Author’s note: Chapter 29 is here! Finally, managed to edit the whole piece, hopefully there are not too many errors in it. Well, enjoy!
<<So, are you sure you want to go like this? We could rent two horses and take some time to get there, no need to exert yourself. This is supposed to be a small vacation, after all>>
Levia looks at me, seemingly disappointed by my choice.
<<It will be fine. And it’s not like we’re going there in a single go, I will stop from time to time>>
She frowns a bit, then she shrugs her shoulders, giving up.
<<Fine. I hate that thing, you know? It feels weird every time>>
<<I will try and control it better, don’t worry>>
Saying so, I open the gate to the Inventory dimension.
Levia scoffs to my invitation, but steps inside the black gap in the air that formed next to me. As she disappears behind it, I bid farewell to Heod, then jump inside the space.
The air closes behind me, leaving no trace of the tear I just crossed.
Inside the space, everything is the same as usual. The items I collected in there, floating lightly, suspended in that blackness that surrounds me.
Among them, Levia, frozen in time, her left foot still locked in midair as to complete the step she took before, her face slightly turned toward the direction where she came from.
Before doing anything, I check the feedback from the other offshoot I sent in advance, this time smaller than the first one, in order for it to sneak unnoticed.
It is still far, but I can see the settlement from a distance. Nothing more than a dot in a clearing, surrounded by a meadow and, further southwest from it, the Marsh.
Dismissing the feedback, I turn to Levia.
I take a deep breath, and touch her arm.
Slowly, I let a sliver of my mana run through her. After some moments, I can feel her pulse, and after some more, she blinks her eyes and draws a breath.
She looks around, seemingly disoriented. Even if her time is flowing again, the effects of having it stopped in the first place are still there.
She sways, failing to find proper footing.
<<Relax. This place works in some weird ways. If you think you’ll fall, you’ll fall. If you think you have safe footing, you’ll simply stand up. There, good job>>
I support her, and then, with a bit of effort on her part, Levia manages to take hold of herself, and stand without my help.
<<It’s so…empty, and cold>>
She shivers, looking around.
<<Does it end? I can’t see anything beside those things floating around>>
Her question makes me wonder a bit. Does it end? I do not have such answer. During the first experiments I did with Inventory, I tried to explore it, every time failing to reach the end of it, or some semblance of a border. No matter the direction I took, or the speed I used to move.
It really might be endless, or its limits are so far and wide that I could never reach them.
<<Perhaps. But, I think it just goes on and on>>
Levia does not even reply, her eyes wandering out to the dark emptiness.
<<And here I thought I would be enjoying some open fields…>>
I can hear her muttering under her lips. I know this was supposed to be a break, some sort of vacation to relief our stress a bit, but the feeling of concern I have about the slave settlement compels me to act otherwise.
Maybe it is all in my head, and once I get there, there is nothing going on. I seriously hope so. But I cannot rule out the other possibility, that something is happening or about to happen there.
Feeling a bit tired, I hop out of Inventory with Levia. We’re still far from our destination, having traveled to the Grasslands.
Memories about the last time we found ourselves in this place are coming in. Back then we just came out of the ruined Nudria, having barely survived that crazy Hero’s attack.
<<It seems so much time has passed since then, and yet, we were here, struggling against low level things, no more than some months ago>>
Levia is staring in the distance, over the lush green of the Grasslands. Her hair flutters in the wind, lightly, her clothes swaying with the same cadence. In the air, a strong scent of grass and pollen, something that slightly irritates my nose and eyes. It is a funny thought, a Demon Lord with allergies. All around, several signals are present in Navi’s detection, monsters, whose cries resound in the air. Still, they’re far, and too weak to pose nothing more than an annoyance. To think that back then we struggled against even a single one of these creatures, it really puts the progress we had into perspective. And it is not yet enough, of course.
Levia turns towards me, smiling, but I can read concern in her eyes.
<<Is there something troubling you?>>
To my question, she answers by nodding slightly, her eyes now fixed on the ground beneath her feet.
She fidgets a bit, a habit that she seemed to have lost since the first time I knew her.
Taking a deep breath, she expresses what is weighting on her mind.
<<Roshal, where are we going?>>
She ends with a question, one that makes me wonder. During all her talk, she expressed her concerns about all that has happened, from the first time we’ve met each other. What happened in Nudria, and before that, in the woods. Then, all the trouble we went through in Sendria.
Now, I realize that all that happened during that time was a series of events sprung by my own lack of a proper purpose, a goal in whatever this life is. I was still under the conviction, back then, that the person living in my memories was a real one, and thus, I abode to that “will”, my actions conformed to it.
And that “person” was nothing more than a loser, after all. Now, knowing that it was not “me”, I can see it from a bit of distance, separate myself, my true self from the person in my memories. Put into perspective, all that I had in my head was nothing more than a collection of frustration and ineptitude, towards life in general. It came with some useful knowledge, sure, but I wonder if that may be the true purpose of such memories.
Why should a God go to these lengths, construct an individual “soul” from scraps of recycled memories, only to give him, or it, a hellish and depressive past.
Was it to spring the creation to pursue some kind of redemption, following the chimera of a second occasion in this new world?
I do not think it plausible. Because, no matter how strong the desire to change might be, a weak mind will still be weak, even if given the chance to start anew.
Moreover, by carrying morality and taboos from another world, that person will be bound to make mistakes, to misjudge situations and acts, leading himself and others into danger, or worse.
Now, I can see that I acted that way, nothing more than a man-child running around aimlessly, too naive, too trusting of others to the point of being stupid.
This is how events unfolded for me, but I failed to see the other perspective about things, the one coming from people that I consider close to me.
It all started back then, after the Dryads, after we barely survived the Hero with a stroke of luck so incredible that it seems fake, constructed.
To me, it was natural to cling to the others, as I was alone, lost in this world that I failed to understand, longing for people to recognize me, to care for me.
But to the others, what happened back then, that compelled them to stick with me? What did they feel, how did they take that decision so lightly, sticking with me, a complete stranger?
To Levia’s words, it was something they felt compelled to do, as if driven by a sudden desire.
<<Like the time when we ran off to Nudria, after the first Dryad attacked. Even now I wonder, why we rushed back to that place? I hated it, hated the people living there, and every single moment I was belittled and insulted for the scales on my skin and the horns on my head. And yet, that time, I felt a sudden urge to go there. I believe it was the same for Retel>>
She shakes her head, pausing for a moment to collect her thoughts. Clearing her throat, she resumes her talk, gazing in my eyes with a serious expression.
<<But, things have changed from back then. I do not know if it happened all by chance, or if it is your doing. Or even if something bigger is going on, guiding our lives to this precise point. I’ve never been one to believe in destiny or such thing, and believe me, I have resented the Gods for all my life, loathing them for having made me different, a monster to the eyes of people like the ones who I used to live with. My whole world changed, from being a despised beast-kin, my brother and Heod the only people who would smile at me. Now, people look at me and see a member of the adventurer’s guild, one of the most powerful associations in Sendria. setting aside all that nonsense about Heroes and Demon lord. One part of me wants to thank you, since, no matter how many times you basically dragged us into danger, nothing would have changed without meeting you. On the other hand, I wonder if this, all that we did, all that we’re doing, is something we decided, or there is something else at play here, something that made us go with you, that made us meet you in the first place. And as we go on further with all this, the trials, Aldora about to invade Sendria, the struggle within the city and so on, I am leaning toward the second option. So, that is why I ask you…where are we going? Do you know something about all that is happening, do you have a plan?>>
Her eyes tell me she already knows the answer. After all, I do not know where we are going, nor do I have a plan for the future.
I take a deep breath, sorting out the words to answer her.
I tell her about how I had the same feeling, about being guided to something, some decisions I took not even making sense to me, after I lived through them and had the time to analyze them.
Perhaps there is really something, maybe it is even that abominable God that dragged me here in the first place, or the one who “rescued” me from being a puppet of Aldora.
And I suspect that even this need to visit the slave settlement is nothing more than an interference, once again, with my thought, with my life. I feel compelled to go there, a sensation of unrest growing in me every time I think about that place.
And, since that dream, I have been thinking about it a lot.
<<No, Levia, I do not have a plan. And I don’t know anything at all. Hell, at this point, I do not even know who I am>>
I ponder if I should tell her what John revealed to me, something I did not even share with Heod. Something I kept for myself, and that is now festering in my thoughts, that question, those three words that rise every moment of respite, every time I am idle.
I sigh, and begin to share with her the tale about a boy, fallen down from the sky with his head full of memories that were not his own.
She listens to my words, without even uttering a sound. It feels like the first time I revealed my “secret” to them, about me being from another world. And now, at this moment, I am telling the opposite of it.
Unlike then, when I trembled at the notion that they would take me for a fool, I do not fear her reactions. Simply, I am stating things as they are, without wrapping it in lies or omissions.
Levia snickers, explaining how she finds that I have changed a bit.
<<I’m not sure that I like this new “Roshal”>>
I let her words fall into silence, as something else has caught my attention.
Feedback from the offshoot I sent earlier to check the former slave encampment.
The visuals from my flying “spy” show a thriving settlement, born over the ruins of an Aldoran fort.
They used the wooden walls, destroyed by the Laughing Man’s fury, rebuilding them and turning what caged them before into something that protects them.
Inside, the hollowed and ruined buildings have been repaired and modified. Some, housing for the people, others have become shops or repositories for goods and provisions.
There is even a small forge set up, and a thick black smoke is rising from it.
Outside of the settlement, few patches of land appear to be cultivated. It is too soon for them to have a proper harvest, but plants are growing nicely on the dark soil, perhaps, the place will have a good harvest for the winter.
The situation of the settlement seems normal, even better than a village of former slaves should fare. Given how they had looted provisions stored from Aldoran soldiers, it goes without saying that their little village had a good amount of food to begin with, and most likely their only concern for the first month or so was rebuilding the place and give it some semblance of dignity.
I try to take a closer look, taking direct control of the offshoot and flying it near a patch of trees that
surrounds the village.
As soon as the offshoot nears the trees, the connection I have to it is severed. The last figure recorded from it, a dark silhouette and the silver flash of a blade.
<<This is not a good sign…>>
I mutter to myself.
Levia turns to me with an interrogative expression, but I simply open the Inventory again and drag her with me. The feeling of restlessness that takes hold every time my thoughts wander to that place have grown, almost becoming physical pain when that something or someone cut down my spy.
Levia beckons me, her eyes wide as she stares at my concerned face. I keep my gaze to the distance, far away, pondering the most prudent move to take at this time.
Should I send some more scouts, to ascertain the situation? Or should I rush there? There is a high possibility that my scout has been mistaken for a monster and taken out by guards or some skilled villager.
I contact the others, letting them know that we’re moving closer to the village. Although I went alone with Levia, I left some transfer stones to each member of our party, in order for them to reach us immediately if trouble arises. Of course, the opposite is also true, although I do not think that Dahl or Retel and Marica would end up in troublesome situations, given how they decided to spend their free time.
<<My scout has been destroyed. It reached the village, then something cut it down>>
As I answer to her question, Levia’s expression turns serious.
<<First, I’ll do this>>
I summon Shoggoth once again, this time sending multiple, smaller offshoots to scout the area. I made them quicker than the first, in order for them to reach the village in a reasonable time.
<<Then, we’ll wait>>
The improved offshoots fly towards the village at incredible speed, their visual feedback nothing more than a blur of colors and forms distorted by speed.
In a single hour, they reach the place where their “brother” had met its end. Droning around, each of the single offshoots surveys the area around and above the small settlement.
Like the one I sent before, all of them fall, one by one.
Definitely this is not the work of some monster. Even someone like a guard would have considered the offshoots like some kind of bug, and disregard them completely. And yet, for someone to aptly take them out, it must be someone capable of sensing the mana flowing inside of them, and realizing that they were not living organisms, but something else.
Taken by curiosity, I give in to the compulsion to go there. Hopping into Inventory once more, let the black space open and close, letting me and Levia out right next to the slave settlement.
Seeing it up close, I realize how the new settlement is bigger than the Aldoran fort was. Perhaps, they have taken in some refugees fled from Nudria, or some traveling peddlers decided to settle here.
I enter the main gate, without anyone coming to stop, or even check me. All around, the people seem relaxed, only sending small, curious glances towards the two strangers that have just crossed the village’s doors.
<<It seem fairly normal to me>>
Levia mutters, her eyes wandering to the wooden houses and the dirt track roads. Of course, this place is significantly poor, relying not on a thriving economy but on agriculture as a mean to sustain themselves.
The shops here are nothing more than peddler’s carts, perhaps owned by some itinerant merchant that chose to come here to exchange some goods and refurbish on another. Despite its situation right now, the settlement is located in a favorable zone, having good land around it and abundance of some resources, like wood and water.
And, given how the Aldora Marsh is near, they could start gathering materials from there, given that some of the former slaves has or manages to gather enough levels to challenge the monsters there.
Still, I wonder why, but even seeing up close how the new settlement is faring, I cannot shake off this feeling of unrest, like something is about to happen here.
I look around, the curious stares of passersby, some of them with a spark of recognition in them, from the time they were in chains, and I was nothing more than a lost boy, half prisoner, half guest of those soldiers from Aldora.
Memories of that time are running in my head, this time real, not fabricated, inherited and inserted by some cosmic force.
I thread lightly on the dirt track roads, my feet bringing me to the place where Emilia shared her lessons with me, teaching how to speak the common tongue of this region.
Curious as it is, that people from Sendria share the same language and yet have so radical differences in their view of the world. I would be prone to consider a common language something that should unify, and yet, due to different religious belief, the two states could not be more apart one from the other.
In Aldora, the notion of inferiority among people is introduced, as people that hold magic or skills are discriminated, dehumanized.
These people here, they have experienced it first hand, the negation of their humanity, people seen as nothing more than tools, objects to be used.
How did I ever feel compassion to those from Aldora? Was it because of the kindness they showed me back then?
I wonder how the current me would have reacted, if by some strange twist of fate, I had to repeat the same experience that led me here, back then.
Would I just sit idly, thinking about myself while ignoring those eyes, the light in them slowly fading away, slowly, day after day of denied freedom and dehumanization.
Or would I fight, and perhaps die, to protect them, their right to possess their own lives?
I talk to Levia about what is running into my mind.
<<I cannot give an answer about what you would have done. But, if it were me, I would have rushed to their side. No matter how kind the soldiers were to you, I could never stand idly and watch others be persecuted>>
I nod, leaning on a low wooden fence, my eyes wandering to the house behind it. In there, the Soldier barracks used to be. Now, a row of small wooden huts took its place, and I have to admit, it is definitely better like this.
<<Still, if I went and challenged the soldiers, I would be dead by now, or made a slave myself. Back then, not only did I lack the power, but also the guts to actually do something. I recognize it now, how selfish and coward I have been. And thinking about how events unfolded in the end, my little rebellion would have been for naught. The slaves would have been freed either way, but since I did not act against the soldiers, I survived. And now I am here, again, wondering about the past, something that will not lead to anything I believe. And yet, I cannot stir my thoughts from that. Is it guilt?>>
I turn to Levia, as to wait for an answer from her.
Levia’s smile warms her face, her eyes looking at me kindly.
<<I think it’s simple growth. You’re maturing, and now you start to wonder, to try and find your own answers. Of course it will not change the past, but the conclusion you reach, it will change you.
You can believe to have acted in your interest, and stop dwelling on it. It is fine, most people do it.
Or you could dwell deeper on your action, analyze them, that sense of guilt, or regret you may be feeling. It could turn into something that will spring you to action, next time. Now that you have the power to do it, and the will>>
I smile at her, shaking my head a bit.
<<Well, and here I thought Heod was the philosopher among us>>
She snickers to my, I have to admit, lame joke. Her laughter is nice to hear, and reminds me of one memory from the other world, one of the rare nice ones.
About a girl, back in high school. I do not even know now if that girl existed, or if it is just some kind of projection. I remember her laughter, so clear, like the chiming sound of crystals, and I stood there, in the hallways, steps behind her and her friends, gazing from afar, with a warm feeling in my chest that soon turned sour, as she walked past me, without even noticing me.
But her laughter, and her smiling face, they were so good to admire, and that instant where she came towards me, it made my heart flutter, and for a moment I thought, hoped that she would rise her gaze and smile at me.
I do not even know if that scene is real, or the result of some patchwork, some crappy montage that should belong to D list movies. And yet, it is playing now in my head, superimposed to Levia’s own smile, to her laughter.
But, Levia is real, here, next to me. And her smile is enough to soothe me, making me forgive even why I came here.
She realizes the way I have been staring at her lips, and her smile wavers a bit, both her eyes and my own changing their direction, awkwardly.
A voice calls from behind.
As I turn, I see a figure I recognize.
<<Is that really you? You’ve come back!>>
Julia’s mother is holding a basket of freshly picked fruit, her hair tied up on her head leaving her neckline exposed.
I wave my hand at her, before approaching the woman.
She puts down her basket to greet me, asking me how I have been faring since then.
There is almost no trace left of the pale, malnourished woman that I used to sneak food to. Now, her body has fully recovered, as the light in her eyes has, burning bright almost as her smile.
She looks at me with concern, in her eyes, after all, I am nothing more than a kid, alone in the world.
She joins her hands in surprise when I show her my Identity stone from the Guild.
She compliments me, and I introduce Levia to her. The woman’s lips curl up a bit. Perhaps she misunderstood something here…
<<Where is Julia? I would like to say hello to the little girl>>
Noticing that her daughter is nowhere near, I ask her.
<<She must be out in the fields. Lately she’s playing along with that blonde girl and some other brats…too much, for my tastes, and too close to the forest out there. That place gives me the creeps>>
As she mentions the forest, I feel something in my chest tighten.
Again, that feeling of unrest comes up, filling my psyche like a wave. Now that I recall it, could it be Julia’s doing? She had some kind of mind-related ability, even being able to sense, or perhaps call, the Laughing Man.
But if that is the case, why me?
I rule out the possibility of this. Still, the forest seems to be a place I need to check.
Julia’s mother parts from us, excusing herself since she needs to go back to work. She strolls away, holding her basket under her folded right arm.
As a gift, she gave me and Levia two fruits. Round, red and squishy, these fruit let out a deeply sweet fragrance, that becomes an even sweeter flavor when I bite into it.
Levia is also eating hers, a trickle of juice flowing from her mouth to her chin.
As I make her note that, she frantically tries to wipe it with a towel,with the sole result of smearing her chin further.
<<Stop laughing! It’s not funny!>>
She protests and pouts, but then smiles again.
<<Now, what do you want to do about the forest? Want to check it out?>>
Levia asks me, sitting on a fallen log. We’ve gone outside of the settlement again, nearing the forest as we walked. I explained to her what I felt when the woman mentioned it, and she agreed that it was worth investigating.
<<Not in person. Not immediately at least>>
This time, the offshoot I am making is different. I am putting my concentration into it, trying to create not a puppet, but a living being.
It takes a huge amount of mana to do so, to will Shoggoth’s offshoot into the different cell structures, muscles and neural networks, skin and bones.
The aspect of the new creature is…weird. The motif to it it’s the usual bio-mechanical look, apparently the standard form for things created by using Shoggoth. It has the vague shape of a moth, four legs instead of six. Large as a cat, with black wings that have a red eye as a pattern.
The most interesting thing is how the head turned out to be. It looks like a globe, surrounded by three petal-like covers of hard shell. From the base of it, three pairs of thin antennae extend, wriggling around. The globe itself is composed by a myriad of tiny eyes, covered in a thin mucous layer that makes it glisten. The mouth of the creature is a vertical slit on its torso, lined with sharp teeth.
This creature, unlike my other creations, has a proper mind of its own. And with that, a level.
[Navi: Unit Creation Complete- Would you like to assign a name to your minion? Y/N]
I think the name, and wait for Navi’s reply.
[Navi: Unit Named Successfully! New Unit- Meviel (lvl 10) is now ready to follow your orders!
First Minion Created! For that reason, Meviel’s Stats have gained a 30% boost! Being your first Minion, Meviel will gain a passive amount of EXP every time you defeat an enemy, and a 30% EXP bonus every time it defeats an enemy on its own. New Navigator Function Available: Unit Command. With this, it is possible to produce, assign and control units you’ve created, and simplify creations of new ones! A huge step into becoming a true Demon Lord!]
<<Your skill gets weirder every time, Roshal>>
Levia says so, looking a bit disgusted by the giant moth resting perched on my hand. It’s nice to see how forced battles against spider, scorpions and other insects have forced her to win her fear of insects.
Still, I believe some of it remains, perhaps not fear, but definitely disgust.
<<Don’t look at her like that, she’s beautiful, see>>
Levia squirms, packing a punch to my shoulder.
Meviel turns its head to her, then to me, its antennae wiggling with quick movements and pauses.
I sense its intention, as it wonders if it needs to protect me from Levia.
It almost makes me chuckle. Still, I send my will to Meviel, and it calms down, turning its head to Levia and wriggling its antennae slowly, almost waving them at her.
<<God make it stop, please…>>
She looks away, a bit pale.
Still, I try to see in detail what I have created. I know the basic specifics of Meviel, since I made them, but it seems like Navi or the system interfered a bit with the process, and so, I need to check how things turned out to be.
I use Navi’s identification on Meviel.
[Navi: Identified- Meviel (lvl 10)- Race: Demon (Roshal’s Minion). Skills: Aerial Attack, Sonar, Infrared View, Identify, Sonic Cutter, Image Processing]
The list of Meviel’s stats shows only four, Str, Acc, Agi, Int, with the last two being the higher parameters.
Of course, I built this minion as a mean of recognition capable of some degree of combat. At the moment, level ten seems to be my limit, but with time, who knows?
I release it, giving out the impulse to search the forest. As the minion flies, hovering over the line of trees before disappearing from my sight, I wait with Levia, checking the feedback from Meviel as it flies.
This will serve two purposes. First, if common monsters are responsible for the destruction of my previous scouts, Meviel will be able to deal with them if their level is low enough, without me having to step into battle.
Even if the monsters in the forest are low level ones, they still could pose some kind of threat to the settlement.
But, if Meviel finds something else…
My train of thoughts is interrupted, as Meviel gives back the image of a clearing inside the forest. In there, a group of children are playing together, and among them, I spot Julia.
She stops for a moment, looking at Meviel’s direction before running again, pursuing one of her playmates towards the forest.
The scene is heartwarming, but I cannot help but think that these kids are pushing their luck by playing around in the forest, without supervision.
Another signal from Navi, this time stronger.
Smiling, I take note of it.
Beside that signal, there is nothing going on with the forest, strangely enough. Just to be sure, I am leaving Navi’s detection on, and later I will send Meviel to scout a larger area.
It seems that the signal has begun to attack Meviel. My minion has a high Agi stat, and it is being able to avoid the attacks, barely.
If things keep up like this, I will lose my first proper creation, and I do not want that.
I tell Levia about the situation, cautioning her to not take any offensive action. She looks at me with curiosity, but then she shrugs her shoulders and follows along.
Stepping inside the forest, we near the place where the battle is unfolding. Meviel has been wounded, now lying on the ground, wriggling its body as if to crawl to my direction.
In front of it, a woman stands, her rapier bared toward my minion, ready to strike at it.
It seems she did not notice us.
Extending my hand, I recall Meviel into Shoggoth. A tendril of blackness comes from my hand, connecting itself to my minion and absorbing it.
Seeing the scene, the woman jumps back, her eyes narrowing.
Then, she yells, surprised.
<<Roshal? Is…is that really you?>>
Emilia looks at me, lowering her rapier for one second before raising it again. I am glad to see her, and she’s doing ok. But she’s a member of Aldora, and her presence here could mean something bad is coming.
<<I thought I would never meet you again>>
I say, a sad smile on my face. Using Shoggoth, I bind her, surprising the girl with the sudden motion.
<<Wh…what are you doing? Roshal, please!>>
I harden my stare, and my grip on her.
<<I’m sorry Emilia, but this is something necessary. Are you here alone? Are there other people from Aldora returning here?>>
She looks at me, angered. Levia is beside me, her weapon still lowered as she tries to make out what is happening.
Shoggoth’s grip tightens again.
<<Roshal…please…you’re hurting me>>
Her voice weakens, but she still fails to answer my question. There are no other signals in the forest, beside animals and the children who are playing in the clearing. One of them is approaching, quickly.
I turn around in that direction, seeing Julia pop out of the vegetation.
She yells seeing Emilia and us, and she steps back. For a moment, before she collects her courage and shouts, this time with a firm voice.
<<Leave big sis alone!>>
Her words leave me puzzled, but more than words, it is her skill that affected me. I resisted it, but her shout was clearly a mental attack of some sort.
Apparently, little Julia has grown a bit since the last time I met her.
<<So, this is just a big misunderstanding, am I right?>>
Levia asks, her eyes wandering around. We’ve already come back to the settlement, along with Emilia and Julia.
It was the girl that convinced me to free Emilia, leading to a series of apologies that I was forced to make.
It turns out, Emilia is now living among the former slaves. After the Laughing Man, her unit was decimated while she was out on patrol duty.
Her group was ambushed by monsters, and her companions fell to them. Alone, wounded, she dragged herself back to the fort, only to find it destroyed, the army gone, the slaves freed.
<<I remember collapsing right in front of the gate, and when I woke up, Julia’s mother was nursing my wounds. I laid in bed for about two weeks, before I could move again>>
I listen to her story, studying her Status as she talks. I remember her level to be around forty, instead, right now, her status lists her as level twenty.
Moreover, she has no skills.
I want to ask her about it, but perhaps, not even Emilia has an answer for what happened to her.
Maybe she was so heavily wounded that her level dropped, although I do not think this is the case.
Giving in, I ask her.
She looks down, fidgeting with her hands.
Her voice is low when she starts talking, telling what happened during her stay in the settlement.
<<As I said before, I…my group was out, scouting a way in the Marsh for our supply chain to use. That fort was supposed to be an outpost, a base of operations of some sort. I do not know further details, after all, I am…I was nothing more than a simple soldier in the ranks of the Scouting division. Anyway, we were attacked by a large group of monsters, ambushed at night. It was awful>>
She stops, her voice trembling for a moment as she twists her hands one into the other, her shoulders dropping as if bearing a heavy weight.
<<I…was wounded, and ran away. I left them there, to die>>
She pauses again, biting her lips, her face slightly paler than before.
She clears her throat, trying to give some semblance of strength to her tone.
<<Wounded, and shocked, I walked back to the fort. Crawled, at some point. My vision fading, my strength slowly seeping away. I collapsed before reaching it, able to see the gates but without being able to reach them. When I woke up, I was lying in a bed, draped under a warm sheet of cloth and nursed by Verra, this brat’s mother>>
She pats Julia’s head, who in return smiles, hugging Emilia closer. We’re inside Verra’s house, and it seems that since Emilia fainted outside of the village, she’s been the one taking care of her. Healing her wounds first, then giving her shelter, and even a job.
<<It took me some time for my wounds to heal, but I recovered fully. And that’s when things changed. As I spent time in the village, I saw how they treated me. Me, a soldier from Aldora, one of the people that enslaved them, that used to look at them like nothing more than thrash. And yet, all they showed was kindness. They healed me, they fed me. They forgave me. At first, I resented it. Like a stupid, I expected them to hate me, I almost wanted them to. But time after time, day after day I spent with these wonderful people, their kindness made me open my eyes. Aldora’s ways are wrong. All that I believed, all that Aldora stands for, is nothing much than a pile of stupid precepts, made to oppress people. And when I realized it, when I realized the change in my thoughts, something snapped inside of me. My level went down, every day. It was painful at first, unbearable when it was about to reach one. Then, I really thought I was about to die. And yet, I did not. Something seeped out of my body, like a thick blue fog, and I was able to breathe again. Not only that, but I felt…different, better, like my head was clear for the first time. Since then, I trained myself back, hoping to reach the level I had before. And that’s it, Emilia’s recent history of redemption. So different from the lessons I used to give you, right?>>
She smiles, but sorrow is clear in her eyes. Now, she’s a person who has seen all she believed in as it truly was. Not religion, but oppression, tyranny. The former slaves, being people who deeply understand suffering, decided to do the most difficult act, something that speak so highly of them.
To forgive, to nurture who used to be your enemy.
<<And you? What you’ve been doing since all this time?>>
Emilia asks, with Julia peeking with curiosity from under her arm. It seems that the two of them grew close as Emilia spent time among the former slaves.
I smile back, proceeding to talk about my recent life as an adventurer. Levia joins in the talk too, perhaps she was feeling a bit left out from before.
As we talk, speaking about the Dungeon and the Adventurer’s Guild, I can see Julia’s eyes sparkle, enthralled as she was by the tale.
We spent the whole afternoon in Verra’s hut, and I managed to get a few information from her. Apparently, the small settlement is faring a bit worse than it seems. Crops are going bad, and some of the inhabitants seem to have gone missing. Five of them, with no relation to each other. The main talk is that they ventured too far inside the Marsh, perhaps trying to harvest some rare herbs from there, or even going as far as hunting monsters in the area.
It seems none of the villagers actually thought the matter to be something more serious, considering the recent deaths nothing more than accidents, due to the individuals’ carelessness.
Plausible, but I think it deserves some more investigation. Still, according to Verra’s words, the village lacks a proper guard corp, and every able hand is too busy with crops or other much needed work.
In short, nobody looked into the disappearances.
The settlement itself numbers seventy-three people, fifty males between ages fourteen and forty-five, sixteen women and seven children, three boys and four girls, one of them still a newborn.
None of them combat-trained, except Emilia, and all lacking even the tools to defend themselves.
<<How do you deal with stray monsters?>>
Levia’s question hits on point. Here, no matter how things are, it is still too close to the Marsh to be totally safe.
Back when it was a fort, the place had an ample number of combatants, well enough capable to take down a few monsters, or even a group of them.
And monsters are bound to roam near the village, attracted by the noise.
Verra pauses for a moment, recalling.
<<Actually, we’ve never seen a monster come up this close. Not even in the woods. Well, excluding those strange black creatures that Emilia killed the other day, but that happened recently>>
Levia looks at me and snickers, making a puzzled expression rise in Verra’s face.
<<It’s nothing. So, no monsters at all? What about brigands, bandits? There should be some group active in the area from what I recall>>
That is a lie, but I want to know if they spotted something suspicious, something that might be the cause for this sense of uneasiness that I still feel.
Verra shakes her head. If what she says is true, then this settlement has really been blessed with some good luck, given how it is ignored by monsters. Bandits are nowhere around the area, I checked that with Navi, but given how the Marsh is part of Aldora’s territory, it would not be strange to see some scouts head here, or even a full force trying to reclaim the fort for themselves, and the slaves inside of it.
I speak some more with Verra, while Julia has basically taken Levia as an hostage, bombarding her with questions and pestering the poor beast-kin to let her touch her horns.
<<Julia! Stop! It’s rude to ask something like this>>
The little girl pouts, but Levia smiles at her, taking her small hand and guiding it to her head.
A wide smile opens in Julia’s face, as she runs her fingers on the curved small horns that point out of Levia’s forehead.
Verra looks at her daughter, shaking her head but incapable of stopping her mouth to curve into a smile.
She offers to host us for dinner, and Levia accepts without even waiting for me to reply. Not that I would have refused, but…
Still, I take out some of the provisions stocked into Inventory, and present them to Verra. Although she refuses at first, I convince her to take them. Judging from how Julia looks at the pieces of meat I brought out, it should be a long time since they had some on their table. Perhaps, and given their past, it might be true, they never had meat as a meal.
Their home is poor, and having two extra mouths to feed, even for one night, might be too much. I also intend to leave them some more, or help them with some gold.
It would be nice if I could help the settlement as a whole, but I do not even know how to start on that.
Sure, I could give them gold, or items to sell, but I fear that might not be the best solutions. Even if the village is safe, giving them gold would give rise to some problems.
The average level of the settlers is four, far too low. It would be easy for someone to just rob them of the gold, or goods. It would just take a dishonest merchant, or some highway bandit and the help I would give them would be gone.
If I really want to be useful to them, I need to find something that will immediately profit the settlement, and for a long time.
But the land around here is not suitable for agriculture, barely being able to support basic cultivation, without giving much yield in terms of harvest.
The territory around has little game, and scarce natural resources besides wood. What this place has, and it is both an advantage and an impending danger, is its vicinity to the Marsh.
It has a strategic value, without a doubt, given how Aldora rushed to set up a base here. Sendria could do the same, perhaps aiding in the development of this settlement.
However, I fear that until Alvarez is still into power, the military will be something we cannot count on.
The Guild, on the other hand, could open a trade route with the small settlement, provided they have goods to propose.
If at least a group of villagers had higher levels, it would be possible for them to start harvesting materials from the Marsh, and I could convince Heod to purchase some of his stock of herbs from here. After all, he owes his success in Sendria to that strange mushroom I brought back with me, and the miraculous potion he obtained from it gained him fame and money in Sendria.
Night comes, and Verra offers us to stay at her place. Reluctantly, I need to decline. There is a specific reason that compelled me to come here, and it was not to pay a visit to the slaves.
If my sensations are right, something bad is going to happen here.
Nodding, Levia follows after me, as we slip out of the settlement, heading into the woods.
I used Inventory, taking out some weapons for me and Levia to use. I do not want to be too conspicuous right now, and, if possible, I would like to refrain from using Shoggoth, unless the need for it arises.
Once again, I bring out Meviel, this time exerting myself to produce two of them. The process fails , with me being able to recall only the first, original one.
It seems this new ability needs a lot of perfecting before becoming truly useful for something more than simple scouting.
I release Meviel, heading out in the opposite direction. The minion flies towards the settlement and the clearing around it, with the order to monitor it and refer everything that happens. If monsters with level lower than its own appear, Meviel will take them out on itself, otherwise it will fly away.
Having left the settlement under monitoring, me and Levia thread towards the Marsh.
Just as a precaution, I called the others before, in order for them to be on standby if something happens.
If we are ambushed, their sudden appearance will surely be a huge surprise to whatever monster or other thing attacks us. Still, I would not like to resort to something like this, as I hope that everything will prove to be fine enough or just a minor nuisance that me and Levia are more than capable to handle.
A noise comes from behind us, and a signal from Navi, pulsing closer than it was before.
Sighing, I do not even turn around.
<<Hello again, Emilia>>
Levia has her arrow already notched, pointing it at her. It seems she is still wary of Emilia, after having learned how she is from Aldora.
A prudent reaction, to be fair. Still, the way she is now, Emilia does not pose any kind of threat to us.
Moreover, we could even use her for information. Learn something about Aldora’s own tactics, or troop movement. I doubt she may know some details about the whole big strategy of Aldora, but even the slightest information will be helpful against them.
Most likely, she followed us wanting to tag along. I already told Levia about this possibility, and she agreed to let her come with us, with the condition of immediately disposing of her if she tries something sketchy.
I would rather avoid this scenario, but if she truly tries something, I will not stay my hands.
I let the individual herself explain.
Emilia keeps her voice low while she explains why she followed us, and as I expected she express the will to follow us in the Marsh.
She nods gravely when we consent.
We start walking toward the Marsh’s edge. It would be faster for me to use Inventory, but given Emilia’s presence it is best to be a bit cautious, and not reveal one of my strongest skills. Just as a precaution.
Once we reach the border of Aldora’s Marsh, Emilia turns around.
<<As you know, the Marsh is a hostile territory. Follow me if you do not want to lose your…>>
Her words are interrupted by a splashing, loud sound, followed by a bellowing hiss that lacerates the air. From the water, a serpentine figure emerges.
Marsh Snake, level thirty-two. The monster is strange, however, a weird purple aura spreading in his body, encroaching its head like a web.
The snake hisses again, coiling its body before springing towards Emilia.
However, she has enough time to leap back and slash at it. Given the level difference, her attack did not much damage, leaving a shallow wound on the thick scaly hide.
Emerald eyes are fixed on Emilia, as the snake prepares for another attack.
In the blink of an eye, an arrow pierces the snake’s head, exploding in a white flash of light.
The snake’s body twitches, before collapsing, beheaded.
Levia is still in position, her right hand gripping tight at the bow, her left open, held at shoulder height.
Emilia looks at her with wide eyes, surprised to see the monster taken out with a single attack.
<<What level are you?>>
She asks, still perplexed by Levia’s sudden show of power.
Levia says, before taking another arrow and notching it into her bowstring.
<<Shall we go?>>
She beckons, pointing her bow towards the Marsh.
<<Wait, I need to do something first>>
I say while approaching the snake’s carcass. This much meat will benefit the settlement after all, it is a waste to leave it here.
<<Do you want to take that with us? Isn’t it a bit too much to carry?>>
Emilia leans from behind me, curious about what I am doing with the corpse.
To my reply, she shrugs her shoulders and make some steps backward.
I use Shoggoth, clearing the twenty meters long snake in an instant.
<<That…that is the same thing you used to block me before>>
Emilia is shocked by seeing my skill at work. Perhaps, she’s thinking about how I could have done the same to her, making her body disappear into a black, bubbling mass.
The way she looks at me now is a mixture of suspect and fear.
Her hand goes to her blade, but stops there.
Her voice low, firm, her legs parting to assume a combat stance.
Shall I humor her in this confrontation? As I ask myself this, Levia is already in position, ready to aptly strike at the first sign of danger.
Maybe Emilia does realize this, and she relaxes, her hand moving further away from her blade.
As she is, there’s no way she would pose a threat to me or Levia, even if we were alone.
<<I need to ask you something>>
She gazes at me, determined.
<<The timing of it, and seeing you now, using that skill. The fort…all the bodies disappeared from it. Without a single trace. Like the snake before. And the attack, it happened after we found you>>
She voices her thoughts, having reached a conclusion after seeing my skill at work.
I shake my head, knowing that it will not be enough. And so, in order to give her some kind of closure, I will make her see what happened that night.
Memory projection is something that Navi’s functions make possible, in some odd way, making it more convenient to use rather than a spell.
A spell of this kind would require incredible control and precision, with the risk of damaging both the caster and the target. Using Navi seems to be quicker, and less bothersome.
<<I will do something now. It will not harm you, I assure. But you will see things, and it will not be pleasant>>
Levia scoffs, crossing her arms while she wait.
I ignore her, activating Navi’s function to share my memory with Emilia, about the night where the Laughing Man consumed her companions.
It happens in a moment, and Emilia falls to her knees, crying.
Seeing the people she knew die in such gruesome way leaves its toll. Still, she rises, drying her tears on her sleeve.
<<Thank you for showing me the truth>>
She says. Without even doubting that it could have been an illusion of some kind.
<<The sl…the villagers do not speak about that night. It’s the only thing I resent them for. I mean, I changed, I realized the wrongdoings of my people, the absurdity behind my religion, but I wanted, I needed to know>>
<<And now that you know? What will you do? Go back and report? Or try and seek revenge?>>
Levia intervenes in the discussion, staring coldly at Emilia.
<<Why…never mind. I will not do anything. I will just continue my life, this time knowing what happened in that place. I will mourn them, perhaps build some empty graves to remember them, outside the village, far from indiscreet eyes. But revenge? Reporting to the Army? Those hold no more meaning for me. If I went back, I will be executed as a traitor, having lost the Blessing>>
Did I hear correctly? I stop Emilia from her reasoning.
<<Blessing? What is that?>>
She makes a face as if she’s going to not answer me, but the sound of Levia tensing her bow makes her reconsider.
<<It’s…a power. Some sort of it. When you join the Aldoran Church, the High Pope makes you cast away your Mana. Poison of the Earth, he calls it. Then, after every drop of it is gone, he prays for a Blessing to our God, and if the blessing is granted, you join the Army or the Church. The Blessing makes you stronger, you get far more Exp than a normal person, and twice the stats per level. That’s it>>
Mana is the core foundation for both spells and skills. Ripping it out of a person should mean killing them, and yet, this Blessing she spoke of lets them survive. Perhaps, the Blessing is the reason why Aldoran soldiers seem to be immune to skills and magic.
And having lost that, Emilia is now vulnerable to them.
Still, there must be more about it. First, it really sounds like some sort of skill that this High Pope may possess. He takes the Mana from people, then replaces it with something created by his own skill. Seems plausible to me. Or perhaps, the God is the one taking Mana for itself, and the Blessing is compensation for that.
The important information here is that people from Aldora do not have mana on their own. At least, normal people and soldiers. I fear that the Heroes will be a different matter altogether, along with this High Pope.
Still, if this Blessing gives immunity to Mana in all its form, and even doubles the stat gains on level up, it would mean that a single level thirty soldier from Aldora would be as strong as a level sixty warrior from Sendria, in terms of pure stats.
I will keep that in mind, and brief Telesia about it, if she still does not know. For now, we have a more pressing matter to attend, despite the small pause we took.
The purple energy that raged into the snake, I now remember where I first saw it. It was back when we were near Nudria, and the first Dryad attacked us.
The color of it is different, as the way it was shaped. But there is something peculiar that reminded me of that scene, seeing the threads of purple mana on the serpent.
The way it vibrates, it had the same distinctive vibration as those that controlled the Dryad back then. To confirm things without any doubt, I let Navi process the visual memory, trying to see if the scenes match.
Her answer confirm my suspicion.
Deep into the Marsh, the same Hero, Damian, is hiding.
I let Navi’s detection expand as much as I can, letting it go further and further.
At the center of the Marsh, near the border of Aldora Forest, a large group of monster is amassed. Among them, right at the center of the group, Damian’s signal pulses.
Level Eighty-four, surrounded by monsters ranging from level thirty to level fifty.
And they’re marching, headed towards the former fort.
As I am now aware of it, a notification pops up in my head.
[Navi: Fourth Trial- Trial of The Horde: In the Given time, Repel the Horde and Kill the Hero.
Trial Initializing- Done. Trial Started]