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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.