Main The Fallen God: A LitRPG Adventure (Eternal Online Book 3)

The Fallen God: A LitRPG Adventure (Eternal Online Book 3)

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2020
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THE FALLEN GOD

©2020 TJ REYNOLDS





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Print and eBook formatting, and cover design by Steve Beaulieu.

Cartography by S.E. Davidson

Published by Aethon Books LLC.

Aethon Books is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead is coincidental.

All rights reserved.





ALSO IN SERIES





THE SHATTERED SWORD

THE RUINED TEMPLE

THE FALLEN GOD





Contents




I. To Seek Jade



1: “When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”



2: “Often, it is when we’re serving others that we gain perspective of ourselves…”



3: “There i; s nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”



4: “Take a moment with those you call friend. Such opportunities are limited.”



5: “Yes, I began my journey alone, and I ended it alone.



6: “The stranger who slays your enemy becomes a friend.”



7: “She wasn't interested in telling other people's futures. She was interested in going out and finding her own.”



8: "The greatest harm can result from the best intentions."





II. A Study in Lead



1: “To understand just one life you have to swallow the world ... do you wonder, then, that I was a heavy child?”



2: “Fear can culminate in the most disappointing lack of hospitality.”



3: “Foreboding tales leave a potent aftertaste. Makes one long for something stronger than ale.”



4: “A good soup distinguishes itself not by the ingredients within, nor its spices, but by the quality of the care with which it was prepared.”



5: “What’s wrong with wanting a bigger axe? Can’t a girl dream?”



6: "I firmly believe that with the right footwear one can rule the world."



7: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”





III. Working with Steel



1: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”



2: “But it’s no use now… to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”



3: “A half-blood daughter shall come into our land. She’ll ride on wings of crimson and onyx, and with the Lost Bow, shall strike down the evil among us. We will name her Day Star, and The Warrior of Light.”



4: “Sometimes, the mind can strike harder than the fist.”



5: “The most important step a man can take. It's not the first one, is it? It's the next one. Always the next step.”



6: “After all, a person is herself, and others. Relationships chisel the final shape of one's being. I am me, and you.”





IV. Trouble with Iron



1: “A tree with deep roots will find the strength to survive any winter.”



2: “Confidence can be found within. But, when you’re short on time, having big friends can go a long way.”



3: "Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, riding in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already dead!"



4: “Flirting is easy. Just kill a lot of bad guys and your girl’s gonna swoon!”



5: “Duty is the spur in the horse’s flank and every bullet in a lawman’s gun.”



6: “When the sun sets in the west, and the Bloody Field in drenched once more, the sacrifices made by the allied peoples shall remain. No more will Eternal Night threaten Marianor.”



7: “Honoring your parents can be as simple as always loving them. After all, that is the first and finest gift they offered you.”



Epilogue: “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.”





*Quest Complete!*





ALSO IN SERIES



APPENDIX



Groups you can find TJ on



LitRPG





Part I





To Seek Jade





Relevant Progress of Hana Kotoba

Status: Rested, Bored, Socially Estranged.

Class: Carp Master, Sky Rider, seeking toward Ranger.

Items: Sword that just keeps on getting better. And one mysterious bow.

To Do: Any sort of movement… in any direction. Get up and go, girl.





1: “When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!”





— The Jabberwocky’s Master





HANA





The beast that ripped through the water was unlike anything I’d experienced so far. My nerves sparked within me as I dug in my heels for a long fight.

“Don’t pull too hard!” Abra said, coaching me as I wrestled in the fish with as much skill as I could muster. “Take your time.”

It leapt from the water and danced across its surface with a flutter of its strong tail. The fish was huge, and by the looks of it, far from tired of the fight.

I didn’t want to disappoint either of my steadfast companions. The first was leaning out over the water with her long snout, licking her chops every few seconds. As usual, Pachi enjoyed fishing for the immediate rewards.

And Abra, however more patient, had practically handed me his day of fishing. This was the boy’s livelihood, and I intended to be an asset, not a burden.

Clutching the flexible rod in both hands, I did as he instructed me.

Whatever I’d managed to catch was a good deal stronger than the fat lake trout we’d been pulling in all morning. As it flashed beneath the surface of the water, its scales shone back a bright silver. Again, I was left with the impression that this was no common lake trout. It looked longer than my forearm.

Finally, its strength flagged. Abra had no net, so instead, he instructed me to drag the fish up onto the sloping bank. I swept the rod over my shoulder and backpedaled. A huge, gleaming fish emerged. It was over two feet long and bright silver.

Upset by its new circumstances, the great fish fell to thrashing its gleaming length on the shore.

In a matter of moments, Abra had struck it on the back of the head and secured it.

“A salmon, Hana!” the boy announced excitedly. “You caught a salmon!” He danced on his feet even as he hooked the fish’s gill with a calloused finger and pulled it toward his catch basket.

Having only just begun my career as a digital fisherman, my own sense of excitement easily matched Abra’s.

This is addicting, I thought. No wonder the kid spends all his time out here. In a town as small as Taelman’s Pond, I’d probably be drawn to the pond as well.

“I didn’t think we’d catch one of those. Didn’t you say it would be another few weeks until we could?” I asked, still a bit confused about the seasons.

“Yeah, but sometimes there’s an early run. You must have nabbed one of the first to come up the stream!”

We exchanged a high-five, and then I performed the difficult task of removing the hook. Abra had explained, with every degree of severity possible, that if I wanted to call myself an angler, I had to bait my own hook and remove it from the fish after.

Pachi stood by, her posture rigid with anticipation. Is this treasure destined for the cook pot? Or might I have the honor?

I suppressed a laugh. Pachi had a preference for fish that was becoming an obsession. Asking Abra her question, the boy and I agreed that the salmon should go to the people of Taelman’s Pond.

I comforted the enfield by throwing her three of the lake trout stored in the basket. “Hope that helps, Pachi. If we get a chance to fish tomorrow, you can have the next salmon, okay?” I said it aloud to include Abra in our conversation.

The enfield devoured the fish in seconds. Each lake trout was a chunky five or so pounds, and fatty as a spring lamb, if Pachi’s opinion could be trusted.

Hefting the salmon into the basket, however, I guessed it weighed over twenty pounds. Its tail stuck out at an odd angle, and Abra and I marveled at its beauty. The fish’s scales looked shone silver, and in the sunlight, a sunset pink stole across its flank with a scatter shot of amber dots decorating it further.

“By Wardeen’s glowing forge!” I exclaimed, running a finger down its slimy scales. “That is a pretty fish.”

Abra laughed, nodding his approval. “I agree, but don’t mention it to the dwarf. He loves his forge enough as it is.”

“True enough. Madi doesn’t need any more trouble with his stubbornness.” Mentioning Madi brought back the uncomfortable message she’d sent me after the siege. I still hadn’t replied, and though I knew she deserved an answer, I couldn’t find the courage.

Pushing that thought away, I tried to shift the subject. “I’m starving. Wanna eat lunch before we take off for the day?”

Abra happily agreed.

I feel the same, Pachi said mentally. Now that the fish are spoken for, I think I’ll go and find some deer flesh for myself, She spread her wings wide in preparation to take off. Maybe a wild boar. Those are delightful.

Okay, I replied. Good luck on your hunt. Meet me back in town. I’ll be checking in on Quinn again then meeting with Dandre.

The enfield bowed gracefully before launching over the pond and taking to the air. The water rippled in response to her wing beats, and one of her hind paws trailed across the pond’s surface.

She was fully grown now, or near enough that neither of us could notice any changes in the past couple of weeks. Taller than a horse at the shoulder, Pachi was long and sleek, her wings over forty feet wide. Her crimson and black feathers flashed in the sun as she banked to the side and rose above the forest.

Abra and I spent a moment washing our hands with the small lump of lye soap Abra carried with him for just such occasions. Eating while or after fishing was pleasant enough. Doing so with your hands covered in slime was quite another experience.

The boy had packed simple sandwiches, freshly baked bread and a thick slice of ham, but they were delicious anyhow. Taking another bite, I sighed, relaxing as the midday sun warmed my shoulders. Wind played across the grassy shore, and I remembered the first time I’d seen this pond. It had been the height of spring, and the dragonflies had filled the sky. Now, the reeds along the water’s edge were withered, and the insects were quiet.

All was dead or asleep, preparing for the coming winter.

I recalled how Abra was the first person I’d met inside Eternal Online, other than players and monsters that wanted to kill me at least. He’d given me one of my first quests, too.

Calling up my menu, I reviewed my progress on that particular task.





Fishing with Abra: Minor Quest (Complete). You have struck up a friendship with Tael’s young Abra, the local expert fisherman. He has agreed to teach you how to fish for the native species. This is a multi-stage quest that continues to develop until every season and fish type has been explored. Status: 4/4 complete. Bass. Carp. Trout. Salmon. Perch (Optional). Rewards: Skill in fishing various species, 150 XP per phase, additional rewards up on full completion unknown. Additional Award Available: Abra’s Secret Past.





The odd “Additional Award” gave me pause. Ever since meeting the kid, I had wondered why he put so much of himself into this pastime. He was only ten, an admission I’d gotten out of him just last week. Yet he treated fishing with as much solemn attention and dedication as a commercial fisherman.

I sighed, and figured I’d ask the question that had been burning in the back of my mind so long. “Abra, why is it that you work so hard out here? I mean, day after day, you spend all your time working at pulling in fish. I spoke with Dandre about it, and she told me that nobody else fishes the pond because you effectively bring them all in yourself. Why?”

I watched as Abra set down the remains of his sandwich and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He nodded, staring out across the water with a look that was entirely too mature for his age. “The answer is simple: I do it ‘cause I don’t want anyone else to die unnecessarily.”

His matter of fact response took me off guard. “I’m sorry. What do you mean? How can fishing save anyone’s lives, Abra?”

A look of pain passed over his features, and he took a deep breath. His tiny shoulders shuddered slightly before he continued. “When I was a lot younger, like five or so years ago, times got hard. My dad was a hunter, and had to head out farther than ever to find game. It worked to keep us going for a while, but eventually, he disappeared. The animals… can be very strong in the hill to the north of Taelman’s Pond.”

“Yeah, that is true,” I replied, then fell silent, sensing his story wasn’t through.

“Then my mom and I moved in with my aunt. I still live there. Since they were caring for us, my mom took extra work. The only thing available was in Bridgerun. She’d make the trip there and back again twice a week. I didn’t get to see her much, but it was better than nothing. Safety in numbers, they say, but it isn’t always true, Hana.”

Abra shook his head slowly, clutching some fragment of knowledge he was entirely too young to know. “The wagon and handful of traders she traveled with were attacked a few weeks after my seventh birthday.”

He picked up his sandwich and ignored the tear falling down his grubby cheek. Instead of wiping it away, he took another bite and fell silent, as if my question had been thoroughly answered.

Rather than ask another, squeezing the boy, I thought of his tragedy. I tried to imagine how a child might perceive the events.

The pieces began to fall into place.

“And so you thought by providing as much food as possible, you might prevent those around you from having to stray too far away from town,” I said after a few minutes of fragile silence. “That you might save them that way?”

His response was a sad and tired smile.

A spear of pain pricked my heart, and I felt my own composure melt. Strange, how it is so often easier to mourn for someone else’s tragedies than your own.

As so often happened, anger followed. Not at Abra, but at the insistence for such heartache to find something or someone to blame. “It isn’t your fault, Abra. I… I think I’ve mentioned my own parents’ passing. My dad, he… he died so recently. But I was a bit younger when my mom died, and despite every logical thought in my brain, I blamed myself. She wouldn’t have gone on the trip if it wasn’t for me. She wouldn’t have gotten sick if I didn’t require so much to keep me alive. Thoughts like that kept me up at night, made me lose weight, pushed me into darkness.”

I scooted closer and reached out to grip the boy’s shoulder. He looked up at me and we laughed, our tear-stained faces making a heck of a sight. Then, in a quiet voice only the two of us could hear, I finished with, “It wasn’t your fault, Abra. You do know that don’t you?”

“I do,” he answered, his voice surprisingly strong. “I know it, but it is a much harder thing to feel.”

Again, I was struck with the boy’s wisdom. Nothing like early childhood trauma to make a soul woke to the harsh realities of life, I grumbled mentally.

The only way to resolve our conversation was with a hug. I pulled the kid toward me and crushed his skinny body against mine. I finished by thumping his back good and hard, the way my father used to do.

This squeezed another laugh from my little friend, and I felt the conversation had been worthwhile. I didn’t regret bringing it up after all.

When we finished eating, I remembered how my time of rest and relaxation was nearing an end. Soon, Pachi and I would no doubt be swept up in another adventure. The Rat King’s forces had been repelled, but the war was far from over. If he wasn’t destroyed, more sieges would follow, and eventually, he would succeed.

I glanced to Abra. He wouldn’t take my absence lightly. “Hey, buddy. I wanted to say thanks for showing me the ropes. I never thought I’d catch such a big fish!”

“You’re a natural, Hana. You really are. Most simply don’t enjoy it like you do.” The boy’s eyes followed the trail around the pond. “If you don’t love fishing, you’ll never get good at it. It’s a fact.”

After brushing ourselves off, we began their trek back towards town. It wasn’t a far walk, but a pleasant one nonetheless.

As we neared the front gates, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the work that had gone into its reconstruction.

After the siege, the ramshackle gate had been torn down, and with the help of a few skilled builders from Bridgerun, a new one had been erected. Two towers stood to either side, twenty feet tall, with proper arrow slits to the front and in between. The gate was made with foot-thick logs, all braced together with wide slats of steel.

Wardeen had spent three days hammering them out nonstop, all the while complaining up a storm. Yet in the end, the town of Taelman’s Pond had forged a gate so sturdy it could withstand a battering ram near indefinitely.

The only way it could open and close was thanks to a large wheel cut into one side that allowed it to roll more easily.

I waved to a few of the guards, some who still looked at me in awe. With Quinn’s help, I’d definitely been a force of destruction in the battle, but others had proven just as invaluable. The attention made me uncomfortable even though I knew it to be well-intentioned.

Abra took the basket of fish, and I refused his offer to bring coin in exchange. A couple of gold had once been a treasure to me, but I’d been lucky enough to move beyond that stage.

I ignored the flicker of anxiety in the back of my mind, which reminded me that though I had enough money to pay the next month’s rental fee as well as the increased debt payment, I would need to once again take risks. Another Marduk would be necessary. Or maybe I’d get lucky, stumble upon a treasure trove filled with jewels, rare potions, and epic items. That would be more than welcome.

I was halfway to Quinn’s shop, where the man had been sleeping since the battle, when Marshal Dandre spotted me.

Waving me down, the woman jogged my way and grinned broadly. “Good news. The old man finally opened his eyes! And he’s asking for you.”

Though she was tougher than an internet troll, her face was bright with a joy I hadn’t seen her express before. I returned her enthusiasm, and ran on her heels as she led me to the man who’d done so much for me in this world.

A few townsfolk, Platman among them, cleared out as I entered Quinn’s workshop. What had once been an area designated for honing weapons was now a place of hospice.

The air was heavy with antiseptic and the familiar sweet stench of illness.

But none of that mattered.

Sitting up in his bed, my frail but bright-eyed friend waited for me with a smile in his eyes. “Hana, it is so good to see you. Tell me, how is Pachi? Has she fully matured yet?”

I hugged the man, stifling any further questions. He held me back, and I wanted to weep for how weak his arms were. There was no room for doubt or gloom. No, Quinn was alive. He’d made it past the brink and returned to us once again. I’d not be the one to poison the well.

“She has,” I said, “and I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you as well. Maybe when she’s back from hunting, she can poke her head in and say hello that way,” I knew full well he’d be in bed a good while longer.

Quinn waved a thin hand at me. “Of course. Of course. There is something I must discuss with you, though, something of great importance. It concerns the both of you as well as the bow the wyverns gifted you with.”

Curiosity piqued, I sat cross-legged before Quinn and gave him my full attention.

He took my hand in both of his and continued. “You remember Lem, the ancient one, who gifted all of Mariandor with his magic? I am but one remaining child of Lem. Three more live on, but only one in the North. You must seek out Aerin of the forest elves. She will be able to give you much, the first of which being to unlock that bow’s full potential. More importantly, she is the only one who can grant permission to continue using it. The wyverns were well-intentioned, but they do not have the authority to do so.”

Each word that passed from the old man’s lips brought up a dozen questions, and at last, I couldn’t help myself. I held up a hand to stop him. “Wait. So you want me and Pachi to fly north to visit another Elder? What about you? Shouldn’t we be concerned about your well-being?”

“I am looked after here. As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, this town is transformed. It will be decades before it finds the sleepy contentment it once had. No, it isn’t my own person who will be in danger next, but another. Before the darkness can reach out to claim what it so covets, you must act, Hana. I have gifts for you to help along your way.” He pointed to a small wooden chest sitting on a cleared worktable nearby.

I retrieved it for him and set it down in his lap. “I don’t require any gifts, Quinn,” I tried to say, but he quashed my protests immediately.

“Of course you do. Didn’t your quest mention items as the reward?”

Thinking back on the fourth part of the “Stop the Rat King” quest, I had to admit I’d been surprised when I hadn’t received the items.

In fact, little had changed in my character status from the epic battle. I must have gained a full level, perhaps two, from all the death and destruction I’d taken a part in. Yet, both Madi and I had been killed by the master swordsman.

After resurrecting, my level had been reduced back to Level 28, exactly as it had been before. The quest gave a total of 15,000 XP, which brought me close to leveling again. Still, I’d need to slay a few baddies before I could enjoy that reward.

My reputation had gone up and we’d also saved the town and Quinn to boot. But despite my desire to remain altruistic, the prospect of new or unusual items appealed to my gamer senses.

“I remember the quest. I didn’t know the items would come from you is all,” I responded, a little embarrassed.

“What? You imagined they would fall from the sky, illuminated by a golden sunbeam? Child, I was one of the first quest givers in this world when the first adventurers began to arrive. I have your reward.”

Cracking open the box, he pulled out three items.

The first was a rolled-up piece of parchment bound in wax. The old man cracked the seal open and handed it over to me. “This is just a map. Yet on it are a couple key locations you and those you fight beside must know about. Here, let me see your hand.”

I did as Quinn had asked, and he lay my palm flat on the small parchment. I could see the familiar coastline and mountain ranges of the country, but this one had two black dots, one in the mountains to the east, the other on the far western coast.

Before I could examine them further, Quinn snapped his fingers in my face. “Close your eyes and focus, girl. Now, think about the map you are touching, and mentally link it to your other map. It shouldn’t be hard.”

Sure enough, I felt the information move into my mind.

“Good. You can examine the map soon enough. Pay attention. This next reward is quite special.” He pressed a coiling bracelet into my hand, its only adornment being a five-pointed star fixed in place. The center held a small, black stone.

Though it was lovely enough, it wasn’t made of gold. When I inquired, Quinn told me it was black iron, a rare ore than didn’t rust like ordinary iron, though with many other of the same properties.

“Five points, one for each of the children of Lem. One has been extinguished, and only four remain. By wearing this piece of jewelry, you will not only be able to sense the presence of an Elder, but you’ll also be able to channel our power from a distance.” Bouncing his eyebrows at me, he asked, “You do remember how I helped with your arrows, don’t you?”

My eyes went wide with disbelief. “How could I forget? So I’ll be able to channel that same power?”

“To an extent. I’ve give you most of what I have to offer. It will be years before I am replenished. Yet the other three remain strong. Examine the cuff, and you will understand more.”

I didn’t wait a second.





Truesilver Cuff of Five Stars

Quality: Legendary

Durability N/A

+10% XP Gained, Grants Elder’s Favor





Special Ability: Elder’s Favor

Elder’s Favor: By invoking the line of Lem, you may channel divine power to enhance any elemental attack, ranged or otherwise. 3/5 Charges Remaining.





I traced a finger over three of the star’s points, noting a tiny crystal embedded in each. They were glowing softly. The other two had gone dim.

I slipped the cuff over my wrist and watched as the metal contracted, sinking into my flesh. It didn’t hurt, just tingled a bit. “I can’t thank you enough. But… three out of five charges left means one is gone because an Elder has fallen, and another is gone because you gave me your power during the battle?”

“Just so. Do not worry yourself. I told you to take my power, and if we hadn’t done so, the battle would have turned. Now…” Then, reaching once more into the chest, Quinn retrieved a small leather pouch.

Hefting it in my hand, I noted it seemed to weigh no more than the leather itself. I moved to pull open the string.

“No, not yet,” he warned, a hint of gravel coming into his voice. “You’ll need it to access one of the locations on your map. Trust me. Take it and know it is invaluable. Now, I feel we’ve been chatting about nothing but the end of the world and our collective struggle to avoid that fate. I would ask you a favor, if you can manage it.”

“Anything!” I responded, hoping for some way to repay the man.

“Leave an old man to rest, and come back in a few hours. I’d love to have some afternoon tea with you, and more importantly, I’d also like to see what changes Wardeen has made to that sword of yours. I hear you fought a sword master and gained a few more of its missing components, no?”

I gave the old man a kiss on the cheek and ran a hand over his fuzzy white hair. Standing up, I replied with absolute honesty. “There’s nothing I’d rather do with my afternoon. I’ll drop by before I head to supper tonight. Corell and his family have asked me to stop by. I’m sure they won’t mind if I’m a little late.”





2: “Often, it is when we’re serving others that we gain perspective of ourselves…”





— The Elder of Taelman’s Pond





MADI





A deep and unforgiving gorge fell away like the backside of a particularly ugly mountain. Still, despite how barren this place was, I found it quite beautiful.

Especially when compared to the smug culo standing before me.

“I still have no idea where we’re going, Madi,” Shin said, his hands poised daintily on his hips. “I swear, I’m almost reconsidering my choice if only for having to walk around blind in a blanked-out map like a noob all over again. I can’t stand it.”

I walked to stand beside him and gave his unarmored shoulder a shove. “I’m sick of hearing it. Quit whining or log off, okay? You asked for me help, remember?”

The man sighed, then gave the stone at his feet a firm tap with his eccentric staff. “Yep! You are always right. Now, how the heck we gonna get down? I don’t see a trail. Maybe if we backtrack and look for another route?”

Shoving a bundle of rope into Shin’s hands, I silenced my annoyance and walked to a nearby tree to tie off the other end.

“That works too,” Shin said. “Let me guess, it’s enchanted, so just give it a tug when we get down and it will untie itself?”

“No, Shin. This isn’t a movie. I figure we’ll leave it up here and come back the way we came when we finish killing enough beasties.”

When I looked into his face, I saw he’d been, yet again, screwing with me.

Trying not to laugh, he asked, “Is it always this easy? To rile you, I mean?”

“Yeah, pretty much. Now, you wanna go first, hermana? Or should I?”

Shin held up his hands in mock surrender. “By all means, hermanita. You go.”

“Little sister my ass,” I huffed and pushed past him.

Ever since meeting Hana’s friend formally, we’d been butting heads. As much as it irked me, though, I recognized a budding camaraderie between us. Not only did we both have a Hana Kotoba in our lives, but we were both straightforward, aggressive, and mouthy.

I would never admit it to his face, but I kinda liked the guy.

I walked backward, my behind moving out over thin air as I began to take small steps down the cliff face. It took all of my focus to pretend I wasn’t hovering fifty feet in the air. My efforts were mostly successful.

Having wrapped the rope around my waist, I bounced slightly, feeding out a handful of inches with each movement.

It was slow progress, but that was fine by me. Knowing I’d respawn didn’t make me want to fall to my death any more. Especially considering the XP loss. After the siege at Taelman’s Pond had broken, I’d been looking forward to the level gains. But then that jerk swordsman just had to ruin our day, didn’t he?

I consoled myself with the knowledge that I’d be gaining a new class rank soon enough, and with that, more devastating skills.

“Doing good, Madi. Almost there!” Shin said in a sing-song voice that set my teeth to grinding.

“Worry about yourself, little priest. Wouldn’t want you to fall and bloody those cute robes of yours! Be a damn shame!”

Shin huffed. Stepping down onto firm ground once more, I sighed and gave the rope a waggle. “Your turn!”

My companion mimicked my descent, moving a little faster than I had. When he was halfway down, his voice rang out once more. “Not a priest. My class is Monastic Druid, or will be when I level it up high enough. You won’t be teasing me when I save your butt in battle.”

I grinned up at Shin, his boyish frame lost in the billowing robes. “Yeah, well, I look forward to the day. So far, the opposite has been true.”

Shin finished his descent then turned to me. “I’m Level 93 on my other account. Just be patient. I am a worthy investment, I promise. Besides, I’m already Level 17 thanks to you. Now, we gonna keep going or do you want to stand here and keep dropping insults about my stylish threads?”

We both laughed at his question, and I shook my head. “I’m ready. Map says we should only be another mile or so out from the first of the burrows.”

It had only been a day since we’d set out from Taelman’s Pond. Shin had spawned into this world, having sacrificed a Level 33 character to transfer here. The Eternal Online admins had granted his request, but considering the Realistic Mode, had nerfed his character down to Level 15.

Being so squishy, Shin had needed to work his way slowly deeper into the wilds.

He’d already almost died several times, and though I continued to complain, I found the entire escapade amusing.

Before we’d left town, I’d asked Adalee where a good place was to find creatures between levels 20 and 30. Without hesitation, she’d mentioned the Fargen Burrows. Just twenty miles east of Taelman’s Pond, I felt it was a good choice.

The gorgeous hunter had highlighted my map with the location markers, but had delivered the information with a severe warning. “I know you are pretty strong, Madi, but don’t think the fargen are easy targets. Most are little more than Level 20, but they tend to surround their targets, and their alpha is a lot stronger.” Her eyes had been far from joking around.

Three burrows were clustered together. And though no further insight was offered, I assumed the deeper into this gorge we traveled, the harder things would get.

Not for the first time did I worry about Tejón’s absence. The mountain-sized bear would be fine without us. He’d only continued to grow, and after helping Pachi slay the sword master, had done so in a burst overnight.

Yet we would need him in this fight. As we’d begun descending down into the gorge, he had been forced to stay behind. Determined to fight at my side, he’d insisted on running back and finding a way to the bottom of the gorge that didn’t involve ropes or slippery ledges.

Our bond had grown stronger, and even now, I could feel him somewhere to the north.

If anyone could do it, it would be my boy.

So, knowing there was little else to do but forge ahead, I removed one of my axes and held it propped on my shoulder, ready to react if necessary.

A tingle of stamina and strength flooded my veins as Shin cast yet another of his party support spells. He had several, and this one in particular—Vineyard Vitality if I could remember correctly—had proven especially useful on our long trip.

The spell acted to wash away the fatigue of day-long travel, and despite the dense forest and hazardous terrain, we’d managed to move twenty miles in just over a day.

The steep walls of the cliffs to either side slowly fell away as I strode deeper into this blighted chasm. No more than shrubs grew, and even those only occasionally.

What the creatures of this place fed on besides rock, I couldn’t say.

As if to answer the thought, two animals darted out from hiding beneath a bush. I hefted my axe, but the effort was unnecessary. The beasts were small, one a gray-furred rodent with incredibly long hind legs that made it run almost like a rabbit.

The pursuing beast had slick, black scales running down its back, and a flash of red down either side. Dashing out in the telltale side to side movement that lizards have, it caught its prey in seconds.

I took a moment to examine the animal, for curiosity’s sake more than anything.





Gem-hide Monitor

Level 10

HP: 185/185





As the monitor stilled to finish off its kill, snapping the rodent’s spine with a powerful bite, I saw the source of its name. Each of the lizard’s sides were covered in shimmering scales that looked like gems. Some cobalt blue, others vivid green, it was one of the loveliest beasts I’d ever seen, even in this fantastical world.

“Wow! That thing is gorgeous,” Shin said beside me, his staff clicking on the stone softly.

Before he’d even finished his statement, the lizard unhinged its jaw and swallowed the rat. Convulsing a few times, it managed to stuff it down, and then, sensing us, opened its mouth and hissed before scamping back into the underbrush.

“And a real sweetheart,” I added, chuckling.

We picked up our trek once more, yet I adopted a slower pace. The air was growing awfully still, a deep quiet I didn’t at all care for settling over everything.

Glancing up, I saw that sunset was still four or five hours away. It wasn’t as long as I’d have liked, though. Balancing caution with urgency, I pressed on.

At last, I saw the first line of burrows. They looked like wasp holes made of dried mud, except they were so large a Rottweiler could easily fit inside. Roughly a dozen of them were situated side by side, but these looked old and abandoned. The mud was cracking away, and cobwebs stretched across their openings.

I was about to speak to Shin, tell him to be wary, when a rattling growl caught my attention.

My hackles rose as I spun to face the first of the fargens.

It wasn’t at all like I’d expected. Adalee had said they were like gophers but larger. It might have been an apt description in some ways, but this creature had little to no fur. Instead, thick bristles protruded around and between plates of armored skin that shone like a beetle’s.

The beast crouched atop a nearby boulder, its sides vibrating with its threatening growl.

When it opened its mouth, wide pincers spread to either side, and the insectile qualities were confirmed.

I removed my second axe and inspected the beast that faced us.





Fargen Broodling

Level 15

HP: 258/258

Abilities: Swarm, Lacerate





I only had time to curse my name day before more of the monsters charged in from either side. The bastard was just distracting me! I wanted to complain, but instead dodged the first of the baddies who ran to bite one of my legs in its creepy mouth.

Oh, no you don’t! I thought, and split the thing’s head in two with my axe.

Shin, acting as the diligent support fighter he was, cast a Barkskin spell on me just in time.

Two more of the creatures had come up behind me. One I managed to kick away, but the other lashed out with its forelimb. The appendage struck me on the inside of my thigh, where my plate armor was weakest.

Instead of claws, the fargen had two long spines that would have crippled my leg in a single attack.

The skin-hardening spell reduced the creature’s effectiveness. Though the spines still punched a couple inches into my muscle, they didn’t sink in deep enough to cause nerve damage or puncture an artery.

Suddenly, one of the monsters—a bit shorter than the others—emitted a high-pitched noise. When I looked to see what it was about, its mouth was glowing with a sickly yellow light.

That was when it spit on me.

Not just a little, but maybe like a cereal bowl full of glowing yellow slime. It struck my torso with a splat.

I would have considered gagging, but then I heard my flesh sizzle.

A dozen more of the fargen monsters, all ranging in size from forty to eighty pounds each, rushed me. I had no other choice than to use Quake Stomp. Thankfully, the skill knocked down or stunned a large portion of my attackers.

Taking full advantage of this reprieve, I triggered Whirlwind.

Two axes dancing in my hands, I cut the little jerks down, hacking off the arms that reached for me and splitting skulls and ribcages.

I heard Shin grunt in pain, and when I turned to see how he was faring, the blood drained from my face.

In just moments, the poor support fighter had been surrounded by over ten of the fargen, and he was struggling to keep his feet. A few had sunk their spine-tipped arms into his legs, and another was shredding his ankle in its mouth.

Shin lifted his staff above his head and slammed its base into the ground between his feet.

As soon as he did so, a ripple of viridian light erupted from the staff, and the ground burst open with writhing roots. The fargen were entangled long enough for Shin to cast a healing spell, sending another wave of green over his body.

Hearing more of the monsters coming up behind me, I used Rampage. Yes, my HP is going to plummet, but damned if I don’t need to be a little faster!

I fought on like the Berserker I was, killing the enemies that surrounded Shin before spinning ‘round to attack those nipping at my heels.

Twice more I used Whirlwind, feeling my stamina leak away faster than my health, but the effect was pure and delightful devastation. The sound of bony carapace exploding became an anthem, and the thrill of battle sung loud and clear in my heart.

Christ Almighty! I was born for this life!

Then all was silent, and I felt the ooze of acidic spittle and fargen blood dripping down my body and armor. Some had gotten under the plate mail, and I grimaced at the pain of it.

All of the attackers were dead, and Shin and I were alive. He smiled at me sheepishly. “Two more levels!” was all he said before stumbling to a nearby boulder and sitting down.

It didn’t take long to get us back in working order. Two more healing spells—one an instant heal like Shin had performed earlier, and the other that took effect over an hour—and we were both reasonably recovered.

He helped me shimmy out of my gear, and then most of my clothes. When he blushed, I scolded him for being a child. “Never seen these before? Calm down. I need to get this acid off of me. And remember, you’re not the one I’m half-crazy about.”

Pulling himself together, Shin found a flat piece of rock and helped me scrape the viscous spit from my stomach.

Immediately, the relief of not having my skin slowly burn away swept over me. I laid down, wearing nothing but a bra and trousers, and sighed in contentment.

“That was crazy. I thought we might not survive for a second,” Shin said, sitting up beside me. “You fight like a crazy person.”

“No manches!” I replied automatically, letting my eyes shut. “You think? Yeah, I am good at this stuff for some reason. Maybe ‘cause I have a couple screws loose.”

Shin regarded me again, his breath finally under control. “Seriously though. If you ever want to open a second account, my guild would take you in a heartbeat. Could power-level you up, get you some awesome gear. Then throw you in a dungeon somewhere and let you carve out a path of glory.”

“Thank you, but I think I’ll be sticking around. At least until this crazy quest chain is finished.”

Coughing into his fist, Shin brought up the reason for my reluctance. “Did she get back to you yet? I’m sure you’re dying to know.”

I shook my head, feeling grains of sand press into the back of my skull.

“Wish we’d have met a little sooner,” he said. “I wouldn’t have dropped my bomb on her if I’d have known you were asking her out on the same day. The timing was too much. She hasn’t replied to my offer either.”

Groaning, I sat up and began brushing myself off. “Well, I know your intentions were good, Shin. But you aren’t just offering to buy her a cup of coffee. Hana can barely afford to rent a basic booth. The cost to rent an apartment with all the proper equipment is a lot more. I would know.”

Shin stood up as well, and stretched his legs as I pulled my armor back on, piece by piece. I could tell the subject was a sore one for him as well, and I was prepared to end the conversation.

He wasn’t done yet, though, for he added, “I hate money so much. I can’t express it properly. It is pure and unguarded evil.”

“A lot of people would disagree,” I pointed out.

“I know. I do. I am rich, Madi. Like, even after splitting off from my parents’ estate, I own more stock, more property, and more YD than any one person ever should. All I’ve seen money do so far is pull people apart. It would be nice to use some to pull people together for a change, y’know?”

I patted Shin on the back. “I think I do. And it’s good to know that not all rich kids are snobs. Now, wanna get a move on?”

Pulling up my map, I could see that the next burrow was perhaps another mile off.

The gorge split off in two directions. One opened up into a wide slope that led northwards. The other wound ahead, further to the west. I followed the same game trail we’d been trodding along and headed in the direction of the nearest burrow.

Turning a corner, I saw the dozens of fresh burrows that must have housed the fargen who’d just attacked us. How they’d managed to creep around us on all sides, I didn’t know, but I felt our next encounter might not go much better.

If only that hottie Selna were here. She could probably sneak up on the things and put arrows in their faces long before they had a chance to attack.

My thoughts drifted from her to Hana again. I thought of her dark eyes, her angled cheekbones, and her perfect lips. The craziest part was how the poor girl didn’t think she was beautiful. It wasn’t a modesty thing, more like a body dysmorphia issue, where what she saw in the mirror just wasn’t the same as what I did.

I was willing to help show her. But only if she’d let me.

My thoughts were interrupted by a rumbling noise. It sounded like a rockslide somewhere behind us.

I had two axes held and ready when the bulky form of Tejón rounded the corner. He’d found his way to us after all.

I am here, Madi! I am here! he called into my mind, and I sheathed my axes one at a time and laughed.

Yes, I can see that, I said cooly, though my heart was surging with delight. Walking toward him, I ran a hand over his snout. As I did so, I saw the terrible gash across his side.

Hey! What’s this about, kid? You run off like you’re a lone wolf and come back bleeding?

Tejón chuffed and swept his paw across the gravel-strewn ground. I could kill twenty wolves. I am much stronger than one wolf, Madi.

My words held as much attitude as his own. Then what did this?

I moved around his shoulder and inspected the laceration. It ran between two of his bony plates, and I grimaced at how deep it was. I reached for the abyss bag I’d purchased in Bridgerun, and though he tried to sidle away, I removed a large jar of salve.

Speaking aloud now, no longer having the patience for mental chat, I scolded him. “You’ll sit still till I dress the wound. Yes, Shin can give you a healing, but I want to be sure. This is deep, Tejón!”

It was a frightening creature I have never seen before, Tejón said, his voice somewhat cowed in my mind. An ugly thing with pincers in its mouth. And its hide was as hard as scales. I am sorry, Madi. I found a way into this place, and was attacked by the creature.

“Did you at least kill it?”

No, I struck it with my paw, but it retreated very quickly, not even limping. It was smaller than Pachi but still very powerful.

I didn’t like the sound of that at all. After smearing the medicinal paste through the wound, I nodded to Shin.

He cast both spells on the bear, and we were once again ready for action.

Facing them both, I told them my thoughts. “Sounds like either a bigger one of the fargen, or else, maybe their alpha. We are together now, though, and that will count for a lot. Let’s move out, boys.”

Considering how the walls of the canyon were closing in, I chose to walk ahead with Shin behind. Tejón could pull up the rear, and together, we’d protect our wimpy friend.

“Gained another level!” Shin announced, a little pride in his voice.

“Always nice,” I admitted, keeping my eyes ahead. If it was at all possible, I hoped to be able to detect the next attack ahead of time.

Shin seemed happy to amble along as if there were no apparent danger. “I think I’ll break past Level 20 for sure, maybe more. At this rate, my character might actually be useful in a fight in a few days or so.”

I glanced back briefly, catching his eye. “You’re already useful. But I think I’m gonna need you to shut up. Might even go a step further and keep an eye out for more trouble?”

He chuckled softly, but fell silent, and I knew he was focusing on our collective task once more. He pretends to be a fool all the time, but it’s just an act. A little bit annoying but better than the opposite, I suppose.

The landscape around us slowly transformed. The stark stone walls stretched higher above our heads, and the late afternoon sun no longer fell on our backs.

Roots from trees growing atop the slopes broke through and hung like a dryad’s hair, and cobwebs or dust coated everything so that even the hard stone looked soft as velvet.

Another bend in the path came, and this time, the trail descended into what I could only describe as a grotto of sorts.

The sky broke through like a jagged bolt of lightning. The walls ran up and reached toward one another, failing by only a dozen feet or so. It made me feel as if we were stepping foot into a cave.

I didn’t have to check out map.

The signs were obvious.

All around us, ringing us in like champions bumbling into an arena, were countless gaping holes.

This was the second fargen burrow.

Our arrival had not gone unnoticed. A few hundred feet ahead, a large fargen, larger than any wolf, emerged from its hole and growled in the same eerie way its smaller kin had.

Surrounded by such an acoustic chamber, the challenge was chilling.

Still, we had more to do, and a headache was beginning to creep up from my tense shoulders. I didn’t have the time or will to screw around.

Unsheathing both of my axes, I growled back, then spoke to Tejón. Keep the little one alive and guard my back. I’ll take this side. Don’t hold back if things get crazy, okay?

I am ready, Madi! Those that survive long enough to flee will learn to fear the stone bears! A roar exploded from his jaws, hard enough to rattle the walls of the grotto and shake dust from the dangling roots.

More of the fargen moved in, all picking up the same growl as their apparent leader. These were smaller, but to a beast, were a step up from those who’d attacked us at the first burrow.

I laughed, exhilarated by the absurd odds.

We were facing a hundred of the creatures, and lower level or not, those numbers were anything but favorable.

“Shin, you ready?” I shouted over the din.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” he called back, not a hint of fear in his voice.

“That is good to hear, because it’s about to get crazy in here,” I said before taking one step forward and lifting both of my axes. With a twisted grin on my face and stomach full of matches and mezcal, I bellowed, “We gonna do this or not? Come on!”





3: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”





— Son of Arthur





MADI





The fargen didn’t hesitate for long.

All around, the beasts charged in, crashing towards us like collapsing waves.

I felt all of Shin’s battle buffs amplify my power and resistance to damage.

As soon as the front line of fargen came within distance, I triggered Quake Stomp, reducing the impact of their charge.

I followed with a Whirlwind, and ugly heads rolled.

It was a desperate move to use so early in what looked to be a long battle, but there were simply too many targets to engage otherwise. I activated Rampage and felt my body come alive.

Suddenly, each hack or slice from my axes was fifty percent faster and twenty-five percent more damaging.

Their bodies cracked open, their hard exteriors only serving to slow the weight and force of my blades.

A few still managed to get close, one stabbing into my ankle with its pincered mouth, and a few others slamming their daggered paws into my ribs.

Most of these attacks were diminished by the epic armor Wardahl had forged for me, but there were gaps between the wyvern plates, and inevitably, I felt the fargen’s thin claws cut into me.

“Shin! Use the damn roots again!” I screamed, unable to withstand this much pressure too long.

A flash of green came from behind me, and the ground erupted with his spell.

The fargen closest to us were caught by it, though in their fury, they kept attacking with whatever means they could. I saw the nearest straining to free itself, mouth snapping like a rabid dog. Its rear leg broke under the force of its efforts, and it would have reached me if not for the downward strike of my God’s Rib Axe.

Shin’s spell gave us some reprieve, and I triggered Whirlwind once more, hacking through the attackers’ ranks.

Tejón roared and I glanced briefly to see he’d done something similar. His Mauling Frenzy lasted only ten seconds, but in that time, he must have killed nearly twenty of the comparatively tiny creatures.

The last thing I saw of the bear was him popping the head of a fargen.

More of the monsters replaced their fallen.

“Gravel Storm!” I shouted, and the wind around us whipped up a cloud of dust and rubble. Tejón’s skill was our best defense against the horde, as it caused damage to anything unfriendly in the area.

Rocks and stones ranging from the size of marbles to fists careened down in a wide circle surrounding our position.

The fargen probed ahead, only to be injured or killed in their attempt. Any that were unfortunate enough to get close fell to one of my axes.

Shin wasn’t sitting idly by either. Twice now, I’d felt my wounds heal themselves as he cast a spell.

His staff blurred around in my periphery, cracking fargen across their jaws. The guy was skilled, no doubt—despite being eleven levels beneath me, he moved with precision and grace.

My stamina began to flag from using Whirlwind so often, and again, Shin proved himself a worthy companion. He cast his Vineyard Vitality on me, and I felt ready for another round of this seemingly endless battle.

After a final wave of the monsters were cut down, all fell silent.

Dust hung in the air, shot through with beams of sunlight slanting down from the slit in the rocky ceiling.

My own ragged breath was all I could hear aside from Tejón chuffing behind me.

Then I saw some of the foes still stood against us. Twenty or more of the creatures were poking their heads out from burrow holes.

The change in tactics was an effective one. I’d need to sprint fifty feet, scrambling up the steep incline, just to attack any of the creatures.

We’d simply have to wait.

Given a brief pause, I examined these beasts, curious to see their level or if they were of a different subspecies.

My suspicions were unfortunately accurate.





Fargen Spitter

Level 18

HP: 282/282

Abilities: Swarm, Lacerate, Caustic Spit





It wasn’t their numbers that concerned me, but the yellow light that poured from their mouths. We were about to get doused in glowing, acidic mocos.

There were too many of them to ignore, and if Shin were pelted by the impending barrage, the whole point of this expedition would be ruined.

“Tejón, use Lava Burst!” I shouted and triggered my own Palisade of Flame.

Globs of acid fell like foul fruit, but our defenses hit just in time. A bubble of fire surrounded me, and the acid sizzled off harmlessly.

The sound of shuffling feet caught my attention, and I saw that Shin had entered my shield. He grinned at me sheepishly. “This is a pretty OP skill, huh? How’d you get it?”

“I’ll tell you another time,” I said, grimacing as the acid continued to fall.

If they didn’t somehow run out of hell juice, we’d be toast. A few more seconds passed, and acting as a single entity, the fargen swarmed us again.

It was bad timing on their part.

I felt the reverberation of Tejón’s Lava skill bursting outward. Splashes of lava burned into the beasts’ hides, and he roared in anger.

The fargen ran at me as well, and I let them.

The first leapt up at my shield, still with almost twenty seconds left on the skill, then bounced off, half of its head scorched in the blink of an eye.

No sooner had they discovered their folly than I waded into the rest, my axes dancing around.

Less than a minute later, the chamber was silent. Every fargen had either fled or died trying to bring us down.

We waited, wanting to be sure it was safe, but none returned.

The attack was over.

I spent a few minutes cleaning my weapons and armor as well as I could with handfuls of sand, but there was little I could do. I’d be coated in fargen blood until we made it back to Taelman’s Pond.

“I really can’t say how much I appreciate all the help, darling,” Shin said emphatically. “I barely got a drop of blood on me because you guys provided such a solid shield!”

My glare made him shut up fast enough, but his stupid smile remained.

Pulling a piece of clean cloth from my bag, I wiped my face. There was no way it served to truly clean me, but I felt much better when I was done.

A loud crack had me turning on my heel, expecting some counterattack. But Tejón’s guilty eyes met my own. He was eating one of the fallen enemies, its hard insectile plates making more noise than fallen boulders.

A shiver of disgust rippled through my limbs, and I had to focus to avoid feeling sick.

Do you mind dragging that off a bit? I asked my not-so-subtle companion. I think I swallowed enough of those creatures to call it supper. Don’t really feel like listening to you gobble one down.

The bear humored me, biting the napes of not one but two of the beasts and ambling off to one side of the chamber.

I found a boulder to sit down on nearby and collapsed on my haunches. I pulled a waterskin out and doused my head in the cool liquid before taking a long drink.

“Madi! I gained two levels from that one fight! We must have killed a hundred monsters,” Shin announced with glee. “I get to choose my Level 20 skill now, and I’m super close to unlocking the next class rank. Just need to increase my Nature Attunement and make a few dozen healing ointments with the herbs I’ve gathered.”

“That’s great, Shin. At least one of us is leveling up here. Who knows, though? Maybe the boss will be high enough level to make it worthwhile for Tejón and I.”

I looked over and saw Shin staring blankly into thin air. Choosing his skill, then. Good for him. If he’s as loyal as Hana says, he’ll be a good investment.

Not wanting to stand around and feel useless, and being reminded of my savage-hearted crush, I pulled out the dagger I wore around my leg. I spent the next few minutes hacking off various trophies that seemed valuable.

It was gruesome work, but gold was gold. A girl’s got to spend, after all, I mused, cutting the last of the collected claws.

I admired the pile of trophies a few moments, knowing Hana would be proud.





12 Savage Fargen Claws

23 Barbed Fargen Pincers

6 Prime Fargen Paws

3 Coiled Fargen Tails





Loading them all away into my infinitely useful abyss bag, I clapped my hands together. “Time to focus, boys! We got less than two hours before nightfall. I want to finish this as soon as possible. Final burrow is another mile down the canyon, so if we hurry, es posible, verdad?”

Tejón grunted, and Shin shrugged.

That was enough for me.

Considering our lack of daylight, I started out at a brisk jog. With the help of Shin’s Stamina-boosting spell, it wouldn’t cost us much.

Five minutes in, and a trail of dried blood stopped me dead in my tracks.

Shin and I examined the mess. It was obviously the site of a kill. A large pool of blood, still sticky in the middle, and a streak mark that led deeper into the canyon.

Oh, yeah… makes me feel right at home, I thought, staring down the gloomy passage.

After following—at a much more cautious pace—we found the corpse a few minutes later… what was left of it, at least.

It was a fargen, that much was clear, but what type I couldn’t tell. Something had chewed off most of its head and face, and lacerated its body almost at random.

Shin was the first to speak. “This is looking pretty psycho. It looks like whatever did this was pissed off. And that doesn’t really make sense, considering I’m pretty sure it was another beast.”

“Could be deranged. I have a little experience with that.” My voice shook a little as I spoke.

“Marduk, right? Hana told me. Man, that must have been something.”

I laughed, my voice sounding brittle to my ears. “I suppose it was. Now let’s go find the handsome devil who did this and put him down for good.”

The burrow was only another quarter mile away.

A heavy silence hung in the air, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and saluted. Then the smell of decay hit my nose, sweet and overpowering.

Moving through a narrow gap between two boulders, I stepped out into the final burrow. This one was wide open. The sky burned a pale orange, and an endless cascade of clouds rippled above us.

I had no time to enjoy the beauty of the sunset.

Instead, I gaped at the corpse-strewn clearing before me. Dozens of fargen, all as large as small horses, slumped in various positions.

All were mangled.

Some had missing limbs, or were partially consumed. Others had but a single deep gash across their necks.

The beasts also varied in how long they’d been dead. By the smell, more than a few had been killed days or even weeks ago. But a few were still slick with wet blood.

“What the hell?” I whispered, not daring to raise my voice in such a disturbing place.

My caution proved unnecessary.

A rattling growl echoed off the tall walls of the burrow. I spun to scan the hundreds of holes that all stared back like empty eye sockets, but saw no sign of the beast.

“There, straight ahead,” Shin called out.

I looked where he was pointing and saw what I’d mistaken for just another boulder take a tentative step forward.

The fargen alpha was huge. As tall as Pachi and twice as broad, the monster’s pincers were opened wide as it growled once more, this time ending in a high-pitched trill.

Holy mole, it even sounds twisted, I thought, but kept my observation to myself.

Tejón spoke, his voice an angry growl in my mind. That’s it! That is the beast who attacked me earlier today. It moves very fast, but if we can slow it down, I can surely kill it.

I’m sure you can. Let’s be careful though. No rushing in like a hero.

Then, raising my voice for Shin to hear as well, I commanded my tiny army. “Spread out, Tejón. Shin, stay behind us. I think that thing is all that’s left of this burrow. As soon as it charges, we go all in. Got it?”

Considering Shin had been a guild leader on his own account, I was glad he’d agreed to defer to my judgement. Once again, he proved himself as good a follower as he’d once been a leader.

“Consider it done,” he muttered, buffing the party once more.

The beast’s hide and tense muscles over its back shuddered, and it turned its head to the side. It seemed to be considering us with far too much intelligence to make me feel comfortable.

Using the moment we had, I inspected the boss monster.





Fargen Alpha

Level 26

HP: 1822/2070

Abilities: Summon, Shale Screech, Bash, Burrow





From the looks of the alpha’s abilities, we were in for a show. I was hoping his summon skill would be useless now that we’d killed most or all of his potential allies, but the Shale Screech, Bash, and Burrow would all be lovely surprises.

Suddenly, an additional buff hit me, one I hadn’t been expecting.

Sure enough, when I checked, my status showed Guardian of the Wild active. That was a skill that was triggered automatically when fighting against a creature that was deranged, diseased, possessed, or evil.

The additional Strength and Constitution were a nice bonus, but this meant we were fighting an unpredictable enemy.

“It’s already injured, guys,” I cautioned as I considered our first move. “Just have to put it down. Probably tired from fighting its own. And this thing most definitely has a broken ticker, so use your heads. Its actions will most likely be skewed or erratic.”

Tejón was the one who broke the ice. If there is one thing a stone bear is good for, it’s cutting through the pretense in life.

He took a few steps forward and stood up on his hind legs. Despite his considerable growth, he was still no match for Marduk, his god-tiered mother. Even so, he stood over twenty feet tall as he rose up.

Then, of course, he roared.

As soon as the ear-shattering call had faded, the alpha made one of his own. Puffing up his chest and flaring his mouth open, the fargen leader screeched in defiance.

The sound was grating, like stone shattering and scraping together, and I nearly considered dropping my weapons to protect my ears.

What followed was an even bigger surprise.

A gale of magical wind tore past the creature and headed our way. Fragments of rock were swept up and pelted our party with great force.

The stones did little damage, but pushed me back, and all the dust it came with forced me to close my eyes entirely. Hunching forward with my axes in both hands, I waited out the strange attack.

I could hear Tejón bellowing beside me and Shin coughing. Then another sound, something like stone splitting open, made me squint ahead.

All I saw was a gaping hole, surrounded by rubble where the boss had once stood.

“Get out of the way!” I shouted, running off to one side. “It’s underground!”

Only a moment later, the earth behind me erupted as the beast emerged.

A shower of rock fell all around, but I ignored the fragments. Instead, I hefted my axes and made to charge the beast.

Poor Tejón was still trying to get out of the way, and was, in many ways, far too cumbersome to fight such a creature. The fargen alpha charged him and slammed its head into the bear’s front right paw.

Tejón yelped, and rage coursed through me. Nobody messes with my boy and lives to tell the tale! I wanted to shout.

I triggered Rampage and relished in the sense of my body speeding up. Thankfully, Shin knew what we needed. His roots broke free from the ground and grasped at the monster’s legs.

Only one managed to trap a foot, but that was enough.

Following his initial attack, Shin sent a swirling mass of green energy hurtling into the beast’s chest. It exploded on contact, splashing mana all over the alpha’s body.

There seemed to be little initial damage from the attack. After half a second, though, its true nature was exposed.

The lingering mana condensed into vines that wrapped tightly around the fargen’s neck and shoulders. They tightened until I could see they were cutting into its flesh.

The fargen turned around to face the source of this new threat, but its front paw remained pinned. I heard the sickening crackle of bones as it sacrificed its limb to counter me.

But I was too fast.

In quick succession, I dropped Quake Stomp, which thankfully knocked the beast down, followed by Sunder.

My axe swept across the alpha’s injured front leg. Not only did Sunder ignore one hundred percent of armor, but its other chance effect worked as well.

My Foreman’s Toothpick, the mighty mithril axe I’d taken off of the elite ratkin from the iron mines, cut through muscle and bone alike. The beast lurched as one of its support fell away, and blood poured out in a wave.

Tejón, still injured from the powerful Bash ability, was in a rage. Heedless of potentially needing the skill later, his body began to glow as he used Crown of the Mountain King.

Massive shards of crystal grew from his head and shoulders, reflecting the blaze of the dying sun. He roared again and used Mauling Frenzy to tear into the once formidable monster.

Shin and I stumbled back as the huge bear unleashed his fury. He swept his claws across the alpha’s flanks, crushing ribs and slicing open its hide with ease. Then he tucked his head down and charged.

The long diamond spikes that jutted out from his head like a morbid crown pierced the dying monster.

Tejón continued his charge and pushed the alpha forward another fifty feet until they both struck against the side of a large boulder. The stone itself cracked, and his foe’s body was utterly destroyed.

When he made to thrash around and tear the body apart, something he liked to do on occasion, I called out to him with my mind. Enough, tonto! Chill the hell out already. It’s over!

The stone bear finally relented after popping the alpha’s head in his jaws. I let the small act of defiance go. After all, it is hard to come out of a rage once you go all in.

Tejón backed away, still limping. Gonna need Shin to heal that a few times. Can’t be having our only mount go lame way out here, I thought, then strode toward the fallen alpha.

A glint of something unnaturally polished had caught my eye. I ignored the broken body, which was still bleeding out and painting the stones of the burrows crimson. Just behind its jaw, tucked under a jutting portion of its stony carapace, was the handle of a dagger.

I braced my foot against the fargen’s shoulder and pulled it free.

Its craftsmanship was exquisite, something that most likely contained magical properties.

Like any gamer, I inspected the item, hoping for some badass qualities.





Dagger of Chaos

Quality: Epic

Durability 72/100

25 damage

Ignores 100% of Armor Rating. Inflicts random debuff.





“My god!” I cried, any lingering anger vanished. “Shin! Shin, get over here and check this out.”

He pulled himself away from messing with his character sheet, happy to have gained another level, no doubt. “What is it?”

Showing him the knife, he too inspected it and gaped. “Wow, these items are so fun. Not the most reliable, but you never know what effect might land. One of my old guildies used a similar item on a high-level boss during a dungeon raid. The damn thing went blind, which made its attacks easier to dodge, but of course, everything went south when it randomly charged the healers. If tanks can’t hold aggro, there’s no chance.”

“Well, I’m keeping it. Feels like a naughty bit of fun to keep as a wildcard. Might as well give it a shot when there’s no other options, yeah?”

“Good point. That’s probably what happened to this thing. Some dumb adventurer stuck it with the knife, hoping for something good. Then it went berserk instead.” Shin’s voice was muted, almost glum. “Kinda sad, yeah? I mean, this alpha killed its whole pack.”

“I know. This is a crazy world. No different than the real one in too many ways.” I turned away to begin the task of exploring the burrows a bit before we left.

Shin followed and added, “Level 22, by the way! I really can’t thank you enough.”

I was impressed. “Really? Wow! That was fast progression. Can’t believe the boss gave you two levels. It was a lot stronger than its kin, though, and I finally moved up to Level 31, so good news all around.”

“I was already more than halfway to Level 21 after the last fight. Gonna slow down a little after this point, I’m sure. And grats! Level 31 is pretty official in this realm, yeah?”

I nodded absently, then turned to the young man. “I guess so. Nothing major until I hit 35 and increase my class rank. But one more step in the right direction. Hey, bro, I’m all for celebrating, but could you please cast a few heals on Tejón? He doesn’t want to admit it, but that alpha messed up his leg pretty bad.”

Shin agreed, happy as ever, and I strode deeper into the wide basin.

I had no idea what I was looking for, but at least one adventurer had been here. Normally, when someone dies, their body and equipment respawn in the same area. Considering the danger of doing so here, the player would have chosen to respawn at the nearest town, most likely Taelman’s Pond.

They’d take their gear and everything with them, but the remote spawn point came with an additional loss of XP and an increased duration of Death Penalty.

That was why so many players chose to wait until a group of players could bail them out. In fact, some pros made a living doing so all on their own.

But if any items were dropped, and weren’t on the player’s person, they’d be SOL.

“Ha!” I exclaimed, seeing the boon I’d been searching for. “Your bad fortune is my good luck!”

A dozen feet away, covered in a fine layer of dust, a small satchel lay on the ground. It was small, no more than EO’s version of a messenger bag. But who knew what was inside?

I picked it up and muttered to myself, “Only one way to find out.”

The pack was a little heavier than I thought, especially since it wasn’t at all bulky. Opening it up, I rummaged through its various contents.

A few items were tossed aside quickly. Fruit and dried meat, no matter how well preserved, spoiled as quickly here as in the real world. I gagged a little when the food hit the ground, especially when the browned apple burst open.

The meat smelled worse, but then I noticed a molded white substance smeared into its bulk. Whatever kind of cheese it had been, it was as dead as a club on New Year’s Day.

I found a flask inside that made me smile. Crossing my fingers, I unscrewed the cap and took a tentative smell. Something like whiskey, a smokey drink that I somehow knew I would love.

The rules in EO were all based upon the player’s geological location. Americans had been able to drink at eighteen for decades now, and I was technically of age now.

Since asking Hana out, and having to endure her persistent silence, I’d decided to keep my birthday to myself. I usually did anyhow. But a few days ago, I’d come of age, so to speak.

Tonight, I would have myself a night cap.

I thought of shouting to tell Shin the good news, but my exploration of the bag was too engrossing. I found a few more items of note in a small pouch: a handful of gold, silver, and copper coins as well as a ring and a necklace.

The ring was silver and the necklace made of carved wood. Knowing this was a fantasy world, I inspected each, crossing my fingers as I did so.





Ring Clarity

Quality: Uncommon

Durability 22/25

+1 Intelligence, +5% Mana Regeneration





Pan’s Pendant

Quality: Rare

Durability 84/100

+10% effectiveness to Nature Spells





Shin’s gonna like these, I thought, and dug a little deeper. I found a rolled-up bag made of waxed paper in the bottom. Curious as ever, I took a careful peek inside. If it was food, I didn’t feel like shoving my face into something else rotten.

Whatever it was seemed to shimmer in the fading light. Encouraged, I removed it and found stick of golden rock candy.

It smelled like honey and mint and made my mouth water immediately. Now this was a treasure worth finding.

Jostling the satchel around a little, I didn’t see anything else. I upended it and gave it a shake, hopefully I might have missed something in the dim lighting.

A small piece of rolled parchment fell to the ground.

I picked it up and unrolled it, then grinned like the greedy girl I was.

It was a tiny regional map showing the lands east of Taelman’s Pond. I did as I’d done only once before when given a map of the land between Bridgerun and Taelman’s Pond.

I closed my eyes and mentally merged the information into my own map. Then I discarded the parchment and brought up my mental map.

Suddenly, the blank space around us was populated with terrain markers, several of them named. Most interesting of all was the one labeled Gribnal’s Treasure, a classic X showing its location.

It would be a bit longer until I got that bath. Seemed I could wait, considering what might be at stake. Besides, if we followed the gorge a little further and took a side passage, we’d run into a stream in two miles.

“And that is exactly where we are going to make our camp,” I said before cupping my hands around my mouth and shouting to my companions. “Time to go, boys! Good news for everybody, and I’ll explain on the way!”





4: “Take a moment with those you call friend. Such opportunities are limited.”





— Selna Amredor





HANA





A part of me wanted nothing more than to head off immediately after my visit with Quinn. The quest he’d granted was guaranteed to be incredible. The chance to meet another Elder like himself was too good to pass up.

But that day, Adalee had asked me if I’d agree to dinner in the evening.

With a couple hours to spend, I decided to go shopping.

Platman’s was on my list anyhow, so I dropped by and purchased as many food stores and supplies as I thought I might need. Pachi was so large now that her own meals had to come from hunting, but a pound of dried nuts, some jerky, and oats would go a long way with me. She sold me a few high-grade potions she’d had delivered from the apothecary just for Pachi and me. These I was infinitely grateful for.

At last, I stopped by to pick up my Marduk’s Mantle cloak.

After the fight, the cloak was not exactly what I’d call in good shape. The seamstress had received dozens of orders, but since I was in no particular rush, I’d told her to put mine off a bit.

May greeted me with a smile, and even bounced on her toes a bit. “Come back, Hana. You will not believe what I’ve managed for you.”

“Alright, you got me curious. Still, all you needed to do was give it a few patches, May,” I said, feeling a bit embarrassed.

I’d already paid for her services, a single gold dragon, and I knew if she’d invested in any real improvements, she’d done so at a loss.

In the back of her shop, I saw the thick patch of fur I’d taken from Marduk. It was not the same cloak I’d left with May, not by a long shot. I reached out a hand and ran it against the gleaming silk lining. It was black inside, and a deep black without. Even the fur looked somehow brighter, as if she’d polished each strand of hair individually.

Unable to help myself, I inspected it.





Marduk’s Mantle

Quality: Epic: Armor 50

Durability 200/200

+3 to all base attributes, +50% to Stealth, +20% Resistance to spells of the Dark Affinity

Applies High protection against cold.





The armor, durability, and stealth bonus had all increased significantly. But the addition of the resistance to dark spells was amazing. In the coming battles against the Rat King, it could prove more than useful.

Gaping, I asked her, “What did you do?”

May giggled. “You love it though, right? I didn’t mess it up or anything? Wasn’t sure if you liked the rugged and rough look.”

“It’s amazing, but how much did this material cost? And how long did you spend on it?” I had to ask, afraid the woman had sacrificed too much for me.

The seamstress blushed and pressed her hands to her cheeks. “Don’t worry about it, Hana. Marshal Dandre wanted to give you a gift for saving Quinn’s life against that evil creature. His life was in danger several times, but he would have died if not for you slaying the Karinon.”

“So you paid for this yourself? May, I have plenty of coin. Can I at least pay you for the materials?”

May took a step closer and put her hands on both of my shoulders. Her bright eyes were glistening with checked tears, but when she spoke, her voice was strong. “The town pitched in and paid for it. It took a full bolt of Shade’s Glory Silk to craft, and it was costly. Also, I spent almost thirty hours of stitch-work on this beast, and have had to work late several days this week. Might have lied about the back orders, just a little. I was really just slaving away on this damned cloak. But I’ll say this only once, Hana—if you love this town and its people, you’ll accept this gift with no more than a thank you. Now, can I show you all the tricks I’ve added, or do you want to argue all morning?”

I responded by giving the woman a hug, then gestured to the cloak. “Please, show me everything you’ve done.”

Turned out, she’d done a lot.

More pockets of course, several of which were specially designed. One was lined with resin and was completely waterproof. May explained it would be the perfect place to store herbs or paper. Another acted as a sheath that held a tiny dagger. It was only three inches long, end to end, but its short blade was so sharp it could cut a cord of rope or a bandit’s throat with ease.

May had also taken the liberty of trimming the bottom hem by several inches and using the spare material to make a hood. It too was lined with silk.

When I tried it on, it felt somehow lighter than before, but that might have been due to how smooth the silk was on my skin. A new broach had been fashioned, one made of antler and silver, cut in the shape of a star. “It’s to honor Citlali, the goddess that Pachi serves,” May explained.

“Thank you so much, May. I’ll need to give Pachi a gift too so she isn’t jealous.”

May laughed, then reached inside one of the cloak’s pockets. She pulled out a large pouch and handed it to me. “This is for Pachi.”

Within was a huge comb. The same silver-and-bone star decorated its handle. “You know my girl. She’s going to love it. Thank you so much, May. And please, tell Dandre and everyone else who pitched in the same.”

As I left May’s shop, I was greeted with a pleasant and humorous sight. Pachi had returned and was attempting to nap in the center of town, lying beside the stone statue that was still being crafted.

A throng of children were pestering her, most giggling at a distance, but some bold enough to dart in and stroke one of their wings.

I called the kids over and handed each a caramel from a bag I’d purchased at Platman’s. They squealed with delight then fled to devour their treats elsewhere.

How was lunch? I asked when the last was gone.

Pachi yawned, her long tongue lashing the air. She answered without opening her eyes. Very good. Caught a fat pig, just as I’d been craving. Then, on the way back, I spotted a tender faun. I wasn’t exactly hungry, but it was too tempting. Now, I feel like I’ve been stuffed full to bursting. Sleep is my only option to recover.

I flopped down and lay back against the downy fur on her chest, close enough to her neck that I could reach over and give her a nice scratch.

After I did so (at length, per her request), I closed my eyes and joined the enfield in an opulent afternoon nap.

Perhaps an hour later, I woke as a gruff voice shattered the vague dream I was having. “Sleeping on the street like a vagabond? Best not to do so wearing my brother’s armor. It’s embarrassing!”

It was Wardeen, a look of keen satisfaction on his face. I rubbed my face and sat up. “You know, the plate armor is actually pretty cozy once you get used to it. Nothing softer than wyvern scales.”

The dwarf muttered a few coarse words under his breath before changing the subject. “You seen my apprentice? Said she was headed off with some other young traveler to the East.”

“Oh, um, I haven’t spoken to Madi in… a while. I’m not sure, but I did hear from that fellow traveler. His name is Shin. Said they would come back today or tomorrow, I think.”

Wardeen ground his teeth and strode away, neglecting altogether to say goodbye.

Dwarven manners, I mused. Would love to see how he behaves at the dinner table.

Standing up, I stretched my legs and back and roused the still-sleeping enfield. She awoke with a start, then fell into a sneezing fit that lasted half a minute.

You okay? I asked.

Pachi shook her head and cloud of fine dust rose off her back and wings. I’m fine. I don’t think boar is as good for me as it tastes. Best stick to venison if possible.

I waved the dust away and laughed. My companion was just as awkward as she’d always been, and her incredible size only made it stick out more than ever. Well, I think we should head over to see Quinn now. He wanted to say hi to you as well. There’s a window around the back of his shop. Walk around there and we’ll open it from the inside.

Pachi yawned aggressively then strode away toward Quinn’s shop.

I followed, thoughts of Madi flitting through my mind. It had been so long since she’d contacted me that now, no matter what I did, the situation would be tense.

I only hoped something would happen to make it all go away. But when I thought about it, I was also terrified that it would.

Shaking the lingering anxiety from my mind, I strode through Quinn’s front door and made my way back to see the old man.

A pot of tea had already been set to steeping, so the first thing I did was pour us both cups.

“Adalee stopped by briefly,” Quinn said. “She was kind enough to drum us up a bit of tea. Enough for our sleepy friend out there.” He pointed to Pachi outside the window.

The enfield was blinking blearily, and I somehow knew she’d been yawning again. “Yes, tea would do her some good,” I admitted.

I opened the back window and found a bowl of warm tea on a table nearby. Excusing myself, I took it out the back door and delivered it to Pachi.

She scoffed at the idea, but after hearing Quinn insisted, relented.

It is actually rather good, she commented after finishing the bowl. A bit like chewing grass to settle the belly.

Back inside, I told Quinn the enfield’s thoughts.

“Oh, no reason to translate, Hana,” he said. “I am fully capable of Mind Speech myself. I simply tend to keep that a secret.” Then, turning to Pachi—whose golden eye peered into the window—he mentally added, If you’d like, we can finish our discussion like this. That way, we will all be on the same footing.

Pachi blinked in surprise. The man spoke in my mind, Hana!

Giggling, I admitted my own surprise. Yeah, seems we haven’t been as sneaky as we’d thought.

After I’d had a moment to get used to the idea, and taken a few sips of my own tea, I spoke to Quinn with my mind. So, did you still want to see my sword?

Quinn winked at me and held out his hands. Of course. I thought you’d never ask.

I unsheathed the sword at my hip and extended it towards him with the blade poised on the flat of my fingers.

Nodding, he shifted his gaze and focused intently on the modifications Wardahl had made. With a few idle mutters, he fussed at the cord that bound the sword together. “No good. Wardahl is a fine smith, but his hands are made of iron. No good at all.”

When he’d disassembled the sword completely, he took in the components one at a time.

Finally, he focused on the three additions, the pieces Dandre had given me. Apparently, the sword master had dropped many valuable items, all of which had been taken into the marshal’s custody.

When I’d finally logged back in, set on distracting myself from Shin and Madi’s intense proposals, she’d given them back to me.

“The tsuka and same are all that remained of the handle of your sword other than the blade collars,” Quinn said. “This will make it much more powerful. I’m sure you were frustrated to see the sword assembled yet not see any difference in its power, no?”

“Yeah, you can say that again,” I grumbled. “It shows the exact same information as before other than mentioning three items locked. You have the strength to unlock it?”

Quinn sighed. “It doesn’t take much strength at all, just the right touch. We are lucky on that account. I’ll just put this back together, with a little more love than our heavy-handed blacksmith, and we’ll see what we get.”

After a few minutes of watching the old man’s deft hands, he was finished.

“There you go. Inspect it now. I believe you will be pleased.”

I didn’t wait to be told twice.





Katana Kotoba

Quality: Legendary: +100% to damage

Durability 700/700

200-800 damage - 6/9 bindings found

Quinn’s Tsuka and Same bindings: +20% movement speed when using a sword, +50% Health Regeneration, +10 Stamina, +10 Dexterity.





My mind was properly blown. “By the seventeen snakes of Medusa! Quinn, the damage bonus doubled! It has a twenty percent increase to movement speed compared to ten before, and now the Health Regeneration doubled as well. And that’s not even considering the two new abilities.”

The old man smiled at me. I could see fatigue sneaking up on him again. Our meeting would soon be over. But he didn’t resent me for my enthusiasm. Rather, it looked as if he was feeding on it.

“Go on! Review the rest. You’ve just grown considerably more powerful. Might as well find out in which ways.”

I wiggled a little, unable to help the bubbling excitement, and read on.





Tsuka: Handle of Katana Kotoba

Master’s Awareness (Passive): Increased battlefield awareness during all close-quarter combat. Increases visual, auditory, and kinesthetic interpretation of an opponent’s moves. +25% movement speed when parrying, dodging, or blocking.





Saya: Sheath of Katana Kotoba

Dexterous Disciple (Passive): Reduces the likelihood of tripping or being knocked down by an enemy’s attack by 30%.





Same: Ray Skin Handle Wrap of Katana Kotoba

Shuddering Soul (Passive): When attacked, the user’s body, and everything worn or carried, shudders through space and time, reducing the chance of evading any physical or magical blows by 15%.





I shook my head, dumbfounded. None of the skills would make me more capable of cutting down my enemies. But they would sure as heck have a harder time cutting me down.

“This explains a lot about that fight with the sword master,” I said. “It seemed no matter what we did, he knew how to evade or counter. There was more to it than the sheer level difference. The Master’s Awareness gave him a distinct advantage. And the Shuddering Soul was pretty much what ended the fight.”

I cleared my vision and leaned in closer. “You’d have loved to have seen the fight, Quinn. Madi and I were going all out. I used every trick shot I had, and it almost started to work. Then he triggered an active version of Shuddering Soul and our attacks just passed through him.”

“And then?” Quinn asked, his voice as enthusiastic as mine.

I chuckled. “Then we were cut down like weeds. Pachi and Tejón came in at the last minute and stomped out the jerk’s flames, though.”

It is true, Quinn, Pachi said, her breathing growing ragged with excitement. Tejón is young, but he has long claws and much strength. We combined our elemental powers to great effect.

I believe you, Pachi, Quinn replied. I had meant to thank you as well. You’ve saved my life more than once, young lady. Though I’ve known a few of your kind, I will say you are not only the bravest vardeen I’ve met, but also the loveliest.

Quinn’s words forced a thrumming purr from Pachi’s throat that vibrated the air in the room.

“Quinn, you’ve got good taste in girls,” I joked, trying not to laugh at the enfield’s embarrassment. “And Pachi, the town gave me a gift for you. I’ll show you when we’re on our way. I’m sure you’ll appreciate it.”

Focusing on me once more, Quinn added, “It was a miracle the two companions arrived when they did. The world would have suffered a blow had I died, sure enough. The sword master was simply an assassin. The Rat King’s way of wounding us if his prize was stolen. But had Alysand fallen as well…”

His voice broke off and his eyes filled with tears.

“Wait—aren’t you and the other Elders the most powerful beings in this world?” I asked, a bit confused.

“In a way, perhaps. Though there are ancient gods, forest spirits, and of course the dragons. They are the most powerful in the martial sense, but the Elders serve a different purpose. We are light bearers, living on to hold off the darkness. But Alysand is the last of his line, and a noble line it was. Were the gunsingers to perish entirely… it would be a tragedy.”

I thought about his words for a time, and I had to agree. Even the way Alysand spoke and carried himself… He seemed like a faded photograph, drifting through the world long after it should be.

“But he has an apprentice now,” I said. “That is something, yeah?”

Quinn nodded solemnly and wiped his cheeks clean. “It is, Hana. Well said. Now, please, it is time I rest again. Journey safely, and use the items I’ve given you wisely.”

I kissed the old man on his cheek and left through the front door.

The sun had gone down, and dusk was settling over Taelman’s Pond as I left Quinn’s shop behind. Pachi was skipping about, telling me how wonderful tea was. It’s like the feathers in my wings are all singing the same song! Why don’t people drink tea all the time?

I suppose because they need to get sleep sometimes, I explained, enjoying the small spectacle my companion was making. If you drink too much of it, or too much coffee, it’ll feel like your feathers are screaming. Less fun.

She pranced beside me, her legs bouncing off of the ground like a dancing horse. I must go at once. I won’t be long, I promise, but I must feel the wind under my wings. Then she launched into the air.

Pachi flew up over the pond, her crimson and black feathers looking like fire in the sunset. But then she turned around and swooped low over the town. At one point she came so low that a small dust cloud rolled up from the street and a few villagers scattered.

Knock it off! I shouted to her. You’re going to give someone a heart attack.

I’m sorry. I’ll go harry some squirrels, then. They can be a lot of fun. She darted over the front gate and sped into the approaching night.

“Crazy girl… now I know not to let her try anything stronger,” I muttered to myself, at last climbing the small hill toward Corell’s house.

I examined the missing components of my sword as I did so.





Parts missing: 3/10 - habaki and fuchi (blade and handle collars), sageo (hanging cord), menuki (ornaments).





Other than the habaki and fuchi, two small pieces of steel that helped secure the handle further, the other components were more or less decorative. The hanging cord had a function, but I didn’t wear my sword like a kendo swordsman. Still, what kind of skill might the rest grant when I collected them?

I was also curious as to who or what I might have to fight to get them back.

Most likely some fiend that fought for the Rat King, or perhaps the king himself. It would make sense for him to hold some of the power himself. Either way, I was certain I’d only get the rest back with a fight.

I knocked on Correll’s front door and Adalee answered. The tall huntress smiled and pulled me inside. By the rosy hue of her cheeks, I could tell she’d been drinking.

The rest of the household, however, was far more subdued. It seemed, even weeks later, the family still grieved the loss of their son.

“Come,” Corell said, his face struggling to form a smile, “sit down, girl! Don’t let our mood affect your own. We wish to share a single night with you, and there’ll be no weeping at the table tonight. No, we’ve cracked a cask of mead in your honor.” He held up his mug.

I sat down and thanked them, then found my own mug.

Dinner was awkward at first, but after I told them of Pachi’s reaction to the tea, laughter fell at last among us. Then more drinks were poured, and the conversation moved away from their son and the war and struggle that took him away.

A few hours passed, and we all nursed mugs of mulled wine under the night sky. Pachi had exhausted herself and was already asleep.

“Do you mind if I sleep here tonight?” I asked. “I’ll be gone at first light.”

“The hearth is yours, or… we do have an extra bed,” Corell said, his voice cracking at the end.

I rubbed his shoulder briefly. “I’ll sleep out here with Pachi, but if you have a bedroll and blanket, I’d be grateful.”

He nodded, turning his face away from me. I didn’t have to see the tears on his cheeks to know they were there.

Feeling moved, I turned to face Corell directly. “I know it still hurts, but I know Alysand well. He is hard, and his heart has been broken a hundred times, but he is also one of the sweetest men I’ve ever known. Your son Torven will be taken care of. His life won’t be the same, but… but in Alysand’s company, he’ll be safe.”

The tall hunter grimaced, but patted me on the back. “You’re right. And I know that. The gunsinger’s reputation is spotless. I grieve mostly for our loss. We won’t be able to share our lives with Torven. I’m also sad he won’t be able to have children of his own.”

“No,” I admitted. “But one day, if it’s meant to be, he might have an apprentice of his own. That is close. When Alysand heard of his master’s demise, it seemed as if someone had killed his own father. Consider that, Corell.”

We didn’t speak any more about it, but Adalee soon after excused herself. She returned with the sleeping implements I’d requested, and they left me alone with Pachi.

I gave the enfield a nudge, and she opened one of her wings for me without otherwise moving or speaking. I was soon as deep in sleep as she was.

I took a sandwich filled with eggs and bacon the next morning, and Pachi and I packed up our gear and flew up toward the mountains before the sun was fully risen. Getting an early start on an epic quest felt restoring in a way I couldn’t explain.

At first, the mountains appeared like little more than a scattering of black marbles in the distance. But as we drew nearer, their shapes became more distinct. And as the sun hit their slopes, they lit up with a chocolate brown. Whatever kind of stone made them up, it had nothing in common with the stark gray peaks of the Sirrushi Mountains.

I planned on thoroughly examining the reward items Quinn had given me, but wanted to wait until we’d arrived at our destination, and I could finally relax.

I did review the quest Quinn granted me, however, wanting to be sure we were following his instructions as closely as possible.





Seek the Elder in the Glade of Longing: Epic Quest. After saving Quinn, you’ve helped preserve the balance of power. Yet a new threat has risen in the Lemish Mountains, and another child of Lem is in danger. Seek out the Elder and provide what services you are able to restore her position. If you are successful, you will also earn the honor of bearing the legendary bow you’ve been given. Rewards: Unlock the Lost Bow, reputation with all allied factions, additional quest chains, 20,000 XP.





I didn’t learn as much as I’d have liked, but was excited to see the potential rewards. Not only would the XP help push me along my path, but the Forest Warden class rank required significant reputation gains.

I was, once again, on the right path.

With a touch of bitterness, I also glanced at my character sheet.





Hana Kotoba: Level 28

Class Rank: Pathfinder

HP: 10753/10753

Armor Rating 360





Vitality 36 (+3)

Strength 19 (+8)

Dexterity 32 (+40, +10% total)

Intelligence 19 (+8)

Stamina 25 (+21)





It was still a hard pill to swallow that after fighting hundreds of enemies, and killing dozens personally, I was still the same level I had been before the Battle of Taelman’s Pond.

Still, dying at higher levels came with a severe XP penalty, and Madi was in the same boat.

The good thing was that I was a few kills away from Level 29. If this quest proved as intense as I thought it might, I’d most likely break through to Level 30 as well.

At last, I did the one chore I’d been dreading the most. I checked my messages.

Thank the falling stars, none were from Madi or AllHands Inc. But I did recognize one that seemed important enough to read.

I opened it up, feeling a few emotions stir within me, anger chief among them.





From @ShinToeBro44: “Hana!!! ARE YOU STILL ALIVE… Sorry, I know you’re probably off on some exclusively unique quest with Pachi, destroying the world and knocking down the gates of the heavens. But I wanted to give you an update on stuff.

I’ve been working with Madi, and I’ll tell you, she is a serious gamer. Girl can swing an axe. We are heading a little deeper into the wilds on a side quest, and wanted to let you know I’m leveling up quick, already Level 22! Going on a treasure hunt next.

Still, I’ll be back when we finish. I think as soon as tonight. Any way I can talk you into some gaming time the following morning? I REALLY want you to see my new place. Please? If you want, I’ll back off about the whole ‘move in with me’ thing. Just want you to see my new life, and besides, I miss my friend…

Talk soon!”





Guilt seeped into my core, pushing out any remaining anger. Why am I even mad at him? He’s only trying to be nice, trying to share his life with mine.

If I had to guess, I’d say I was just having trouble trusting people again. If all the roommates you’ve ever had up and died, how quickly would you want to move in with more?

Sighing, I hammered out a response of my own.





To @ShinToeBro44: “Hey, hey! Sorry, I’ve been… struggling? Whatever. I’m doing good, I swear, but got a lot of input all at once. Kinda flooded my senses, y’know?

Not sure if Madi told you what she asked me, but I’m working on it. If you can, just tell her I haven’t died or left the world. Just need some time.

I also didn’t mention that AllHands Inc. is tripling my payment allotments considering the money I’ve managed to make in game. Pretty jacked up. I’m stressed, man. I don’t know how else to put it.

Anyway, yeah, let’s meet up tomorrow morning. I’ll make sure I have a safe place to camp. Heading up into the Lemish Mountains with Pachi. You guessed it. Epic quests all the way.

If something comes up, just message me. Otherwise, I expect to see you soon. Send me your address and I’ll make some time to see my big brother’s new home.

Any ideas for games?”





I cleared my vision and focused once more on my surroundings. The view was spectacular, and I could see the mountains looming before us.

Pachi and I chatted for a while, but most of our trip was made in silence.

As the land bled away beneath us, I pulled up my mental map.

When I’d first opened it, so many weeks ago, it contained little more than smudged black terrain. Now, I could see the area surrounding Taelman’s Pond. A patch of map was revealed where I’d built my first shelter, and again where I’d saved Pachi from ratkin.

Then, a trail shot all the way through the forest, and roamed about the hill where Judas’ shack had been, and where Pachi and I had saved Madi. The path to Benham, to Gilsby near the ocean, and up to the Iron Mines were all revealed, evidence of the adventures I’d had in this world. A large portion of the Sirrushi Mountains were uncovered as well, but now, I was heading into another cloud of black.

Excitement thrummed in my belly as I remembered we were traveling directly into the unknown.

As Quinn had told me, however, several map markers were now present. The one directly ahead of us was labeled “The Peaks of Crannoth.” I knew it was our destination, for it was the only marker I could fully access.

The others were scattered across the land. One was in a distant portion of the Lemish Mountains, even further east.

Two more were south. The first of these along the Wargen Mountains, and the second in the middle of the Almawti Desert.

A fifth marker lay on the western coast of the continent, further south than Pachi and I had ever traveled. Is that the location of the Rat King’s lair? If so, I guess it’s nice to know exactly where it is. Or is it something else?

The not knowing was irritating, but the markers were fuzzed out of focus and none were labeled. If I had to take a stab at it, I’d say I had to unlock each as I progressed.

Sweeping the map out of my view, I looked to the present. I had no other options anyhow.

It wasn’t long before the winds carried us over the steep slopes. The soil was a rich red, and the stones looked somewhat like lava rock, all grown over with grass and moss. The trees were shorter here, and grew in thick groves occasionally.

Pachi’s chest rumbled, and I looked down to see the mountain goats she’d spotted.

Easy game, Hana. Hold on, she said before banking hard and falling like a stone.

After having ridden her so often, all I received from her aerial antics was a rush. I gripped her with my thighs