James sat outside the cave that held the portal checking his supplies and armor. Patrick had reluctantly removed some of the stone that encased the portal so his party would be able to get to it. James decided that only himself, Patrick, and Alex would enter the portal, since they could respawn. Lilly was not happy about it and James was sure Torunn wouldn’t be either if found out. It was a good thing James’s adopted brother was too busy with his brothers and sisters because James knew he wouldn’t be able to stop Torunn from coming if he knew about the mission.
“Everyone ready?” James asked as he patted the sheath that held his Martyr skinning knife. He held his new short sword in his hand since he didn’t have a proper sheath for it yet.
“Ready as I’m ever gonna be,” replied Alex. Patrick grunted and hefted his maul. James glanced at the redhead and gave him a curious look. Patrick had simply just walked over to the portal and didn’t really seem to prepare at all.
Patrick shrugged. “I am always ready for battle."
“Alrighty then…” James nodded. “So we are going to go in, chop down some wood, fight some creatures to get food and then we are coming right back. No exploring and no splitting up. It is very important that we all stay within sight range.”
“Agreed,” Alex said with a nod.
“Anything I am forgetting?” James asked, turning his head to Alex. Alex had been in the military prior to getting placed into the game, so James wanted to make sure he gave him the option to add something as Alex probably had the most relatable experience to what they were about to do, so James wanted to take advantage of that.
Alex shook his head. “Nope, I think we are good. These missions rarely go as planned anyway. We just need to look after each other and we will be fine.”
“Okay. Let's do it then,” James said. He stepped up to the purple surface then hesitantly pushed his hand through the portal, testing it. He let out a sigh of relief when nothing happened. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but he certainly thought something would happen. Then he felt it. Or he felt the absence of a feeling. James ripped his hand back from the portal and caressed it with his other hand.
“What happened?” Patrick asked nervously.
“I thought…” James paused and brought his hand up to his cheek, “I thought I lost my hand. I mean I couldn’t feel it at all.”
“Well, yeah; you sent your hand into the portal,” Alex commented, confused.
James gave Patrick and Alexa distraught look, “Yeah, but it was like it wasn’t there at all. Like I knew I should have a hand, but my brain didn’t have a connection to it.”
Alex and Patrick looked at each other before bursting into laughter. Tears ran down their faces as they stomped and slapped their knees.
James narrowed his eyes, “Shut up. It’s not like you guys knew how real portals worked either.”
James displayed a certain finger to the giggling duo and stepped into the portal.
James arrived in the spirit battleground right next to Salmaana’s empty vessel. The cobblestone beneath his feet looked the same as it did just days ago. James looked back to confirm that the portal was still there and he would have a way back home. It was, except this portal was the same color as the Martyrs fur instead of the usual purple. It didn’t give him a malevolent feel either. It felt welcoming and warm, even though he knew it was cold on the other side. James checked his body and gear, making sure everything made it through with him. Entering the portal felt just like walking through a dark doorway. One moment he was in the cave on the cliff and another moment he was in the spirit battleground. He figured he didn’t get the disconnected feeling between his body parts this time because he stepped through with his entire body, and he did so very fast. His panic when he felt like he lost his hand before didn’t come about immediately, it took his brain time to realize his hand was somewhere else but still connected. At least, that is what James thought was happening. He admitted he really hadn't the faintest clue about portal theory and was pretty sure he didn't want to be the one that studied them. James vowed to never stick a single body part inside a portal again.
Patrick and Alex stepped through the portal with serious looks on their faces. James could see they were here for business and was proud they could separate the time for jokes from the time to take things seriously.
“It looks the same,” Alex commented as he glanced around.
Noma suddenly spoke up from the other side of the empty spirit vessel, causing everyone to point their weapons at him. “It is not the same. Once we step on a path you will be able to tell the difference.”
“What do you mean ‘we’?” James asked. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Yeah, you can’t respawn, bud, “Patrick added. “We can!”
Noma nodded. “I just have to grab a few things. I won’t be heading out with you so don’t worry. Noma has no desire to die," the soul merchant replied.
The party gave a collective shrug.
“Alright… Let's head out the top path and farm the forest there,” James commanded and the party set out.
As soon as they stepped on the top path they could see the cracks in the ground. As they walked, the cracks got larger and deeper.
The party entered the forest and James directed them to a camp of wolves. James unleashed the hulking redhead on the creatures while he and Alex started to slash at nearby trees. When one of them would fell a tree the other would join in to help chop it up. Meanwhile, Patrick just fought the various monster camps in the forest to farm food since his weapon wasn’t any good for chopping trees.
“Are we going to eat this Ogre meat?” Patrick yelled out as he fought a camp of monsters.
James looked over from the tree he was chopping down. The monster camp Patrick was at consisted of a trio of pale-skinned brutes. James looked at their nameplates, which changed before his eyes.
Walking Ogre Meat
James laughed at the name his interface gave to the brutes. He realized they did resemble ogres, but looked more like small versions of Ogrim. At that thought, the names of the creatures changed again.
Interesting, James thought. He enjoyed the names his interface came up with but realized he enjoyed them because it was his humor that the interface picked up on. That confirmed Noma’s story about how interfaces were intelligent. It was like it was an extension of his own brain.
“Are you saying you aren’t tired of eating Ingo meat every day?” Alex called out from underneath his tree.
Patrick swung his Maul in a heavy arc that downed the last brute then bent over to loot the corpse of its meat, “Oh, I am definitely tired of eating Ingo meat, but these things are humanoid! It would feel weird eating them.”
James agreed with Patrick and was about to tell him that it was just a game, so eating the humanoid meat didn’t matter, but instead, he fell silent. The place he was in now wasn’t really a game; it was his new reality, his new world. Did that mean eating the humanoid meat made him some sort of cannibal? He would never eat monkey meat back on earth, but even if he did though that wouldn’t make him a cannibal. Actually, the only reason he probably wouldn’t eat monkey meat was that he didn’t need to back on Earth. If it was his only way of surviving he was sure he would though. James turned to look at Patrick and Alex, who were also taking a break because they were lost in thought. James figured they were probably having the same existential crisis as he was. The party worked in silence for the next few hours, contemplating the meaning of reality.
The party finished packing their loot from the day into James’s satchel when they heard a scream from the undead portion of the battleground. Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing and tuned their senses into their surroundings.
“Noma?” Patrick whispered, visibly concerned.
The party waited in silence, hoping to hear whatever caused the scream. James wasn’t positive it was Noma until another scream sounded in the distance. Patrick picked up his True Iron Maul and began to run in the direction of the noise.
“No! Wait!” James and Alex cried out in unison.
Patrick ignored them and ran out of the small patch of forest and disappeared into the shallow river that lay beyond.
“Crap, we need to go after him,” James said as he picked up his new short sword.
Alex nodded and the two took off. They entered the river just in time to see Patrick enter the undead forest on the other side. They ran after him slowly. The cracks in the ground grew larger as they ran until they were so large they could be classified as ravines. James knew if they weren’t careful they could easily fall into one and be lost. He chastised himself for going on a quest in a fantasy world without bringing a rope. If he fell into a ravine would he drop right into the Lich King’s realm?
When Alex and James reached the location of the scream they didn’t find Noma. Instead, Patrick hung from the edge of an unusually deep ravine. The redhead was using his considerable strength to keep himself from dropping, but James could tell he wasn’t strong enough to lift his large body over the ledge without help. James and Alex sprinted to Patrick, hoping to pull him back onto the flat ground, but when they got there something stirred from the darkness at the bottom of the ravine. Before the party could blink, they were all falling into darkness.