The city of Xanjafar seemed to spring to life. The NPCs that had been largely unresponsive to the actions of the players now carried fierce expressions. The city’s blacksmith shops could be heard working night and day, pumping out new weapons and armor that were immediately equipped by the various residents and guards.

At first, many players had hoped to earn new quests when they saw this activity. However, most were shot down with the excuse ‘This has nothing to do with you’. Only those rare few who had been working to get into the city’s army were rewarded for their efforts with the final prize. If you could call it a prize.

Collect the Blood Debt

A hero of the city, one who fought to keep it safe from those who wished to destroy it, has been brutally killed by the forces of the Mad King. His spirit has called for a blood debt. Assist the army in destroying any of the Mad King’s forces in the vicinity of Xanjafar.

This quest cannot be rejected or abandoned without resigning from the army.

Quest rewards: +80 Reputation with Xanjafar

Quest failure condition: Xanjafar is destroyed

To some, these quest rewards were actually quite promising. It was a little known fact that high enough reputation would allow you to take up permanent residence in a city, and become similar to a normal civilian there. Few people had actually managed it, but once done you would be able to have a safe residence that belonged entirely to yourself, and be qualified to get a job in the area.

Of course, there weren’t too many players that joined the game only looking to live a normal, quiet life. However, those devoted enough to the idea to join the army were just that type of person. Otherwise, they would have spread out and begun exploring to train themselves long ago.

Either way, however, the only way for them to give up this quest was to give up all their hard work so far. So they accepted. They were given some of the new equipment that had been forged, and were sent out with the regular army. Their first destination was the hob tribe where Jinx had been killed. They’d soon find, though, that it would not be their last.

“Thirteenth Dragon Garrison, stand ready!” Tsubaki’s voice shouted out, accompanied by the heavy footfalls and steel clashing against steel as a vast number of troops began to organize themselves. Standing immediately in front of her was a single heroc, wearing red and white armor that made him look positively vicious.

Standing behind him, there were ten more people spread out, each wearing glistening chitinous armor. And finally, behind each of those ten were twenty-five rows of eight people. Their armors were far more normal, yet none of them seemed discouraged by this fact.

Ever since Tubrock had begun presenting them with equipment, Tsubaki had started to hammer military training into them. She had assigned twenty-five teams to each commander, and ten commanders to each general. This gave another level of organization and structure to the previously disordered army by assigning a clear hierarchy.

Unfortunately, this also meant that she had to teach them group fighting on an entirely different level. Due to the limited time, she had only planned to teach the individual teams the basics of fighting together to increase their chances. But now that this was a proper military force, that alone wasn’t enough anymore.

To those who had known her from the start, Tsubaki’s body felt… weak. She had to use so much of her energy to help guide these forces that she was barely holding her avatars together. If someone were to find her true self, it’s possible that any one of these soldiers would be able to kill her in her current state.

She wouldn’t take that risk, though. The weaker she felt her energy becoming, the more cautious she became. She might not be afraid of death, but dying would mean failure, a failure to live up to the expectations that her Keeper had placed upon her.

She did her best, of course, to restore her energies every day when it was time to rest. To get what little she could back to help her prepare for the next night’s training. But every day, she grew weaker still.

When she returned at her normal hours to prepare meals for Dale, he would ask her about it at times. However, she repeatedly assured him that she was still able to carry on with the task that she had taken. She would not allow herself to fall so easily.

And so it went, the cruel cycle of growing weaker and weaker. For sixth months she worked, only allowing the army to rest for a day when she felt that she didn’t even have the energy left to form an avatar. By that point, even several of the goddesses had come down to check on her, to make sure that she wasn’t pushing herself too hard.

At some point, it had stopped being purely about those expectations, and had instead become a matter of pride. This was her project, what she had poured her heart into. She would see it through to the end.

When that thought began to sink in, there were only a couple of weeks left before the army’s departure. Once again, Tsubaki was sitting on a tall tree, her golden hair looking a ghastly white. Her mind was focused on controlling her single avatar, watching over the training of one of the garrisons, when suddenly she felt the weight on the branch shifting.

Pulling her mind back, she immediately withdrew one of her weapons, thinking that a beast had snuck up on her. Instead, she found what looked to be an elven woman in a green dress, her eyes focused on the distant horizon. Tsubaki immediately recognized the direction as the area where her avatar was.

“You shouldn’t sneak up on me like that…” Tsubaki muttered weakly, stowing the dagger that she had pulled out.

“Apologies, madam fox, but I felt my presence was needed here.” The woman spoke in a formal tone, her eyes never leaving the horizon. Tsubaki knew who she was, having seen her a couple times before in her long life. “You are aware of your situation, aren’t you?”

“More so than you, I’d imagine.” It was hard for Tsubaki to split her focus between both herself and her avatar now, having already lost so much energy.

“Perhaps so, perhaps not. Consider these words. As you are now, you are barely able to lift your own dagger. When it comes time for you to prepare your lord’s meal, you can barely muster the strength to cut the meat to stew. Soon, it would take little more than a breeze to shatter your form. What use will you have, then? When you have become little more than dust scattered upon the winds?”

Tsubaki’s expression darkened at those words. “I’m managing my energy… tomorrow is a night of rest so that I can recover again. Then I’ll be fine until they leave.”

“I think you have overlooked something of extreme import, madam fox.” The woman said gently. “Every time you push yourself to the brink of destruction, you do not grow stronger. No, your energy has become weaker each and every time. If you allow yourself merely a single rest yet again, I fear that there will be nothing left of you by week’s end.”

“And what would you suggest?” Tsubaki felt genuinely annoyed by the woman’s words, knowing in some small way that they might be true. But this had become too important to her now. She couldn’t let herself give up so near the end.

“What more can you teach them in this short time? I know as well as you that the day when they leave is fast approaching. If you wish to truly ensure their chances, then these final days need not be spent training for battle. They should be spent resting, allowing them to say farewell to their loved ones. I have seen so many armies perish over a lacking morale, and I believe that you do not wish the same to happen here?”

“So you want me to stop.” The kitsune cut straight to the point.

For the first time since her appearance, the woman turned her head to look straight at Tsubaki. “Yes, I want you to stop. I wish for you to recover to your full strength. Because it will be needed soon. I have heard word from Desbar that the scaled beast has begun to grow restless in its slumber. It was spared your lord’s wrath previously, but if it awakens in a foul mood, will you ask him to hunt it alone?”

That caused Tsubaki to freeze, the last bits of color draining from her features. When Dale had gone to hunt before, she put some effort into investigating any disaster level threats that still remained within the worlds. Both Deckan and Desbar had creatures that could constitute as true horrors, according to Accalia’s information.

For Deckan, there was a great sea beast that dwelled at the bottom of the ocean. Its casual movements caused whirlpools and tsunamis, its jaws able to devour entire ships and leave nothing behind. Yet even that one paled in comparison to the dragon.

As if an echo of an ancient, terrifying creature, this dragon had been born with a remarkable gift for magic and ki alike. Its scales were stronger than any known metal, and its breath could liquify stone. Tsubaki had herself desired to hunt it when she first learned of its existence, wishing to eliminate a future threat. She had only been stopped when Accalia assured her that the Keeper already knew of its existence.

He knew, and he had allowed it to live. This showed that he had some hopes for the creature to be good, to have intelligence matching its power. For a while, she had shared in that hope. But now, after what the spirit of Earth itself had said?

“How long do we have?” Tsubaki asked, her voice quiet.

“Desbar isn’t sure. It could be days, weeks, maybe even years if the beast falls back to slumber. However, there are so few people able to fight it, and even fewer still that have the will to do so. If you were to still be so weak when it awakens, then perhaps you would still be driven to participate, charging forth into the jaws of death.”

Tsubaki looked like she wanted to argue, when the spirit recited an old quote. Something written long ago, and had become something of a saying to ward off deception. “Let not our shadows lie, when the light shines true. No matter how strong or weak you become, your ultimate wish is to serve your lord. So rest, recover, and prepare for your own battle.”

There was a small sigh from the kitsune, who leaned back against the tree again, closing her eyes. She had to send out the dismissal order, to let the army know that they had a period of rest before their departure. When her eyes opened again, she was alone on the branch, a green mist scattering in front of her.

“The dragon’s waking up?” She mused to herself, once again closing her eyes to focus on restoring her energy.

When Tsubaki returned to the citadel, reporting that she was taking the last few days to recover and allowing the army to rest, I was overjoyed. I could tell that she had been getting weaker by the day, and had worried that soon she wouldn’t even be able to open her portals to get to and from the citadel anymore.

However, when she also reported that the dragon of Desbar was showing signs of waking up… I knew that it was time for things to start shaking up again. It’d be nice if the dragon was intelligent and could be reasoned with. If it couldn’t… I knew that I’d have to be part of the group that hunted it, to stop it from destroying a large portion of Desbar.

I gave a small sigh when I thought about that, reflecting back on my time spent relaxing in the game. Moving to Lyrea was easy, as was getting a new workshop, one a bit better even than what I had before. However, I had once again fallen into my old habit of training, scribing, and repeating.

Perhaps on some level, I was wanting to wait for Tsubaki before I allowed myself to truly explore the game. Or maybe, I had just gotten so used to a lifestyle of training that it had become comfortable for me to do so. After all… that’s what I spent most of my time outside of the game doing, as well.


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