As the party approached Dreng’s Rest, the echo of a horn being blown sliced through the air. The sound caught James off-guard, as he didn’t recall setting up such a security measure. Closer to the village now, James could make out subtle changes.
Alex seemed to notice them as well, “Have our walls always been that high?”
“They look longer too,” Patrick added.
James studied the wall, trying to spot what changed. The walls were certainly taller, but they also seemed to reach further out into the Great Savanna. He could also see new towers that were built in the Martyr construction style. They were made primarily of wood, rope, various horns, and even some sort of tribal paintings.
“Hmmm,” James said, “It looks like Torunn and Birger did not sit around idly while we were away,” James commented as the party approached the village.
Omero finally reached the gate of Dreng’s Rest, but was not welcomed inside. A couple minutes later, James caught up to the disgruntled Italian just outside the gate. Omero was busy shouting at someone on the other side of the wall through an eye hole in the gate.
“Let us in! We have been out here for months!” Omero yelled.
James threw one leg over the side of Fletcher’s back and hoped to the ground, “Whats the problem here?”
Omero turned to James, “This guy won’t open the gates for us.”
James walked up to the eye hole, admiring the craftsmanship of their new gate, “Who are you?” James asked the guard.
The guard stuttered, “Well… I am.. The guard.”
“I see that, but what is your name?” James inquired gently.
James could hear scuffling behind the gate, followed a Martyr's deep voice, “Open the gate!”
“Yes.. yes sir, right away!” Guard replied diligently. James could almost hear the guard saluting and couldn't help but laugh.
The gate broke in half and slide open. Torunn stood there in all of his glory. Any hopes that James might have had about finally growing larger than his game-brother where smashed. The Martyr Chieftain was huge, almost as large as Dreng had been. Good thing I have been investing in strength, James thought. He estimated that Torunn had almost a good foot of height on him now.
Torunn’s reserved leadership face fell and was replaced with the same mischievous grin that James’s had grown to love. Torunn held out his long arms, “Welcome home, brother,” He said, his voice markedly deeper.
James smiled genuinely and hugged his game brother, “It is good to see you again brother,” James said before taking a step back to survey the Chieftain’s growth, “You have grown a lot since we last seen each other!”
“So have you I see!” Torunn said with a nod, “Frode has been working me to my bones, but it is paying off. What about you - finally, stop putting your points into Wisdom?”
James laughed as Patrick, Omero, Michael, and Alex all took turns greeting the Chieftain, “Yea, only temporarily though!” he said as he looked past his game-brother and took in the sight of his village for the first time in months.
The sun was setting behind him causing the wall to cast a large shadow over the village. New, Martyr-constructed towers burst through the shadows and reached toward the sun. Numerous bridges could be seen connecting the various towers and James could see humans and Martyrs alike frantically shouting and running back and forth between them. Underneath the swaying rope bridges, the statute of the Legendary Chieftain Dreng stood in defiance of anything that would bring harm to his rest. New Cobblestone roads flanked the statue, littered with various cabins, shops, and crafting structures. James looked around, trying to find the other Martyr’s, but there was no sign of them.
Torunn must have seen the confused expression on James's face, “Come, brother, I will update you on our growth in due time, but please, let’s discuss the dungeon first.”
James nodded and the party followed Torunn into the Chieftain’s Hut. James returned a few waves to the villagers he recognized, but for every person that he was familiar with there were two more he wasn't. James paused on their way to the Chieftain's Hut and placed a hand on the statue of Dreng.
"Thanks for everything," James whispered to the statue. He wanted to thank Dreng for all of his leadership advice, his mentorship, and for all of his sacrifices as well but didn't get the time. Something from the corner of his eye caught his attention, causing him to jump and unsheath his short swords.
"Oana?" James said with a startled, questioning tone. Before he could take any action though, he felt Torunn's large furry hand land on his shoulder.
"It's okay," Torunn advised, "They are apart of the village now."
"Oh, glad you were able to capture them," James said as he watched the Oana villagers sit around a fire and cook various meats, "What exactly do they do?"
Torunn laughed heartily, "They don't actually do much, besides sit in their areas on the outskirts of the village. Every now and then though, a few of them will leave the village and come back a day later with a mountain of meat. They also don't cause too much trouble when we walk up and eat their food either. We haven't had to hunt or cook since they came to live with us."
"Sounds like a great deal!" James said as he let himself be lead to the Chieftain's hut once again.
"It is now, but you should have seen all the convincing I had to do to get my people to agree to it," Torunn scoffed, "I had to use my Controller class abilities more than a few times that day."
"Yikes," James commented with a raise of his eyebrow.
“Alex!” Lilly cry pierced the air as the party entered the Chieftain’s hut. The lithe blonde woman ran full speed into the veteran, smashing her face into his. He grunted, then laughed, then returned his lover’s aggressive kiss.
“Welcome back James!” Freydis said from her chair next to the Torunn’s softly glowing throne, “Welcome back to all of you. Frode tells me you are all to be honored as heroes.” Freydis pointed an elbow to the wizened Advisor, who nodded solemnly from behind the throne. James nodded to both of the Martyrs respectfully and gave Freydis the hug he had always wanted to but was never big enough to attempt until then.
Frode stepped from around the Chieftain’s throne and cleared his throat, “I have sensed the power of another Mystic in the Savanna. Is it safe to assume that that was your doing and not another Oana Mystic we need to worry about?”
James nodded, “Yes, the Mystic is friendly, at least for now…”
Torunn sat down heavily in his throne and let out a sigh that only someone responsible for the wellbeing of an entire race could manage, “If the Mystic is friendly for now then we have more pressing matters, friends.”
Torunn paused his speech to wait for Patrick’s attention, who was busy thanking Freydis for the mounts that were tied up outside. Everyone’s eyes fell upon the redhead, who reddened further before growling an apology.
“It is okay Patrick, I am just glad you guys are back. I will get straight to the point. Your race has been very difficult to manage. I have been having trouble dealing with a few issues, and I am glad you are here to take over the responsibility for them,” Torunn said with a long exhale.
James furrowed his brows, “What issues?”
“There have been a few. Most of them include human-specific things that I am not equipped to understand, like the need for some of your females to shave. Some of them have started shaving their legs with swords. My reserve of intensive healing potions has been almost decimated by their increased demand.”
Patrick couldn’t help but giggle. Torunn relaxed slightly and gave a sharp smile, “You see, I am sure this issue would be easy for you guys to solve, but for me, it was entirely foreign. I tried appointing a temporary human leader, but everyone cried out about the lack of demo…” Torunn paused, his beastly throat struggling to pronounce the word, “...crazy. Demo-crazy. It did not go over well. Regardless, there is a dozen of those kind of issues, but the most pressing issue is actually one that I understand well, although I am still stumped on how to handle it.”
“The Dungeon…” Omero commented, “Some of the humans went inside didn’t they?”
“How long ago?” James asked with a deep concern. If any of his villagers went inside they were almost guaranteed to become prisoners themselves or worse.
“One full moon ago,” Torunn replied gravely.
James looked at his party for a translation.
“I think that is a month,” Omero answered with a cringe.
“And you haven’t heard anything from them since then?” James interrogated.
Torunn shook his head gravely.
Frode stepped up, “We have been using all of our resources to keep the rest of the human fighters from going after them. Meanwhile, the Great Savanna has been growing at a rapid rate and is teeming with predators. We…” Frode said, pointing to the other Martyr’s, “Need to focus on the Great Savanna right now as it is in a very important stage of growth. If we fail to take action, it can grow out of balance and turn into something else entirely. If we don’t take action soon, we might not be the strongest things around for much longer.”
James nodded, “I understand, we will enter the dungeon immediately. Omero, I need you to take care of the other concerns in the village while we are gone. Make sure everyone knows we went inside to rescue-”
Frey interrupted James’s orders, “Wait, you need to rest, James. When is the last time you have all gotten a good night's rest? If you go in there now you will just be torn apart.”
James wanted to disagree, but something gave him pause. He didn’t mind fighting while he was tired, especially when there were real human lives on the line. But then he remembered a conversation he had with Abaddon. The rotting man had told James that the Lich King wasn’t only defended by fighters and Brutes, but with obstacles, magical doors, and labyrinths. If Abaddon was right, then James’s party would have to be rested not only physically, but mentally as well.
“I have something for that,” Torunn said with an extremely human wink. He reached into one of the fur pouches strapped to his belt and pulled out a few smaller pouches. He tossed them to each member of James’s party.
“What is this?” Michael asked as he opened up his pouch and took a scientific sniff.
“It will replenish your endurance, mana, and health reserves. I just reached a high enough level in my Alchemy skill to make it. I am not sure what those reserves do, but when I tested it out I felt like a cub again.”
James raised an eyebrow at the sales pitch, remembering how energetic Torunn had been when he was a cub.
“It’s chewy,” Patrick said through a mouthful of Torunn’s potion.
James peeled the chewy paste from the inside of the Ingo skin with his teeth. Before he could confirm Patrick’s observance that the paste was, in fact, chewy, an upset Lilly put a stop to the conversation.
“I won’t do it!” Lilly yelled at Alex from the outer edges of the Chieftain’s Hut, “I don’t want to be away from you again. Can’t someone else go?”
A few hours later, James stood behind the bar in the cabin, in the same spot he stood so many time before. The spot felt comfortable to him, familiar. He handed Omero, Michael, and Patrick a mug of Spiced Cider each as he went over Omero’s responsibilities as his temporary stand-in. To Omero’s credit, he didn’t miss a beat and even suggested some things to improve the morale of the villagers that James didn’t even consider. It was clear that this sort of thing was right in Omero’s wheelhouse. He was a natural leader of people, and James was happy to have him. A couple of months ago, James would have felt awkward trying to delegate responsibilities that he believed should have been his. Now though, he knew that a leader didn’t have to be the strongest, or the wisest, or even the person that gets everything done all by himself. Omero was better at a lot of the village management things that needed to be taken care of, and James was finally comfortable admitting something like that.
Alex walked down the stairs that lead to the second floor of the cabin and flopped onto a barstool, “She’s not immature, ya’ know?” he said as he pushed a hand through his knotted hair.
Everyone stayed silent, even Patrick, who was busy polishing his True Iron Maul. James slid Alex a mug of cider, which was promptly finished.
“She is just having a hard time dealing with everything. She gets that she needs to go to the Underworld and train under Abaddon, she just doesn’t feel ready.”
James refilled Alex’s mug and handed it back.
Alex continued, “She hasn’t really ever left the village, and when her parents died I was her rock,” Alex finally made eye contact with the party, “I think it will be good for her though.”
“She will head out to the Underworld first thing in the morning. Abaddon will be there to meet her outside and escort her in right?”
“Yes,” James answered with a nod.
“Good, some of our fighters with escort her, as well as little Patrick.” Alex said as he downed his second glass of cider, “Phew, I feel better now that that is all sorted."
“Where is my little friend by the way!?” Patrick bellowed from the center of the cabin.
Omero turned to face the red-head, “Most of the Martyr cubs have been hunting in the Great Savanna. Torunn said that they were too unpredictable to help stop the humans from entering the portal, so he sent them away.”
James patted the table, “Well, that’s it then. Everyone ready to go dungeon diving?”
Michael sighed, “I wish I could go with you guys.”
“Don’t worry,” James said with a wave of his hand, “Patrick, Alex, and I should be able to handle it. Besides, Omero could use your help here and I don’t want you to get into a situation where you would be forced to use your death magic.”
“Yea,” Michael said in a tone that suggested he understood, but still wasn’t happy about it.
“Let’s do it!” Patrick said as he hefted his True Iron Maul over his shoulder, opened the cabin door, and stepped into the night.
James exited his post behind the bar and patted Alex on the shoulder, “You heard the man. Let’s do it.”