to the Super Secret.
I'm glad you found your way here, Traveler. You look tired. I'm sure the road has been long, and most wearisome. Please, come in. Sit down and I'll pour you a drink. I hope you'll come to find this establishment to be a nice reprieve from the outside worlds, a shelter from the things that trouble you.
We don't get many new visitors. One might say our clientele is somewhat exclusive. Don't worry. You're in luck. It appears we have room for one more.
I'll grab you a fresh pint, on the house, but perhaps you could help me with something? I found a set of scrolls a few weeks back. Couldn't make heads or tails of them, myself, but maybe they would be of use to you in your travels.
Take a look for me, would you? That's a good sport. Now, what d'ya fancy for dinner?
The Broken Blade
I pulled my jerkin tighter and, with numb and frozen fingers, tried to rub the warmth back into my frigid arms. The clouds clinging to the tall, snow-encrusted peaks of the Frostwind Mountains exhaled another arctic breath. The wind tore down the slope, kicking up powdery shards of ice as it went.
I ducked my head out of instinct against the otherwise invisible onslaught, and another shiver traveled down my spine.
The warnings I’d received before setting out had proven far more accurate than the simple idle concerns I’d taken them for. Despite being a starter zone, I had come to learn that the terrain of the Frostwind Mountains was harsh and unforgiving at these higher altitudes.
The soundless wind cut through my new armor like a sharpened knife. I’d been a fool to set out alone, underdressed and unprepared. Here on the mountainside, I was painfully aware of how I had exposed myself to the elements. Beyond that, I couldn’t help but wonder what monsters might roam the snow-swept ranges of these hellish slopes.
The Frostwind Mountains were nothing like the relative safety of the Meadows, or like any of the lands nearest Fort Morrow that I’d seen to date. I was beginning to realize the elements themselves were dangerous enough to kill.
I shuddered to think of the difficulty I’d face if I encountered anything but starter-level mobs. Yet another shiver seized my muscles and my teeth began to chatter against the cold.
A miasma of wintery clouds weaved about the frozen landscape, beckoning the warm breath from my chest like a siren on the rocks. Shapes in the mists seemed to contort and move of their own volition. Jutting spires of stone loomed like shadowy figures in the snow. Like angry giants or raging mountain trolls, they stood, waiting to pounce on any wary and unsuspecting adventurers unfortunate enough to drop their guard.
I glanced back toward where I knew Duskmorrow Swamp would be if it were still within visible range. From this vantage point, even the darkened pale hanging over the ancient, moss-covered trees had faded from view.
The swamps. So much had happened in such a short time. While danger may have lurked beneath the surface of the murky water or within the shadowy depths of the twisted tree trunks and gnarled roots, it was the Necromancer and his blade that had nearly ended my exploits in Endworld Everlasting.
Memories of warmer scenery I’d encountered during my adventures flashed within my mind. First the Swamp, then the Meadows. Finally, the mountains beyond; where I’d first entered EndWorld.
Those areas had long been swallowed by the descending clouds. They had been all but forgotten as I had continued my ascent. It was only my knowledge of their existence and the markings on my map that kept them alive within my mind.
Somewhere down there, countless other Travelers were grinding mobs and completing quests. Some were fending off bandits or trying desperately to join their ranks. Perhaps some sucker was about to engage a Meadows Rabbit, and learning a painful lesson firsthand as a reward.
Not here, though.
There were no quest hubs nearby. No inns or taverns. Not on this section of the mountain, anyway. The nearest place like that was still a few peaks from where I now stood.
Out here it was just me.
Everything else was wind and ice and snow.
After another hundred and fifty hard-earned paces, I stopped my upward climb and once again surveyed the area at my back. The wandering, haphazard trail in the windswept snow was a chronicle of my journey from those lower zones. The zigzag of footprints was also a reminder of how out of place I felt in these colder climes.
The air was thin in these higher elevations. My lungs felt heavy. Each breath was burdened; heavier than the last. Each step I took was labored. Yet, somehow, I had finally reached the far bottom of the summit after hours of solitary travel.
From where I now stood, I could only just make out the towering, rocky crags between momentary gaps in the low-hanging clouds.
Despite the cold, I was beginning to enjoy my new life in Endworld Everlasting. The world was beautiful, if not dangerous, and everything still felt so real. What’s more, I had met a great group of friends that I knew I could count on. I’d even had the chance to say goodbye to the ones I loved.
There was still so much about this place and about my existence here that I didn’t know. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a war was yet being waged over thoughts and feelings of where I thought I should have been versus the reality of where I now found myself.
This was EndWorld. EndWorld Everlasting. A game for the dead. Every moment I spent wandering these lands was a moment where every spiritual belief I’d ever held was being challenged.
I thought back to my tutorial; to that moment when I had made the choice. Leap or go forth. Oblivion or EndWorld.
I had chosen all of this, for better or worse, and I had accomplished so much since entering this world, this digital afterlife.
Footprints in the snow marked my progress now, just like they would if I were traversing the slopes of a real mountain range. For all intents and purposes, I supposed everything here was real in its own right. I could taste the chill on the wind, smell the burning cold and, for better or worse, I could feel what it felt to be underdressed on the side of a frozen mountain landscape.
While the progress of my solo trek felt like a small accomplishment, I was keenly aware that I still had miles to travel before the day was through. Such a journey was bound to provide ample opportunities to explore and learn.
There was plenty of time to reflect on my thoughts out here in the cold, in the cloudy mist, and in the ever-thinning air.
My mind began to wander of its own accord.
How had Pops done it?
How had our party’s tank survived the cold of this zone before finding himself in Fort Morrow? He had somehow managed to traverse this zone without much more than a few leather scraps worth of armor. How had he done it without so much as a complaint to the rest of us?
I paused to think about this for a moment.
As a master of runes, it was possible the old man had access to some kind of elemental resistance that I didn’t. Could it really be that simple? Maybe he was just that stubborn.
When I’d decided to head out on my own to face the slopes of these mountains, I hadn’t put much thought into how cold it might get. The reality of EndWorld Everlasting was incredible, if not incredibly deadly at times.
Despite the warnings I received, I had set out unprepared. A new padded leather jerkin sounded about right. Thinking about it now, I wondered how far I had allowed myself to be swayed by the extra two points to stamina and intellect the jerkin provided. Surely other, warmer clothes must have been available for purchase.
Experience was teaching me that a simple jerkin wasn’t going to be warm enough to sustain an adventure of any considerable length, stat increases aside. Perhaps I’d allowed Pops’ apparent disregard for the weather to blind me to the very real danger of the wintry climate I now found myself battling against.
I couldn’t resist a self-deprecating chuckle.
Before resuming my trek, I made a note to ask Pops about his affinity for withstanding the cold the next time we met up. Sure, it wouldn’t help me now, but that was the thing about this place. There were always opportunities where you least expected them, always more to learn, and better ways to prepare.
Thinking about it now, there was a reason I hadn’t asked Pops to come along on this journey. Even though I knew doing so would have greatly reduced Attia’s anxiety on the matter.
Pops would have been an excellent guide, and his help would have been more than welcome.
But… finding the Snow-covered Snowthistles was a personal quest. A quest that was the cost of a gift that had given me a second chance. Perhaps I was being just as stubborn in my determination to prove myself worthy of that gift.
I couldn’t help it.
I hadn’t come out here on my own with a goal to reflect on my thoughts. Nor had I come to take in the sights.
As cold as it was and as dangerous and beautiful as the landscape might be, my path had a very specific purpose. This was where I would find the strange and rare flowers that Margaret Wilson, my Battle Mage mentor from Fort Morrow, had requested.
I pulled up my quest log and reviewed the text from Margaret’s quest for what felt like the hundredth time.
Margaret Wilson has offered you a quest.
Collect 20 Pristine Snowthistle from the peaks of the Frostwind Mountains.
Hint: Beware the cost of death. Your soul has not yet recovered from the wound you sustained from the Necromancer’s blade.
Reward: 11,500 Experience Points, 75 Silver, an Elixir of Souls, and Improved Favor with Margaret Wilson.
Bonus Reward: Unknown.
That was my goal. 20 pristine specimens. Despite hours of searching, I didn’t even have to glance at my inventory to know that I hadn’t found a single one on my trek thus far.
Rare flowers, indeed.
If I couldn’t do a quest like this on my own, what good was I to a group? What could I possibly have to offer a party of skilled Travelers other than a chance to join in on the dangerous group quests I seemed to have become a magnet for?
Honestly, I was tired of feeling like I was being carried.
Letting out a long sigh, I closed my quest log and opened my map from the command interface. From where I stood, my path would wind West and then North, hugging closer to the impassable peaks until I finally reached my destination.
That was where my journey would end, where I would finally rendezvous with my friends once more.
I dismissed the map and once again surveyed my surroundings. Further up the mountain, a small glimmer in the snowpack caught my eye. It was a Snowthistle: icy barbs glinting and shimmering in the wavering, filtered light.
My heart quickened.
There was no way to know whether I would find a pristine specimen without adjusting course and attempting the harvest. So, just as I’d done countless times before, I set my sights on the new destination and plodded forward.
Upon arriving at the spot, I bent down to inspect the delicate herb a little closer.
The Snowthistle was beautiful.
Shards of ice jutted from the spiky, crystalline core and refracted the cloud-filtered light like a natural prism, sending the tiniest of rainbows dancing across the snow.
My breath caught in my chest as I reached out a hand and prepared to pluck the thistle from its thorny stem. Then I hesitated, stopping short to once again read the now-familiar text prompt.
Warning! You lack the appropriate level of herbalism skill for this action.
If you proceed, your harvest might be destroyed. If successful, you could gain valuable experience.
Would you like to continue?
Yes | No
The same message had appeared before all my previous attempts. Herbalism was still new to me, and the harvest of rare herbs required a level of skill I hadn’t yet acquired. Such experience was hard-earned, and each of my endeavors to this point had proven unsuccessful.
Despite my hope, I knew the chances of failure were stacked against me. My inexperience when it came to picking the rare thistles made each attempt an emotionally exhausting venture.
To be so close to making progress only to have the chance crumble between my fingers was almost too much.
Even in the face of the likeliest of outcomes, I closed my eyes and concentrated on steadying myself. Then I focused on controlling the shivers that wracked both my body and hands before preparing for the fastidious task.
What did I have to lose?
I could either keep trying or stop now and go back to the lower areas. Gathering herbs that required less skill was the safer bet. Finding plants to pick would be easier, too, and I could stay until I managed to level my herbalism high enough to fail less often. It probably wouldn’t help with finding pristine versions of this particular herb, but I wagered it would only take a few hours before my success rate with general herb gathering increased as a whole.
It was true. Going back now was a valid option; and an option no one would fault me for taking. No. I was already here, and I’d made a promise to meet the rest of my party just a few peaks over before the night was through. Retracing my steps now would cost me time I didn’t have.
Besides, I didn’t want to keep Pops, Attia, Ely, and Raven waiting. They had been there for me when I’d needed them most. They were my friends.
There would be no turning back. I had already made up my mind. I wouldn’t delay. I wouldn’t make them wait just so I could go back and power through my herbalism skill.
No. I could do this.
I reread the prompt and nodded, giving my silent answer.