The Beast Horde was coming to Hartshire. What had felt like several hours in the Dungeon had been closer to four days. Maybe there was an inherent delay to portal travel, or maybe it was a dimension that ran at a different speed.
There was a week left until Starter Protections went down, but this Beast Horde would bypass that. The Beast Horde was allegedly weakened at Level 13, it didn't sound that way. This one was already precarious, if the next was stronger it would be a slaughter.
Chris jogged through the trees as Philip struggled to keep up with him. It wasn't the swordsman's fault that he was so slow as he clunked and clattered his way forward in his new armor, but the dexterity differential was making things difficult.
Chris turned, adjusting his hammer and shield in his grip. "I'll carry you."
"I can run."
"We'll be too late." Chris reckoned he could handle jogging with a payload.
Philip shied away, but Chris chased after him and scooped the man up. His new burden struggled a bit, but, as Chris picked up the pace, his complaints quietened. They were moving quicker.
The trees became a slow blur as he ran and soon the forest faded out to the rolling hill and plain that surrounded Hartshire.
Ahead, he saw Plains Gnolls amassing, swarming around the edges of the Starter Protections' barrier. A quest appeared before Chris' eyes.
(Optional – Monster) Join a Beast Horde (0/1)
He envisioned himself joining the horde of hyena monsters. More screens appeared.
Join a Beast Horde (1/1)
Reward: Beast Horde Protections
(Optional – Monster) Conquer Tutorial Town #734701 (Hartshire) (0/1)
(Optional – Monster – Variable Reward) Defeat Enlightened (Human) (0/X)
Yeah… no. He wasn't intending on doing those two quests.
Chris kept on running, focusing back on the barrier. There was something odd there. At the very edge were hundreds of humans. They stood just inside the barrier, safe from the claws and teeth that tried to bury themselves in soft and tender skin. As he drew closer, he saw the humans were actually striking at the Gnolls with weapons. The barrier didn't hinder them as their weapons sent fur and flesh flying.
The monsters were falling quickly, but there had to be thousands of them. They surrounded the tutorial town, hemming the humans in as more of the creatures washed against the barrier, creating honeycomb ripples of golden light whenever they pressed against it. When they died they fell through as if nothing had ever impeded them. The bodies were dragged away and stacked in a heap like kindling.
He felt Philip struggle above him. He'd finally turned around and seen the horde. "Let me down, we can't get in."
"Your concern is noted, Sir Philip. Trust me, your safety is my priority." Chris adjusted his grip on the swordsman, lifting him over his head. It was difficult while holding his weapons. "I will require you to hold my arms while I do so."
Philip clutched his forearms tightly.
"My hammer and shield, Sir Philip." Chris gave a low chuckle. That one hadn't been intentional.
"Oh." Philip relieved Chris of his weapons, then was hoisted high into the air.
Chris felt him tense in his hands as he braced him high above and resumed running toward the Beast Horde. The Gnolls were loud, hissing and screaming and cackling with gleeful, sadistic abandon.
The creatures were considerably shorter than him, so his payload was probably safe. He was in armor anyway. What could go wrong?
He prepared to push through the horde like an icebreaker through arctic waters, but the monsters' eyes snapped to him the moment he approached. They glared at the man held above his head, but the moment they saw Chris, they gave a low hiss and pulled back, gazes down and eyes averted.
Area Guardian bonuses? Cool! He wondered if it was a standard thing, or just because he had joined the Beast Horde. He'd need to find out later, but this wasn't the time to recount his blessings.
He approached the barrier as the Gnolls parted around him. They stank of filth and unwashed fur. Flies flitted around them in a persistent droning, buzzing cloud. He struggled not to gag as he set Philip down inside the barrier. He let his finger brush lightly against its outside as he did so. A few golden hexagons manifested around his hand, but the other humans' view of them was blocked by Philip's body.
A screen flared to life before him.
Monsters may not approach Tutorial Town #734701 (Hartshire) until Starter Protections expire (7 00:25:02 (DD HH:MM:SS))
To enter the Tutorial Town before Starter Protections expire, join the Beast Horde when it gathers (0 00:25:02)
Twenty-five minutes left.
Philip looked up at him, finally comfortable enough in the safety of the barrier to speak. "Why aren't they attacking you?"
Chris considered telling him that he was a monster then, the stakes were getting higher, and what had been an amusing prank was beginning to turn into a lie. Still, he was unsure. He looked around at the humans stabbing and slashing into the Gnolls, they didn't look scared, even though they should be. They seemed excited. Mana, it had to be.
Their movements were clumsy, their strikes needing to fall multiple times to deal a fatal blow, but still he could see the fire in their eyes. The way in which they stared at the monsters as if they were a gift from heaven delivered straight into their laps. They believed the System was there to give them the strength they needed and to keep the creatures away from them as it did so.
Had he been like that?
Would he have killed someone if he learned they were a monster. Xys had had the tree for camouflage. Was pretending to not be a monster, to instead be something almost human, something almost real… was that his own camouflage? He'd only gotten a quest when he realized Xys' coiled form around the tree was in fact a monster. Would they get a quest when they found out too?
Would they be able to resist? Not with their mana the way it was, no.
"Why aren't they attacking you?" Philip repeated.
Chris looked away. "This is not my fight."
"You're not helping us?" a woman who'd been standing nearby piped up.
"This is your test. A word of warning. The barrier will fail in twenty-four minutes. Return to your town before it does."
"Wait. What?" Philip pushed himself to his feet, leaving Chris' weapons on the ground.
"Yeah, what the hell dude. Did you come here just to deliver one of us like a pi—"
"NO!" Philip shouted over the woman. She turned to stare at him.
"You can't do that," Philip explained. He leaned over to whisper in her ear, unaware that Chris could still hear him, "He's an NPC. It's complicated, imagine you're roleplaying with a voice activated bomb. Don't use weird words or there's a risk he might explode. His programming seems pretty robust, but it's best not to risk it. Also, don't accept any quests from him, he's one of those NPCs the devs use to troll people. And don't ask him if he's trolling. Oh shit, I need to tell Gregor."
Chris waited patiently, wondering who Gregor was. The woman looked over at him as Philip rushed off to spread the word. "You're certain about this? Why won't you help us. They're obviously afraid of you."
Chris paused, considering whether to maintain the façade. A limited amount of the truth wouldn't hurt. Right? "The System has granted me immunity while I delivered Sir Philip and this message. To attack these monsters would forfeit that."
It was the truth, most of it anyway.
"Surely you can help us somehow?"
"I am afraid n—" Chris stopped. Was that true? "What is your name?"
"Well, Lady Clary, I might just be able to do something. Just one thing, can you pass me my shield and hammer." He pointed to the items he'd given Philip to carry.
"Thank you, Lady Clary. While I am busy, please have some people bring the bodies of the monsters closer to the barrier. I require proximity to sense what I seek."
He took hold of his weapons and began to circle the perimeter, holding out his right arm like a dowsing rod.
It didn't take more than ten steps until he found the first. His hand tried to ooze through his gauntlets to consume the core inside, but he quelled it. Using his strength, he tore apart the body, pulling free the Beast Soul Gem inside.
Beast Soul Gem
He tugged off his gauntlet and pulled the energy of the crystal into himself. Then he manifested the weapon. In his hands he held a sleek and simple javelin. He'd keep that one.
He moved through the ranks of the Beast Horde, picking through corpses and tossing the Gems over to the humans inside, instructing them on how to use the crystals—first pulling the gem inside themselves, and then connecting the mana in their center to the crystal. The second stage was harder, since most hadn't reached Level 10 and obtained the mana manual, but soon he saw humans manifesting javelins across the line; fur armor; hide shields; he even saw a human lash out with strangely pointed claws as he used a Beast Soul Cultivation Technique.
The Gnolls had a surprisingly high number of Soul Gems inside them—compared to the demons that gave nothing. Was this Beast Horde meant to arm and equip people inside settlements? If so, that was surprisingly generous of the System.
He tapped the barrier inconspicuously once more.
Monsters may not approach Tutorial Town #734701 (Hartshire) until Starter Protections expire (7 00:04:11 (DD HH:MM:SS))
To enter the Tutorial Town before Starter Protections expire, join the Beast Horde when it gathers (0 00:04:11)
"Four minutes," he bellowed. "Get back to the town. The barrier is falling."
People began to stream back to the town, but at the far end it seemed that word hadn't yet spread.
Chris sprinted around, the Horde parting before him. Three minutes. Two.
They were within earshot, but now he knew for certain they would not make it back to the town in time.
He flicked the barrier.