We march slowly through the woods, taking our leisure since the sleepless night that we spent. Around us, the scenery slowly changed, from small, sparse thickets of young trees to a proper meadow, with old, big trees pointing towards the sky.
<<So…what was your world like, Roshal?>> asks Retel.
I have already told them about my circumstances, but I did not share any proper detail about my past life with them.
<<Well, it was…really, really different. For starters, people do not possess level in my world. No magic or skills, either.>>
My reply takes them by surprise.
<<No…level? How…I mean, what if monsters, or worse, demons came>> Levia shouts.
Her concern makes me smile. Of course, they think monsters and even demons to be the norm.
<<None of those things exist from where I came from. Sure, there are dangerous animals…but they really don’t pose a big threat to humans>> I reply.
The two of them continue asking me questions about my previous life, and I happily share the rough details.
<<So…this “technology” you spoke of…is it some kind of advanced alchemy?>> asks Heod. He was silent for most of my explanation, but his interest sparked as I started talking about computers and other marvels of my world.
<<Well…yes, it can be considered as such. I remember from my studies…most of the very first scientists in the ancient past called were alchemists or philosophers…although they did not have any kind of supernatural power, they discovered things using their intelligence and trial-and-error methods. Some of their mathematical theories were still used even during my time>>.
Heod seems satisfied by my answer.
<<When we have some time, I want you to tell me all the details that you can remember about your world’s science>> he says with a resolute expression.
I smile at him and nod…but old man, you should not expect much knowledge from me, since I never really understood any complicated science theory and just learned the basic things at school.
<<I wanted to ask you…how fare the beast-kin in your world? Are they…treated equally as humans, or…>> Levia’s voice is a bit uncertain.
<<…or are they discriminated, like here?>>
I sigh, thinking about the proper words to use.
<<You see…my world is vastly different from this one. No magic, no skills or monsters. And…we…humans, are the only race there>>
The group stopped. Retel looks down, while Levia brings her hand to her mouth, her eyes widening with sudden surprise and sadness.
Perhaps…did they misunderstand?
<<So…they were wiped out>> Heod mutters.
Not you too, old man!
<<No no no-I quickly try to explain- it’s not like they got exterminated or something like that…they simply…never existed in my world. Only humans>>
Still, it does not seem my words give them any comfort. More than that, the simple thought of a world were only human exist seem to give them a lot to think about.
<<Well, a world like that would be a paradise for those of the Holy Kingdom. Enough about this for now…let’s have lunch and a less serious conversation, shall we? Tell me, Roshal…what about the food there?>>Heod breaks the mood, suggesting us to stop.
Judging from the sun’s position, although it is barely visible from under the trees, it should be around noon.
And so, camping on the soft soil under the old pine trees, I recalled and shared the joys of my world’s food.
Well, Heod’s food tastes delicious, and I am not a picky eater, so I don’t think that reproducing my world’s recipes will be something I will focus on. I’m not some kind of Japanese light novel’s main character.
Still, it was pleasant to share my memories with the group. Although the mood got a bit heavy when we spoke before, now we’re back to the carefree conversations that started the day.
We rest there for some time after lunch, since no immediate threats are around. Well…to be fair…there seems to be nothing around us, as far as my skill can see. Only the trees. No birds, no small animals. I didn’t notice it immediately, since I was immersed in my conversation, but…it surely feels weird.
<<See anything?>> says Heod, approaching me.
<<Nothing…no monsters, no animals…it’s weird>>
Heod nods, as he sits besides me.
<<Look, right there. Do you see that group of tall trees? That’s the Old Meadow. And we are right into its outskirts. Wildlife doesn’t approach that place, and neither do monsters>>
He’s pointing towards a group of trees, slightly in the distance. They seem way taller than the other around us, and have a darker color.
<<The village is right after the Old Meadow. Straight ahead, almost three hours away by walking distance. But…we will not enter there. Instead, we will circle around, walking in that direction>>.
Heod stares towards the distant trees.
<<But, we could go through the meadow and save some time, right?>> asks Levia.
Heod shakes his head.
<<No. It’s best to avoid that place. You see, among the old trees, Dryads make their nests. They are fierce beings, very territorial, and attack anything that violates their grounds. That’s why there are no monsters here in the Meadow’s outskirts. They dare not to approach that place, not even coming close to the outskirts. If we stay here, and keep circling the meadow without venturing inside, we will avoid monsters without angering the Dryads, and have a safer, albeit longer, way to the village>>
Heod says so with a serious look on his face.
<<So…is it ok to rest here? No chance of sudden attacks from the Dryads?>> asks Retel , a bit concerned.
<<Yes…in all my years, I have not even heard about Dryads leaving their meadows. So, we will be safe here. Let’s rest here for today, and we will resume marching on at dawn.>>
Please, don’t say something like this…it’s after such sentences that everything goes in a bad way.
Instead, the day goes on without anything unpleasant.
At night-time, Retel volunteers for the first turn of guard duty, boasting that he can see during the night almost as if the sun is shining. Well, whatever. As long as he does a proper job.
Wrapping myself up in my sleep bag, I immediately fall asleep.
[Navi: Welcome to the Dream Interface! Congratulations for your recent Level Up! Here, you will be able to allocate your hard earned STAT points and SKILL however you desire! Would you like to start?]
I see myself, almost like an out of body experience…no, this is definitely one of those things.
My body floats in a dark, empty place.
The only other thing here is Navi’s voice.
Sighing deeply, I say “yes” to her question.
[Navi: Wonderful! Let’s start. Here you can see your current Statistics, a representation of several aspects of you physical prowess and magical power.]
A panel now floats in front of my body. Written on it, I see 5 categories, each one followed by a pitiful number: 1.
<<Right…they were this lame from the start, huh?>> I mutter.
[Navi: Here, these abbreviations correspond to several aspects: STR stands for strength, a measure of muscular power and resistance. Boosting this stat will increase attack power and defense. Next, we ave AGI, short for agility. Upgrading this stat will lead to quicker movements and faster reflexes. INT stands for intelligence, increasing this stats will improve detection abilities and amplify the effect of spells and magic resistances (it will not make you smarter, however). ACC is accuracy, and, as it sounds, it influences the precision of each action and the possibility of landing critical hits. Next, but not last, we have LCK…a mysterious stat, with no effect on standard actions. Or is it? Choose wisely!]
Navi’s explanation is a bit long, but it showed me some useful info. This decision should not be made lightly, since I need to properly think about my strong points and boost them. Or should I put some points into things that I currently lack? Ahhh! This is the thing that I always got wrong in games! I always end up making mixed characters, with well rounded stats but without any proper strong points.
Should I become a strong warrior? Or boost my agility and become a ninja?
Well, I have five points at my disposal here. It seems health and mana, although they are shown in my info, are not directly related to these five stats, and instead grow by a fixed amount with each level up.
Since I do not have access to magic, this time I will not put any points into INT stat. That leaves me with five points to distribute into four stats.
Well, raw damage and defense are always good, so I put one point into STR. Next, one point each to ACC and AGI. Faster movements and attacks, and more precision.
Looks like I’ m building a quality build…the difficulty in this world is also similar to that game, it seems. I wonder if some Giant Dads roam this world…
Chuckling about myself, I return my attention to the task at hand.
I ‘m left with two points. My eyes wander to the LCK stat. The description was a bit unclear, but…it’s tempting.
Finally, I give in. Two points to LCK. I hope it’s worth it.
[Navi: STAT allocation complete. Confirm?]
I nod my head.
[Navi: Next, SKILL point allocation! This can be used to level up one of the existing skills, or to acquire a new one from the SKILL TREE! Would you like to proceed?]
Again, I say yes to my immaterial companion.
Immediately, the dark space around my body illuminates. Tree-like branches are expanding from my body, shining with different colors. On each branch, several spheres can be seen.
It’s…huge! There could be more than thousands of those!
By the looks of it, it seems each sphere represents a skill. I can move to every part of the SKILL TREE in an instant.
I immediately find the skills that I possess.
They are the closest to my body, each embedded in the proper branch.
Each branch seems to represent a category.
The “crafting” and “cooking” skills, for example, lie on the “common life” branch, while Inquisitive Eye stands on the “recon” branch. There are several other branches, with titles like “combat”, “language” and so on.
My best bet here would be to use it on one of the skills I rely upon, like Black Fluid or Inquisitive Eye.
As I search for those, an unexpected sound booms in the air.
[Navi: Danger! D&nG%! UNK2o\N iNt€rf]
Not this shit again!
The skill tree crumbles with a sound of broken glass.
<<What is happening now?!>> I shout at the black, empty space.
A familiar sound surrounds me.
From the darkness, the Laughing Man emerges.
<<You, again?>> I shout towards my old acquaintance.
<<Long time no see, boy from another world.>> he says.
What the hell…
<<Why…what do you want from me?>>
The man shrugs his shoulders.
<<Well, sorry for this sudden intrusion. But I could not bear myself to let you do some stupid mistake, here>> he said with a concerned look.
<<What are you talking about?>>
He sighs, deeply.
<<It seems I owe you some explanations, then. Well, since HE doesn’t like to talk, the task falls on my shoulders>>
The scenery around us changes and becomes a pleasant grass field, with the sky burning in the colors of sunset.
<<Here, boy. Sit with me and let me tell you a story>>
Without properly realizing what is going on, I comply with the Laughing Man’s request.
<<Once upon a time, the GODS made the Universe. It was all laughs and fun, until some of them decided to step up things. And so, each GOD, in their own part of the cosmos, chose some planet and started playing with them. Slowly, they created life, and watched it grow and evolve. Just for fun>>
In the sky, stars and planet unfold as the Laughing Man explains his story.
<<And life grew, more and more complex as time went by. Eventually, the creatures started to show some interesting things…a spark of comprehension about the world and the laws that governed it…in short words, intelligent beings began to evolve>>
Images of humans and other creatures were now around us. Vast empires, armies clashing and monuments reaching up to the sky itself.
<<Of course, each GOD reacted in a different way to this. Some were pleased, and cherished their creations…gifting magic and granting prayers to their little pets. Others were indifferent, and left the worlds they created. Your world was one of the ones abandoned, for example. And…some of the GODS, who did not participate in any kind of creation, grew jealous of the others. They began to covet for the attention, for the worship their brothers received from their respective creations.
And so, the jealous GODS moved to the abandoned worlds, claiming them for themselves. At first. But then, they wanted more praise, more worshipers, and began to turn their interest towards other worlds ruled by their brothers>>
He makes a dramatic pause, as the images in the sky shift into a black, starless night.
<<And that takes us to our situation here. Your world, abandoned by the original creator, became another GOD’s possession. But the new GOD there was not satisfied with only one world…he wanted more. And so, he devised a little strategy. By sending souls from his new world, he aims to slowly spread his name in the other worlds, by making his followers perform miracles and such. It would be nice, if only the world he set his eyes on were not already “ruled” by their respective creators.>>
So, that’s how it is…some sort of turf war between omnipotent beings.
<<But…why me? I mean, I did not even believe in any kind of god in my previous life>>
The man laughs.
<<Well, it does not matter. I think he prefers to choose some huge losers and trick them with empty promises, like power or fame, or whatever the hell the chosen person desires. In exchange, they MUST obey the GOD’s commands once they reincarnate in the new world.>>
His expression turns serious.
<<And there’s the catch. From the moment that the reincarnated person uses his power for the first time, they lose their ego, and become simple puppets for the GOD to use however he wants. People calls them “Heroes”, but they are just glorified puppets, pawns used to build a nation based on his power. There is one of such nations here in this world. Can you guess which one?>>
Of course, there can be only one answer…
<<Aldora>> I mutter.
<<Correct, my young friend. To build a nation in his image, the “foreign GOD“persecutes the people that possess blessing from the original GOD of this place, namely magicians and skill-holders. Also…there were no humans in this world, originally. They were sent here as a first attempt of “colonization”. But that failed, as the humans sent here accepted magic and skills, thus becoming “subjects” of this world’s GOD. And so, the foreign GOD resorted to other means. He sent monsters, to kill and spread dread among this world’s inhabitants. And he sent his Heroes, to mislead this world’s population into worshiping him>>
It’s a bit difficult to accept what he is saying, but…if he’s right…I should have been one of those so-called Heroes…
<<So, what you are saying is… I was about to become a Hero, sent from this “foreign GOD” to reinforce the Holy Empire. But, this world’s own GOD interfered and freed me. Am I right?>>
My head hurts from all this nonsense talk.
<<Not quite right. The GOD of this world is young, and cannot oppose the foreign one, who is older and more powerful. It was another one who found you, who found me…you see, some of the GODS without creations only tried to snatch them from their brethren. But others, wise and powerful, grew fond of their brother’s creations and swore to protect them. One of them is my master, the one who granted power to us both>>
Wonderful, a game of chess between three gods. Lucky me.
<<Well. Even if I accept what you are saying. Why are you here, now? I mean, you interfered with my level up, it kinda seems against your GOD’s interest>>
My question leaves him puzzled for a bit. He then breaks into a wide smile.
<<Oh no, boy. You see…this process, works by the power of this world’s original GOD. Level, stats, magic and skills…even your Dream Navigator. But, as I said before…this world’s GOD is weak. And so, his power can easily be tampered with by other GODS. In your case, the “foreign GOD” who was about to make you a Hero managed to modify your Dream Navigator before my GOD could intervene. If you had used that single skill point, he would have won you back. And so, before you could complete the process, my GOD made me intervene>>
I swear, if I hear the word “GOD” one more time…
<<Well, enough with the exposition. To summarize, we saved your ass. And, the big guy will make a gift to you>>
<<Oh, how thoughtful of him. But tell me, couldn’t he do it immediately? Or send you sooner, and give me a proper explanation right at the start?>> I say with a fed up tone.
<<But…it’s more fun this way. And also…he wanted to see how you would react to this world, to put a bit of pressure on you. In short words, he wanted to make a “little test “to your worth. And you passed…barely, but you did. So, congratulations!>> says the Laughing Man while clapping his hands.
<<Wow…so, risking my life from the get go, struggling inside a foul smelling swamp ridden with monsters…finding myself right into a slaughter-fest that YOU perpetrated, was just a “little test” from this fucking GOD you speak about?Are you kidding me?>> I jump to my feet, grabbing the man’s collar as I shout right into his face.
His expression turns sour, and he pushes me away.
He rises, darkness swirling around as his face twists in anger.
<<Down, puppy…do not try to bark at the big, bad wolf>> his voice sounds like thunder.
<<Do you think your treatment was unfair? Think about it…you were to be a pawn of his enemy, a worthless, spineless person that got nothing right on his life. HE saved you from slavery under powers far bigger than what your feeble mind can imagine…HE gave you the means to fight, and a new occasion to actually accomplish something with your worthless existence. HE acted this way while HE could just erase you without any kind of effort. Measure your words wisely, when you speak about HIM>>.
Quick as it came, the anger fades from his face. It left me trembling, as I felt the fury of his power.
<<He did all that, to measure your worth. If, by chance, you would have been as incompetent as in your previous life,you would simply be dead. The enemy would have lost his pawn either way. But, if somehow you turned out to be someone with the will and smarts, or even the plain luck, to survive and even grow during that time, it would prove your worth. And since you did, the enemy lost his pawn, and WE gained one. As simple as it sounds. So, little boy. Enough with this talk, already. Accept his gift>>
He extend his hand towards me. Still shaken, I am conflicted about what to do. He could be lying to me…and yet, something deep inside me feels like he’s telling the truth.
<<Ah! Fuck it!>> I shout as I grab his hand.
<<Good boy>> he says with a wide smile.
My head hurts, like it’s being split right in two…I feel something being torn from me. It’s painful, more than everything I have ever experienced. More than death.
I see light leaving my body. It’s pretty, sparkling in thousands of colors…but I feel a ominous sensation from it.
The lights dissolve, imploding with a loud, crackling sound.
I fall to my knees, gasping for air as I hold my chest.
Shadows flow towards me, condensing into vein-looking things that creep up on my arms and legs, entering MY veins, staining them black.
The blackness rises, up on my arms, to my chest, my neck, and finally my head.
It ends, and a familiar voice resounds in my head.
[Navi: Hello, Roshal! This is your new, improved Dream Navigator, offered by the almighty Azatoth! I’ll be in your care from now on!]
What is that ominous sounding name?
<<A…Azatoth?>> I mutter.
<<Oh, that’s just one of the names he likes to use. I think he picked it up from a story in your world, if I properly recall>>.
<<What…what has he done to me?>> I ask while trembling.
<<Well…he gave you a gift. He loves drama, you see…and he is especially fond of conflicting characters. So, in order to oppose Heroes, he made you into their polar opposite. Of course, it’s still too early for you to claim that title, and right now you’re much, much weaker than the weakest hero…but still, as a proof of good will by his side, he gave you his mark and blessing. Well, you can see for yourself>>
He invites me so.
Abiding to his words, I activate the Status Window from the new Navi.
As I see what is written there, I burst out laughing.
My level, name and stats…and even the skills are all the same as before. There is only one, tiny line added to the Status Menu under my name.
It reads “Title”.
And, as my freshly gained titled, three words are listed.
Candidate Demon Lord.
I burst out in laughter again. This is too much! And what the hell means “Candidate”? Am I a devil in training? Do I need to make an internship before I become a proper one? Will I get a paycheck raise?
<<What the hell…seriously? Demon Lord?>> I say while crying from laughter.
<<Candidate- says the Laughing Man, pointing his finger upwards- you still need to grow a lot before becoming a proper Demon Lord. Well, the title in itself does not mean anything, it’s not like we will require you to open Hell’s gates or destroy all humans. Just killing one Hero or two will be enough, and you can do whatever the hell you want in the meantime>>
His voice sounds a bit patronizing, though.
<<Yes but…still, Demon Lord? Could you not choose something less evil sounding? What could be worse than that?>> I retort.
A sad smile pops up on the Laughing Man’s face.
<<Well, you could become like me. Roam the world with insanity as your companion>> he says.
Patting my shoulder, he starts smiling again.
<<Now, Roshal. It’s time to wake up, or your new friends will die>>
As he says so, I immediately wake up.
The night still paints the sky with blackness and stars, and the fading campfire near us only emits a dim, weak light.
A thick fog is all around, shifting the world into gray shadows.
<<What is going on?>> I mutter, slowly rising to my feet.
Besides me, Levia and Heod are still asleep.
Retel however, is missing. He should have been on guard duty tonight, maybe he left to relieve himself?
But something does not look right here…I grab a torch from my inventory, lighting it on the waning campfire’s coals, and activate my detection skill. It…doesn’t work? What the hell?
[Navi: All skill functions besides Black Fluid are integrated in the New Me! Isn’t it wonderful, Master?]
What is this development here!
<<Yes, whatever! Hurry up and let me see!>>
As I say so, a sound rings in my head. Now I can properly see, even with the darkness and mist around us. More importantly, the skill seems to not deactivate like before.
In the distance, I spot Retel
<<Damn! Levia! Heod! Wake up, quickly!>> I shout.
Retel is standing in front of something. Shapes move in the mist around us, and a chilling sound starts resounding in the air.
Like a child’s cry.
<<Huh? What? Are we under attack? Is breakfast ready?>> Levia ‘s voice is still sleepy.
Heod springs up, with a concerned look on his tired face.
<<Roshal, what is happening?>>
<<We are under attack. Levia, ready your arrow and fire, right where I tell you.>> I whisper.
She nods, shaking off her sleepiness. Her little hands grab the bow lying besides her, and she notches and arrow, aiming right where I point my finger.
Retel is still approaching the thing. Although their shapes should be hidden by the mist, I can see them clearly with my skill.
In front of my friend, a child-like silhouette is sitting on the ground, sobbing with a child-like voice,cradling its own knees.
Like a child lost in the woods.
<<Levia, now!>> I mutter.
Following my command, the arrow flies inside the mist.
Retel screams in surprise. He falls on his back, and starts tumbling away from the creature before managing to get up and run towards us.
<<Retel! What is happening?>> Levia’s voice is full of concern.
He’s uninjured, luckily enough.
As the arrow hit the mark, the mist dissolves.
Now, all four of us are staring at the little thing.
It really looks like a child. Easy to mistake for one in the dark, even more when the mist is around.
The arrow sticking out of the small head makes for a ghastly view.
I can see Levia reaching her hands to her mouth.
<<Oh my god…what have I done>> she mutters, her voice already broken.
The child slowly turns his head towards us.
As the moonlight illuminates our surroundings, we can clearly see the face staring back at us.
Empty eyes, and a smile that is too big for a human face. The child’s mouth gapes even further, revealing a set of long, thorn-like teeth dripping with saliva.
<<That is no child, Levia>> Heod remarks while trembling.
The thing abruptly turns its neck to the side, making a loud, cracking sound as the little head turns upside down. The same thing it does to shoulders and arms, and now it starts moving towards us.
It reminds me of how a little girl descended some stairs in a iconic horror movie…
Instead, that thing is not a little girl. Not even a human.
[Navi: Detected-Dryad lvl 8-Suggested Extreme Caution]
Weren’t those things supposed to just stay inside their home?
Whatever…we need to defend ourselves, right now.
I grab Retel’s arm, shaking it to make him regain his composure.
<<We need to be focused here, or it will end badly>> I shout to him.
He shakes his head, and look at me with a resolute expression.
As we are talking, I hear the Dryad’s shriek. A bone-chilling sound…
Roots burst out from under our feet, entangling me and Retel. As I look towards Levia and Heod, I see that they met the same fate.
We are trapped.
Struggling with all my might, I cannot resist the crushing strength that these roots possess. As they bind and strangle, I fall to my knees.
The Dryad is coming closer to us.
From the monster’s mouth comes a weird, clicking noise…I don’t know why, but it seems I can almost…understand it.
Is it some kind of mental attack?
[Navi: Negative- The Dryad is only communicating via telepathy]
Huh? It looks like I’ m the only one who can understand it.
I try to shout to it, but it does not react to my words. It only repeats the same sentence, over and over.
Something is weird in the way the Dryad moves. And, it could have easily killed at least one of us, but…it did not do it.
Why? It’s almost like…the Dryad is struggling against something. I have a bad feeling about this…
I focus my attention on the Dryad. It looks like…something is tied around the child-like body, thin threads of golden light that flicker, pulsing…the threads extends toward the Meadows.
Is it being…controlled?
[Navi: Enemy Dryad- Status: Mana Possession]
So…it is being controlled.
Perhaps the Dryad never wanted to hurt us, but instead is being forced to do so. For now, it’s resisting…but how much will it hold?
Right as I think so, the Dryad shrieks again. A painful cry, full of sorrow. The thread of light around it now are fully visible, and the monsters starts rushing towards Levia.
I need to do something.
Mustering all my will, I use Black Fluid. I need to quickly cut the roots that restrain me and my companions.
As I manifest the skill…
[Navi: Combat Assist- Form control Assist. Would you like to activate?]
Of course, yes! This is a critical moment!
A sound rings in my head.
Black Fluid twirls around me, changing into claw-like blades and shredding the roots to pieces.
I am free now, but the Dryad is almost on Levia. It jumps towards her, raising its clawed arm to slash at the beast-girl.
Desperate, I focus all my will into a single shot from Black Fluid.
Hopefully I will hit the thing before it attacks.
Levia’s scream resounds in the air. The Dryad stabs her thorn-like claws in her belly, gushing out blood from my companion’s body.
My attack connects at the same time, hitting the Dryad’s flank and shredding the thing’s body as it expands blades of Black fluid.
<<Levia!>> I shout, running towards her small figure, hoping that it’s not too late.
Meanwhile, the Dryad collapses to the ground.
The wound I gave her is shallow, but my attack somehow destroyed the golden threads, freeing the Dryad from whatever was controlling her.
A faint whisper in my mind. The roots binding my companions are now retreating inside the ground, and the other two are rushing to our side.
I grab Levia before her body hits the soil.
The wound is bad…
My hands tremble, as I mutter incoherent words.
It cannot be…
Retel shouts, and he jumps towards the Dryad with his spear in hands. He stabs, again and again, shouting all his fury as he tries to hit the monster.
The thing stops his assault, blocking the spear with a single hand.
She…smiles at Retel. Not the terrifying expression she gave us before, but a kind, generous smile.
Green light is wrapping around the Dryad, and her figure warps, changes.
Her monstrous features are gone, and now a beautiful young woman stands between us.
<<Thank you, o kind stranger, for freeing me>>
She extends her hand towards Levia.
Green light ripples from her fingers, wrapping on the wounded beast-girl’s body.
Levia gasps in pain, but her face relaxes.
I can see the wound on her belly recede, as the gaping skin slowly becomes whole again.
The girl open her eyes again, as I hold her in my arms.
Retel jumps to us, crying.
<< I’m sorry for the pain I inflicted you, little ones>>the Dryad’s voice is now calm, almost soothing in her kind tone.
I check her again, to ascertain if the mind control is properly gone. As Navi confirms so, I try to speak with the Dryad.
<<You were…being controlled. By whom? And why attack us?>> I try to ask gently, but my voice still holds anger.
I truly thought to have lost my friend here.
<< I do not know so. It came into our home, and poisoned me and my sisters. To what ends, I do not know. He compelled me to come here, to taint myself into killing without reason. I tried to resist, as much as I could. But, in the end, I ended up spilling innocent blood>>
She says as she strokes Levia’s hair.
Retel still looks at her with hateful eyes, while Heod has a sorrowful expression.
He clears his throat.
<<This is bad…if something able to overpower and control the Dryads is behind this…i fear for the village. Tell me, oh Maiden of the Woods…how many of your sister did fall into this stranger’s hands?>>
A moment of silence follows Heod’s question, as the Dryad lifts her head with her eyes closed. Almost as if she’s listening to something.
<< Many fought, and some fell to never rise again…few fled, and lay weak outside of our ancient home. I and six others were prey to his madness. And yes, I feel them move towards the human’s nest>>
Heod strikes his fist to a nearby tree.
<<Dammit!>> he shouts.
What to do now…it seems that the news about the village being attacked left the group in disarray. Although they were mistreated by the inhabitants, it’s still their home. Of course they would feel like this.
<<Please…we need to do something>>
Levia’s voice carries sorrow, but her eyes show determination.
I shake my head.
<<I know that you lived there. I understand, it’s your home…but…think about it. What could we do? If someone capable enough to defeat, and even control the Dryads is our opponent…it will be our loss, no matter how hard we try>>.
My words are harsh, I know. But, it’s the truth. We barely managed to wound a single Dryad, and almost lost Levia here. Against six of them, and the mysterious person controlling them, we have no hope.
<<Still…I…we…cannot just sit idly here, dammit!>>
This time Retel gives voice to his desire to rush to the village.
Heod stays silent. He surely understands how it would be suicide to go there. Still, I can feel his unrest.
The same sensation I felt during the attack on the fort. To be unable to do anything.
<<I am against it. You understand this would be suicide right? >>
I catch myself shouting at them. I admire their resolution, but I don’t want them to lose their life.
<<Then go away. I will go there>>
Levia’s reply leaves me speechless.
Retel too is silent, but I can see it in his eyes. He will go, no matter what I say or do to stop him.
<<No…I will not let you throw away your life like this!>>
Why…why must they behave so stubbornly like this.
We bicker more, and more. I even pull out my weapon and point it towards Retel
<<I’ll hurt you if you don’t stop>> I shout to him, trying to sound as menacing as I can.
But my hand trembles.
<<Do it. No matter what, I will go there. It’s my home! Even if there are some people who treated me badly, mocked and bullied me…there are still people that I cherish! I do not want to be the one that walks away, knowing that they are in pain. And so, strike if you will. Hurt me. But I will go there, crawling and bleeding>>
Retel’s eyes burn with determination.
I let my weapon fall and hit his face with my fist.
Retel simply takes the hit, without even flinching.
A small stream of blood flows from his nose.
He turns his back on me, and leaves with Levia toward the woods.
Heod calls their name with a desperate voice.
But the two don’t turn their back, and disappear among the threes.
<<What are you doing here? Stop them, I beg you!>>
The old man grabs my collar, as he cries bitter tears.
His broken voice is painful to hear, but I cannot bring myself to chase them.
I just look away, like the coward I am.
I stay there clutching my fist in anger.
Enraged, I hit a nearby tree, again, and again, until my hand hurts.
Falling on my knees, I just stay there. Letting time slip by as my friends rush into the night towards a certain death.
Even Heod gives up on me, and he sits in desperation, cradling his head.
I feel a light touch on my shoulder. As I look behind me, the Dryad smiles at me.
<<Have you calmed down, little one? Anger will not help your friends>>
Her gentle voice feels more painful than harsh words.
<<I cannot help them either way>>.
She slaps me.
As I hold my cheek in surprise, she takes my hand into hers.
<<Leave doubt behind, little one. You hold a great power into you, I can feel it. Be confident about yourself, about them. The only way to see a miracle, is by making it happen by your own hands>>
Her words only make me feel more miserable. Am I really leaving them alone, facing certain death? I swore to myself to never behave like this again, letting others die as I hide cowardly. And yet here I am, acting selfishly in self preservation.
Taking a deep breath, I rise.
Clutching her hand, I mutter a simple sentence.
<<Look after the old man>>.
As the Dryad nods with a smile, I rush towards the trees.
Run. Only this thought occupies my mind, as I spend every energy in me to run, faster than I ever had.
How stupid of me, to just stay there.
We could have thought of something, perhaps build a plan.
Properly prepared and together, we would have stood a chance.
Instead, I let my fears hold me…I let my comrades go alone.
They are faster than me, so I will probably reach them after they enter the village, after they start fighting.
If we will survive this, I will be glad to spend my time apologizing to those two. I swear.
Please, if you are listening…Azatoth, God or whoever you are…let them be safe!
For the first time in my two lives, I prayed.
As I exit the woods, exhausted, a blazing fire is in front of me. Sounds of metal clashing rise from the destroyed village.
I rush inside, screaming my companion’s names.
Corpses of villagers are scattered in the road, crushed and maimed. Some of them are still tangles by roots that seem to pierce the deceased bodies.
I try to not puke while looking at this macabre show.
As I push on into the burning village, I come across a Dryad’s dead body.
In the distance, about fifty meters away from me, I can see a group of humans fight two Dryads.
I rush to their side, hoping that Retel and Levia are there.
The human are struggling against the Dryads, but thanks to that the monsters did not notice me as I approached them.
[Navi: Detected-Dryad lvl 6 (x2). Status-Full Mana Possession/ Unable to dispel. Advised elimination of target]
So, defeating them is the only option…
Using Black Fluid, I shot them down. Again and again. I bind them changing the shot’s shape as they connect, pinning them into the ground as I shot more and more.
The Dryads retaliate, and manage to hurt me with shallow wounds…perhaps these too are holding back, like the one in the forest?
Seeing the Dryads being attacked, the villagers rally and strike at them, defeating the Dryads together with me.
<<Thank you…>> a voice whispers into my mind.
<<Retel! Levia!>> I shout with all my breath.
Frantically, I ask each villager if they saw the two beast-kin.
<<They were fighting those things…around the main square>>one of the villagers point into the direction with his finger.
I can see something moving in the shadows.
[Navi: Found them ♪ Right ahead!]
Navi’s cheerful voice reassures me. It seems they are injured, but still alive.
I recover my Black Fluid and rush to their side, not even caring about my wounds.
The small square is covered in debris, and here and there the bodies of fallen villagers lie upon their blood.
In the center, Retel is fending a Dryad’s attack. His spear lies embedded in the Dryad’s shoulder, and he’s using his pole-arm to block the incoming blows. Levia is behind him, injured on her leg. She is straining herself using her skill to heal herself and Retel
I shot the Dryad, changing the Black Fluid to tentacle form as the first shot connects. The tentacles block the Dryad’s movements, and Retel uses this opportunity to decapitate the monster.
He looks at me.
I expected anger, his furious words thrown at me for letting them go like this, without supporting their decision.
<<I knew you would come>> he simply says with a smug smile.
Don’t make me cry here…
<<Sorry…I acted like a coward, before>> I say to them.
<<Oh, what a heart warming reunion>>
The sudden voice leaves us speechless. Sitting on the roof of a nearby house, a small child, no more than ten years old, is watching the scene.
His pure-white,curly unkempt hair covers his eyes, and a wry smile is painted on his face, warping his beautiful features into an arrogant expression befitting an adult more than a child.
Wearing a light blue tunic, he sits there, dangling his leg from the roof.
As I turn toward him, his figure disappears.
<<Hello, Apostle of The False God>>.
In a split second, he is now behind me. A sudden feeling of danger grasps my thoughts, and I jump away from him.
The boy laughs.
[Navi: Resisted-Full Mana Possession]
What? So, is this boy the one causing this mayhem?
As I focus on him, my eyes widen in surprise.
[Navi: Detected- Damien (Human) lvl 75]
It was not his level that surprised me, but the title shown beside his name.
This is too soon…fighting an enemy like a Hero, right from the start?
Suddenly, I feel a sharp pain in my shoulder. An arrow, shot from behind, pierced my flesh.
As I turn to the shot’s direction…
<<Roshal>> Levia’s voice is broken, as she stands with her hands still gripping the bow. A crown of golden treads circles her head, and tears run from her eyes.
<<No>> I mutter as she notches another arrow.
<<What…what is happening to us? Please, make it stop, it hurts!>> Retel shouts as he struggles against his own body.
The same light is wrapped around his head.
[Navi: Retel lvl2- Levia lvl4- Status: Full Mana Possession]
Another arrow flies from Levia’s bow.
The boy…Damian laughs. He kicks me, sending me flying. Landing on my back, I shout in pain.
<<Pathetic…and to think that you would be a threats to us. Seriously, what is that demented False God of yours thinking? Has he gone senile, sending weak guys like you to do his bidding?>> the boy says while shaking his head patronizingly.
<<Hell, it’s not even fun to fight you! But, I still need to take you out here. So, since killing you with my hands sounds so boring, I will make a little play instead.>>
Pointing at my friends, he starts moving his fingers in the air. In response, Retel and Levia begin to dance, following the movement of his fingers.
They cry in pain with every movement they are forced to do.
<<I will use these two to kill you. They are your friends, right? It will be nice to watch them hurt you with their own hands…or will you fight back, and kill your friends?>>
His childish laugh resounds in the air.
<<Now, dance, little puppets>> he says with malice in his voice.
Retel rushes towards me, his pole-arm ready to strike. I barely manage to avoid the blow, only to be hurt by Levia’s arrow.
Retel jumps back at me, and I barely manage to parry his blow by pulling out a spear from my inventory.
He pushes me back, making me fall on my knees as he relentlessly trusts his weapon to hit me.
And with each strike, his voice…
<<Please, make it stop! Forgive me, Roshal>> again and again.
This is beyond sadism. This is pure madness…
Damian seems entertained by what he sees. Clapping his hands, he cheers for my companions as they try to kill me.
The battle goes on, as I desperately try to evade the attacks.
Still, it’s not like I am able to retaliate here…
Only using my weapon to defend myself, I am being cornered.
The wounds on my leg and shoulders are in constant pain, and I barely can move enough to avoid or repel Retel’s attack.
But, the most terrible thing is their plea…as they maintain their consciousness, unable to stop their hand as Damien’s spell forces them to hurt me.
<<Booriing! Come on! Don’t just evade! Use your powers! Kill them! They’re only beast-kin, you know? It’s not like they’re humans!>> the child Hero complains with a fed up tone.
<<Fuck you!>> I shout in anger.
I swear to kill him, no matter what it takes.
The boy laughs, mockingly.
Distracted by him, I receive a kick from Retel.
This is bad…I will die if I do not something about this situation.
I cannot use Black Fluid in a lethal way…but perhaps I could restrain the two of them?
Resolved, I activate the skill with Navi’s support.
Using the Navigator to assist me in shaping the Fluid, I form several ropes as I try to entangle Retel with them. He manages to cut free from the skill, initially, but I manage to keep him still in the end.
<<Oh, restraining them? Boring…Go for the kill, please?>>
I shot Black Fluid at him, but the attack simply bounces off him.
He starts laughing, amused.
<<Come on! Throw me some more of those things! You will never manage to pierce my defense! No one can!>>
I attack him once more. This time, he does not even move to defend himself.
The child laughs again.
<<See? My God granted me an invincible skin…no attack can hurt me, not even leave a scratch>>
Ignoring him, I focus on keeping Retel tangled as I try to reach Levia.
I am at my limit here…
She is fast, however. I’ve been using Black Fluid to defend myself from her arrows while I dealt with Retel…luckily, the remodeled Navi can even assist me by automatically moving my skill to intercept incoming attacks.
This mode takes a huge toll on me, as I feel more and more tired every second.
I need to end this quickly.
Still, Levia evades every single attack I unleash at her.
Closing in on me, she abandons the bow and simply attacks with fists and kicks.
Good. Scattering Black fluid around, I avoid and parry her blows.
Each punch is so heavy, and she manages to hurt me with her nails.
As we fight, I jump away from her and activate the scattered Black Fluid.
The tentacles wrap around her slender figure, attacking from multiple directions all around her. She struggles, but in the end I manage to pin her to the ground.
<<I’m sorry >> I mutter, as I end up using too much strength to restrain her, breaking her arm in the process.
The Hero’s childish voice resounds in the air.
<<What a huge disappointment you are. Not even a drop of blood? Are you serious?>> the boy shouts to me.
I shot Black fluid at him, again and again. Every time he just swats the attack on the side, using a single hand.
I try to restrain him with the same technique I used on Retel and Levia, but he simply breaks the restraints, without even putting any effort in doing so.
Think…I need to think…every attack just bounces on his skin, and I cannot use something like magic since I do not possess any.
It’s like his body is impervious to injury…or is he?
If you cannot strike from outside…
A reckless, hopeless, and probably really stupid plan pops into my mind.
I attack him once again. This time, the shot I fire explodes into a black smoke right in front of Damian’s face.
He takes a deep sigh.
<<Even your attacks are pathetic >>.
As he says so, he points his finger at me.
A burning sensation explodes in my guts. From his finger, a golden laser-like light is fired, piercing my stomach and leaving me bleeding.
I cough out blood, as a second, and third attack pierce both my arms and my chest.
It’s almost as if he’s toying with me…no, he definitely is.
His mocking laughter…I will make him choke on it.
Damian comes closer and kicks my face.
From his blow, I tumble backwards, ending up sprawling with my back on the ground.
My vision is starting to fade…
Still, I need to do resist.
The Hero is now on me, pinning my chest down with his foot, pushing me to the ground as he grovels in delight.
<<Well, enough with the fun. It’s my win, Fake God’s apostle>>.
His triumphant expression fades…as he sees my smile.
<<What are you smiling for? Have you lost your mind, facing death?>> he mutters, perplexed.
<<It’s…your…loss…fucking brat!>> with my last breath, I spit out those words, and activate Black Fluid for the last time.
My skill’s original form was a black mist. Since the skill I hold now is an upgraded version of that original one, I should be able to revert it back to the mist form, right?
On that thought alone I based this stupid, reckless and hopeless strategy.
I tested it on him with my first shot. As he repelled it, I quickly transformed the Black Fluid projectile into thin mist, exerting myself to make it as scarce as I could.
Of course, this action required difficult calculations and extreme control and precision, and only thanks to the assist by the new Navi I could manage to do so.
Basically, I turned my Black Fluid into gas.
It worked, and the boy did not seem to notice the gas-form skill in the air around him.
Without noticing, he stood into the gas, and he breathed it.
That means…Black Fluid is now into his lungs.
And, as I activate it again…
The sound he makes is revolting, choking on his own blood.
I repeat the activation, again and again, as the Black Fluid inside his lungs reverts to liquid form and explodes into spear-shaped protrusions, piercing his body from within.
His face twists in pain…good.
It seems his skin really cannot be pierced…but his insides are just like those of any other human being. Soft, defenseless…vulnerable.
<<How…this, this is not possible>> the Hero mutters as his voice breaks into bubbling sounds.
The child collapses into the ground.
It is not the end, however.
Golden light swirls around him…and it explodes, bursting into a flame like aura, raging all around him.
He coughs, and spits out the Black Fluid from his body.
It seems all damage on him has been healed.
<<You low-life…how did you DARE hurt this body gifted to my by the GOD himself!>>
Enraged, the boy jumps high into the sky.
His shout echoes all around, as he lifts his arm and gathers energy into his hand.
A golden sphere pulses in his grasp, for one moment before he launches it towards the ground.
With my last effort, I wrap my companions with my skill.
Maybe it will not be enough, but it is the only thing I can do to protect them.
After that, the world faded into light.
[Navi: Warning! Critical conditions! Warning!]
Just…shut up…let me fade away.
Voices are around me, they seem to call my name.
I hear a faint sound in the distance…is it a siren? An ambulance?
I slowly open my eyes again.
<<Sir? Are you ok? Sir?>>
The voices are distant, confused.
I try to speak, but nothing comes out of my mouth. I feel the hard texture of asphalt with my hands…the air smell like burnt rubber.
What is going on? A woman cries and sobs, she says she’s sorry, that I popped out in front of her at the last second.
I try to move my legs but they don’t budge. Panic rises and takes hold.
Move…move… I am stuck, locked into my own body.
I can feel myself being lifted by strong hands. Unknown persons strip my clothes, pierce my skin with needles…I feel the world bleeding out from me.
And my name is being called…but, what is my name? I don’t recall it. And that damn smell doesn’t leave my nose, it’s unpleasant.
A light shines before my eyes, and someone puts some kind of mask upon my mouth. I feel the air, pure, rushing into my lungs.
Breathing feels heavy, so heavy and painful.
<<Roshal>> mutters a female voice, but no woman is around me, only two men busy doing something, rubbing two things together and pushing them on my chest…it looks so silly.
The female voice again…who is this Roshal she is calling.
Just leave me be…I want to fade into the light.
Now I am alone, floating into a dark space. It…feels so wrong. A golden light shines in front of me, but I see something moving inside it, something so unpleasant that it makes me want to puke.
It speaks, he tells me an absurd promise, but I know he lies…I feel it in my chest.
I try to flee, but moving is hard into this space. And the thing is closing in, spewing lies and insults.
I extend my hand and hope that someone grabs it…
It is all a dream, memories mixed up by my own mind. This is not real, as I am dead and fading away. How silly of me to think such things, of other worlds and magic and Gods.
There is no such thing. I just need to fade away.
And I almost do so. Only a feeling keeps me here, and makes me turn towards the light. It is that voice, calling that name that only few moments ago I did not recognize. There are other voices with hers, calling me, begging me to wake up.
I did already experience something like this. The first time I died. Only, there were no voices to call me then, and I faded from the world, alone.
But here, the voices call me back. I am not faded away, yet.
I am still here.
I shout to them, again and again. They cannot hear me, it seems, but that does not stop me.
And so, I struggle…I run towards the voice, and as I do so, they grow stronger, they become REAL again.
I become real, as my memory becomes clearer with every step.
The illusion breaks, like shattered glass, and I am whole again.
One last trick from my old friend, it seems. But I will not let myself to be fooled so easily. This time, I open my eyes again, my real eyes.
As the world takes shapes again, a familiar face is in front of me.
Her expression is twisted, as tears run from her eyes into her beautiful cheeks.
She shouts, and someone else comes rushing. They shout my name, and cry, but their voice sounds happy.
They mutter my name, and then they shout it.
Levia hugs me with all her might, while Retel stands besides her, holding my hand as he tries to do a tough face, failing miserably.
Hell, I only met them few days ago, and yet they show more affection to me than the people from my previous life that I knew for years.
I try to move, but my body refuses so.
[Navi: Critical Damage, impossible to move- Permanent Damaged absent- Healing Magic applied-estimated recovery time: 1 week]
Even Navi’s voice is soothing to me.
It seems that, in the end, we managed to survive this predicament.
We are still in the ruined village.
The Hero, Damian, disappeared right after his attack. He probably thought to have killed us for sure.
Well, we will probably have to fight him again.
After the explosion, we were blown away. I managed to protect Retel and Levia with my skill, absorbing a bit of damage and thus saving their life.
When the explosion subsided, they searched for me into the debris.
It was thanks to the Dryads that I am still alive. After my attack on Damian, the shock of him being hurt broke his spell, releasing the Dryads and my companions from his control.
As the Hero fled, they rushed to our side, saving my life with their healing magic.
Still, why the hell did the Hero appear here…it’s like trouble follows every step I take in this world.
And his attack…what was his purpose here?
Too many things are still unknown to me. The only thing I know is that, as I am now, I am pitifully weak compared to them.
Even with the wounds that I inflicted him, he did not die and healed almost immediately.
Overwhelming power…so that’s the existence called “Hero”.
To beat them, to survive, I only have one thing to do. Become stronger than them.
This time, I used an underhanded tactic, but the next time a cheap trick like that will not be enough.
I need to become stronger, and fast.
With those thoughts in mind, I fell asleep once again.
The next week went by, with me being unable to even lift a finger. Still, I have been nursed by Levia and old Heod….the poor girl even cooked for me.
According to Heod, he rushed here as soon as he heard the explosion in the village. When he found me, collapsed on the ground, he thought the worst had happened.
He stood there as the Dryads used their magic, walking restless like a parent outside of his child’s hospital room.
During my recovery, he mixed his potions with my food.
<<With this, you will get up again in no time>> he said with his usual smile. But I could see the concern behind those words.
He too realized that me, Levia and Heod are safe by pure and sheer luck.
He even told me, in a moment where we were alone in the room. It’s sad to see a man his age cry in frustration, but I understand what he felt, seeing us in this sorry state.
<<Never do something like that again>> I heard him scold Retel and Levia.
Still, it could end much, much worse than this.
We could have been dead, the three of us. Instead, we ended up with only some scars to remind us of what happened.
As my injuries are now healed, I share my resolution with the group.
I tell them everything…besides the Demon Lord thing…that feels a little embarrassing.
Still, they made their will to follow me pretty clear. Even after knowing how strong will the enemy be. Not only monsters, but also Heroes will be on my, on our path. Even knowing so, they decided to come with me, to get stronger with me.
Still, as the day dawns, we leave the village behind, heading out into the road again.