"New Game Plus" by Mereo Flere

XXX

Even when I had first been introduced to my pawn, back when I had little experience dealing with any of them, I always had a feeling that she was different from the rest. Part of it was her pine green hair - an unnatural sight by any accounts - and another was the porcelain like complexion that looked so much like a doll's. Her odd attire also was a factor; even for pawns, a silver bikini and laced leggings had to have been chilly. Even her weapon was unusual; few things in the world felt as otherworldly as glowing sword she carried so easily on her back, despite the fact that it was taller than myself.

Still... none of that was quite as strange as the first thing she said to me after jumping out of the rift.

"Don't worry master. I've done this quest before."

I didn't understand what she had meant back then. What I did understand, however, was that she was strong; if I had to compare her to the Dragon I wouldn't have been able to guess which one was powerful.

Later on, I wouldn't have been able to tell you which one frightened me more. On one hand, the Dragon had pinned me down and tore my heart out of my chest. On the other hand...

My partner was completely and absolutely crazy.

XXX

The first incident happened no more than two days into our adventure. After severing a hydra's head from its body and escorting its body to the capital, I visited the Pawn Guild. There I found Barnaby, the pawn in charge of maintaining the guild, who had need of my aid. Strange things had been happening beneath the guild, and he wanted me to investigate.

Naturally, I agreed to do it. It seemed like a simple enough task, and I believed that it wouldn't take that much time to take care of. My partner, on the other hand... she thought a little differently.

"You're wrong, Master," she said, correcting me with a smile. "This won't take any time at all."

At first, I wasn't sure how I was wrong, or how she was even disagreeing with me in the first place. When I did, however, I was already falling - pushed off the staircase by my own partner.

I would like to say I managed to survive the fall. The truth is, however, I didn't; when I crashed into the bottom of the Everfall, I could safely say that the contents of my head spilled out to fill the bowl I had managed to land in on. Only the wakestone which I had been planning to give a blacksmith for his son saved me - its magical power restoring my body to health the moment I died.

It was still a new experience for me, however, and by the time I realized I was no longer dead, however, strange tentacles had started to sprout out from the ground around me. Though I used my magic to burn away one away, a couple more appeared to bolster their number. Nonetheless, I had faith in my partner; I believed that she wouldn't have thrown me down here without a plan, after all.

"What are you doing, Master?" a voice - my partner - called from above. "Use the ferrystone!"

In hindsight, it was a good plan, even if it required me to die along the way. There was just one problem, really.

"I don't have one!"

"...oh."

XXX

The second incident happened almost right after the first. After arriving in Grand Soren, I had helped a family keep their house, at the cost of eighty thousand gold. While I didn't regret that charitable act, the fact was that my wallet was much lighter than it had been before.

My partner, however, seemed to have come up with a solution. "Do you trust me, Master?"

It took me a moment to answer. "Not really," I admitted.

"Is this because I forgot to give you a ferrystone?" she asked curiously - not a hint of guilt in her voice. "I tried to get one as soon as possible."

"You tried throwing it to me..."

"Exactly!" she said, nodding her head.

"...which is how you normally activate a ferrystone." Needless to say, it carried her away as well as the pawns that had been standing next to her - leaving me to fight my way out of the dungeon alone.

"...I never said I succeeded," she said, blinking.

"No," I admitted with a sigh. "No I didn't."

"Still, hear me out. I guarantee this plan won't get you killed."

Against my better judgment, I decided to listen to her after all. Which was how I found myself back in Cassardis - my home town.

"This had better be good. So - what's your plan?"

"You need to strip."

"..."

"Well, not just you," she admitted, as she started to take off her leggings. "All of us do, actually."

I blinked. "All of us?"

"Yes," she said, as she snapped her fingers. Immediately, two of the biggest and tallest men I had ever seen stepped out of the shadow. From their blank expressions, I immediately realized that they were pawns like her - though that didn't stop me from being intimidated by them. It wasn't because of their size, however; even if I could see the rippling muscles underneath the mage cloaks they wore, I could tell from their aura that they simply weren't on my partner's level - or mine, for that matter. The fact that she had chosen them in the first place despite that, however, meant something was up.

To begin with, she normally encouraged me to pick other beautiful pawns like her - no matter how ridiculous their dress was. Brutes like this meant that she had chosen them for something other than eye candy.

And I still didn't know why we needed to get naked in the first place.

"They'll just get in the way, of course," my partner said, motioning for them to undress as well.

I rubbed my temples, trying to ignore all of the stripping going on around me. I tried to figure out what was so important that we absolutely needed to be naked for it - only to overheat my brain as I tried coming up with anything that wasn't...

Well, you know.

"What exactly are we doing again?" I asked again.

"You'll see," she said, brushing off my concern like it was nothing more than a goblin.

"I'm pretty sure everybody will see," I sighed. Despite my reluctance, however, I started to take off my cloak.

XXX

I wasn't surprised when we had to go out into the streets in broad daylight. I wasn't even embarrassed as people looked at us wearing nothing more than bandages; in a coastal town like this, even with the brine, it wasn't uncommon for people to go skinny dipping, especially on the hotter days. I was surprised, however, that she didn't ask us to just stand on the corner of the street - but then, she probably knew I wouldn't have agreed.

What I was surprised, however, was that she had led us to Iola's shop. The old woman nearly had a heart attack at the sight of us entering her store dressed in nothing at all - and, when she heard what my partner wanted, she thought her hearing had finally gone bad.

"You want carrots?"

"Yep," my partner said, nodding her head cheerfully.

"...carrots. Not clothes, right?" It made sense after all; why would a bunch of naked people enter a textile shop if not to get something to wear?

"Yes. As many as you can afford."

"If that's what you want."

Moments later, after Iola had someone bring up as many carrots as my group could afford, I found myself staring at a mountain of vegetables.

"So, what are we going to do with these?" I asked hesitantly.

"Carry them back, of course."

"...is that all?" I asked, frowning. "Why did we need to strip, then?"

"Clothes would have weighed us down," she explained.

I crossed my arms, glaring at her. "That's not an explanation."

"Of course it is," she said, raising a brow. "If we had clothes on, we would have... I don't know..."

"...made several trips?" I guessed.

"Exactly! And, who would have wanted to waste all that extra time, anyway?"

I almost saw her point. Almost. Maybe. Mostly, though, I just saw that she was crazy. It would only be later that I realized I had no idea just how crazy she was.

XXX

Apparently, my partner had a different idea of what wasted time than I had. After spending so much effort to carry the carrots back in the nude, she insisted on spending the rest of the time at the inn.

All she literally did was wake up in the morning, greet Pablos, and pay for our next day - all while a bunch of carrots were sitting in our room. This happened a few times, and by the third day mold had started to appear on the carrots.

Apparently, however, that was the plan.

"And now, we'll sell them back!"

"..."

Needless to say, Iola didn't want to buy back a bunch of moldy old carrots that some naked people had been huddled around for a few days.

XXX

Things went relatively smoothly after the carrot incident. After wisely deciding that it was dangerous to listening to my partner's device, our adventures went by quickly. As long as she wasn't spouting crazy ideas, she was very useful; most of the time, she had cut off the head of the enemy before I had even been aware they were there. There were a few incidents when, for some reason, she had started to punch people - like the innkeeper at Gran Soren after he had started to blush for some reason, but overall she had been a good partner to me.

When it came to the Dragon, she had even been the one to land the final blow - striking its heart after a long and difficult battle and, in the same moment, restoring mine. I was almost sad to think that we would no longer go on adventures together - but I soon realized that that wouldn't be the case at all.

The world changed after the Dragon's defeat. New, more dangerous monsters - the likes of which I had only seen near the Dragon's nest, appeared everywhere - assaulting travelers that were not as prepared as myself. Gran Soren had changed the most; a big gaping hole had replaced much of the residential area and its leader, Duke Edmund, had changed from a hero still in his prime to a withered old man, barely capable of carrying his sword. When the Duke attacked, I had been forced to escape into the Everfall - though this time my landing was not as deadly as my first had been.

Immediately, it became clear that I needed to gather wakestones to solve the mystery of the world - a daunting task, considering how rare they were supposed to be.

Even after killing off the source of the tentacles and wandering around some of the other chambers, I had only a few wakestones to my name. I was getting impatient - and in my impatience I made a mistake: I asked my pawn if she had any ideas.

"Well... are you sure?"

"Yes," I said - glancing back at the darkened skies, where succubi flew freely into the city. Even now, I couldn't help but wonder what was happening to the poor townsfolk, beset by monsters so strong so suddenly. If things continued, who knows if there would be any survivors, even if I stopped the source.

"Then, follow me."

This time, both of us jumped down the Everfall - down to a tiny ledge, leading to a chamber I hadn't been in before. There, my pawn pointed at its name, carved above the doors: The Chamber of Lament.

"Here," she said cheerfully. "This is a place where you can find all of the wakestones you need, apparently. There's just one thing..."

"...what?" I asked hesitantly.

"You need to throw me off the cliff."

I stared at her, wondering if she had gone suicidal. "...why would I need to do that?"

"To keep me from following you, of course. Apparently, us pawns only get in the way in this chamber."

I frowned. Even if she had traumatized me early on in our relationship, I didn't really harbor any hard feelings against her. She had stood by me in battle, saving my life countless times - how could I repay her by just tossing her into the abyss.

"Or, you know, you could just not follow me," I tried.

"...oh, right," she said, slapping her forehead. "Why didn't I think of that?"

I wanted to tell her it was because she was insane - but in the end I just smiled and patted her in the head. "Well, off I go," I said - off to face whatever was in here.

"Good luck!" she said, waving goodbye.

"Well, hopefully I won't need it," I said - even though I had a sneaking suspicion that I would.

Less than a minute later, I had already finished off a third corrupted pawn with a simple swing of my sword. Compared to the chambers I had been in before, it was a remarkably easy battle; they were already injured when they had appeared, and mad as they were all they had done was blindly charge themselves onto my blade.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder why my partner thought she would get in the way. A battle like this would have been simple for her, really.

It was then I heard it - a strangely familiar voice, one that filled me with complete dread.

"Then you have come... Very well, Arisen."

On the bright side, I didn't have to fight the Dragon again after all. No - apparently this guy called himself the Ur-Dragon.