Re:Interference Chapter 31- Ream (part 1)

The villagers have fought. Not well, but better than the first time. As a result, their levels rose, and those that gained a level up, received skills as a reward.

When each villager raised his or her level, a window popped into my view, stating my “pawn”’s statistics, skills.

Each window presented me with a choice, asking me which path I wanted their growth to follow.

It’s difficult to decide something like this, and in a normal situation, I would have consulted with each person before making the choice.

However, the situation we’re in demands a firm hand from me. What I need to do, is take the reins and decide in order to optimize our chances, in order for us to overcome the upcoming challenge.

First, we need a good and solid line of defense. Front line fighters, “tanks” capable of restraining the enemy’s advance and hold them in place.

Of the forty-five battle able villagers, I chose twenty to develop into front line fighters, dividing them into two groups.

The first group will be composed by tanks, counting twelve individuals whose stats were already shaped towards a more physical role.

I altered their grow pattern, making it possible for them to develop skills related to defense and survival rather than pure offense. Given how the dialogue window presented their choice, these people will most likely develop self-healing or minor group healing skills along with others related to battle.

The remaining eight people form the second melee group. Those that boasted high Agi and Str are part of this group, and their growth will shape them into swift melee attackers, capable of swooping in among enemy lines and dealing quick bursts of damage before retreating. Rogues, in short.

The first group will have a fighting style more similar to Retel, and I will put him in charge of their training.

Dahl will take care of the second unit, showing them how to fulfill their role in the battlefield.

Twenty-five people remain, to be assigned into different roles.

Ten will become magicians, their growth altered in order for them to develop mana related abilities and stats. Along with ten ranged fighters, they will compose the rear line of our defense, dealing massive damage while the front lines fighters keep the enemy at bay.

Five people remain, and those will receive the role of healers.

I look at the settlers, their faces both tired and satisfied after they overcame the first challenge. Some of them are already tampering with their new skills, those that they received after my tampering.

It should be an heartwarming scene, to see people grasp their own power. Instead, I am here, worrying about the crushing lack of numbers on our side.

My party will fight too during the Horde’s attack, but…will it be enough?

Still, that is a matter for later. Now, after a brief respite, I let the second wave of monsters out of Shoggoth.

<<Ready?>>

At the sound of my voice, the villagers once again assume their formations. The enemies this time are a mix of monsters, not just a single type of creature. Before completely releasing them, I let the villagers study the creatures a bit.

They assume their new formations, melee fighters forming a tight line, shoulder to shoulder, shields raised and spears pointed towards the enemy.

The second line of melee fighters is ready, weapons unsheathed, steel glistening under the morning sun.

Bowstrings being tensed resound in the air, while the magicians charge their simple spells, chanting unfamiliar words. This time, they decided to buff the archers’ arrows from the start, rather than wasting their mana on weak attacks.

The healers retreat from the spot, thinking their role too precious for them to be caught into the heat of the battle. Although it is partially true, our numbers do not allow for such thinking.

Rebuked by my words, they pick up their weapons once again, ready to enter the fray. I had to order them to do so, but it is necessary after all.

I let the monsters free, their forms shambling before they charge towards the villagers.

This time, the battle ended fairly quickly. Some people got wounded, and I had to intervene in order to save some lives.

Still, the group managed to overcome the creatures, and got a nice amount of experience as a reward. Their tactics are still lacking, their understanding of their own skills still vague. But they show potential.

I let the healers do their work, their minor healing skills mending skin and flesh with a constant mana expenditure, making the users sweat profusely.

Of course, it is the only way for them to increase their proficiency with skills after all. When their mana and Int will be high enough, I will teach them some useful healing spells, but for now, I need them to get accustomed to their own skills.

When the healers become too exhausted, potions do the rest. Mana, Health and Stamina are consumed rapidly, renewing the villagers’ strength.

Once more, after a brief respite, I release monsters from Shoggoth, each time increasing the number and difficulty of the challenge.

We go on like this for all morning, until the group of villagers finally reached level eight. It seems like the same phenomenon that happened to my party is happening to the villagers, as their level began to synchronize until they all reached the same growth rate.

Exhausted, and beginning to show the symptoms of Level Up sickness, the settlers headed back to their homes, allowing themselves some deserved rest and a meal.

After three hours, I will have them start training again, this time not against monsters.

Levia and Retel are back from their trip to Sendria, bringing much needed supplies with them.

I brief the two of them about the first bout of training for the villagers, leaving matter in their hands as I head away from Ream.

<<Meviel>>

Following my command, Meviel manifests, much like Shoggoth does when I use the skill. Black liquid flowing from my hand to the ground, then pooling, bubbling and shambling until it takes its final appearance.

I glance at the creature, a curios form of a bio mechanical moth, glistening black in its color.

The villagers are not the only ones that I will train in this short amount of time. Even if I myself am barred from increasing my level, that does not mean that my “units” cannot.

Together with my creation, I head into the Marsh, in the opposite direction from where the Hero is amassing his force.

The monster in this portion of the swamp are in the high thirties, with the strongest ones boasting level forty-five. Creatures that would normally tear Meviel apart, with its measly level ten.

Under normal circumstances, that is. Using Shoggoth to restrain the creatures, I snatch one of them at the time, letting Meviel attack it again and again until the monster drops dead.

As Meviel is my creation, I receive some experience from its kills, however, I can decide to let my minion have all the experience. Doing this, I am sure to not increase my own level, while powering up Meviel as a result.

Still, it seems that its growth rate is somewhat…slow.

Even after defeating a number of monsters trice its level, Meviel increased its own only by six levels.

With each level gained, the creature grows bigger, its form evolving as it grows, beginning to resemble less and less its original shape of a moth and becoming more…alien with each level up.

Truly, it looks like something evil spawned from a strange hell, and yet, I cannot feel anything but a swelling sensation of pride when looking at my own minion. I do not know where this feeling stems from, if it is something due to the fact that Meviel is my own creation, born from my own skill, and thus is something like an extension of my own self, or if it is something purely emotional, like the affection one would feel to his own dog.

As slow as it is, my minion is definitely growing, and seeing it grow pleases me.

Meanwhile, I keep tabs on the Hero’s movement, being wary of not letting my little spies being caught.

It seems like Damian’s only concern, for the moment, is strengthening his own little army of creatures. Not a single time, since I started observing his movements, he went off to increase his own level, nor he did meet or call someone from his homeland.

As Emilia said, it looks like Damian is alone in this “mission” of his, if it can even be called like this.

Perhaps, Aldora leaves him full control of his own actions, allowing the Hero to do as he pleases while in enemy territory.

A waste of a good resource, in my opinion. Sure, his actions could cause chaos and undermine the stability of the opposing regions and government, but, I feel like he could be best utilized if his actions were to be coordinated with the main army’s movements.

In truth, all that Aldora Kingdom is doing makes little sense to me. All that plotting against Sendria, with them planting a pawn in the government and army of the city, and yet Aldora has to make its move.

They basically have the upper hand in the conflict, as their own army is superior in numbers and quality, they could just march and crush opposition as they move.

The bigger picture still eludes me, if it even exists.

My own musings are interrupted by Heod’s voice, relayed to me from Navi’s communication function.

<<Hello, Roshal? You there boy?>>

I answer him, noting the tone of excitement that slightly creeps in his voice.

<<Yes Heod. Did something good happen?>>

<<Oh, you just wait and see. Come over, as fast as you can>>

Now his words made me really curious. I knew that his group was working on some kind of new project, could it be they already made significant progress on that?

Or is it something related to the older research that Heod was pursuing, perhaps?

Nonetheless, he would not leave me even a little hint, so, I recall back Meviel and head towards the old man’s laboratory.

Once there, he suddenly grabs me and literally drags me towards his workbench. On it, a familiar shape is resting over the coarse wooden table, surrounded by screws, scraps of metal and various pieces of wood.

The thing is a bit different in its design from what I can remember, but, undoubtedly, the metal cylinder that composes more than three quarters of its structure, the lever mechanisms, exposed in this prototype, its function clearly deducible from the shape and arrangement of components.

This is, without the slightest doubt, a rifle.

<<This…>>

Heod interrupts me, grinning from ear to ear.

<<I knew it! Your…the other world had something similar!>>

I look at him with a perplexed expression, and the old man pats my shoulder before he explains. To what I recall, I mentioned firearms in some conversation with him, but I never went into details or asked him to develop something similar.

As I try to think more about it, I notice how the knowledge itself that I possess on the subject is shallow, without any proper detail about how a firearm works, besides some notions picked up from movies and TV.

We did work, however, on a small bomb prototype. It used a mixture of chemistry and magic to work. Did the old man figure out the potential of it, and develop firearms as a consequence?

<<You see, this little project here made me think. A lot. An explosion, caused by igniting a mana charged compound with magic, then releasing it. Same power of a simple fire spell, an infinitely lesser amount of mana needed to achieve the same effect. And that, set things in motion. What if, we had the possibility of using no mana at all to have the same effect? So I sat down, and literally burned out my own brain to find a completely chemical way to do it. I mixed reagents, reaching a standstill in progress. I could not discover a formula stable enough to be safe for the user, as the resulting explosion was either too powerful, or insignificant. Then, in here, I found a material unknown to me. It’s a metallic ore, that the slaves…former slaves here were made to mine for Aldoran army. If processed, it provides stability to the formula>>

His eyes shine, as he goes into too much detail, starting to blabber chemical equations and mathematical formulas, going so far as to bring out parchments and scrolls scribbled with equations and graphs.

<<Ahem, perhaps I am delving a bit too much into detail. My point is, with this, the mixture is stable to transport, and the resulting explosion can be triggered by a simple event, like applying sudden force to the container, or a simple spark. No mana involved. And I thought, what if we used this explosion, contained in some way, to proper projectiles? And that thought led to this baby here>>

He lifted off the prototype rifle, caressing its barrel.

<<Now, would you like to test it?>>

I answer his grin with a smile of my own.

We stroll off from the laboratory, Heod carrying his prototype work and a closed satchel, metallic, tingling sounds coming from it every step Heod takes.

Projectiles, most likely. To think that he developed this all on his own, starting from a somewhat defective magical grenade, to this.

Truly, the old man did surprise me. I always thought him to be good in his craft, but now, he proved that he’s beyond good, He’s a true master, despite his old age, despite his low level.

We reach the area where the villagers were training, their numbers now engaging in a little respite from the intense physical training they are undergoing.

Our presence, and the strange thing that Heod carries, draws their curiosity. A small crowd forms around us, as we set out to the archery range.

<<Now, you load the bullets here, and close the mechanism. This part needs a lot of improvements, in my opinion. Still, it is ok for a prototype version. You point the barrel in the direction of your target and pull this lever here. Now, try it>>

As I press the trigger, nothing more than a crude metal lever, the inner mechanisms move, springs are released and gears move subsequently, until a metal piece hits the bullet chambered inside the rifle. The resulting force makes the powder stored inside the ammunition explode, the explosion contained inside the sturdy metal, the energy it unleashes forced into a single direction. Forward.

It propels the projectile, a booming found followed by a whistling, red track in the air, too fast even for my eyes.

My arms and shoulder jolt back from the recoil, and the dummy, a straw mannequin with some arrows protruding from its head and chest, is pierced by the bullet.

The straw head is no more, obliterated by the force and momentum of this new weapon.

With a proud stance and a smug smile, Heod laughs.

<<See? Isn’t it incredible? Were the weapons in the other world as powerful as this one?>>

I give back the prototype to him.

<<I must admit, this is truly impressive. But, it requires some more work before it is usable in battle. And, I do not want to undermine your findings, but this is nowhere near what we…what they had in that other place. It’s a step in the same direction, but the weapons there, they were on a whole another level. In time, maybe, if you dedicate yourself to this it would become usable. But for now, magic and archery are more effective>>

The weapon performed splendidly, drawing the attention and curiosity of the villagers, and even my companions are looking this way, weapons in hand and concerned expression, as they were alerted by the loud bang resounding in the village.

Yet, I feel like the weapon itself is still lacking. The recoil is too powerful, the mechanisms are clunky and the rifle itself is too heavy to be useful.

Moreover, even if the damage it did against a straw mannequin resulted in a flashy show, with the straw head basically exploding, I feel like against real enemies things would be difficult. A simple mana shield would block the projectile.

And the main problem lies in the production of this weapon. The reagents that make the gunpowder are rare, Heod said so himself. The metal required to produce each part is expensive, and the manufacture process for the smallest parts would be difficult for any artisan or blacksmith. It would require years to develop methods to actually produce these rifles, and, even if we did, they would still be overshadowed by spells or simple archery boosted by skills.

However, Heod’s grin deepened instead of fading.

<<Ah, you youngsters should have more faith in your elders. This, this is nothing but a failed, earlier version of my baby.>>

He now raises his voice, addressing the curious villagers as well.

<<Behold, the ultimate creation, the weapon that will change history itself!>>

And what he showed next was incredible.

Two days. To the man’s words, he took two full days without resting or even eating to complete it.

To him, it was all already there, in his own mind. He only needed that final piece to complete a picture that was missing only a tiny detail.

He worked like under a spell, like he was possessed. And the result of his mad study and experiments were three objects.

The first, a prototype, made to test his theory.

The second one, a finished, improved version of that prototype.

And the third, his masterpiece, as he called it.

The second gun was not even fired, as he glossed over it. Not because he felt like it was lacking, as Heod said, but because the final piece was so overpowering, that there was no point in losing time with its predecessor.

What he showed, his third work, his masterpiece, made a chill run in my spine.

The weapon had a black glint to its metallic part, looking sturdier than the prototype, yet lighter. There were no superfluous or over complicated mechanisms showing from it, all its gears, springs and levers hidden inside its frame.

Instead of inserting a single bullet inside the chamber, he loaded a clip into the weapon, much like a modern rifle from that place.

And he fired, repeatedly.

My jaws gaped in marvel, the impossibility of this thing striding against what I saw. Because, it was truly impossible that a single man, no matter how smart he was, developed such a weapon from scratch, in two single days.

And yet, here it was, gleaming black under sunlight, smoke still rising from its barrel.

<<And the best thing is, we have enough material and powder to produce more of these babies>>

Heod said, caressing his rifle like a father would do with his child.

<<Now, if you excuse me, I am going to rest a bit. I…may have exaggerated a bit, and now I feel like those two days of “mad science” may literally kill me if I do not eat and lay down a bit. Feel free to drop by tomorrow, for today, I want no one to disturb me.>>

And like that, he left, carrying the weapon with him.

I met Retel’s eyes among the crowd, seeing how he had the same dumbfounded expression that I had.

Still, this unexpected development could give us an edge over our enemies. No, I am sure that it will definitely become an advantage for our side. After all, firearms had an enormous impact in that world, their power so overwhelming that it revolutionized warfare.

And given how fast Heod was in theorizing first, then developing the weapon, I am sure that, if given enough time, he will produce something even more marvelous.

The villagers too are making progress on their side. Today, their training did not involve actual level up. Instead, my companions focused on improving each group’s skills.

Their proficiency is still too low to be of some use, but now, they can at least fight back.

Another notable thing is the constant flow of mana that I receive from this place. Since I claimed and named the village, Ream, the mana I spent on the process has already been regenerated by this flow.

Even more, the constant flow has increased in quantity and density since the villagers leveled up. I still have not decided on how to use it, and, for the moment, I am limiting myself to storing the excess mana.

Using it as a reserve, like some sort of backup mana battery would be the most simple solution. And yet, all this power flowing could be put to better use.

I have two options that I am currently considering. The first one, is to use this mana to weave some spells in advance, doing the same thing as when I faced off with Leidus.

The other option, however, is intriguing me more and more as time goes by. Instead of using this mana myself, I could try and affix it to Ream’s defenses.

Harder to implement a solution like this one, given how mana naturally escapes from objects. But, if the progress we made on enchanting materials could be transferred to larger, complex structures, it might not be impossible to achieve something like this.

Combining this second option with the use of firearms will give us an overwhelming advantage over the monster horde, as we could just barricade our numbers in the village behind strong defenses, and let offensive spells and bullets do the rest.

Of course, dealing with the Hero will be another thing altogether.

The following days flew, following the tight rhythm that I imposed on Ream and its population. The villagers have now risen to level thirty after five days of training.

A big change in the organization of the small force is that the ranged unit has ditched bows and crossbows, as Heod has provided them with firearms.

Using the materials at our disposal, he managed to produce a set of firearms for each person, consisting of two weapons.

A rifle, with high impact ammunition, capable of delivering strong blows with great accuracy.

And a shorter firearm for close ranged combat, lighter, capable of quick rates of fire, but the bullets themselves are not as powerful as the ones the rifles use.

With this setup, they should be able to handle combat in every situation.

Since then, Heod has holed himself up in his laboratory, telling everyone that he’s working on a new invention.

It seems like the old man’s spirit has flared up since his new discovery, and now, he’s dedicating every ounce of himself on this new project.

During my spare time, I alternate between leveling up Meviel and catching monsters to train the villagers with.

The main problem that I am facing right now is that the monsters around this area do not provide enough experience anymore, for both Meviel’s training and for the villagers. If it was possible, I would leave here and make a quick trip to the Dungeon, snatching some creature from John’s collection of monsters.

But, since the Trial basically ties me to this place, I cannot leave the area.

I will need to find a solution for this, or accept the fact that Ream’s villagers will be under-leveled when we face the monster horde.

My plan of using mana to strengthen the village’s defensive structures has still proven impossible to implement.

Mana simply flows away from the objects, and the more complex the material is, the more quickly it disperses mana.

I would need a constant supply of it in order to maintain even a single device, and most of the energy itself simply disperses right away.

Keeping it into small objects, especially metal alloys, is somewhat easy for a limited time, but larger objects are still impossible for now.

Following these unsatisfactory results, I decided to destine the mana received from Ream to two uses.

As backup resource, and to craft spells in advance.

Much to my surprise, it seems that Marica has found a way to give small magic effects on the metal projectiles that Heod’s firearms use. The alloy that composes them keeps mana for about two days, and, with a bit of patience, is possible to graft a spell onto it, much like magicians do with arrows.

It is temporary, of course, but a bullet enchanted with this method can pass right through a mana barrier, thus increasing its efficiency.

Of course, I do not expect them to be able to hurt the Hero, but against monsters, they will be more than enough.

Small improvements, one step at a time. During the lapse of time between the start of the trial and the designed battle, all the small steps will add up, all of them increasing our chance of victory.

In Ream, the tension is palpable. Tired from the training, the villagers slouch to their homes when night falls, after we all consume dinner in the large communal hall.

Our resources are well enough to feed the villagers, and they will last even under a siege. The outer defensive walls are now complete, two squares of stones surrounding the village, enclosing it into barriers that will hold against a powerful force.

All while the place is shrouded under the illusion I cast the first day. To my surprise, the Hero had begun to send some scouts from his army, small, quick creatures capable of some semblance of intelligent thoughts.

The illusion held, and the little spies had nothing to “report” to their master, besides the former fort still being populated by low level former slaves, unable to even build a proper fence around their home.

What will his expression be, when is forces will collide against two stone walls, each taller than four meters?

And what will he feel, when seeing his army of creatures felled one by one, each of his minion dying after a flash and a booming sound.

He will be enraged. Not because he cares, I am sure of it, but because of the sheer notion that mere slaves dare to resist him.

And that, will be the core of my strategy against him. All these days, I have observed the child Hero, how he behaves, how he reacts. Even his habits, even his dreams. What I learned, is that the mind inside of him is not that of a child. Much like me, he is something like a patchwork of memories, a mature mind stapled together from pieces of information taken from elsewhere.

Unlike me, he still has no idea about it. Instead, he grovels in this idea of being a Hero, in his mind, his gallant figure trumps over the bad memories he carried from the other world.

Hubris overflows from him. Sure, he is strong, stronger than I am, but he is too overconfident, thinking himself invincible, unbeatable.

And yet, he is vulnerable. Not in his body, protected by that absurd Blessing, or skill, that he owns, but in his mind.

I was able to scan his memories with spells, and he did not even notice. A fatal weakness, something that a person of his caliber should not have. His mental fortitude is lacking, much like my own was when I confronted John for the first time. A manufactured personality, like mine, John’s and even Damian’s, does not have the inner strength that a normal mind possess. Those words, that John said to me the first time he showed me the truth, are the only advantage I have against the Hero.

Using this defect that both me and him possess, this flaw in our “soul”, I managed to see glimpses of his past. The patchwork of memories he hold, the ones that he actually crafted for himself in this world. In all of them, Damian has proved himself to be quick to anger, careless and prideful.

Traits that have only been strengthened by his position as a Hero, and by the impressive strings of victories he achieved in battle.

The moment when John decided to share with me his knowledge on what he called “mind magic” still remains in me, his words echoing through my thoughts.

<<Much like Heroes and Demon Lords, magicians capable of using spells that influence the mind are rare. In all Sendria, as an example, only a handful of people possess such talent, be it due to Skills or spells, and only Telesia among them is proficient enough to use this ability effectively, beyond it being nothing more than a party trick.

Most of the rare “mind magicians” of Sendria are nothing more than swindlers with low powers, able to catch only a simple glance on someone else’s thoughts. Memories are almost impossible to be read using common magical knowledge, and altering someone’s own mind is basically impossible.

Even Telesia, being the powerful mage she is, can only use something like telepathy for a limited amount of time, and with limited uses. Or Alvares, for that matter. He too is one of the few individuals able to harness mind magic. And he’s powerful, too, and yet, you saw how feeble his magic was, his control over someone else’s mind, as you unraveled it, someone with half his level and knowledge, and yet, just by using your own mana, you dispelled your companion from Alvares’ magic. Not because you were powerful, but because his spell was lacking. He lacks the knowledge about what the brain is, about its structure, the chemistry that activates between neurons with each single thought or sensation. Without knowing those, every attempt at “mind magic” is nothing but a pitiful mockery.

As knowledge about how the brain actually works, in a biological way, significantly hinders the progress of this branch of magic, more focused on a spiritual way of seeing the world.

The spells I used, instead, treats the body as it is, a mixture of chemical reactions, of components that connect and interact one with the other. Knowing what neurons are, how they connect and interact between themselves allows for the interpretation of those connection, those signals, leading to the comprehension of the mind itself, and ultimately, to its secrets. Now, something like this, requires an astounding amount of calculations to be done at the same time, but I think that you possess something capable of that, do you?>>

In that moment, when I was still shaken by the revelation about my own nature, John decided to share with me a decisive element, something that, in his words, would allow me to be victorious against any foe, if I used it correctly and I prepared beforehand.

The spell itself is not costly in terms of mana expenditure, and it leaves a small trace of mana, almost undetectable.

By activating it sporadically, even at a distance, I managed to obtain glimpses of Damian’s mind, and using those, I understood his personality.

And the reason why he is so defenseless against this kind of magic. He lacks the knowledge of it. You cannot defend something that you are not aware of, and, as he is, Damian lacks both the understanding of himself, of how frail his own mind is, and the knowledge about how his body works. Otherwise, it would be incredibly easy to defend against this kind of spell, as I learned during my training with John. Using his advice, I was able to raise my resistance, just by being aware that my mind could be attacked instead of my body.

Of course, I do not expect all the Heroes to behave as Damian. Being a former Hero himself, John warned me of exceptional individuals that are among their ranks, people that even him would have trouble fighting with.

But, against Damian, his own mind will be my weapon.

Still, one thing is to have a clear path to follow, a course of action, so to speak. The difficult thing will actually be the implementation of this plan.

There are a lot of things that could go wrong, and I need to use what little time I have at my disposal to think and find a way to make it work.

The biggest obstacle will be removing Damian from the battle. Most likely, he himself will follow the Horde during the attack, and if he does, I fear that he might use his powers to control the people here.

Much like he did back in Nudria, when he forced Retel and Levia to attack me.

If the same thing happens here, the citizens of Ream will turn on me, becoming a weapon in my enemy’s hands instead of being my allies.

That is something that I need to prevent, at all cost.

From what I remember, he uses his own mana, injecting it into people or monsters and usurping control from them, leaving the “mind” of the controlled person intact, trapped in its own body as it becomes a plaything in the Hero’s hands.

Perhaps, it would be best to devise some sort of protection for the villagers and my companions. Thankfully, I have more than enough mana at my disposal to cast something, the only thing left to do is to figure out the exact spell I want to implement here.

And, what would happen if the one being controlled is me? I feel a huge headache coming up, slowly rising from the base of my neck, spreading through my head, riding on my anxiety and doubts for this whole mess that I put myself into.

Maybe, I am biting more that I can swallow, and all this will become a spectacular failure of a plan. And yet, there only thing I can do now, is to push forward. Retreating or fleeing will have the same outcome, which is my own death along with the destruction of this small settlement, of the hopes and freedom of each person that lives here.

No, I need to push those thoughts aside. Failure is not an option, and, as much as I would like to just run away, I need to shut down my fear, to erase my doubts.

My mind, my will, will be the only weapons I can effectively use against a monstrous enemy like Damian. If I let myself waver, defeat will be certain.

Time went by, each day following the same cycle of repetition for me and the villagers. Each passing day, the awareness that the attack will come grew, creeping in, spreading unrest among our ranks. From the weakest villager to my companions, battle hardened from the time we spent inside the Dungeon.

But this, this is completely different from facing monsters in an underground cave. Not only our lives are on the line here, but also those of each former slave, be it children or old.

Sometimes, during the rare moments of pause I had in this period of time, I wondered how things would have turned out here, if I just ignored the sensation that compelled me to come here.

I’d like to think that the villagers would be ok, that Damian would simply take his mass of controlled monsters elsewhere, perhaps leading them to Sendria or some other place. That this small settlement would be spared from the upcoming war, too small to even draw the smallest speck of interest for itself.

Instead, the reality of things is that this place would have been wiped up completely. The Hero’s plan is fairly simple in its brutality. He was sent here, chosen for his peculiar abilities. An invincible protection cast on himself, and the ability to control his own enemies. He would advance from village to village, growing the force under his control, each time adding monsters and people, unwilling soldiers forced to march and kill. Until he would reach Sendria, his army thousands strong, opening the path to the Aldoran Army’s attack.

I calm myself, looking towards the Marsh while I wait. Coming here was the right thing to do, although, I have to admit, it was inevitable for me.

Yet, me being here means that this place, these people, will have a chance to survive. Perhaps, a victory here will be the small spark that will allow Sendria to be victorious in the end. I only hope that Alvarez does not chose to make his move right when we are fighting here. If he does, the option of us having some reinforcement from the Guild will disappear, lowering our chances not only of victory, but survival.

I can only hope that things go well on that front. For now, I need to concentrate myself to what is happening in front of me.

It’s raining today, a heavy downpour that drenches the very earth, raindrops being swayed in their trajectory by sudden gusts of cold wind, and the distant sound of thunder,, coming closer as the storm grows in intensity.

The cold is entering my bones, as my clothes, drenched with water, stick to my skin. I am standing on top of the defensive, inner wall that we built, overseeing the preparations.

Water is pooling on the stone near me, puddles that splash every time one of the villagers pass near me, each time reporting their status, or requesting some orders.

They move, their faces pale and tense, knowing that this day, under the heavy rain, could be the last.

It takes some time, before everything is ready, and all that is left is to wait. After all, this will be a defensive battle. No point in facing a force, superior in numbers and strength, out in the open.

No, we will wait, let them come to us.

The villagers are already set in their position, each of them trying his best to hide the nervous shaking of their hands, the darting glances that they throw at their surroundings. Warriors grip their weapons, their knuckles becoming white from the effort. But their eyes burn, determination and the will to survive in their gaze as sharp as blade.

The low humming of chanted spells comes from behind their ranks, from the magician division hidden behind the second wall of defense.

High on the walls, and on the wooden guard towers that we built for this occasion, the marksmen are cradling their rifles, waiting for the enemy to be in sight.

Hidden in the shadows, the rogues trained by Dahl wait, ready for their ambush.

I extend my consciousness outwards, checking the state of the several traps that we dispersed and set all around Ream.

No matter how I look at things, our numbers always seem too scarce, our defenses lacking and frail.

I would like to have more time, to build one more wall, to train the villagers one more level. And yet, that is no more possible.

I clench my fist, waiting.

Retel informs me that everything is ready on his end. The people he will lead will be our first line of defense, their shields will hold the monsters in place.

Confirmations come also from Marica and Levia. How different their voices sound in my head, the first one almost faint, trembling with insecurity, while Levia seems almost eager for this to finally start.

A tap on my shoulder, Dahl standing behind me as I turn around.

He does not say anything, just limiting himself to shake his head in denial.

I draw a sigh, disappointed by this outcome. The Guild will be unable to provide us with assistance, at least at this moment.

I would like to retort, to tell that old hag that if we lose here, there will be no other moments to help.

But I hold, I steel my mind. After all, I expected that things would go this way. The Guild has already their hands full with intelligence works and the internal situation in Sendria, it was unlikely that they could spare some hands to help us.

In the end, we will be alone in this battle.

And yet, besides all the doubts, all the fear that clouds my mind, I feel something rising from the deepest corner of my soul.

The part of my mind that is tied to another world screams, despairs itself to the prospect of this fight.
And yet, I catch a glimpse of my own reflection, my own image staring back at me from a shallow puddle of rain water, its form disturbed by the ripples caused by falling raindrops.

I am grinning.

Besides all doubts, beside the fear of failure I am experiencing, part of me looks forward to this confrontation. I want this battle, I ache for it. I fear it, and I want to flee. This duality of thought, almost as if my mind is being thorn apart, ripped in two halves that screams and wail at each other.

But the weak part of me, the one that was all my being when I first woke up into this world, is slowly fading away. It is still there, questioning my every decision, always whispering to my ear that I cannot do it, that it is too much. Its voice grows weaker with time, from the paralyzing imperative that it was, to the nuisance it is now.

I will not falter, not anymore.

As I look down from the defensive wall, the villagers of Ream look at me, waiting. I let the words flow, not even thinking about what I am really saying to them. I speak my mind, my voice resounding between the gusts of fierce wind, following the rhythm of falling rain and the forced pauses dictated by thunder.

It is a declaration of intent, the will to survive, to overturn the fate that would befell this place.

As the flow of words ends, I feel emptied, somehow, exhausted. A small pause, silence creeps, before the villagers respond to my intent with their own.

Even if their number is exiguous, their voices are powerful. It is their fight, as much as it is my own.

I do not know if their reaction was due to the strange spell my presence cast on this land, that influence I hold over each inhabitant of Ream. Or if my Charisma stat showed its effect, turning an incoherent speech into words that inspire warriors.

But I like to think that my words, without any effect or enhancement, truly reached their heart, igniting a spark of hope, as I keep up the act of extreme and utter confidence in our victory.

The result, no matter the circumstances, is the same. For a moment, these people left behind their anxiety, their worries, and truly believe that they, we, will overcome this predicament.

It lasts no more than thirty seconds. A distant noise, as if trees are being crushed, and a faint, weak muttering, much like voices strained by pain.

Growing stronger with each second, and hearing them, the first villager turns to the point from where the sounds are coming.

The battering rain makes it difficult to have a clear picture of what is happening, and the curtain of falling raindrops makes seeing past them almost impossible, shadowing the world behind countless, misshapen spheres, hiding the form of what is coming.

I take a deep breath, letting my power swell, controlling its flow to not let it run rampant, letting my mana flow gently, softly, adjusting it as it brushes each of the valiant, or perhaps foolish, warriors that now stand in this rain, ready to face their destiny.

I share with them what I can grasp, the representation of the battlefield, and the enemy’s position.

Now knowing where the enemies are, the villagers of Ream seem to leave behind their worries, steeling themselves for the upcoming fight.

I can feel their determination, the will to never yield. They will fight as long as they have breath in them, even more if they can.

The land trembles, first a soft shaking, almost imperceptible. Then, it becomes more intense, a rumbling sound, so similar and yet so different from the same thunder that shakes the sky.

The borders of my illusion, the one I cast on Ream, begin to sway and ripple, and the air is filled with ungodly sounds and wail. The earth shakes, as the stampede approaches, the muddy terrain stomped by countless legs and claws, ready to maim and crush.

Behind the veil of rain, misshapen form are now barely visible, shadows twisting and twitching, gleaming eyes and glistening fangs.

I bark my orders, without even a real necessity for them since Navi’s communication could simply rely my thoughts to each villager.

But I cannot help it, and so I scream and shout, telling them one and only thing.

Wait.

Wait for them to be inside. Do not let your fingers pull the trigger, do not let your mouths utter a spell.

Until they are inside, and the trap is ready to spring into action.

The illusion is holding up, as the first monsters begin to cross it.

And yet, I ask my men to wait. A crushing sound, the sound of splintered wood and shattered stone. The first trap goes off, taking two low leveled creatures with it.

This is the critical moment. If everything goes to plan, the illusion will hold, and the Hero will not catch a hint of what is happening inside of it.

No reaction. The creatures simply advance, mindless, enraged, seeking only to destroy. My frown becomes a grin, much like the one I had before.

It is starting, it is time to get loose. All the doubts, fear and hesitation, all of them are being washed away, as blood rushes to my head, my hearth pumping faster and faster.

I shout my order to the snipers, and a different kind of thunder resounds in the air. Every time it does, a signal disappears from the map, and a monstrous corpse hits the ground.

Its companions do not falter, simply pressing the lifeless husks of their kin into the mud, stomping over them, sometimes, even eating them.

The traps we set are springing into action, one after the other, each of them claiming its toll among the numbers of the opposing force.

Yet, they advance.

Again, a booming sound, and the noise of splintered wood, shattered stone. The first wall has gone down, crumpled and broken under the heavy blows from the advancing horde.

Monsters are coming.

The sharpshooters stationed in the guard towers rain bullets on the assailants, while the melee fighters begin to assemble behind the second line of defense.

Lightning illuminates the sky, followed by a more sinister light. The magicians raise their voices, all chanting the same words to increase the potency of the released spell.

As their voices suddenly cease, the spell is released. Using the storm’s own power, they summoned lightning to strike the creatures, electricity darting from monster to monster, spreading among their ranks riding on the water that drenches the terrain.

Some creatures fall, others, the majority of them, push onward, now looming over the second defensive line.

I would like to see how the battle will unfold from now on, but the sudden appearance of another, stronger signal on the map marks the time for me to leave the scene.

The Hero is about to join the fray.

<<I leave matters into your hands. Remember, no matter what, do not let anybody engage the Hero in battle>>

I relay my words to my companions, before leaving the spot and heading towards the Hero. I plan on intercepting him before he can enter Ream. If he does, this whole plan will come down crumbling.

I hesitate, for a split second, before heading towards this confrontation. Memories of what happened in Nudria begin to unfold, as I remember the rage I felt when he turned Retel and Levia against me, as I remember the sensation of utter powerlessness I felt when facing Damian for the first time.

One last glance towards Ream, the sound of clashing steel and screeching claws and teeth thundering from it.

Now, all they can do is fight their own battle, as I fight my own.

I slip into the dark space of Inventory, ready for the first, decisive move.

Damian stands tall, his clothes of an immaculate white. Raindrops seem to avoid his childlike appearance, and his clothes are dry, unsoiled, despite the mud splashing all around as the violent downpour increases in intensity.

He looks towards Ream, his face a mask of boredom. As if what he is witnessing, people struggling for their lives, is nothing more than a pointless, boring show for him.

<<Well, enough of this>>

He simply mutters to himself, raising his left hand and snapping his fingers. Mana erupts from him, violent, dense, it contorts itself and twists, forming chain that gleam purple.

With sudden speed, these chains fly towards the village.

<<Now, become mine!>>

He shouts, a delighted smile now showing on his face.

Silence falls.

He squints his eyes, seeing the villagers drop his weapons, one after the other. Some are still being attacked by the monsters, and Damian shakes his head, a bit disappointed by the loss of a few pawns.

With a sigh, he cancels the order he forced on those creatures, halting the attack.

Focusing further, he calls back his pawns, both human and monsters. A wry smile surfaces, when he sees their form in the distance. People, shambling without any will in their movement, slaves to his will.

<<Piece of cake. Now, where to go next?>>

He turns his back to the village, without even sending a second glance, utterly confident of his power.

He does not even question how the villagers reacted this fast. How were they able to perceive the threat, and even arm themselves. He has no need to, since whatever weak, pathetic resistance they could have mustered, is now gone, crushed by the power of his Blessing.

A slight hint of regret touches his mind, not for the lives of his fellow human beings, but for the chance he lost, the chance of perpetrating utter carnage.

But his orders bind him, and he cannot do as he pleases.

Again, boredom masks his expression, the wry smile slowly fading into a bland line. The only thing that is on his mind right now, is to reach the next village, and then the next. Advancing, from place to place, reaping, increasing his own private force until it is strong enough to crush Sendria along with the main force.

He does not notice the small details. He does not give too much thought to the slight, almost negligible pain that is drilling its way in his head, almost like if a needle is being slowly pushed in his gray matter.

He does not notice how the rain around him began to slow down, until it stopped. Or how the wind does not howl anymore.

Nor he notices how his thoughts feel heavier, slower.

It takes him some time before something actually clicks in his mind. He turns around, perplexed.

The villagers are still there, along with his creatures, slowly walking towards him.

But, they were distant, the same distance that they held when he first cast the spell.

He realizes that something is amiss. He starts to panic when he sees.

The chains are broken, his power did not have any effect. Instead of immediately questioning what he saw, he tries again, to no avail.

Then, his expression shifts, as the spark of understanding begins to take hold of his thoughts.

He holds his head, trying to trace back the imperceptible thread of mana, to no avail.

One of the memories I hold is that of an example, based on the image of a frog and a pot of boiling water. If you just put the frog into boiling water, it will jump away, sensing the danger it poses.

But, what happens if you put the frog in cold water, and then slowly increase the temperature? It will grow comfortable at first, not noticing the change until it will be too late for it to jump out.

This example was something supposed to explain how people resist sudden changes, with them being unable to notice smaller, more subtle changes.

Like Damian, he would have immediately fought back if I simply tried to pull himself into my own private dimension.

Or if I intruded his mind forcefully, instead of biding my time, slithering into his thoughts with a thin strand of mana, enforcing my illusion to him.

He saw what he expected, the predicted outcome, and did not question anything, while his surroundings slowly changed, as reality twisted around him, slowly, until the change was irreversible, and he fell into my grasp.

It surprises me how he can still move in this space, but I should expect no less from a Hero. After all, they are supposed to be existences that defy common sense, even in this world.

I am almost delighted in seeing him struggle, as he moves with all his speed, trying to reach the village in the distance.

And yet, no matter how much space he traverses, the place he wants to reach is always at the same distance from him.

Finally, he stops, his shoulders dropped, his fists clenched.

<<Reveal yourself>>

He shouts to the air, anger twisting his child features.

Only silence answers his cry.

I have played enough with him.

The distant village dissolves, becoming a thick, black mist. Upon seeing it, Damian’s lip twitches, and he leaps back, distancing himself from the mist.

<<I thought you died back in Nudria, you accursed abomination>>

<<Hello, Hero of Aldora>>

I greet my adversary, as I step out from the black mist.

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A Strange Sky: Chapter 5- Recovering

Slowly, Conrad rose on his feet. He felt weak, as he never felt before. A mixture of exhaustion and hunger clouded his thoughts, a dull headache pulsing in the back of his head.

Yet, he smiled.

He relished the warmth of sunlight on his skin, basking in those few rays that shone past his cave’s entrance, lighting the interior of his little sanctuary.

He felt warmth, and that sensation was enough to make a small tear flow from his eyes.

Suddenly, he became aware of his condition. The curse had a heavy impact on him, and led him to not eat, drink or sleep for almost a whole week.

Days in this strange world lasted roughly forty eight hours, so, in the end, he considered, he abandoned himself for fourteen days, if counted by the old world’s standards.

He knew a man could survive a long time without eating, if properly hydrated. But how much could a person survive without drinking? Or without sleep?

He knew he should have perished, by the old world’s standards.

But it did not happen. He was weak, too weak, famished and almost on the brink of exhaustion once more, but he was definitely alive.

Moreover, he beat the curse. And that thought made him feel exalted, as it represented his first true victory in this world.

And here, winning meant receiving definite rewards. He glanced at the blinking blue dots that popped in his field of view, exerting his consciousness to them in order to visualize those messages.

The first one, he already read, moments before collapsing on his bed of leaves, too exhausted to even celebrate.

It informed him of the curse’s end, and he read it once again, relishing each single, blinking word on that strange floating window that appeared in front of him.

Next, he dismissed the message, dedicating himself to the others that followed.

New Skill Unlocked! Concentration (1/10)- Type: General (Pneuma)- A hard task needs a focused mind. Concentration lets you enter a focused state, increasing accuracy, precision, letting the outside world fade out…

Skill Level UP! Concentration +1 (2/10)

Skill Level UP! Concentration +2 (3/10)

Skill Level UP! Concentration +3 (6/10)

Skill Level UP! Concentration +4 (10/10)

Skill RANK UP! Concentration Concentration II (1/20)

Congratulations! You Ranked UP your first Skill! As a reward, you’ve been granted: 1 Tile; +2 Willpower

Skill Level UP! Concentration II +2 (3/20)

Skill Level UP! Concentration II +4 (7/20)

Skill Level UP! Concentration II+6 (13/20)

Skill Level UP! Concentration II + 7 (20/20)

Skill RANK UP! Concentration II Clarity (1/10)- Type: Active (Pneuma, 1AP)- When active, enter a state of deep focus, closing off the world and focusing your senses, heightening your thoughts.

New Skill Unlocked! Cold Resistance (1/10)- Type: Passive (Soma)- Your body grows accustomed to cold, be it icy winds or frozen water…

Skill Level UP! Cold Resistance +1 (2/10)

Skill Level UP! Cold Resistance +2 (3/10)

Skill Level UP! Cold Resistance +3 (6/10)

Skill Level UP! Cold Resistance +4 (10/10)

Skill RANK UP! Cold Resistance → Cold Resistance II (1/20)

Congratulations! You ranked UP 3 skills already! As a reward, you obtained:

+1 Tile

+2 Willpower

Conrad looked at the stream of notifications, unable to believe what he was reading. As he read through them all, he noted how his Cold Resistance leveled up and ranked up at an astounding rate. He thought it due to him struggling to resist the cold caused by the curse. That strange state of clarity he found himself into, that was the time when he gained and used his Concentration, his focus and detachment from the outside world deepening as the skill level rose, and it ranked up.

Until the skill itself became something else.

And yet, the stream of blue windows was still far from its end.

Conrad skimmed through the simple notifications that informed him about his skills leveling up, until he reached the last window of that almost endless stream.

Skill Level UP! Cold Resistance II+ 1 (2/20)

New Skill Unlocked! Cold Attunement (1/10)- Type: Passive (Pneuma, rare)- Icy winds and freezing waters molded your mind and its vessel, allowing you to tap into their very essence. Attacks and skills are imbued with Ice element.

Congratulations! You have unlocked your first Rare skill! As a reward, you have been granted: +1 Tile, +1 Intelligence, +1 Perception

New Skill Unlocked! Will of Steel (1/10)- Type: Passive (Pneuma, rare)- Overcoming challenges has tempered your mind, your will has become as strong as steel itself. Grants minor resistance against Mind attacks and Curses, pain, hunger and thirst, debilitation.

New Patterns Revealed! Ice Series-Snow Flake (0/10); Ice Series-Brine (0/20); Ice Series- Hail (0/50); Meditation (0/10)

As the last of the blue messages disappeared from his view, Conrad focused his attention on the most pressing matters. First, he needed to feed himself. The fruit and vegetables that he had in his cave had gone bad, covered in pink-bluish mold. As he just escaped death and a curse, Conrad did not want to eat rotten food. Who knew what it would do to his debilitated body? He did not want to risk getting sick.

However, in order to get something fresh to fill his stomach, he would need to climb down from his cave. He felt weak, but not enough to not attempt to climb down. There was also another reason that compelled him to do so. He felt the dire need to clean himself, as during the time he spent struggling against the curse he did not move from his spot, not even to relief himself.

Now, his own smell disgusted him, and the sensation of stale sweat that stuck to his skin, along with other filth, made him sick.

Sighing, he started to climb down, moving with the utmost care. Halfway through, he stopped, fighting a sudden sense of vertigo.

But it went away, as quickly as it came.

Finally, Conrad’s feet touched the riverbank below, slowly sinking in the muddy terrain. He undressed himself, and he let the cold waters sweep away the filth from his body.

Then, he started to thoroughly wash his clothes. The lack of soap made everything more difficult, and the smell persisted on his tattered jeans as well as on Conrad’s skin.

Still, he felt better, the cold river water refreshed him, and he drank some small sips before washing himself. He knew that, in his situation, he could not just gulp down a lot of water, as his body would reject it. Instead, he needed to drink frequent, small sips.

Food was also another problem. As he went a long time without eating, his body would react badly if he just went and ate to his heart’s content. Instead, he needed to eat bit by bit, favoring simple, easy to digest food.

After washing himself, he strolled towards the forest’s edge, still naked and dripping with water. He grabbed a low hanging fruit, the same kind that he felt so disgusting when under the curse. Without hesitating, he dug in, biting the soft, ripe fruit, letting its juice flow from his mouth. He savored it, and to Conrad, that single bite felt like the most delicious thing he ever ate.

He gathered some more, then he strolled back to his clothes and began to climb up once again. Once he entered his cave, the smell lingering inside made him almost sick.

Cleaning the whole place would take him too much time, he thought, and he did not have the energy to do it. Instead, he considered another option.

The area around his cave was safe, he knew that. For the first time, he resorted himself to sleep outside.

He took the time to throw his possession down, carefully avoiding the soiled bed of leaves, almost feeling tempted to burn it. He left it like it was, instead, taking one last glance to his cave before climbing down once more.

The whole day, he spent it doing menial tasks, as he felt too weak to properly engage in productive activities. He built himself a fireplace, and gathered some leaves to act as a bed. Then, when night fell, he simply rolled over on his bed of leaves, and slept.

The next morning, he woke up with the first sunlight, feeling a little bit better than the day before. Conrad started his day with a fruit meal, this time conceding himself a full fruit to eat, just to see if his stomach would be able to hold it down.

Then, with his stomach filled, his mind more clear, he started to ponder a bit about what happened.

He died, and resurrected. All that happened was a consequence of that. The painful, cruel curse, was some sort of penalty that the Mosaic System introduced to discourage people from just letting themselves go, accepting death. If something like that did not exist, and dying had no demerit besides the pain, some people would use it as some sort of shortcut to power, thought Conrad.

Basing his reasoning on what happened to him, it was something possible after all. By fighting a powerful opponent, your skills would rise no matter what, even if you succumbed to it. A crazy enough person would definitely throw himself to stronger enemies, die and repeat, until his skills would reach a high enough level.

And so, the curse served as a deterrent to that kind of behavior.

It made sense to Conrad, although, he could not imagine someone that would die over and over just to become stronger.

Also, overcoming the curse gave Conrad some unexpected new skills. The new Cold Resistance and Cold Attunement left him a bit perplexed, as he was not exposed to actual cold, but rather, it was all in his mind. And yet, the system acted like Conrad himself was immersed in freezing waters, or covered in snow on some icy peak, going so far as to unlock Ice related skills and even Patterns.

In short, it was not what actually, physically happened to him that influenced the system, but what he thought it was happening, Conrad surmised. He thought that the cold was real, and the system reacted, changing him to endure the cold, adapting him to it, to the point that it generated a skill based on cold itself. He had yet to try it, but the skill description stated that his attacks and skills would have an Ice element attribute.

In RPG games an elemental attack was something good to have, and, without any doubt, it would prove useful to Conrad.

And yet, even if he gained much from the whole experience, he still felt terribly frustrated by all that happened. When weighting the small growth he achieved against the humiliation, pain and impotence he felt when facing the Lyander first, then during the curse’s effect, he could not help himself but to consider one simple thing.

He did not want to feel something like that, ever again.

Weakness was fatal in this world, and he learned it the hard way. Sure, he thought, he had been unfortunate in finding a powerful creature on his path, but he had the slight feeling that even a lesser monster would have bested him.

After all, his level was still one, and his skills, although he already had more than twenty, were not suited to battle or hunt.

As he dwelt on his considerations, he summoned his Status screen. The Pattern section drew his attention, with the new Patterns that he had unlocked. Now, he had some spare Tiles to use, and he wanted to experiment a bit with this part of the system. When he thought about it, the Status screen shifted, changing into another, unknown window. In it, the Patterns he unlocked were represented as silhouettes, each fragmented, like a puzzle. Around his left hand, four floating blue lights manifested, four as the number of Tiles in his possession.

With his eyes shifting from the blue lights to the Pattern window, he started to consider how to spend those Tiles.

The Fool’s Pattern required a large number of Tiles to complete, and he immediately ruled it out. For now, he considered spending his Tiles on something that he could complete. The First Step Pattern, along with Ice Series- Snow Flake required the least amount, both of them needing ten Tiles to complete.

Conrad weighted his options. The Snow Flake was tempting, but he felt like it was something too specific. The First Step was the first Pattern he managed to unlock, and its name implied something related to beginnings.

Conrad dumped all his Tiles on the First Step Pattern. As he did, each Tile took its place on the silhouette, revealing a part of the picture. The blue lights disappeared from his left hand, and a notification window popped up.

Congratulations! You assigned your first Tile to a Pattern!
As a reward, you’ve obtained:
+1 SP
+1 AP
+5 HP
+ 2 free Stat Points
Pattern Progress: First Step- 4/10
Congratulations! First Step has reached 40% Completion.
Reach 50% and 100% for Pattern Rewards!

<<Finally>> murmured Conrad, seeing how spending his Tiles yielded him bonus SP and AP. The increase was small, but now, he could use two skills in a row, instead of being limited to only one. Five more HP would also be beneficial, although, he considered, they would still mean nothing against a powerful foe. He remembered how he felt when he looked at the damage log from the Lyander’s attack, seeing how it six hundred damage to him. What were five measly points in front of that monstruous power?

The two free stat points were interesting, but Conrad was unsure about where to spend them. In particular, he wondered if he should dump them into one of his higher statistics, or try to balance out the ones that were lacking.

After some careful considerations, he decided to allocate the stat points into physical statistics. One point went into Nimbleness, the remaining one into Reaction.

He braced himself for the upcoming change. Mental stats did not give the same rebound when increased, only giving him a quick headacke, that during the day was overshadowed by the pounding pain caused by his condition.

But physical stats were another story altogether. He felt his muscles jolt, quick, nervous movements that followed the wave of energy, spreading from his lower spine to all of his body.

When he opened his eyes once again, he felt not different from before. Yet, he knew the change was there, and he would experience it once he started moving. For now, however, he had no intention to tire himself by trying his new stats or skills. His body was still weak, and he needed the time to recover.

After dealing with notifications and Patterns, Conrad was left without anything to do. His days, since he woke up in that clearing inside the forest, had been so busy that he basically had not a single moment of idleness.

Now, it was weighting on him, and he could not handle the simple fact of staying still, doing nothing.

So, he decided to partake in some kind of activity, something that would not tire him out or expose him to risk, but at the same time would keep him entertained.

He was near the riverbank, and the terrain around him had something that would keep him occupied enough, and help him on the long run.

Clay.

He rose to his feet, grabbed the largest satchel he had and strolled towards a spot on the riverbank where he was sure to find clay, or at least this world’s version of it.

When he reached the spot, he used his hands to grab clumps of the light gray material, hauling it back to his place.

Using a large, flat rock as a base, he started to mold the clay into a simple recipient. Then, when he reached a result that pleased him enough, he started the campfire once again, and put his work to cook among the embers.

He knew it was not the most apt method to actually produce ceramic, but without a oven, and the energies to build one, it was the only thing he could do.

As he waited, he sorted through the equipment and tools that he removed from his cave. Rope made of vegetal fiber, the long poles that would become shafts for his spears. Rocks of various sizes, hardness and texture, his primitive tools. Satchels made of woven leaves and branches, along with some raw, unprocessed materials. Bark, leaves, sticks and pieces of wood. Even the bones of the first, large fish that he caught on his first day, carefully wrapped inside a piece of cloth. Too brittle to use as cutting tools or weapons, but the thin fishbones could be used as needles in Conrad’s intentions.

All his possessions, apart from the spears he broke and lost during his unfortunate first direct encounter with the local wildlife.

Having finished sorting his items, a notification reclaimed Conrad’s attention.

Crafting Successful! Small Pot (Poor Quality) x1 has been created!

Skill Level UP! Crafting +1 (4/10)

Seeing the notification, he rushed to take the small pot out of the fire. It was covered in ashes, and Conrad used a stick to yank it out of the fire, walking to the river where he immerged his creation inside the water, to cool it down and clean it.

Then, he examined it. It was a small, ugly thing, but to Conrad, it was a huge success. The clay was good enough to be made into ceramic. And having ceramic would mean having the possibility of storing water, boiling it even.

Moreover, he could use the clay itself to build a primitive oven. Something like that could even be enough to smelt metal, if he managed to find some.

Following the elation after this success, Conrad fully dedicated to pottery. He crafted several recipients, going back and forth from the riverbank to the fireplace to gather enough clay.

At the end of the day, he had successfully made two small recipients, three medium ones, as large as a kitchen pot, and a large one, twice the size of the medium ones.

He filled one of the medium pots with water, throwing in mushrooms and roots he peeled with his steel knife, an aromatic herb that grew near the riverbank, its scent being a weird meddle of mint and lemon.

Lastly, he added two fishes, that he managed to capture with his hands. Unable to resist trying his skills, Conrad used Sneak to move silently in the knee deep water, without alerting the fishes that swam lazily in the shallow waters. Then, he simply grabbed them with his hands. The first three times he failed, but the fourth and sixth attempt granted him protein for his dinner.

Conrad’s mouth started to water as the smell from his boiling pot began to diffuse in the air. Using his steel knife, he fashioned himself a spoon out of a piece of driftwood, smoothening it out with a piece of sandstone.

The usual blue notification popped up, alerting Conrad that his Vegetable and Fish Stew was ready, and his Cooking skill had leveled up.

As he tasted the stew, he found its taste decent enough, although it lacked salt.

After the meal, he felt definitely better than before. His head was still a bit too heavy and clouded, but the worst part was now gone.

Perhaps, he thought, by the next day he would be able to actually do some work, and start training his skills.

Before abandoning himself to sleep once more, he took a last glance to his Status screen:

Mind Mosaic Status:

Level: N/A

Class: N/A

EXP: -/-

Statistics

Soma: HP 15/15

Strength: 2

Nimbleness: 2

Coordination: 1

Reaction: 2

Pneuma: AP 2/2

Willpower: 5

Intelligence: 3

Tekna: SP 2/2

Precision: 2

Perception: 4

Titles: N/A

Tiles: 0

Patterns: First Step (4/10); The Fool (0/100);Ice Series-Snow Flake (0/10); Ice Series-Brine (0/20); Ice Series- Hail (0/50); Meditation (0/10)

Skills

General: Gathering (5/10); Crafting (3/10); Climbing (5/10); Running (2/10); Cooking (3/10); Map (1/10)

Active: Identify (5/10); Dismantle (2/10); Sprint (2/10); Foolishness (5/10); Rush (5/10); Pierce (5/10); Sneak (7/10); Clarity (1/10)

Passive: Physical Fitness (6/10); Athletics (2/10); Poison Resistance (1/10); Spear Mastery (2/10); Cold Resistance II (2/20); Cold Attunement (1/10); Will of Steel (1/10)

Re: Interference Chapter 30- Pawns

[Navi: Fourth Trial- Trial of The Horde: In the Given time, Repel the Horde and Kill the Hero.

Trial Initializing- Done. Trial Started: during the upcoming two weeks, the Candidate will need to repel and defeat the Monster Horde unleashed by the Hero. The rules for this trial impose that the Candidate and his current Minions (Bishop, Knight, Rook, Queen) must not raise their level during the duration of the trial; The Candidate cannot retreat from the general area where the trial is taking place (current party members are free to move, but must be in the area when the Horde attacks). Bonus objective: killing or permanently incapacitating the Hero. Good Luck, Master!]

I gulp down my saliva, looking once again at the blinking list of rules for this trial. According to Navi’s message, we cannot train ourselves for the upcoming fight, and I am barred from leaving the general area where the trial will take place.

The area is represented by a red circle on Navi’s map, encompassing a wide portion of the Marsh and the territory around the former Aldora fort.

Crossing that red line will result in me losing my life.

However, the message did not contain only bad news.

My companions will be free to move in and out of the area, unless until the Horde will make its move.

That means, we can prepare for it, using strategy instead of just increasing our levels.

After the message is dismissed, a timer remains in my view, counting down the time until the Horde will start to move.

Two weeks from now, during which we will have to prepare as best as we can.

I take a deep breath, calming myself and beginning to sort out what it is that I need to do in this situation.

First, I need to assess the size of this monster Horde, and have some means to be informed at all times about it.

I open the map once again, looking at the place where the Horde is.

Signals are buzzing on the virtual map that Navi displays in my head, red dots pulsing, some small, some bigger.

The largest one is Damian, the Hero I had the misfortune to meet in Nudria village. He’s the one behind this event, amassing monsters as if to build his own private force.

To what end, I ask myself. Besides the former fort now inhabited by freed slaves, there is nothing here worth taking by force.

Perhaps he wants to retake the fort, but such a large force of creatures is definitely too much for a small camp surrounded by wooden walls.

Even a single creature would be enough to deal heavy losses in the encampment, two or three would definitely eradicate it.

Yet, Damian has already two hundred creatures under his control.

It seems too much, both for the strain of controlling them and for the sheer number of this force, just to retake back a small fort.

No, there must be something else at play here.

It could be that he’s simply gathering a monster force here, in preparation for the upcoming war with Sendria.

It’s the most plausible thing, to me.

Using monsters, he will have a disposable army, cannon fodder to use in order to spread chaos and weaken the enemy.

After that, the army will swoop in, ready to fight a weakened enemy.

And Aldora’ s Marsh is a place literally bursting with nasty creatures whose level is reasonably high.

Without any doubt, the Hero controlling them has also cast some kind of reinforcement on the creatures, making them deadlier than their wild counter part.

<<It looks like we have some trouble over there>>

I update Levia on the situation. Her eyes gape when she hears the Hero’s name, perhaps remembering the destruction of Nudria by his hands. Even if she hated that place, it was still her home for a long time.

But the most curious reaction is the one Emilia is displaying. She began to tremble, stuttering the Hero’s name.

Being herself from Aldora, she surely knows how powerful the Hero is.

As I ask her about it, looking to probe her for some scraps of information, she looks down on her feet, fidgeting with her sleeve as she speaks, her voice broken by tension.

<<They call him the Son of Radiance. His appearance is that of a small child, ten, perhaps eleven years old. But…he acts, and speaks, like someone much older. Even among the Heroes, he’s the one renowned the most for his cruelty. Mostly, he is sent away from Aldora, to act as a rogue and a spy in enemy territory. If he’s here, it only means that the Army is about to set on a March of Radiance. That means, they will invade this region, reclaiming back Aldora’s long lost territories>>

Her information about Damian is nothing useful.

Perhaps I held my hopes too high, expecting her to know something more about his powers, but it seems like she does not know.

To her words, Heroes never show their capabilities in Aldora, as there is simply no need.

And they are rarely dispatched in battle, and when they are, it ends so quickly that it is almost impossible to discern what the single Hero did.

<<Although, one thing I know. Of all the Heroes in Aldora, the Pantheon, as we call them, Damian is all but the lowest ranked, the last Hero to join Aldora in order of time. There was supposed to be another one after him, but I recall that something went wrong, some kind of interference blocked the summoning rite>>

I chuckle at her remark, receiving her scornful look as a reward.

<<It’s a long story, but…that was supposed to be me. And yes, something did really go wrong with all that shit. But I’m here now, and definitely I am not a Hero, or on Aldora’s side for that matter. Now, let me tell you what your former country is up to in this region>>

As I share with her what we experienced in Nudria, and the situation in Sendria, Emilia’s face grows paler with every word coming from my mouth.

Her expression grows heavier, as she learns about the possible scenario of an all out war between Sendria and Aldora.

<<It will be a massacre>>

She whisper, her hand to her lips.

<<Yes, it will be. On both sides, that’s for sure. And, whose side will you take, girl from Aldora?>>

Levia’s voice carries hostility, her eyes glaring at Emilia.

Emilia seems taken back by Levia’s hostility.

And I understand well what Levia is thinking at the moment. After all, Emilia is from Aldora, and she was a member of their army.

Of course Levia has some rightful doubts on her.

<<Of course, you’re doubting my good will. Do you think that as soon as the Army comes here, as soon as their banners will be in sight I will immediately go back to them?>>

Emilia’s face is now flustered, her hands tightened into fists that tremble near her thighs.

But the blonde woman recovers her composure, and she sustains Levia’s gaze.

<<I will fight for the people here, for those that have welcomed me. For all purposes, it is not possible for a person to leave the Aldoran Army. Either you die on duty, or you continue your mission until the end. I am a deserter for them now, having even lost my Blessing. Only death will wait for me in Aldora, and as soon as my former comrades in arms will see me, they will carry out capital punishment. I already said it to you, I no longer have any ties with Aldora or the Church. And even if you yourself do not trust me, that will not change my intentions, or my actions for that matter>>

It looks like sparks are about to fly between the two of them. I must admit, Emilia shows some guts in standing against Levia, someone that trumps her own level by a fair amount. In short, she’s talking back to someone that could just kill her without even breaking a sweat.

<<How nice your words are…truly. You want to fight to defend the people that welcomed you. As if. Tell the truth, girl from Aldora. You are only choosing the side that will allow you to save your own skin. If you go back, they will kill you on sight. If you fight for the people here, you may have a chance to survive. No need to embellish your selfishness with pretty words, because, in the end, you are choosing the side that will let you live. Still, do as you wish. If you will fight for us, your help will be welcomed. But I do not trust you, and I never will>>

Surprisingly, Levia is the first one to break away from locking stares, turning away as she finds a rock and sits on it, crossing her arms and legs with a tense face.

<<Your girlfriend does not seem to like me very much>>

As Emilia mutters her words to me, I turn to her with a serious expression. Although she was the first person to treat me kindly in this world, the situation has changed. I have changed, and I cannot take the risk to openly welcome her. If she earns my trust, perhaps, things will change, but for now, she’s someone I need to be wary of.

I clarify things with her, perhaps, I realize, being even too cold and harsh with my choice of words.

But, it is for the best.

<<Now, both of you, drop this little fight and listen well. There is the impending danger of an invasion from a monster horde, led by that fuckin Damian. We need to think about something, and fast even>>

As I ponder about things, I notice some change in the monsters’ signals.

Apparently, some of them had their level increased. I focus Navi on the zone, to have a better grasp of the situation.

It turns out, Damian is making his monsters fight the wild ones, thus leveling up his forces.

If he’s given enough time, he will build an impressive force out of these creatures. And I fear what he would do with them.

I clench my fist, going through my options.

Without any doubt, he must be stopped.

But, the opponent is a Hero. His level trumps mine by a large amount, and his ability makes his skin invulnerable.

When I met him the first time, I managed to wound him, taking him by surprise by using an attack he would not recognize, making him inhale Black Fluid in mist form and then striking from the inside of his body. Even when wounded, he just shrugged off the damage received and destroyed Nudria with a single attack.

Surely, the same trick will not work again.

In short, this is not an enemy I can beat head on. Even if the monster army was not there, he would be too much for me to confront.

If I fight head on, that is.

Still, the trial has already begun. And this time, it compels me to repel the monster horde, killing the Hero.

I imagine that the penalty for failing this are the same as the trials before, meaning, I will lose my life if I fail, or try to run away.

But, it’s not like I am completely harmless in this situation. I have already something planned for him, and I am sure it will work.

After all, Heroes are brought “here” by the same God that “summoned” me in the first place, before Azatoth’s meddling.

Now, the real problem here is a logistic one.

We could confront Damian inside the Marsh, ambushing his location. I could use the same strategy I used against several Champions and Guardians in the Dungeon, using Beelzebub to confuse the monsters into fighting among themselves, quelling their number.

I do not know how strong is Damian’s dominion over them, however. If he has total control of the creatures, then it will be futile to try and confuse them with poison after all.

A large force would be able to deal with the monsters, and we could concentrate on Damian himself.

Using Transfer Orbs, it would be possible to “summon” allies and surround the Hero. The rules of this trial did not explicitly forbid using reinforcements after all. So, it should be possible for me to call in some more fighters without incurring in any penalty. Surely, Telesia will be able to spare some adventurers for this occasion. After all, the opportunity to weaken the enemy by killing one of its precious Heroes is something that she would really appreciate.

And yet, I am not leaning toward this decision. Fighting inside the Marsh will be a double edged sword, since the difficult terrain is ill suited for battles. The monsters will have a clear advantage in that environment, without a single doubt.

We could try another approach, by waiting for Damian to move outside of the Marsh, and confront him on a prepared battlefield.

After all, we already have a perfect position for a fort in our hands…

And without a single doubt, the Hero will move toward the former fort in its path.

If we decide to fight the Horde on our terrain, the settlers will need to be evacuated to Sendria, perhaps.

But, I have the feeling that they could put themselves to use.

After all, if it is to defend their home…

The main problem with them fighting would be their level. At the present moment, no one among them has a sufficiently high level to even stand against a single level 30 monster. Much less the skills, and battle experience, to be of any use in battle.

And yet, why am I even considering this? Thinking about which ways to use to make them stronger, to prepare them?

My vision clouds, and I sway to the side for one moment. A sharp pain in my left temple, lasting a fleeting moment only.

<<Roshal…your nose is bleeding>>

Levia is looking at me with gaping eyes, and Emilia hurries to give me a piece of cloth.

My vision is still blurred, and my hands are shaking.

It was violent, even if it lasted for so little time.

And yet, that moment held a duplicity in it, both lasting a single second and an eternity.

For the first time, I heard him. Although, it should define the thing better. It pushed its thoughts into my head, intruding my psyche with astounding ease. I was defenseless, and yet, something deep inside of me rejoiced that presence, that moment, like a child seeing his mother’s smile.

It is hard to interpret the thoughts of a God, and even harder to sort them out if you hear them for the first time.

It was not a voice that spoke to me, more like a stream of images and notions, superimposed and entwined one onto the other, melted into something that transcend language, carrying pure meaning in its simplicity, as if the God struggled to make its thoughts comprehensible for a lesser creature like me, its humble servant, as it defined me.

The message carried in that single thought, it showed images of the fort, and the former slaves. Images of struggle, repetition, and improvement, growth. Smiles, images of curiosity, interest, and then happiness, fulfillment and expectation. Images of battle, and victory. And the concepts tied to those images, linked together.

Do it, lead them, raise them, bring victory to them.

Please your God.

As my mind processed it, hurting itself in the process, the meaning became clear. My intention to use the slaves to defeat the Hero drew Azatoth’s attention, and he found it amusing, compelling me to do it.

Before, I had some doubts about the divine nature of such beings. Both Azatoth and the one venerated in Aldora, they could just have been powerful creatures, without any ounce of divinity in them, if such thing exists. Now, I am not so sure. One of the defining quality of a divine being, is omnipotence, after all. The ability to impose its will, and reality will abide to it.

Now, I felt the weight of that will, something so strong that reality itself warps to accustom to it.

It lasted only a moment, and my body is still shaking, my mind is fixated on that objective, both screaming in pain and crying in joy.

<<I…I’m fine. Just a moment of weakness, nothing to worry yourselves about. Now, let’s head back to the settlement. We have much things to do>>

The two girls still are looking at me, like they just saw a ghost.

<<You were…laughing. We thought…are you sure you are ok, Roshal?>>

<<I said I’m fine. Let’s go now>>

I raise my voice, interrupting Emilia’ s concerned words.

I was laughing. And I have no recollection of it. Mad laughter…if that really happened…

My hand shakes, and I am forced to exert my will to stop it. The implications right now are crushing me, to the point that I feel my whole being cracking under the pressure.

Levia tries to reply, but I immediately open Inventory and drag the two girls with me.

Inside the dark space, I have some time to think, immersed in that wholesome silence.

First, the feeling of distress and impending crisis I felt before, now I know the reason for that. And, once again, it seems my decision to come here was not even my own, once again I have been led here. Perhaps, it is fate, or something more sinister at work.

Abiding to a God’s will must be the higher pleasure for someone of faith, but I think that if they felt what I am experiencing right now, they too would find the unpleasantness of this whole situation.

I came here chasing what I felt was my own sensation, only for it to reveal itself like another beacon, something imposed from a “superior being”. And this time, the feeling is even stronger. The God spoke to me, for the first time.

Its words, were not a suggestion, or an invitation. They were orders, and every fiber of my being needs to abide to them.

And of course, it’s not like I receive the most logical of tasks. Like evacuating the former fort, call in reinforcements and deal with the Hero and his monsters.

No, it would be too simple, of course. Not entertaining enough.

Because, the underlying feeling that the God transmitted, it was something like excitation, the same I would feel while reading a good book, or those rare times when a movie had a deep and well made plot.

Of course, I never lived those moments, but it is the strongest example I could think of.

In short, It, The Almighty Azatoth, He who Interferes with Rebirth, The one who is responsible for everything that happened, he wants to watch a good show.

And for that reason, he will have me take command of a bunch of former slaves, and make them confront a horde of monsters. Just because it thought it amusing.

I find the idea itself repulsing, but…on the other hand, I look forward to it. It is difficult to explain, it’s like every single cell, every molecule that composes me is leaning toward the same path, singing hymns of praise as I work to act in Its will.

And the curiosity I feel, about how will I be able to pull this off, is burning in my mind, along with several plans and strategies that are beginning to form themselves in my mind, almost like they have an existence on their own, and are not just strings of thought woven together by my mind.

It’s both terrifying and ecstatic.

To the point that I am both grinning and crying, feeling a cackling laughter rising from my stomach, and finally letting it out, a laughing man surrounded by blackness, headed to a mad task for a mad god.

As we reappear inside the settlement, passersby looks at us perplexed, some screaming in surprise.

The same, mixed expression of wonder and fear, is painted on Emilia’s own face, but it swiftly warps as the effect of being inside Inventory catch up to her.

She pukes, her face going beyond pale.

<<What…what did you do to me?>>

She asks, her left hand holding her cramping stomach.

I use a cleansing spell to clean her up, and relief a bit of her pain. It was sudden, and a bit rude to just hurl the both of them into Inventory after all.

<<Relax, it’s just some after effect of my transport skill. You’ll be fine in no time>>

I answer to her, taking a glance at Levia, who seems to fare better than Emilia. Perhaps the level difference between the two of them is mitigating the effects for Levia. Not that she is immune, she too has paled and looks like she’s resisting nausea.

Still, there are more pressing things to deal with at the moment.

I immediately contact the others, letting them know about the situation here. At the same time, I sent Meviel to monitor the monster horde and the Hero, ordering my minion to be as careful as possible in order for it to not be discovered.

It would be a shame to lose it so soon, and if it is discovered, it might alert Damian of our presence here, making him wary and thus losing our only advantage, surprise.

I check the visual feedback from it, asserting the situation of the monster horde.

At the moment, it still seem like Damian is not near the main body of the Horde. Instead, his signal comes from a point further towards the center of the Marsh, surrounded by those of lesser, low leveled monsters. Perhaps, the Hero is hunting them, looking for new additions to his little zoo, or for something to use to feed his other creatures.

I order Meviel to keep observing the Horde while remaining hidden, at least for the time being. Later, I will recall Meviel back, using offshoots instead to spy on the Horde and the Hero.

Having checked the situation of out enemies, I discuss with Levia about the next steps to take. She voices her opinion, that it would be best to evacuate the settlement and ask for reinforcements from the Guild. She is right, of course she is, but she does not seem to grasp correctly the situation I am in right now.

I take a deep breath, and ponder on how to let her know.

After taking my time, I decide to share with her the memory of the recent “chat” I had with a superior being.

Levia’s face pales, and she drops on her knees.

<<This…this is not a choice for us, right? It’s not even a suggestion, it’s…>>

<<It’s an order>>

I cut her words, smiling at her. She nods, now that she knows there is no other choice. Her eyes begin to set on the surroundings, as if she’s studying the people around us. Normal people, not warriors, not battle hardened adventurers. And yet, these very people will have to fight for their lives.

The “suggestion” I received was very clear about that. My role here, is to train and lead these people, making a force out of them, preparing them for battle.

<<Hm, it should be about time now>>

I mumble to myself, my words followed by a blue flash right in the settlement’s center.

Earlier, when I told the others about the situation here, we did accord on the schedule for them to come here. And it is about time for all to rejoin with us.

The first Transfer Stone goes off, and Heod appears from the blue ripple in space. He’s followed by two persons I do not know, a tall man with spectacles and blond hair, dressed in a white lab coat, and a short, curvy lady with ruffled hair and circular googles covering her eyes.

Both of them are carrying large backpacks.

<<So, this is the place then>>

Old Heod looks around, pausing his eyes on Emilia for a fleeting moment. She’s better now, but she seems to be in shock somehow.

<<Is the girl ok?>>

He asks, strolling to her side to help her get up.

<<She’ll be fine. It’s just Roshal’s weird skill taking its toll>>

Levia answers in my place, smiling to the old man.

<<Oh. Well, lady, drink this potion, it will help with the nausea. Now, lads, where can this old man set up his temporary laboratory?>>

We go with Heod and his assistants to the settlement’s chief. Apparently, there is no formal chain of command here, but the settlers have all agreed to follow the lead of a man, even without him being “officially” appointed as chief.

He simply showed himself capable enough, and the others followed.

He resides in the former barrack of the Aldoran commander, re-purposed as both home and office.

Sitting behind a crude wooden table, serving as his desk, the man welcomes us with a wide smile.

He looks over fifty years old, his bulky body still showing some of the strength he had in his youth, betrayed only by a bulging belly. Still, his arms are toned, his skin black as coal contrasting with the grayish white of his hair and mustache.

<<Welcome in my humble office. What can this old man do for you?>>

He introduces himself as Vadra, without any title or honorific to himself.

As I inform him about the imminent situation, his expression turns sour, his cordial smile slowly turning into a concerned frown.

<<Boy, I really hope this is just an elaborate joke>>

His voice is deep, carrying weight and pressure.

Of course, he has some doubts about my words.

<<Well, mister Vadra. It will be quicker if I show you>>

I use Navi to share the feedback from Meviel. Cold sweat begins to run on Vadra’s forehead, and he collapses on his chair, his head held between his hands.

<<That…that cannot be. We just escaped from the horror of slavery, and those Aldoran bastards are already coming for us>>

He recovers quickly from his moment of discomfort, however.

<<No, we will fight them this time. I have not tasted liberty once again just to let a Hero take it away from me again. Not this time>>

His spirit is right, but, as things are right now, they do not have a single chance to survive this.

We consult some more with Vadra, as I ask him the state the settlement is in. The amount of supplies, along with the number of individuals who are able to either build structures or wield a weapon.

Time is of the essence here. From what I gathered using Meviel’s recognition, the number and level of monsters is the same as before, without any changes. And according to the timer, we have plenty of time to think about a counter attack.

The real problem is how to deal with this whole situation. The best course would be to strengthen the settlement altogether, building defensive structures and strengthening the settlers themselves.

Out of seventy four former slaves that inhabit the settlement, forty-five of them are battle capable. The problem is that more than half of those are also the only ones with practical knowledge on building structures and crafting tools. Sparing some people to dedicate them to production of weapons and defensive structures will decrease the total fighting force. And vice versa.

Still, it’s the best thing to do at the moment.

I’m a bit surprised to see how Vadra is abiding to what I say, perhaps, it’s the effect of my Leadership skill working, more than my own words.

After some hour of consultations and discussion, we finally came up with a plan.

In the meantime, the others have also reached the settlement.

I left Levia the duty to inform them about the situation, while I concentrate on another task. If we want to succeed here, the enemy needs to be surprised by the settlement’s resistance.

In short, we need to conceal what we are doing here.

For that reason, I decided to cast an illusion on the settlement, reproducing its current form. It’s a complex illusion, that needs to show different images at the same time, some of them moving into the static scenario of the settlement. To do so, I will need a massive amount of mana. Casting the illusion is not enough, however.

It also needs to last enough, and most importantly, it must not be seen through.

As I am preparing myself to weave the illusion, using both spells and the illusory skills I picked up some time ago, Vadra is busy gathering his fellow settlers and explaining the situation to them.

The man works fast, his words undoubted by the villagers that swiftly put themselves to work, some heading to the nearest meadows to harvest the necessary woods, others heading to the single forge and beginning to smelt what little metal the place has in store.

Their limited resources will not be enough, of course. Luckily, I have still some useful items stored into my Inventory.

Weapons, armors and rare materials. If push comes to shove, we could use some of our funds to purchase goods from Sendria, and transfer them here using Transfer stones or my skill directly.

The remaining settlers are being divided into squads, starting from the men and young boys up to the age of thirteen. Those that will be able to hold a weapon in their hands. Much to Vadra’s displeasure, some of the women too are willing to join the battle force. His views on the matter here might be too much antiquated, as he is reluctant to let women fight. Still, this will be a battle for them all, and having some more hands in our fighting force will be useful without a single doubt.

After casting the illusion, my breath heavy and in disarray from the effort, I stroll to Vadra’s side and persuade him to let the women fight also.

The only people left are now children and old people, who will be reunited in the central building and kept safe there. The others will begin their tasks shortly.

To accelerate things, I set out to help gathering resources and build the defensive structures. Using Shoggoth makes it easier to gather large quantity of materials, and process it however I want.

With the help of my skill, and under the guidance of those among the settlers that know how to build, I construct a first defensive perimeter around the settlement, a square surrounding the entire fort.

That will be the base for further constructions.

In the meantime, the others are taking care of the settlers, instructing them on the basis of combat and dividing the people by using their aptitude as a criteria.

After some light sparring, during which each person has been tasked to try and use the weapon they feel more comfortable with, they are divided and assigned to one of my companions.

Those that show some aptitude towards the use of shield and spears are roughly half of the total force, destined to Retel’s care and instructions.

Fifteen people showed prowess with blades, their performance based more on speed and accuracy rather than stopping power. A fighting style similar to Dahl’s, and thus, he will be the one instructing them.

Some of the settlers showed little to no ability with standard weapons, but demonstrated a good and steady aim when offered the opportunity to use bows or crossbows.

Levia is taking care of those.

The only ones left are roughly twelve people, who were excluded from the weapon test. The reason for that is the thin, feeble quantity of mana that these people possess. Some of them are unaware of it, others, like Julia, are beginning to discover and nurture their powers.

To those people, Marica’s guidance will be precious.

I focus on the construction and organization of the battleground, leaving my companions to instruct the settlers as best as they can.

While processing materials and moving objects with Shoggoth, placing them and arranging the core of the new structures, I check the timer that has begun to display in my view.

This whole Trial, feels like a timed event now.

According to the decreasing numbers in my view, we have two weeks before the Hero will begin to march towards the settlement, and Sendria afterwards.

I thought that I had less time at my disposal, but that does not seem to be the case.

If the timer is correct, that is. I cannot rule out that possibility after all. But if it says the truth, then it will be possible for me, for us, to accurately prepare the settlers, and, perhaps, increase our levels in the process.

Using Shoggoth, I work until late at night, while the settlers give instructions and draft out blueprints for me to follow.

The first line of defense is now ready, a stone wall surrounding the settlement, now looking like a proper fort.

As I set the last stone, a notification pops up, announced by Navi’s voice.

[Navi: Congratulations! You’ve completed the first Building- Defensive Stone Wall- Completing the Building, gives you Ownership of the Land. To Claim it, stand in the place indicated in the map and

give your consent]

A blue signals pulses in the map that Navi displays, right at the center of the settlement.

Still, I wonder what this is all about. As I ask for more information about, she gives scamps of it, mumbling about some benefits to the settlers and power influence. As usual, the teasing personality of this disembodied voice irritates me.

Well, it does seem that “claiming” this place will lead to some benefits, and if I want to pass this next trial, I need all the small advantages I can get.

Following Navi’s instructions, I head to the center of the settlement. There, a notification window pops up, asking me if I want to claim ownership over the land.

<<Yes>>

I feel dizzy for an instant, then a pulse of blackness surges from me, expanding as if a sphere exploded from my body.

The passing surge of energy travels around, expanding, until it becomes a sphere surrounding the settlement and roughly three hundred meters of land around it. Most of my mana has been consumed by it, leaving me drained and fatigued.

[Navi: Congratulations! You’ve claimed your first Territory! The people living in this land are now under your command, be it gentle hand or iron fist! A passive experience boost (1.5%) has been granted to people under your command, and they are now registered as Pawns in the system. Pawns have a small chance of inheriting a version of your skills during Level Up, as well as receiving bonus STAT points Moreover, you can decide to set the “growth path” for each individual Pawn, thus altering the skills and Stats that they will receive. As the designed Lord of this Land, you are linked to it, and will receive a passive amount of mana and experience each hour. As the New Lord, would you like to Give a Name to this Land? Y/N]

I take some time to think of a proper name, then give my consent for the renaming process, allowing for a random name to be chosen. Of all the names I thought, all of them seemed too ridiculously pompous or frivolous, and so, I decided to let randomness decide it.

[Navi: Congratulations! Your Land has now been renamed as “Ream Village”]

Apart from the name of the village displayed in the map, nothing else changed. At least, I did not notice the change, until I spent some more time walking around.

Well, for starters, I immediately discovered, much to my surprise, that I can teleport instantly inside the village, without spending any mana.

It only works within the boundaries of that black sphere, which, apparently, only I can see.

As I claimed the land, some people, along with my companions, rushed to me to see what happened.

While Retel basically assaulted me with questions, the settlers that came up to me held a formal tone in their voice, their backs straightened like they were soldiers in the presence of their commander.

At first, it made me a bit uncomfortable, the absolute trust I can read in their eyes, how they listen to my words with the utmost attention.

It is definitely something due to this strange “ownership”, but something deep inside of me relishes this kind of obedience they display.

I tried to give some orders, just to see the boundaries of this new thing. Villagers seem compelled to follow a direct order from me. Even if it is something that would harm them, or the ones around them.

Not that I made them really do something dangerous or harmful, of course. But still, the words were enough to spring them to action.

Suggestions, however, had no effect whatsoever, remaining mere words that left the final decision to the subject, rather than binding them to do my will like an order would have done.

It is disturbing, but it could be useful in dire need. For example, if someone tries to flee from the battle, terrorized.

Or to prevent crime, and some other things. The magnitude of this effect seems to be enhanced by my Leadership skill, thus making the villagers basically powerless against a direct order from me. On the other hand, it seems like my words have also a big positve effect on them.

Still, for now, I will limit myself to suggestion, resorting to orders only as a last measure.

Another change that happened is more subtle, and it took me a while to realize it. The mana in this place changed, becoming denser, more attuned to my own.

In here, my spells seem to have a larger effect, and consume less mana.

The area itself is limited, so the actual advantage this might provide is small for now. But, it could be of some use, after all. I wonder what would happen if I manage to increase my sphere of influence.

That’s the term Navi used to describe the black bubble that surrounds the settlement…Ream. A Sphere of Influence, delimiting the territory under my control. As it would in a game, it is possible for it to increase, if people from my territory occupy adjacent territories, or the population increases enough. It is possible for it to decrease as well, if the number of villagers falls under a specific threshold.

And of course, it could disappear completely, if the village is conquered or destroyed.

While pondering about these things, I give some glances to Meviel’s visual feedback, to check the situation of the Monster Horde.

It seems the number of them has slightly decreased, the weakest monsters being used as food to let the others grow stronger.

Damian himself is not there, it seems. His signal is far away, deep in Aldora Forest, surrounded by monsters. Perhaps, he is gathering some new recruits to his little army.

The important thing here is that he did not catch wind of what is happening in Ream. If he sensed that something was amiss there, I am sure he would have investigated in person.

Fighting him without the monsters to back him up would be easier, but if he came here, there would

definitely casualties among the population.

It will be better to let things play out as intended, without forcing my hand for now.

After all, I really doubt that things would play out differently, thinking back on how all this started.

Divine will and all that. This feels more like some sort of game between two children, arranging their pieces on a board and moving them according to a set of rules defined only for their amusement, rather than this whole situation being a crisis between bordering territories.

And perhaps, this is the reality of this world. People that do not know their true purpose, fancying themselves kings, popes or heroes, while being nothing more than pieces on a cardboard, moved by invisible hands and whose fate is decided by a whim or the roll of a dice.

And even if this is the reality behind the world itself, what choice do I have? Rebel? Ignore the will of a God?

I’m sure it will be impossible for the current me. Considering the strain that receiving Azatoth’s thoughts put on my body, what would his wrath do to me?

I shake my head, returning my thoughts to more pressing matters. The villagers are reunited in the center of Ream, waiting. All of them tired, many showing bruises on their bodies, signs of the sparring they had with my companions.

Their expressions suggest how they learned the difference in power between them and a single individual with several levels above their own.

In this scenario, numbers don’t matter.

Still, right now it is time to let them rest, and have a filled stomach.

From Inventory, I take out some provisions to distribute. It’s not much, but it will suffice for dinner. Tomorrow, I will have to think about how to feed the whole village, and some ways to make it self sufficient too. The current crops and cultivated land is not enough, and it shows a low yield given how scarce the provisions are.

We need more, to support the settlers during the incoming battle, and after that as well.

However, those thoughts are for a later time. For now, it is better to let them enjoy the meal, after their hard work.

Tomorrow, the real training for them will start.

Heod has naturally taken charge of the cooking, several ladies and some men following his directions as they stir pots and cut vegetables and meat.

While preparations are being made, making it look more like a festival night rather than a tense preparation for an upcoming war, I wander alone, walking between the wooden huts that compose the settlement, now renamed Ream.

<<Too much noise in there?>>

Vadra’s voice calls me from behind. He’s smoking a pipe, similar to the one Heod uses.

<<Yeah, I needed a bit of silence. Just to sort out some things>>

<<Hm. You are not really what you seem, boy. Roshal, was it? How is it that every time you show up, some ridiculous things happen?>>

His remark makes me chuckle. Of course, he must have recognized me from the time I spent in the fort, before the Laughing Man…liberated them.

<<That, mister Vadra, is a question that I would pay to know the answer. It seems that trouble follows me, everywhere I go>>

This time, is the old man that chuckles to my remark.

We spend some time talking, and he shares his experience. From his words, I learn how the life of a man enslaved by Aldora was.

The complete deprivation of rights, dehumanization, the loss of your own name. Completely different from what I had surmised back then, when I saw the soldiers’ behavior around the slaves. They fed them, well enough, and there was not a hint of heavy repression of the slaves, the soldiers limiting to give them orders, without abusing their power on them.

I thought that, even in the horror and wrongness that is depriving someone of their freedom, the people from Aldora did not revel in the humiliation imposed onto the slaves.

But Vadra’s words carry a different story. As it is, the soldiers are forbidden to speak with the slaves.

<<”Like a man would not speak to cattle, or animals on the side of the road. Because they are nothing but animals, beneath the Holiness of our blood. And thus, you shall not speak to them, if not for giving firm and righteous orders. You shan’t touch them, if not for imparting discipline”and other shit like this. In short, we are not human for them. They fed us, oh yes, but the amount of it, and quality, was feeble and scarce. Drugged food, lined with herbs to increase stamina, and others to numb fatigue and judgment. To cloud your mind, so that the thought of rebellion would be too nebulous to be grasped>>

We stood there some more, as Vadra spoke about how regaining their freedom was at first overwhelming, then it became intoxicating. For me, he told, a day was just a day, spent doing whatever I wanted. For him, days before the Laughing Man came where the negation of his being, as he was nothing more than a tool to use, to build, to plow the fields, to clean, and wash the equipment.

<<But after the Man came, and his laughter resounded in the fort- said Vadra- every day is a blessing. It has uncertainty in it, true. I do not know if the food will be enough for us all, or if we will have enough wood for winter. But, one thing I know. Whatever we want to do, we are now free to do it. It’s difficult to explain this to someone like you, someone who has not been bound by another’s will. Now, we are free, and we will do everything to remain free>>

His words carry sorrow, but his eyes show a glint of determination, the one that is born under pressure and suffering. This man will not yield, to anything. Having tasted hell itself, having lost his freedom, his soul has been tempered, his will becoming stronger. If danger arises, he will fight for his people.

His determination is comforting to behold. It means that, no matter what, this man will fight, and inspire others to do it as well.

Perhaps, the situation here is not as dire as it seems.

If there is the will to fight, there is hope. The rest, is just a matter of teaching them how to fight, how to raise their own prowess and exploit their power.

Still, I wonder what is the point of it all. Why have I been guided here, in some sort of capricious twist of fate.

I already gave some considerations on the matter, but now, alone since Vadra went back to his fellow settlers, I have some proper time to think about this whole situation.

Ever since my life in this world started, I have felt like every decision I took did not matter in the end. All the crucial points, from that first encounter with the slimes, back there in the forest bordering the Marsh, to me being here, it feels like I have been swept by the current of fate, following it, unable to resist the flow.

Now more than ever, since the mind that willed me here has made itself manifest, binding me to an order. Earlier, Vadra told me that I could not understand what it means to be a slave, to be bound by another’s will, unable to resist it.

If only he knew how wrong he is…

I stand in there some more, thinking about this strange fate that befell me, that tied me to this place. First, as a bystander of cruelty, both subtle, like the one perpetrated by the Aldoran towards their slaves, with no apparent violence but filled with a more profound malice, the negation of their status as human being. Then, I witnessed the retribution they suffered for that cruelty, by a twisted violence, righteous in some aspects but brutal in its execution. The Laughing Man came and consumed, rending the slaves’ chains as he devoured the oppressors’ flesh.

And now, I find myself once more in here, this time forced to assume the role of a guide. It baffles me how the former slaves accepted my words, swindled by the effect of my Leadership skill. Under no normal circumstances a group of grown adults would listen to the words of someone like me, with the appearance of a teenager. And yet, they accepted me, my words, the promise I gave them of us standing together against the upcoming menace, and of us overcoming it.

For now, those words moved their hearts, igniting in them the will to fight. During the speech I raised to them, I appealed to their sense of freedom, to the underlying terror they have, seeing themselves once again under Aldora’s chains.

Now, I need to think how to deliver my promises.

<<This is truly a pain in the ass>>

I mutter to myself, strolling away from the spot where I stood, walking slowly towards the barracks that our group has occupied.

Tomorrow, the real preparations will start.

Morning came, and I went out with the first lights of the day. For now, I am assigning tasks to my companions, preparing our defenses before we start the actual training of the settlers.

I sent Retel and Levia back to Sendria, in order for them to gather some supplies. Food and ammunition are our primary concerns at the moment. Both of them are equipped with a new item, something I made using Shoggoth. Small, black rings, being themselves parts of Shoggoth, and capable of its own abilities, even in a limited way. In short, they act as an inferior version of Shoggoth’s Absorb and Gather abilities, with a minor version of Inventory added to the effect. They should be enough to gather the necessary materials and ammunition, arrows and bolts, to add to those I already possess. Using Transfer Orbs, my companions will be able to come back in no time after all.

Dahl and Marica will be the ones helping me today. Under our supervision, we will have the villagers taste their first battle against monsters.

Meviel will also have its first battle, as I intend to level it up as much as I can during these two weeks.

To check on the Hero and his pet army, I used some offshoots from Shoggoth, just to maintain visual contact and basic recognition.

The mana flow from these offshoots is minimal, coded in pulses to make it less detectable. The information I gather from them is not constant, having an interval of ten minutes between each transmission, but it is enough to give me a general grasp of the situation.

Meanwhile, I set Shoggoth free around the area. I restrained it, imparting two simple orders. Capture every monster it encounters, without devouring it, and collect each single alchemical ingredient it finds.

With this, I will be able to obtain the necessary creatures to train the villagers, and at the same time produce a stock of materials for Heod to craft and brew his potions and remedies.

After distributing some of the equipment from my Inventory to the villagers, it is time for the training to start. At the moment, the collective level of the villagers is low, below level eight. I need to balance their training well enough, raising their level enough to have a steady increase in their proficiency, but without having them incur into Level Up sickness.

Simply raising their level forcibly will not be enough, as they need to have a taste for battle, something they lacked.

As Shoggoth comes back, the first test starts.

I let it release the first batch of monsters, ten Marsh Worms. Their level is low, the highest being a level four worm.

Seeing their form brings me back to the time where I fought them, still inexperienced, basically a baby stumbling in this dangerous world.

The first batch of villagers comes forth to challenge the monsters. They move with confusion, some of them rushing ahead while others cower, their steps unsteady, their grip weak and trembling on their weapons.

Shouts resonate in the air, as the monsters claim the first blood. Perhaps, the villagers where expecting some kind of protection from me, from us. But, it will not come. I will not let them die, for sure, and I will take care of their wounds.

But, the first thing they need to learn right now, is pain.

The feeling of it, the sensation of dread in front of a superior opponent. In this life, it is rare to experience such a thing and survive it. By realizing how much the enemy in front of them is dangerous, they will know the extent of their own fear.

Those that show a cocky attitude, will have the reality of their own weakness exposed in front of them.

Those that are too scared to even make a move, will have their cowardice be their undoing.

As the first test is concluded, I imprison the monsters into Inventory, before they can deliver any lethal blow to the villagers.

Using recovery magic we deal with the wounded, imparting them a cruel lesson. Using cruel words to make them come to terms with their own weakness, I go so far as to use illusions to show them what will happen if the Hero wins this battle.

The look of terror on their faces is something that touches my soul, and I almost feel like I am overstepping a bit.

Still, these people right now have been ensnared in this nonsensical conflict between the two Gods, the one revered in Aldora and the one pulling my strings. I chuckle at myself, as the thought I had about being a puppet for some playful and mad puppeteer seems the more apt definition for my current condition.

Using Leadership, I let my words sink in, motivating the villagers to stand up once again.

Their wounds healed, their stamina regenerated, they are now ready to show their worth. Before I release the monsters once more, me and my companions give our final piece of advice.

This time, the villagers will follow our directives during battle.

The first test was something that I left to their judgment, letting the people chose their role in battle and act as they pleased.

Now, with the help from Dahl and Marica, the previously unorganized bunch of people is being divided into small groups.

Formations are being taught to them. Those that show a melee predisposition occupy the front line, guarding the middle where ranged fighters are stationed.

These people still lack individuals with decent magical prowess, and healers. Of all the individuals that showed some magical disposition, healers were the scarcer, counting two people among the total population.

A bad situation, but it turns out, being the Lord of this village will let me tamper a bit with each individual’s growth.

In short, they can inherit some skills of my choosing, or I can decide which “direction” their growth will follow.

After this test, I will know who among the villagers has the proper disposition for each role. With the limited amount of people at my disposal, it will be imperative to have specialized individuals capable of covering determinate roles.

For now, however, the only thing I can do is sit back and wait.

The second test unfolds, this time being a more entertaining fight.

The villagers, now divided into proper formations, face the Worms with better movements and coordination among themselves.

Melee fighters shed their sweat as they guard their companions with shields, while other, more specialized in close quarter attacks, take advantage of their comrades distracting the monsters to land some slashes and blows.

Ranged fighters wait for the proper moment to release their arrows, and some, the ones with magical disposition, begin to release their spells, nothing more than mana sparks for the moment.

I smile when the first worm falls, and the premature cry of victory is choked by those of pain, as the severed parts of the worm spring into action, showing the regenerative ability of this nasty creature.

Using Leadership, I give precise orders to the people. The skill affects them in an astounding way, probably due to the major gap between our levels.

Still, their panic is gone, and they abide to my orders.

Melee fighters close their ranks, relying on blunt and piercing attacks rather than slashes to weaken the monsters, as the ranged fighters deal the decisive blows by piercing the worms with their arrows.

Following Marica’s directions, the few magicians stopped using direct attacks, using their mana instead to empower the archers, making their arrows crackle as the arrowheads are charged with temperature. A single one is not enough to set the monsters on fire, but the continued assault gives its fruit, as the first worm falls, its body twisting as flames lick its body, charring it black until it stops wriggling and thrashing, lying dead on the ground.

This time, the cry of victory resounding is true. I reclaim their attention, commanding them to focus on the remaining monsters.

Their struggle continues, until the last worm lies on the ground.


Author’s Note: Hi all, chapter 30 is finally out! Took a long time to write, edit and post, mostly because of IRL stuff. Still, it’s here, finally 😉

As usual, I will ask you for feedback on Re:Interference. What are your opinion on the story so far? What did you like about it, and what did you dislike? What could be improved, and which parts you think that were poorly written? Personally, I find several flaws in this first web novel of mine, and I need other people’s honest opinion to have a different perspective on my work.

Next chapter will release…well, I don’t know when. In the meantime, if you want, hop on and give a look to my other novels here:

A Strange Sky- Prologue

Glimmer of a Fallen Star-Prologue

Thank you for your time!

Re: Interference Chapter 29- Horde


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.

<<After you>>

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.

<<What?>>

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.

<<It is>>

<<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.

<<What happened?>>

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.

<<What now?>>

<<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.

<<Fuck it>>

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.

<<Ready?>>

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.

<<Fifty>>

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.

<<Just…stand back>>

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.

Smart thinking.

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]

A Strange Sky: Chapter 3- First Steps


Author’s Note: Hey readers, thanks for stopping by again and taking your time to read my work. This little corner here is just to update you on some things. First, I am still actively writing, even with a slower pace. The real problem is not writing per se, but editing and fixing mistakes. And that brings me to the “most important” new to you readers. The new chapter of Re:Interference is in the editing phase. That means, if things go well, I will be able to put it out in two days (although, I promise nothing here).

So, beside the almost one week long silence, the blog is still alive, Re: Interference will come out with a new chapter, and A Strange Sky will also continue to update.

Glimmer of a Fallen star…well, that I’m taking my sweet time to write, since I want it to be a proper fantasy, and I hope to eventually publish it “seriously” once it is completed, and if I find it good enough.

Well, enough with my ramblings. Here is the chapter, so, enjoy. And, as usual, thank you for taking a bit of your time for my stories.

Author out!


Conrad woke up, rubbing his eyes and letting out a loud yawn. He had trouble sleeping during the night, often woken up by some sudden noise coming from the forest. Or he would roll in his sleep over the pile of leaves that was his bed, forcing an uneven piece of the rocks below to lodge itself in his back.

He had no injuries, and he was thankful for that, but his back hurt like it never had before.

Once he got up from his improvised bed, he looked at it with disdain, and muttered.

<<I need a better bed>>

Sighing, he consumed a quick breakfast, some of the fruits he picked up the day before along with leftovers from his dinner.

The fire had waned during the night, becoming nothing more than embers hidden under a gray layer of ashes.

That reminded Conrad, that if he had ashes, he could even make himself some soap. He knew the procedure, after all, since it was one of the things his father taught him.

He recalled the man, and the plethora of hobbies he had, all related to self-crafting and item productions with “natural resources and good’ol effort”,like Conrad remembered his father always saying.

He had taught him to hunt, to skin an animal, to make simple fibers into a rope and other curious things for a man like Conrad to know.

Still, even if different from the father-son time his companions often described, Conrad always cherished those lessons, more for the time spent with his ever-busy father, rather than the things he was taught.

But now, he had the occasion, if not the dire need, to put some of them into practice.

Conrad moved towards the entrance of his cave, looking up the sky as it dawned.

Curiously, only one Sun rose at dawn.

The others would probably follow at a later hour, thought Conrad while basking in the view, taking a deep breath of the crisp morning air.

He took a glance at his watch, seeing how the alarm on it did not go off at the supposed time.

<<Useless until the end, huh?>>

He decided to leave the watch into the cave. No sense in taking it with him, since the compass in it was unusable, the time it displayed was so wrong to result even comical, given how the days and nights in this world were far longer than those of the old world.

As he went once again toward the entrance, Conrad started to think about what he would do next.

He first decided to walk alongside the river, following the slim chance of encountering some sort of civilization if he followed the water downstream.

But, he was beginning to consider that there could not be a civilization to find, or it could be too distant to reach, requiring days, weeks even, just for him to get out of the forest.

He thought about giving up on that idea, and staying in his little cave. After all, he considered, in there he had water to last forever, given that the river basically flowed under his “home”.

Food was also abundant, with fruit, mushrooms and fish, and, perhaps, even animals for him to hunt.

He spotted some clay when he walked along the riverbank, and he could use it to improve his situation, craft some pottery perhaps.

Conrad began to consider his options. By staying in the cave, he would be safe and have access to food, shelter and water.

But, he knew that meant basically giving up on the opportunity of finding other people.

Then, he considered what it would happen if he left.

The forest was not safe, he knew that.

Shuddering, he remembered what he had seen during the night, when, feeling the need to relieve himself, he strolled, still half asleep, to the entrance of the cave, his back to the dancing lights of the fireplace, as he pissed to the wind while shivering for the cold of the night.

A quick, large shadow, swooped under the trees, on the other side of the river.

He knew it was not near his little sanctuary, but it was too close to Conrad’s taste.

And, surely, there would be more things lurking in the forest. He knew that ,and the possibility scared him.

If he left, he would be forced to camp in the open, if he did not manage to build or find himself some shelter.

And he could not be so lucky like the first time, when he basically stumbled on a cozy cave, situated on high ground and near a good amount of resources.

He gave some thought to the matter, and finally, Conrad reached a compromise with himself.

From the earlier experience, he knew that leveling his skills enough would yield him additional Stat points.

And that would mean, becoming effectively stronger without the need to level up.

There were too many similarities between this strange reality and those role playing games of the old world, and Conrad knew that, if the rules here were roughly the same as those games, in order to level up he would need to fight and kill something.

And he wanted to avoid the scenario of getting mauled to death by a wild animal.

Most likely, he surmised, the beasts around the area he was in were higher level than him.

Maybe even several levels over his own, and that, he concluded, would spell certain death.

But, if he managed to increase his stat points before venturing out…

Even an increase in Health Points would allow him to survive better, not considering the other parameters.

And, he noticed, he was too under-equipped to undertake a journey of any kind.

He lacked the means to transport some water with him, water-skins or even a portable canteen.

He lacked clothing, bare-chested as he was and donning ripped jeans.

And most of all, he lacked a proper weapon.

His knife, although sharp and made of metal, would be useless against a large animal, and he knew that.

His spear was nothing more than a pointed stick, good for skewering a fish and maybe chasing out small predators, but if something big, or a large group of animals attacked him, Conrad knew that neither the knife nor the spear would do much to save his life.

And so, he decided on the course to take.

He would dedicate himself to training his skills with discipline, preparing as best as he could, and then, and only then, he would attempt to leave his cave and search the forest.

Conrad knew he would still be forced to do quick trips to the forest in order to gather resources and food, but a four or five hours trek to a nearby place was definitely safer than leaving his cave and following the river downstream.

He took a good look at what he had, and thought about what he lacked.

In his list, the top priorities where things he knew he could craft himself with limited resources. First, he needed the means to transport larger quantities of materials, without having his hands busy with carrying them.

He was still using scraps of his clothes as some sort of satchels, but that was not nearly enough, he needed some sturdier and larger things in order to carry firewood, or stones.

And he needed something to store water. He had seen some clay on the riverbank, but, in order to prepare it, he knew he would need to build an oven capable of reaching enough heat to turn clay into ceramic.

He sighed, realizing that he would also need a lot more things.

Clothing, and he was sure that even a simple shirt, or a piece of crude cloth to cover himself with was outside of his capabilities.

He could try with some animal pelts, but that would require catching the animal first, killing it without ruining too much the skin, skinning it and treating the pelt until it became usable.

Too much work, he concluded, given his current circumstances.

Perhaps, he thought, he could rely on animal pelts at a later time, but for now, it was something out of his possibilities.

Especially, he was a bit concerned about his capabilities of catching a wild animal here.

Killing it and skinning the corpse would leave trail of blood to his cave, and the scent would attract insect, scavengers or worse, some larger predators.

He chose to not hunt, yet, even because he still lacked proper, effective weapons.

All he had was some pointed sticks, and a pocket knife.

But, thought Conrad, that was something he could improve.

Not much, but improving his spears with a stone spearhead would mean having something useful to defend himself, and, using the same procedure, he could craft an axe to cut wood, some knives and other tools.

He already knew where to find some hard stones to use as hammers, and some stones similar to flint, that would break into sharp splinters if struck with the right amount of force.

He knew the process would be long, and most likely he would not be able to produce something useful even after a whole day of trying.

Next, he would need something to bind objects. Strings for smaller things, rope for larger objects and in order to secure himself a quicker way in his cave.

He surmised, he had a lot of things to do.

Going back inside the cave, he decided to rework a bit on his spears. As they were now, they were only pointed sticks, but he knew that he could harden the wood using fire, and shape the spear-tip better, forming a proper spearhead out of it.

He decided that he would use those as fishing tools, and so, he needed to make some sort of prongs on the wooden spearhead. And so, he worked, starting the fire and then setting the spearheads on it, until they became slightly blackened.

Then, he would take them off, and start polishing the tip with a porous stone, one that he collected earlier near the riverbed. Unusual as it was, it caught Conrad’s attention given the peculiar material, of clear volcanic origin.

That, had made him think about other stones of that type he could find, perhaps somewhere inside the forest.

If there were some volcanic rock formations, there was the chance he could find a useful stone of that kind. Obsidian, or this world’s equivalent of it.

He knew that flint would made good enough knives or even a spearhead, but obsidian had higher cutting power, although it was more difficult to work.

Still, he needed to find it before crafting something with it, and in order to do that, he would need to explore the forest.

He parted himself from those thoughts, looking at the improved spear-points. He did rework the shaft too, cutting those rough bumps in the wood and smoothing it as best as he could.

Setting the first, finished spear to the side, he focused on the blue notifications.

Successfully Crafted- Wooden Spear (standard quality) + 2 attack

Conrad grinned, dancing lights from the fire made his smile even creepier in the shadows of his cave.

He took the next spear, and started working on it with renewed vigor, waiting to see if the process would increase his crafting skill.

Successfully Crafted- Wooden Spear (standard quality) + 2 attack

Skill Level Up! Crafting +1 (2/10)

Not by much, he observed, but the skill still rose by one level. He knew that, if this strange “Mosaic system” worked like a game, there would be diminishing returns with his skills.

That meant, he would need to craft more objects in order to increase the skill’s level, or craft some more complicated ones.

After finishing his “fishing” spears, he decided to hop down to the river, and start gathering the materials he would need.

During the rest of the day, he went back and forth from the cave to the forest, focusing on his work and ignoring the notifications, deciding that he would look at them once his work ended.

When Conrad was satisfied enough by the quantity of materials gathered, he stopped, piles of leaves, wood and stones amassed near the rock cliff that hosted his cave.

The place was relatively open, he was well aware of that, but near the cave there was only one direction from where danger could come.

The forest.

If something approached, he would be able to see it and run into the cave.

At least, he hoped.

The other choice for him would be to haul all the materials up in his cave, something that would force him to spend too much energy.

By working on ground level, he had quick access to water, and a larger, open space to work.

The first thing he did, was digging a fire pit and starting a large fire in it.

It would keep predators, away, and Conrad learned that burning some of that bug-repelling sap in the fire would spread the substance in the air, thus making it more appealing than smearing himself with the sap.

When the fire pit was completed, he stuck some wooden branches around it, making some supports that he would later need.

Then, Conrad started the fire, working as he did the night before by using nothing more than wood, fiber and patience.

Soon, a thick white smoke rose from the pile of wood, as flames licked their way up, flickering orange and red before crackling out loud when they enveloped the wood.

Satisfied by the loud crackling of the fire, Conrad took the time to sort his notifications a bit.

Skill Level UP! Gathering +2 (5/10)

Skill Level UP! Identify +2 (3/10)

Skill Level UP! Dismantle +1 (2/10)

Skill Level UP! Physical Fitness +2 (4/10)

New Skill Unlocked! Running (1/10)- Type: General (Soma)

New Skill Unlocked! Sprint (1/10)- Type: Active- 1SP- (Soma)

New Skill Unlocked! Athletics (1/10)- Type: passive (Soma)

Skill Level UP!Running +1 (2/10)

Skill Level UP! Sprint +1 (2/10)

Skill Level UP! Athletics +1 (2/10)

He had gained a bunch of new skills from the earlier activity, and some more skill levels too.

Still, he felt like all of his skills, beside the active ones, gave little to none benefit over his normal activity.

He surmised he would be able to feel the improvement when the skill level would reach ten, at least, and he had still a long way to go before that.

Now freed of the blinking blue notifications, he dedicated himself to sorting the types of leaves he gathered.

Some were long and thin leaves, much similar to palm leaves but more tender and with smooth edges.

He sorted those in a separate heap, then focused on the rest. Two types of large, deep green leaves whose upper surface was hydro repellent.

Some more, smaller, softer and delicate, along with the thin stalks that held them.

Conrad took the time to sort them all, sending glances towards the forest’s edge from time to time.

Daylight was still strong, as this world’s days lasted far longer than those of the old one.

After sorting out the leaves, it was the turn for bark scraps, pieces of wood and some plant stalks that Conrad found and collected when, after cutting them with his knife, he found out they were basically made with a lot of fiber.

Once he was done, he focused his attention on the stalks.

He stripped them of their thin bark, using his knife on the fibers below, with the utmost care, in order to strip the fiber from the stalk.

Long, thin filaments of it, that Conrad hoped to later work into some kind of string. He would need to dry them first, then patiently twist them one with another in order to form some semblance of string.

The whole process of extracting the fibers netted him two more levels in Dismantle, bringing the skill to level four out of ten.

Each strip of fiber he put on the wooden supports he earlier made around the fire, distant enough to it to still receive the heat without risking them to burn.

Then, Conrad looked up to the sky, calculating how much daylight he still had to work. He decided to stop, and start trying to catch a fish for dinner. He already had gathered some mushrooms and fruits, but he lacked a “main dish”.

Unlike his first catch, he managed to only spear out two small fishes, the others altogether avoiding his form in the water, or too quick for him to spear.

One large fish that he managed to stab, thrashed around so hard that it snapped the spear, leaving Conrad with a broken stick and disappointment.

Shaking his head, he gave up, since he already had enough food for dinner and breakfast.

He took the time to clean the fishes, finding it difficult since the small size of them. Too small, he observed, to be cooked like he did with the other fish.

But, he could cook them by wrapping them into leaves, using them like tinfoil. He remembered doing something similar whenever he went fishing with his friend, and they would take some day off camping on the lake.

He then pondered for a while if he would climb up to the cave once again, or risk sleeping on ground level.

He had fire near him, and sleeping on soft soil was more appealing to him than his bed of leaves on a hard rock floor.

Still, he took the more prudent option, deciding to go back to the cave. Perhaps, he thought, he would be able to build a fence around the cave’s entrance sooner or later, and have a more secure place if he wanted to sleep outside.

For now, he considered safety a priority over good sleep, resolving himself to do something about that in the near future.

Taking the essentials with him, food and some firewood, he climbed up once again. Then, he returned on ground level, to take some of the palm-like leaves.

He did gather them from a small palm tree that grew among the forest’s undergrowth. His Identify skill named those trees Malu, and Conrad found the name fitting given the exotic, out of place appearance of those trees among the others of that forest.

He did this for almost half an hour, until the stash of Malu leaves he gathered was completely stashed into his cave.

Then, he climbed up once more, for the final time that day.

He dismissed the notification about his Climbing skill rising one level, and dedicated himself to start a small fire inside the cave.

The slight wind coming from the opening blew the smoke further inside the cave, spreading the acre, gray smoke where Conrad would sleep.

It did not bother him too much, and he decided to take some rest and add some smoke of his own.

He rolled himself a cigarette, using the tobacco he had been rationing, hoping it would last him enough but knowing that it wouldn’t.

Conrad burst into laughter, that quickly became a coughing fit, after seeing the content of the new system window that popped up.

New Skill Unlocked! Poison Resistance (1/0)- Type: Passive (Soma)

He thought about how his mother would agree to that statement. “Stop smoking that! It’s poisoning you!” she would often yell, whenever Conrad stepped out of the house to light a cigarette.

His mother’s face remained there, for an instant, impressed into his memory, gray hair and that ever concerned expression.

But her eyes, he remembered, feeling his chest tighten, her eyes were both sad and kind, a combination that appeared after Conrad’s father became paralyzed.

He shook his head, feeling his eyes slightly burn as he repressed those tears.

A bad habit he had, thought Conrad, to not let himself go, to suppress those emotions instead of letting them out.

And here, alone, he could do it, he thought, no one was there to watch, or judge.

And yet, he did the same as he did back in the city, the same he did near his father’s bed and later, near the brown, lucid wood of his coffin surrounded by flowers.

In order to shake off those thoughts from his mind, he sat down and took the Malu leaves, beginning to cut them from the branch and dividing them into two halves, cutting with his knife along the stem of the leaf.

Then, he started to weave them together.

After working on it for some hours, he finally got the hang of it and managed to craft himself a small satchel. It was flexible enough, given how the leaves were still fresh, and they were sturdy enough to not break, even when Conrad pulled the final product with some strength, making a satisfied expression as it did not break.

He then started to make some more, going on until he felt too sleepy to continue.

Before laying on his crude bed of leaves, he added some firewood to his fire and sat down in front of it, warming himself up a bit.

Then, he went to his bed and tried to find the best position that he could.

Tired as he was, he slept all night, waking up with the first light of morning and starting his routine once again after breakfast.

He would dedicate the first hours of the morning to gathering new resources, mainly leaves and some more of those fiber rich stalks.

Then, he would start dismantling the items he gathered, putting the fibers to dry near the fire and starting to work on those that were dried enough.

He first took the fiber between his fingers, and twisted it on itself.

Then, he would take another, doing the same, adding it to the first one and twisting in the same direction.

It took some time, both for him to learn how to do it the proper way to weave and craft those thin vegetable strings.

The most difficult part to him was learning how to insert new fibers into the string, thus increasing the string’s length and thickness. But, with time and patience, he learned how to do it.

The amount of string he crafted was still too low for him to do anything with it, but it was a starting point, and the whole process netted him another level in his crafting skill.

After dismissing the notification, he took the time for a quick lunch, before setting out to gather again, this time bringing his satchels made of woven leaves with him.

Looking at the line of trees with suspicion, he decided to not go in the forest yet. Instead, he climbed up on the rock that hosted his small cave, to have a better look at his immediate surroundings.

He took with him his spear, just to feel a bit safer, and some pieces of black coal along with a straight piece of clear bark.

Climbing up, he reached up to the top, four meters above the riverbank.

The rock formation continued inward, into the forest. It was not a continuous ridge, rather, it had some interruptions that forced Conrad to climb down and walk on ground level, sometimes for tens of meter, other for hundreds.

In the distance, he could see the place where the rocks stood even taller than the trees, providing a good point of observation to study the surroundings.

The climb up was surely more difficult than he did in order to reach his position, but Conrad considered it worth the fatigue and risk.

He took a deep breath, and started walking towards the higher rocks.

Conrad measured each step, trying to find safe footing before putting his weight on the spot.

Some times, his prodding of the stone with the butt of his spear made the stone crumble, pebbles tumbling down in the forest, forcing him to reconsider his path on the stone surface.

Luckily, he considered, he had some experience with free climbing, and he could manage even without proper security equipment.

Slowly, preferring safety to speed, he reached the point where he would need to stop walking, and start climbing up.

The vertical rock wall was not a difficult climb, its color and hardness suggesting the stone to be another type from the frail rock that he crossed earlier.

It was not even that high, sixty meters of vertical climb, with lots of good handholds to use.

After he managed to reach the top, panting and covered in sweat and dirt, Conrad rolled on his back, his eyes staring at the blue notification that floated in front of him.

Skill Level UP! Climbing + 2 (5/10)

Skill Level UP! Physical Fitness +2 (6/10)

He took some more time to let his breathing settle, his hearth thumping in his chest.

Then, he finally stood up, and let his gaze wander at the sea of green.

<<Shit>>

He cursed out loud, surprised by the long necks emerging from that green sea.

Like seeing a squid-faced giraffe, slowly and lazily munching on treetops.

The sight of those strange creatures made Conrad recoil in fear, and he darted behind a large rock, flattening himself to its surface in order to hide.

He took another, prudent glance to those weird animals. Long necks that towered over treetops, making the beasts taller than sixty meters overall.

Their skin had a primary shade of deep green, with darker brown spots that resembled a giraffe’s mane. Their bulbous heads lacked eyes, having a row of long, luminescent stripes that pulsed dimly.

Tentacles expanded from those heads, lightly brushing the foliage before grasping the branches and pulling them to the animal’s mouth.

Conrad counted six of them, and he was surprised not only by those thing’s weird appearance, but also by the simple notion that they did make almost no noise.

Certainly, he thought, animals of that size should be heard from miles away, and yet, those things walked gently among the trees, slowly bobbing their long necks as they droned from one tree to the other. He became captivated by that view, forgetting the fear that took hold of him before.

The sight of them truly made his mind wander to those sci-fi stories he loved when he was young, and sometimes, even now.

<<Well, one thing is reading them, living them thou…>>

He left his words hanging, turning his attention from the towering creatures to his surroundings. Conrad realized that those beasts, although queer in their appearance and proportions, did not pose any threat to him.

He looked at them some more, then he focused on the original task that compelled him to climb the rocks.

To look for useful landmarks.

In order to have some sense of direction, he considered north the direction he was facing.

In front of him, the rock formation went down progressively, until it became invisible, covered by the foliage like it was swallowed by green waters.

Further away, in the distance, the mountain range he saw on his first day was there, its peaks covered by black, dense clouds that made Conrad slightly worry.

A storm would definitely be bad for him.

Still, he judged it far, and the wind was blowing in the opposite direction, away from the forest and towards the mountains.

To his back, south, there was his cave, further down on the same rock formation he was now.

The river flowed south east of his position.

To his left, west, more trees.

Taller ones could be seen emerging from the more uniform treetops, but no other things that claimed Conrad’s attention, beside a curious flying thing that perched for a few seconds near him.

It looked like a bird, in its general structure.

But, featherless, with scaly blue skin and its wings more similar to fins than proper bird wings. Tentacles wiggled where its beak should have been.

Conrad could only take a small glance at the thing, before it darted away in the sky.

The man shrugged his shoulder, as he sat dawn and began to draw on the piece of bark, using coal to trace a rough map of his surroundings.

He had no clear sense of distance, only a rough approximation, but having a map to follow would be inestimable, and a starting point for the time when he would decide to leave the cave and thread further into the forest.

As Conrad drew the approximated lines of his map, he felt a slight sensation in his head, followed by the usual ringing noise that preceded the blue screen’s appearance.

New Skill Unlocked! Map (1/10)- Type: General (Pneuma) Visualize a mental representation of the places you’ve explored. Landmark and points of interest are displayed and marked as you explore further

Congratulations! You’ve unlocked two skills of each Type (current: 2 Tekna, 2 Pneuma, 8 Soma)

Unlocked new Pattern: “First Step” (0/10) Tiles required for each level-1

Acquired: 1 Tile

Bonus Stat Points Gained!

+1 Str

+1 Int

+1 Per

The sudden rush of energy Conrad felt left him shuddering, as the increase in his statistics began to change his body.

This time, sensations assaulted all his being, mind and body, he felt them overflowing with energy, first painful, then waning into warm pleasure before vanishing.

The world around him looked more vivid, as he discovered that now, with his increased Perception, he could see more detail in the world around him.

He could even see the single leaves on distant trees, that moments before were nothing but green massess.

The world filled with so many new details was overwhelming for him, and Conrad closed his eyes for a moment, his improved vision causing him a headache.

Not only that, he noticed also he could now hear better, the rustling leaves around him, the creaking sound of branches swaying in the light breeze.

And his own heartbeat, now pounding louder in his ears.

It took him some minutes before adjusting to the new conditions.

As he tried to get up, he realized those were not the only changes.

He felt stronger, reinvigorated. To test things, he took a small stone and threw it away.

It flew well past the distance that Conrad knew he could throw.

Grinning, he tried to use the new skill he gained.

When he did, a blue window floated in his view.

On it, instead of the usual messages written in white, flickering letters, there was a bi-dimensional map, surrounded by black space.

The map represented the portion of the forest and riverbank that Conrad had ventured into.

He recognized the landmarks represented in there, his cave, the hill he climbed to on his first day, even the rock he was standing at that moment.

He tried to fidget a bit with the new skill, realizing he could scroll the map as he wanted, using nothing more than a thought.

Zooming in and out of it, and even reducing the window’s size. The skill itself did not consume his energies, and he could keep the window up without it impeding his field of view.

<<Well, this will be useful>>

He muttered with satisfaction, deciding to head back to his cave.

On the way back, he marveled about how the climb down was easier than he imagined, thinking it the work of the improved statistics he gained.

As he was about to climb down the final portion of the rock, he stopped, his eyes gaping in surprise and panic.

Below him, no more than three meters, a large animal stalked the forest. It had a long, sleek body with gleaming black skin. The beast moved among the low bushes, its steps having a feline grace to them.

Conrad knew, by instinct, that the animal was dangerous. He could not see it completely, parts of its frame hidden by the vegetation. But, as he observed it, holding his breath, he concluded that the beast was hunting.

A rustle in the bushes made him draw a sigh of relief, as the black monster sprung out to leap on another animal.

Thankfully, thought Conrad, the thing was not hunting him.

He remained there, his breath as silent as he could, as the black creature tore the animal apart, gulping down its flesh. The snout of the beast was similar to that of a tiger, yet so different.

The mouth looked more like an insect’s jaw surrounded by thick, short tentacles, that wiggled around when the creature joutted its head back and gulped large chunks of meat, like a bird would do.

Unable to resist the curiosity, Conrad used his Identify on the black predator.

Identified- Lyander (lvl 35)- Caution/ Retreat Suggested

Skill Level UP! Identify +2 (5/10)

Level 35. Those words made Conrad panic, as he resisted the need to leave his spot and run the hell back to his cave.

He forced himself to think, rather than act.

The monster did not spot him, focused as it was on its prey.

Conrad surmised that, if he dropped down and ran, the Lyander would chase him and, most likely, kill him.

Strange as it sounded, he considered that he was safe while still perched on those rocks.

But he needed to move from his position.

The rock formation that he was on was not continuous, and had numerous interructions that forced him to climb down and walk on the ground for a bit.

This was one such points, no more than one hundred meters or so separing his position from the next, high rock. If he managed to reach it, he would be safe on top of it, having some kind of height advantage.

If the beast decided to follow, he could spear it from up top, or chase it off launching stones.

But that was a matter for later, if he managed to sneak past the monster.

He pondered his options. First, he needed to get on ground level if he wanted to go back home.

He could wait for the Lyander to leave, or he could try and sneak his way out of sight.

He tried the first option, waiting for the black monster to finish its meal.

But, much to Conrad’s regret, the monster chose to crouch near its prey, apparently falling asleep.

Conrad began to feel his muscles tense too much, still hanging from the rock as he was.

He could not wait much longer in that position, and so, he decided to take the risk, and sneak away from the creature.

As slowly as he could, he moved sideways on the rock wall, cursing under his lips every time a small pebble fell from the rock.

His eyes darted from the rock to the terrain below, where the beast slept.

Conrad climbed down, and, once he reached the soft soil, he began to step lightly on it, putting some distance between himself and the sleeping predator.

In doing so, he kept visual contact with the monster.

For only a moment he glanced away, checking his surroundings.

A moment, but it had been enough for the beast to disappear.

He began sweating, his eyes frantically searching for the black shape of the beast.

Conrad crouched, trying to hide among the bushes, almost crawling when he tried to move from one to the other, careful to not let his steps make any noise.

He managed to step away from the rock, putting roughly thirty meters between him and the spot where the Lyander was resting.

For a moment, Conrad really thought he slipped by the beast.

A black paw touched the ground, half a meter away from the bush where Conrad was hidden.

From whithin the thick foliage, he could see the form of the Lyander, lifting its snout and wiggling those strange tentacles he had, almost, thought Conrad, as if it was smelling something.

Smelling him.

The beast had no eyes, he noted when he had a clear glance to its head. On its sides, where eyes should have been, the same kind of long, bioluminescent strips that those giraffe-squids had pulsed with purple light, rhithmycally, almost hypnotic.

Perhaps, thought Conrad, it had some other means of vision, but it did not see like an animal of his old world did.

Otherwise, Conrad would be already dead.

Instead, it looked to him like the Lyander relied more on smell, or some other weird sense to hunt its prey.

And that was what the beast did, its tentacles wriggling, extended towards the bush where Conrad was.

Perhaps, he thought, the monster relied mostly on smell to hunt.

But a sudden noise interrupted his considerations.

Something fell from a tree, perhaps a ripe fruit, or a broken branch.

The noise it made, it was not even that loud, and yet, the monster sprung toward that direction, darting movement so quick that the image of it became only a black, blurred shape.

A moment after, the monster re-emerged from the bushes.

Conrad’s heart skipped a beat, and he gripped his wooden spear so hard that his knuckles became white.

It used smell, and sound, he concluded.

He knew that the beast would tear him apart, if it found him.

And now, the thing was searching the area, only some moments left before it would find him.

The slightest noise, would mean death for him.

Conrad weighted his options, his thoughts running as to find a solution to his predicament.

He considered running away.

Doing so, he knew, would make a lot of noise. Seeing how mindboggingly quick the creature sprung to attack, Conrad now had the certainty that he would never be able to outrun it. And even if he did, the thing could just track his smell and the sounds he made, and it would reach him in some instants.

He imagined how the beast would just leap at him, sinking its jaws into Conrad’s back.

Or, and that option was almost as risky as the other one, he could remain in hiding.

Attacking the beast head on was pure suicide, he knew that.

But, if the thing really used smell and hearing to hunt, Conrad thought, perhaps he would be able to trick it, somehow.

He steeled his nerves, controlled his breathing, trying to calm himself.

Panic, he knew, would only worsen his situation.

Beasts could smell fear, something that every good hunter would repeat to a young one wanting to learn.

And Conrad remembered his father telling him so, when they spotted a bear during a hunting trip. The danger, back then, was faraway, not like what Conrad was facing at the moment.

And he was not even sure if that saying was true, or if it was even appliable to creatures of another world.

The Lyander pointed its snout towards Conrad, slowly advancing towards him.

Contrasting thoughts burst out in Conrad’s mind, instints and reason fighting each other in a tangled mess.

Run, fight, stay, scream, cry, die, survive.

All at the same time.

But something clicked, and he found himself unusually calm, cold even.

He slowly moved to the side, each movement calculated to not let out even the slightest noise.

He ignored those blue flashes and the noise in his head, focusing, holding his breath. Even the slightest mistake would spell his death, and he had only one chance, he was sure of it.

Mind Mosaic Status:

Level: N/A

Class: N/A

EXP: -/-

Statistics

Soma: HP 10/10

Strength: 2

Nimbleness: 1

Coordination: 1

Reaction: 1

Pneuma: AP 1/1

Willpower: 1

Intelligence: 2

Tekna: Sp 1/1

Precision: 2

Perception: 3

Titles: N/A

Tiles: 1

Skills

General: Gathering (5/10); Crafting (3/10); Climbing (5/10);Running (2/10); Cooking (2/10); Map (1/10)

Active: Identify (5/10); Dismantle (2/10); Sprint (2/10)

Passive: Physical Fitness (6/10); Athletics (2/10); Poison Resistance (1/10)

Patterns: “First Step” (0/10)

Re:Interference Chapter 28- Back to town

After dealing with the Elite monsters, we head towards the towering figure of this floor’s Champion monster.

<<Ready?>>

I check with the others, waiting for the mana potion I just gulped down to start its effects.

All in their respective positions, still shrouded by the concealing spell, the others signal their readiness.

Once again, I coordinate with Marica to start a fire-based magic. This time, the target is a single one, albeit powerful.

And so, we do not need a large area of effect, just a concentrated, high damaging burst of energy.

The structure is made, and the power charged into the spell. It ignites, propelling forward a blazing red spear of super-heated energy.

The spell pierces the Champion, that sends a bellowing cry.

How a plant-based monster like that can even cry leaves me a bit confused, but still, it is not even the weirdest thing I’ve seen so far.

Shaking, shambling the monster uproots itself.

It is a gigantic version of those cactus-like creatures, that immediately lashes its spike-ridden arms to crush the area around it.

That magical attack damaged it, leaving a flaming, gaping hole in the green mass of the monster’s body.

Still, the Champion will not be taken down by just a single hit.

The others start unleashing their respective techniques, and the proper battle starts.

It takes us one hour to finally bring the monster down. A relatively easy fight, given the monster’s weakness to fire.

As usual, it changed its form during the fight, the cactus rooting itself once again in the sandy terrain and blooming, rapidly drying its body as it focused its energy to change its form.

It became a humanoid, tall as a child and with winds made of leaves, switching its attack to magic based on sand and roots.

The really difficult thing about it was hitting it, given the small frame of the Champion’s second phase.

But, I only needed to use Shoggoth to restrain it, while the others did the rest.

The experience we got from it, combined with all that we gained in this level, made us rise to level forty-five.

As the monster lied down lifeless, we start the usual routine, clearing up the scene and taking some much needed rest.

Then, it is time to move forward, heading down into the next floor.

Halfway through the spiral staircase, we meet another group of adventurers, making their way back from the thirty-sixth floor. Apparently, they had explored up until that point, killing the Champions from levels thirty-three to thirty-five before retreating. The Champion residing in the thirty-sixth floor was too hard for them to deal with, and they decided to turn back to the safe zone.

Their group went in earlier than us, and for that reason we’ve been able to find each floor’s Champion, since they re-spawned after forty-eight hours had passed since their defeat.

But, it will not be the case for the upcoming two floors, since they defeated those monsters yesterday.

In short, the experience from those two Champions will not be available for us. I consult with the others, to see what they would want to do. We have two options, wait here for the monsters to re-spawn, or dive deeper.

Agreeing with me, the others choose the latter.

Without the Champion, and with most monsters cleared out of the way, traversing the two floors is definitely easier. The experience gained from slaying normal monsters is not even enough to yield us one level, given as we are several levels above the average of the monsters we find.

Diving deeper, the thirty-sixth floor is the first one to show a change in scenario. From a desert landscape, this one has an Aztec ruin environment.

A lush jungle, that seems to have grown over a large stone city, enveloping houses and stone temples in tangled roots and tall trees.

The monsters we find are treacherous, resorting to ambush rather than direct confrontation.

Several larger creatures roam the place, and, much to our surprise, it seems that the Silverback we fought back then, here it is just an Elite monster.

Several of those take residence among the trees, ruling their pack of smaller monkey creatures.

It’s surprising to see how we can deal easily with such monster now, when it gave us a lot of trouble the first time we fought it.

Surely, our levels and abilities have grown a lot since then.

The jungle is full of rare ingredients, especially a strange black wood, sturdier and harder than even metal.

Some of the Silverbacks use uprooted trees of that kind as weapons, that makes them a higher threat.

Still, they’re vulnerable to poison, especially the confusing poison I can use, and it is easy to make the monster slaughter themselves by poisoning them, and swooping in for the final blow on the survivors.

The levels here are still low, being thirty-six in average, although we’ve seen some rare, lone monsters whose levels rose up to forty.

Jaguar like creatures, with nimble bodies and the ability to blend into the forest. Their attacks are quick, and relentless.

But, it is easy to avoid an ambush, if you spot the enemy’s position way earlier than it sees you.

Each time, the monsters fall prey to Levia’s new skill. It’s a powerful, single target attack called “Snipe”. With it, she can focus all her mana into a single arrow, and deal massive damage to distant, unaware targets.

<<The downside is that it is useless when enemies become aware of you, or they are too close>>

She shrugs her shoulders while explaining the new power she recently gained.

We thread further on, entering the ruined city after trekking for a while inside the forest.

In there, humanoid creatures live among the stone houses.

Beast headed, with human bodies, those monsters are organized, and seem to communicate between themselves with a proper language, albeit one incomprehensible to us.

The largest building in this ruined city is where the Champion resides, since a strong, large signal seems to come from that direction.

Of course, it is a temple, tall and made of reddish stone. The steps that lead to the highest chamber are entangled in large roots that emerge from the stone itself.

Fighting inside the city will be difficult, with both Elite monsters and the strange humanoid creatures running rampant.

<<So, here’s the plan>>

As I illustrate what I intend to do, the others make strange faces, unhappy with the prospects of this plan. Still, it is the safest bet, and they abide by it.

A bit reluctant, each of my companion heads into the Inventory space, with me being the last to leave the “normal” space.

Before I do it, I summon Shoggoth, focusing my power to unleash one of its attacks.

<<Beelzebub>>

Shoggoth’s form busts into a cloud of buzzing, darting shapes, that disperse themselves into the air at my command.

Instead of fighting head on, I will use the monsters against each other, quelling their numbers as much as I can before engaging them.

To wait things out in a safe space, I will use Inventory, providing some windows to assess the situation.

I step inside, the strange, momentary disorientation taking hold of me for a second as I cross the boundary between reality and that strange dimension.

The others are there, frozen in time.

I close the “gate” behind me, and start observing how things play out using Navi.

Each of the thousands of flies that compose the “Beelzebub” attack is infused with an improved version of the confusing poison, and I have added a spell effect to the skill, allowing me some degree of control over the increased aggressiveness of the monsters. In short, I can direct their rage towards specific targets if I want so.

It only works with creatures below my level, and some show a degree of resistance to it, but it’s a great tool to deal with large numbers of weaker monsters.

Each single fly finds its target, injecting the venom and activating the spell on it. Confusion spreads like a wave, the monsters that were living peacefully among themselves now turning on each other, wounding, killing, driven by madness into madness and violence.

I should shudder at this scene, despise it even, and yet, I do not feel what I should, what I think I should. Only a slight satisfaction for how things turned out, for how the plan went smoothly.

What I have become? Only a month ago, I would not be capable of something like this, a third rate trick to instigate murder on a large scale.

These creatures are sapient, even if they are monsters in a Dungeon. I would have felt empathy to them, even a slight amount of it, in the past.

And yet, there is no trace of it in me now.

And the most strange thing, is that it does not even disturb me. After all I went through, after those realizations about myself, about who I am and my relation to this world, to those memories I carry, the person that was “Roshal”, back in that forest, lost and thinking this new world nothing much than a game is now completely gone.

Back then, I swore to myself to never use such methods on humans, or something resembling it.

And yet, here I am, feeling prideful and satisfied about the scenes of slaughter playing out in front of me.

It is not because I think these creatures as lesser, at this point, I think I would do the same even if those were humans.
I did the same to humans, not for defense, but to gain an advantage.

Who have I become?

That question lingers in the back of my mind, resurfacing from time to time. I know I am not the human from my memories, those fake things that some playful creature decided to put into my head.

If that person is gone, however, that leaves place for the real me, for who or what I really am. Those lingering feeling I had, every time I managed to subdue an enemy, every time I overcame a challenge.

Pride towards the power I had, and the desire for more. Those are the two main points, what defines the “person” that Roshal is.

I want more, and I do not relent towards the mean to obtain it.

Who have I become? I now have some pieces of an answer, slowly forming itself with time and progression, as I delve deeper into this place, as I rise, beat my own limits or those I thought I had.

Still, that answer is incomplete, and sometimes, it is still confused, as I cannot totally part from who I believed to be, from that man residing in the memories of a past that was not mine.

It’s strange how I can bring myself to think about this, reflecting deeply while I stare, blankly, at a group of monsters slaughtering each other, turning their rage towards the creature they revered as a god.

The Champion bellows, swarmed by the lesser creatures it commanded.

Its shape shambles, killing dozens of monsters with each blow but receiving countless wounds, slowly whittling its health, adding small damage, small injury one after the others.

The scenario of carnage plays for two hours, until all noise is gone in those ruins enclosed by a forest.

The stone paved roads are littered with corpses, black flies buzzing around in triumph, their thousand eyes relaying to me the results of my choice.

On its temple’s staircase, the Champion’s figure lies sprawling, blood flowing down and painting the steps in a crimson cascade of life flowing away from it.

Its huge chest pants up and down, the wounds on its body slowly closing as it starts to regenerate, hundreds of spears embedded in its flesh, and all around it, heaps of bodies and torn limbs.

I force my mana into Shoggoth’s separated form, each single fly joining together with the thousands of others, forming the bubbling black shape once again, only to be forced into a new form, sharp and deadly, plunged into the Champion’s body to end its life.

In a blood soaked battlefield, I step out of the Inventory, bringing the others with me.

I dismiss the notification from Navi about the recent level up, this time a single level, bringing our total to forty six.

Diminishing returns, as our level rises, we need to kill much more creatures, or challenge stronger ones in order for us to grow.

With this rate, we will eventually catch up with the monsters’ levels, until the battle will be even between us and them. For now, and for some floors yet again, we will still be over-leveled, and thus, at an advantage.

The others look around, slightly disoriented, not by the display of violence but for the sheer after-effects of their time being forcibly stopped.

They too have been hardened during the journey, perhaps even more than I have. A group of youngsters turned into a proficient party of adventurers, a fancy way to call hunters and killers.

Still, it is a necessary thing to do. I refused to acknowledge it before, perhaps still unable to see how this world really was, taken back by the possibilities of it and not seeing the harsh reality of things.

The simple fact that this world has too many dangers waiting. Be it monsters, or the looming menace of war. And war will come, sooner or later. If I, if we did not change, did not harden our resolve and our minds, we would simply succumb to it, either to some soldier’s hand, or to the sheer madness of war itself.

And, it might not even be enough.

The next days are just a cycle of events that repeat themselves, as we dive further into the Dungeon,

carefully threading our way inside the treacherous floors.

Caves, seaside, lush jungles. Each floor shows a different environment, with rare clusters that maintain a theme among them.

Each floor meets us with the same routine, chambers filled with monsters, and a tougher challenge waiting in the central portion, where Champions reside. As we advance, more and more, increasing our levels further, the limits of our group become apparent.

The challenges that monsters pose, grow in difficulty as we dive further into the depths of this strange place, as the level gap between ourselves and the creatures inhabiting the place is reduced.

Our strategy changes, adapting to the increased difficulty. Instead of dealing with large groups at once, we are forced to resort to more prudent tactics, by attacking small numbered groups each time.

We thread further into the Dungeon, reaching the fortieth floor. I wanted to push even deeper than this, but we’re reaching our limits here. Most likely, we will head back once we kill the Guardian residing here.

From grinding our way up until this floor, we managed to reach level forty-eight. Most likely, killing the Guardian will set us up to level fifty. Still, in these advanced floors, the gap of ten levels is not enough to let us be at ease.

We’re making the last preparations to face the Guardian residing here, in this floor. I can sense the large signal coming from it, a level forty beast surrounded by the Elite creatures of this floor.

The floor, as a whole, has an “arctic wasteland” theme. Cold winds sweep the open place, the only sanctuary from it being lone rock formations, dispersed in the gigantic, ice covered terrain of this floor.

Bear-like monsters roam the place, the Elites of this floor being similar in size and behavior to Shartu, another of the Champions we faced on the surface floors.

Thankfully, these monsters are rare, otherwise it would have been difficult for us to face off a number of them, given the open space of this floor and the difficulty of fighting with such low temperatures.

Other creatures also roam these frozen wastelands, some sort of penguins and seals, suddenly popping out from cracks in the ice that reveal flowing waters underneath it.

<<This is the last one. After we take it out, we head back>>

Retel reaffirms the plan, nodding to himself. All of us are starting to feel the fatigue from the intense rise in our levels. I thought that if we distributed the levels on a period of time, instead of power- leveling without any kind of respite, we would not feel the after-effects of the excessive energy absorbed and transformed by our bodies.
Apparently, I was a bit off with my reasoning. After all, we’ve increased by eighteen levels in less than three weeks, my companions even more since they started their Dive from the upper levels.

I thought that taking some time between each level up would eliminate the after-effects, but, it turns out that even rising two levels a day, each day, has some rebound on the body.

It’s not as severe as a sudden increase, like the one I suffered back when I fought Leidus, but we’re definitely feeling the increased fatigue from it.

Next time, it will be best to change our schedule, taking into account two or even three days of rest between levels.

Still, it’s something we will need to think in a later time.

For now, the Guardian awaits, and we’re ready to challenge it.

The monster is a unique type, something I’ve never seen in the upper levels. It has a gigantic frame, its hulking body covered in thick, brown fur.

The form of it is similar to an elephant, but with four, long and jagged tusks protruding from its head, one of which is broken in half.

A Mammoth, level forty. Navi’s detection identifies it as Tusk, the Guardian of the fortieth floor.

Its body is the origin of the sweeping, icy winds that plague this place, and with every step, the ground behind it freezes, leaving a trail of ice crystals.

Before we deal with it, we need to take care of the Elite monsters surrounding it.

During this time, I had the opportunity to absorb more and more creatures, thus powering Shoggoth up, increasing the size I can produce of it.

Once again, to deal with the large number of monsters I will resort to Beelzebub, in order to quell their numbers while keeping the distance. The others are already on standby, to deal the finishing blows on weakened creatures.

As they reach positions, and give me the signal, I start the attack.

Due to the recent rise in both my level and my skill levels, I can now use Beelzebub with only a part of Shoggoth, keeping most of it in the original form.

That is thanks to an updated, more powerful version of the “Offshoot body” I already had, a useful skill I managed to find again in the Dungeon, along with other, useful skills. All of them, I have Integrated into a single, blue ranked skill.

Phylogenesis. This skill lets me mold and produce living organisms made of Shoggoth, instead of just “puppets” controlled by Navi’s automated calculations.

In short, I can make autonomous creatures, that I still can control how I like. The power of it is limited, both in level and size, as the skill is terribly difficult to level up. But, with time…

For now, I have used it to improve the “bio-mechanical flies” that are brought forth with Beelzebub.

These ones require no control, acting on some sort of “instinct” that I can impress in their mind.

Thus, it leaves Navi’s calculations free to do other tasks, like assisting me in spell calculations, to give one example.

Or, in this case, to control the rest of Shoggoth’s mass, that will be our main “tank” in this battle.

Its size, even with half of it being transformed into a cloud of black insects, still rivals that of the Guardian of this floor, which is the biggest creature we’ve met up until this point.
Even bigger than the sea dwelling serpents we fought in the seaside floor, its size making it puzzling to consider how the Guardian does not just collapse under its own weight.

And, given some more time, I bet Shoggoth will expand even further. Perhaps, if I manage to survive and increase both my level and Shoggoth’s, it will reach the size of a city, or more.

Still, those are only guesses, for now. Perhaps, there are limits to this skill, although I haven’t even had a slight hint about them.

I release the swarm, before sending out Shoggoth into the resulting confusion.

The Elite monsters are throwing themselves against each other, maiming, biting, killing their brethren.

Some, however, resist the substance and the spell I used, and begin to charge our way. Their numbers are low, and the majority direct their hostility towards Shoggoth.

I make the skill resist the urge to consume, focusing on the need for Experience that we have.

Surprisingly, as the skill grew in power it became more “tame”, easier to control, almost to the point that I do not need any effort in order to impose my will on it.

Before, especially immediately after I obtained it, Shoggoth would pose a certain degree of resistance when I forbid it from eating something.

Now, it just abides, perhaps satisfied by earlier “meals”, or perhaps, knowing that there is a promise for more waiting for it.

As I look how things play out, I think absentmindedly about the first time I held Black Fluid’s power, the first time I saw what and how it worked. I remember feeling disgust, a slight hint of fear even.

It makes me chuckle to notice how much I have grown insensible to the skill’s peculiar aptitude, to the point of being proud of it every time it hunts and eats.

Like a parent, I feel the same satisfaction every time it grows, every time it comes back with a new “trick” to share with me.

Seriously, how could I even feel negative feelings toward it, toward this powerful gift that my crazy circumstances have brought me?

I cherish it, and I cannot see myself without it anymore.

It defines me, more than anything else. More than my memories, more than my personality itself.

As if reacting to my thoughts, Shoggoth changes shape, its black, bubbling surface bursts out into bio-mechanical tentacles, each ending with a curved, sharp blade that vibrates with impossible speed, blurring its shape as it slashes, and tears.

Levia’s arrows are finding their targets, each taking a life from the weakened monsters.

Retel’s red mana shield surrounds Shoggoth, and another portion of it cages the monsters with Shoggoth, acting both as a shield for it, and a prison for its prey.

Dahl has also sprung into action, slipping inside the barrier provided by Retel’s skill, his twin blades flickering for a moment before slicing through an enemy’s body.

As for me, I join Marica’s magical barrage, focusing my mana to support her own with energy.

We unleash a wide area electric spell, dealing the final blow on several monsters.

The Guardian has charged Shoggoth, entangling its frame with the black mass of my skill.

Only a few other bears remain around, their number dwindling each second as Levia and Dahl do their work.

When the last of them falls, it is time for us to concentrate our attack on the Guardian.

The raging winds around it become even more intense, as it charges its own mana into the air, summoning a hailstorm to freeze Shoggoth.

It works, and the Guardian shatters it with a blow of its tusks, each of them glowing with a sinister red aura.

The thick fur prevents our attacks to dig deep into the monster’s hide, shielding it from most of the damage we try to inflict upon it.

Shoggoth’s shattered, frozen forms begins to recover itself, now bolstered by the other half that, having completed its purpose, is now free to “join” the battle.

In a matter of seconds, Shoggoth regains its original form, once again ready to attack the Guardian.

The battle continues for two hours, until, for the first time, we’re forced to a tactical retreat.

The Guardian roars, bellowing its victory but refusing to chase us in our retreat, heading back to its lair in order to regenerate its health.

None of us suffered serious injuries, but if the battle continued, we would have faced defeat.

During the fight, we managed to whittle down the monster’s health, forcing it into its second phase.

As it changed its form, the Guardian summoned an ice armor around its body, making it impossible

for us to deal any significant damage.

In order to not lose in the battle of attrition between our group, and a monster with incredible defense and a regenerating health pool, we decided to retreat and rest, before challenging it once again.

The monsters in the area will not re-spawn for the next forty-eight hours, so we have time to think about a better strategy, and to recover our strength.

Of course, the Guardian will do the same.

In order to win, we need more powerful attacks, or better means of defense if we want to outlast it, although the second option seems to be the riskier one.

After one day of rest, during which we took care of our wounds and talked about another plan of attack, we head to challenge Tusk once again.

This time, without the other monsters to distract us, all of our energies are focused on killing the Guardian.

Instead of using Shoggoth to restrain it, this time I am using its form to deal damage, along with some spells I have been casting non-stop.

Marica and Retel are the ones acting to restrain the monster, with Retel’s shield serving as a cage to both impede the Guardian’s movement and to concentrate the power of each spell we throw against it.

Charged by both our attacks and the monster’s thrashing attempts to free itself, Retel’s Spike Counter is dealing damage to the monster, red translucent spears impaling the Guardian’s underbelly, painting the ice below it in deep red.

Once again, the monster summons its second phase.

As the ice creeps on its body, encasing it in an impenetrable armor, we’re ready to enact the counter-measures to it.

During most of the fight, both me and Marica had been saving our mana in order to prepare the next spell.

I open Inventory, releasing some of the pre-made spells I stored in it, while Marica completes her incantation.

Retel downs a mana potion, reinforcing his shield around the monster for the upcoming attack, reducing the size of it to enclose only the Guardian’s head.

Fire erupts around the monster’s head, confined by the barrier, burning brighter every second as Marica makes oxygen flow into the barrier, and I ignite it with a chemical reaction.

Until the flames burn blue, then white.

It’s like seeing a small sun, its light illuminating the surroundings with dancing reflexes in the ice.

Shoggoth is holding the monster in place, struggling to keep the giant body restrained as best as possible.

To further injure the creature, Dahl and Levia are taking turns in attacking its legs, targeting the same one until it collapses, joints and bones broken.

Then, they switch to the next, repeating the same tactic until the monster sprawls on the ground, making it shake when its weight is discharged on the ice, cracks spreading through it like a spider’s web.

Meantime, my spell still burns, hotter and hotter, until Marica is forced to apply another layer to the barrier, as the one cast by Retel begins to crack, menacing to release the fury of the magical fire outward, in a fiery explosion.

I drain all my mana into it, and then some more, until I collapse on my knees, blood running from my nose from the excessive effort.

The others are in no better shape, but their wounds start to heal, thanks to the level up that results from the Guardian’s death.

I slowly use the remaining mana to quench the flames. Simply releasing the spell will make it rebound, damaging me further, and so I need to use my mana to drop the temperature and kill the flame by stopping the oxygen supply.

As the fire subsides, it reveals the charred skull of Tusk, its nominal fangs charred black, as the bones emerging from where skin and flesh should be.

The skull is ruined, but it will still serve as a proof that we beat the Guardian.

Panting heavily, I wipe the blood running from my nose with my sleeve, gulping down a restorative potion to mitigate fatigue and damage.

I dismiss Navi’s notification about the two level increase.

Level fifty.

I collapse on the ground, exhausted.

Did I seriously think it safe to continue diving into the Dungeon after this? Thankfully, we did rethink our decisions.

After half an hour of rest, we start to clean up the area, as Shoggoth wipes the area from corpses and materials, heading to the gigantic frame of the Guardian and starting to slowly devour it.

Next, it will be the turn for the usual pile of objects that adorns the Guardian’s chamber. Later, we will have to sort them through, searching for useful items or something we could sell.

Mixed among the objects, there are some remains of unlucky adventurers that have met their fate against the Guardian.

Those too we will take with us, in order to give them back to their relatives or friends.

Exhausted, we all head back, using a transfer stone. I am too spent to use Inventory in this state, and I do not want to take risks.

The usual effect of those weird orbs takes hold, the scenery around us warping and twisting into blue light, shifting from the icy plains to the stone walls of the Dungeon’s entrance building, back in Sendria, back in the surface world.

We will deal with things tomorrow, for now, we head back to our home and a deserved good night of rest.

Once we step outside of the Guild building, daylight surprises us. After spending some time into the dimly lit environment of the Dungeon, it is a bit overwhelming.

Still, Sendria is still nice as ever, as if no trace of the internal struggle of power within it has reached the general population.

Perhaps this is something good, although I think that people should know what is really going on.

Besides, some rumors should at least have spread enough among the population to cause some concern, but it has not yet reached the proportion of a widespread panic, like the upcoming invasion of a foreign force should.

We head back home, walking by foot among Sendria’s crowded central streets.

People give our group glancing looks, used as they are to seeing armor-clad, armed adventurers cross the streets coming and going from and to the Dungeon.

Once we reach home, Heod greets us from the kitchen, his hands busy cutting up vegetables. It seems the old man took the day off as he caught wind of us coming back.

He stops, taking the time to hug Levia and give Retel a pat on his shoulder. His eyes have a proud look, as he stares at the two youngsters he considers like his own son and daughter.

Although, he’s more fit to be their grandfather, given the age gap.

I let them catch up a bit, heading upstairs to my room in order to take a bath and don some more comfortable clothes.

Taking my sweet time inside the warm water, I relax myself, enough to risk falling asleep. Thanks to Inventory, I can have my own private bath in my room, without the need for running water.

Still, it would be nice to have that commodity. I bet that now, after reclaiming the rewards from the Guild and selling materials and loot, we will have enough to buy a larger house here in Sendria.

And that is not even taking Heod’s earnings in consideration.

The old man’s voice resounds in the air, as he’s shouting to call me down, since lunch is ready.

After drying myself and donning some clothes, I head downstairs, my hair still wet.

The others are already eating, plates filled with a delicate stew, hot steam rising from them.

My stomach responds to the alluring smell, and I sit down and enjoy the meal.

Even if my own cooking is not bad, and I even have a Cooking skill, the old man is unbeatable when it comes to food.

Sharing lunch, we catch up with him, and he listens as each of us tells what happened in this Dive, often speaking one over the other to add something to the tale.

Like a bunch of high-spirited kids, but I guess this is just a way to blow off some of the accumulated tension.

Heod’s expression turns a bit too serious when Retel mentions feeling weak after leveling up, and Heod immediately cautions us about taking a full week of rest.

<<No Dungeon, no training. Just relax, you earned it. And your bodies need it. I will give you some medicine later, to help ease the fatigue you accumulated>>

His “concerned parent mode” switches off, and our talk returns to the recent Dungeon adventure. Heod’s eyes sparkle as I mention some of the new Ingredients I brought with me, especially those taken at the bottom of the “sea floors”.

<<Those might be never seen items, Roshal. No one dives into those waters, and thus, that portion of the Dungeon was unexplored up until now, the resources in it undiscovered. These might be worth a small fortune>>

He says so, pointing at the algae sample I took out of my inventory. Even with my Alchemy skill, and with Navi’s detection, I was not able to identify which properties they have.

But, seeing Heod’s reaction, it might be something special.

We spend the day at home, too exhausted to head out. After lunch, I take out a bottle of liquor from my Inventory.

<<This is something that I found in the fortieth floor, among the pile of objects that was in the Guardian’s chamber>>

Heod examines the sealed bottle, cleaning the layer of thin dust that sticks to the glass.

<<This is…a high class spirit. Distilled in Aldora, probably fifty years ago>>

He looks at me, pausing for a moment.

<<A bottle of this liquor is worth fifty golds, something that nobles drink in their castles, Roshal>>

In short, it was a good find. When I found it, the bottle was sealed inside a metal casing, with fancy inscriptions in the metal itself. A strange item to find in a Dungeon, perhaps, it was something belonging to a rich adventurer, or some random noble’s son that challenged the Dungeon.

Still, the bottle was sealed, and the liquor inside of it is still good.

<<So, open it>>

Without even waiting for my sentence to end, the old man breaks the wax seal above the cork, proceeding then to open the bottle.

With a popping sound, the cork comes off, and Heod starts pouring the liquor to each of us.

It has a rich, sweet smell, and the taste of it is strong, like old rum, but with fruity aftertaste, sweeter.

Funny how I remember even the taste of something I, as a person, have never ever touched. Those memories surely make some weird moments for me.

Marica coughs, red in face, as the liquor seems to be a little too strong for her. Dahl sips it slowly, as does Retel.

Levia…

<<Another, please?>>

The old man looks at her bright smile, his expression a bit dubious as he hesitates a bit, before shaking his head and pouring another glass to the girl.

We do the same, enjoying the liquor until it ends.

Apparently, Levia’s a strong drinker.

Perhaps, it’s some tolerance due to her race, given how both Retel and Heod seem to be unfazed by the liquor, while Dahl’s face is completely red, and he slurs a bit when talking.

Marica has even worse tolerance, forcing Retel to take her upstairs as she’s falling asleep.

I too am slightly drunk, perhaps a bit more than I realize.

Still, I am well enough to keep talking, and drinking, with the old man, Levia and Dahl.

Retel comes back down after a while, his face as red as his scales and a suspicious mark on his neck, that he clumsily tries to hide.

That too, is something that he had been forced to stop while being in the Dungeon. I guess this forced week of rest will allow him to deepen his relationship with Marica.

I hope so, but it looks like the man needs no more help right now. The difficult part has already been done by him, mustering up the courage to ask a girl out.

The rest comes easy.

I toast to him, making him redden a bit more and mutter something under his lips, until we all break into laughter.

To think that no more than some hours ago we were fighting for our lives, and here we are, drinking and laughing like nothing happened.

Or, perhaps it is exactly because we just risked our lives, that we’re letting ourselves go like this.

After all, it’s good to relieve stress, once in a while.

Marica comes back down after some hours, in time for dinner. She is holding her head, with Retel tending to her like she’s sick.

After dinner, we all call it a day. I promise to Heod to have a good talk about the situation in his laboratory and with the Guild, but for now, I am too tired for a serious talk.

Heading upstairs, I close the door to my room behind my back, take off my shoes and clothes and let myself fall on the bed, dropping asleep almost instantly.

Well, much to my dissatisfaction, the level up screen is there, waiting for me. I quickly allocate the points gained, taking a small glance at the total amount of stats I now have.

Fifty-five points in Strength, Agility, Accuracy, seventy into Luck and one hundred and forty in Intelligence. Charisma is at one hundred and ninety, my highest stat, although I do not even know what the hell it does.

After the stats have been distributed, I can finally drift into sleep.

The dreams I had that night, they were troubled and restless. I woke up in the middle of the night, sweat covering my body as I held onto the lingering image of that distant place, where the Laughing Man decimated an Aldoran fort and freed a group of slaves.

I dreamed of that place again, and during the dream, I walked among the former slaves’ houses and farms, their faces smiling at me.

Julia, the little girl that first told me about the Laughing man, came running towards me, hugging me and calling my name.

But the sensation I got from that dream, it was that of impending danger, and I glanced on the surroundings, where dark shapes twisted into thin mist.

I shake my head, heading to the small window that my room has.

Looking outside, I see the profile of Sendria, sleeping, almost devoid of sound and light. Further ahead, beyond the walls and cultivated lands outside, beyond the Grasslands, the small place where those former slaves have begun their lives again resides.

And I cannot shake off that sense of impending doom, as the Twin moons seems to illuminate the sky in that direction.

I go back to bed, trying to fall asleep once again, after making the resolution of paying a visit to the former slaves.

Morning came, and I am woken up by sunshine seeping in from the open window. I curse at myself for leaving that open last night, and, still drowsy, I head down for breakfast.

The others are all still asleep, even the old man.

I start preparing myself breakfast, decided to leave the house early. Today, I will have to head to the Guild, and then, after the business with them is done, I can leave the rest to the others and head to the former Aldoran fort.

Just to see for myself that they are ok, that the negative feeling I had was only due to the dream.

Although, deep down, I know that is not the case.

Just to feel more at ease, I make an offshoot with Shoggoth, a small, bird-like creature with bio-mechanical features and insect-like transparent wings, and send it off to find the village.

I close my eyes for a moment, receiving the visual feedback from my “minion”, before returning my attention to the stoves.

A sound of light steps distracts me again, as Levia is coming down, her hair still messy.

<<Did I do too much noise?>>

I ask her, giving her a warm smile.

She shakes her head, yawning and stretching her body.

<<No, I just had trouble sleeping. I came down for a glass of water, but, since you’re making breakfast…>>

I start cooking her share too. Pan fried eggs and slices of meat, along with some fruit and tea.

As I offer her the cup, she looks at me intensely.

<<Is there something troubling you?>>

I snicker, surprised by how, every time, all that I think is just readable on my face.

Sitting down in front of her, I start sharing the dream I had last night, and the intention to visit the village afterward.

<<Want me to tag along?>>

I did not consider to bring the others with me, thinking about going alone.

But, before I can answer, she speaks again.

<<Wait, let me rephrase it. I want to come too. I…>>

She struggles a bit with her words, looking down, fidgeting with her hands.

<<I feel like I need to talk. With you, alone. From that day, I have been a bit weird with you, I know that, and I want to make up to it>>

She claps her hands, returning to her cheerful smile.

<<It will be like a nice trip on the countryside, just the two of us!>>

And she leaves, without letting me even answer her.

I shake my head, noticing that she has not even touched her breakfast.

Well, it’s not like I can even begin to understand women, given how all the experience I have in treating with them, comes from those pathetic scenes that are my memories. And, since I sprung into existence being already grown up, it’s not like I had the time to properly build my confidence or anything.

Still, beside the fluttering feeling in my chest, I know that what she wants, is just to recover the friendly relation between me and her.

I finish my breakfast, and leave a small note to the others as I go to the Guild.

Using my spell, Blink, is definitely faster than walking, but I feel like taking a stroll today.

The morning air feels nice, and I even stop and spend some coin on a stall that sells fried candy.

The sweet taste spreads in my mouth, and I walk in the city, absentmindedly taking some glances of what the offshoot I cast earlier sees.

It is still distant from the village, perhaps halfway.

I stop the view, realizing that I was about to bump into a person, as I walked without too much care.

After walking some more, this time paying attention to where I am going, I finally manage to reach the Guild’s main building. In there, I hand out the report for the successful Dungeon Dive. Then, I take the time to stop to Rupert’s counter, in order to drop the monster materials, and claim the rewards for the Champions and Guardians we slain.

As I head there, a young man is manning the desk, with no trace of Rupert’s bulky figure.

Although young, perhaps few years older than me, the man is capable and has nice manners. I see him interact with the other adventurers, swaying with skilled words those that wanted to make a ruckus and wring more money from the receptionist.

To those that insist, he sends subtle threats, backed by a singular shine in the man’s eyes. In order to treat with the roughest adventurers, this counter has to be manned by individuals both skilled in dealing with people, and powerful enough to make troublemakers stand down.

As I use Navi to check the young receptionist, I am surprised to find that he’s level sixty. Still, his stats are below mine, but otherwise impressive. Well, I have some special circumstances to me, so I should consider his stats to be top class among “normal adventurers”.

The line before me is not too long, and the receptionist is quick at work. After twenty minutes, my turn comes.

Greeting the receptionist, I take the forms he hands me, and start compiling them.

I can see him snicker when I write what I will be selling to the counter.

Perhaps, he’s thinking something like “this boy is trying to pull some scam on me”. Well, that reaction should be expected if someone just bases his assumptions on my age and looks.

After all, I am a boy in casual clothes, writing down ridiculous amounts of materials, and even claiming to have slain several Champions and two Guardians.

Of course the man before me would think it a scam.

But…

<<B..Boss! We need some people at the counter here!>>

The man calls for help, as his counter is overwhelmed by the quantity I took out from Inventory.

<<Oh, you again. Roshal, right? Where’s that little snake?>>

Rupert comes out of the back side of the shop, wearing a bloodstained apron that covers his chest and belly.

He yells to someone, and his assistants flock to the counter, each taking care of a part of the materials I am handing down.

<<He’s still asleep. We came back yesterday from the last Dive, and this is the loot we brought back>>

Rupert comes out of the counter, and pats my back with his huge hands.

<<Good job! You brought back a lot this time! And man, that skill you have is surely wonderful. If you do not mind, I could use your help sometimes, to move shipments to the marketplace. I’m sure we will be done in no time with your help>>

I agree to helping him, on a later date, since I intend to visit the former slaves after I will be done here.

As I am still unloading the materials, it finally comes the turn for me to take out the big trophies we gained from this Dive.

One after the other, I take out the parts I’ve saved from each Champion we’ve slain, finishing with the heads of the two Guardians.

<<Boy…are those? What level are you now?>>

I smile, and give Rupert my answer.

He takes me aside, and starts giving me a serious lesson about the risks of quick level up. He even goes as far as sharing his secret remedy for “level hangover”, the way he calls the strange sickness due to too much experience in too little time.

<<But, I have to admit, you’ve grown a lot, reaching the fortieth level and defeating that Tusk. Ah, it brings so much memories back! Here, wait a moment, will you?>>

His is a rhetoric question, and he strolls back to the back side of the building without waiting for my answer.

He comes back holding a long, white spear in his hands.

<<See this beauty? I call it Leanne. She’s made from that thing’s tusks>>

He points to the Guardian’s charred skull. Rupert draws a nostalgic sigh while holding the weapon in hands.

<<Those were good times, lad>>

He talks some more about his past as an adventurer, sharing a detailed tale of the time he himself challenged Tusk in the fortieth floor. According to what he says, he was the one to deal the finishing blow, breaking his lance in the process. And his party members gifted him with a spear made from the monster’s tusks, Leanne, as he called it.

After some more talk, during which his assistants weight and collect the materials I brought, he’s finally ready to make calculations and communicate the amount that the Guild owes me.

It will be paid to the account we have with the Guild, but I am just curious to see how much we earned this time.

The amount written on the small piece of paper that Rupert passes to me, it is enough to make my head spin.

It includes the “bounties” for taking down Champions and Guardians, but still…

Rupert sends one of his assistants to carry the forms to the Treasury counter. After doing that, he hands me some other forms.

<<These are modules required if you want to candidate your party for a Rank Up. You’ve already cleared the requirements until rank B, so it is only a formality at this point. Still, it’s your choice if you lot want to be listed as a ranked party, or just stay as you are right now>>

I nod, taking the forms with me before bidding farewell to Rupert and his assistants.

After that, I give Heod a call, since he should be already awake at this time.

Speaking with the old man, I tell him to meet me at his laboratory. He confirms, telling me that he should be there in an hour or so.

That means, I have some time to spare before meeting him.

Once again, I give a look at my offshoot, seeing how it has reached the Grasslands. Perhaps, when I will be done with these errands, it will have already reached the former slaves’ settlement. At least, I hope.

I take the spare time to drop by Helena’s armor shop, giving her the quota of materials that we owe her as payment.

Chatting with the old lady, I mention the fact that our party will accept the rank up from the Guild. It is something my companions have already accepted, and we just need to hand the forms to the Guild.

Learning the news, she takes the liberty to craft some new armor and weapons for us all.

<<Since you will ranking up, you donning my armor and weapon will provide good advertisement for my little shop, boy. It’s a win-win situation, you will get a discount on high-quality goods, and I will have my creations publicly used by a high-level adventurer party>>

She gives a wry smile, signaling me to come to the back of the shop in order to drop the items.

I anticipated that she would do something like that, and, if she didn’t, I would have requested new gear from her anyways.

And for that reason, I conserved some of the highest-class materials from the Guardians, along with some rare metals and wood from the Dungeon floors.

Her eyes sparkle when she sees the rare materials, her expression more befitting of a kid in a candy shop rather than an old master of the crafting arts.

Still, I suspect that the joy she feels when given the opportunity to work with rare materials is the same.

I leave her to her craft, taking note of when the new items will be ready. Then, I head to the old man’s laboratory, for the final errand of this morning.

The others are also there, tagging along with the old man, who’s eager to show his new workplace to them.

It turns out, he has already hired some assistants for his work, and the alchemical workshop is busy with activity.

People of all ages, wearing white, thick coats over tunics of the same color, are handling vials filled with liquids of various color, while others are preparing raw materials or tending to the equipment.

Heod signals one of the assistants to catalog and stash the materials I have brought with me, and the assistant invites me to follow him into the material storage.

I abide, opening Inventory at the designed location and letting the materials out.

Then, I part from the assistant, leaving him to his task.

The others have already finished the guided tour, and now, it is time for Heod to show me the progress he’s made.

With a wide smile, the first thing he brings out is the completed form of the mana storing metal. As it is now, it can hold the mana in it for weeks, without leaking even a slight amount of it.

The prototype itself is revolutionary, as it allows storage and extraction without dispersion of power.

It could be used as a magical battery to power-up spells, or as a reserve for battle magicians or healers.

But, the end-line product is still a bit faraway, although closer with this advancement.

Sadly, there is little progress on the drug used by Alvarez to control the army. The more pressing matter is the one where the Guild, and Heod, are falling behind.

It’s mostly due to the difficulty of obtaining samples of the substance. We have some blood taken by an accomplice healer, that managed to smuggle it from the Army’s Healing center, but the sample is limited in both amount and quality.

In order to individuate the substance, Heod’s laboratory would need either a pure sample of it, or some better samples of soldier’s blood.

But the Army closely guards both the Healing center, and its members, so it is difficult to obtain the latter, and , without knowing what they’re exactly looking for, it is even harder to procure pure samples of the drug.

If I had known this earlier, I would have used the “prisoners” from Leidus’ s group in a different way, instead of consuming their bodies with Shoggoth.

Perhaps, I could manage to “abduct” some soldier if I am careful enough…

But I quickly dismiss that idea. It will only bring more trouble if some soldiers suddenly become missing, and perhaps, it will give the excuse for Alvarez to pin the accident to the Guild, somehow.

After the briefing, I speak with the others about my intentions to visit the former slave settlement.

It seems all of them have already made separate plans for the upcoming days, with Dahl going to visit his sister since she too is taking a week off, and Retel has plans to spend time with Marica.

Levia is still of the idea of tagging along with me, so I guess the two of us will head there.

I decide to hold off on selling the remaining loot, and anticipate my departure a bit.

With that settled, me and Levia head to the city’s walls, ready to leave Sendria for some time.

As we walk, I take a glance to the visual feedback from the offshoot I sent earlier.

Nothing. It has been destroyed, the last record from it being a distant image of the settlement.

Perhaps some wild monster, or even a normal animal could have attacked it, but I cannot shake off the feeling that something wrong is going on in that place.

A Strange Sky- Prologue

The man groaned, pain aching through all of his body.

He tried to open his eyes, but the world he saw was confused, out of focus, red and blue lights flashing in his view.

He had the strange impression of a distant, distorted voice whispering something in his head, but that was being overwhelmed by the loud, ringing noise that pierced his ears, numbing his thoughts to the point that he did not even remember his own name.

Waves of pain were constantly assaulting him, originating from the deepest part of his brain and surging, expanding, as if his own head was about to burst open.

He coughed, a sliver of saliva dribbling down his chin as his chest convulsed in that abrupt motion, sending new waves of pain as he gasped for air.

Again, a blue light flickered in his view, along with the semblance of words whispered through that ringing noise.

To him, it was the worst kind of pain he ever experienced. Much more than when he broke both his legs falling down a tree, or when, barely adolescent, he was hit by a car.

<<A car…my…car>>

He mumbled, shuddering as his own voice sounded weak, broken, nothing more than a whisper.

His mouth tasted like blood, he smelled it even.

He tried to lift himself up, realizing that he was lying supine on the ground, his face scraping dirt.

Another jolt of pain made him subside from his attempt, and he just laid there, aching.

His breathing was heavy, and he felt his heart beating, the slow thump pulsing in his temples, weak, irregular.

His senses were about to give up, sliding into that murky oblivion that he just woke up from.

Instead, he resisted it, forcing his consciousness away from that “place”.

He struggled to maintain himself awake, stopping his own consciousness from drifting into a murky sleep.

He needed to stay awake, he wanted to stay awake.

Another one of those strange blue flashes, and he felt better.

Slightly,but better.

Every breath still pained his body, and his head still hurt like hell.

Steeling himself, he moved his arms, trying to lift them, fearing them broken.

They hurt, but he managed to move them well enough. Grasping the earth with his fingers, he collected his will.

He tried to get up once again, failing once more since his legs were not moving.

A wave of panic hit him hard, making his heart race like it never had in a long, long time.

He forced himself once more, this time without attempting to immediately get up.

Instead, he struggled to turn himself around, from supine to prone.

And he did, collapsing on his back, exhausted with that simple motion.

His sight was slowly returning to him, his surroundings regaining focus, becoming proper objects rather than confused blurs of colors like some moments before.

Another of those blue lights flashed in his view, staying there from some moments.

He felt the impression that something was written in his view, but it quickly disappeared, becoming nothing more than a flickering blue light in the farthest corner of his view.

Hurting, confused to the point that he did not even manage to put one thought after the other, he laid there, his bare skin touching the cold, soft ground below, while a gentle breeze swept the air.

It carried the sound of rustling leaves, it carried the smell of wet terrain after rain. The smell of vegetation, both growing and decaying.

The smell of a forest.

His thoughts were beginning to clear up, and the man was beginning to remember.

Some things were still murky in his mind, and he struggled to get them, feeling like when a word slipped by his thoughts, its meaning clear but the name related to it hidden, but close, as if he was about to grasp it, and he was forced to struggle in order to remind himself of it.

Then, memories clicked, working as they should have been.

The man started to piece together what happened to him.

He was driving his car on the highway, half an hour after work and still fifteen minutes to drive before reaching home.

The road unusually empty, he remembered pushing his foot on the pedal a bit too hard, wanting to test the new “toy” that his expensive car was.

<<Did I crash my car?>>

He muttered, thinking himself to be in some kind of hospital, despite his senses suggested otherwise.

He remembered hearing on the TV, that sometimes acute cranial trauma would lead to sensory hallucinations, like weird smells or strange noises, or even the blue flickering light.

In his thoughts, he began to consider his situation like the aftermath of a car accident.

And what else, he thought, could have happened?

He was driving, his consciousness blacked out, and he woke up hurting like hell all over his body and head.

And yet, his hands touched cold, soft soil, and the gentle breeze that swept over his skin gave him real respite from the almost oppressive heat of that place.

Could those be hallucinations too, asked the man to himself.

It had to be something like this, he thought.

The blue light flickered once more, and he was forced to blink a few times before it went away. Now, the number of blinking blue dots on the lower corner of his vision was beginning to worry him a bit.

Still, he ignored them, thinking them some weird hallucination.

After all, he thought, he must have hit his head pretty fucking hard.

Once again, the man struggled to force himself up. Again, his legs did not move. Now, the man was beginning to fear the worst.

Which, to him, was not to be dead. He did not fear that, thinking that whenever it would happen, it would happen, without the need for him to fear it or worry too much.

What he feared, was becoming crippled, his mind working and fine trapped into a broken body. That thought made him shudder, bringing forth with it the last memory that the man had of his father.

A large, ever happy man that spent his life doing things all day long, restless.

Be it farming, crafting ,woodworking or even hunting and fishing, the old man, Albert, had a number of hobbies throughout his whole life.

But the last portion of it, ten years, Albert spent paralyzed in his bed, unable to move anything below his neck after a fall during one of his many activities.

And his son watched him in those conditions, the images of his father from before and after the accident overlapping in his mind.

He thought of his father, weeping in his bed as his legs did not want to move.

He steeled himself, using all the willpower he had to make his legs move.

His lips started to tremble, when nothing happened for the third time.

The man was beginning to give in to resignation, but, he forced himself once more.

He raised his upper body, his elbows lifting the weight, trembling, aching. He looked at his legs.

The expensive pair of jeans he wore were torn and tattered, dried blood mixed with dirt staining the tissue.

He lost one of his shoes, a pair of black boots, imitations of those that the Army’s soldiers wore.

<<Fuck>>

He muttered, trying once more to move his legs, this time focusing on a single finger, the big toe of his left, bare foot.

The man almost laughed hysterically, when the toe moved.

He tried to do the same with the other foot, feeling his toe scraping to the tip of the shoe.

With a sigh of relief, he abandoned himself down, ignoring the jolt of pain that happened when he did so.

He closed his eyes, breathing slowly to let both excitement and fear pass.

He would wait some more time, then try to move his legs with more decision. Still, he knew that the fact his toes moved was a good sign.

He did not exactly know how good that fact was, if it was the sign of the complete absence of a spinal lesion, or if it just meant that the damage, if there was any, was of minor entity than an injury leading to full leg paralysis.

He opened his eyes once more. Concerned as he was, he had let it slide, but now, he was starting to realize it.

Trees. He was surrounded by trees. Looming over him, their canopy masking the sky above them, letting only some rays of light to filter down.

He already realized that he was not inside an hospital, since he was lying face down on soft soil when he woke up.

But, in his head, he had surmised that the crash made him fly and land into some sort of garden, or one of the small patches of cultivated terrain.

One of those that surrounded the part of the highway he was driving on.

The strangest thing of all, was that there was not a single place with so many trees in the vicinity of that highway, for hundreds of meters all around.

Sure, some gardens and terrains had some trees, he knew that, but, what he was seeing at the moment, and even smelling, was not a pair of trees in someone’s garden.

Not even a park, for that matter.

The trees he saw were too many for it to be the case, and the smell, so different from that of a city park, more like that of a proper meadow, or even a forest, thought the man.

And, there was not a single spot near that highway that had trees in that quantity.

<<This must be some kind of hallucination. I had an accident in my car, and now I am seeing things. Perhaps I’m in a fucking coma, or my head has been messed up by the accident. Or, I may be dead>>

He muttered to himself, realizing that his voice now had more strength than before.

The man turned his head around, trying to see more of his surroundings. On his right, there was a rock, covered in moss, big enough for him to use it to help himself get up on his feet.

The place, everything, held a surreal aura to it, thought the man, feeling like inside a dream rather than properly awake. Although the smells, and the sensations he felt were too real for it to be a dream.

The two considerations clashed in his mind, but he shrugged them off, focusing on the more pressing stuff.

<<Ok, let’s try this now>>

He stretched his hands, turning his body as much as he could towards the boulder.

Grasping it with his hands, he pulled himself up, slowly, enduring the pain and the rising sensation of nausea and disorientation that assaulted him.

But, he managed to lift himself up using the boulder.

As he did, a sensation of vertigo almost made him fall back on the ground.

He closed his eyes, letting it pass before opening them again.

His stomach was clenching, his guts twisting, but he endured.

He recognized those symptoms. The ringing noise, nausea, it was all too similar to when he had another accident, and he hit his head pretty badly.

He was forced to stay awake at the hospital that very night.

<<Falling asleep with a brain concussion might be dangerous>>

He remembered a pretty nurse telling him those words. She was short, blonde. Thin legs and a big pair of…

He even sprouted a cocky line to her back then, giving his usual wry smile to the young woman.

Now, there were no pretty nurses around, only trees as far as the eye could see.

The man took a long, painful breath, and he forced himself to sit on the rock. He examined his own body.

His arms were fine, although dried blood and patches of black soil still stuck to his skin. He still had his clothes on him, only, they looked more like tatters than proper clothes.

Especially his sweater and the shirt below, they were nothing more than dirty, bloodstained rags. He tried to check his back, reaching backwards with his hands.

Another jolt of pain, but, lesser than what he felt when he got up.

His hands, both of them, touched bare skin and patches of clothing.

If the front of his sweater was torn, but still had somewhat the semblance of a sweater, the backside of it was completely torn open, leaving the man’s back exposed.

Luckily, he thought, his pants were somehow still a bit intact. They were an expensive pair of jeans, now riddled with tears and stains in the tissue, but somehow still passable.

And, he was missing a shoe.

He glanced around, trying to locate the missing item.

If he needed to trek for some time among the trees, doing it barefoot would be a bad idea.

His eyes darting around, he managed to find the shoe, some meters away from his position.

The soil between that lone, out of place shoe and the man’s position was covered in dried leaves, but some patches of terrain were clear, like something had been dragged over it, clearing a line on the ground.

<<Something, or someone>> thought the man, a chill running through his spine. He considered himself that something dragged down the forest, almost picturing the scene.

But, if that was the case, thought the man, there should have been some blood splattered around. Instead, the terrain below him, and that around, were void of any trace of blood, not even a single blood.

While his body, thought the man, was splattered by it, most likely his own.

That fact led the man to a single conclusion. The accident happened somewhere else, and he was transported there, maybe dragged down by someone.

Despite his thoughts were turning slightly darker, as he considered how he could be the “thing” that was dragged there, the man noted how he was feeling definitely better than before.

His chest no longer hurt when he breathed, and he could now freely move his legs, although his muscles still tensed with pain at the start of each movement.

With a deep breath, the man decided to try and get up on his feet.

He managed, for two seconds or so, before a sense of vertigo assaulted him with enough violence to almost make him tumble down on his butt.

He recovered, letting himself sit on the rock again.

Perhaps, he thought, it was a bit too early for him to stand up.

The man rummaged in his pockets, looking to find his phone. Now that he was feeling better, he thought, he could try and call for help.

Inside his right pocket, the phone was still there, pressing on his skin until he took it out of the pocket.

It was off, oddly, since the man never turned it off, never.

<<It must have been the impact>>

He tried to start the phone, but, as he pressed down the button, the phone exploded into sparks.

The sudden light made the man close his eyes, white and red impressed in his vision, with the latter more vivid and staying there, even with his eyes closed.

But it subsided, his vision returning to normal.

<<What the fuck was that?>>

The man shouted, looking his hand to search some signs of burns or cuts.

To his relief, he still had all his fingers, albeit a bit reddened and slightly burned by the sudden sparks.

He sighed, muttering an imprecation before rummaging further into his pockets.

The right one held the phone along with his wallet and the keys from his apartment.

The left one held a pack of rolling tobacco, along with filters and rolling paper, all of them new and sealed. Other than that, he had his lighter, a small pack of gummy candy and a little knife.

He smiled when looking at the small knife, the silver reflections of the tiny blade, no longer than his

thumb but sharp and well kept.

The handle of it was in polished horn, shining in the dim light that transpired from the trees above.

The first piece of his collection, the rest of it exposed on a shelf in his bedroom. A weird habit, but something he cherished. And that knife was special, it was a gift from his father, his first knife, tied to memories of his old man, of when he was still strong and full of life.

He put the knife in his pocket once again, and he started to examine the keys. Those for his own garage, his apartment, a large key for the Palace’s entrance.

The Palace, a high sounding name for the apartment complex where the man lived.

And the place itself, old and badly maintained, was the farthest thing from a real palace. It was cheap, and that’s all that the man needed when he moved in.

Things had changed during the years, and in recent times, he had begun to hunt for another place to live. Attached to the key ring, a small teddy bear made of plastic.

It was something that Carla, his girlfriend, bought him when she came back from Italy.

She did visit a small town, famous for its pocket knives, and, given that her loved one was a passionate collector of knives and sword replicas, she bought him a cute little thing instead.

They were still at the start of their relationship, two months since it started, that time where people stop wearing the masks that they put on when trying to impress the other person, and let their own self be known, taking all the risks involved.

Although that memory was sweet, his recent fights with Carla had made the two of them drift apart, and they decided to take a pause from each other.

It happened no more than two days ago, thought the man.

A low, grumbling noise distracted the man from his own thoughts. His own stomach, now more relaxed than when he woke up, was beginning to signal its need for food.

He took out the pack of gummy candy, eating some of those. Not enough to sate his hunger, but still, it was something. He let the candy melt a bit before starting to munch on it.

He always had a sweet tooth.

Without further thought, he opened the pack and ate a handful of candy. He saved the now half-empty small pack for later, savoring the sweet taste melting in his mouth.

Next, he rolled himself a cigarette. Not the smartest thing to do after an accident, when no more than twenty minutes ago he could not even breathe properly.

But man, he thought, he really needed one.

He lighted it on fire, keeping the lighter between his index and thumb, looking at it.

A cheap item, purple in color and made with a frail, semi-transparent plastic that allowed to see how much gas was left inside of it.

It was still half full. Still, thought the man, how come it did not even have a crack on it. After all, both his body and the cellphone suffered some kind of damage from whatever the hell happened, and yet, that small lighter was in pristine conditions.

He gave it not too much thought, considering it one of the marvels of random events.

Taking big puffs of white smoke, he enjoyed his self-rolled cigarette.

To kill time a bit, he opened his own wallet. Money, debit cards. His driver’s license. The picture on it always bugged him.

It was a really bad picture, and it made him look younger than he really was when he took it.

Five years had passed from when he was eighteen, and he got his license.

The face on that picture was roughly the same as it was now, slimmer, younger, with a stupid haircut and even more stupid attempt at growing a beard.

His cheekbones became more prominent as he grew older, and, unlike his eighteen years old self, he had no longer a long hair cut. Now, he kept them short, swept back and well trimmed.

More professional, he thought.

The stubble on his chin was also gone, as,each morning, he shaved his face.

He got rid of the piercing rings that he used to wear on his left ear, all three of them.

His first boss did not see those kind of things, tattoos and piercings, in a kind way.

And, so he got rid of the earrings, opting for a “cleaner” look.

Overall, his face did become more handsome with age and since he put on some weight.

Back then, he was too slim for his own height, the man thought.

Now, his seventy six kilograms were almost the ideal weight for his meter and eighty four of height.

The man studied the details of his past self, the image of which impressed in that plastic material.

His light brown eyes, that sometimes, under the right light, seemed almost yellow.

His eyebrows, that gave him an intense expression, black as his hair and naturally perfect, much to his satisfaction.

The eye portion of his face was what granted him most of his success with the ladies, at least, that’s what he always thought about himself.

That, and his voice, deep and warm, sometimes more interesting that the thing he said with it.

His nose, that was the feature he least liked of his own face. Back then, it was decent enough, but, when he was twenty years old, he had a fight and had his nose broken.

Now, the bridge of it was slightly bent to the left, as the broken bone failed to heal properly.

It was not a major defect, however, he was too much conscious of it.

He even thought about spending some bucks to fix it, but he always desisted from that idea.

He had enough vanity to consider it, not enough to actually go with that decision.

After all, it was still surgery, and surgery scared him a lot.

Inadvertently, he ran his left index on his nose, tracing the slight curvature that it had taken, his eyes studying the shape it had before, then going down.

His lips, his cocky smile, that never changed through the years.

And of course, his name, written besides the photo on the small, plasticized document.

Conrad Levine. He always loathed his name. Conrad, it always sounded old to him.

Clara loved it, that silly, beautiful Italian girl.

Again, she crossed Conrad’s thoughts. For a moment, he wanted to grab his phone and call her.

<<Ah, right>>

He said to himself, feeling slightly dumb. His phone after all, decided to explode right in his fingers.

Perhaps, he thought, even if he had a phone, who knew if it worked out here?

For what he knew, there could be no signal there.

<<And where the fuck is “here”?>>

He shouted in frustration. One thing was sure to him, as his last outburst had just confirmed. He definitely felt better than when he woke up.

He tried to stand up on his feet, and he did it without much effort, or pain, this time.

His side still hurt, but it was not enough to keep him from doing movements. Sure, thought Conrad, he could not be able to run a marathon or climb up a rock wall, but he could walk just fine.

Perhaps even run.

And so, he decided to start walking. No point in standing there.

First, he walked up to his missing shoe.

The sock was still inside of it, and Conrad bent, making a pained expression in the process, to pick it up and put it on.

The pair of shoe, black boots made with leather, were sturdy and warm.

Perfect for trekking inside a forest, he thought.

After having both shoes again, he considered what to do at the moment.

Conrad thought, the first thing he needed right now was to get out of the woods.

Judging from the light coming from above, he surmised that it was still morning out there, since the rays of light that managed to find their way between leaves were strong enough to well illuminate the place.

<<Noon? Perhaps?>>

He muttered his guess to himself.

Perhaps, he thought, he might be off by some hours in his consideration.

Still, Conrad thought to have enough time to maybe get out of the woods, or at least, understand where these woods were.

Moreover, he was now sure that he was not dead, or in a coma or some other strange dream state or hallucination.

He had considered those options, before, when pain and confusion numbed him down and clouded his thoughts, so much that he thought it all an hallucination of some kind.

But, as time went on, and he started to feel a bit better, the reality of his situation became more and more apparent.

And, he convinced himself of that, although it still confused him, a lot.

He looked around the place, seeing if he somehow managed to recognize it.

Adding to Conrad’s confusions, the surroundings were unknown to him, as the type of plants he observed around.

The place was nothing more than a patch of soil among trees, with a scarcer undergrowth due to the rocky nature of the terrain underneath the soft soil.

Gray rocks emerged here and there, the biggest of them the one where he was sitting some moments before.

All around, a carpet of dead leaves was scattered on the floor, excepts from some lines of clear soil, those that he believed to be the signs of something dragged on the ground.

Something as big as him, he thought while looking closer at those supposed tracks.

That, incidentally, led exactly to the point where he woke up.

<<What the hell is going on?>>

He muttered, some more strength in his voice.

Conrad’s thoughts were now running rampant, trying to think why and how he was dragged down here, from the highway and his car.

Perhaps, he crashed somewhere, and some kind soul dragged him out of the car and went to search for help.

But Conrad excluded that possibility, since there were no trace of a car around, nor those of another person.

It was like he, and that thought was so silly that it almost made him laugh, came crashing down from higher altitude, and slid on the leaf-covered soil until he stopped near the rock.

Of course, he knew that if something like this happened, his neck would have been snapped by the landing.

Not that he could completely rule out the fact that, having had an accident with his car, he was launched by the impact. In his mind, the possibility that he had a car accident was now a certainty, confirmed by his wounds.

Still, he did not manage to find a possible explanation for how he did end up in that place.

The thought that someone might have dragged him there was the most likely option, but he failed to understand why someone would take their time and struggle to drag almost eighty kilograms of man inside a forest, and leave him there.

Without even leaving a footprint around.

He decided to leave those thoughts alone for the moment, and focus on getting out of the trees. First, he would need to find a way to orient himself among them.

As he came closer to one, he was pleasantly surprised to see some moss growing on one side of the trunk.

Although he did not recognize the type of moss, and neither the tree, he knew from his days spent camping that he could use it to find the north.

To his knowledge, however, there weren’t any parks or meadows near the place where he was driving.

All city on the west side, and on the east side, land used for industrial purpose and further away, patches of land purposed for cultivation.

Only some small gardens around that part of the city.

But then, he came to the conclusion that, without knowing where he was, and without having some sort of landmark to use, there was no point in knowing about north or other cardinal points, for that matter.

What he needed to do, was to choose a direction, and move that way.

Perhaps, he thought, he could climb up a tree, but he dismissed that idea quickly, since it was too risky for him in those conditions.

The best thing to do, would be for him to find a high place, perhaps a hill of some sort, and hope that it was easy to climb up top, but high enough to grant him a better point of view, past the treetops and past the woods.

The terrain around him was slightly sloped, and he thought that if he followed that slope, perhaps he could find himself in a high position and see where this place was.

He followed the slope’s direction, heading east.

After roughly one hour of difficult march, Conrad was pleased by what he saw.

Exactly what he wanted. A hill, whose top rose higher than the trees. More than that, it looked easy to climb it, reaching the top.

And Conrad did so.

Step after step, stopping from time to time to catch his breath once more.

His vision was still riddled with those blue and red flickering points, flashing from the corner of his view.

Other than that, it was perfect, as was his hearing, now free of that annoying constant sound.

His head still pound with pain from time to time, especially when he accelerated his walk a bit too much.

It took him some time to get on top of it, a hill that had a height of roughly one hundred meters.

He checked the wristwatch he had on his left wrist, reading the time on the digital display.

Another item that, mysteriously, did not end up destroyed like his clothes and cellphone.

Looking at it, he felt a bit dumb.

The watch, beside displaying the hour, it had a small compass.

He laughed, shaking his head.

Then, he looked up to the hill, starting to trek up the sloped terrain.

It was a gentle slope, something that he would have been able to climb pretty quickly if he was in optimal conditions.

But, he wasn’t, and it took him some good time, and frequent stops, to get on top of it.

However,things went smoother than he initially surmised. Conrad thought his conditions worse than they were, or, he thought, he was getting better as time passed.

Once on top, he considered his conditions and felt like his suppositions were true. He felt fine, no pain coursing through his muscles.

And he knew, that the state he was in when he woke up was critical, something that would need weeks to heal, not mere hours.

Instead, the damage he had was gone.

Breathing no longer was painful, his vision worked perfectly and the ringing sounds in his ears was gone, as was the headache.

The flickering lights were still there, but that did not bother Conrad too much.

Other things had started to bother him, like the feeling of blood, sweat and dirt clinging to his skin, and the constant buzz of insects that had begun to swarm him.

They were tiny little critters, their bodies held a green, metallic shine. As he swatted one, he took the tiny corpse between two fingers, taking it closer to his eyes for a better inspection.

It was nothing like he had ever seen. Kind of an hybrid between a dragonfly and a mosquito, with a peculiar coloration, a deep metallic purple.

It had the bodily build and bulging eyes of a dragonfly, but it was much, much smaller, and had a stinger for a mouth, exactly like a mosquito.

And the little buggers stung him, too many times. His skin began to itch, and the bite-marks swelled and reddened, itching furiously.

He hoped that those little bugs were not something nasty, only mildly annoying. Otherwise, he would be in some deep trouble.

Still, after reaching the top, he forgot about the insects, and the dirt on his skin.

The sight from the hilltop was beautiful, stunning even, and it left Conrad speechless.

All around him, as far as his eyes could see, there was a green sea. Nothing but trees for miles and miles, in all directions.

A wide river slithered its way among the green of the forest, the treetops near it enveloped in a thin veil of mist.

Seen from above, the higher trees near the hill looked like they would reach half the height of it, but some other, seen in the distance, might have been taller than the hill itself.

As Conrad basked himself in the view, he thought it splendid, setting aside the implications that such a sight had, he simply let himself enjoy it, for a moment. The calm of it, the absence of any trace of humanity all around.

It should have been something to worry about, but, against all logic, the sight calmed him down.

He breathed in the slight breeze, the air so clean, like it was back when he was a child, and his family lived away from the city, their home in the countryside lost among nature.

No, it was even better than back then, and Conrad had the slight sensation, the feeling that the air of this place, it never had an ounce of the polluting smokes of human activity.

It was pure, free, alive. Untainted.

Even atop of the hill, with the slight breeze sweeping it, the air was warm enough for him to feel refreshed.

Conrad removed his tattered sweater and shirt, tying the two ragged clothes around his waist.

The two pieces of clothing were ruined enough that more than comfort, having them on was becoming a hassle, as the pieces of torn cloth swayed with the wind, sticking to the skin that they left largely exposed.

After doing so, Conrad gazed upwards, to the sky.

As he did, he shuddered, dread taking hold of its thoughts. The sky, it was different, so much that it left the man speechless, trembling.

It was blue, but…

Not a single cloud, and a strange, aurora-like luminosity was dancing on the sky above. Pulsing, it shone, the colors of it shifting, changing between shades of blue, green and purple.

The most stunning thing were the three lights glowing where the Sun should have been. Significantly smaller than the Sun, their light combined burned as brightly, blinding Conrad until he finally set his gaze elsewhere.

Maybe their combined size could reach that of the real Sun, he thought for a moment, perhaps in an attempt to escape the reality of what he saw.

Well, reality, he thought, might be the least correct term to use here.

His body, his sense of smell and touch, suggested that all of this was real.

The breeze on his skin, the smells lingering in the air.

Even the complex song that the huge sea of trees sang, with notes of birds and rustling leaves.

And yet, his sight suggested that this was not real. At least, not his usual “real”.

Conrad was standing on the top of a hill, surrounded by a sea of green, unknown trees.

Over his head, a strange sky where three small Suns shone and aurora lights danced in thousands of colors.

No trace of civilization all around, not a single sign of a road, or a settlement of some sorts.

Only nature, green as far as the eye could see. And the river, swimming its way in that sea of green that extended below the hill.

In the distance, a mountain ridge emerged lazily from the forest, growing in height as it grew more distant from the forest.

Some more hills emerged from the forest, between Conrad’s position and the mountain range, where the trees grew taller than the area where Conrad was.

This time, Conrad watched the compass on his wristwatch. To the north, he had the distant mountain ridge.

The rived followed the same direction for a trait, before taking a huge turn east and continuing its sinuous stream northwest of Conrad’s position. West, and south, more trees, unending, reaching as far as Conrad’s eyes could see.

<<This must be a fucking dream>>

He muttered to himself.