“Weeeeaaak!” Patrick bellowed from within the small dent in the mountain he had made over the past few days.
“Shut up!” James said as he launched another fire-bolt. The wisp of fire streaked from his hand like a roman candle and fizzled out as it hit the mountain.
“Frode’s buff must have been insanely powerful,” Alex commented as he pounded the training dummy with his fists before using his Blink ability to teleport behind it.
“That’s the thing. It increased my Intelligence by 50. So if I can gain that naturally, I should be that strong. The only problem is I don’t know what the mastery does.” James furrowed his brow in consternation as he launched another firebolt. “If Intelligence makes our spells more powerful, then mastery must teach us new spells.”
Alex nodded in agreement. “That makes sense to me.”
Over the next few days, the party continued to focus solely on training and growing stronger. The feeling of dread in James’s stomach began to grow stronger as he did. He struggled to cope with the possibility of a destroyed Earth and that he would never see anyone he knew ever again. He missed his brother and worried more and more about him every day. His brother was supposed to enter the game just after he did, and yet James hadn't seen a trace of him.
Trying to distract himself, he threw his attention into training. It was all he could do not to go crazy. He figured that was what everyone else was doing as well.
The day that James finished brewing beer for the first time, everyone was happy. But it was a reserved joy like a feast was laid before them and all at the same time they remembered that there were starving kids in Africa. Only Africa probably didn’t exist anymore, and all the kids there were probably dead or trapped in the game with him. Most days the party would laugh and joke like they usually did, but behind everyone's smile, emptiness grew.
The day that Patrick discovered iron ore inside the mountain, everyone congratulated him, but he didn’t boast as he usually would.
The day that Alex and Lilly discovered they could choose crafting classes that allowed them to learn recipes faster, they smiled at each other. Yet, Alex looked away before they could get lost in each other’s eyes as they often did in conversations at the bar.
The day that Torunn found James to report that the guard towers were finally finished, they hugged, but Torunn did not tackle him. For some reason, the gloom in Torunn’s eyes hurt James the most. Torunn had been a cub when they first met, a big one, but a cub nonetheless. Seeing the defeat and deadness in his eyes enraged James.
Torunn was innocent and kind! He was supposed to be what was good in the world! James yelled in his mind. He was what was good in this world!
James cried that night. A flurry of emotions finally burst out of him after being bottled up for too long. He asked a god he wasn’t sure he believed in why it all happened. He denounced that god’s credibility, told it he was useless, and that the god had failed. He then apologized to the god and asked for forgiveness, for a way to find his brother, and for a way to find his friend’s family members. He asked for a way to find happiness for everyone.
As James crumpled to the ground, far away from the cabin where his friends slept, he finally let the tears escape through his eyes. He didn’t think it would make him feel better, but the sadness growing inside him was overwhelming to the point that his body shuddered from each sob.
James wasn’t sure when it began to rain or how long he had been out in the dark on the cliff, but as he lay there with his tears and sobs finally exhausted, he realized he felt cold. The new feeling was refreshing, and he let it seep into his body, relishing in the physicality of it until he was close to shivering. He stood up and walked to the cabin. He attempted to compose himself, but he knew the party would be able to see he was a mess, even through his rain-soaked expression, so he walked to the basement instead.
“James,” a voice whispered from the darkness, causing him to whirl and release fire bolts in rapid succession. They were more powerful now, after days of training and investing his points into Intelligence, but still not powerful enough to bring the building down on top of him. The firebolts splashed against the rock walls of the basement, illuminating the room.
“Who's there? Show yourself!” James cried out as he realized no one was in the basement with him.
“I am a spirit, James; you do not need to fear me,” the spirit vessel said. James locked his eyes on the ornate jar and watched as light pulsed from within it in rhythm with its words, “I need your help, James.”
“I’m not helping you!” James replied indignantly, “you killed Lilly’s family!”
“I did not,” the spirit vessel replied calmly. “The undead were allowed to escape from their prison when I was knocked out of my vessel, and my spell was interrupted.”
“What prison? What spell? You expect me to believe that you're the good guy after I saw the village destroyed by undead under your command?”
“They were not under my command, James,” the spirit vessel said as it continued to pulse. “My eternal duty is to keep them locked away. They fight a constant battle to escape. My powers slow the time on that battlefield. When my spell was interrupted, they were able to escape until I was able to cast inside my vessel once again. I was able to push them back to their base and rebuild my defenses, but I am afraid I do not have the power to do so again. That is why I need your help.”
“I don't know what to believe, but I do know that if your intentions were good, you would have just told me all of this before. And how do you know our names?”
“I know lots of things, James. I was not able to communicate with any of you before because your Intelligence was too low. You just past 30 in Intelligence did you not?” the spirit replied, deftly navigating James’s inherent accusations, “and as far as the truth goes, let me show it to you...”
A bright light emanated from the vessel and grew so bright James that had to close his eyes and shield his face. When he was able to see again, he realized he was somewhere else entirely. The patted dirt floor of the basement gave way to cobblestone, and in the distance, he could see a healthy forest of trees that stretched on farther than he could see. In the center of the cobblestone area was a larger version of the spirit vessel, flanked by two crystal-topped towers.
“Where the shit am I?” Patrick complained loudly. The redhead was lying on the ground struggling to untangle himself from the maul he had been cuddling moments before. James looked at the enlarged spirit vessel for a response to Patrick’s question. As James stared into the vessel and resisted the call of its void, Alex, Lilly, and Torunn joined him.
“What is it?” Lilly asked, seeming to forget she had just been teleported somewhere against her will.
“I am the spirit, Salmaana,” the spirit vessel introduced herself to the party as she turned inside her chamber. James couldn’t make out many details about her - even though he was seemingly staring right into her eyes. Looking at her was like a vivid dream that you couldn’t remember when you woke up. James thought he saw beauty, but when he focused on that ideology, it faded from his mind.
“I keep the undead from being unleashed on this world,” the spirit said before swirling to face Lilly directly. “I am sorry I failed you, Lilly. When the rain knocked me from my vessel some of the undead were able to escape before I could push them back again.”
Lilly’s face fell as she remembered the undead attack. Alex wrapped his arm around her and pulled her in tightly.
“Why did you bring us here, spirit?” Alex asked.
“I have been in this battle for almost as long as I can remember, and the undead are slowly beating me. The time control spell I have cast over this place has slowed the undead's advantage, but it will not last forever. I have reversed my spell so time will move slower outside of my domain, but I need your help here.”
“Who do I need to kill?” bellowed Patrick with a raise of his maul.
The spirit vessel pointed to three different paths that forked off the cobblestone, “The undead will be coming down these paths. I have three towers protecting each path as well as my minions, but the undead have the same defenses. Undead minions meet every wave of spirit minions that I can send down a path before they ever reach the end. If my spirits manage to beat the undead, they are ripped apart by the towers. You must push the waves of undead back into their towers. Push until you break into the undead base and destroy the Lich vessel. That is the only way to stop them from destroying…”
Salmaana’s soft female voice was drowned out by a booming male voice, “Your top tower is under attack!"
The party looked around in different directions to find out from where the warning came. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
“That was Noma. He will help you prepare for battle. I am afraid we have even less time than I had hoped. Go, see him now!” the spirit vessel cried out before returning to her spell casting and disappearing into a haze that made James groggy. He looked away from the haze inside the vessel, and to the direction Salmaana had pointed. On the opposite side of the three paths, there was a forested alcove.
“Let’s go!” Alex waved them on with a militaristic wave of his hand.
Arriving at the nook, the party stood silently before a creature covered in trinkets and decadent furs. He was a brownish green and much shorter than the party, reminding James of the goblins from his childhood games. Patrick was the first to break the awkward silence but was quickly cut off by a hiccup from the strange creature.
“Ahhhh,” Noma said in a high-pitched voice very different from the one he used to announce that a tower was under attack. The creature leaned into the group, his legs growing longer until he was uncomfortably close to Patrick. Staring into Patrick's eyes, he conspiratorially asked, “Are you going out there?”
“Uh, yes,” Patrick replied, his uncomfortableness blatantly clear to James.
“Ohhh, goodie!” Noma squealed as he shortened his legs and returned to his original position. The creature scratched his body in a way that made James even more uncomfortable than Patrick seemed to be.
“You must get Noma some souls then!” Noma said, his voice deepening at some words and squeaking at others.
“Souls?” Lilly asked.
“Souls!” the creature replied excitedly. “I need them!”
“But how do we get them?” Alex butted in to back up Lilly.
“Kill the undead minions, of course!” Noma chuckled before quickly quieting and raising himself right up to Alex’s face, “Ahh, but you must deal the killing blow,” he whispered. Returning to his spot once again, the creature turned his upbeat nature back on, “Yup! You must do the killing blow so the soul becomes bound to you! If our minions do the mortal blow, the undead souls will be lost!” The creature chuckled again before his face warped to a saddened expression.
Suddenly, the lively creature went blank, staring off somewhere in the distance. “Your top tower is under attack,” it said, in an uncharacteristically deep and monotone voice.
The party exchanged glances and questioning expletives before Noma returned to them with a hiccup.
“Here, you must get ready,” Noma whispered as he began casting a spell.
Noma’s Blessing of the Street Smart Mystic - Allows you to speak telepathically with your party and see their locations on the minimap.
James relaxed his vision and confirmed there was now a minimap. It was square and cut off diagonally from the top left corner to the bottom right. He could see icons for himself and his party in the base at the lower left corner. Everything after the diagonal cut was shaded black and barely visible. James spoke to confirm that everyone else had a minimap and was startled when he heard screaming inside his head.
‘How did you do that?’ and, ‘Please stop,’ echoed around his head until the party got control of speaking telepathically.
“Go now! GO!” Noma yelled at them. “FIGHT!”
The party shuffled off, not quite sure of where they were going until the creature called out again, “Split the paths! 2 on the bottom and top and one in the middle. Oh, and don’t forget to get me some souls! I will trade you nice little goodies for them!”
James took the top path with Torunn. Lilly and Alex went to the bottom path, and Patrick went along the middle.
“How are you doing, man?” James asked Torunn as they stepped off the cobblestone and onto the dirt. They hadn’t had much alone time since before the Oana attack. The dead-inside look on Torunn’s face caused James to be more concerned with his game-brother than what was going on around him. “Oh!” James cried out as a small spirit creature bumped into him. The creature stopped, causing the creatures behind it to crash into it. They all moved in an unintelligent pursuit down the path. The second time the creatures walked into James, he finally realized he would have to get out of their way since they were too dumb to go around him.
“Those must be the spirit's minions,” Torunn commented.
“You’re talking again?” James asked.
“Yes, Brother. I have grown.”
“Good. Are you okay?”
“No. I want to rebuild my clan, but we are here,” Torunn growled as they passed the first crystal tower along their path.
James let out a sigh. Partly for the pain Torunn must have been experiencing, and partly in relief that he could now talk to his Martyr brother. Hopefully, he could help in some way.
Torunn spoke up again before James could figure out how to comfort him, “We must defeat this Lich so we can get out of here. I would be devastated if the Oana attacked again while I was away.”
“I don’t think that is likely. The spirit vessel said she reversed her time spell while we are in here. Even if the village was attacked right before we left, we would be out of here before the Oana even reached the first guard tower.” James said, hoping to comfort the Martyr. He noticed Torunn had indeed grown, both mentally and physically. He wasn’t anywhere near close to full Martyr size, but he was certainly larger than he was before. His mental growth was the most impressive, however.
“I hope you are right, Brother,” Torunn sighed.
James wanted to ask his game brother a million questions now that they could hold a conversation. He wanted to ask how he survived the Oana attack, how far his alchemy skill was, and why he chose that skill over one for war, and many others. James decided it wasn't the time though. They had a Lich to kill and a town to fortify after that.
The duo passed the third and final crystal tower. When nothing happened, James checked his mini-map. They were about to reach the upper left corner of the minimap. Looking ahead, he saw that the path took a 90-degree turn, which corresponded to the top left corner of the square minimap. James figured if they were going to see any undead spirits that was where they would be. He was about to tell Torunn as much when his spirits reached the corner. They spotted their undead counterparts and their unintelligent determination to walk the path was replaced with unbridled hate. Three of the spirits charged and locked into combat with three of the undead spirits, while 2 of them stayed behind and lobbed blue orbs at the undead melee fighters. James got closer and could see the undead spirit wave also had two ranged attackers as well; their bolts were green and left a corrosive smell in the air.
“Well, let’s do what we do best and hunt these things down,” James said before activating Jump Strike. He soared into the air and got a glimpse of the undead forest. He could see a clear line where this forest stopped and the undead one began. The trees were gnarled, barren, and covered in thorns so large that James shuddered at the slim possibility he could have accidentally jumped into them. James could see winding paths in the forest. Strange creatures filled them, causing James to wonder if his healthy forest had animals as well.
The ground shuddered and quaked as James landed, sending out tremors that knocked all of the enemy spirits onto their undead backs. The pride that coursed through James’s mind quickly faded as he realized he didn’t even kill one of the spirits. His skill's new augment was powerful, but these minions were insanely strong for such little things. Torunn quickly approached, tackling one of the caster spirits and unleashing a frenzy of swipes on it. It took another 30 seconds for the first minion to fall - luckily James dealt the final blow.
You received an Undead Soul. Trade them to Noma for an award.
“Nice,” James commented to himself as the soul essence rose, surrounded him, and disappeared into his body.
Aided by the spirit minions, James and Torunn dispatched the rest of the undead minions, getting another soul each. When his spirit minions realized there were no more enemies around, their whole demeanor changed, and they resumed their endless pursuit to consume the path with their feet. That was until they caught sight of the first undead tower as it jutted from the ground in an angry twist of unfamiliar metal. On top of it was a swirling green eye that came alive as they approached. It locked on to the nearest spirit and exploding with energy, releasing a corrosive bolt so large it knocked the tough spirit minion down and shaved off a quarter of its health.
“Holy crap,” James gasped. His augmented Jump Strike ability wasn’t even able to do that much damage to a minion.
“Go!” Torunn yelled as he launched himself at the tower. James joined him and swung his Martyr Skinning Knife at the mass of metal. The first strike sent tremors down his arm and into his body, but he kept on. James’s determination momentarily faltered when he noticed their attacks had only taken off a small fraction of the tower’s health. He glanced at the path behind him and saw another wave of minions approaching. They had the same configuration as the ones before them - 3 melee fighters and two ranged.
James activated Jump Strike and landed in the center of the new wave of undead with a deafening crash. He thought that since the spirit minions did more damage than he did, he should find a way to let them attack the tower. Meanwhile, he would hold off the waves off enemy minions.
James slashed out with his short sword and watched with horror as the next undead tower swirled to life. When it didn’t release a bolt of corrosive energy at him, he realized he must be correctly positioned between the two towers, and out of their attack ranges. He quickly learned that the towers were the least of his concerns.
‘These minions hit like tanks!’ James announced to his party.
‘You think so? Trying getting hit by the towers; one hit took off a fifth of my health,’ Patrick commented, ‘and I’m huge!’
James realized he would have to abandon his plan as the minions already had him down to half health. He turned to retreat when a long purple tentacle reached out and halted his progress. He yelled out in fear as he looked down the appendage and into the dark undead forest. A giant eye gleamed in the darkness. All of a sudden the creature pulled its body to James. It was a mass of tangled tentacles with one giant eye in the center.
Debuff received - Beholdar’s Gaze - You are paralyzed for the next 10 seconds.
‘Shit,’ James cried out telepathically to Torunn. ‘I’m not gonna make it. Run away!’