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Enpisci

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I am an Enpisci.

So were my progenitors, and so is everyone else in my village.

Willowbranch. It’s a tiny settlement at the edge of the Black Forest. Bartlie says that in ancient times, Pleers would come to Willowbranch from all over the world to fight monsters. In droves and droves they would fight beasts of all measure, leaving legends of their deeds in the tavern. I suppose that was back before everyone realized the hard truth.

Monsters cannot be beaten.

They can be fought. But never beaten. Because of the respawn. Wait long enough, and every monster comes back. They are, in that way, the only true immortals of the realm. Legend says a Pleer cannot die unless killed. And a monster cannot die even when killed.

The day the gates to the heavens closed, and the gods forsook their children in Ethenria, the Pleers stopped coming. The tavern records became static, stale. An Enpsici cannot leave their home unless commanded by the gods, and in Willowbranch, we stopped hearing the voices of the gods long ago. Though most of the town still prays at the temple. It has been a long time since the altars lit up - even my progenitors could not recall such a thing ever happening in their Service Span.

Willowbranch’s temple isn’t far from its tavern, which sees a lot more traffic these days.

I let out a sigh, and nod my thanks to Bartlie as I take my evening drink over to one of the tavern tables. Pleers and monsters might have their pact with the gods, but we Enpisci are mere mortals, in the end. There are some of us who have made it into the legends of old, of course. But most of us just live quiet lives, in Service, until the life wheel resets. And then the next generation takes over. Some of the village has been getting on me to settle down. Find a partner, raise two children. But, I’m not in any hurry. There’s a lot of time yet before my Span is up, and I still don’t know if I have anything worthy to teach the next generation.

Besides, my brother’s heirs are just small, and deserve to be doted on exclusively for a while. There are a lot of little ones in the village right now for them to play with, too.

No rush.

I think about it, though. Bartlie’s been making noises about it, as well, and bartending is good Service. A food provider always has a lot of sway. A lot of recipes, a central location. Why he’d consider me for a partner is more of a mystery. My progenitors were both Guides, and Willowbranch hasn’t really needed a Guide since the days when Pleers still came to town. Oh, I still work to help the community, of course. Do my part. Mostly maintaining the barricades near to where monsters spawn. The temple basement and the abandoned house nearest to the wood. And I help redraw the maps. No one has left Willowbranch in an age, because of the monsters on the road, but Guides still have knowledge of the surrounding region. Keeping track of it all at least offers us warning if any new monsters might appear too close to the village, or wander near the borders.

Guides can tell where they spawn.

But still, it’s not prestigious work. Not anymore. Sometimes my brother waxes poetic about the ‘olden days’, when our Service was needed. I don’t see much point to it, though. We never even saw those times. We don’t really know if it was better or not.

I’m musing over things, one eye still on Bartlie, when it happens. The tavern door opens with a bang, and Young Farmer runs in. I blink up from my drink, while Bartlie calls out to them.

“Here, now, the drinks’ll keep, Farmer. What are you runnin’ for?” he asks.

“There’s a-” Farmer begins, before stopping for a minute to catch their breath. They point out behind themselves, through the open door. Evening is settling into night. The distant wolf call heralds it, as the sun sets over the mountains. “There’s a figure. A figure coming down the road.”

A murmur starts up from the other tavern patrons. I still in surprise, but Bartlie just scowls.

“What do you mean, a Shambler?” he asks. The current of disbelief eases some. Shamblers look like people, especially at a distance. But they’re monsters. They don’t usually come close enough to town to be seen, but Farmer sometimes wanders out a bit. Despite the cautionary tales and worry. The fields haven’t been safe for three generations, but Farmer’s the curious kind, the same way my brother is.

“Not a Shambler,” Farmer refutes. “It wasn’t even barely dusk when I saw it, and it was walking straight down the road. I came running as soon as I realized. Someone’s coming.From out of town!”

“That’s ridiculous,” Bartlie snaps. “Who would be coming here? Risking Dire Bears and Shamblers and… and, what else?”

He turns to me. I shrug.

“Vampires. Ghost Wolves.” I point to the map hanging up behind the tavern wall, next to the old Pleer legends. The spawn points are marked for as far as my knowledge has them. “Hag Ravens. Would depend on the time of day, too, of course. This hour would be the busiest for all of them.”

“But I definitely saw-” Farmer starts.

They’re interrupted by an ear-splitting shriek.

Everyone in the tavern freezes. And then, by some mutual, unspoken urge, we all get up, and hurry outside. Farmer in the lead, Bartlie pausing just long enough to fetch his nail bat from underneath the counter. A few other doors open in the village. People looking out, wide-eyed and worried. My brother’s husband pulls the children inside, and I suddenly realize just how close their house is to the main road. He sees me. I nod at him.

If something happens, I’ll help them.

The air feels dangerous, in a way that makes all the hairs on the back on my neck, and makes those kinds of thoughts seem necessary.

The main road is long, with the forest like a dark wall of trees beside it. A hill blocks off some of the view, but even though I have never heard it before in my life, I recognize the sounds of the distant shrieking.

“Those are Hag Raven cries,” I say.

Bartlie tightens his grip on his nail bat, and some of the villagers shy back towards the tavern. The Mayor heads over at a brisk jog. Coming straight for me.

“Are you sure?” she asks. “A Hag Raven? Are they inside the borders?”

I frown, and concentrate for a minute. On my Service, and the knowledge it gives me.

“The boundaries for the village haven’t been breached…” I say, before my brother, in turn, comes running up.

“They haven’t,” he agrees. “Have you seen Sam and the kids?”

“They’re inside,” I assure him, nodding towards his house. He hesitates, just a moment. Frowning. Seeing what I had seen, and suddenly taking issue with it.

“It’s too close to the main gate,” he murmurs.

“Take them to the village hall,” I suggest.

He hesitates just a little, but at a nod of permission from The Mayor, goes and runs off to do just that. His family and all the others too close to the road, too. The Mayor gives me a worried look. I remember the old mayor - it’s a Service that brings a lot of worries with it. Always fretting, always trying to keep things in order. The Hag Raven shrieks again, and I wonder if we’re all feeling the same fear.

And then there’s a dying wail.

Silence.

I don’t think the village has ever been so quiet before.

The sound of distant footsteps feels almost like a crack of thunder, for all that it’s too quiet to be anything like it. We watch, half of the village standing outside of the tavern, and just beyond the main gate, as a figure slowly rounds the hill. Not a Hag Raven, although in one hand, they clutch a set of large wings. As they walk, they make an odd gesture, and the wings vanish.

My heart leaps into my throat at the casual display of magic.

“Can’t be,” Bartlie murmurs.

We’re all thinking it, though. The closer the figure gets, the louder the thought becomes.

A Pleer.

Tall and broad, dressed in a long leather coat. Blood is beginning to fade from the wide-cuffed sleeves, with each slow, steady step. A sword hangs from an embroidered belt. The only swords I’ve seen before are collecting dust on the walls of the old Weapons Shop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person so tall before, either. Their ears are rounded, and their jaw is square, and a jagged scar stretches from their eyebrow to their chin.

The stranger walks and walks, and makes their way straight past us. We move aside for them, without even thinking about it. They barely look at us as they make their way into the tavern. The chair scrapes along the floor before they slouch down into it behind a central table.

“I need a drink, and information,” they say, in a low, unhappy voice.

We all look at one another. Hesitating. Shocked by this sudden turn of events.

The Pleer bangs a fist down on the tabletop hard enough to make us all jump.

“What the fucking hell are you fucks just standing around for?!” they demand. “I just walked up here from Bayerwood, and this is the third fucking time I’ve had to deal with you Enpissies gawking at me like you’re glitched. I want a damn drink, and I want some fucking information, and then I want a bed. And not a single one of you is going to ask me a stupid question until all that’s been seen to, unless you want a sword through your guts.”

A cold fear runs down my spine at the threat. I suddenly know, with breathtaking certainty, that this stranger could kill us. That the sword in their hand could slice through any of us. If I were to take my knife and, for some reason, try and stab Bartlie, it would just bounce off. Enpisci cannot take one another’s lives, the gods forbade it. But Pleers… I never knew before that it was different for them.

But I know now.

“They could do it,” I say, to The Mayor and Bartlie.

Bartlie’s hands shake a little. The Mayor swallows, but despite her anxious nature, recovers first.

“Well, get our guest a drink, would you, Bartender?” she says, and makes her way over. Clasping her hands behind her back to hide her own shaking. “Wel… uh, wel-welcome to Willowbranch, traveller. It has been many years since-”

“Yeah, yeah, many years since you saw the likes of me. Does this village have a prostitute?” the Pleer asks.

“N…no,” The Mayor informs them, nervously. “We have food, though, and there is a room above the tavern…”

Bartlie heads for the bar, and I keep a few of the more curious villagers from coming back into the tavern. Motioning that it’s unsafe, as the Pleer scoffs, and Bartlie brings them their drink. Other patrons’ drinks are still abandoned at their tables. The whole thing feels utterly surreal, as the Pleer chugs their ale, and leans so heavily on their chair that it creaks, and then closes their eyes for a moment.

A very tense moment. The Mayor looks like she’s about to ask a question, but she stops herself. Probably rolling the Pleer’s threat over in her mind.

And then the stranger speaks again.

“So you haven’t seen anyone like me in years,” they say. “No one else has passed through? An elven woman, maybe?”

“No, no one else,” The Mayor confirms, easily.

The Pleer curses some more, before kicking the chair next to theirs. It skids across the tavern floor.

“Well, fuck,” they say. “That just leaves Bainbridge. Where’s your map?”

I go and get it, to spare Bartlie having to deal with the stranger going over to the bar. There are a lot of breakable things on it, and it usually takes a long while for glasses to replace themselves. I pull down my latest map, and bring it over to the Pleer’s table.

They snatch it from my hands. Take a knife from their coat, and, before I can protest, stab it through the parchment. Pinning it to the table, before hunching over it.

“This the best you have?” they ask.

“Yes,” I confirm, because it easily is. And if it gets any more damaged, I’ll have to redraw the whole thing by hand again. The Pleer’s gaze turns towards me, then. There’s something… off about it. Something unsettling. Like some part of them hates me, or hates everything about me, even though this is the first time we’ve met.

I’m relieved when they look back at the map.

Bainbridge is on it. So is Bayerwood. I’ve never seen either, but I know where they are. Bayerwood is further down the road the Pleer came up by, which fits with their story. Willowbranch is the village nearest to the forest, while Bainbridge is the last village I have any knowledge of. It’s near to a desert. I don’t know anything about the desert, except that it exists. It’s a void - a wall. The road to Bainbridge is even more perilous than the one up from Bayerwood. A Lich King spawns along it, and the closer one gets to the bridge which leads to Bainbridge village, the denser the spawn points for Skeleton Knights and Wyverns and Harpies become.

The Pleer looks at the map for a long while. And then they demand that we all leave the tavern, in so many words. ‘Fuck off out of here and don’t come back until morning’, mainly. I go and find my brother and his family, still waiting in the village hall. The Mayor holds an emergency meeting. But no one really knows what to do or say. No one alive remembers the last time a Pleer came to Willowbranch. Some Enpisci know that their Services should be performed differently for that, though, and so as the night unfolds, and the village children sleep in a campout in the main hall, the Weapon Shop is dusted and the Market Stalls are rearranged, goods put out onto displays, and signs hung up and the temple doors flung wide open.

Some of the villagers even start to get excited about it. Elisno has some shop records, passed down from her progenitors, of the last sale that the Weapons Shop ever made. A Greatsword of Frost, sold to a Pleer named Javie.

“It would be something if some of the records got updated,” she enthuses. “Maybe something’s changed. Maybe more Pleers will start coming again.”

High Priestess is also hopeful. A Pleer coming, she says, is a promising sign. The gods have changed the world many times over, after all. Maybe the days of condemnation are done. Maybe one of them has come to find their lost children, to open the gates to heaven and gather the Pleers to end the eternity of monsters. Maybe this is the start of a new beginning.

I doubt it, myself.

If anything, seeing this Pleer makes me understand why the gods might forsake them all.

That’s a harsh thought, though. My brother cautions against it. He’s tentatively hopeful, although he and Sam still keep their children in the main hall, rather than taking them home.

“It must be hard, fighting monsters to get up along the roads,” he says. “Maybe the Pleer was injured.”

“They didn’t ask for healing,” I point out. “The temple doors are open. And you didn’t hear them talk.”

He shrugs.

“I’m not saying they were pleasant,” he insists. “I’m just saying, no one’s at their best after nearly getting killed by a Hag Raven. If that happened to me, I’d need a drink, too. Maybe we just shouldn’t assume that how they were last night is how they always are.”

I leave the matter be, even though something in me doubts that the light of day will bring a more pleasant Pleer along with it.

I don’t want to be right.

But I am.

It’s closer to noon when the Pleer emerges from the tavern. Wearing their long leather coat, armed with glinting weapons. I wonder if they slept in all that. If they slept at all. Do Pleers sleep? I have no idea. The stranger walks out into the town square, and glances towards the market stalls and the shops, before heading to the temple. Ignoring High Priestess’ greeting, they head for the Altar to Umara, and dip their hands into the waters.

A chime rings out. The windows of the temple seem to shine, and to my astonishment, the water glows. High Priestess freezes, and gets an indescribable look on her face. I remember when we were children, playing together in the temple yard, and how we would try and explain the growing feelings our Service brought to us. She had always been so sure that the temple was missing light. Not like torchlight, but something harder to describe. Something that would have happened all the time, before the gates of heaven closed.

If nothing else, I’m glad she gets to witness this. Because I’m sure this is what she meant. The Pleers might be forsaken, but it seems that the gods still answer a few of their prayers anyway. As they leave the temple, the light seems to stick to the Pleer a little. Not bright enough to glow, exactly, but enough to make it seem like a sunbeam has fixed itself to them.

They head for the Potions Shop next. Coming out just a few minutes later with an armful of parcels, that vanish with a gesture. Just like the Hag Raven wings. Where the parcels go, or why someone should buy everything only to banish it an instant later, I can’t say.

The Pleer doesn’t bother with the Weapons Shop.

They head towards the hall next. Or that’s what I think, and I want them to stay away from the children - even as curious as the children are to see them. But before they get to the gate, they detour. And come to stop in front of me, instead.

“I need a guide,” they say. “I’ll be taking the map, but the spawn points could change while I’m out there. Some of that shit’s high level. I’m not risking a Lich King ambush because I set up camp too close to his spawn point. You’re coming with me.”

I freeze in shock. So does everyone else nearby. The words seem incomprehensible - coming with them? Out of the village? They wave a hand, and I feel… something. Like a request, pushing at the back of my mind. A divine compulsion, maybe. The Pleers come from heaven, after all. They are cut from the cloth of the gods. It’s the obligation of Enpisci to serve, but…

No.

I don’t want to go anywhere with this stranger. They are not a friendly person, and it wouldn’t be safe. Even if another opportunity like this never presents itself.

The Pleer grits his teeth, and reaches for his sword.

“I’ll take you.”

We both turn. My heart sinks into my stomach at the sight of my brother, standing behind the Pleer. His expression is determined, but I know that body language. His shoulders are tensed and he’s holding his hands in fists so that they don’t tremble. Jaw slightly clenched for the same reason - he’s frightened.

“I’m a guide, too. I’ll take you where you want to go.”

I shake my head.

The Pleer’s eyes narrow.

“You’re ineligible,” they say. “You have children?”

My brother swallows.

“I… yes, I do,” he says. “That means I can’t go?”

“Well, not with living children around,” the Pleer tells him. Then they glance back to me, and very slowly, draw the sword from their belt. The metal is dark. It gleams, and seems to project an unpleasant aura. There’s something almost red to it, even though I can’t actually see the colour. It makes me vaguely nauseous - nothing like the weapons on the shop racks. “Though I could solve that.”

It takes me a moment to even comprehend their meaning. My brother pales, and when I do I lift up my hands. Horrified. The Pleer doesn’t even step towards the hall, but I feel suddenly, powerfully afraid that they will.

“I’ll go!” I say, at once. “Just don’t… don’t… I’ll go with you!”

My heart is pounding so hard I can feel it in my skull. My brother looks like he’s going to be sick, and I feel like I am, too. My eyes fix onto the weapon in the Pleer’s hands. At least until they put it away again. They laugh when they do, amused by something. Or maybe just pleased with my acquiescence. Maybe Pleers don’t laugh for the same reasons Enpisci do.

“Oh, good. No more wasting time,” they say.

I feel it again, then. Pressing at the back of my mind, the… request.

My stomach is full of rocks. I look at my brother, though.

Yes.

Suddenly, then, I know a whole host of things about the Pleer. Things that I didn’t before, and that he definitely hasn’t told me out loud. I know he has a name. Brandon. I know he has titles. Slayer of the Poisoned Queen and Conqueror of the Wailing Swamplands. I know he’s powerful.

He gestures, and a beige satchel appears in his hand. He thrusts it at me, hard enough to knock the wind out of me. Something inside clinks.

“Take those,” he says. “if you get injured and manage not to die right away, down one. I have plenty, but don’t waste them. Now let’s go.”

He starts walking towards the village gates.

I hesitate. That’s it? Just ‘let’s go’? I’ve never left the village before in my life. I haven’t said goodbye to anyone, haven’t hugged my brother, or Sam, or kissed the children goodbye, or told Bartlie…

But, even as my mind reels, my feet move. Once the Pleer gets a certain distance away, my feet follow of their own accord. It’s a strange and unsettling feeling. I hold the satchel and awkwardly chase after him, looking back as my brother calls out, as High Priestess and a few others join in and give a brief chase.

“Wait!” The Mayor calls. “Wait, please, Pleer!”

“You don’t have to do this!” my brother says. “We have other maps you can take, if you just - you can stay until the spawn points reset again, and then leave straight after! There wouldn’t be time for them to change once more, you could make it to Bainbridge before that happened!”

The Pleer ignores them.

And I just… follow. Numbly. Stupidly. Not even managing to get the satchel on, stunned as we clear the village gates. As we head off down the west road, which no one ever uses even a little, for fear of the monsters that spawn out in this direction. My brother chases after us the longest, with increasing distress.

“Please, mercy, stranger!” he begs.

“Oh, shut up, you whiny little bitch,” the Pleer finally snaps back.

I shake my head. Thinking of that grim, nauseating sword. My brother and I lock eyes, until he hits the boundaries of the village. And then his legs root in spot. And eventually, I have to tear my gaze away, in order to keep following the Pleer in front of me. In order to keep walking past a point I have never before crossed, and never before expected to.

The road is dusty.

It smells different, somehow. Even though it doesn’t really look different from anything I’ve seen before. I walk along. Staring alternately at the backs of Brandon’s shoulders, and the trees, and the sight of the forest I have always seen eventually turning into mountainous rock. It seems to happen all too quickly, though, that the path becomes unfamiliar. Large stone boulders crop up around it. Things I have glimpsed at a distance, but never closely enough to realize that there are carvings on them. I want to stop and look at them all. But the Pleer keeps going, at a pace just fast enough that sometimes I have to jog to keep up.

Eventually, I regain enough wit to sling the satchel strap over my shoulder. Then I look inside, and find half a dozen blue potions in it.

Those are Wendru’s best.

I’ve never even tasted one before. Once, though, a werewolf managed to break out of the temple basement, when I was very young. Everyone who helped fight it off ended up needing a blue potion. That was back when Wendru’s progenitor was the Potion Seller. I remember watching both of mine sip theirs, resting in the big bedroom. How the bleeding wounds on their arms and legs had closed; how they’d needed to take silver potions after, to make certain they didn’t become werewolves themselves.

I can’t help but wonder what they would both make of this.

The boulders turn to sheer rock, framing the path. And I remember enough of what they taught me to start mentally tracking the spawning points. Pebbles bounce away from the Pleer’s boots, and bite into my own soft shoes.

Eventually, I muster up the nerve to ask a question.

“Why do you need to go to Bainbridge?” I ask.

He ignores me.

I swallow, and lick my lips.

“Brandon?” I try.

That makes his steps falter, just a little. He looks at me, eyes wide, before he seems to realize something. And then he just snorts.

“I forgot about that,” he mutters. “Don’t call me that. Call me ‘my lord’.”

He turns away, then, and starts walking faster. I fall silent. Part of me - the part that’s not terribly sensible - wants to call him anything but ‘my lord’. Something more along the lines of ‘asshole’, maybe. Bastard. Jackass. Intolerable fuckweasel. But I know that if I address him, now, the only thing that will actually come out of my mouth will be ‘my lord’.

The powers of the divine - even the forsaken divine - are terrifying. I never really imagined it this way before, but they are brutal in their reality.

A few birds fly over head. There are spawn points up on the rocks, and paths that lead that way. My shoulders tense at the thought of what could be lurking up above. Watching us traverse the narrow road, deeper and deeper into the mountains. Bainbridge is on the other side of a gorge, which then becomes the desert. At my walking pace, it would take three days to get there on foot. Accounting for necessary breaks, and assuming no time-consuming disturbances are to happen.

Like fighting monsters.

We walk, and walk. A few times I hear unfamiliar bird cries. After a while, I do my best to pay more attention to the carvings on the rocks. I can read Common, Dwarvish, and Elvish, as part of my Service, but I don’t know this language. Maybe it’s not a language, though. Maybe it’s art? My Service tells me nothing about it. Eventually the symbols disappear as the surface of the rock changes textures, and we come to points where water runs down striking mountain walls. A Dwarvish sign tells us that Bainbreach Gorge is ahead, and warns of necromancy in the region.

My legs are straining with exhaustion by then. My chest heaving with my breaths, and my skin heated from the sun. Sweat beads on my brow.

The Pleer stops for a moment to stare at the sign.

And then he lets out an irritated sound, and marches over, and takes a seat at the rocks next to it. He waves a hand, and throws and parcel at me. I don’t catch it. It bounces off my chest and to the ground, and I start at it dumbly for a moment, before stooping to pick it up.

“You’re Level One,” he tells me.

I swallow, and am horribly relieved to find the parcel he threw at me contains a water skin and some bread. I move closer to the sign - not really wanting to be near to the Pleer, but not wanting to stay on the open road alone, either. Sitting next to the Dwarvish writing at least helps me feel like other people might be around, as I drink eagerly.

When I’m no longer completely parched, I hazard a reply.

“I don’t know what that means,” I say.

The Pleer snorts.

“Everyone starts at Level One,” he tells me. “The more experience you get, the higher your level becomes. Your whole life, living your shitty little Enpee-see existence in that town, you’ve never leveled up. You’re a random villager with no experience. But for reference - I’m Level Two-Hundred and Ninety.”

I swallow, and take a bite of bread to keep from having to admit that I still don’t understand. There are ‘levels’ on the old legend lists in the tavern, but they seemed to refer to parts of the forest. The numbers didn’t go up very high anyway, only to twelve. And while I might not have left the village before, I definitely have ‘experience’ with some things.

Just not these things. Not things that haven’t happened to anyone in Willowbranch for generations.

The Pleer stares at me.

“That means that everything out here can kill you, really easily,” he says.

“I know that,” I say. Because I do.

“Good. Then you know to hide if something comes at us,” he tells me. “If you die, I’m going to go back to your stupid little village, and get the other guy. And you know what that means.”

I swallow the bread. It tastes like ash.

“They’re just children,” I say. Willot and Esme. They like playing hide-and-seek and throwing seeds to the birds and making mud pies. Esme’s going to be a Guide, like me and my brother. Willot’s going to be a Mason, like Sam. My brother never smiled so big or cried so hard as on the days he went up into the nursery and found their cribs there.

The Pleer snorts.

“They’re fake,” he tells me. “Just like you’re fake. Every fucking thing in this godforsaken world is fake, except for me. And except for the woman I’m looking for. Don’t pull that sob story shit on me. You’re lucky I let off steam in Bayerwood before I got here.”

He leans forward. I look at his eyes again. I’ve seen monsters without those kinds of eyes, without that kind of hatred in them. It freezes me in place. Nauseating, terrifying - like the sickly aura off of his sword.

“I killed every Enpee-see in Bayerwood,” he tells me. “Because they pissed me off. And if you piss me off, I’ll do the same to your shitty little village, too. Just keep that in mind.”

Every…?

I can’t fathom it. But somehow I know that what he’s saying is true. Everyone in Bayerwood is dead. The village is a ghost town, then. Empty buildings, empty houses. I look away, as my hands shake and the bread in crumples into crusty crumbs. My eyes sting, and blur, but more than anything I just feel afraid. Afraid of dying out here. And not just for myself, now, but for what it would mean if the Pleer has to go back to Willowbranch to get my brother.

It takes me a minute.

But I manage to fight off the tears, and drink the rest of the my water. You’ll need it, I think. The water and the energy. I choke down the rest of the bread, too. I’ll have to keep my wits about me. Have to be able to run and hide, to get out of the way, and have a sharp eye out for danger.

I can’t let the Pleer go back to Willowbranch.

My mind shies away from the thought, as I lean against the dwarvish sign.

We don’t talk again until the Pleer finishes his own rations, and then gets up, and starts our trek once more. Stomping his boots, and letting out a frustrated sound when a light rain kicks in. He puts a hood up on his coat. I don’t have a coat. But I don’t mind the rain too much, either. It makes the rocks around us look glossy and oddly beautiful. Deepens the mist coming up from the places where water tumbles down the sides of the road.

The first attack comes, as I’d feared, from above.

There’s a shriek. Like that of the Hag Raven, but different, too. Harpy. All the birds flying overhead before, casting their shadows, almost had me complacent to the sound of flapping wings and things moving above the road. But this is big, and as the cry comes, my heart stills. I reel backwards. Slipping on the rain-slick rocks, as a monster with four wings and clawed legs, and the face and breasts of a human, drops from the sky.

The Pleer, though, seems read for it.

The air around him bursts, like a lightning strike. He lifts one hand up, as the harpy extends its claws towards him, and grabs it around the leg. And then he dashes the creature against the nearest outcropping of rocks. Like a child swinging a toy club. Black feathers explode everywhere. The Harpy’s shriek takes on a different tone. I rush further back, plastering myself up against the opposite stone wall, watching in wide-eyed shocked as the Pleer yanks the creature back. Heedless of the way its talons tear at his coat, as he smashes it against the rocks again.

That seems to daze it. It crumples, still shrieking but also obviously reeling, as the big warrior draws his sword and plunges it into the monster’s chest. Blood sprays onto him. My breaths are loud in my ears, the rocks hard at my back. The rain soaks through me.

The Pleer shifts his grip on his sword, and then in another, smooth gesture, cuts the head from the Harpy.

Its blood steams as it pours onto the road.

Its body twitches.

I watch as every part of it slowly dissolves. It turns to bones, and then motes, except for the wings. The Pleer looks up at the sky for a moment, before picking up the wings, and doing his strange gesture. They vanish. And nothing is left of the monster - just some fading bloodstains.

“Where’s the Harpy spawn point?” he asks me.

I can’t answer.

I want to. My mouth moves, but nothing comes out. I don’t even know the answer, at the moment. I feel strange. Tingling, a little - from the shock? But I can’t keep a thought straight. Everything in my head just buzzes, horrified by the sight of the Harpy’s death.

The Pleer rounds on me, sword still in hand. The panic does nothing to help my focus, but it forces words from me anyway. Gods, he really wasn’t lying. He could kill a whole village. He’d killed that monster so easily. Without any barricades or ranged attacks or anything at all, even. It’d taken half my village to bring down one werewolf from the other side of a row of topple and fortified temple pews, and people had still been badly injured.

The Pleer’s coat doesn’t even stay damaged. The rips on it close, as the bloodstains fade.

“I, I, there - they’re up, on the - in the -”

“Fucking useless,” he growls, and turns. And I am struck by the blind fear that he is turning back towards Willowbranch.

I point. Regaining my wits, through sheer force of desperation.

“It’s that way,” I say, and as I do, I see the large nest situated near to the road. Just at the top of the rocky mountainside.

The Pleer looks, and narrows his eyes.

After a moment, he lets out a breath.

“How many?” he asks.

I swallow.

“Just one, at that point,” I say. “There’s another nest further along, though, and that has three.”

He tilts his head, and keeps his sword at hand.

“Okay,” he says. “Three is going to be a problem for you. Don’t run away, they’ll just pick you off. Stay right behind me.”

I nod, more automatically than anything. His words don’t actually sink in until he starts walking again, and then I scramble to follow. How close is ‘right behind’, I wonder? He seems to swing around a lot when he fights. I keep one eye on the sky, and one eye on him, and shiver as the rain falls harder.

There are shapes, up on the sides of the mountain pass.

Not rocks.

It’s a strange experience, seeing the Harpies at their perches. I wonder if they just… stay there, all the time. Watching the road. It must have been ages since anyone has come down it. Sometimes, when I check the barricades in the village, I think about the monsters behind them. Wondering if they missed the days of the Pleers, too, in some way. The old stories say that monsters are the work of the Dark Gods. Made to sow chaos, to bring violence and discord.

In a way, it’s almost their Service to fight.

But unlike Enpisci, they don’t seem to have much beyond it.

We walk down the path. The Pleer keeps his sword ready. But the Harpies don’t move, not even when we’ve gone past them.

“Huh,” says the Pleer.

“They’re not attacking?” I ask, when I can stop holding my breath. “Why?”

I realize my error a moment later. But to my relief, the Pleer doesn’t seem annoyed by the question. When the Harpies are out of sight, he sheaths his weapon.

“Must be glitched,” he says. “I’ve seen it before. Once walked through an entire pack of Shamblers for ten minutes straight, and they weren’t low-level ones either.”

“…Low-level?” I venture, tentatively.

He shrugs.

“If a monster is too much weaker than you, there’s a chance it won’t attack,” he explains.

“That Harpy seemed a lot weaker than you…”

“Level Two Hundred,” the Pleer replies. “Not weak enough that they should be ignoring me, but that might be the glitch.”

I decide I’ve pressed my luck enough with the questions, as his mood seems to sour then. His expression twists, and his eyes darken. I keep quiet, and focus on the spawn points instead. There are a few more Harpies. I mention them, but they all just silently watch as we make our way along. There would be more if we followed the diverging pathways, but we don’t. And after a while, the rain stops. The mountain walls get lower, and break away into boulders again. We take our second break beside them.

My feet are killing me, and my head is pounding as I drink more water, and eat more bread. The Pleer doesn’t seem tired. Just lost in thought, as he stares up at the sky.

“This is a godforsaken place,” he mutters.

I glance towards him uncertainly.

“…Yes?” I say. The sky is blue, the rocks are grey, and the gods shut the gates of heaven and abandoned us all here. ‘Forsaken’ is just an apt description of it all.

Though I suppose, for a Pleer, the blow might be harder to take.

I wonder…

Well.

I don’t want to piss him off, but I’m probably never going to get another chance to ask. And we’re some distance away from the village, now. It’d be inconvenient, if nothing else, for him to turn all the way back to go get my brother. Maybe I can risk a little annoyance - just a little.

“What were the heavens like?” I wonder. “Before the gates shut?”

It’s the wrong thing to say.

The Pleer’s expression shuts down, closing off, and he gives me that look again.

“Fuck off,” he says.

I don’t ask twice.

My feet are still aching when we start walking again. Trapped in stony silence. The boulders give way, and the path turns from the mountains to the gorge. I don’t mean to stop, but when we clear the rocks enough to see the view beyond them, I do anyway.

Beyond the mountain pass, there is an open field, shrouded in waist-high mists. But in the distance, I can see the gorge, and the statues that mark the bridge that leads to the village. The statues are two ancient figures, with arms raised towards the sun. One of them is missing an arm, by the looks of it. Past them, there is the horizon. Distant mountains, coloured differently from the ones I know, and structures, and the sun settling against clouds that swirl like cream in tea.

I have never seen the likes of it before.

I gawk, until the Pleer gets far enough away that my legs start moving on their own again.

There’s so much space. I knew the world beyond the village was big, that it was bigger than my Service could let me know, that there were things beyond the boundaries of my maps. But I had never imagined what it was really like. How much of it there really could be. The gorge is massive, and the mountains and structures in the distance look tiny, and there is… there is so much of it. It defies me to explain the vastness of it all compared to the village I know. The familiar horizons of my life.

A new, different sort of fear comes over me. Or maybe ‘fear’ is the wrong word. I don’t know how to rightly describe it. Awe? Is this what awe feels like?

Even the details of this region are strange. The dirt beneath my feet is pale, and seems to sparkle in some places. Little green and grey plants grow in spirals from the dirt, and tiny black spiders scuttle between them. The stones that mark the road are pale blue. There are no trees, but there are some tall boulders.

The Pleer stops at the first blue stone road marker, and pulls out the map. Its corner is still torn from where he stuck his knife in it.

“Has anything reset yet?” he wonders.

“No,” I assure him. It can be hard to predict when the spawn points will change, but I always know it.

After a few minutes more of examining the map, he puts it away, and starts down the road. And I follow. Because I don’t have any choice.

Distant shapes move in the mist. Nothing should be spawning right where we are, but sometimes monsters wander. Especially when given the time to, with nothing to kill them or no reset to force them back to their original points. I keep as close to the Pleer as I dare. There are no birds out here. Something does fly overhead. Something big, that makes the Pleer stop and draw his weapon again. I look up, but all I can see is a dark shape against the glare of the sun. Either very large and far away, or smaller but closer by.

A harpy?

No, the shape isn’t right.

A wyvern, maybe. The roar seems to match, as it echoes down towards the gorge. But the beast doesn’t swoop in on us. And again, we keep going after several minutes of tension.

Eventually, we come to a gate at the road. It doesn’t seem to serve much purpose, and is really more of an archway. But dwarvish writing announces Bainbreach Gorge’s location. And there are fountains affixed to the sides of it, and twisting vines growing across it. As we draw near the vines seem to glow, a little.

My feet stop aching.

I hurry over to the fountains to refill my water skin, and to drink from them. The water is clear and refreshing, like the water from the temple back home. I love the gate, I decide. It feels safe. The Pleer drinks, too, though he seems less enamored with the place. He settles down next to it for our break, though. The mist parts around most of the gate, and I feel secure enough to put some distance between us, as I find a bench on the opposite side. Looking out towards that distant view.

Finally, I take a moment to just look at it all, without distractions.

What my brother wouldn’t give to see this.

You know what he wouldn’t give, I think. Sobered by the reminder.

I sit on the bench, and am overcome by the feeling that I am never going to see Willowbranch again. Another sobering thought, as I look out at the unfamiliar terrain set before me. The vastness of the world. The thought of the Pleer heading back to my village is horrifying. And I doubt he will stay in Bainbridge. But maybe if he finds this elven woman he’s looking for, his mood will improve enough for pity to settle in. For him to… to find some way to get me back home. I try and console myself.

Maybe if we make it to Bainbridge… well.

At least we’ll have made it. I have no idea what the other village is like. But I know that Enpisci used to make trips often, in the days when Pleers travelled the lands and fought monsters. Pleers could escort us from one place to the next. Families could be spread out among multiple villages, could offer compensation to Pleers for taking them to see friends or relatives elsewhere. It always sounded so amazing to me.

Now I wonder how many were just dragged around against their will. How many interactions were not what they might seem. In the village records, if you go back far enough in my line of progenitors, you will find the name of a Pleer. Marriage records, for a Guide Enpisci and a ‘Paladin’ Pleer. One child, who grew up and became a Guide themselves, after their progenitor died. No records on what became of the Pleer. Their name was in the legends on the tavern wall, though. Kessardian. They killed a lot of ghouls.

They probably came out this way, at least at some point, I realize. They probably saw much more of the world than any Enpisci.

Did they ever kill a whole village full of people?

I can’t imagine it. They had a child with an Enpisci. Surely they must have loved them, right? To have married and settled down and raised a child. But then… their spouse would have died, eventually. When their Span was done. And their child, too. And all the monsters they had slain would have returned, all their efforts to clear their forest or even just the temple basement for naught. When their gods forsook them…

Maybe the Pleers used to be good, once. Used to care about Enpisci. Maybe even Brandon was, before the weight of immortality became too much to bear.

I look over at him.

Would he know the name Kessardian?

But I can’t find much pity for a man who killed an entire village. Nor much hope in his better nature. I remember the hatred in his eyes, and I look away again. And keep my thoughts to myself.

After a while, the Pleer calls me over.

“Enpee-see,” he says, with a wave.

“My Lord?” I reply, and walk towards him.

He points down the long road towards the statues that mark the bridge.

“I’m not camping in the middle of that,” he says. “So we’re setting up here for the night. Pitch a tent, make us some food, and don’t bother me.” He summons up another bag of things, and thrusts it at me - hard enough to knock away my breath again - before he goes back to glowering at the clouds.

Luckily, part of my Service is knowing how to pitch a tent, even though I’ve never done it before. I set it up, along with a cooking fire. The ingredients in the bag don’t match any of the recipes I know, though. So I simply roast them. Trying not to think about Bartlie, and his many, many recipes, and blaming the water in my eyes on the smoke.

As the sun sets, the mist starts to glow.

The shapes in it become harder to ignore, too. The nightly wolf’s howl sends a chill down my spine, like it never has before.

Night changes the look of the whole place.

The gorge turns pitch black. The blue road markers seem to suck up the moonlight, and glow. The distant spawn points for Skeleton Knights will call them into being, now. And Lich Kings, too, though those are still far off. I set the tent up as near to the gate as I can, right in the middle of the archway, even though some part of me balks at ‘blocking the road’.

No other travelers will be coming, unless High Priestess was right, and things really arechanging.

The Pleer eats, and produces a bottle of alcohol from thin air. It makes me wonder why he was so set on getting ale from the tavern the other day. He drinks, and tosses me a bedroll. And it’s then that I realize, of course, that the tent is just for him.

I look out towards the moving mist, and doubt I’ll get much sleep.

But the Pleer doesn’t seem to be in a great hurry to make use of his accommodations either. He polishes off a second bottle, and glares into the fire pit I made. And then dashes the glass against it, sending jagged pieces everywhere, and provoking a spray of flames.

“Wants to know what heaven’s like,” he mutters. Though he isn’t looking at me, and barely seems to be speaking to me, except perhaps by default. His tone is mocking. His mouth twists into a sneer. “Fucking bullshit. Stuck in a fucking desert hole with liches and a virgin Enpisci, chasing that fucking-!”

He gets up. I watch, heart in my throat, as he conjures up something else in his hand, and hurdles it down the darkened road.

“FUCK YOU, BITCH!” he shouts. “UNGRATEFUL CUNT! SLUT! HOW DARE YOU LEAVE ME?!”

The shouting turns to screaming, in short order. Just, incoherent wailing, out into the dark. I stare, eyes wide, utterly petrified at what the noise and chaos might summon. The gate might feel safe but it’s only a tiny outpost. How safe is it, really? And how good is the Pleer at fighting while he’s drunk and screaming, too?

“Hey,” I say, gently as I can manage.

The Pleer wheels around, and throws something at me. A rock, I think. It hits the ground, and I freeze. Overcome by the impression that I was just bare inches from death. The fire sputters, and the hatred is back in the Pleer eyes.

He levels a finger at me.

“You,” he says.

I start looking for a possible avenue of escape. Even though I know there isn’t really one. I’d never make it back through the Harpies, even if I ran. After a few seconds, I give up, and raise my hands in what I hope is a placating gesture.

“Please,” I say. “I just don’t want any monsters attacking the camp.”

The Pleer sneers. But he stops shouting, too. And after a moment, he comes back and slumps down beside the fire again. His breath reeks of strong wine.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “They can’t cross the boundary here. Most they could do would be to line up along it. And then ‘poof’ - gone by daybreak.”

I swallow. The prospect of sleeping out in the open with a bunch of Skeleton Knights leering down at me, halted only by an invisible barrier, still seems like… not an experience I would want to have. At all. Particularly not for the sake of some incoherent raging.

“But those Harpies didn’t attack,” I point out. “That was a ‘glitch’. What if the boundary makes a glitch, too?”

The Pleer pauses.

Then he lets out a gusty breath.

“Fine,” he says. “Fucking shit cowards. That’s all your type is, you know?”

I clench a fist in the ground. Fear keeps me from arguing - so maybe he does have a point.

“I certainly don’t want to die, my lord,” I say, instead.

The Pleer glares into the fire.

“You sound like that one,” he says, after a long minute. The smoke is getting in my eyes again. I move back a little, and wonder if I should keep responding. If that would lower or increase the odds of him screaming into the dark again.

“Who, may I ask?” I venture, at length.

“I’m not saying its name,” the Pleer replies, with another sneer. “The fucking dwarf. That’ll do. It’s the Fucking Dwarf. Fucking queer ass piece of shit en-pee-see. Not like you, though. Level Three-Fucking Hundred. We let it into our party. Desperation, that’s what if fucking was. We never should have left Itreloth.”

“Itreloth… that’s in the legends,” I realize. “It’s a city.”

“The Grey City,” the Pleer mutters. “Even after The Cut-Off, it was full of players. The trains connected it to the eight other cities. Until our station went down.”

He lets out a long sigh.

“Fucking glitches. The first party went out, didn’t come back. Second party went out - didn’t come back. Third party, no prizes for guessing that one. We figured they were either dying or finding somewhere better and just holing up there. Shit. I never even wanted to play this game. Damn fucking ‘pee see’ piece of crap, shoving its bullshit down everyone’s throats all the time. Oh look, it’s a fucking… fucking gay nanogender vegan orc. And now I’m trapped here. For eternity. The only fucking reason I came here is because of that friendzoning bitch, and what does she do? She drags me out of the city, out into the goddamn mines, trying to follow the train tracks with the Fucking Dwarf, and then she leaves me. She leaves me. When it’s her fucking fault I’m even here to begin with!”

 

I can’t imagine why, I think.

I’m smart enough not to say it, though. My mind is reeling a little, trying to make sense of everything the Pleer is saying. He has so much knowledge. If only he wasn’t… well. A crazed murderer, really.

“What… ‘game’?” I ask. Maybe he means like in the legends, where the gods sometimes refer to life as The Game? But in that case, does that mean the Pleers all chose to live among mortals?

“Fucking bitch,” the Pleer ignores me, just muttering to himself.

I shift in place a little, and persist. I might not get another chance, and it seems to at least be keeping the screaming to a minimum.

“Okay, I know of some mines,” I say, thinking. Because I do - they’re at the other edge of the boundaries of my knowledge, past Bayerwood. “So you came out of them, and now you’re trying to find this other Pleer? And an Enpisci dwarf?”

“The Fucking Dwarf,” he corrects, in a low mutter. “She left me for the Fucking Dwarf. She’s an idiot. It’s not real. You’re not real, it’s not real, fucking nothing here is real except for us.”

“My lord, I am real,” I feel compelled to say, before I can think the better of it. He glares at me, and I close my mouth with an audible ‘click’. The fire burns between us, and seems to reflect in his eyes. And for a moment, I am horribly, terribly afraid that he is just going to kill me. One of his hands moves to his belts. The sneer on his face is ugly. It makes his scar ripple, and in the dark beyond the firelight, he seems to get even bigger, somehow. Meaner. An old and frightful creature, as dangerous as any monster.

Except that if he died, he wouldn’t come back.

Which would be comforting - if there was any chance of me killing him.

I know I’m desperate enough that I would try. There’s a sharp stick in the fire, close enough that I might be able to reach it before he cut my head off. Maybe I could blind him. Maybe I could run, and run, and just keep running. Maybe my chances would be better with the monsters.

But then he just spits on the ground, and looks away.

“Your fucking kind,” he swears. “You don’t even know what ‘real’ is. You don’t matter. Fucking algorithms and shit. Ay-eye. It’s your fault, your kind’s fault. I’d kill every last one of you if I could, for what you’ve done to us. You fucking trapped us here.”

What?

What is that even supposed to mean? How could Enpisci ‘trap’ the Pleers here? They’re the ones with divine power.

“How?” I ask. Pointing out the obvious fallacy just seems liable to make the man angry.

The Pleer gets up. Wavering in place for a moment, before he just turns, and staggers towards his ten.

“That’s the fucking question,” he mutters, as he goes. “That’s the fucking question. How you did it. Fucking Ay-eye.”

The tent flap closes.

I am left alone in the dark, with a flickering campfire, and a lot of broken glass. And a bedroll, and glowing mist. And distant sounds of something creaking. And drawing closer, and closer, along with something like the sound of wind wheezing through an old bag. I douse the fire, and move nearer to the tent. Watching with the moonlight, as three bone-white figures in aged armour begin to move along the boundaries of the gate.

The hollows of their eye sockets stare back at me.

I don’t sleep.