“SON OF AN INGO BIRD!” James yelled as he pulled one of the Hedgemon’s nettles out of his leg. As far as signals went, it was as good as any. Any second now, the bulk of the human soldiers would be giving up their hiding spots just outside the wall and charging the city. James just had to make sure the drawbridge was down before they got there. He tossed the hallow barb to the ground and looked over the wall’s ledge.
“Too far to jump down,” James said. He was pretty sure he could receive fall damage, and that it wasn’t pleasant. So James targeted a Hedgemon on the ground level inside The Outpost and activated Jump Strike, moments before the first Hedgemon he ever saw up close caught up to him. He soared through the air and left the lumbering creature behind. It shot a glare his way and bashed its wooden club into the ramparts in an apparent threat.
So far, James thought the new enemies weren’t all that bad. They were slightly smaller than him and ranged from tan to dark brown. Their skin was made of microscopic scales and covered their entire body, except their backs, which resembled the uncomfortable end of a porcupine. They all wielded clubs, which they swung ponderously. James figured they did not need speed or agility. Nothing could flank them or sneak up and stab them in the back because of the nettles. The advantage of their barbed back, which was already a pain to deal with, was balanced by their slow speed. They should be easy to defeat as long as he figured out the best strategy for them, individually.
“ArHHg,” James said as he landed with an explosion of fire and pain. He pulled another barb from his leg and limped over to the city gate. The Hedgemon he fell on turned, looked around, found James’s back, then roared. Then another roar was heard from up high. More followed them, but James didn’t care. He was already at the gate. Moonlight flashed as James swung his Legion Commander’s Short Sword at heavy chain. It cut through like butter, and the chains fell. Along with them, the drawbridge.
James stepped forward and waved his people forward. He watched as they ran, screaming for blood. Then something hit him in the back, causing him to fall forward and lose his breath.
“Oh,” he said, terrified. The thing that hit him wasn’t a club, but a heavy net. The Hedgemon’s weren’t slow because they had natural back protection. They were slow because you don’t have to run when you can throw a net!
Alex was the first to make it to James’s aid, thanks to his blink ability. No matter what he did though, he couldn’t remove the netting. James would have to wait the entire two minutes for his magical debuff to expire or use an ability to get out. James smiled. It was nice to have multiple skills to rely on. He activated Martyrs Rage. His body stood forcefully, refusing to pay any mind to the magic that held it down. As James felt the flesh on his back start to rip and tear, he deactivated the ability and let out a sign. Pieces of netting fell around him.
James stationed two of his soldiers at the gate and told them to keep control over the escape route, just in case. He told the same thing to two other soldiers that he left as lookouts at either end of the street.
“This will be our base of operations,” he said to each of them, referring to the area they were now guarding. The other soldier’s, including Alex and Michael, were busy fighting the Hedgemon’s, dodging nets, and doing their best to defend their netted allies that didn’t have any utility skills to escape. These people had to wait two entire minutes until they lost the net debuff, which effectively meant they missed the battle. James decided that if he could take a net for someone, he needed to. That would be a much better use of his skill set, especially considering his short swords were not suited for fighting the Hedgemon’s. He couldn’t stab the creature’s in the back without stabbing himself on their barbs and when he attacked them face to face the results were nearly the same. They didn’t have nettles protecting their front, luckily, but they were extremely hunched over, making it easy for them to protect the soft parts on their stomachs. James relied heavily on his Fire magic. It was effective, but he needed to conserve it as much as possible. He had no idea how long it would take to clear the entire Outpost.
“All clear,” Alex announced as he exited one of the wooden houses that flanked the cobblestone street.
The party kept on this way for hours. Eventually, wooden cabins turned to cobblestone cabins, and then stone cabins that only used wood for aesthetic appeal. As the quality of construction went up, the number of homes on each street went down. Three soldiers were killed and sent to respawn, a fact that threatened to dampen James mood. He didn’t let it though, as three deaths by this point was by no means a mission-critical failure. Sure, he wasn’t able to guard as much of the city behind himself as his small army went on, but if they killed everything in the city, they would have nothing to protect it from. Besides, as his party fought on, they became better equipped. It turned out that the Hedgemon’s dropped the good stuff.
“Patrick would be having a blast right now,” Michael said as he smashed his Maul into one of the spike-backed creatures.
“Yea,” James said, before clearing his throat and repeating himself, but louder.
“All clear!” Alex said as he materialized from a set of hanging vines. James’s mind flickered. The last time they were at the alchemy building, Patrick was being chased out by an old lady with a stone Mortar. They were completely different scenes in James’s mind. They felt different too. One was happy; another was tense. They were similar in ways other than location though. They both had violence. Before the old lady whacking Patrick over the head and now this slaughter, James thought, are we all being turned into monsters?
“They’re retreating!” Alex reported after blinking up to the city walls. A long chain of slow-moving Hedgemon’s could be seen trying to hustle out of the city and back to wherever they came. James walked through the courtyard and up a portion of fallen wall to join Alex. This side of the city was nicer than the Savanna side. The walls were thicker and offered more protection for defenders. The courtyard had enough space to prepare a small army, whereas the entrance on the Savanna side only let into a narrow side street. It was easy to tell that the original builders didn’t expect much danger from the Savanna side.
That’s probably why the Oana attacks weakened them so much, James thought as he turned the same direction Alex was facing. The ex-veteran was quiet. The liveness he felt from clearing buildings with a select few trained soldiers was gone and replaced by something else. When James saw what he was looking at, he knew why. The feeling was unconstrained wonder. Suddenly, James forgot about everything he was thinking about, everything he just did. He didn’t even realize he was staring at what laid beyond the Great Savanna for the first time until he had already felt every emotion in the book, twice. The land beyond the Outpost, the land that the Hedgemon’s were fleeing to, was hard and gnarled with protruding roots. The roots dug deep into the ground, twisted out, and then dove back in, sucking up nutrients to feed the larger roots that connected. James slowly realized that there were no trees at all, only ever larger roots. He wasn’t looking at a forest or at least a conventional one. He was-
“What is it?” Alex asked, verbalizing what they both were thinking.
As he spoke, the largest of roots curled up on itself to open a pathway into the tangle.
“I don’t know,” James said, shaking his head, “but I do know that if we don’t follow them now, they will lose us in the tangle.”
“I agree…” Alex said.
That was all James needed to hear. He let his eyes lock on a target that he could Jump Strike to. He found one, but the Hedgemon seemed to grow even further away as he looked at it. The walls on this side of the city were taller than on the other. The ground on the other side of the wall sloped downward until it met the bramble, whereas the Savanna was mostly flat.
“…But I think it is okay to lose them. If we go down there, we will have to fight on their turf. We would be open to ambush and probably worse.”
James let out the breath he was holding. A soft chuckle slipped out with it, “Good,” he said. “I wasn’t looking forward to jumping down there!”
Alex didn’t seem to appreciate James’s moment of relief and instead held up a finger. Then he moved his hand downward and pointed. “Who is that?”
James’s smile died. Then he realized he would have to jump after all.
“I will meet you down below!” Alex said as he blinked away.
“Damnit, Michael,” James said, not for the first time, before activating his Jump Strike ability and leaping off the ramparts. Instead of going up like usual, James found himself rocketing straight down to the retreating Hedgemon’s below. The last of them was running from the East gate and down the dirt hill. Soon they would all disappear in the fifty-foot-high tangle of root and thorn.
As James was moments from landing, darkness, and depression passed by below him. He felt his mood drop and his outlook become hopeless. That was when he spotted the chomping skull of a Deathbolt fly by, laughing and screeching the entire way. It spread its bone jaws wide and consumed James’s target. He hit the ground hard and watched his endurance bar suffer.
“What are you doing?” James asked, his arms waving frantically, suggesting that there was no correct answer to his question.
Michael didn’t answer. He didn’t even look at James as he ran by.
“Hey!” James said as he turned, “what’s going on?”
Michael’s back disappeared into the Hedgemon’s land.
Alex blinked into existence next to James; his face asked the same questions James had. Then they both gave chase. As James ran over the bridge and down the slope, an interface prompt covered the upper portion of his vision. Inside the nature encrusted border where the words.
You are leaving the Great Savanna.
James wanted to pause. This would be the first time he left, ever. He couldn’t stay and throw a party though. He pushed passed the notification and the border surrounding the prompts changed. Thorns replaced flowers, and healthy vines became cadaverous.
Welcome to Thimber!
As James waved the notification away, he caught sight of a giant root moving to block the escape of the Hedgemons. He dove underneath. The studds of his armor caught in the dirt, causing him to roll instead of slide. He kept the momentum going and made it underneath just as the root finished its descent. James stood up, caught his breath, and looked at the makeshift door. The moving root was the same size as a tree but laid horizontally. It moved like an elephants trunk, but James couldn’t find the mechanism that allowed it.
“What the whattt…” A familiar voice repeated James’s favorite expression. James turned around, joined Alex, and repeated the phrase once again.
The brown and tan roots that were visible from The Outpost’s ramparts did not take up the entire zone of Thimber. Instead, they only encased it, like a woven dome. A green moss carpeted the floor below them, but that wasn’t the first thing James’s noticed. Among the braided vines above him, certain ones stood out. They cast a dull grey light and illuminated the areas below them. They luminescent vines snaked and twisted up above, leaving a path of light on the ground. James patted Alex on the back and followed the path.
Further ahead, small green vines draped from their more massive and less pliable counterparts, forming an opaque wall. James spotted his brother just before he disappeared into them.
“What is he doing?” Alex asked.
“I have no idea. Let’s find out.” James replied, and Alex blinked away.
James ran forward. His hands parted the wall of slick green string in front of him, then Alex’s voice rang out.
“Its an ambush!”
It was too late. James was already committed, and he probably would have entered even if it wasn't. The area past the vines opened up into a larger one. At the center was a beast James had never seen before. James inspected the name tag above it.
A part of James wished that the Hedgemon was actually a king. If it was, then he might be able to marry off his stupid brother to solidify an alliance. It was larger than the other Hedgemons, but it didn’t seem like it was in better shape. In fact, it was rather plump. It screamed as Michael’s mace smashed into it, and lit it on fire, thanks to James’s new Leader of the Flames sub-skill. James began to build a firebolt to add the King’s pain. As he did so, he inspected his party member icons in the upper left of his peripheral vision.
“Michael has been taunted!” James yelled over the noise of Hedgemon’s closing in. He counted at least six of them. Fire left his hands and impacted the nearest ambusher. The impact didn’t give the Hedgemon much pause, but the flames that washed over it did.
No, seven, he thought as he struggled to keep track of them all. They slowly stalked towards him and Alex, pushing them closer to the King. Then James lost sight of his brother. All the thorns, vines, straight lines, crooked lights and the shadows they and the various flames cast was too much to keep track of. James watched on with growing panic as Michael’s health bar started to trend downward.
“Michael!” James yelled. No response. He gritted his teeth and charged forward anyway. The Hedgemon’s were eager to meet him and turned around to show him their needles when he got close. James activated Flame Whirwind. He couldn’t see much after his short swords left his hands, caught fire, and started to spin around him, but when they stopped, James was no longer surrounded. Alex had blinked away, and now the Hedgemon’s carefully orchestrated ambush was in shambles.
“Where am I?” Michael asked the night air as his taunt debuff timer expired, “What-”
Suddenly the King Hedgemon lurched forward and unhinged its gold scaled jaw. A horrible sound followed, cutting off Michael’s questions. What followed after the sounds, was even more horrible. An egg, or at least, what James could only assume was an egg, rolled out of the King’s mouth. It made splashing and sucking sounds as it tumbled to a stop. James’s curiosity got the best of him, and he gave the strange creature and its peculiar egg his full attention. The price he paid was half of his health points and ringing ears when a Hedgemon was finally able to get within striking distance, but it was worth it to see what happened next. The king waved his short arms around, seemingly casting a spell. Alex blinked in to interrupt it but was halted by two of the normal Hedgemons. When the spell completed, a wave of bright energy left the King’s hands and entered the egg. The light felt warm to James, and he couldn’t help but smile as a portion of the spell emanated outward and washed over him. The egg’s surface began to undulate and pulse until it grew in size. As it did so, appendages sprouted, and eventually needles.
“Crap,” James said as he watched what was once an egg stand up and take its first steps. A new Hedgemon was born and grown, all in the span of a few seconds. James was present for its entire life cycle. Suddenly, a tingle grew in James’s fingers and traveled up his hands. It was a foreign feeling, nothing like the innocent tingle you get when Savanna grass brushed your bare skin or after a satisfying yawn. These tingles were uncomfortable. Angry almost. They called for action. They called for the King Hedgemon’s head. Logically, James knew that it was an excellent strategic move to kill a creature that could spawn enemies in an instant, but the tingle gave him pause.
Where does it end? James asked his hands. Someone always dies. If it isn’t us, then it is them, but it is always someone. Why?
“No, wait!” Alex yelled as he backpedaled away from a slow-moving Hedgemon. James looked up, letting out an involuntary sigh as he forced his short swords down.
“I remember this guy.” He pointed to the King Hedgemon, “Its called a Consort.” As Alex talked, the name tag above the creature adapted, “If we capture it, I think we can get it to lay worker eggs for us!”
Holy shit, James thought, Alex really was a game designer?