“Fight!” Freydis screamed after placing everyone but Torunn on the ground and running to the aid of her village. James looked on in horror as the Martyr village he had begun to consider his home, burned. Oana soldiers, half the size of adult Martyrs but still double the size of their scout counterparts, attacked in droves.
Patrick hefted his great sword and let out a scream as he charged the village. James and Alex both reached out and grasped one of his shoulders.
“Wait!” exclaimed Alex.
“Yeah, we need a plan, man,” James said. “They are way bigger and more numerous than anything we have fought before.”
“Can’t we just run?” Lilly asked.
“No, Freydis wouldn’t have told us to fight if she thought there was another option,” James answered. “The Martyrs have tried that before. The Oana have been hunting them across the Great Savanna ever since. If we lose this battle, the Martyrs become extinct.”
“I don’t think there is much we can do here. They are way too large,” Alex said.
James studied Alex's face and found no defeat there, just cold logic. He thought for a moment.
“Maybe we can use our smaller size to our advantage. Do you guys have any special abilities? For example, I have an ability that launches me into the air and into my enemies. It comes with a chance to stun. If we can hide and use our abilities at the right moments, I think we can help.”
“I received a blink ability when I reached Level 20 in Sneak,” Alex reported.
“I can cast a weak healing light. It isn’t that strong and is more useful for repelling the undead, but it still heals,” added Lilly.
“What about you, Patrick?” asked James.
“My greatsword skill is only Level 7. I don’t have anything higher, so no abilities. I probably have the most Health though,” Patrick answered.
“Okay, we will all sneak up to the Chieftain's hut. If it is intact, we will hide inside. If it isn’t, the wreckage should still provide some cover. If we get spotted on the way, I will try and stun. Lilly, don’t use your light until I say, I think it will draw too much attention. Once we get there, we will look for opportunities to use our abilities to turn the tide of battle. Patrick, you will be our first line of defense - if something goes wrong - followed by me. Any questions?” James quickly briefed the party.
When no one answered, the party set out. The village was in chaos. Martyrs were spread out randomly with no apparent defenses organized. James could see the Oana used scythes; they were decidedly faster than the Martyrs. Still, when a Martyr managed to land a strike, it was devastating.
Where the hell is Dreng? James thought to himself, too worried to say anything while in sneak mode in case he was discovered.
The party approached the Chieftain's hut unmolested until three Martyr guards stopped them outside the entrance. James watched as they decided what to do and noticed the exact moment they must have recognized him. With a wave of a Martyr’s giant paw, the party was unceremoniously rushed into the Chieftain's hut.
Dreng stood in the center of the hut while Frey, Frode, and even Torunn dressed him in the heaviest armor James had ever seen. It was made from dark metal plates with green etching. The armor accentuated the Chieftain's already massive size, making Dreng look like an actual tank back from Earth.
“Whoa…” Patrick gasped as he took in the overbearing sight of the largest of Martyrs.
“James,” Dreng growled, “I hope you grew much stronger in your time to the east. The clan will need you today.”
Before James could speak up Frode frantically interrupted, “The fire, James, have you mastered it?”
“I think I am close. My Fire Mastery is at Level 9,” James replied.
“That is not enough!” Frode boomed as he grabbed the last piece of Dreng’s set of armor from a hidden section of the tent. Visibly calming himself, the Chieftain's advisor placed the horned helmet on Dreng’s massive head. James stood in awe before the fully armored Martyr Chieftain. The dark metal plate armor was so massive he couldn’t understand how anyone could move under it. Dreng did so with ease, causing him to look more like a metal golem than a Martyr.
“My mace!” Dreng called with a hand raised. The Martyr Chieftain's call had such a commanding tone that the party found themselves rifling around the hut in search of a mace they had never seen before. Torunn found it first, but couldn’t budge the artifact, so his mother came over to help.
Freydis placed the mace into her mate’s hand, and he gave the giant weapon a few practice swings. The rush of air from the swinging weapon almost knocked James over.
Before rushing off to join the fight, Dreng turned to James one last time, “Reach Level 10 in Fire Mastery. Do it now. Don’t tire, and don’t get thirsty; if your hands get raw do not even consider slowing. Go.”
James looked around in confusion. How was he supposed to do that? Suddenly, a loud boom sounded throughout the village, signaling Dreng’s entrance into the battle.
James could hear Dreng command the remaining Martyrs to come to him, and he had to resist the unconscious urge to run out of the tent and join Dreng himself. Logically, James knew the command wasn't meant for him, and yet he still struggled to get his body to obey that logic.
“What in the world is going on?” Alex exclaimed. When James shrugged in response, Alex peaked his head out of the hut. “Oh my god… He is tearing it up out there.”
The rest of the party joined Alex and peering out of the hut as well. When James went to check out the Chieftain in action, Frode grabbed him.
“Focus, human cub. You need to start fires,” the advisor said, pointing to the fire pit.
Reluctantly, James walked over to the fire pit and began to light it. Sounds of battle raged in the background, and James struggled to focus. A minute went by before he managed to start his first fire. No notification. Frode snuffed it out with a fist, seemingly oblivious to the pain, and instructed James to do it again. James did so. Fire started. No notification. Fire snuffed out. Fire started again. No notification. Fire snuffed out, over and over.
“Focus, human cub. Don’t just complete the task. Think about your actions; predict how they will affect the world. Learn, don't just do,” the advisor advised.
James focused on his actions. He tried to connect with the slowly growing heat as he rubbed his sticks together. James rubbed his hands faster, predicting and urging the heat to reach a peak and the kindling to ignite.
Congratulations! Your Fire Mastery has surpassed Level 10. You can now choose from the below 2 abilities.
Ability 1 - Weak Flaming Weapon, + (10 + mastery level) % weapon damage.
Ability 2 - Weak Fire Bolt, Damage is equal to 1.5 x Intelligence.
“I did it!” James exclaimed excitedly.
“You're too late…” Alex murmured as he looked away from the battlefield, “Dreng has fallen.”
James's excitement was ripped from his body at Alex's words, leaving an empty hole inside him. Freydis and Torunn rushed out of the tent at Alex’s dooming words, but James knew that without Dreng they didn’t stand a chance.
James swallowed his hesitation and cried out, “Lilly! Cast healing light!”
The party stirred into action, just as James noticed that he had received a buff.
Epic Intelligence Enhancement - Your Intelligence is increased by 50 for 10 minutes.
“There, now go fight,” Frode said as he collapsed from exhaustion. James chose Weak Firebolt knowing that he couldn't stand against an army even with a flaming sword. Together, the party stepped out of the chieftain’s hut. The smell of devastation immediately assaulted them. Every tent and building was flattened; the bodies of Oana soldiers lay scattered about, intermingled with slain Martyrs. The dead masses became more frequent next to Dreng until they became so prevalent that the ground was no longer visible between them. Oana soldiers climbed off the Chieftain's bulk, stepped on their slain brethren, and turned their eyes to James's party.
For a split second, the party stood frozen. Before James could even think of being afraid, Torunn broke the silence and charged to avenge his father. James could tell the Martyr cub didn’t stand a chance. Not alone at least.
“Lilly, cast the light already! On Dreng!” James cried out and cast firebolt for the first time. His body instinctively created the necessary hand movements required to cast the spell, but the new knowledge didn’t do anything to prepare him for the power. James was flung backward like a poorly held desert eagle as the firebolt blasted from his hands. It flew in an angry path towards the closest Oana soldier to Torunn and turned it into a pile of ash. The bolt continued and carved a line of ash deep into the enemy ranks.
“Whoa…” Alex said for the second time that hour.
As James gathered himself and got back to his feet, he realized he was left alone with Lilly. Her hands moved in a pattern that pulsed health into Dreng from the heavens. The light was blinding compared to the last time James saw her cast the spell. He concluded Frode must have buffed her too. James's firebolt caused the Oana to hesitate, just long enough for Patrick to knock down the soldier that grappled with Torunn. The redhead brought down his great sword with all of his might, only for it to ricochet off the Oana Soldier’s tougher scales, leaving nothing but a scratch. Torunn and Patrick backed up, having their rage and determination shattered by the realization of how unmatched they were. The remaining Oana finished reforming and marched on the two small melee fighters as a unit.
“Retreat to me - protect Lilly!” James commanded from afar. As he stared at the approaching herd of Oana, he realized their only hope was to get Dreng fighting again. If he was dead, then they were too, but if he had an ounce of health left, hopefully, Lilly’s buffed-up healing would bring him back.
James braced himself and launched another fire-bolt. His body rocketed to the ground, but he was prepared this time and recovered much faster. He didn’t see the impact of his first firebolt, but when he stood, an 8-foot-wide hole burned in the enemy ranks. James looked at the bottom of his peripherals and realized he couldn’t cast the spell forever. A new bar appeared below his energy bar and let him know he was at 100 out of 150 mana. James knew the firebolt spells cost 25 mana each, so he could cast four more at most. He launched another bolt immediately. The unlucky Oana clawed and slashed at their brethren, but still burned alive. The lucky Oana recovered, realized that James has more destruction hidden up his sleeve, and charged. The melee fighters stepped forward to meet them.
“Torunn stay back with us!” James yelled. He didn’t want his game brother to die, as he wasn’t sure if he could respawn. Torunn ignored him and snarled in defiance at the approaching horde.
The wall of Oana soldiers clashed with the melee fighters and quickly overwhelmed them. Patrick, Alex, and Torunn disappeared into a flurry of scales, scythes, and claws. Lilly let out a scream and cast with new vigor. Her already blinding light intensified with her cries, causing James to shield his eyes. When he was able to look up, he realized the Oana soldiers on the far left and right of his melee fighters did not slow down when the center hoard impacted the party. They would reach him at any moment.
James glanced at Dreng’s body and mentally pleaded the chieftain to rise. As he did so, blood flowed freely between the plates of the Martyr’s armor.
James cast fire-bolts to his left and right to delay the approaching horde. The center was moving again, having dealt with the human melee fighters, and James felt a pang of loss as he realized Patrick, Alex, and Torunn must be dead. He was out of moves, but pulled his skinning knife and buckler out anyway. James wasn’t sure where he would respawn if the Oana destroyed the Chieftain's hut, but he didn’t care. Torunn couldn’t respawn, and that was the only thought in James’s mind at the moment. He let out a scream as he clashed with the approaching Oana soldiers, but even that wasn't as loud as his thoughts. Scaled hands, elbows, dusty loin clothes, and then scaled feet. Horror filled James as he realized the Oana soldiers didn’t care about him; he was just an easily movable obstacle in the way of Lilly. He watched through rampant feet as the girl continued to cast, maintaining her focus even in the face of certain death. She couldn’t respawn either, just like Torunn. James's horror grew until it physically hurt him more than the footsteps of the Oana that trampled him.
He began to lose consciousness and as his vision faded, so did his comprehension of reality. Where was his real brother? Where was everyone? What did the human population do to deserve banishment into this terrible game?
Freydis burst out of the chieftain’s hut and swiped her paw in an arc, knocking back the Oana before they could reach Lilly. With her other paw, she lifted the tiny blonde girl into the air and out of the reach of Oana scythes.
Through the scaled legs of the Oana, James could see Dreng's body. The blood that flowed out of it now bubbled around it. Dreng's leg twitched, and James hoped he would rise and save them. He was already going to die any minute and most of the villagers had already died, but what worried James was the fate of the only two NPCs he considered family.
Freydis stood stalwart as she sacrificed her own body to buy Lilly more time to cast. She stood there unmoving as Oana soldiers sliced and stabbed at her, pleading her husband to rise. She fell to one knee as one of her legs gave out, now nothing more than a mangled heap of flesh and split muscle.
The blood flowing around Dreng coalesced into a sphere of red that swallowed the fallen Martyr. Suddenly, it burst, showering everything in Dreng’s blood, and knocking everyone in the vicinity off their feet. The sudden cease of crushing footsteps allowed the wreckage of James's body to come to the front of his consciousness. He screamed out in desperate pain. An Oana soldier fell to the ground and found himself face to face with the screaming human cub. James watched as the Oana's scythe lashed out for his neck, taking his head off.