A roar went up so deafening, Michael did a quick check of his health bar for any damage. He was suddenly surrounded by people hugging him and patting him on the back. The crowd was so thick he was terrified to move.
Just as quick as they had gathered, the village dispersed, gathering wood, plants, and cooking implements for the feast later tonight.
You have spoken to the village spirit guide Nizhoni, and she has agreed to become your ally. You should continue to speak and learn from these people. There is much still to learn.
Reward: 100 spirit power
See! That wasn’t so hard.
Michael did a mental fist pump at the quest reward and blinked away the notification.
“Come Michael,” said Nizhoni, “Let’s get you bathed and dressed.”
Michael almost sagged in relief. Nizhoni led him through the village and out into the field to the east, pausing only long enough to grab a child by the furs and whisper some instructions to her. The child immediately nodded and ran off towards a group of large tents.
“Do you know what you did today Michael?” Nizhoni’s voice was calm and carried sorrow.
“No spirit guide I don’t. Honestly I don’t know anything. I’ve only been in this world for a few hours.” Michael glanced at the sun which was halfway hidden behind the western trees of the forest.
“Today in you proved that I have grown too callous in my world. Too comfortable in my habits.” Nizhoni spat a wad of something in the grass. “I would blame my old age, but in truth I’ve just become lazy. It is easier to turn people away and ignore the problems of the world than it is to work to make them better.”
She turned to him and looked him square in the eye. Her lower lip quivered and she blinked back the tears that started to form. “My late husband was like that. He always fought for what was right. He was one of the first warriors that went into the forest to find the missing children those twenty years ago. He was a brave and wonderful man. His bravery did not help him though. He was killed by the very spider queen you killed today.”
A single tear escaped her eye and was wiped away as quickly as it appeared. “Hero Michael, I am so sorry for my actions today. They are not the actions that are worthy of the Spirit Guide, or the actions bring honor to the name of warrior Achak. Please forgive me.”
Michael grimaced. He never did well in these types of situations. He prefered sarcasm and snide remarks to flagrant emotion and tears. Yet here he had a spirit guide quietly crying.
“Of course spirit guide. We have both learned much today. Let us put it behind us and move forward as friends” he said with as much gravitas as he could muster.
Nizhoni nodded at him. “Thank you Michael. Now, as promised. Let’s get you bathed. You smell like week old fish carcass, and you look worse.”
Michael couldn't help but laugh at that. She led him to a small river, where there was a firepit and several hides hung drying. There were women nearby washing clothes and laughing, several of whom looked his way and pointedly looked away.
“Ignore them. We are a small tribe, you’re not the first man they’ve seen naked. Though you’re probably the only man everyone has seen naked. There is some soap in the basket over there. Get in, get clean.”
Michael was only too happy to oblige, stripping off the ragged shirt he had found and rushing into the river. The water was freezing, but felt nice after several hours in the woods spent fighting. The soap was some sort of mixture of animal fat and wood ash, but it did the job even if it did leave his skin a little raw and red.
Now that he wasn’t neck deep in spiders, Michael studied the village and people. They had huts made from branches and hide. Their clothing was all animal skins, and they had no tools except for the fire hardened spears, a few bows, and a couple horses. They appeared to be a hunter gatherer tribe like ancient cavemen.
‘I wonder if they are this way by choice, or if the world hasn’t evolved yet.’ He mused.
“Quit playing and get out of there. You’re clean enough by now’ Nizhoni hollered at him from the fire pit.
Michael sighed and climbed out of the water. The breeze cooling the water on his skin even further and making him shiver.
“Come over here and get dressed. I have some pants for you.”
He was overjoyed to hear those words. In real life, no one considered little luxuries like pants and shoes, but a few hours in Iona and Michael suddenly had a whole new appreciation for the little things.
Michael dressed quickly. The pants were made of what looked like deer hide, and the shirt was similar. They both had the fur on the inside. Which was much nicer than the alternative. The pants and shirt were both a little short, and the moccasins were a bit big, but hey… he wasn’t naked anymore!
Nizhoni examined him with a motherly look. “It’ll work for now. You’re pretty close to his size.”
“His size? Whose clothes are these? I’m not taking something someone needs am I?”
“No, no. Those are my late husbands clothes. He has no need of them anymore, and they do me no good sitting in my hut.” Nizhoni chuckled at his expression. She smiled softly as she recalled distant memories. “I’m glad you can get some use out them. Clothes are meant to be worn after all.”
Michael touched the clothes reverently. He must have really made a huge impression on her for her to give up her husbands things. He wasn’t sure of all the local customs but he was pretty positive that was a bold statement on her part.
“Thank you spirit guide Nizhoni. I am honored.”
She waved him off. “Nonsense. Besides, I can’t have you walking around naked for the dance tonight.”
“Whoa wait, hold up. Dance?” Images of high school prom flashed through his mind, and poor Cathy Laming being forced to limp home after the slow dance. Not only did he not get any that night, he was surprised he didn’t get a doctors bill. “Nobody said anything about dancing. I suck at dancing. When God was handing out dancing skills, I rolled a one.”
Nizhoni threw back her head and let loose with a deep stomach laugh. “What you thought we would have a feast but no dancing? What kind of savages do you think we are? Every feast the eligible men and women dance and drink firewater. Many engagements happen during feast nights, so we don’t have them too often. Don’t know if the village can support that many pregnant women all at once.”
The glint in Nizhoni’s eye was a dangerous one. Michael wondered what sort of trouble he was in for. Before he could question her further on the topic, some of the children wandered up and began asking him a hundred questions about the spiders.
“Are they as big as a house?”
“How many did you kill?"
“How did you not die? My daddy died.”
“Are you going to go back and kill the rest?”
Nizhoni clapped her hands again, silencing the children. “The warrior is weary from his fight. What do we do to returning warriors, young ones?”
“We say thanks to the goddess Sara for our warriors safe return, and leave him to rest with his loved ones” the children said in chorus. Apparently this was a common enough occurrence that the spirit guide had taught a form of etiquette.
Michael thought about it a second and figured he’d throw the spirit guide a bone. He kneeled down on the grass, eye level with the children, and smiled.
“I’ll tell you what. If all of you help the elders prepare for the feast tonight, after the dance, I’ll tell the entire village the story. But only if you help!”
Michael couldn’t help but smile as the childrens faces lit up. They all cheered and ran off to go find an elder to help.
Nizhoni gave him an appraising look. “You’re smarter than you seem Michael. You know those children will be fast asleep after the dancing ends. It’s not a tale fit for younglings anyway.” she snickered at him.
Michael returned the smile. “Oh, I know, but this way no one told them no. Their own body betrayed them. It’s not exactly hard to outsmart a child.”
Nizhoni smiled a knowing smile and nodded. “Indeed. Shall we head back to the village and meet the elders, or did you have questions you want to ask?”
Michael heaved a huge sigh of relief. Finally going to get some answers.
“First and foremost, the goddess Sara gave me a quest to learn about this world. Where are we in relation to the rest of the world? Are there nearby villages? What’s the population of this continent? Are there any magic teachers nearby?”
With that last question Nizhoni hissed at him and glared about. “Don’t go speaking of such things in public Michael! You are new to this world, so I will tell you what I know, but understand, magic is feared and rightfully so. Please tell me you do not practice this foul craft.”
Michael started back the vehemence in her voice. It wasn’t just taboo that she was talking about, her tone was more akin to blasphemy. “I do have some magic given to me by the goddess Sara, but I know very little. So far all I can do is heal a little bit.”
“That is good young warrior. Do not tell anyone else of your power. Those in our world that practice those profane arts are monsters. Thankfully they are exceedingly rare. That yours is a gift from the goddess, and you use it to heal is a trait that will be ignored if people find out about you.”
Nizhoni took a deep calming breath, and paused as if trying to decide how much to tell him. “I normally wouldn’t talk to anyone about this, but you’ve proven capable and you’re burdened with the gift for a reason. The goddess must think you can handle it.”
“The curse, as it’s known here, is known as evil because the people who practice them inevitably fall to their seduction. Murder, rape, razeing towns to the ground, wiping out armies with fire called from the heavens, and raising the dead to fight for them. These are the stories whispered by elders in the dark of night. The caution goes: if you find a youngling that can wield such powers, better to kill it and yourself, than suffer the world its wrath. I don’t know where you can find someone to teach you and I would caution you to stay as far away from anyone who can practice such. They are so evil even the devil would spit them back out of hell.”
Michael listened to the rant stoically. He wasn’t sure how much of that was local superstition and literal old wives tales, and how much was story being told by the game as plot. He decided to approach anyone he met with some caution, until he had more information. “Thank you for your wisdom spirit guide” he told her, trying to convince her she had swayed him.
Nizhoni nodded sagely. “You’re welcome Michael. Now as to your other, less terrifying questions. I don’t know the population of the continent. Most of my people are born here and die here. There are several nearby villages like mine that we trade with, and once a year during summers Great Day, we gather together and feast. Our young are encouraged to mate with people from other tribes so that skills and knowledge is passed on from tribe to tribe. There is talk of a larger tribe to the north. Some say they number in the thousands. Pah. No tribe could be that big. They would hunt all the game away and people would starve.”
A spark of excitement tingled the back of Michael’s brain. “The north you say?” His gaze wandered north, taking in the trees that marked the boundary of the forest and the snow capped peaks of mountains far off in the distance. “Perhaps I’ll wander that way the next day or two.”
“As you will” Nizhoni replied noncommittally. “For now, the sun has officially set, and I can smell the meat from here. The feast will start soon, and you must be there as guest of honor.”
She grabbed Michael by his coat sleeve and drug him over to where the largest tents were clustered near the fire. Logs had been laid in a semi circle around the firepit, and the bonfire was roaring high. There were skewers of meat and various vegetables placed in strategic locations around the fire, all cooking merrily away.
Nizhoni introduced him to the other village elders, one by one. They all greeted him warmly and and gripped his forearm in their version of a handshake. With the exception of Nizhoni, the rest of the people he had met so far in the village were all extremely polite and cordial. It was very refreshing from the fast paced and complaint heavy world of web design.
They offered him a bowl of some sort of stew and asked him to comment. It was an earthy spice palette he wasn’t used too, but it was surprisingly good. Michael was surprised at how hungry he felt suddenly. In a normal game, he wasn’t used to feeling hungry at all. It wasn’t like his body was starving. The longest he could even be in Iona was twelve hours, and he had eaten just before logging in.
The game itself must be prompting hunger pangs. Michael was grinning like a fool as he studied the soup. The developers of this game had gone so far above and beyond industry standard, it was going to change the face of VR forever.
Nizhoni nudged him bringing him out of his thoughts. “You like the soup Michael? You’ve been standing there breathing heavily and grinning like a madman.”
“Oh yes, I’m sorry. Yes, it’s quite good. My compliments to the cook. Is that parsley I taste?”
“Dill actually, but I’m very glad you like it. I’m sure it’s nothing like what you’re used too, but it serves us just fine” one of the female elders he had met said.
Michael nodded and quickly polished off the soup and handed the clay bowl back. “Delicious.”
Nizhoni nodded and turned to climb on top of a nearby stump. A nearby man held a wide drum in his lap and beat it several times to get the crowd's attention. They all silenced abruptly and turned towards the spirit guide.
“Today we gather to celebrate the death of a powerful enemy, by the hands of a powerful friend. Most of us witnessed this strange pale man wander into our camp earlier today, naked as a newborn. I was convinced he was mad, talking of the goddess like he knew her personally and having not a single possession. He asked only for clothing and information, but I shunned him and bade him to look to the spiders. The man returned only hours later, with the head of the spider queen in his hand, and a broken spear.”
Nizhoni gestured to a new spear that was thrust through the head of the spider queen and displayed like a grisly trophy. “I was humbled and shown the error of my assumptions. I have spoken with this warrior who calls himself Michael. He has convinced me that he truly is of the goddess Sara. He is powerful and through his actions, he has avenged the dozens of lives we have lost to the spiders. So tonight we celebrate the lives that were given in defense of our village, and we celebrate the warrior who conquered.”
One of the drummers reached over to the bonfire and snatched up a skewer of meat and passed it to Nezhoni, who held it aloft like a banner. “To Michael!”
Having shouted his name, she took a big bite of the meat and wolfed it down, heedless of the juices running down her face. A bellowing cry rose from the crowd.
With that the villagers bum rushed the fire, grabbing skewers and devouring them. Their table manners were sincerely lacking, but they didn’t seem to mind and seemed to be having a great time. Michael looked over to Nizhoni who was washing her hands and face in a small wood basin. She noticed his inquisitive stare.
“During times of feast, it is customary to throw hygiene to the wind and just eat as much as you can, but I’ve never been one who can stand the feeling of grease” she explained, scrubbing roughly at her chin. “Please Michael, eat your fill. If you still plan on leaving for the north, you won’t know when you’ll get your next meal.”
Michael took her up on the offer. Not because he needed food, but because the food was actually very good.
The meat was some sort of venison, that had been salted and barbecued over oak. It wasn’t authentic texan barbecue, but its was still very good. The vegetables were a potato, mushrooms, and some sort of spicy berry he couldn’t place. He wasn’t ashamed of taking a few of those.
As he munched on his second meat skewer of the night, the drums began beating. The rhythm started slow, perforated by the occasional deep boom. As the drums began to speed up, the tempo of the crowd changed.
Michael was fascinated as he watched the people begin to move and dance. The firelight and the drums weaving a spell, that enraptured him. The men’s movements were sharp and strong, their feet pounding the ground and arms flailing as if they were fighting some unseen foe. The women pounded their feet too, but the way they moved their hips suggested an entirely different form of physical activity.
There was one girl in particular. She was shorter than the others and had her long hair pulled back in a braid instead of tied back with leather. She met his eyes as she danced, and then turned to watch him over her shoulder.
She stomped her feet in time with the beating of the drums, and rolled her hips during the lighter beats. Her hands traced her sides and then raised in the air, as she threw her head back. It was all too easy to imagine her in a far more romantic situation, with every roll of her hips whispering promises of exquisite torment and carnal satisfaction.
Michael tore his gaze away from her hypnotic sway to meet her eyes again. Her smoky, half lidded gaze told him that his imagination was no accident, and she wanted him just as badly as he wanted her. Michael adjusted his pants, which were now far too tight for his liking, and unfolded his legs to stand.
He was interrupted by a cough in his ear. He turned to see a very cranky Nizhoni glaring at him, only inches away.
“Michael, remember our conversations earlier, about how I feel about the things you can do, and remember your plans to leave and head north soon. Do you really think I’ll let you sully that girl?”
Just like that, his pants fit better.
Michael looked back to the dancers, but the girl he had been watching vanished into the crowd. Her seductive curves and dance no doubt gathering the attention of another interested viewer. Michael was about to make an angry retort and but saw Nizhoni’s gaze brooked no argument. “Thank you for your wisdom spirit guide.”
Nizhino’s face broke into a smile, her old brown eyes crinkling with mirth. “Perhaps there’s hope for you yet Michael. At least you can learn a lesson when it smacks you in the face.”
The drums and dancers continued for quite a while, but eventually people began to pair off and wander away. Though Nizhoni was not keen on the idea of Michael entertaining anyone, she sure didn’t seem to mind when others began their romantic forays. Listening carefully, Michael could hear serval couples moaning as they explored each other. Nizhoni just smiled and spoke longingly to another elder about the joys of young love.
The music finally ended and the couples were silent. All that was left was Michael, a dying fire, and the stars above him. Before he knew it, he drifted off to sleep right there next to the fire.