“He’s gone,” Alex said from his perch on one of the many rope bridges that swung over the village.
“But where,” James said as he looked across the Great Savanna. He didn’t think he would spot the golem, but he couldn’t help but try. Patrick was his friend. One of his first friends in the game, at that.
“I don’t know,” said Alex, looking down to his feet. Then he looked up and at James and tightened the knot of his black headband. “We searched everywhere. I think it is time that we focus on something else.”
James didn’t reply. He didn’t need to. Alex’s suggestion was long overdue. They had spent at least a week searching every corner of the Great Savanna. Thanks to their new mounts, the map in James’s interface was almost entirely filled in. He and Alex had seen most of what the Great Savanna had to offer, and it didn’t offer Patrick. The creatures that they were familiar with; Ingos, Oana, No-No, Bisonbogs, and those blue flowers, were only the tip of the iceberg. James was truly amazed at how abundant life on the Great Savanna was under Martyr protection. But none of those wonders had red hair, and none of those wonders were made of animated stone.
Something moved on the horizon. James finger slowly rose to point at the object as his confidence that it wasn’t a figment of his imagination did.
“Its a rider,” Alex said.
James squinted his eyes, “How can you tell?”
“From the sneak skill tree,” Alex said before turning and running to the other side of the rope bridge. “C’mon!” he yelled from its end, “I think it is your brother!”
That can’t be good, James thought. If he is back already it means that he couldn’t find Torunn or worse.
James followed Michael through a labyrinth of bridges and guard towers. It wasn’t that there were many towers, but there were many bridges. The Martyrs seemed to build one for every possible path. Every high point of the village was so well connected that you could go anywhere without having to take more than one bridge. Eventually, he reached the ground exactly where he wanted to: at Oana Camp Silent Contemplation. Fletcher was there, taking a macabre joy in bothering the peaceful Oana villagers, who wanted nothing more than to eat him.
“C’mon you fool,” James said, grabbing the leather straps of his self-crafted saddle. Making the custom seat was much the same as creating leather armor. The problematic portion was taking it on and off the Ingo. Fletcher didn’t want anything to do with strapping into the contraption. Luckily, he didn’t seem to notice it once it was finally on, so James left it that way. He figured he would for the foreseeable future as well, as long as it didn’t end up hurting the creature.
Fletcher let himself be pulled away from his staring contest with the villagers. James hoped on his back and navigated to the outside of the village where he met Alex.
“Ready?” James asked.
“Let’s go,” Alex answered.
James gave Fletcher a soft kick. He lurched forward. Alex did the same, except his mount was considerably faster. Them James gave Fletcher a distressed look and pulled up his interface to find out why he was so slow.
Sneak, Level 9 – Visibility & sound decreased by 9% while sneaking.
Fire, Level 39 (2 levels gained recently) – Your mastery of fire is increased by 39%.
Fire Bolt Spell - Damage is equal to 2.5x Intelligence.
Curse of Fire Augment - Cast a curse on your target, attracting all Fire Bolts in the immediate vicinity.
Short Swords, Level 46 (3 levels gained recently) – Damage done with short swords increased by 46%.
Jump Strike Sub-Skill, level 15 - Chance to stun 100% (25% + 5%/lvl).
Meteor Augment - Land with such force the ground trembles beneath you. Surrounding enemies are slowed for 1 second.
Dual Wield Sub-Skill, Level 23 (4 levels gained recently) - Damage penalty from dual wielding decreased by 23%. Current damage penalty when dual wielding equals 41% for both weapons.
Flame Whirlwind Augment - Your blades gain a mind of their own for a short time and whirl around your body. They move so fast they ignite the air, encasing your body in a tornado of flame. 30-second duration. 1-day cooldown.
Party Leader, Level 20 (2 levels gained recently) - Damage taken by party members reduced by 20%
Moral Defender Sub-Skill, Level 1 - Those under your command gain an additional armor point.
Ingo Mastery, Level 4 (1 levels gained recently) - Friendliness with your favorite Ingo has increased by 4%. Friendliness from all other Ingos increased by half that amount.
James tried to re-organize his skill prompts again, but was met with the same notification that his intelligence wasn’t high enough. He sighed and mentally navigated to his notifications.
Congratulations! Your Dual Wield Sub-Skill has surpassed level 20. You can now choose from the below 2 augments.
Incessant Flame Whirlwind - Halves the cooldown and damage of the basic Flame Whirlwind Augment.
Piercer - Your intimate knowledge of Leather allows you to deal 15 percent more damage to enemies that wear it.
Easy, James thought. He used his flame whirlwind augment as a utility skill, so it seemed only natural that he could improve the augment in such a way that fit him. Being able to use it twice a day instead of the usual once a day would be a considerable improvement. So what if the damage was halved in the process? James chose the Incessant Flame Whirlwind augment. A slight burning sensation swept through his body, so quickly he barely noticed it. Then he moved to his next notification.
Congratulations! Your Party Leader Skill has surpassed level 20. You can now choose from the below 2 sub-skills or augments.
Spiritual Morality Augment - Your Moral Defender sub-skill is now twice as effective, but if you do anything immoral, your buff will enter a 24 hour cooldown period.
Leader of the Flames Sub-Skill - Those under your command have a small chance to catch enemies on fire, dealing a percentage of weapon damage over time.
Easy, James thought again, choosing the sub-skill over the augment. More heat burned within him, this time it was enough for him to notice it. He looked down at his hands, worried. They were clutching the leather straps of the makeshift saddle, looking normal, but James sensed something was off. They felt different, somehow.
“HEY!” Michael yelled at the boundaries of voice distance. James smiled. So did Alex. Seeing his brother, even though it has only been a few days, was like finally sitting down by a cozy fireplace after being lost in the snow. The feeling wasn’t enough for James to forget about the way his body, and especially his hands, were changing though.
When the Ingo mounts brought the three humans together, Michael spoke up, “We need your help. The Hedgemon’s have made much more progress than should be possible.”
“Is everyone okay?” James said, idly caressing the back of his hand now that Fletcher was calm and he didn’t have to hold the saddle straps.
“Yea, for now,” Michael replied pointing to the saddle, “I am going to need one of those.”
“Me too,” Alex said before facing Michael once again, “How bad is it? Are they already in the Great Savanna?”
“Its bad, but they haven’t made it into the Savanna yet,” Michael answered, “They send scouting parties, but the Martyrs have had no issues defeating them. We have managed to keep the Hedgemons to The Outpost for the most part, but it won’t be like that for long. Soon they will see that they have more numbers than us and attack. We need to make a move before that.”
James looked to Alex, “Do you need to go back to Dreng’s Rest for anything?”
Alex shook his head and pointed to his satchel, “Nope. I have a magical bag that stores all my stuff no problem. You?”
James grabbed Fletcher by the neck and turned around. Dreng’s Rest looked calm. With all the Martyrs and Humans of fighting age gone, the town resembled a cozy mountainside vacation resort: peaceful and timeless.
“No,” James said out loud. Then he turned back and gave Fletcher another kick. Frode doesn’t need me for anything, he thought.
The party, or at least the most complete version of the party possible, was preparing for war. Torunn and the rest of the soldiers set up a base of operations just outside The Outpost. Savanna trees, which seemed to be much more common as of late, were carefully pulled from the ground and sharpened until both ends became dangerous. The Martyr cubs, fed by a life on the Savanna and wizened by all it had to teach, where busy pointing the sharpened trees toward The Outpost.
The bristle-covered creatures everyone was referring to as Hedgemon Fighters, could be seen guarding their ransacked city. The tired humans they displaced glared them. James could see a hatred building behind their eyes, one that burned even hotter than the generic hatred the past residents held towards perturbers. A lifetime of sacrifice feuled it. A lifetime of defending a town, only for it to be taken away. James knew the hatred the survivors of the ransacking held would come in handy. They would be stronger than the average soldier.
James massaged the back of his hand with one of his thumbs as he studied the patrol paths of the Hedgemon’s. He was seated on a pile of furs while the camp moved and buzzed around him. Preparations had to be made, and he would do his part to make them. He wasn’t the best crafter around, but he was actually the best Leatherworker. He would do his best to outfit anyone with glaring weaknesses in their gear. As James punched the final metal studd into a simple helm for one of the human fighters, Alex took a seat.
“Do you think they will attack us tonight?” Alex asked.
“Probably, yes. Torunn says they are smarter than the average Oana but not as smart as us. So really, it is hard to predict what they will do. Because of that, I want to attack tonight. As soon as I am done outfitting the other humans.”
“Good,” Alex replied with a smile just as James’s brother pulled up a pile by the fire.
“Did I just overhear that we are attacking tonight?” Michael asked as he sat down.
“Yep,” Alex said.
Michael nodded and gave a smile, “Good.”
Alex laughed, “That is exactly what I said.”
James shook his head but remained silent, his mind easily distracted by the odd sensation in his hands. He put them to work to ease his mind.
After a moment or two, Alex spoke up again, “Well, what's the plan of attack?”
James set down his leathers and cupped his hands. He slowly rubbed them together as he spoke as if doing so would rub away the feeling that had been bothering him, “Only the humans will fight in The Outpost. The Martyrs will defend against scouts that leave the city and keep building up our base, as they are doing now. We will attack in force and not stop until the Hedgemon’s are completely rooted out. Then we will move in.”
“What happens if we die and are sent to respawn?” Michael asked.
James nodded at the question. It was one of the first concerns that he discussed with Torunn when he first arrived at the camp. They both agreed that if the humans were sent to respawn, then the Martyrs would hold tight. If attacked, they were to retreat, no matter what. James Michael and Alex as much, and they both accepted the plan as good.
The party went silent again, painfully aware that two of them were not present. For the most part, James had gotten to the fact that Lilly was gone. He knew Alex was having a much more difficult time with it, but he too had learned patience. Lilly would return when she was ready. Either that or the party would visit her. Abaddon didn’t say specifically that that wasn’t allowed, so it would be a priority as soon as they were able.
Why hasn’t he asked to go visit? Not that he needs to ask, James thought to himself. If he had a loved one, he would want to see them as much as possible, especially now that he had a means of travel that made the trip much more do-able. We do have a lot going on…
James cleared his throat, “Once this is done and we build The Outpost back up, I think we all need a vacation.”
Alex and Michael gave a collective scoff, then they both returned to staring at the guarded city and polishing their weapons, respectively.
“When do you think Torunn will want the other half of his father’s maul back?” Michael asked the fire.
James grunted as he fiddled with a troublesome metal studd that was sent through his latest piece of armor, diagonally,
“I don’t think he is too worried about it, having his hairy hands full with leading an entire race and all.”
“True. Maybe a Hedgemon will drop something decent for me,” Michael replied and jabbed a thumb over to James, “I could use one of those Legendary items like James has over here.”
This time it was James’s turn to scoff, “Yea, I only have it because I was the party leader in the Spirit Vessel that we destroyed. If one drops in real life, it is fair game!”
“Yea, right!” Alex laughed, “If one drops in the upcoming battle it is mine.”
Michael joined in on the laughter, citing facts like how he is the largest of them all and therefore it would make the most significant impact if he had a legendary weapon. He was dismissed rather quickly, as the Maul that was gifted by Dreng wasn’t exactly a common item. It was only one level below legendary, and as far as James and Alex were concerned, that was enough.
Michael stopped laughing first, his jolly expression dying as a shadow crept its way from behind James to over him. He whirled and got a sight that transported him back in time. For a split second, James wasn’t sure if he saw a ghost or if he was waking up from an almost year-long dream.
“Where is Patrick,” Little Patrick bellowed, his voice as deep as Dreng’s used to be.