of here, and then make a run for it?”
“Sounds too simple. Where will we go?” Patrick asked while glancing at Lilly.
“We can go to our clearing,” James replied. Then he addressed the newcomers, “We have a small shelter in the middle of the Great Savanna. It isn’t much, but it will do until we come up with something better.”
“Sounds like a plan. Now how do we call the Martyr?” asked Alex.
Everyone turned to Torunn for an answer, but they just received an exaggerated shrug from the Martyr cub.
“Maybe I activate it like a regular ability, by thinking about it. Are we all ready? I am not sure if the Martyr will just appear here or if it has to run here.” James asked and then pushed his pile of skins into his satchel. The rest of the party followed his lead.
When everyone had finished packing up, James mentally activated his mark. The party all stood there in silence, waiting for something to happen. James glanced around the room, meeting everyone's eyes in turn. Torunn broke the silence with a sharp sniff of the air. James watched as the Martyr cub’s ears perked up. Suddenly, Torunn dropped to all fours and vaulted to the bookshelf, knocking it over.
“Torunn! Wait!” James cried out to the disappearing body of his game brother.
“Shit, let’s go!” Alex said as he waved everyone outside.
Frey was there, standing in the center of the village surrounded by the undead. They circled her slowly and took turns diving into her back when she presented it to them. If there was one thing James hated more than zombies, it was strategically intelligent zombies.
The hulking form of the adult Martyr spun in circles trying to catch the small undead creatures before they dove on her. James could see it was nearly impossible to protect her back from the smaller creatures, especially since she was so large in comparison. She roared when something landed on her back and proceeded to crawl up her shoulders. Frey reached back to grab it, and before she could throw it to the other side of the mountain, she realized it was her son, Torunn. Her eyes went wide, and she embraced the young Martyr cub. She glanced around and spotted James and his party with an anxious glance.
“Come to me, human cubs!” Freydis cried out as she stomped her way over to the party. James unsheathed his short sword and severed the leg of an approaching undead with one smooth motion.
“Let’s go; she is friendly!” James and Alex yelled in unison.
James and Torunn sat on Freydis’s shoulders as the rest of the party crossed the Great Savanna in her embrace. They were traveling faster than James had ever gone in the game before - maybe even quicker than he had ever driven his car in the real world. He silently thanked the developers for making the Great Savanna so clean. There were no bugs that would be able to get stuck in his teeth. James briefly recalled that even diving into Ingo ponds was relatively pleasant - there were no slimy plants or polluted mud. That was when James realized he was happy to be back in the Great Savanna.
James motioned around Freydis’s head to Torunn in an effort to garner his attention, when he had it, James pointing at their clearing. They were running right past it. Torunn noticed but seemed just as confused as James.
Where were they going? If Fredis took them all back to the Martyr village no one would be safe from the wrath of Dreng. James looked around for clues and found some immediately. The grass all around them was uncharacteristically flattened. It all lay down in one direction. When James followed that direction, he gasped.
The Martyr village is under attack!