"...and that is when you all found me." I finished a tale of kidnapping, chase, murder, and massacre. The absurd reality of events still felt... absurd. 'Is this how actual in-game player characters would feel, assuming they could?' They would not have the benefit of an outside perspective like mine.
"Whoa." Julie exhaled, the Rangers surrounding us now pointedly looking away. I was aware of them keeping half an ear on my story. Julie continued, "And you already reached level 25? I've been training every day and am still two levels away!"
"Maybe it's because you've been sharing XP with a whole group?" I replied. Julie hmm'ed thoughtfully. The guy who was Julie's representative spoke up. "Sire?"
"Yes? Sorry, I missed your name." I don't remember if we were introduced back at the palace. I do sorta remember his serious face, but I forgot most of the names.
"Johnathan Rice, Sire. Of Clan Rice. Subordinate of Clan Pierce, Stewards of High Passes." He bowed from where he was standing a distance away from Julie and me. I nodded awkwardly, still unused to the etiquette. "You mentioned that the men from Royal Ranger Corp made an attempt on your life?"
"Um... I'm not sure. The Assassin was hiding amongst them, but he killed his fellow Ranger. He also mentioned a contract from the New Church. And that he was a hired hand." It would be pretty bad odds if an entire military arm was hostile to me.
John looked like he wanted to say more, but Julie butted in excitedly. "So you lived with the Centaurs? What was it like? What are they like? Did you ride any? From what John says, they give a samurai vibe. Did you fight with any?"
Julie certainly was gushing with novel energy. I had never seen her like this in the Tutorial. I raised my palms in a calming gesture, "I was there for like, half a day. And most of that was spent either in a tent or asleep. I told you right? First I was knocked out, then I had to flee." I thought of the Centaurs I had met in the brief time I spent in the Tadako tribe. Kai, the grandmother with supernatural wisdom. Nina, a raging firestorm of a Centaur-woman.
"Maybe they are a bit like samurai. Not all of them, but some. In the sense that they are dedicated to their path. Like bushido, you know?" Julie nodded eagerly. I continued with a chuckle, "And no, I neither rode nor fought any. I think either would've led to a swift death." Julie chuckled with me, as I thought of the time I felt swift death closing in on me. "I hope Arya and Carol are okay."
Julie leveled a stare at John, who instantly perked up. "Fear not sire. I shall have a message sent to the palace." With that, he left to speak with one of his men. Some were still occupied with skinning the dead beast.
"So... That's about me. How have you been?" I was genuinely curious. Julie had lived for a couple of weeks entirely among the NPCs. I hoped she didn't feel lonely.
"It's been awesome!" She laughed. "To think I spent my whole life in one dinky apartment or another! I love the forest, these big-ass trees, and lush greenery. I love going on hunts, and pitting my bow against ferocious creatures. I love camping out under the starry sky when all the troubles just melt away. It's just so... I don't know how to say it. I just feel so alive you know? It all feels just right to me. I never knew I was an outdoorsy type. Now? Verdammmt, can't wait to trail another monster and class up already!"
I stared at her, surprised at the outburst. "Wow... Someone's having a lot of fun, eh?" I smirked. She slapped my arm.
Her smile waned a little. "I don't know how I would live back... in the other world, knowing what I know now."
I gawked at her. 'This world is fake.' I wanted to shout in her face. But I knew she knew it herself. Iterating on it was useless. I tried another tactic, hoping to make her feel better.
"Well, think of it like this. Now that you know you love the outdoors, you and Jake can go camp out in the woods. Hike away in the Alps or something." I joked. She smiled again, but it was a weary one. Definitely not the one I was aiming for. She didn't reply; instead, she went quiet and gazed away into the forest.
I decided not to dig a deeper hole, and watched the Rangers work until John returned. "Mage Hero Sire, I have had an urgent message dispatched to the palace, letting them know of your well-being." He glanced towards my fellow test subject. "Julie?" He asked with concern. Julie focused back, replacing her morose smile with a warm one. "We leaving? About time." She got up from the log we had turned into our temporary lounge and brushed off clingy loose dirt off her robe. "Come, we'll go back to our place. The High Passes are that-a-way," she gestured to the right, "no point going there now. Tell me about the lightning show you had going on. And how did you make the tree glow? Also -"
Julie continued ranting. It was like meeting an old friend after a very long time, one who wanted to share every bit of mundane gossip. She was unlike the stoically determined Julie I had come to know. While she still had a streak of "leading the march", it was a different drive that pushed her now. I was glad for her, although it was tinged with the sorrow of knowing her new reality was built on shaky virtual foundations. I would not be the one to burst her bubble. I let her be, glad for however long the temporary happiness would last. One must snatch it where one can.
¤ ¤ ¤
It turned out that the entire expedition was out in the search of the Dark Bear itself. It had apparently migrated too far away from the northern mountains, a rare thing to happen. The Clans had caught wind of it traveling south and dispatched a force to take care of it. Julie was in the area with John and a couple more of his people for training and had attached herself to the group for the hunt.
It was a supposedly lucky coincidence that they came across me when they did. The lightning noises worked as a beacon, and they took the opportunity to surround and bombard the monster with arrows while it was otherwise occupied.
As we walked along a comfortable trail, I threw Identifys at the nearby NPCs. John was a triple mark like Francisa, but instead of Prince, his Class was Warden. I wasn't sure what he was a warden of though. 'The forest?' The other two from his entourage - the old guy with more grey than black in his beard was honest-to-goodness Ranger with three marks and the woman, young enough to be in her late teens, was a two-mark Scout.
"So what's this about a key?" Julie commented from my side. I decided to Identify the other NPCs later; even if there was an Assassin hiding, they won't pull any stunt right now.
"Kai, the old Centaur lady I told you about?" I glanced at Julie, who replied, "The Seer?" I nodded and continued, "Her. She gave me this thing -" I removed the pure-white marble with inlaid gold from the depths of my robe pocket and handed it over to Julie. "said it was a 'key'. And that there are two more. All three will be needed in some way to defeat the Calamity." Julie rolled the marble in her palm, eyes furrowed in concentration. Speaking of Calamity got everyone's attention, but it was John who spoke up.
"And did the Seer mention where those might be, Sire?" He questioned lightly.
"Just call me Pat, John," I said. He wasn't this stiff with Julie. "And no, I'm afraid she didn't elaborate precisely where, just that both were inside the forest to the south on either side of the mountains." 'And that there will be trials for both of them.'
"Sire Pat." He nodded, "I've read reports of Elven machines guarding the forest to the south on the other side. As for the forest directly south of us? I cannot say. I don't think anyone has traveled in far."
"And with good reason." Muttered the old Ranger, speaking up for the first time since I joined them. "Ah, beggin' pardon milords. But the forest south is naught but misery an' death, I say."
Julie handed the marble key back to me and queried the man, "What do you mean Carl?"
"Just that milady. I been there, back when we fought the Faeries. 'Twas no fight that, no sir. Them creatures played with the men like cats with mice. Pulled men into bogs that weren't there a step before, poisoned our water with every random sip, spoiled our rations on a whimsy. They loved to play tricks on our minds. Why, I seen one man on watch just walk away into the dark, beaming like he knew a joke none else did. Tried to stop him, I did. But was too late. And I dare not follow him. He wasn't seen again, that poor lout. And all this before we even went deep in the forest, mind you. Them Faeries were much closer to our lands before we drove 'em back. But by sweet Luminari, I'd face a dozen Dark Bears any day over one of them Faerie folk."
We were all stunned into silence. All this time, when the topic of Faeries came up, I imagined someone like Tinkerbell buzzing around. Apparently, I was way off base. That did bring up a curious question, which I offered immediately,
"How did you drive them back?"
It wasn't old man Carl who answered me, however, it was John. "Sire, didn't Francisa mention the Faerie War?"
'Francisa? What has she got to do with this?' I tried to recall what she had to say regarding this topic.
"Um, she did touch on it. Apparently, humans tried to conquer the southern forest in their early efforts to colonize the region. But they encountered fierce resistance from the native creatures. They were driven off, but humans left the place alone as well. She did not mention how or why though."
"Curious..." John whispered, then spoke up as if reciting a rote lesson from childhood, "Sire Alexander Von Lohengramm the Second himself lent a hand to the Southern Division who were stuck deep in the forest, even though he was assigned to the Field Army conquering the central swath."
He glanced at Carl. Carl nodded. Unspoken words were exchanged.
"His glorious deeds saved many men that day. They were able to retreat safely, although the area was deemed too dangerous for humans thence."
'Francisa is not one to shy from speaking about her family history. Seems like she was skipping out on some things though. Curious indeed.'
"Um, okay," I replied, most of my attention focused on dissecting the mystery so I had no more questions. Julie, however, had an excellent one:
"So how do we get the key from the Faeries?"