The party re-joined forces, minus Michael, and traveled the Great Savanna for days. Omero slowly came to grips that he wasn’t a fighter, but that he did still hold value as a member of the party. James didn’t like the fact that they had to continue on their mission without his brother, but everyone agreed it would take too much time to go back for him. The days went by slowly, and the whole journey seemed to stretch on for months. The party had enough time to talk about everything under the sun and still had enough time left over to walk long distances in complete silence.
Those moments were especially exhausting to James because it reminded him of the dire state the savanna was in. When the journey was quiet, James daydreamt about the days he spent horsing around and hunting with Torunn before everything got complicated. The Great Savanna felt so alive in those days, and James yearned for it to return to the way he remembered it. The snow wasn’t as bothersome to James because of his Embrant class, but he still missed the bright colors and smells of the Great Savanna in summer.
It was about a week and a half after the Abominar attack, at least as far as James could remember, that the party finally discovered the other human village they were looking for. It wasn't chimneying fires or town walls that got their attention first, but instead random people roaming around the Great Savanna.
The party cautiously approached the first human on James's command. He had no desire to repeat the same mistake when he ran right into a hoard of the undead. The party quickly found out that the human in question was just a simple gatherer of herbs, nuts, and fruit.
Talking to the gatherer, the party discovered that the village they were looking for was not too far from their current location and that the village sent out many gathers into the Great Savanna every day. When James asked what they were able to gather during the winter he was met with a somber expression. It turned out that the winter had caused many people in the village to starve and die. Worse yet, they were already struggling to defend themselves from monsters that attacked from the zone beyond the Great Savanna.
“You mean you know a way out of the Great Savanna?” James asked, quite aggressively. Before the female gatherer could answer James asked another question, “What lies beyond it?”
“Of course I know of a way out, its just on the other side of the Outpost. You will find a path that winds through the mountains. You shouldn’t go there though, there is only death on the other side," the gatherer replied.
The party exchanged glances and James asked what was on all of their minds, “What do you mean death? What is on the other side?”
The gatherer grew visibly frustrated and asked, “Who are you guys again? How don’t you know this already? Listen… I have a job to do, I have to go.”
With that, the only person the party had seen in weeks stood up and walked away. James was flabbergasted. The interaction did not go how he had thought it would. He imagined his party walking up to a large castle or something, navigating to a magical item shop, and then asking for information about any Mystics that would be in the village.
When the party walked another hour or two to the Outpost, James realized he wasn’t too far off in how he imagined things though. The Outpost was rather huge and boasted large stone walls complete with towers and ramparts. The tall walls blocked the view of the inside of the Outpost, but the gate was complete with a mote and a drawbridge, so James imagined the inside would be just as impressive.
“Woa,” Patrick whispered as the party halted to take in the sight in front of them.
“Yea,” Omero agreed simply. Alex echoed his sentiment.
James picked up his jaw and cleared his throat, “Okay, let's hope the rest of the people inside aren't as rude as that gatherer.”
Omero laughed, “Yeah, I was going to tell you that my interface let me know that she did not like us, but I figured that much was obvious.”
The party approached the drawbridge and found it unguarded.
James addressed his parties worried looks as they walked the wooden bridge, “They probably have no need to guard this side of the Outpost. There hasn’t been much danger in the savanna lately, besides that one Abominar we saw on our entire journey. From what the gatherer said though, it sounds like their guards are busy with more important things.”
Patrick scoffed, “Yea, like guarding the path to certain doom on the other side of the city?”
The party stepped through the gate and James's senses were immediately overloaded. The city looked like a typical fantasy town, complete with people hawking wares and beggars playing strange instruments while they sat on piles of hay. The only difference from a fantasy world was that James was actually there and he could smell the town. It certainly didn’t smell like any fantasy he had ever had.
“Uhhh, it freakin’ stinks here man…” Patrick said with a crinkled nose.
James could only nod. The stench was rough, but he had more pressing concerns, like why everyone was giving them strange glances.
“C’mon, let’s move,” James suggested strongly before starting off in the direction of what he assumed was the Outpost’s main road. On the way down the cobblestone road, the party passed numerous clay and stone houses and strangely, quite a few odd looking humanoids that were trapped in cages and just left on the side of the road. Some of the prisoners groaned and asked for help as the party passed. Patrick had even stopped at one cage that housed a normal looking red-headed girl. When James got a better look though he realized that her hands were green. James stepped closer as Patrick tried to comfort her. Her hands looked they were slowly turning into plants. Her fingernails were completely replaced with leaves and her green skin was marbled not with veins, but with roots. The condition seemed to be traveling up her arm and stopped at around her elbows, where her skin returned to normal.
James glanced around as if to ask the entire city why the girl was caged, but was only met with intensified glares. When he met someone's gaze though, the offender merely looked away and went about their business.
“The people that live here don’t seem to like when we talk to their prisoners… or whatever they are…” Omero reported the facts given from his Inveigler class.
“Yea,” James replied quietly as he put a hand on Patrick's shoulder, “Let’s get out of here man. We have no idea what is going on in this city.”
Patrick looked up at James with an astonished expression, but it quickly changed into a defeated one. James knew that the red-head would gladly fight the entire village in order the free a caged prisoner, but even he was smart enough to know that they needed to figure out what they were up against first.
James spotted a wooden sign jutting out from a tall clay building with the image of a familiar beverage burnt into it.
“Four Ales sir!” Patrick bellowed as he patted the bar with his large hands and took a seat. James cautiously followed his singularly-focused companion while making sure to get a good read on the temperature of the room. He was worried that his party would stand out too much and attract unwanted attention inside the tavern. Afterall, James was equipped with a legendary short sword that softly glowed orange, giving away its rarity, and quite a few tickets including his new ring of fire mastery and his reliable Necklace of Lucidity. Alex also had a black sash headband wrapped around his head and stood out by the mere fact that he didn’t carry a weapon. In all actuality, Alex looked like some sort of ninja.
When James finally finished inspecting the inhabitants of the Tavern, he let out a sigh of relief. Every patron in the bar was similarly equipped, so his party actually blended in quite well.
“That’ll be eh gold piece,” the gruff bartender demanded as he set down four mugs of a frothy dark liquid. To Alex's and Omero’s surprise, Patrick reached into a pocket, pulled out a single gold piece, and handed it to the bartender, who grunted in satisfaction and returned to polishing his mugs.
James gave a glance at Patrick, who seemed content at drinking away his frustrations about not being able to save the caged woman outside, before taking a sip of his ale and taking a deeper look at the denizens of the Tavern.
Holy crap, this Ale is much better- James thoughts were interrupted by a gasping Alex.
“Holy crap, James, this Ale is much better than the stuff you make!” Alex announced as he struggled to catch his breath. James glared at the veteran and noticed he downed his ale all in one gulp.
“Well, I hope you enjoyed it because we don’t have any more gold,” James replied. He figured saying so would serve two purposes. One, was to pay back his Alex’s slight against his own Ale. The second was to dissuade any possible eavesdroppers that might want to mug his party and steal their gold. James had played enough games to know that the Taverns were always a gathering place for all sorts of people. There was almost always a mixture of good people and people that wanted to rob your blind and leave you bleeding in an alley.
“Damn…” Alex said as he longingly peered down into his empty mug.
The bartender suddenly snatched the empty mug from Alex's hands and grumbled something about having other thirsty patrons and not enough empty mugs. James stopped the man before he could leave their section of the bar.
“Excuse me, sir, may I ask your name?” James asked with his best customer service voice.
“Gill,” the barkeep answered bluntly.
“Gill, this is a very nice tavern you have here,” James said before holding up his mug, “and the best ale I have tasted in a very long time!” Admitting that Gill’s ale was better than his own was tough for James, but he was determined to butter up the barkeep.
Unfortunately, Gill didn’t seem to have a weakness for flattery and just nodded. James decided to change tactics and get straight to the point. James waved the barkeep closer and whispered, “Gill, we need information on a lot of things, including Mystics. Do you know who we can talk to?”
Gill nodded as James whispered to him. Instead of answering, the barkeep simply rubbed two of his fingers against his thumb. James was expecting as much and immediately placed a gold coin into the barkeep's hand. Gill continued to stay silent, so James reluctantly doubled his payment for information and added another gold coin to Gill’s palm.
Finally, it was Gill’s turn to motion the party to come closer with an underhanded movement, “I don’t know much about Mystics, but I can tell ya for certain there are none here. If there was we wouldn’t be under attack every day now would we? What else do you be needing to know?”
“We need to know why you are under attack, how we can help, and what is the story behind the caged people in the streets,” James said. He really only wanted to know more about the prisoners in the streets but figured that if he showed interest in the welfare of the community it would hide his true intentions. James was quite proud of his deception, and a quick nod from Omero let James know that his words did not upset the barkeep so far.
“You mean the Perturbers? What else would we do with ‘em?” Gill said with a scoff and a chuckle before suddenly freezing in place, “Wait a second, you ain’t from here are ya! Where did you come from?”
James coughed and gave a glance to Omero, who was shaking his head vigorously, “What ye talking about? We are from 'ere of course, we’ve just been out fighting for a long time!” James said, adopting the same accent that the barkeep spoke with. Omero stopped shaking his head and began to slowly nod it instead.
Gill stared at James for what seemed like an eternity before his arms exploded into the air, “Well, why didn’t ye say so! Welcome back, honorable soldiers! Here’s a mug on the house!” Gill said jubilantly as he handed the party each another mug of ale, “As fer yer questions - just go n ask your brethren! I respect the soljas that protect the Outpost just as much as eny, but I ain't got all day to sit and chat with yas!”
James nodded to the barkeep and raised his mug in thanks. Omero, Patrick, and Alex did the same before the party turned around in their bar stools and faced the rest of the tavern.
They were met with nothing but unwelcoming gazes, and even some growls.
Okay… it looks like the soldiers won’t be as easy to fool as Gill was, James thought.
James whispered to Omero to find a party that was welcoming so they could sit down next to them and chat. The Italian man seemed to compose himself before he chugged his ale and hoped down from his bar stool. The party followed suit.
James slowly walked through Gill’s Tavern just a few paces behind Omero. Each time he thought Omero had found a party to join he was greeting by snarls and glares. The party slowly walked past eight different tables in turn, but Omero never stopped at any of them. The patrons at the unwelcoming tables all seemed rather normal - average looking humans, each having an assortment of gear they had gained on the battlefield. James had no idea why they wouldn’t welcome his party and couldn’t help but cringing at the feeling that being rejected brought him. It was eerily similar to the time he had to change schools and didn’t have any friends he could sit down with to eat lunch. Back then, James just slowly wandered the cafeteria with his food tray, silently hoping someone would welcome him to their table. Just like that time though, James was met with blank and sometimes disgusted looks and wasn’t invited to a table at all.
James started to panic when the party began to reach the end of the tavern. Just as he was about to ask Omero if his Inveigler class was working or not, Omero quickly sat down at a table that was the furthest from the bar. James was surprised to see who was already at the table, or rather, what was already seated at the table.
Every other person in the bar was human, in fact, everyone in the entirety of the Outpost was probably human, because if they weren’t they would be caged apparently, but James couldn’t tell if his new friend was or not. His face was completely hidden under a hood, which connected to a cloak that covered the rest of the creature's body as well. The figure looked humanoid, but James knew that the only people that wore those types of garments where people that didn’t want to be noticed. And yet, his party noticed the creature and under Omero’s leadership, plopped their butts right down next to it.
“Greetings, Embrant…” The creature whispered.