James sat on a chair next to the cabin and looked out over his village, astonished at how fast the past few days had gone by. With the wood they were able to gather from the spirit battleground, Alex was able to begin construction on a large building just below the cliff. It was classified as a chieftain’s hut in his interface and offered various buffs to the Martyrs, but they would be using it to house all the people they had saved from Ogrim’s floor of the dungeon. Once everyone had a hard roof over their heads, they could begin construction on smaller homes and give the chieftain’s hut to Torunn and Frode.
Most of the ex-prisoners had begun to integrate with the village. However, a few of them were still gripped by their delirium. Michael, assisted by Frode, watched over these people as he understood the most of what they were going through.
James sighed as his thoughts turned from how helpful Frode and Frey had been the past few days to Dreng. The chieftain died peacefully in his sleep with a smile on his face. Knowing that fact made James happy. He could tell it provided some comfort to the other villagers as well, but everyone still had a hole left in their hearts. The hole was quickly filling though, as the Martyr cubs grew into their own personalities and bonded with humans, but no one would ever forget about Dreng. James would make sure of it. He would make sure the legend of Dreng lived on forever in this world.
“Is it ready?” James asked from his chair as Patrick walked up.
“It’s ready,” Patrick replied.
James nodded and stood from his chair. His village was changing quickly, but he knew it was a good thing. Right below his position on the cliff, the chieftain’s hut was being built. In front of it, Patrick had laid stone in what used to be the main road. The middle section of the new stone road was raised and plotted with dirt, dividing the road in two. It was there that Patrick would unveil his creation.
James looked on as his town gathered by the raised section of the road. They were all waiting for him and Torunn to start the ceremony. James turned and walked to the Tower of Stairs to greet his game brother.
Torunn stood stalwart on the podium, the sun reflecting off his tan fur. He gave James a nod as he arrived, and James returned the nod and took his place next to the podium at the far edge of the town. They both stood below the entryway to the wall, facing the entire village with the Great Savanna to their backs. James hadn’t really ever seen his town from this perspective before. It was beautiful. The rope bridge paid homage to the once great Martyr city and their unique building style. The Cabin on the Cliff told stories of the people that made lives for themselves there, long ago. The new road Patrick had built spoke to the future. It spoke of possibilities and hopes and dreams. The road brought everything together and let everyone know that this was just the beginning. The statue that Patrick carved stood in the center of the raised portion of the road, covered by Ingo skins. Once revealed, the statue would commemorate the great Martyr Chieftain. Everyone that walked into the village would be greeted by Dreng, forever. They would be reminded of the chieftain that refused to be beaten, the chieftain that refused to let his race die, and the chieftain that gave his entire life, not just the end of it, to his people. Dreng would forever be remembered as a Legend of the Great Savanna.
Torunn grunted quietly, letting James know he was going to start the ceremony. James looked up to his game brother just in time to see him cross his arm across his chest in a Martyrian salute, just as Dreng had done many times before to signal the start of the day's feast. The daily feasts had stopped since they moved into the village, but James and Torunn decided it was time to begin the tradition anew. The Martyrs and even some of the human villagers returned Torunn’s salute, accepting him as their chieftain. Then everyone sat down. Unlike other feasts though, everyone waited before they dug into their meals.
Torunn stepped down from his podium without a word and instead gave his mother priority. Even though he was the chieftain, they were here to commemorate Dreng, and no one knew Dreng more than Frey. It was only right that she had the opportunity to speak first.
Frey climbed the stairs from the podium, eliciting a creak from the wood. For a moment, James thought the podium wouldn’t be able to hold her weight, but when he found Alex amidst the crowd, his concerns dissipated. The prior military member sat next to his lover, Lilly, and gave James a wink when their eyes met. Alex built the podium, and if he was confident that it could hold Frey’s weight, then James was confident it could too.
Frey cleared her throat and gave the crowd a soft smile. “I first met Dreng when we were both cubs. I saw him every now and then running around the Great Martyr City doing what male cubs do best - getting in trouble and destroying things.” Frey paused in remembrance, her smile growing. “At first, I thought he was a dumb brute!” Frey laughed, and so did some of the other, older Martyrs, “and in some ways he was. But I quickly learned he was so much more. After the Oana attacked our Great City, everything was in chaos. Our leaders were gone. Hell, most of our race was gone. I ran around, trying to find some semblance of familiarity, but I couldn’t. The place I grew up in, the places I played, and the places I learned were no longer. Everything was changed and unfamiliar. Everything was covered in blood or engulfed in flames. I ran, and I ran, looking for anything that would put me back in touch with the life I once had. That was when I found Dreng. He grabbed me and defended me from the Oana. He saved me, and countless others from the destruction of that day. He gathered everyone, and we ran. We ran for what seemed like ages. Dreng never tired though. Every time we were ambushed in the night, Dreng was there. Every time someone broke down and gave up, Dreng was there. I used to think Dreng was so simple and in some ways much more immature than I was, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dreng kept us all together and alive, even though he was only a cub himself at the time. Dreng allowed us to live on, and he continued to do so until the day he gave me his Last Seed.” Frey paused, wiping the tears from eyes. James did so too.
“Dreng was so strong. He was definitely the brutest of the brutes,” Frey said, causing everyone to laugh as tears streamed down their faces, “but he was so much more. He harbored a grudge against the humans for a long, long time. He hated them because they didn’t come to our aide. He blamed them for everything we lost. And yet, he was able to overcome that hate. I knew it was hard for him to do so. I know that the hate fueled his sleepless nights. I know it fueled his ability to defend us when all hope was lost, but I am proud that he was able to let it go,” Frey paused and looked to James, giving him a warm smile.
“I will miss you, Dreng,” Frey said, looking to the ground, instead of the sky. Torunn had explained how Martyrs grieved but seeing it in action was still odd. James expected Frey to look to the sky, but Martyrs didn’t believe in the same things Earth humans did. Dreng was given back to the Great Savanna, and that was where people would look when they remembered him.
Torunn spoke next, followed by James. The village sat patiently as everyone memorialized Dreng in their own way. As James watched one of the adult Martyrs he was familiar with but had never spent much time with, recall the story of how Dreng slain a beast called the Abominar, he could tell the rest of the village felt the same emotions as the speaker. They felt anger when the Abominar terrorized the Great Martyr City; they felt worried when the speaker retold the story of how Dreng’s father forbade young Dreng to hunt the Abominar because he wasn’t strong enough; and they felt mystified when the speaker painted the picture of a Martyr cub entering the front gate of the Great Martyr City holding the head of a horned creature that was twice his size. The village felt every emotion of whoever spoke about Dreng’s life. The village lived his life with him. They were there when he grew up. They were there every time Dreng proved himself. They were there for every night raid, and they were there every time Dreng struggled with his hatred towards humans. James smiled, realizing that not one villager would ever forget about the legend that was Dreng. Their children and their children’s children would all be told stories, and Dreng would live on forever.
After the last person spoke, Torunn took the podium again. He thanked everyone and addressed the mysterious object covered in Ingo skins at the center of the cobblestone road. With a wave to Patrick, the redhead tugged on the Ingo skins and revealed his work of art.
Chills covered every inch of James’s skin as the village let out a collective gasp. Dreng stood there. He was carved of stone so detailed it was as if looking at a greyed out version of the real thing. One of Dreng’s feet was before the other so his stance was parted. He leaned forward with arms flexed inward, causing his chest to bulge. Dreng’s mouth stood wide open, mid-roar. It was so lifelike James could almost hear the sound of it. He could almost hear Dreng challenging anyone that dared to harm his race. He could almost hear Dreng’s absolute defiance for anyone that thought they could stomp out the Martyrs. James got lightheaded and realized he hadn’t taken a breath since Dreng’s statue was unveiled. He inhaled, still in awe.
When James could finally tear his gaze away from the statue, he looked for Patrick among the crowd. It turned out that the large redhead was standing right next to the statue of Dreng, his chin held high and a wide grin on his face. Patrick met James’s gaze, and James’s mouthed the only thing he could think of.
“Holy.. wow, Patrick.”
“To Dreng!” James called out as he stood, a mug of his cider held high.
“To Dreng!” the humans shouted in return.
The Martyrs stirred, unsure of what to do until the yells of the crowd overtook them and the Martyrs toasted in Dreng’s honor as well.
James sat down, and the first daily feast in his village commenced. Martyr cubs ran around everywhere, spilling stone cups filled with James’s ale or cider. Humans and adults Martyrs tackled them, giving the cubs what they wanted. James watched as some of the new villagers looked on in concern at how the cubs were handled. James smiled when they realized that was how Martyr cubs played, and that they were enjoying the roughhousing. Surprise etched itself on James's face when the first ex-prisoner stood up and tackled the Martyr cub that had been pestering him. The area around them went quiet for a while. James half expected the ex-prisoner to seriously attack the cub. He probably wouldn’t have been able to hurt the cub, but it would dampen the mood if he tried. The two rolled and tumbled as everyone watched. Finally, they came apart, and for the first time, James saw a genuine smile on one of the ex-prisoners faces. Everyone watching erupted in laughter.
“You’ve done a good job with this place,” Michael said, patting James on the back from the next seat over.
“Thanks,” James replied. He knew that the moment wouldn’t last forever. He knew Michael wanted to talk about Earth, and what their plans were going to be for the future, but James wanted to enjoy the moment. So James didn’t attempt to keep the conversation going. Instead, he smiled at his younger brother and offered him an ale.
Michael nodded, completely aware of James’s thoughts. He accepted the ale and with it, the unspoken agreement that they would catch up later.
Later came way after sundown. James, Patrick, Michael, Alex, and Lilly, along with some other Earth humans all retired to the cabin. Chairs and tables took the places of fur piles. Everyone laughed and chatted, enjoying the safety and companionship they had all lacked since they left Earth.
James sat behind the bar, working on a new batch of ale. His original party, plus Michael and minus Torunn, sat at the bar, telling each other their versions of the party’s adventures.
Patrick was busy mocking the moment James saw his brother for the first time in the spirit battleground. Patrick mocked James’s expression when he clammed up, forgetting to tell Lilly to give her signal so the party could launch their counter attack.
“Did you see his face though?” Patrick laughed, before getting serious, letting his jaw drop, and looking far off into the distance again, “Uh, uh, uh, duhhhhh,” Patrick mimed, letting drool drop from the edge of his mouth.
Michael laughed. “No, I don’t remember any of that. I wish I did get to see it though!”
James shook his head and grinned, “Do you guys want to hear the story about how I met Patrick for the first time?”
The party exploded, urging James to tell the story. Patrick quickly dropped his mockery of James as the color in his face drained. When James declined to retell the story a chorus of boo’s echoed throughout the cabin. James was all for light-hearted fun, but the story of Patrick’s first few days in the game was WAY more embarrassing than the time he froze up in the spirit battleground. Besides, if he was to become a good leader, James needed to be able to learn from his mistakes and take the criticism in stride.
Torunn and Little Patrick entered the cabin along with a few other Martyr cubs that had bonded with the humans. The pair picked up on what the party was discussing immediately and began retelling the adventures from their points of view, often with hilarious overtones that came at the expense of someone else in the party.
After being enthusiastically thanked and congratulated for destroying Ogrim’s totem with a belly flop, Little Patrick began to replay his view of what happened in Ogrim’s cavern and the time he spent with Lilly. He couldn’t speak well, so the replay was done in exaggerated movements and expressions. Little Patrick suddenly dropped to the ground and tucked his head in between his legs and let out a terrible scream. He caught his breath and pointed at Lilly, who was snuggling up to Alex, before starting his reenactment again. James watched as Lilly realized Little Patrick was making fun of her and untangled herself from Alex’s arms.
Lilly took a swig from Alex’s mug and said, “Watch this,” before jolting to a full-blown sprint. James was taken aback by her speed, as he was starting to get more than a little drunk and couldn’t imagine running at the moment. James’s and Little Patrick’s eyes widened as they watched Lilly soar through the air while making her best attempt at pushing out her flat stomach. Little Patrick let out a high pitched squeal of his own as Lilly bowled into him belly first, knocking him over.
“Yes!” Patrick called out above the party’s laughter, which proved to be so contagious, even the other humans joined in.
“Wait,” James said, realizing someone was missing. “Where the hell is Noma?”
Patrick turned at the mention of his friend's name and pulled James to the second floor of the cabin. James quietly followed and motioned for his brother to follow. If Patrick were bringing him upstairs, it would only be for two reasons. One of them would be very surprising to James, and the other meant that Patrick wanted to talk about serious things and didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s mood.
Patrick, James, and Michael entered one of the newly constructed rooms on the second floor of the cabin. James grabbed a torch from a sconce on the wall and cast a firebolt to light it. As light revealed the room, everyone jumped back in fright. Alex was sitting there, doubled over in laughter.
“I almost shot a firebolt at you!” James cried out, still angry that Alex had startled him.
“Yeah, man, you almost got a Death Bolt to the face,” Michael added.
“How did you get up here? I literally just saw you sitting at the bar when we came up the stairs,” Patrick asked.
When Alex managed to catch his breath, he answered, “Turns out I can Blink upwards! I didn’t even know it was possible, but I saw you guys going to talk about business without me and gave it a shot. I just activated the ability and focused on the second floor and bam. I was here. I honestly wasn’t sure it worked until you lit that torch! For a second I thought I glitched out or something and would be trapped in a dark void forever.”
James shook his head to sober up and focus.
Patrick told everyone that Frode suggested Noma should leave the village. Patrick said that he was against it and asked the Praxk to stay, but Noma just recited something about his ‘ancestral weakness’ and ‘proving himself’ and ended up agreeing with Frode. Patrick said that Noma just walked out, too ashamed to say goodbye to anyone. When James asked why Noma was ashamed, he was slightly mad at the answer. Noma had betrayed James’s party and was the reason they were imprisoned. Michael joined in at that point and gave everyone a glimpse of the Lich King and the Lich Prince's power. He explained that they were master manipulators and that they shouldn’t hold a grudge against Noma. James agreed. After hearing Frey’s speech earlier in the day, he was in no mood to hold grudges. James asked Patrick if Noma was ever going to come back and the redhead just shrugged. Patrick said that he pleaded with Noma to come back, but never got a solid response. James decided then that if Noma ever made it back to the village, he would be welcomed as a friend because that was what he was.
Patrick and Alex eventually left the room and allowed James and Michael to catch up for the first time. Michael gave a slightly more detailed account of the horrors he faced in the dungeon, and the two decided that they would eventually need to go back. Michael told James about how there are many more prisoners down there and how he thought they were building something terrible with the souls of the Earth humans.
“Soul weapons,” James said pulling out his short sword. “They are making soul weapons. This is one right here.”
Michael looked horrified as well as confused.
“The spirit that brought me to the battleground was named Salmaana. Apparently, she was a very powerful mage in her time. Anyway, she said she locked away all the evil creatures in the world - everyone that practiced the magic of creating soul weapons. She explained that there was nothing she could do to undo the tragedy that went into making soul weapons, but sometimes you had to wield them to beat back evil.” James looked at his short sword, suddenly disgusted with it.
Michael placed his hand on the short sword and lowered it, “I don’t care about your soul weapon or any of the old ones. I just don’t want any more to be made. We need to save the people inside that dungeon. According to what you say about Salmaana, the Lich King was supposed not to have access to any more souls. Now he does because Earth humans were somehow placed into his domain when they were put into the game. We need to figure out what happened to Earth too, for our own wellbeing and to figure out why people got transferred into the dungeon in the first place.”
James could only nod in agreement.
He was happy to have his brother back finally. It felt like months went by since he first entered the game. It felt like even longer, considering he and his brother had rarely gone a day without seeing each other since their parents died. Then they were separated for weeks inside the game. James sighed. They had a lot they needed to accomplish. Suddenly, the effects of the ale James had drunk that day hit him all at once. His head swam and his vision unfocused, allowing him to notice the angrily blinking notification icon in his interface for the first time. Tomorrow, James would check it out tomorrow.
James fell back into a makeshift bed, “Tomorrow, Brother. There will always be so many questions. Let’s search for answers tomorrow.”
And with that, James fell asleep; drunkenly worried that he would be awoken by Ingos.
END OF BOOK ONE