We decided to put a pin on the matter of Faeries for now.
First, we would need the whole group to be at least level 30 before even standing a chance of surviving, according to the more informed NPCs. While I was halfway across level 27, none of the others had reached even 25.
Second, we didn't know exactly where the key was. Or if it was even there at all. The NPCs would do the groundwork of charting the region and finding "key" spots, while the Heroes would surgically strike in at the end to actually retrieve the key if needed.
We sat at a former campsite just outside the forest. It was decided that we - the four of Julie's group and myself, would stay the night there. The Dark Bear sortie had moved on, half of them back to where ever NPCs go off-screen, the other half to investigate the Wyrms I spoke of during my retelling of the journey south.
We mostly kept to ourselves during our walk back to the camp, making little small talk. It was far into the evening and I sat on a log facing the crackling fire. Julie and John claimed another log off to the right and perpendicular to mine, also facing the center. Carl and the other one were out on watch. At least the girl was, I didn't see Carl after we set the camp up.
I slowly slurped my saltwater that was supposed to be a stew, listening to John speak about his home.
"So it's like here?" Julie queried with a twinkle in her eyes.
"Yes," John replied. He hadn't taken a sip of his stew yet. "If anything, the trees are even larger. My grandfather had a fief larger than the Clan Pierce and Wengli combined, my father says. He used to run free like a wild buck in woods so old you could practically feel the weight of time there."
John gives a rare smile, gazing at the burning logs, probably imagining the scene. "My father was being bullheaded, said he wanted to stay and fight, but grandfather knocked him out one night and stuffed him on the ship to Alteraz."
The smile vanished, replaced by thinning lips. "Da is too old to go back now, but his dream lives through his children. We will reclaim our home one day. And our children will run free through those woods again."
I gulped down the water that was staining my tongue. It didn't feel like a moment to slurp another mouthful. But I did not know what to say either. I was about to come up with some generic condolences but Julie beat me to it.
She balanced her own bowl in one hand, gently placed the other on John's knee, and whispered so softly that her voice barely made it to me, "Your home sounds beautiful John. I can't wait to see it myself!"
John gave a soft smile as he looked at Julie, a mix of sorrow and hope. Julie squeezed her hand tighter and stared right back. 'His home has been overtaken by Calamity. Even if it is not utterly destroyed by now, we would have to defeat the Calamity to reclaim it. And I doubt us players would stay in the game after that.' I thought. "A worthy goal," I spoke out loud, looking at John. He broke the staring contest with Julie and nodded at me.
"STOP!" shouted our lady watcher. I immediately got up and started jogging her way, right on the heels of the other two. It couldn't be a monster, I had not sensed any. Unless it was a high-leveled one. But then she wouldn't just ask it to stop.
My confusion was answered as I spotted the girl speaking hurriedly to Carl. "There's a defensive magical Circle laid by Sir Mage Hero here." She pointed to the ground. 'Ah.' Carl had vanished before I could explain the Circle I had laid around the camp, hence the ruckus now that he had arrived. "Ach. How'd I get in then?" They all looked at me.
¤ ¤ ¤
In the end, we four walked out of the Circle. Then I threw a big rock and destroyed it. Then all five of us walked in. I was embarrassed the whole time. 'It's not my fault I don't know how to temporarily disable these things. Jeez.'
I wondered what would happen if something random like a leaf or some bird comes inside. Blow up, probably. In my defense, I was incredibly on edge and needed something to reassure me when I created these. Thankfully, no one questioned it when I didn't put up another Circle, assuming I was low on mana or something.
"Ain't seen magic like that before, no sir," Carl spoke up, after taking a bowl of his own. The girl went back to her watch and the rest of us took seats on the log.
"Really? I figured you'd have seen a magic Circle before." I questioned.
"Magic Circle I've seen, aye. More than my fair share, I say. But never one made by a single Mage. Or drawn in the dirt." He replied.
Technically, I wasn't drawing them in the dirt. I was digging inches deep furrows in the ground itself.
"Most I seen made up on the spot, a Mage drawn some squiggles on a paper. Smelt funny that. Used it to blow a goblin's arse, so there's that. Haha." Carl guffawed. John leveled a stare are him. Carl quickly ingested the rest of his laughter into a cough and apologized, "Ah. Beggin' pardon sires and milady. My tongue work faster than my old brain oftentimes."
I waved him off. 'So Circles are pretty rare. Got it.'
"You were here during the Goblin Wars?" I queried.
"Aye. I was." He gave a quick glance around, making sure the lady was keeping watch, then leaned in. "Was but a young buck with a new class when I took to ship. Lived me whole life here, like as not. And fought in most places as wars took me. And to speak truth, I be dying 'ere as well." He raised his hand before any of us could say anything. "I ain't complaining. I lived a long life. And never faced the Calamity, thank sweet Luminari for that. But it won't be the same for you lot."
He looked at the girl again. She glanced back and gave a smile. He smiled back. She went back to patrolling and his smile vanished. "I ain't faced it, but I saw enough good men and women go off to fight it. Most never made it back. The few that did." He shook his head and sighed. "They weren't right in the head. Strong people, each and every one of them. I canne even imagine what they seen."
He took a sip then. I waited for him to continue. He didn't, so I prodded. "What do you mean?"
"Ach, how do I speak it. It be like they died out there, just didn't know it. Their eyes! Luminaris. Their eyes were dead! They had given up on living, you ken?" He took a sip, a tremor running through his aged arms. "Many of them that returned, went right back in the fight. It be like they were not of this world anymore. The remained?" He took a breath. "They hanged themselves within days."
He glanced morosely at the girl at the edge of our camp. "And now you young 'uns will fight the same darn fight."
¤ ¤ ¤
Late at night, the girl returned from the watch and Carl took over. Our talks continued.
Apparently, the girl was named Carla, after her grandfather. Yes, she was the old man's granddaughter. It was surprising but also fitting, in a way. NPCs in this simulation were tightly related to each other, and each one seemingly had a unique perspective and history to share. At least all the ones I had interacted with so far. I couldn't even imagine the amount of effort and resources that must've been poured to reach this stage.
Currently, we were back on the topic of Julie's advancement.
"So what evolution do you think you will get?" I asked. 'I know of one possible evolution. Royal Archer. No, make that two.' There was Seline's Sniper Class as well. 'Perhaps there is Ranger as well, or is it only for Scouts?'
"Evolution?" Julie looked at me, confused. I looked back, just as confused. 'She doesn't know?' We both looked at John, who drove his hand through his hair and laughed sheepishly.
"He wanted it to be a surprise." Carla came to the rescue. 'Surprise?' Perhaps she was pouring oil into the fire. Her smirk at least suggested so.
Julie gaped at John for a while, then both burst out in giggles. Carla's smirk turned into smug satisfaction, but I remained as confused as before. Eventually, Julie calmed down and asked me, "What is your evolution?"
I waited until the ambiance settled down suitably. Deciding to go with the flow - and ignoring the sudden change in topic, I replied, "I got Battle Mage."
Carla sucked in a breath while John's eyes widened. 'Is it that big of a deal? Tyee was chill with it.'
"That be... wow." Carla exhaled loudly. She had gotten comfortable with me around now, perhaps knowing I wasn't a stickler for rules and such. I also noticed how she slipped into an accent similar to her grandfather's now and then.
"It is a very valuable Class, Sire." John started. "I don't think there is any peer Class that can stand in the face of a Battle Mage's Skills."
"Is it that powerful?" Julie had slight awe in her voice as well.
John nodded as he replied to Julie's question, "It is. I've seen it for myself. Sire Hilbert - " He looked at me, "Francisa's elder brother, was a Battle Mage. He was posted at the High Passes before his untimely death." He gestured back into the forest beyond the camp limits, "The Dark Bear we fought, he would've destroyed it within minutes." An unlikely chuckle escaped him then, "And perhaps a great number of trees while at it." He then stared at me earnestly, "But be warned Sire, with great power comes a great number of enemies. And not every opponent fights face-to-face." He gestured at Julie's bow. "An arrow or poison may not seem more dangerous than a dragon's claw or breath, but all are equally lethal to the unprepared."
I nodded. I wasn't taking it easy per se, but saying and doing are different things. Either way, I was thankful for the advice. He was not done though.
"Sir Hilbert was ferocious on his own, yet he always had the support of his entourage. Battle Mages are effective but also inherit all the weaknesses of their base Class. Their mana is large but limited, and once it runs out, they are little better than a civilian in the field. They also aren't very mobile, so they need to pick a good spot in the first place - difficult in the middle of combat, and secondly, must be protected at all times. For a Warrior may shrug off an arrow or two, at least until the end of a fight to get it treated, but it will likely be the end of the line for the Mage."
I nodded again. I was looking into defensive spell functions but had no epiphany yet. John just made their priority go up, enough that I might have to reach out for help from others. That would only happen when I reached back to the capital, however, as Clan Rice had no Mages and Clan Pierce's were concentrated on the High Passes and northern wilderness.
John did offer to have me escorted to the capital along with the half of the unit that went back, but I had declined. I chose to stay until Julie reached level 25, then go back together to the palace to regroup with others and make further plans. It would also offer some respite from back-to-back days of excitement.
I bid the rest goodnight soon after and headed into a tiny tent, Julie's words of wanting to see John's home echoing in the back of my mind for some reason.