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Introduction:

A man who has reincarnated over a hundred times across a myriad of realities has been reborn once more into a world of all new rules.
Prologue

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A rare find, that beautiful crimson hair. That color was usually the result of cheap dye and a childish personality, desperate to prove individuality by opposing normality. It was a rare gift from nature, every strand like melting rubies, when most so-called redheads possessed only a diluted orange hue. But hers was like blood, drawing the eyes of all those around her, including Noah’s. Of all the women he had seen, met, and knew, even intimately, hers was the most purely crimson.

It was after school in early autumn, the light of the setting sun illuminating every strand and reminding him why it was worth it to approach her. She was walking across the empty soccer field, her body trembling from the adrenaline of all the running she had done in her track club. For once, Noah saw her without all of her friends surrounding her or her boyfriend’s arm draped over her shoulders like a boa constrictor. He had been waiting for this chance, longer than she could imagine.

“Lindsey, hey,” he said, meeting her in the open air, free from any interruptions.

“Noah, what are you doing here?”

She asked that question, but she knew the answer. What else would draw a boy to her, what other possible desire? He was going to flirt with her, possibly even ask her out. Would he be nervous? Would he be cocky? Would he play innocent and try to start with some small talk, or would he get straight to the point? Had he planned this? Had he been waiting? They had been friends since she transferred in their Sophomore year. Had that just been in anticipation of this?

It was clear in her eyes, that his intentions had been seen through, but it didn’t dissuade him. Rather, it was something that always amused him, the paradox of human coupling that became both easier and more difficult with age. She already knew what he desired, so unless she desired the same thing, her heart would be guarded, with no opening for a sneak attack to surprise her. It was a challenge that men and women had struggled with since the dawn of time.

“I heard that you and Sean broke up. I know what that feels like, how much it hurts, so I’m sorry. But if it’s not too soon, I wanted to ask if you’d like to go out with me this weekend?”

“Sorry, but since we’re graduating soon, I’m not sure I want to bother dating. After all, when summer comes, we’re all going to split up and go our separate ways.”

A rejection, not an optimal outcome, but it was within his expectations. He just had to convince her to give him a chance, but gently. He had to properly choose his words so that he wouldn’t come off as desperate and frustrated, but not try to ham it up by turning it into a sonnet like an out-of-touch nerd.

“Is that why you two broke up? Because you didn’t see a point in staying together? I doubt that. I think you believe in love, in giving it a chance. A lot of things will happen between now and graduation; Christmas, Valentine’s Day, the prom? That’s plenty of time to be happy, and to change your mind about which path you plan on taking. Plans can change, things can work out. All I want is a chance.”

“Sorry, but I’m just not interested in dating, and I’m too busy anyway. Besides, I like you only as a friend.”

She crossed her arms to warm herself, but she kept them low. It was an instinctive move, one that Noah’s eyes didn’t miss. He gave an exasperated smile and began to laugh. “Ok, I get it. Maybe next time.”

Lindsey, wanting this conversation to be over, walked past him, but beneath his continuing laughter, she heard something, a metallic click, and it chilled her blood. She spun around and saw the knife in Noah’s hand.

“Jesus Christ, what are you doing?!” she screamed while raising her hands to shield herself.

“Don’t worry. This isn’t for you.”

He swung up his hand and stabbed himself in the throat. The strike, it was so fast, but it was gentle, just the tip of the blade breaking his skin and severing his Jugular with pinpoint accuracy. It was a perfect, fluid movement, as if he had spent hours practicing. Blood began to spray from the small wound, and to the sound of Lindsey’s scream, he allowed himself to fall on his back. She rushed over and tried to stop the bleeding. Covering it with her hand only slowed the outpour, so she reached into her bag for something to use as a bandage.

“Stop, just keep your hand there,” Noah said calmly. The vein he had struck carried blood out of the head and sent it back to his heart, so the rest of the blood in his system would keep his brain oxygenated, at least while it was still in his veins.

“You’re fucking crazy! I’m not going to let you die like this!”

“I’ve already died like this… more than a hundred times before. This isn’t my first rodeo.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like. Reincarnation, transmigration, whatever you call it, I count lives like you count years, and every time I die, I’m immediately reborn with all the memories from my past lives. I’ve been born and died so many times, laughed and suffered through so many lifetimes.”

“That’s just blood loss talking. Hang on!” She tried to pull out her phone, but Noah grabbed it with surprising strength.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you? Sean freaked out after you told him and that’s why you broke up.”

Her face became as pale as his. “How could you possibly know that?”

“Because this isn’t the first time I’ve confessed to you. I’m always myself, but the world I’m born into is never the same. Every time I die, I return to the day of my birth, but in a different timeline. I’ll end up in a world where my surroundings are different, or history didn’t go the way I remember it, or events will happen in my future that I can’t predict.

Only in my past seven lifetimes have you been present, and in all seven lifetimes, I could never make you mine, no matter how much I wanted you. Five of those times were because you were pregnant. You and Sean get back together by Thanksgiving, and I and everyone else watch you dance together at the prom. Each time, I kill myself to try again in my next life. These past eighteen years, they’ve flown by like the blink of an eye for me.”

His bleeding was starting to slow, his body going cold and his mind getting foggy.

“Why me? Why would you keep going after me? Why am I worth killing yourself over?”

“It’s the only way I can live anymore, following some task or game that keeps me busy. Every life I’ve lived, it’s been a lie, concealing who I am, what I know, what I’ve experienced. Much of the time, I have to pretend to have emotions, because after all this time, I’ve almost forgotten what they feel like. I’ve almost forgotten what’s like to actually feel something. But when I see you, I get to experience actual longing. I have an actual crush, something so simple and childish, but such a wonderful feeling. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a redhead, but I’ve lived for so long, I have to grasp at any scrap of meaning that can make me happy, and make my existence a little less hollow.”

“What about your family? What about this life you’ve built? You’re just going to throw it all away?”

With the last of his strength, he removed her hand from his wound so that it could bleed freely. Her wrist was limp. Had he convinced her? Or had she simply realized that he had already bled too much and was beyond saving? He covered his left eye with his hand, blinded by the setting sun while Lindsey’s shadow obscured the right side of his face. The light passed through her crimson hair like stained glass, making his blood shine beautifully.

“I’ve seen so many worlds, so many different realities, but none of them could make me happy. I’ve never known what it felt like to belong or feel at home. Every world felt wrong to me. This is yet another reality that I am incompatible with. All I can do is hope that the next world is one I can be happy in.”

The blood at last stopped flowing, and Noah closed his eyes and released his final breath. Then, in his mind, there was a familiar flash of light and he felt himself being pulled to the next world.

A Whole New Game

Without even opening his eyes, Noah knew that something had gone wrong. He was groggy, but he could definitely feel the cold, hard ground underneath him. This didn’t make sense. At this moment, he’d normally be experiencing his own rebirth, coming out of the womb as a newborn baby. His body was also still the same size. He could feel the weight of his limbs, as well as his clothes. His hand was still covering his eye, but just moving it took a tremendous amount of strength. He managed to work his eyelids open and stared up at the blue sky. It was late in the afternoon when he killed himself, but now it looked to be midmorning.

This had never happened before, no matter how many times he had died. Either he had somehow survived his suicide attempt and been moved while he was unconscious, or he had reincarnated without being reborn, breaking into another timeline rather than being properly incorporated. Was his reincarnation power changing?

Noah sat up and looked around. He was lying on an unpaved road in the woods. His hoodie and the shirt underneath were stiff with his dried blood, but when he felt his neck, there was no wound. He had been healed, but had his blood also been replenished? It would have taken at least thirty minutes for the blood on his clothes to dry this much, not enough time for his body to restore any meaningful amount, so this was likely a partial rebirth.

He got to his feet and staggered, struggling to breathe. There was no strength in his limbs and his thoughts were getting weaker by the second. This fatigue, it was similar to blood loss, but also different. It was like there was some kind of extra muscle going crazy, using up all of his strength. If it didn’t dissipate soon, he’d end up passing out again. What in the world? He looked down and realized that he wasn’t casting a shadow. The fatigue must have been messing with his vision. Now that he thought about it, his left eye was itching a bit. He gave it a rub and it was like a switch had been flipped. The fatigue vanished, as if that extra muscle had settled, and when he looked down, he saw his shadow.

‘That wasn’t blood loss. It must have been some kind of leftover trauma from my suicide or this glitchy rebirth. But where am I?’

The road was unusual. The ground was packed, but the sediment seemed native to the spot. In the modern world, even the unpaved roads were made with at least a layer of sand and gravel to prevent it from being overgrown. He had his wallet and his phone with him, but there was no service.

A sound reached his ears, one that most people rarely heard outside of movies and TV. It was the sound of horse hooves. He looked over his shoulder, seeing two adult men on horseback approaching him from down the road. Behind them, an old man driving a horse-drawn wagon and leading… slaves. Wearing rags for clothes, more than a dozen men and women of varying ages were being led by chains.

This strange caravan came to a halt in front of him. The men on horseback and the one driving the wagon stared at him in confusion. “You’re blocking the road. Get the hell out of our way before you end up like them,” the driver barked.

It had been a long time since Noah saw a slave shipment. He normally only found them in post-apocalyptic timelines, when society had broken down. That, or timelines where the south won the Civil War and other such occurrences.

“Did you hear me? Get out of the way!”

“Boss, look at all of the blood he’s covered in,” one of the men on horseback said.

Noah looked at them. Their clothes, they were shoddy, wool clearly not woven by any kind of modern machinery and with coats and boots made of primitively-treated leather. Maybe he had reincarnated to a third-world country? If this was a post-apocalyptic timeline, then whatever happened wasn’t manmade. It happened before the Industrial Revolution, some kind of natural disaster that halted mankind’s development. A meteor?

“I don’t think he understands us. He’s got some weird clothes. He might be the son of some noble,” the other horseman said.

Their weapons, they had sheathed swords but no signs of any guns. So, this was an era before gunpowder was invented. Medieval? It sure seemed like it.

“If he’s a noble, we can ransom him back, and if not, he looks healthy and strong enough to sell for a good price. Chain him up with the others.”

One of the men got off his horse and approached Noah with a length of rope. None of them were aware that he still had his knife on him. As the man reached out to grab his hands, Noah slashed him across the throat. It wasn’t the pinpoint jab like he had given himself earlier, this was a bloody smile stretching from ear to ear. It had been a long time since he had last killed someone, but it was something he was very well-practiced in.

A fountain of blood sprayed forth and Noah threw his knife at the wagon driver, catching him in the chest. Before his first victim could drop to his knees, Noah ripped his sword from its sheath and charged towards the other horseman, already drawing his own blade to avenge his coworker. The throat was out of reach, so Noah deflected the oncoming attack and went for a stab in the side of the gut and up into the right lung.

“Fireball!”

There was a flash of light in his peripheral vision, coming from the old man. Noah’s instincts made him jerk back as a flare shot through the air, missing his face by an inch. It struck a nearby tree and exploded, spraying fire in all directions like a Molotov Cocktail. Noah looked back at the old man, one hand outstretched while the other covered the stab wound in his chest from Noah’s knife. He wasn’t holding a flare gun or any other kind of device that would explain what had just happened.

“You can’t be serious,” Noah muttered.

“Fireball!” the old man shouted again.

Just like before, a sphere of condensed flames formed in his hand, about the size of melon, and shot at Noah with tremendous speed. Noah dodged and rushed in to close the distance. The first fireball had forced him to let go of his sword and the second had forced him back before he could grab the second man’s. He’d have to finish this with his bare hands.

The horses were all throwing tantrums in fear from the fighting, but the old man continued to launch those mysterious flares. Noah circled around the horses, jumped, and tackled the man. There was no clumsy fumbling for control, Noah simply began beating him with his fist. His current body hadn’t been trained for combat, but he kept it healthy and strong and knew how much force he had muster up with each punch. Blood started spraying with the third punch, the old man unable to fight back and soon blacking out. Noah promptly retrieved his fallen knife and finished him off.

Noah took his time to catch his breath while he wiped off the blade, folded it up, and stored it in his pocket. He took those few moments to quell his annoyance. He was used to being reborn as a baby after every death and considered those early years to be his vacation between each new life, time to properly dispose of old memories, catalogue useful knowledge, and mentally deal with any loose ends. No one depended on him and he usually had a parent or caregiver to take care of him, giving him time to rest his mind. Now he had jump right back into a survival mindset and start from scratch in a world with all new rules.

Those fireballs the old man had launched, that was undoubtedly magic, something that he thought only existed in fantasy stories. He had never seen magic before, not in any of the timelines he had already lived in. Until now, he had operated under the belief of the Multiverse Theory, which stated that there was a timeline for every possible subatomic event. Was it really possible for magic to exist in the multiverse? What did this timeline have that all the previous ones lacked?

The old man would have been a valuable source of information, but with his subordinates now dead, he would never willingly tell Noah anything. It wouldn’t be worth the time and trouble to interrogate him in this situation. Oh well, the answers would come in time, and Noah had learned how to be patient.

He turned his attention to the slaves, staring back at him with uncertainty. They weren’t rejoicing at the death of their captors, fair enough. After all, Noah hadn’t killed them in order to free the slaves or anything like that. As far as they knew, he was about to kill them all or just take them all and sell them himself. Each of them was a variable, possibly benefiting or dooming him. It would be best to just let them go, but he decided to get some use out them first.

The slave traders had spoken with an accent that he had never heard before, but it was English, though they probably didn’t call it that. These slaves must also speak it. “All of you, I give you permission to speak. Do you all understand what I’m saying?” They didn’t say anything, but they nodded in the affirmative. “Are there any among you who are familiar with this area?” None of them answered.

Possessing knowledge could either make them valuable or a liability. They didn’t want to expose themselves unless they knew what awaited them. Noah sighed and returned to the old man, patting him down until he found an iron key, likely going to all of their collars.

He held up the key for all the slaves to see. “I need one of you to guide me to a safe area with a source of fresh water and off the road where I won’t be seen. Whoever volunteers will get their collar removed and can ride in the wagon. Once I’m brought to a suitable location, you will all will be set free.” Six slaves raised their bound hands. “You,” Noah said.

He had ***********ed a teenage girl that looked to be around his age. She was dirty and underfed, but looked healthy enough to be useful to him, and he could certainly overpower her if she tried to betray him. It was hard to gauge her appearance in this state. She had a pitiful look permanently etched into her face, like a basset hound. If he cleaned her up, she might be a real cutie, but right now she was so dirty that he couldn’t even tell her natural hair color.

“What is your name?”

“Tin, sir.” She didn’t make eye contact. None of them did.

“Do what I say, Tin, and you’ll earn your freedom. Go against me and I’ll kill you.” He unlocked her metal collar but left her wrists bound. “Now help me take care of these bodies.”

Noah searched the corpses of the three slave traders, taking everything of value. Along with their swords, he got a couple daggers, some cord, and three makeshift wallets. They were snake skins with stacks of bronze coins inside, tied to their belts. It was a clever concept.

“Tin, is there any danger of wild animals in these woods? Anything that I should worry about?”

“Monsters will surely be drawn by the smell of blood here. It would be best if we moved on now.”

Noah huffed in annoyance. Great, now he had monsters to worry about. This certainly was a world unlike any he had seen before. This ruined his plan of taking the corpses with him. He was sure he could find a use or two for them, as well as take their clothes and anything else of value on their person when there was more time. He also didn’t want to leave any evidence of what he had done.

“Very well. Remove the clothes from the bodies and put them in the wagon.”

She wordlessly obeyed, proceeding to strip the corpses without any shred of unease or discomfort. Most girls her age would be too squeamish to do anything like this. As she worked, Noah searched the wagon and found a canvas bag, smelling too rancid to be used for food. He soaked it with a wineskin, and while it wasn’t ideal, it was good enough for him to use to put out the fires that the old man had started. He and Tin completed their tasks, leaving three naked bodies on the road and a few charred trees. Noah retrieved one of the swords, just a crummy machete, but sharp enough to get the job done. He showed no discomfort in decapitating the bodies and storing the heads in the canvas bag.

“Drag these bodies into the woods, out of sight from the road. That should satiate any beasts that search this area.”

There was no telling what the value of these slave traders were. If they were even slightly important to someone, their disappearance might lead to an investigation. Three nude, headless bodies that were devoured by monsters wouldn’t leave any evidence. They couldn’t even be identified. On the other hand, if they were criminals, then Noah might be able to use their severed heads as confirmation of their deaths and collect a bounty. He had been in a lot of bad situations and chaotic timelines, so this mindset was a skill he knew he could rely on and use as he needed.

Once the bodies were dealt with, Noah took his seat at the front of the wagon and Tin joined him. The two extra horses were tethered to the sides of the wagon and would follow along. Noah cracked the reins and the horses pulling the wagon began moving forward.

“There is a suitable place several miles down this road. I will show you where.”

“Until we get there, I have questions that I need answered. Where am I? What country is this?”

“This is the Algata Province of the nation of Uther.”

“How large is Uther? How much of the continent does it take up?”

Tin bowed her head. “Please forgive my ignorance. I do not know the size of this country, nor what a ‘continent’ is.” The way she had reacted, was she expecting him to punish her?

Her answer was to be expected, though. A slave educated in geography would be an unusual find. It would be good if he could get his hands on a decent map, though in this era, that was probably a lot to ask for. In a world with magic and monsters, there was no telling what the planet’s topography looked like, even the arrangement of the continents. He had traveled previous Earths numerous times, but much of his experience was now obsolete.

“Relax, I’m not going to hit you for not knowing something. Just keep answering my questions as best as you can. Uther, is it a rich country?”

“I… don’t know for sure. Perhaps there is wealth in the capital, but this is the countryside.”

“Does it operate under a monarchy? Or do they elect their leaders?” She looked at him like he had spoken in gibberish. “Does it have a king or queen?”

“Oh, yes, sir. There is a royal family, but I don’t know anything about them.”

“What do they use for currency?”

“Metal coins, like silver and gold.”

Noah retrieved one of the snakeskin coin purses and emptied it out onto the seat between them. It was about a dozen bronze coins and a few silvers. The other two could be expected to hold a similar amount.

“How much would you say this is? Would you say it is a large amount of money or not much?”

She looked at the coins with her glum expression. “I don’t know. I’ve never handled money before.” She picked up one of the silver coins and showed it to Noah. “This is what I’m worth.”

‘Well, that’s a depressing thought.’ “What season is it currently?”

“Mid spring.”

That was good for Noah. In order to get a foothold in this new world, he’d need ample time with the chances of survival at its highest. Winter would hamper his mobility, possible actions, and make life a lot harder. Had he appeared in this world a few months earlier, he could easily freeze to death before reaching civilization.

“You spoke before of monsters. What should I be cautious of in this forest?”

“The biggest danger is the wolves. They travel in packs and kill whatever they see. There are also bears, large spiders that hide in burrows, and goblins.”

Giant spiders and goblins? This world was getting more fantastical by the second.

“Tell me about the goblins.”

“They are small, only about the size of children, and maybe as smart. They have weapons and often ambush travelers.”

“The old man, what was that technique he used? I’ve never seen anyone do that before.”

“That was magic.”

‘Thought so.’ “Tell me everything you know about magic.”

“It is the blessing of the gods, letting people call down divine retribution upon their enemies. It can create fire, control water, make you stronger, and do all kinds of things. There many different kinds of magic users. I’ve heard of some of them; mages, paladins, warriors, shamans, but I don’t know much about what they can do.”

“What kind was the old man?”

“A mage, I think.”

“So can anyone use it? Or is it passed down through the bloodline?”

“I don’t know.”

That was a problem. If it was an ability passed down from parent to child, then he was screwed. His glitchy reincarnation left him with the regular genes of his last parents. If magic wasn’t something he could learn or acquire, life would get exponentially harder. Then there was the mentioning of gods. He had spent several lifetimes searching for signs of the existence of God, some presence of divinity that might explain his existence, but he always came up short. However, in a world where magic existed, perhaps gods might as well.

As they continued through the woods, Noah thought about the slaves walking behind the wagon. Letting them go might be a liability. They knew he had killed three slave traders, they knew where he would set up camp. The slave traders mistook him for the son of a noble, so if the slaves went into some town and started blabbing about him and what he had done, people might come after him. Perhaps it would be better to dispose of all of them? No, the chances of him managing to kill them all would be low and that would be a lot of corpses to deal with, not to mention he didn’t know if killing them would get him into trouble.

‘To think my laziness would compensate for my withered conscience…’

They were passing by a hill with trees blocking much of the view, but all of the horses flicked their ears to it. Noah didn’t miss that tick and reached into the wagon. When searching earlier, he found a bow and a few arrows, none of which seemed very well made. He took aim up the hill, spotting a shadow moving between the hills. It had been a long time since he had last used a bow. It was one of his hobbies about four or five lifetimes ago. This was nothing like the modern bows he was used to handling, but when he let the arrow slip free, it shot between the trees and found its mark. Noah didn’t see what he hit, but there was a shriek of pain that he did not recognize and the sound of multiple entities running off.

“What was that?” Tin asked.

“I assume that was one of those goblins you mentioned.” This was getting dangerous. “You stay here,” he told Tin. He brought the wagon to a stop and went back with his knife and the key. He cut the slaves’ binds and unlocked their collars. “You’re all free to go, get out of here. But don’t even think of trying to follow—”

They ran off before he could finish his sentence. Good, that would make him less of a sitting duck, and they’d draw the attention of anything that might want a piece of him. He returned to the driver’s seat and turned to Tin, holding up one of the coin purses.

“Get me to that safe spot and this is yours.”

----------------

The forest thinned a lit, the trees spreading out far enough for the wagon to go off the road and head towards the sound of running water. They arrived at a clearing where a small waterfall thumped on exposed rock. It was isolated, just the place Noah needed. There was even a cave behind the waterfall where he could make camp. However, they were not the only inhabitants.

“Tin, what the hell is that?” he asked, looking at the creature sliding across the ground. At first, he thought it was giant slug, the creature about the size of a beer keg, but he then realized it was translucent. There were four of them.

“That is a slime. They like damp places. Their undersides are like giant mouths, devouring whatever they crawl over. Their bodies are covered with a thin skin, and if you tear it, its insides pour out and change the shape of its body.”

“Are they dangerous?”

“Yes. Anything that their undersides touch will melt, same with anything you stab them with. The bigger they are, the faster it happens, and the faster they can move.”

“How do I kill them?”

“You have to hit their brains.”

The slimes hadn’t noticed them yet, so Noah took aim with the bow at the nearest one. It was hard telling the front from the back of these things, but he spotted something floating inside, suspended, an apple-sized lump of solid tissue. He released the bolt, missing the creature’s brain by several inches. It rumbled in pain and its gelatinous insides spilled out of the wound like a runny nose. Upon contact with the air, the viscera began to congeal and develop a layer of skin. It formed an extension of itself, like a second tail, now searching for what had injured it.

‘So, that’s what she meant when she said it changed the shape of its body.’

Already, the arrow was halfway dissolved. That thing was like a giant moving stomach. He would have preferred to take care of these monsters from a distance, but he didn’t have enough arrows to throw away. It would also get dark soon, and he didn’t want to try and look for another spot.

He turned to Tin and cut her binds, then handed her one of the coin purses. “You’re free. Go wherever and do whatever you want. But don’t even think of taking anything from the wagon.”

He got up from the wagon and approached the waterfall with one of the slave traders’ swords in his hand. It was the worst of the two, useful at least for experimentation. He approached the slime, already back to full health after being shot with the arrow. It didn’t appear to have very good vision, didn’t even appear to have eyes. He picked up a stone from the creek and threw it, sending it bouncing a few feet away. It pounced on the rock with surprising speed, smothering it with its body and absorbing it. So, these things could jump. If it could see, it was probably short-ranged, based on movement, or more likely it could sense vibrations in the ground.

He took another rock and threw it at the slime, this time hitting it. The rock ripped through its fragile skin and its guts spilled out. The blow stunned it just long enough for Noah to sprint over and cleave through its brain. As quickly as he attacked, he darted back. He had learned through numerous occasions to always expect an enemy to get back up. Plus, he wanted to avoid getting sprayed with any guts.

Despite his concern, it was a clean kill. The monster, originally a nauseating yellow, turned gray, and its exposed insides began to smoke and dissolve. Unfortunately, smoke was also coming from his sword. This really was a nasty acid. Noah wiped the blade off on the grass and then rinsed it in the river to clean it. It had undergone severe corrosion. Hopefully it would last until he killed them all.

One thing made him happy, though. When he killed the slime, numbers didn’t appear in the air, displaying experience points earned. He started having concerns as soon as that first fireball was launched at him, and when Tin said it was a slime; he thought he had been reincarnated into some kind of RPG world. If at any point, she used the word ‘level’, he would have permanently lost the ability to keep a straight face and take anything seriously.

Anyway, back to killing.

He repeated his strategy with the other three slimes. A fist sized rock thrown with sufficient speed and accuracy could pierce the monsters and stun them long enough to deliver a fatal strike. After the third slime, his sword broke in half, the end completely melting off. There was one slime left, but it would be tricky. It was slithering around behind the waterfall, unaware of what had happened to the others. The vibrations of the water would probably mask Noah’s movements, but he didn’t want to take the chance.

He crept behind the waterfall and threw another stone, striking the slime near the brain. Its body curled up like a slug sprinkled with salt, and Noah rushed over. This time, he thrust the broken blade straight in. He managed to stab the brain, but the sword slipped right into its body. Noah pulled away before his inertia could send his hand plunging into the acidic muck, but several drops splashed him and he could feel his skin dissolving. He thrust his hand into the waterfall and steadied his breathing as the pain faded. That was too close for comfort. He’d have to come up with another way to stop those things if he encountered them again.

The area had been secured, now to set up camp. He stepped out from behind the waterfall, and to his surprise, he saw Tin standing by the wagon, as if waiting for him.

“What are you still doing here? I told you, you’re free.”

“I… don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to be free.”

“I gave you money. Take it to the nearest town and buy yourself something to eat and some new clothes. Look for anyone who will hire you, hopefully offering room and board in exchange. From there, start your new life.”

“Is that an order?”

“No, it’s advice. You don’t have to take orders from me, I’m not your master. I hired you to be my guide, you got your money, and our contract is complete. Now we part ways.” She continued to stand there, looking like a puppy in the rain. “You can have one of the horses. You’ll be able to get to town faster and outrun pursuers.”

“So you want me to prepare for your arrival into town?”

This girl was starting to get on his nerves. “You’re not listening. You don’t have to do anything for me. You’re your own person now.”

“But I’m not. I’m yours.” She was almost whimpering now. Time for some tough love.

Noah retrieved his bow and an arrow and took aim at her. “Leave now, or I’ll kill you and use your corpse for bait to catch my dinner.”

There was a glimmer in her eyes. “If I can be useful as a corpse, I’ll do that. Please, use me as bait.”

Noah sighed and lowered the bow. Were he a harsher man, that wouldn’t have been a bluff. This girl was needier than he would have liked, but her subservience made her more trustworthy than anyone he could expect to find in this world. Maybe it would be good to have an extra pair of hands to help him, at least until he got out of this forest. Besides, it wasn’t like this was the first time he had owned a slave. There were many dark timelines when he followed the rule of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans.’

“Fine, I’ll be your master. What skills do you have?”

“I can count to one hundred, I can write some, and I can tend to livestock and work fields, as well as perform household chores. I am also very experienced in pleasing men, so I can service you whenever you desire.” She bowed her head as she spoke, not seeing Noah raise his eyebrows at her last sentence.

Depressing as her words were, he wasn’t one to turn down an offer for sex from someone so willing. On the other hand, nothing about her current appearance stoked his libido. He was standing twenty feet away and could smell her like it was twenty inches. Sitting next to her in the wagon had been very unpleasant. Just letting her bathe in the river wouldn’t get the job done.

“Let’s get camp set up and then we’ll talk. You said you can tend to livestock, correct? Then I’ll leave the horses to you. Get them watered and fed and then remove these dead slimes. I imagine they’ve lost their acidity in death.”

Tin obediently went to work while Noah gathered all of the chains and collars that had been used to lead the slaves. There was also plenty of rope in case any of their binds broke during transport. Noah snapped the collars off the chains and used them as hammers to break the weaker links and split the chains into multiple short segments. He split the rope into thinner strands and set up a perimeter around the campsite, then hung the collars and chains on it like Christmas ornaments. Any intruders that tried to enter would hit the tripwire and the jingling chains and collars would give them away. And in case they were set off by the wind, the horses would be the second line of detection. If they started acting up, then a threat was nearby.

“I’m going to go collect some firewood. If any monsters approach, just holler for me and yeet some horseshit at them. The smell will drive them off.” He then stopped and chuckled to himself. That’s right, he no longer needed to use modern slang.

Tin seemed to gist of what he was saying. “Yes, Master,” she said with a bow.

Noah set out into the woods with his only sword and a satchel the old man had been carrying. He didn’t want to stray far from camp, but he had to check out the area and make sure there weren’t any imminent dangers. One thing he was especially cautious of were the giant spiders that Tin had mentioned. She said they hid in burrows, so he kept a close eye on his footing, avoiding any suspicious areas that could be a possible ambush. Webbing on the ground was a telltale sign, proof that he wasn’t the only one using tripwires to detect enemies.

The first thing he did was gather pine boughs from around the site, accumulating a large pile that they would use for bedding and making frequent trips back to the camp. Then he gathered all of the firewood he could carry, but focused only on specific trees. This world was very different to the one he was used to, but most of the trees appeared to be the same. He also filled his pockets and the satchel with medicinal plants and even some edible mushrooms. In every life, her learned and relearned survival skills to keep the information branded into his mind, so even if had forgotten their names, he still recognized herbs that could be useful. As he moved, he had a strong feeling that he was being watched, and he knew what was watching him, especially when he found one of their dead.

It was one of the wolves Tin had mentioned, larger than any he had ever seen. His nose led him to it, the wolf reeking of death and rot. The meat was well beyond eating and its fur and bones weren’t worth the effort to harvest, especially with all the maggots and flies, but there was something that he could definitely make use of.

The sun was starting to set by the time he was done, but there was still plenty he wanted to do. Luckily, dinner was already taken care of. The slave traders had packed enough food for themselves and their cargo. It was hard bread and dried meat, something that Noah’s spoiled taste buds would not appreciate, but he’d seen enough hard times to know how to be grateful.

Before doing anything else, he removed his hoodie and t-shirt. He had kept them on as an added layer of protection in case anything attacked him, but the blood had hardened into a hard crust and he was glad to be able to finally take them off. Had he known he would reincarnate like this, he would have gone home and just hung himself, preferably with his pockets stuffed with useful tools. He laid out his shirt and hoodie under the waterfall, directing the spray right onto the blood stains. He pinned them down with stones so that they wouldn’t be washed away.

He noticed Tin watching him like a curious feline. She had never seen muscles like his before. To survive in the countryside, men required great strength to farm and fight and muscle mass naturally accumulated. Noah’s appeared more defined, like he had focused on improving the quality of his muscles instead of just chasing after the vague definition of strength.

“Tin, take off your clothes.”

“I shall do my best to satisfy you, Master.”

“Not like that. Put that dress of yours here under the waterfall. Do the same with all the clothes you removed from those slave traders. It may be low-quality, but whether we use them or sell them, it would be best if we can at least remove the stink.”

Tin removed her dress, though it was more like a raggedy potato sack with holes cut for her head and arms and a strip of cloth for a belt. She was malnourished and scrawny, but he just had to polish her up a little.

With the last of the light, he searched the river for stones. He’d test their hardness, striking them against the back of his sword. Once he started getting sparks, he returned to the riverbank and gathered up some tinder. He ground some dry birch bark into a fine dust and struck the rock against his sword over it. It took several attempts, but some sparks landed in the dust and it went up like gasoline. From there, he built up a fire on the riverbank with all of the birch wood he had gathered. By the light of the flames, he started digging a hole using his sword and a metal skillet he found in the wagon.

“Master, please allow me to do that instead,” Tin said.

“No, what I need you to do is start collecting clay from the river. If you dig under the silt, you’ll find it. Make a big pile of it here next to me.”

The two of them continued to work, with Noah expanding the pit and Tin gathering the clay. Once he was done, he smoothed out the sides of the pit and then began slathering on the clay that Tin had gathered. He used the leftover clay to make some cups and bowls and put them in the fire to bake. He built a second fire, this time putting it in the pit. It was with a softer wood. He didn’t even need to see Tin’s face to sense the curiosity within her.

“I’m making a wash basin. No offense, but you stink. But for now, let’s eat.”

With two fires burning, Noah and Tin dined on low-quality rations. There wasn’t any conversation between them. Once he finished eating, Noah reached into his satchel and took out what looked like a giant dirt clod. In reality, it was a lump of animal fat. He had gathered it from the carcass of the dead wolf, rolled it into a ball, and packed it with a shell of dirt to keep it from making a mess when he carried it. It cleaned it off and put it in the metal skillet, then set it over the fire.

“Now, while that melts, let me see your teeth.” It was a request that Tin wasn’t used to hearing, but she obeyed, flashing her teeth like a snarling animal. “Huh, not too bad.”

Despite her poor lifestyle, her teeth were in good condition. She grew up in a world without processed foods, sugars, or chemicals, so despite never brushing, there was no rot that he could see. Her breath was pretty bad, but that was because she lacked the concept of flossing.

Noah walked over to one of the horses hitched to a tree, nibbling on the pile of grass that Tin had gathered for it. He cut a lock of its long hair, washed it in the river, and returned to the campfire, where he braided several strands into a strong thread. He made a second and turned to Tin.

“Take this thread and do as I do.” He used the thread to floss his teeth, something which Tin had never seen before. The thread was thick and coarse and broke a few times, but it got the job done, and he showed her the pieces of meat from their dinner that he had gotten out.

She mirrored the action to the best of her abilities, and while she did that, he looked at the skillet, now with a puddle of melted fat. He gathered some white ashes from the fire and mixed it in, as well as some water.

“Now I’m going to show you how to make soap.” Last, he added a handful of ground-up pine needles and started stirring the mixture together.

“Soap?”

“You’ve never heard of it?”

“I heard that the nobles use it. It makes them smell nice.”

“It’s been a long time since I did this. If I had time and proper tools, I could make something of a much higher quality, but this should get the job done.” He set the skillet back on the fire so that the water could be boiled away. “Have you gotten every tooth?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then take a mouthful of this.” From next to the fire, there was also a cup made, of all things, tin. It was full of water brought to a simmer, with ground charcoal and pine needles mixed in. He let it cool and then handed it to her. “You said you could count, right? Well swirl this around your mouth and start counting. Once you reach one hundred, swallow it.”

She took a mouthful and handed it back to him so he could finish it off. With that taken care of, Noah took the skillet off the fire and examined his soap. It certainly would never sell in a grocery store, but it would get the job done tonight. Next, he turned his attention to the wash basin and the withered fire. The clay packed onto the sides of the pit had hardened and could now retain water.

Noah carved the soap off the skillet and handed it to Tin. “Here, use this to shovel as much charcoal and ash out of the basin as you can, then clean it in the river and use it to fill the basin with water.”

As Tin went to work, Noah started on his own task. Like her, he went to river, but started collecting stones. He’d bring them back and put them in the campfire to heat up. By the time Tin had finished with her task, the rocks were all sufficiently hot, and using sticks to handle them, he moved them into the basin until it had reached the perfect bath temperature. It was still ashy from the fire, but that wasn’t a problem.

The reason why he had used different fires for the basin and soap was because of one of the resulting chemicals, lye. Despite being a caustic substance, it was required for making soap. It was collected from the ashes of hardwood, like birch. He had used a softer wood in the fire to harden the sides of the basin so any leftover ashes wouldn’t turn the water too alkaline.

“All right, now to test it.”

Noah stripped down to match Tin and grabbed a piece of fabric from the wagon to use as a washcloth. He got it wet in the basin, rubbed some of the soap on it, and, satisfied with how it lathered, started wiping off the sweat that had accumulated since his arrival to this world.

Tin held a piece of soap in her hand, staring at it with wide eyes. “It smells… sweet!”

She mimicked Noah, using a makeshift washcloth and the soap to scrub herself raw. She was frantic, leaving no spot untouched. The two of them cleansed their skin, lathering themselves up and then rinsing in the river to keep the bath water clean. With the dirt removed, much was revealed to Noah. Neither of them said anything about the countless scars, bruises, and brands that covered Tin’s body. Finally, he had her lie on her back and lowered her head into the basin, then scrubbed her hair with the soap until the bathwater turned as black as ink. She sat up and rung the water out of her hair as he stood up and stretched.

“Huh, so you’re a blonde. I honestly couldn’t tell your natural color. You were so dirty that I wasn’t sure if the drapes matched the carpet.” She didn’t say anything back, just crouched by the basin, holding herself. Wait, she was trembling. “Tin?”

She looked up at him, and though her face was wet from the bath, he could clearly see her tears. “I… I’ve never smelled this clean before!”

He rubbed the top of her head. “I’m glad.”

She reached up and grasped his hand, desperation in her eyes. “Master, can I please service you now?”

A small laugh escaped Noah. “My, my, what a greedy little slave you are.”

He leaned down, lifted her chin, and left a soft kiss upon her lips. She shivered from that touch, gentler than any other in her life. She took the initiative, kissing him in return while her tongue slipped into his mouth. As they swapped saliva, she reached out and began caressing his manhood, erect and throbbing. She had been eyeing it since the moment he stripped down, her mind buzzing with all of the ways she would please him.

When Noah finally pulled his lips from hers, she knew what he wanted and was eager to provide it. She leaned in, his cock disappearing into her mouth, only to reappear with a glistening layer of spit. Tin wasn’t shy in the least, she put all of her skills to work. She deepthroated him to make herself gag and salivate, then would use her hands to work the shaft while she slurped on his head like a lollipop. Despite her joy at being so clean just a minute ago, she was certainly making a mess, her face covered in spit with big foamy drops dribbling onto her breasts.

Noah rested his hand on her head and groaned. “I’m glad I decided to keep you.”

She released his cock, gasping for air with her eyes full of joy. “Am I doing good?”

“You’re magnificent, Tin.”

She went back at it, this time with a different target in mind. While she jacked him off, she sucked vehemently on his jewels, rolling them around in her mouth and balancing them on her tongue. She switched between her techniques with masterful skill, giving Noah no time to brace himself. He didn’t even need tell her when he was going to cum, she could tell just by his breathing and the way his muscles twitched. She swallowed his manhood like a voracious beast, her face pressed to his stomach as he swirled around inside her throat.

Several thick jets were pumped directly into her stomach, a salty dessert after her meal. Tin fell back, once again gasping for air. “Master,” she panted, “please don’t hold back. Use my body however you wish.”

“You’ve done well in pleasing me, but has anyone ever took the time to give you pleasure?”

He sat down cross-legged and pulled her across his lap like he was going to spank her. He held her by the throat, just a gentle grip to keep her still, while he free hand slipped between her legs and reached her honeypot.

“You’re so wet. To think you took so much joy in your work.”

Born and raised a slave, she had been abused and violated in all ways imaginable. She thought she had grown numb to it, but the feeling of Noah’s fingers touching her most private, sensitive area, they made her shiver and gasp. There was strength in his fingers, but his movements weren’t rough or clumsy. Rather, she sensed that his experience surpassed her own.

His fingers penetrated her, making her moan in a way she thought she never again could. His attack was relentless, probing every sensitive spot like an assassin striking her pressure points. She was a slender girl, body fat being a luxury for a slave, but her flesh rippled from the vibrations drumming from her ass. She could feel the weight of her breasts with every movement, and the sounds he was making, the sounds he was forcing her body to make, the squelching of soft, wet flesh, it was like she was experiencing this all for the first time.

The pleasure was beyond words, she wanted it to go on forever, but her body wouldn’t obey her commands. Her muscles spasmed without pause like she was being tickled. She inadvertently tried to pull away, her body wanting to protect itself from these sensations it couldn’t contain, but Noah’s grip on her throat remained firm. This position, what he was doing to her, it was so strange. She felt almost like an animal, like livestock, and Noah was the farmer, preparing her for breeding with some strange husbandry technique. Ironically, that wasn’t far from the truth.

She cried out, climaxes rushing through her like a flash flood, but Noah didn’t stop, even as she became limp. He continued mercilessly finger-blasting her, while his other hand released her throat and he forced his fingers into her mouth. She sucked on them like they had a honey glaze. They were her lifeline, all that was keeping her conscious. The movements of her tongue and lips, the quivering of her throat as she slurped up the flavor of his fingertips; if she didn’t work with all her might, the almost cruel assault of orgasms would rob her of all thought and crush her mind.

Only when her moans finally stopped did Noah let her experience peace. He laid her on her back and leaned over her. The lewd, exhausted look on her face, the way she panted with flushed cheeks and swimming eyes, it was an expression he always loved to see.

“You said I could do whatever I wanted with your body, right? Are you going to tell me that you can’t keep up with your master? That you lied and you can’t fulfill my desires?”

She reached out to him, her skinny arms coiling around his neck to pull him in. “Master, take me,” she begged.

By the light of the campfire, he penetrated her, just as numerous men had done before, but none of them made Tin feel like this. His lips joined hers, a passionate but gentle kiss, while in comparison, his thrusts, so fast and forceful, made her cry out to the stars overhead.

.

.

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Civilization

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.

.

The rising sun shining in his eyes awoke Noah from his sleep. It was not a deep sleep, due to his current circumstances, but he at least felt rested. It was his first dawn in this new world. He and Tin were lying on a pile of pine boughs, keeping them off the ground and insulated, and wrapped in the canvas wagon cover, which they were using as both a tarp and a blanket. The freed slave was snuggled up tightly against him, both for warmth, and out of affection. The term “freed slave” fit her ironically, as Noah had given her freedom, but she chose to remain his slave anyway.

As he started moving around, she slowly stirred. “Master?” she murmured.

“Time to get up, we have work to do.”

It was a chilly morning, so the first thing Noah did was build up a fire while Tin collected their clothes from the waterfall. They had been set under the spray to be washed, and after a night under the pounding water, they were clean as could be reasonably expected. They were hung up to dry around the fire, while Noah and Tin had breakfast. Last night, Noah had made some cups and bowls using the clay that Tin gathered and left them in the fire to bake overnight. Now, he was using them to boil water and make pine needle tea.

“What do you want to do, Master? I can lead you to town if you like.”

“How long would it take to get there?”

“Another two or three days.”

Noah weighed his options. This wasn’t an optimal situation. “No, we’ll stay here for another day. We have a defendable position here, but if we return to the road, we’ll be like sitting ducks. While I have faith in my fighting abilities, I can’t defend myself, you, and the horses. Let’s try to improve our chances before we set out.”

“What should we do?”

“Yesterday, while I was looking for rocks in the dark, I think I might have seen some slimes moving about. They’re usually small, right? Not big like the ones I killed yesterday?”

Tin nodded. “They’re usually the size of rats.”

“Perfect. First, what we’re going to do is make a lot of lye.”

“What’s lye?”

“It’s the stuff in ash that I used to make that soap last night. It’s a very nasty chemical. I’m going to start gathering wood. I want you to bail out the bathwater from the basin and refill it. Rain water would be best, but river water will have to do. Then take the stones and put them back in the fire. You remember what to do if something attacks?”

“Throw horse dung and holler for you?”

“Right.”

Noah departed, heading back into the forest. Just like the day before, he was gathering hardwood from birch, oak, and maple trees. He moved cautiously, hearing movement all around him. He also returned to certain areas he had visited before, with prey on his mind. He came across a spot he had just yesterday done his best to avoid. There was spider silk on the ground, and nearby, an obvious trapdoor. Noah put a large stick on his foot and readied his bow, taking aim. He kicked the stick over by the trapdoor, and instantly a spider burst out to seize what it thought was its meal. The thing was huge, almost five feet in diameter.

Noah released his arrow, striking one of its eyes and leaving it screeching in pain. Before it could duck back into its hole, he shot another arrow, this one drilling through its skull and ending its life. While it was still fresh, Noah rushed over, pulled out the second arrow, and thrust his fingers into the hole. He stirred his fingers around in the spider’s brain, causing its legs, now curled up into a fist, to start spasming. While not familiar with spider anatomy specifically, he was tickling what he hoped to be the cerebellum.

“Come on, where are you… Ah!” He found the magic spot, as the whole body convulsed and the abdomen started expelling silk at a frantic rate, like he was squeezing a tube of toothpaste. Het got to his feet and dragged the spider with him, laying out the silk so that it wouldn’t stick to itself. He had come up with this idea on a whim and was overjoyed to see it work. When flow of silk stopped, he removed his fingers. “That’s right, ladies, I am just that good.”

He then began rubbing dirt into the silk like he had with the animal fat he had collected the previous day, something to keep it from sticking to anything. It was good thick line, and strong as well. Next, he started gathering up the older, thinner webbing it had used for its den. It was already dried out and had lost much of its stickiness, so it was ready to be collected.

He returned to the camp, carrying the spider with him as well. He was sure he could think up something to do with his corpse, maybe use it like a scarecrow to ward off goblins or something. When he arrived, Tin had completed her task and stared in amazement at the dead spider.

Noah walked over to the wagon and pulled out a small wooden barrel. It had originally been filled with salt, which the slave traders used to preserve their food, but now there wasn’t much left. What remained, Noah poured into some of his clay jars. He then hung the spider to drain its blood into the barrel. There wasn’t much, and it had begun to congeal immediately after death, but that just made it sticky like syrup. He swirled it around the inside of the barrel, covering every inch, and then filled it up halfway with some of the used ashes from the birch fires yesterday. He didn’t touch the ashes with his hands, and upon closing the barrel, he shook it up. Once completed, the inside of the barrel was coated with thick layer of ash.

Putting it aside, Noah began moving hot stones from the fire and putting them into the basin, bringing the water to a boil. Then, he started shoveling birch ashes until it filled up half the basin. For the next half hour, Noah would swap out stones, making sure the water was always boiling. Soon a film began to settle on top of the water. It was liquid lye, rising from the ashes. Noah harvested it from the surface, careful not to touch it, and put it in the skillet on the fire to boil away the moisture.

“Ok, I’m going to go back and get more firewood. I want you to keep swapping out the stones so that the water stays boiling hot, and as the lye gathers on the surface, skim it and put it in the skillet. Whatever you do, do not let it touch you. The waterfall and the river are keeping the air moving in one direction. You want to stay upwind so that you don’t breathe in any of the fumes. You got that?”

“Yes, Master.”

And that was how they spent the entire morning and much of the afternoon. They kept burning birch wood, and once the basin stopped producing lye, they would swap in fresh ashes and resume harvesting. Between collecting firewood and tending to the fire, Noah created more pottery with the river clay and baked it in the fire. The skillet was routinely filled with the lye mixture, and once the water evaporated away, Noah would scrape the lye into one of his clay jars. It was the middle of the afternoon when he declared that they had collected enough.

“Now to test it.” With his knife, he collected a small bump and put it on his arm. He could feel it burning his skin like an aching sunburn. Had he taken his time with this, it would have been burning a crater into his skin, but in this case, quantity was better than quality.

“Yeah, this will work well. You did good,” he said, rubbing the top of Tin’s head.

“Thank you, Master,” she replied with what he assumed to be a rare smile.

“Let’s eat some lunch and then move on to the next step.”

They moved away from the fire, sick of its heat, and ate by the waterfall. While chewing on tough jerky, Noah studied the horses. They weren’t tied to any trees, at least not now, and were wandering around the campsite, nibbling on whatever they liked. The trip wire was doing a good job of keeping them close, but they would probably run out of food by tomorrow. They’d have to move on by then.

“Master, if my may ask, how do you know how to do these things? I’ve never seen anyone fight like you do, at least not someone your age, and you have the skills of an alchemist. What kind of training have you done?”

“An alchemist? I kind of like the sound of that. Let’s just say that I have a lot of life experience. I’ve lived through good times and bad. Anyway, we should move on to the next stage. I’m going to go along the river and catch small slimes. I want you to find the corpses of the big slimes I killed yesterday and try to collect their skin.”

Tin was obedient, not voicing any of her doubts and instead setting off to do as her master ordered. Noah retrieved the barrel he had tinkered with earlier and filled it with water, then began walking through the river, searching the banks. It was only up to his knees, and there were plenty of large boulders for slimes to hide by. On his hands, he wore some rough leather gloves that one of the slave traders had been wearing. The slimes he found were usually about the size of his fist, and with great care, he’d pick them up and put them in the barrel.

The water in the barrel, thanks to the ash, had a raised pH level. The slimes were acidic, but their pH level wasn’t very low. The alkalinity of the water and the ashes kept them from melting through the sides of the barrel. He also tossed in some food to keep them from starving. Hopefully they’d still be able to digest it. If they were all still alive by the next morning, his plan was a success.

When he returned to the camp, Tin had gathered up the skins of the dead slimes from the day before.

“I’m sorry, Master, but the skins are too fragile for any kind of use.” Noah put down the barrel and examined the shed skin. It was crinkly and soft, a far cry from any kind of leather, more like a snake’s shed skin.

“No, they’re perfect, just what I wanted.” He handed her one of the daggers the slave traders had carried. “Here, start carving them up into squares, about as long as your hand. You know how big, right?”

She nodded and went to work. While she did that, Noah collected more long hair from the horses. He took the squares that Tin cut up and used them to wrap up small piles of lye, then tied them shut with the horse hair. The slime skin, despite its fragility, still maintained many of its characteristics. Slimes were like living acid, so they had to be able to control their pH level. Their skin not only kept their guts in, it kept basic substances out, substances like lye, making it perfect for holding it.

With their combined efforts, they were able to create just over thirty lye packs, plus another twenty filled with alkaline ashes.

“Ok, let’s test one of these out.” Noah took one of the extra squares, filled it with ashes, tied it off, and threw it at a nearby boulder. The slime skin held together while being handled and thrown, but upon striking a hard surface, it burst open and sprayed its contents in all directions. “Perfect!”

“So we’re going to throw these things?” Tin asked.

“That’s right. This lye isn’t very strong, so it doesn’t do much to skin, but if it gets into your eyes or you breathe it in, you’ll go down. All we have to do is hit our enemies in the face and they won’t stand a chance. Now, I know we’re both tired, but we still have a few hours of daylight left. Let’s work on a couple other ways to improve our situation, and tomorrow, we’ll head for the nearest town.”

---------------

They departed the next morning at dawn, wanting to get an early start. They were traveling at a faster pace than before, mainly because there were no longer slaves in tow. The two horses the traders had ridden were no longer walking alongside the wagon, but were now helping to pull it. With the spider silk Noah had collected and wood from the forest, he managed to create extra harnesses so that they were leading. The horses moved in a steady trot, nothing compared to the cars from Noah’s previous lives, but fast enough to possibly outrun an untrained man.

For Noah, this was a scene he was familiar in. He had fought in numerous wars and seen countless post-apocalyptic worlds, living through one anarchic hellscape after another. He was familiar with the need to grow eyes in the back of his head, to expect enemies at all times.

“Master!” Tin exclaimed.

“Yeah, I see them.”

Swarming from the side were a pack of wolves, each one almost as large as the horses pulling the wagon, but Noah had planned for this. He handed the reins to Tin who whipped the horses into a full gallop. He took out his bow and began launching arrows. Most of these arrows, he had made himself. He had to rush them, so they weren’t his best work, but they got the job done for short-range encounters.

The wolves dodged the arrows as they charged, but it managed to spook them into moving around back to attack from the rear. Noah climbed into the wagon and stared them down through the open back. Changing their attack angle had momentarily slowed them down, but they’d catch up in seconds and flank them. Noah tossed a bundle of branches and greens out of the back of the wagon, but they were more than they appeared. It was actually a net with thorny bushes and bristles woven in. The net was dragged behind the wagon, and the wolves that stepped on it cried out as their paws were spiked with sharp seed pods. Those who were injured gave up the chase, while the rest of the pack learned and split up to avoid the net.

Before they could leave his view, Noah opened up the barrel of slimes and began throwing them. Even if the small beasts didn’t make a direct hit, they exploded like water balloons. The acid splashed on the wolves, who instinctively knew that slimes were to be avoided. The pack realized that this prey wasn’t worth all of the trouble and gave up. One threat had been neutralized, giving them time to breathe, but it didn’t end there.

Bears and other forest beasts would pop up every now and then and need to be dispatched by arrows. The tiny bolts couldn’t do much damage, but the pain would make the beasts reevaluate whether or not to continue attacking. Any monsters he managed to kill, he would harvest for parts. With Tin controlling the horses, he would work in the wagon, removing skin, teeth, organs, and anything that looked valuable or useful. Every now and then, they’d even stop so that he could collect medicinal plants and mushrooms. But the more he fought, the more Noah realized how unprepared his body was for all this. He was healthy and strong, and had lifetimes of combat experience, but his hands hadn’t built up a layer of calluses that a native of these lands would have. Every time he gripped his sword, he could feel blisters forming on his palm.

Then, in the afternoon, the next challenge revealed itself. In the distance, a tree lay across the road. A rider on horseback might be able to jump it, but never a wagon like this. Whether or not it had fallen naturally, Noah knew who would use this opportunity.

“Tin, stop the wagon.” They came to halt a hundred yards from the tree. “Turn the horses around. If I die, ride back the way we came. Stay at the waterfall until someone uses this road and then travel with them.”

“Master, are you sure about this?” she asked with her basset hound eyes.

“I’ve handled worse.”

He got off the wagon with his sword in hand, and on his arm, a shield made from the carapace of the spider he had killed. He was wearing one of the slave traders’ coats, the closest he could get to leather armor, and he also had his satchel, filled with lye packets. Rather than approach the tree, he dove into the woods. If there were any goblins in hiding, he’d flank them. As he approached the barrier, he spotted them, hiding behind the trees. They were the size of children, but with protruding stomachs and green skin. Their ears and noses were pointed, their faces overall barely even humanoid. They were armed with swords and bows, likely stolen from slain travelers.

He closed in on the first one, his footsteps giving him away and causing it to screech in alarm. Noah dispatched it with a swing of his sword, overpowering its attempt to parry and lopping off the top of its skull. The others, alarmed by the death of their comrade, turned their attention to Noah and attacked. They launched their arrows, albeit with shoddy aim, but it forced Noah to duck for cover. He pulled out one of his lye packs, focused on a goblin with a bow, and threw it like a baseball. The small pack nailed it between the eyes and exploded. The goblin took an instinctive breath in, and then immediately screamed in agony. Not only were its sinuses and lungs filled with lye, but it had gotten into his eyes, leaving it blinded.

The way it shrieked was nothing less than unnerving. It was like a baby crying, it racked the mind and made even Noah squeamish. The goblins, hearing those screams, became frightened. This was a cruel world, and living in the woods, every day was a bloody fight for survival. But none of them had suffered or seen someone suffer a flesh wound and make that kind of noise.

Noah gave them no time to gather their courage. He dealt with the other goblin archers the same way, leaving them howling in agony. With their long-range attacks neutralized, he closed in. The remaining goblins tried to put up a fight, but he slaughtered them with gruesome hacks and stabs. His spider shield fractured whenever he blocked a swing, but it held together long enough to kill them all. These goblins probably ambushed their prey, catching them by surprise to make up for their weak bodies, but once they lost that advantage, they were easy to dispose of.

He was closing in on the last one, slightly larger than the others and armed with a club. It growled and made a wide swing. Noah didn’t try to block and stepped back out of the monster’s reach, then swung down his sword and cleaved the goblin’s head open. To his discomfort, blood splattered across his face and got into his eye. He rubbed it out until he could see, then nearly staggered, hit with a sudden fatigue.

“What the fuck? That fight must have taken more out of me than I thought.” He pushed through the sudden weight and returned to the road. It was exhausting work, but he moved the tree out of the way. “Tin, come on through!”

The wagon approached and stopped where the tree had lain, but there was a look of confusion on Tin’s face. “Master, where are you?”

“What are you talking about? I’m right here.”

Confusion turned to fear, Tin beginning to panic. “Master, I can’t see you anywhere!”

Noah couldn’t understand. He was standing right in front of the horses. He walked over and grabbed her arm. “Tin, I’m standing right beside you.”

Touching her just made her yelp in surprise. “I still can’t see you! What’s going on?”

That’s what he would like to know. Was something affecting her vision? Maybe she had been hit with some kind of goblin attack, or it was an illness, either a disease or some kind of poison from something in the forest.

“Tin, look around. How is your vision?”

“It’s fine, I can see everything clearly! But I can’t see you!” Was he the problem? He could see himself just fine. Damn it, his eye was still itching from the blood. He rubbed it with his palm and Tin gave another yelp of surprise. “Master, you’re back!”

“I was here all this ti—” He stopped, noticing something. His fatigue was gone. It had disappeared just as suddenly as it showed up. The last time he felt it was when he first woke up in this world. His eye… It had been itching as well. He rubbed left eye again, and Tin once again freaked out. “Tin, can you see me?”

“No, it’s like you vanished into thin air!”

That fatigue, he was feeling it again. He stepped back and began kicking around leaves and dirt. “Can you see this?”

“See what?”

Well, that answered that question. For some reason, the fatigue seemed to deepen when he did that. He rubbed his eye again, and from the look on Tin’s face, she appeared to be able to see him again. “What happened to the road?” she asked. “It just suddenly changed when you reappeared.”

Noah put his hand over his eye again, not rubbing it, but just covering it. He repeated the experiment, making a mess of the road. “Can you see any difference in the road?”

“No.” He covered his eye once more, and she nodded her head. “Yes, now I see.”

“So when I disappear, you can’t see what I do to the road, but when I reappear it suddenly changes, right?”

“Yeah, sort of like flipping a page. Master… I think you’re using magic!”

“Magic? No, that doesn’t make sense. My parents were normal, I haven’t even studied any kind of magic.”

“That’s the only thing it can be. But I’ve never heard of magic that could make people disappear like that.”

“I’m not disappearing, I think I’m becoming invisible. It’s… an illusion. I’m creating an illusion that makes me invisible… and when I alter something around me, it expands the illusion to conceal the change I’ve made until I release it.” He covered his eye and felt the fatigue, then, covered it once more and it stopped. “Covering my eye is the trigger that activates it.”

He then remembered his last moments with Lindsey. He had covered his left eye because the sun was blinding him, and he woke up in this world in that same position. His glitchy reincarnation, it hadn’t just preserved his body at this age, it gave him some kind of magic. Maybe it was the magic itself that caused the error, the magic present in this new world.

“Tin, do they have any kind of word for the energy used for magic? I feel like something is draining out of me when I use it.”

“They call it mana.”

‘You have got to be kidding me.’ “Let’s see what happens when I cover my other eye.”

The moment he attempted it, he fell to his knees, almost blacking out. “Master!” Tin exclaimed. She climbed down and helped him to his feet.

“So, you can see me. That means I didn’t turn invisible. But something clearly happened, or at least, tried to happen. I have a different spell in each eye, but not enough mana to use the second one. It must be like a muscle. I have to train it to increase my stamina.

Anyway, let’s get out of here before the smell of those goblins attracts wolves.”

---------------

The next day, while Tin took town the tripwires set around their makeshift camp, Noah was busy experimenting with his magic. He had come across a giant spider, draining the blood from a captured rabbit. As he approached, Noah covered his eye and cast his illusion. His feet on the underbrush, it should have given him away, but the spider didn’t seem to notice. He decided to make more noise, picking up a stick and snapping it, but still, the spider didn’t seem to notice.

“Over here.”

Finally, the spider spun around, its black eyes searching for the source of the noise. It seemed that his illusion also concealed sounds, but not his voice. Maybe because he intended for his voice to be heard? He had been casting his spell on and off since he discovered it, to try and get a better feel of his mana. He couldn’t properly stress himself since he needed to save his strength for when he needed it, but he was starting to sense the flow.

He drew his sword, a new one. After the fight with the goblins, he had taken their weapons, and despite being slightly rusty due to inadequate care, they were higher quality than the cheap machete that Noah had been using until now. He now carried a Medieval-style longsword, a short sword, and his knife. He came up with arrangement with thoughts of ancient samurai, who carried a katana, a wakizashi, and a tanto dagger.

He reached out with his longsword and used it to rustle a nearby bush. The spider didn’t see or hear anything. Noah could feel it, his mana flowing through his sword towards the bush, enveloping it in the illusion. He focused on the energy running through his arm and tried to slow the flow, to keep it from moving beyond his sword. It was exceedingly difficult, like trying to flex a muscle he had never used before. It reminded of him of all the years he spent as a newborn, when his muscle tissue was just slightly tougher than gelatin. He tempered his breathing, driving out all distractions from his mind, and soon, he could feel the flow of his mana, like he had grabbed a hold of it.

He pulled it back, leaving the sword enveloped, but this time, when he rustled the bush, the spider raised his front legs and bared its fangs, believing an animal to be causing the disturbance. Noah slowly approached and tapped one of the spider’s raised legs with his sword. It hissed in fury and swung at something it could not see. The illusion could block sounds from reaching his enemy, but it couldn’t erase the sense of touch, so he couldn’t just turn invisible and stab someone without them feeling it.

There was something else he noticed. When he was invisible, he could sense the mana in others. Tin had very little, likely a sign that she had no affinity for magic, probably a reason why she ended up a slave. The monsters had even less, but not all of them. Lone wolves without packs and many spiders, they seemed to be shrouded in mana. He didn’t get the impression that they could use magic, more like it clung to them, like an odor. What made them so special?

This was just another question that Noah chalked up to something he’d learn later. For now, he should just continue utilizing his magic to its full potential. The spider had its guard raised, but couldn’t sense the presence of anyone or anything nearby, so it could do nothing to stop Noah from ending its life. He harvested what he needed from the body and then returned to camp.

---------------

It was a sweet relief to Noah and Tin when they finally left the forest. After two days of repeated ambushes by predators and goblins, the sea of trees that flanked them on either side were replaced with open pastures, fields where farmers and their slaves were planting crops. The road became more uniform, receiving more maintenance due to the increase in traffic. In the distance, they saw the town, Clive, as Tin called it. It was surrounded by a log fence to keep the monsters out. It reminded him of the colonial village museum from his fifth-grade field trip. The creek from their waterfall camp joined into the river that flowed beside the town.

Guards in cheap leather armor with a few metal plates were manning the gate, and they stopped Noah and Tin as they approached. One of them looked over the horses and the wagon with a wary eye.

“These belong to Garrow and his men. How did you come by them?”

“Were you close with Garrow?”

“No.”

Noah slipped the man a few bronze coins, while hoping that they were actually worth something that he wasn’t trying to bribe him with pocket change. “Then I suppose you’re mistaken, right?”

Seeming satisfied, the guard pocketed the money and then waved them in and Noah and Tin entered the town. For Noah, it was like he had traveled back in time to Medieval Europe. Peasants walked the muddy road, street vendors tried to sell their wares, and the air stank beyond all de***********ion. The buildings were brick and wood, only a few of them more than two stories, with their windows using foggy glass.

“What do we do now?” Tin asked.

“We’re going to sell this wagon, everything in it, and the horses. That guard recognized them, so others may as well. Plus, I can protect a stack of coins better than this load of pelts. We can just buy replacements if we need them.” They rode past a beggar lying in the street and Noah brought the horses to a stop. “You there, where can I find a weapon dealer?”

The bearded man pointed a trembling finger to the east. Noah didn’t thank him, but tossed him a copper coin. They turned down one of the eastern streets and a sign caught Noah’s eye. It had an anvil with two crossed swords in front of it like a crest. They stopped the wagon outside and Noah disembarked.

“Look after the wagon. This place is probably crawling with thieves, so be wary.”

She was armed with a dagger and he had faith in her competence. He stepped into the store, with a bell ringing above his head from the door opening and closing. This store was made of brick in order to lessen the fire danger due to the forge in back. Numerous weapons were put on display, from swords to halberds. Back in his previous lives, Noah could have bought a damascus sword online for $60 that would put these to shame, but these would suffice.

He also paid attention to the prices in order to figure out the rate of conversion for money. The numbers were drawn a bit differently from past worlds, but they appeared to have the same values. From what he could tell, ten copper coins equaled a bronze, ten bronze equaled a silver, and ten silver for a gold. The metric scaling made it easiest for Noah to compare them to US dollars, but from what era? There was a suit of armor selling for two gold coins, about two thousand dollars. But was that two thousand dollars back in the Old West? Or was that two thousand dollars in the 21st century, after more than a hundred years of inflation? He couldn’t even tell whether the prices were good or not. This was either all great equipment at a high price or garbage sold to beginners and cheapskates, or even just junk the owner was asking the moon for to try and rip Noah off.

A man appeared from a back room and stood behind a counter. He was a great bear of a man, buff and dirty from a life spent standing over an anvil. Seeing Noah’s modern clothes, unease crossed his face. “Can I help you?”

“Do you buy weapons as well as sell them?”

“Only as long as they incorporate metal. I don’t buy bows or staffs.”

“Perfect.” Noah returned to the wagon outside and retrieved an armful of weapons looted from dead goblins. He stepped back inside and laid them out on the store counter. “What can I get for all of these?”

There were four short swords, two longswords, six daggers, three spears, and an axe. The blacksmith raised his eyebrows in mild surprise at the size of the haul, but otherwise maintained a poker face for the sake of business. He examined each weapon, making exaggerated grunts and sighs over every chip and sign of rust.

“This is mostly garbage. I can buy them for one silver.”

“That’s a bad joke. That’s less than a bronze coin per weapon. You’re selling daggers for three bronze each. Seven silver.” Judging by the prices of the display pieces, that was more than the blacksmith could sell them for, and while he would have liked to go higher, the blacksmith was really low-balling him.

“That’s ridiculous. My merchandise hasn’t been dragged through the woods. Yours has. I’ll have to spend all night polishing and sharpening these to make them worthy of being put on display. Two silver.”

“Leave them as is and then chalk down the price. You can sell them to some newbie warriors as training gear. Six silver.”

“I can’t come anywhere near that. The best I can do is two silver and five bronze.”

“You can always just forge them into something new and sell at a higher price. Four silver.”

“You think you’re the only one selling weapons by the arm-load? Plenty of adventurers come in here to dump what they found in some goblin tunnel. Scavenged swords are hardly rare on the market. Two silver and seven bronze. That’s like final offer.”

‘So, ‘adventurer’ is a term used here. It probably applies to monster hunters and the like.’ “How about this: my axe, plus two daggers, in exchange for that nicer axe up on the wall? Everything else, you buy at half for what you’re selling their counterparts for. That’s ten bronze for the short swords, another ten for the long swords, four and half bronze for the daggers, and another four and half for the spears. That’s right around three silver.”

The blacksmith gave a huff. Three silver, such a round, whole number. It was five bronze above what he could get if he sold the weapons for half price, but his inner-perfectionist didn’t want to complicate it with a smaller payment. Had Noah planned that from the beginning? Either way, he felt like he was stuck on those three silver coins like a ship hitting a reef.

“Fine, three silver.”

“Deal.” He and Noah shook hands and Noah received the three coins and the axe. “I also have another thing outside that you might be interested in. Follow me.” He led the blacksmith out into the street and showed him the tripwire roll in the back of the wagon.

“What is it?”

“A tripwire system, offering a hundred yards of protection. Any monster that touches it makes the metal alarms jingle. It’s so loud that even the dead can hear it. I’ll trade it for three bronze and the small shield you had in the corner. It’s got to be worth that in materials alone.”

“Fine, but only to get rid of you. You’re exhausting.”

The deal was struck and Noah and Tin set off with a much lighter wagon. The axe Noah had gotten was a large one, perfect for chopping both trees and monsters. The shield he now wore on his arm was only around the size of a dinner plate, but that worked for him. It was strong enough to block a slash from a sword and it wouldn’t hamper his movements. The tripwire was a bit painful to lose, but once they sold the wagon, they would have ended up carrying it with them.

With directions from many of the townsfolk, they sold and traded their wares. The blacksmith wouldn’t buy the bows, but Noah found another weapon dealer who allowed him to trade up to a much better piece and a quiver of good-quality arrows. After that, the medicinal herbs and mushrooms were bought by an herbalist, the wolf pelts went to a leatherworker in exchange for some armor and a strong backpack, and the clothes and bags were traded at the garment shop for some new outfits and a second backpack. Due to the weird looks he was getting, Noah was aware that his modern clothes made him stand out. They were too valuable to get rid of or sell, so he simply packed them away and donned the apparel of the countryside.

He ditched the severed heads of the slave traders into someone’s pig pen and the hogs went to town. From asking around, it seemed that the Garrow fellow he killed wasn’t the wanted criminal he had hoped for. It was a shame there was no bounty to collect, especially after three days of putting up with the smell of those heads.

---------------

The owner of an adventurer’s shop yelped in pain from the lye touching his skin. He sold traveling and survival gear, such as rope, candles, dried rations, and other curios to help travelers survive the beasts dwelling outside man’s domain. Now he was buying the last of Noah’s haul, including the remains of several spiders and the barrel of slimes. A test had been necessary to convince him of the lye’s ability.

“So? What do you think? Seven bronze and everything’s yours.”

“I can do five bronze, but only because you actually have living slimes. I’ve never seen them captured like this!”

“No, no, I can’t do five…” Noah pretended to be lost in thought. “Do you sell maps?”

“We do.”

“I want two maps, one of the country and one of the area. Throw those in and I can go down to five.”

“For two maps added, the best I can do is three and a half bronze.”

“Four bronze and you won’t have to deal with me for the rest of the day.”

“Deal.”

With that, Tin and Noah left, having sold everything they deemed not worth carrying. The wagon and horses had already been exchanged for some lovely gold coins, so now they lived carrying everything they owned. Tin was in a good mood, now wearing proper clothes and footwear. She looked nothing like the slave girl that Noah had met when he first came to this world. One might look at her and not even think she was a slave.

The sun had almost set, but they made their way to their final stop, an inn known as the Old Wineskin. It was busy inside, the air stinking of pipe smoke, ale, and poor hygiene, and the floor creaking under countless pairs of shifting boots. The hostess, a large woman looking like she birthed children by the litter, greeted them at the door from behind a front desk.

“Are you here to eat or to sleep?” she asked.

“Both. What are your rates?”

“Five copper coins a night for one room. For ten, you also get firewood, a hot bath, and two square meals a day for one person.”

Noah counted up the coins for him and Tin and stacked them on the table. “We’ll take the full package for three nights.”

The woman handed him an iron key. “Take a seat in the dining room wherever you like and I’ll bring you the house special.”

Noah led Tin through the crowd of drunken villagers, both of them on the lookout for pickpockets. Every man in the bar looked either like a Viking or the kind of guy that Vikings typically killed, all of their clothes made of either wool, linen, or animal hide. Any women were either travelers huddled together, or courtesans sitting across the laps of their drunk clients and laughing at every bad joke as they waited for the alcohol to take its toll.

Noah and Tin found a small table near the fireplace and took their seats with Noah warning Tin to put her bag directly under the table.

“This town is just as I expected,” he said.

“Is something wrong, Master?”

“No, everything is fine. I rather like the atmosphere here, the feel of it.”

He had seen plenty of towns that been knocked out of the modern age in his previous lives, usually due to some kind of apocalyptic event or because it was in a third-world country, but none of them had the Medieval Europe aura like in fantasy books and movies. For all of his life experience, this was something he was glad to finally be able to cross off his list.

“So we’re going to stay here for three days? Then what?”

“I’m not sure yet. I don’t have enough information. I want to know more about this country, about the other countries. I want to see what I can make of myself and what will give me the best chance of survival. But for now, I want to rest up for a few days and learn what I can about the area.”

He took out the maps he had bought and looked them over. Their quality was just as he expected from a Medieval society. The map of the Algata province showed the towns around Clive, as well as vague rivers and mountains, but there was no scale for referencing distance and none of the roads were labeled. The national map was no better, but it did name the bigger towns and the capital of Uther near the southern coast. It was hard to determine the size of the country, but it was probably somewhere between England and Texas.

Right now, what he needed to work on was a backstory. True, this was not a country with an educated public, but Noah was still ignorant of the culture and lifestyle, something that would require years to catch up on. If he claimed to be from somewhere but failed to answer a question that any native would know, it would make him look suspicious. In his past lives, his backstory would generate itself, just like everyone else, and as an adult, when he needed an alias, he could easily craft a new one using his knowledge of the world. He had been forced to hide in other countries and take on new identities in past lives, but this was a whole new ballgame.

The hostess arrived with wooden trays and beer mugs. The house special was a bowl of meat and vegetable stew and a biscuit, with a pint of the local ale to wash it down with. Noah didn’t even want to imagine how a health inspector would react to seeing the kitchen and how the food was prepared, but after three days of nothing but rock-hard bread and dried meat that was little more than salted leather, he ate greedily.

Tin, however, stared at her food. “Master, is it really ok for me to eat this? I need only scraps to survive. Master doesn’t need to be so generous in buying me such wonderful food.”

“You’ve done everything I’ve told you to do and have yet to disappoint me. You deserve to eat proper meals. Besides, I need you strong and healthy so you can continue to assist me.”

She bowed her head with her shoulders trembling. “Thank you, Master.”

---------------

The room they were renting was awfully stark, just a bed with some itchy blankets and a fireplace. There was also a table with a lone candle and a pitcher of water. Firewood had already been delivered. As Tin lit the candle, Noah began moving around the room, knocking on the walls, floor, and ceiling, searching for any hidden doors or peepholes. For all he knew, there could be people watching them, waiting for them to fall asleep and then rob them, or worse. He once made the mistake of spending the night in a backwoods motel that was run by a serial killer. The flat tire within walking distance should have warned him, but he refused to believe the cliché.

“You get a fire started while I look around. Don’t open the bags or reveal any of your belongings until I get back, and move the bed against the door.”

He was sure for the most part that no one was listening or watching them at the moment, but that might be temporary. He wanted to check the inn itself. But on the off chance that someone was managing to avoid his detection, he didn’t want to activate his magic. He left the room and locked the door behind him. There were rooms on either side and across the hall, but they would come later. He went downstairs, maneuvering through the crowd and stepping outside into the dark street. The town was clearing out, everyone heading home or to whatever spot they slept on.

Noah walked down the street, and as planned, he sensed a tail behind him. He stepped behind the nearby butcher shop and laid in wait. His pursuer, knife in hand, entered the alley. He never even saw Noah, certainly didn’t see his hand aiming for his Adam’s Apple. A solid blow ripped the air from the man’s lungs and sent him to his knees, unable to even scream in agony. He dropped his knife and Noah got him into a stranglehold, lifting him back onto his feet.

“You weren’t following me before we reached the inn, I certainly would have noticed you, so that means you didn’t see me with Garrow’s wagon and horses. Either someone who did see me put you up to this, or you’re just going after me because I look like an easy mark. So, which is it?”

“Eat shit, you damn kid!” the man gargled. He tried to free himself from the choke hold, but Noah just tightened his grip. He couldn’t see anything, no matter where he looked.

Noah took out his knife and held it under the man’s eye. The blade was invisible like Noah, but the man could feel the blade threatening to pierce the skin of his lower lid. “If you want to save yourself, start talking. I can make you beg for your life and then beg for death in a matter of seconds.”

“This is just what I do, punk! I wait for pieces of trash playing adventurer to make a wrong turn and then I take everything that they have!”

“Is there anyone else or do you work alone? You really don’t want to lie to me.”

“I don’t need help.”

Noah put his knife away. “Clearly, you do.” For the briefest moment, the man felt Noah’s hold on him loosen, thinking he was going to be let go. Instead, Noah grabbed his head and snapped his neck.

Noah searched the corpse for anything of value and dumped it in the river beside the village. He then returned to the inn and searched the outside. He had measured the distance from the window to the corners of his room, and, assuming that all the rooms were the same size and same configuration, there didn’t appear to be any false walls that someone could hide in.

With his illusion still active, he went inside the inn and maneuvered through the crowds, this time putting all of his effort into not bumping up against anyone. He checked the thickness of the floor and ceiling of each level and found no anomalies. His mana was starting to run out, so he had to hurry with the last step. He returned to the floor of his room and listened to the surrounding doors.

Behind the door across the hall, he could hear two female adventurers talking, making plans for the following day. In the room to the left of his, he could hear a man sharpening his sword. The room to the right was silent. From his pocket, Noah drew a length of wire. It was originally part of the handle of one of the swords he had sold, but he took it before taking it out of the wagon. Lockpicking had been a skill of his several lifetimes ago, so he was a little rusty. Regardless, he managed to open the door and peeked in, seeing the one inhabitant sleeping.

Noah ended his search. He now felt like he could truly relax. He returned to the door of his room. “Tin, it’s me,” he said while knocking.

He could hear the bed, used as a barricade, being moved aside, and Tin opened the door. “Is everything ok?”

“Yeah, I think we’re safe.”

They both stepped into the room and released their held breaths upon the door closing. Finally, they could let down their guard, at least for the most part.

“Ok, let’s go over the money we collected.”

On the table with the lone candle, he spread out the coins from their sales. There was a great number of silver coins, plenty of bronze, and several copper, as well as some gold. “With all of this, we can stay at this inn for as long as we want. But for now, let’s work on keeping it safe.”

The copper coins would be kept in two of the three snake wallets, as bait or a decoy against pickpockets. The third wallet held the bronze coins and hung around Tin’s neck. As the for the silver and gold coins, Tin worked with Noah beside the fire to hide them in his clothes and possessions, such as the lining of his jacket and the straps of his backpack.

Soon after they were done, there was a knock at the door. “Here with your bathwater!” a chambermaid announced.

Noah let her in and she placed a wooden tub on the floor, filled with steaming water and some rags. In this world, it seemed like outside of swimming, the only way to keep even remotely clean was with a simple wash cloth. Noah tipped her and she departed.

“Good, I’ve needed this,” he said.

As he and Tin stripped down, she approached him. “Master, please let me wash you.”

“What? You didn’t do that before.”

There was a desperate shimmer in her eyes. “Something which I beg your forgiveness for. I must show my gratitude for your kindness.”

“You don’t owe me anything for treating you like a person.”

She embraced him from behind. “It is my duty to service my master. Please, allow me to continue not disappointing you.”

“I never said you couldn’t do it. I appreciate your efforts.”

She made a small noise of relief, almost like a cross between a laugh and a gasp. “Please take a seat.”

Noah sat on the foot of the bed and Tin retrieved some of their leftover soap, then brought to tub next him. She kneeled before him and wetted the front of her body with one of the rags, then with the soap, lathering up her breasts and between her thighs. He could tell she was excited. Despite her perpetually expressionless face, he could see the small curling of her lips, the shimmer in her eyes, signs of joy. It was an ironic combination; she, having never known pleasure from contact with a man, and he, so numb that contact with a woman was one of the last few things that could give him pleasure.

She began by taking one of the washcloths and scrubbing Noah’s legs, trying to remove the sweat and dirt from their days in the woods. Then, her breathing would deepen, and she’d start rubbing her chest up against him, grinding against him like a stripper pole. Her breasts were far from ample, due to her harsh life and poor diet, but what softness there was, she used to please Noah. She made sure he felt every cubic centimeter of fat, as if the mass of her breasts equaled her loyalty.

She washed off the soap and then got on the bed to repeat the process on his arms. Her efforts gave him an amused smile. With her inner thighs nice and sudsy, she’d straddle his hands, letting him cup her womanhood in his palm and feel how wet she was. She was beginning to pant and whimper, her lust building up in her. Her frantic breaths in his ears was likewise getting him worked up. He had a few ex-girlfriends that would give him this treatment.

“Tell me, have you done this before or is this an idea you came up for me?”

“This is new. I’ve never felt so much gratitude to my master before.”

She moved behind him and scrubbed his back, then began smooshing her breasts against him in sweeping motions. It reminded him of washing windows. While she grinded on his back, she washed his chest and her hands naturally fell to his throbbing manhood. She stroked it lovingly, as if wanting to memorize every detail. She started rubbing against him with more force and jacking him off. Despite Noah being on the receiving end, Tin’s efforts were making her breathe heavily with an aroused whimper passing her lips. The feel of her breasts on his back and her masterful stroking were also getting to Noah. Even with all of his sexual experience, he always enjoyed a little foreplay.

He didn’t bother trying to resist and simply ejaculated, while behind him, Tin shuddered as if having a climax of her own. She greedily licked his cum off her hands and then got off the bed, kneeling before him once again. Her gaze, full of drunken lust, was glued to his semi-flaccid manhood in the aftermath of its eruption.

“Master, you’re so dirty. Let me clean you.”

She began sucking on his member with worshipful dedication. Every drop of cum, she slurped off while savoring the taste of his sweat. Like the other night, she paid attention to his balls, either massaging them while his cock plunged into the depths of her throat, or sucking on them and rolling them around her mouth while she jacked him off.

“My, my, you sure do enjoy servicing me, don’t you?”

She looked up at him, a slave both to him and to her desires. “Yes, Master. My body feels so much gratitude for you.” She couldn’t resist, she started playing with herself. “Especially down here.”

She stood up and he allowed her to get on his lap, shuddering in bliss as she felt him enter her. She was so wet, his cock sliding against her inner flesh without any resistance. There was no hesitation in any of Tin’s movements, she didn’t need to adjust her position or let her body become accustomed to the feeling of being penetrated. As soon as she was down to the base, she began bouncing on his cock at full speed.

Noah laid back with his hands gripping her ass. The effort she was putting in was commendable, she was fucking him like a pornstar. Her moans of bliss, she didn’t bother trying to conceal them. She let her voice ring out, escaping their room and being heard by everyone in the inn. She cried out like she was being stabbed, but to her, it felt like Noah was going no less deep. She was putting all of her strength into keeping up this rhythm, dropping all her weight onto Noah’s lap so that he could truly explore her body. She couldn’t allow him to exert himself. There were no fields to work, no livestock to take care of. She couldn’t fight, couldn’t hunt, couldn’t do anything to repay her master for the kindness he had shown her. All she could do was offer her body for his enjoyment, to give him something to unleash his desires on.

But her strength was fading fast. Despite her efforts, Noah wasn’t giving in. In fact, he decided to fight back. He retrieved one of the damp washcloths and wiped the soap off her breasts, making her nipples become erect. He then sat up and began running his tongue and lips across her skin, kissing her areolas and sucking on their peaks. He often pulled his mouth away to join with hers, kissing her with skill she could only call art. Rather than letting her continue bouncing, he implemented his own technique. Cupping her tight ass in his hands, he began gyrating her hips in one direction while he moved in the opposite direction. Now, instead of doing long, deep strokes, his cock was stirring up the depths of her womanhood like he was whisking some scrambled eggs.

The two-fold attacks, they were more than Tin could bear. “Master! Ah! Master!” she moaned.

She held onto his shoulders as a wave of climaxes rushed through her, soaking Noah’s lap in her arousal. Noah fell back, this time while pulling Tin down with him. Tin, lying across his chest, was given no time to rest. He lifted her hips up and began bucking his own, driving up into her at maximum speed and depth. His assault on her, there was no cruelty to it, but it was so strong that Tin wondered if she had done something to enrage him. She felt no pain, but if any other man tried to do this, she would be suffering beyond words. It was his skill and experience, she could feel it with every move he made. He knew exactly what to do to not cause any harm, despite the intensity itself leaving her on the verge of blacking out.

“Master, it feels too good! You’re going to break me!”

“Hold on, I’m almost there.”

She held onto him for dear life, as if a tornado had ripped off the roof of the inn and was threatening to pull her up into the sky. Soon, the storm passed, and Tin felt that final thrust and Noah emptying himself into her. The sensation of her master’s seed flooding her womanhood, the heat of it inside her, it made her moan a single crystal-clear note, like a bird call. Then, she collapsed on top of him, using the last of her strength to run kisses across his chest.

“Master, when you wanted to know the area and me and some other slaves raised out hands… thank you for choosing me.” Noah didn’t say anything. He knew that this was a situation that one couldn’t simply respond with ‘you’re welcome’. Yet after so many lifetimes, he still didn’t know what the proper response was. “And at the waterfall… thank you for letting me stay by your side.”

Then, she closed her eyes and fell asleep, snuggled on his chest like a cat.

.

.

.

Stamina

.

.

.

The morning of the next day found Noah roaming the village. Before he made any decisions, he wanted to know what this town had to offer, what endeavors it could support. According to the maps he bought, Clive was far away from the nation’s capital, out in the boondocks, but it appeared to have a strong economy, with many professions one might not expect in such a rough area, like a gold and silversmiths. In fact, it seemed to thrive on tourism, but no one would ever come out here on vacation. It was because of the natural resources.

So far, Clive had some farm land and a river for food, as well as the vast forest for lumber, but its top commodity was monsters. As Noah explored the town, he saw numerous adventurers buying food and supplies before going off to hunt and gather. In the early 17th century, the fur trade exploded in Europe, sending countless men out into the wilderness of Siberia and the Americas to find their fortune. Here, the principal was the same. Furs were in demand in the big cities, but most of the monsters had been wiped out around the more populated areas, so adventurers spread out to the countryside to hunt and sell their catch, and where there is an exploitable resource, you can find capitalists looking for people with money burning a hole in their pockets.

His search brought him to the local apothecary, where numerous pots and jars adorned the walls on shelves while different plants were hung to dry overhead. He recognized several plants, but many were new to him. An old woman ran the shop, watching Noah like a hawk through the smoke coming from her pipe. It filled the air, along with several different kinds of incense. No sunlight was allowed in, so as to preserve the plants and potions on display.

“Anything I can help you find?”

“Do you have potions to help restore mana?”

“Yes. I sell them in three qualities at a price of five, ten, and twenty bronze coins, but you have to buy the bottle as well if you don’t have any of your own. Look to the shelf behind you, the blue potions.”

He examined the vials, three cork bottles with blue liquids, each one a different shade. There was no telling how useful they were. He didn’t know how much mana they could replenish, compared to the amount of mana he had within him. And the color shade, was that because of the presence of a specific ingredient that increased its potency? Or were they just watered down?

“What about health?”

“The red ones, above them, and we also sell bandages. However, those are only for showing my wares. Simply tell me what you want and my granddaughter will retrieve it from the back room.”

These potions, how did they work? They were clearly some kind of plant-based concoction, but could there be magic involved? The idea of learning how to create potions appealed to him, but if it required a special kind of magic, then that plan wouldn’t go anywhere.

“I’ll take one of each type, both mana and health. I’ll buy the bottles.”

The woman relayed the order to someone in the back room without ever taking her eyes off Noah. A young girl appeared behind the counter, carrying a tray of six blue and red potions. Noah paid and stowed them away in his bag.

“You know, if you have trouble collecting the ingredients, I could help in exchange for a discount.”

The woman cracked a smile, seeing right through him. “How nice of you to offer! But my son does excellent work.”

‘So, she doesn’t even want me to know the ingredients. Oh well, I have ways of finding out.’

He left the apothecary and breathed the fresh morning air. The sun had broken free of the horizon, and while it was still early, the town of Clive was now fully bustling. He returned to the inn, where Tin was waiting in their room.

“I got the potions.”

“Master, you shouldn’t bother yourself with such tasks. It is my duty to run your errands.”

She was getting clingier, he had been noticing it steadily progressing. When they first met, she hardly said a word, usually only speaking when necessary, such as to acknowledge orders or warn him that something was attacking. As time passed, she got more inquisitive, now doing whatever she could to help him. The smallest tasks, she would try to do before he could, like opening doors for him and picking up anything he reached for and handing it to him. It was starting to get annoying, such as during breakfast, when she tried to feed him like he was paralyzed from the neck down. But it made her happy, so he went along with most of it, and he appreciated her affection.

“I’d prefer to get a read on people before sending you to run errands like this. I’m better at detecting scams then you are. Since I now know the price of the potions, I can make sure that woman at the shop doesn’t try to overcharge you.”

“So what are you going to do with those potions?”

“Now that we’re finally in a safe place, I’m going to begin experimenting with my magic, and I need your help for that. Because there was always the threat of monsters, I never allowed my mana to fully deplete, so now I can start pushing my limits a little.” He pulled out the three mana potions and put them on the table. “I’m going to cast my illusion and not stop until my mana is completely used up and the spell comes undone. I need you to monitor my health during the process.”

“Master, forgive me, but I’m not a healer. I don’t know how to do things like that.”

“It’s easy. While I’m invisible, I want you to hold my wrist and observe my pulse while counting to a hundred over and over again until the spell breaks. If I should lose consciousness, pour one of these potions down my throat and place my hand over my eye to make sure the spell is cancelled. Should my pulse or breathing stop, there is a procedure I’ll have you perform called Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, or CPR for short. Lie back on the bed and I’ll show you how it’s done.”

She took the position and he leaned over her, making her breath flutter. He placed his hand on the center of her chest and felt her become tense. “I can feel your heart beating. Should mine stop, you’ll need to press down on the center of my chest in rapid thrusts.” He stacked his hands and gave a few downward shoves. The rhythm of his pushing, the way it forced her deeper into the mattress, it reminded her of something, and seeing the look in her eye, he knew what it was.

“You’ll want to do that thirty times. Then, you’ll need to pinch my nose, and blow air into my lungs.” He lowered his head and kissed her. She replied with enthusiasm, her breath now fluttering, and not because he was pinching her nose. Noah got on top of her. “Of course, when you do it, I expect you not to use so much tongue. You’ll give me two deep breathes, then do another thirty compressions. Repeat the process until you feel my heart start. Understand?”

“Yes, Master,” she whispered with a dreamy look in her eyes.

“Good. Now, to make sure I only use up my mana, I need to completely drain my physical stamina. Care to help me with that?”

---------------

To the enjoyment of some and the annoyance of others, the sounds of Tin’s moans could be heard throughout the inn. Not only loud, it was incessant. Aside from some short breaks, her voice continued to bounce off the walls even with the sun now at the highest point of the day and everyone eating lunch.

On the bed in their shared room, Noah was battering Tin from behind with relentless intensity. She no longer had the strength to even remain on all fours, and instead had her face pressed to the sheets, now sticky with their combined fluids. Every slam he delivered would make her cry out in euphoria. She didn’t know how many times he had brought her to climax, nor how many times she felt him flood her body with his seed, but each event threatened to rob her of her consciousness. Regardless, she fought through, doing everything she could to remain awake so that she could continue to please her master.

“Am I hurting you?” It was a question that none of her previous masters had ever asked while they violated her. They didn’t care about how much pain they inflicted on her, unless making her suffer was their goal, which it often was. To hear it from him, such kind words, they nearly made her cry tears of joy. He asked her frequently, each time earning a passionate kiss from her.

He wasn’t hurting her, rather, she had never felt such pleasure, but she was so tired, her body at its limits. She didn’t understand how it was possible for him to go so long and exert so much force. He was far too young to have amassed this kind of experience. His intensity even frightened her. He acted so that she was assailed with only pleasure, but if she angered him, if the demons of sadism possessed him, could she even survive?

How had this all started? What was the reason he had given? She could barely remember, it felt like so long ago. Oh, that’s right, he called it exercise. He asked it of her, but had he demanded it instead, invoked his authority as her master, she would have been no less excited. It fulfilled her, to finally be able to show her dedication in the only way she could. He was depending on her, trusting her to fulfill his expectations, and she was ready to devote her body for that. Her muscles begged for rest, but her soul didn’t want it to end. She wanted to wrap around him like a snake so that he could never leave, and instead continue using her until the end of time.

At this point, Noah had fully immersed himself in the act of passion, aware of nothing but the physical world. The feel of Tin’s body, her wetness and soft flesh around his cock, the taste when their tongues curled around each other when they kissed, the smell of her womanly essence as he brought her to climax, the sight of the sweat glistening on her body as he made her writhe and moan, he bathed in those sensations. He felt little affection for her, but at least physical sensation could quell the ancient maelstrom in his mind, let him shut off his brain and truly feel again. His soul, so starved and without baring, it was like cracked desert clay now becoming fertile with the spring rains.

His physical stamina, something that Tin was ready to label as inhuman, was just as much mental as physical. With so many lifetimes’ worth of experience, he knew how to work through the pain. He had felt the anguish of exertion enough times to learn how to ignore it. He couldn’t perform any dramatic feats of strength like some kind of superhero, but he knew how to properly oxygenate his blood for the maximum output and knew how much strength his muscles could exert without suffering detrimental damage. He was digging down deep for strength and harnessing every calorie and spark of energy, and while he wasn’t on the level of a bodybuilder, he had built his physique through a workout that he had mastered over several lifetimes.

He shuddered as he emptied himself into Tin. After all this time, he couldn’t imagine having any sperm left. His soreness was approaching unbearable levels, but even though his erection was fading, he didn’t give in. He grabbed Tin by the shoulders and pulled her against him, his lips joining hers. She was nearly delirious, acting as if on muscle memory when she swirled her tongue around his mouth. His hands went to town on her, massaging her modest breasts and stirring up the cum in her pussy. Tin was so tired and her throat was sore from moaning, but the way Noah tickled her clitoris and bullied her nipples, it still made her whimper in bliss.

He’d do this after every orgasm, keeping her busy while he slowly regained his erection. However, his manhood had thrown in the towel as his stamina hit zero. He let go of Tin and she fell back onto the bed. Her eyes were blank from exhaustion, but she rolled onto her back and spread her legs, putting herself on display and letting Noah see the semen overflowing from her womanhood.

“Master, I can keep going. Please, keep using me. I’ll do whatever you want me to.”

“No, that’s good. You were perfect. I can’t even work up the strength for a single thrust.” He reached into his bag and pulled out the weakest of the three healing potions. Even that task was almost beyond his reach. He might as well have just won the Tour de France. “Here, drink this.” She was too tired to move, so Noah put the bottle to her lips and let some trickle down her throat. She was soon revived, her body no longer trembling.

‘So, blue potions restore magic stamina and red potions restore physical stamina.’

“If you’re hungry, eat fast. I need to begin performing this experiment immediately.” As he spoke, his own stomach roared like thunder. He fell back on the bed, dizzy from exhaustion.

“Master, what about you?”

“I can’t, yet. I need to measure only my mana, and if I eat or do anything to recover my physical strength, it will skew the results.”

“Are you sure you want to do this? The more you describe it, the more dangerous this seems.”

“It probably is dangerous, but I don’t know how my mana reserves compare to an average magic user my age, and this is fastest way to increase it. Now, don’t let go of my wrist and start counting as soon as I become invisible. If my heart stops or there are any signs that my health is deteriorating, give me both a mana potion and a health potion, then perform CPR. Remember: thirty compressions and then two breaths. You got that?”

“Yes, Master.”

Noah put his hand over his eye and disappeared in front of Tin. However, Tin could still feel him, feel his wrist in her hand and his warmth, and it comforted her. Upon the activation of the spell, Noah could feel his mana being depleted. It was a strange fatigue, like he was bleeding to death. All of his mental focus was put on restricting the flow of mana to just his body, so that nothing else would get caught in his illusion and waste mana. It was why he left the job of timekeeping to Tin.

From his experience so far, he could maintain the illusion for about three minutes before his motor functions declined too far for him to fight. He didn’t know if that was good or bad, but in time, he could sense that line being crossed. From there, his thinking and physical strength began a rapid decline. Noah fought with everything he had to stay conscious, even when he could no longer keep his eyes open. His consciousness soon sank into a rift where he could feel his mana continuing to deplete but couldn’t feel his own body.

Then, he began to feel his mana regenerating, without any sign that it was being used up. His consciousness started to bubble back to life, and he soon opened his eyes and looked at Tin, whose own were filled with relief.

“Master,” she whispered, clutching is hand.

“So, the spell came undone. How long did I last until that happened?”

“I managed to count to a hundred almost four times. Then when you became visible, I gave you the potion. Your heart slowed, but it didn’t stop, and you kept breathing.”

“So, while with my physical stamina completely drained, I can maintain the spell for about five minutes before I pass out. At full strength, I can maintain it that long while still being able to fight. This is good, I’m in perfect condition to get the best benefits for stressing my mana, and since my heart and breathing didn’t stop, I don’t need to worry about suffocating. Either that potion will wear off or it’ll manage to replenish all my mana, but whichever happens first, I’ll start again immediately after.”

He gave himself time for the mana to recirculate through his body. He checked his reflexes, physical strength, and mental processing. True, he felt half-dead from exhaustion and sore all over, but he knew what real damage would feel like. Complete mana loss felt just like bleeding to death, so there was always the possibility that being drained of it for too long would have similar effects to his body, like blindness or muscle death. There was no telling if the health potions could mend those kinds of injuries.

Nothing appeared to be wrong, so he returned to the bed. “All right, we’re going to keep doing this.”

They repeated the process over and over again. Noah would expend all of his mana through his illusion, Tin would wake him up with a potion, he’d check himself for damage, and then they’d start all over. He sent Tin out multiple times to buy more potions for him, and they even experimented to see how much they could water it down while still providing sufficient rejuvenation.

As the day rolled on, Noah’s body begged for food. The rumbling of his stomach and his disorientation concerned Tin, but he refused any kind of sustenance, and for good reason. Each time he performed the process, he noted his mana reserves increasing. He didn’t know what mana was or how he produced it, but without physical stamina to soften the blow of depletion, the source of his mana was being stressed to its limits, and was reaping the benefits. There were a lot of things about mana and magic that he didn’t understand, such as how fast an individual could strengthen theirs. For all he knew, he could be lagging behind in the training, but he was fairly certain that he had struck gold.

As night fell, Tin once more arrived at their room, despondent. “Please forgive me, Master. The herbalist had closed down her shop for the night and wouldn’t even open her door.”

“For the best, I imagine, considering how she started throwing stuff at you last time. We’ve probably bought up all the supply that she’s willing to sell us.”

“So what now?”

“Now we have dinner. I think that if I pass out again, we’ll have to resort to healing potions to wake me up.”

“I can have it brought up to us.”

“No, let’s go downstairs. I’m rather sick of this room and need some fresh air.”

He tried to sit up in the bed, but even that was almost beyond him. How long had it been since he was this drained of strength? There was that time when he starved to death… When was that? Even his mind was on the verge of shutting down. He tried to get dressed, but his body wouldn’t obey his will, and to his shame, Tin had to help him. It reminded him of all the times he was in hospice, when the nurses had to do everything for him while he waited to die.

“Sorry,” he said.

She smiled, something she was doing more and more frequently. “You need not worry, Master. While I was never the servant of any great nobles, I heard that this was a duty that their maids often performed. Simply imagine that you are a great viscount, or even an earl.”

“What about a duke?” he asked with a chuckle.

Having helped him put his shirt on, she leaned against his back. “Yes. I’m sure you will someday even become a duke.”

Now fully dressed, he was helped to his feet and they left the room, though he had to lean on Tin for support. From upstairs, they could hear the rowdiness of the guests in the dining room, singing songs and knocking their mugs together. Yet as the teens appeared and made their way to their table from the previous evening, that clamor went died down, with all eyes on them. There was some hushed muttering, several people whispering to their friends to inquire as to the silence. Noah and Tin took their seats, the bar as quiet as a graveyard, then the innkeeper showed up with their dinner. It was chunks of meat carved from a wolf, and Noah’s portion was larger than anyone else’s.

“I’d say you earned it,” the large woman said coyly.

That appeared to be some kind of sign, because a man at the bar with a beard down to his belt raised his mug. “Hail to the young king! He who could make even a succubus beg for rest!”

The bar practically exploded, with people of all ages swarming their table to pat Noah on the back, congratulate him on his skills, and beg him for advice. Many women approached, flirting with Noah and inviting him to join them for the evening. Noah even saw one female adventurer holding back her friend who was trying to approach with a hungry—or rather “thirsty”—look in her eye and a wide smile on her face. Tin also got plenty of attention. Everyone wanted to know who was struggling to keep up with who, which of the two was the insatiable one. The women who could not ensnare Noah would turn to her, asking for details while voicing their jealousy. In the background, the guests began singing songs of wooing women and romantic tales, with the normal activity of the bar becoming a raving party.

Noah simply sat there with an awkward smile, annoyed that his plans to keep a low profile had gone of up with smoke, but amused with the situation nonetheless. Tin, too nervous and embarrassed to say anything, simply hung her head while her face turned red as a tomato.

---------------

It was close to midnight, and Noah, having regained his strength, made his way to the dark apothecary. He carried a lantern with him, but its flame, like Noah, was invisible to anyone and anything, and the road remained as dark as it would be without his presence. He had shrouded it in his illusion as a way to test himself. If his mana slipped, light would escape. After the day’s training, the mana expenditure was next to nothing. He had already passed the five-minute mark and didn’t feel dizzy. With a few more days of training, he might be able to maintain the illusion for an hour or more.

He reached the store and went to work picking the lock while sending his mana into the door. Wrapped in his illusion, the door made no noise, even when he opened it. There were a few guards patrolling the town, but they wouldn’t have noticed him, even without being invisible. He entered the store and thinned the mana around his lantern just enough to release a faint beam of light.

There was plenty of valuable materials to steal, but Noah and Tin’s suspicious behavior would have left an impression on the old woman, and she’d assume they did it. He could have just killed her and taken whatever he wanted, even wiped out her family to be safe, and anyone who suspected and came after him. From the moment he discovered his magic, he had thought of all the ways he could use it, both bad and good. It would have been so easy, he kept reminding himself, but that wasn’t the life he wanted to live, even if it was one he would have lived in the past.

Instead, he searched the shop for books and potion recipes, simply to memorize, rather than steal. None could be found, meaning they must have been hidden elsewhere. He did find plenty of compounding equipment, which he memorized in order to replicate. Noah moved beyond the store and into the woman’s home. She lived, as everyone else did in this world, rustically. All light was natural or flame-based, any food that could go bad was salted and kept in jars, there was no running water, and all the tools were pre-industrial. It still reeked of potions and herbs, but that smell was probably difficult to confine to the shop.

He came across a large wooden chest set against the wall, and after picking the lock, got it open, revealing his prize. The old woman’s whole library was kept neatly arranged, all the answers Noah needed. In this world, information was as important for survival as food and water, so until society managed to invent the printing press, books were worth their weight in gold. Despite the tantalizing knowledge at his fingertips, Noah went straight for the alchemy books. He looked up the recipes for basic health and mana potions, memorizing the ingredients and processes.

Finding satisfaction, he removed all traces of his visit and left the apothecary.

---------------

The arrival of the next day brought Noah and Tin out to the woods to gather herbs and hunt monsters. Buying all the potions yesterday had taken a big chunk out of their finances, so Noah wanted to gather some materials he could sell. He had asked around the tavern the previous night and managed to find out the most valuable parts of monsters. He also found out some interesting facts.

“Summoned by magic?”

“Yes sir,” said the bartender as he used a dirty rag to clean a glass. “If you’re really lucky, you’ll manage to see it happen. There are magic circles scattered across these lands, absorbing mana from the air and using it to summon beasts. About a quarter of each monster race is created by magic. And not just monsters, woodland animals as well, from the deer to the birds. Shouldn’t you know that by now if you’re going to be an adventurer?”

Noah remembered his fights in the forest, the monsters that seemed to be shrouded in mana. “Huh, my country didn’t have anything like that.”

Despite it being true, it was used as a lie. Ignorance of basic facts would give him away and make people suspicious, so he was hesitant to ask about anything involving magic. He couldn’t expect much from this world’s level of education, but a man with no knowledge of magic would probably stand out like a man in the 21st century that had never seen electricity before. At least claiming to be a foreigner would excuse most errors. He just had to hope he didn’t meet up with any international merchants before he got more information.

“Where do these magic circles come from?”

“According to legends, there was a war between the gods and the spirits of nature. The spirits used their magic to summon armies of creatures, so that the minions of the gods could never walk the earth, and that magic remains to this day. Some believe that it is a weapon being used against mankind, to halt our expansion and exploration into new lands. Many believe it to be the work of troublemakers that got their hands on some kind of illegal magic, spreading the magic circles to create havoc.

Many times in history, areas have been declared monster-free, only for the creatures to return. Even islands get plagued with monsters despite being swept clean. It’s why many turn to adventuring; the steady income from hunting monsters and the reliable food source.”

As Noah thought back to the conversation, he heard movement nearby. Bursting from the undergrowth, an adolescent wolf lunged at Noah and Tin. Noah was quick on the draw and managed to slash the monster on the shoulder with his longsword. It landed behind him, slightly limping but showing no signs of giving up. It flashed eyes full of bloodlust while it snarled and foamed. Tin hurried behind Noah, as per his orders, while he stared it down. If he cast his illusion, he could easily kill it without it ever seeing the attack coming, but today, he was sharpening his combat skills and refining his swordplay, so he needed to face his enemies without hiding from them. Besides, monsters that lost track of him often turned their attention to Tin.

Noah made the first move, charging while swinging down at the wolf’s other shoulder. It jumped to the side to dodge, but Noah widened the angle of the slash as he brought it down, turning it into a diagonal attack. Chasing the wolf with his swing, he managed cut into its flesh. The wolf, infuriated by pain, pounced from a high angle, aiming for Noah’s head. The angle was tricky, Noah sidestepping out of the reach of its claws, raising blade, and delivering an executioner’s chop to the back of the neck, severing its head.

He didn’t drop his guard and scanned the area, searching for any other wolves in hiding. He could detect none. “Clear.”

That was his signal to Tin. With Noah keeping guard, she went to work on the wolf, removing the valuable parts like the skin and certain muscles and organs. It was messy work, but worth the effort. Everything was stored in her backpack and several other pouches and bags, along with Noah’s bow and other adventuring supplies. Since Noah was doing all the fighting, the job of pack mule fell to her, or rather, she insisted on it.

Once she had gathered the best pieces, they set off again. Many might disapprove of letting so much of the monster go to waste, but the race couldn’t go extinct and something else would come along and eat it, so Noah didn’t feel too bad. Minutes after they moved on, Noah caught sight of something ahead, zooming between the trees.

“Tin, step back.”

Noah readied himself, his sword raised as the blur approached. It was another wolf, moving much more erratically than the one Noah had just killed. It lunged for him and he sliced off its head. It was rather easy, as if the creature’s mind was scattered. Perhaps it was rabid? But as he turned to examine the corpse, he realized he had broken a cardinal sin. There was an arrow in its hind leg, meaning that this beast had already been claimed.

Two young women appeared, having apparently sprinted a great distance and now gasping for breath. Noah had seen them before at the inn. One of them, a blonde archer, had attempted to talk to him the previous night, but her friend, a brunette with a staff, stopped her.

“Sorry about that, it seems I took your kill.”

Neither women responded, both leaning on their knees and looking like they were about to collapse. Noah looked to Tin and nudged his head towards them. She got the message and approached with a water skin.

“Here, drink this.”

The blonde gratefully took the water and drank deeply, then handed it to her friend. “Thank you, both of you. We were so close to giving up.”

“I kept trying to grab it with my magic, but it was fast, even with an arrow in its leg,” said her friend.

The archer looked at them and gained a wide smile. “Oh, I know who the two of you are!”

Tin blushed and averted her gaze. The magic user looked at them and sighed. “Good God, not again.”

The archer extended her hand to Noah. “I’m Beth and this is Mira, very pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Noah shook her hand. “I’m Noah and this is Tin.”

“You took care of that wolf so easily! With skills like yours, we would love to team up. What do you say?”

“Sorry, but I’m still refining my skills and gaining experience, and I feel it works better when I fight the battles alone, but maybe in the future we could team up. Have you two been adventuring long?”

“Kind of,” said Mira, “but not against monsters this large and fast. We each came from areas where the fighting was a lot easier and numbers were thinner, but we weren’t making enough money and decided to try moving out here for a while.”

“You said you tried slowing the wolf down with magic. If you don’t mind me asking, what kind? I can’t use it myself and I don’t know much about it.”

“Oh, well I’m a mage, so I can use elemental magic to conjure and control things like fire and water. My talents lie in controlling the earth, like this.” She turned away and looked into the distance. Rings of sandstone-colored light appeared around her wrists like halos, and Noah could see diagrams and runes of an unknown language. “Earth Bind!”

She raised her staff and then slammed it into the ground. There was a pulse, and the ground came undone like there was an animal tunneling just under the surface. It shot across the forest floor, and thirty feet away, there was an eruption of earth, with hard-packed soil forming jagged shapes that converged like a closing flower. Anything caught within it would surely get held in place, even stabbed if they moved around the wrong way. The displaced earth used to create the spikes produced a pit, just in case anything tried to duck.

“Yeah, I can see why it wouldn’t work in this case.”

“What? Why?”

“Well we’re in the forest. The ground is riddled with roots holding it together, so it takes a lot of time and effort to gather the soil and form it into those spikes. Also, you’re going for fast prey with good reaction speed, so as soon as they sense the attack, they’ll move before it fully activates. I assume your strategy was for Beth to injure it with the arrow, keeping it from moving while you cast your spell?”

“That’s right,” said Beth.

“And then you finish it off with more arrows, right? It’s a good strategy, keeping your distance from the enemy to minimize risk. However, in this kind of environment and with this target, you’d need to change it up a bit. I suggest using poison arrows, or at least some kind of paralytic agent. That way, even a low-damage hit will slow it down. I’d also suggest using a larger bow for more penetration.

Mira, do you know any other spells?”

“I can create a dust cloud and send stones flying.”

“But nothing close-range? That’ll be a problem if there is more than one enemy or they get within striking distance. Mira, I suggest you work on learning a spell for melee combat, and Beth, get a sword. You also should find another member to join your party, sorry I couldn’t be that person. They’d have to be able to pin down the enemy in one location for your arrows and magic to be able to hit their mark.”

Beth and Mira swarmed him with desperation in their eyes. “Please reconsider joining us! We need someone like you, desperately!” Mira said.

“You can even keep most of the money! And if that isn’t enough, I can pay you extra in nighttime fun!” Beth added.

Noah hadn’t expected them to get so worked up and wanted to back away, only to realize Tin was standing behind him. She was tugging on his shirt, giving him her basset hound eyes, though he couldn’t tell if she was trying to convince him to change his mind or telling him that they were better off on their own.

“Sorry, but I can’t. I’m really trying to focus on training. I’m sure you can find a struggling swordsman who’s desperate for a party to join and would fit right in with you two. Tin and I have to get going. You were first to injure the wolf, so the body belongs to you. We’ll see you later.”

He and Tin set out, waiting until Beth and Mira were out of earshot to talk.

“Was Master… interested in those two?” Tin asked.

“Well, the idea of forming a party is appealing, and their long-range abilities would definitely help out. However, I’d prefer to operate away from prying eyes for the time being. I didn’t sense any evil intent in them, but there is no telling if they can be trusted or not. But I’m glad we ran into them, it gave me a chance to study elemental magic a bit.”

---------------

They continued through the forest, hunting for monsters while trying to avoid other adventurers. Along with battles, they also stopped to collect herbs. Noah was always playing through the potion recipes in his mind. Then, when noon arrived, they stopped for lunch by the river. Their food was slightly better than the stuff they ate before reaching Clive, in the sense that the bread wasn’t quite-rock hard and the meat actually had flavor. It was still disappointing compared to a hot meal. Their water came from the river, first filtered through a survival straw that Noah made.

Once they were done eating, Noah pulled out all of the plants they had gathered. He picked three different plants out of the pile; branches of blue strawberries, several feet of a vine with square leaves, and an orange moss. “Of the recipes I saw, this one is the easiest and doesn’t require any specialized tools. Even if it doesn’t work, it will still be good practice. We just have to grind these up with a ratio of 5:2:7 and mix them together with some water.”

They gathered stones from the river to use as makeshift mortars and pestles and went to work. Working side by side, Noah noticed a small smile on Tin’s face. “This reminds me of making lye at the waterfall,” she said.

“Hopefully it won’t have the same effect.”

They mixed the ingredients together and poured them into the three potion bottles from the apothecary. They added some fresh water and Noah could see the concoction glowing as the potion was formed. Whether or not this potion contained mana or simply sped up the natural rejuvenation process, it appeared the necessary chemical reaction was taking place.

“Good, now to test it. I think this will be the perfect opportunity to see what my next spell is.” It was very slight, but Noah could see Tin’s excitement. “You should move back. If this second spell is anything like my illusion, you probably won’t be in danger, but it’s better to be safe.”

Tin moved back twenty feet, and Noah, after taking a deep breath, put his hand over his right eye. The effect was instantaneous, his mana being drained twice as fast as his first spell, and this time, he could actually feel something happening to him. His body, it felt weightless, and his limbs, they were just moving of their own accord like jellyfish tentacles. His vision, it was almost blurry, like he was seeing doubles. It felt, of all things, like he had just taken a hit of some high-quality pot.

If his concentration broke for even a second, he felt like his limbs and head would just float on their own. Noah dropped his hand and staggered, nearly falling just like the first time he tried it back in the woods. It was like every movement he made had to be performed while walking on a tripwire, or else he would fall. He was shifting from side to side, struggling to remain in control. While this would be a great thing to do while attending a concert or watching a funny movie, it was far from useful in battle.

“I’m definitely feeling something. How do I look? Can you still see me?”

“Uh… I think so. How… are you doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“Master, look at your hands.”

Noah, through great difficulty, raised his palms and looked them. He blinked and squinted several times, trying to see through the afterimages floating around them like an aura. Had he touched some bad mushrooms and then breathed in the spores?

‘No, wait a second…’

These afterimages, they weren’t some blurry silhouette; they had crystal-clear details. They were like exact copies trying to occupy the same space. He moved his arms around, watching the copies follow the originals. They were illusions! He stopped moving his real arms and tried to move the copies. He thought about it, he envisioned it happening, but only when he gave up and tried to raise his real arms did the copies obey and fulfill the action. It was only for a second before they returned to their original place, but he had gotten them to move.

It took several minutes of repeated attempts before he figured it out. Halfway between thinking of moving his arms and actually harnessing the physical strength within them to create that movement, there was a point where he could move the copies. He was soon moving the illusionary arms however he wanted, with Tin watching at a total loss. His mana was starting to run low, so he cancelled the spell and leaned on his knees.

“Master, what was that?”

“An illusion. It appears that my left eye can conceal my real body, while my right eye can create a fake. I can control it similar to how I move on my own, but it requires a lot of focus. Hand me a mana potion, will you?” He downed one of the potions and then lied down on the ground and reactivated the spell. “Watch this.”

Tin could immediately see it on his face, the exertion and focus he was putting in, but her attention was immediately drawn elsewhere, as a second Noah seemed to rise from the body of the first like two cells dividing. For Noah, it almost an out of body experience. The illusion stood up, every movement that Noah would have made being performed. It was difficult beyond words, leaving him drenched in sweat and gasping for air. Every muscle involved in standing up had to be acknowledged, from the muscles supporting his head, all the way down to the muscles in his feet as they tried to grip the ground for balance. He had to visualize not just the movement, but the sensation of moving.

The clone stepped forward, every movement clunky and unnatural, like a cheap robot. The clone turned to Tin, who was completely bewildered and even frightened. The clone opened its mouth. It started out sounding like radio static, but Noah managed to speak through the illusion.

“U-u-u-u-i-i-i-I cueolemfr-cuernlk-caern cont-cont-control it.”

---------------

For the next three weeks, Noah and Tin worked out a routine of expanding Noah’s mana reserves and going out to hunt, one day inside and one day outside. Everyone in the inn became aware of the pattern, as every other day, from breakfast to lunch, Tin’s moans filled the building. It became quite the story around town, many people coming to the inn just see if the rumors were true. Tin would rob Noah of all of his stamina and they’d perform the drain and replenish process with the mana potions. The next day would be spent gathering herbs to make more potions and materials to sell, and continue cultivating Noah’s combat abilities.

To deplete his mana, Noah experimented with his second spell. For the first week, he focused on perfecting the clone’s movements and speech. He tried to get it as normal looking as possible, having it walk around the room and imitate various actions. Unfortunately, since it was just an illusion, it couldn’t actually touch anything or affect its environment, and while he could speak through it, he couldn’t see what it saw or hear what it heard. Unless it was in sight at all times, he was piloting blind. Strangely, Tin said that the clone had the same smell as him, while when he was invisible, his smell was concealed.

He spent the next week learning how to move both his real and fake body at the same time. He started out small, first with finger movements, then limb movements, then upped it up to having it walk around the room while he stood by the bed, which was surprisingly difficult with all of the muscles required to remain standing upright. By the end of the week, he and the clone could walk simultaneously.

In the third week, he added his first spell to the mix, moving the clone around as he performed a task while invisible. The mana expenditure was massive, so much so that the rate of his reserves increasing was slowed, and it became more difficult to tell how much progress he was making. Despite that, they proved to be a golden combination. The clone could act as a perfect decoy, while Noah would attack in his invisible form.

His first spell didn’t just make him invisible, it affected whatever object he touched, concealing and also creating illusions to hide any changes he made, like footprints, while the second could create a full illusion, but of himself, one that had a near physical presence. These spells, they were more than just bending light. It seemed like they were two halves of a single spell.

When he wasn’t training, Noah went around town to gather information about the country, magic, and monsters. In a little backwoods village like this, the results were far from bountiful or even reliable. He would have to move to a bigger city to get better-quality information. The Utheric capital would be his best bet, but it was weeks of travel and preparations had to made for a trip like that.

Try as he might, it was hard to remain unnoticed. Rumors about him circulated through the town, with people he had never met knowing his name. He would walk down the street and women would wink and blow kisses, even trying to seduce him. Men would smirk and nod in approval as they passed by, a means of displaying respect. Even the old lady at the pharmacy would tease him. When Tin went out, she’d wear a hood to conceal her identity. It wasn’t an ideal situation. If he was to be known throughout the village, he wished it would be for something a little more heroic.

.

.

.

Medicine

.

.

.

The spring rains were dramatic, passionate, the lifeblood of Mother Nature as she fully awoke from her winter slumber and prepared for summer. Yet at the moment, the fury with which the enlarged drops fell was not appreciated, for they numbed Noah’s fingers as he gripped his sword and made him shiver as his clothes became worthless from the damp. It was also difficult to see, splashing against his face and blurring his vision, but he kept his gaze focused on his enemies.

He was out in the forest, Tin having retreated as per his orders. Before him, a trio of bandits, all with weapons raised. Noah was armed with his short sword, unable to wield his main blade, due to an arrow stuck in his shoulder. When he was first struck from behind, he had hoped it was simply a hunter’s honest mistake, but the bloodthirsty looks on the men’s faces told him that he was their real target. They probably robbed and killed adventurers for a living, and he couldn’t imagine their female victims dying quickly.

Should he just turn invisible and dispatch them before they could retaliate? No, there was something he wanted to try, and a human opponent would be the perfect test subject. He raised his free hand towards his face, breaking the stalemate with one of the bandits firing his loaded arrow. Noah deflected it with his shield, the most he could do with his wounded shoulder. He swept his hand across his eyes as if trying to clear his vision, activating both of his spells. However, rather than splitting from his illusionary clone, he wore it, syncing his movements with the bandits not even noticing a difference.

One of the archer’s cohorts, this one armed with a large battle axe, charged towards him. Noah had his clone take a defensive stance, while he pulled away, stepping ahead and stabbing the man through the heart before he could make his swing. The archer shot another arrow as Noah stepped back into his illusion, but he again blocked with his shield. Noah, with his movements concealed, drew several small knives from his belt and hurled them at the archer. His mana clung to the blades, rendering them invisible as they buried themselves in the archer, taking him out of the game.

All that was left was a swordsman, and he knew that something was going on. Two of his cohorts were dead, but he didn’t understand how. He pushed his confusion aside and charged towards Noah. Noah blocked and parried his attacks with his sword, wanting to take his time and savor the fight. He was so used to fighting monsters, he wanted to make sure his skills in killing other humans hadn’t gone dull, to refamiliarize himself with their unique movements and techniques.

He was allowing the bandit to push him back, though there was little he could do to stop it. His opponent was armed with a two-handed sword, so he could deliver more force than Noah could muster with his short blade. He strung the bandit along, using repetitive, easy movements, laying a fake trail as to what his next move would be. He made a wide swing from the side, and the bandit automatically blocked, however, the blade never came, it was only Noah’s illusionary arm. His real arm swung from the opposite side, slashing the bandit across the stomach.

He staggered back, cursing in pain and trying to understand what happened. Noah closed in and the bandit tried to open some space with a powerful cleave. Noah blocked with his sword, at least, that’s what the bandit saw. In truth, he had blocked with his shield, allowing him to slash the bandit across the wrist without him even seeing the attack coming. Blood poured freely, the man’s hand now useless. He released a cry of exertion and tried a one-handed swing. The sword sliced through Noah’s neck, just as the man had aimed for, but he knew something was wrong when no severed head fell, and what’s more, he hadn’t felt anything when he made the slash. It was like he had hit nothing but air. He raised his sword to block a swing from Noah, but in reality, it was a stab, with Noah’s sword piercing his chest. Noah confirmed all three deaths and then called out to Tin.

“Do me a favor and pull this arrow out.”

“I’m afraid it’ll hurt.”

“I can handle it.”

She was nervous, but she grabbed and arrow and ripped it out without issue, making Noah grimace in pain. She pulled out a red potion from her bag and poured it on the wound. In seconds, it scabbed over, with the tissue within stitching itself back together. These health potions were a real life-saver, miracles in a bottle.

“Thanks.”

Noah once more checked the bodies, but their faces didn’t match any wanted posters, meaning there was no bounty that he could collect with their heads. Tin went to work, stripping the bodies of everything useful. They were so used to this routine that he rarely needed to give her orders.

“I think we should call it a day. I don’t think this rain is going to stop anytime.”

“I agree,” Tin said.

They set off back towards the town, fantasizing of removing their soaked clothes and warming themselves beside a fire. They had plenty to carry, and the rain made everything heavier, with the added cold sapping their strength. By the time they reached the inn, even Noah was on his last legs, and felt weak. The sun hadn’t fully set yet, but the clouds were so thick that it was almost pitch black out.

It was a relief to finally get inside and out of the rain, but Noah knew something was off. He felt woozy, his thoughts getting hazy.

“Don’t tell me you two were out in that rain all day!” the innkeeper said when she saw them.

“We’re going to stay in our room tonight. Can you have someone bring our meals up to us, along with extra firewood?”

“Sure thing, dearie.”

They proceeded up the stairs, but Noah had to stop halfway up. He was out of breath, and it felt like the room was spinning.

“Master, is something wrong?”

“I think I’m coming down with something. Help me up the stairs.”

She lent him her shoulder and they made their way up to their room. Before they even closed the door, Noah dumped his pack and weapons and began pulling off his clothes. Tin locked the door and started a fire in the hearth. Once free of his wet clothes, Noah collapsed on the bed. The mattress was lumpy straw, the sheets were rough like sandpaper, and the blanket smelled like wet dog no matter how many times it was cleaned, but Noah was grateful for them.

As the fire started to burn and fill the room with light and warmth, there was a knock on the door. Two chambermaids stood outside, the innkeeper’s daughters, though they were younger than Tin. One of them held two trays of food, and the other held an exceptionally large bundle of firewood. Noah hid himself beneath the blanket and Tin answered. As Noah had taught her, she kept the door open just enough to take the food and firewood, and didn’t allow them inside.

Tin brought him his meal and felt his forehead. “Master, you’re burning up.”

“I’ll be fine. Take off your clothes and warm yourself by the fire before you end up like me.”

He watched her undress and the two of them sat on the bed, wrapped in blankets as they ate their dinner. It was hot stew, the perfect comfort food. Unfortunately, Noah was starting to find it difficult to swallow. By the time he finished, his breathing was becoming labored and his heart was beating irregularly. Noah was hoping it was just a cold, but this was starting to feel much more intense and was coming on too quickly. Perhaps a disease native to this world?

Tin could see his condition worsening. “Master, you should get some sleep.”

She took his tray and gently pushed him onto his back. Truth be told, as soon as his head hit the pillow, he lost the strength to move. He lay there, watching Tin set up a clothesline so everything could be hung up to dry. Once she was done, she added some more wood to the fire and slid under the blankets. Her naked body met his and she curled up against him.

Noah closed his eyes, but while sleep was quick to come, it was unpleasant. Nightmares assailed him, a burning heat ravaging him both physically and mentally. He remembered tossing and turning throughout the night, when the pain in his body outweighed his fatigue. All of his muscles ached and spasmed almost nonstop, his stomach felt like it was full of oil, and he couldn’t escape his fever.

He finally awoke the next morning to the sight of rain pelting the window. His mouth was as dry as ashes and he felt like he was going to die of thirst, just like he had a few times in the past. The rain, it had gotten him into this mess, but now he so desperately wanted it. He wanted to go out and vent the heat that clung to him like a monkey on his back.

“Tin,” he murmured. His voice was faint, as it felt like his tongue and throat would crack like clay. “Tin,” he said again, putting all of his strength into it.

“Master?”

He saw her in his peripheral vision, but he didn’t have the strength to turn to her.

“Water.” It was all he could say.

She brought him a cup of water, and in his impatience, he tried to pull it from her hands, if only to get it to his mouth a nanosecond sooner. His clumsy reach was ignored and she helped him turn on his back so that he could drink. It was some of the best water he had ever tasted, and he felt some life return to him, if only a little.

“More.”

She brought over the pitcher to refill the cup, but he simply snatched it and drank the whole thing.

“How do you feel?”

“Everything hurts, I feel like I’m on fire. I think I’m gonna… gonna…” He covered his mouth and frantically pointed to the chamber pot in the corner of the room. He had detested the presence of such an unsanitary thing since he first arrived at this inn, but finally, he was grateful to have it. Tin brought the pot over and he vomited everything he drank, plus last night’s dinner. He fell back on the bed, with his stomach feeling even worse. He had gotten a nasty flu a few years ago, but even that wasn’t as bad as this. This was like malaria combined with detox. “Ugh… fuck. In every lifetime, getting sick sucks ass.”

“I’ll go get the innkeeper. She may know what’s wrong.”

“No. Me being sick leaves us vulnerable, and the more people know about it, the greater the danger. If I can’t fight, we’re easy prey. If I’m still in this condition by tomorrow, then you can get help.”

“What can I do?”

There were plants that could help with cold and flu symptoms, but his mind was too hazy to remember them. “Pine needle tea, like I made by the river, and see if someone in the kitchen will make me some hot oatmeal.”

Tin was hesitant, not wanting to leave his side, but she obeyed. With her gone, Noah tried to fall back to sleep, but could only get a pale imitation that was nowhere near as restful. For Noah, it felt like his brain was being fed on by ants. He spent the rest of the day in bed, passing in and out of consciousness. Tin remained with him whenever possible. She used damp rags to keep his fever in check, and hung a kettle over the fire, making tea for him whenever he asked, though his thirst was unquenchable.

Noon came around, and Noah sat up to eat his lunch, though it was a bowl of soup. Normally, people ate whatever the house special was at the time, but by paying extra, guests of the inn could order particular foods, at least, within reason. The broth went down easy, but the meat and vegetables felt like cacti rolling down his throat. As he ate, Tin helped wipe the sweat from his body. His spot on the bed would need some time to dry out. When he had finished eating, he simply sat with his head in his hands, taking deep breaths and trying to ignore the throbbing pain.

Tin leaned against his back. “Please, what can I do to help?”

“You’re doing plenty for me already.”

“There must be more that I can do.”

“Well it hurts me to say this, but I’ll need your help using that chamber pot.”

---------------

“Aye, this is springburn all right.” Noah opened his eyes, finding the innkeeper examining him, with Tin standing in back. The woman was holding a handkerchief over her nose and mouth, and not touching him directly, instead with one of the rags Tin used.

“That’s really bad, isn’t it?” Tin asked.

“It’s not good. I know four others in town who have it and they are suffering as well. It always manages to kill a few people each year. My oldest once had it and he nearly died.”

Noah saw it, Tin’s shoulders trembling. “What can I do to help him?”

“Exactly what you’ve been doing. I know of some teas that will help him feel a bit better. He’ll either make it or he won’t, though I think his chances are good.”

“How much time would I have if it were to be fatal? How long does this last?” Noah asked.

“Three days. After that, you’re in the clear.” She got to her feet and returned to the door. “I’m confining you both to this room until this blows over. The last thing I need is for everyone in the inn to get sick.” She left the room and locked the door behind her.

“It would be better for her to just throw us out,” said Noah, “rather than simply isolate us and risk everyone. She must like us a bit, or at least want to protect her reputation. I told you to wait a day before calling her.”

“But I did. Don’t you remember? You told me that yesterday.”

“Ah, withdrawn, my apologies. The pouch under the floorboards, can you get it for me, please?”

Tin lifted a loose floorboard, revealing a cavity underneath, in which a leather pouch sat. She presented it to Noah and he opened it up to reveal his phone and wallet. While they were mostly useless in this new world, he held onto them in the hopes that he could at least use them for parts and kept the phone off to save its energy. If he ever needed to start an emergency fire, that lithium battery could come in handy. Luckily, he had his earbuds with him, so he could at least enjoy one piece of his old life. Tin stared at the device, possessed by curiosity. She had only seen it once or twice, the metallic case, the light it produced. Was it some kind of magic tool? She wanted to ask what it was, but when Noah put in the ear buds, she assumed it was something that would help him get better.

He set his playlist to random and lay back down, hoping that the music would distract him. He drifted once more into the rift between being asleep and awake, cursed with his fever even in his dreams. During his waking moments, he was either drinking water or throwing up. The only reason why nature wasn’t calling was because he was sweating so profusely. The music didn’t distract him as he had hoped, so much as permeate his unconscious mind. One song in particular came up, “House of the Rising Sun”, and as that opening guitar strung out, a memory was pulled from the depths of his mind, another time he had heard that song.

It was before dawn, he had been driving out in the Nevada desert, out of the sight of Vegas. Noah was in his thirties at the time, lamenting all the dust the Cadillac was kicking up, so much of it sticking to the exterior. He’d have to clean it up later, as his employers wouldn’t be happy if he returned the company car in a disgraceful condition. The eastern clouds were pinkening as he pulled to a stop at the edge of a ravine.

He got out of the car and circled back to the trunk, from which he removed a man with bound wrists and a bag over his head. He stumbled on his feet, and Noah pulled him to the edge of the ravine and removed the bag over his face. The man’s face was streaked with dried blood, some of which also stained his dress shirt. He was perhaps in his fifties, a senior in the company.

“You fucking retard,” he spat. Noah ignored him and turned up the radio so he could hear the rest of the song. The exterior of the car was an antique 70’s model, worth its weight in gold, but the interior had been upgraded into the modern age. When he returned to the man, it was with a gun in his hand. “Killing me will just fuck up your life and whoever threw me under the bus. You really think Alejandro can take power? Once this gets out, the streets will become bloodbaths and your head will end up stuck on a pike.”

“In all likelihood,” said Noah, “but it’ll be fun to watch.”

“You’re willing to start a war just because it’ll be fun?”

“Whatever happens is the fault of whoever hired me. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it, though. It’s the little things that matter. You need to enjoy the special little gifts like this.” He flicked his gun towards the car, where the song was still playing. “I once heard someone say that this is the best song for driving with someone in the trunk of your car. It is certainly a delicious coincidence.”

“The irony of your ilk: people like you think you’ll do great in our business because you have no morals, no hesitation, but it gets you killed so quickly. It’s the people who actually believe in something that make it, that have a line they never cross, no matter how bloody their hands get.”

“That’s what’s nice about my way of life, I feel no need to stick around. But even I believe in a bit of something.”

The man laughed and spat on the ground. “What could you believe in?”

“Mercy. I’m letting you enjoy the sunrise, after all.”

The sun broke free of the horizon, and as its light was soaked up by the land, a gunshot rang out across the desert.

---------------

Once Noah had fallen asleep, Tin sat beside him and freshened the damp rags that were opposing his fever. It was all she knew how to do when someone was ill, and it came from memories of when she was the victim, though kindness was rare to come to her in those vulnerable times. It pained her to be so useless, to not know how to help. Most of everything she had done was just obeying his instructions.

As she wiped away his sweat, her eyes fell to his exposed manhood, and lust fluttered through her, a feeling that Noah had introduced her to. Their routine had been disturbed by this sickness, as yesterday was the day she was supposed to help him train his mana. She cherished those days, when she could finally help him in the way she knew best, when she got to experience euphoria.

Women would always flock to her master, flirting with him, trying to invite themselves into one of his “workouts”. It terrified her, that she might be discarded for someone else, having lost her value. When she and Noah met those female adventurers, she saw everything she could not do in Mira, and everything she could do in Beth, rendering her obsolete.

She lowered her head and began performing felatio, slurping up the salt from his sweat. She did it often when he slept, compelled by her lust but also hoping that it was helping him feel good, each climax forming a shield against the pain of his fever. It was something she could do for him. If Noah was aware of it, he wasn’t saying anything.

As her head bobbed up and down over his lap, Noah was sinking farther and farther into his mind, while being pursued by the music from his phone. Once more, a lone guitar was playing, and what little awareness his mind still had tried to remember what it was from. Ah, the lyrics, yeah, this was Pink Floyd, “Wish You Were Here”. It was his wife’s favorite, one of his past wives, that is. He played it at their wedding and her funeral. He could remember the sunny sky overhead when they cut the cake, and the somber clouds that matched the color of her casket as it was lowered into the ground. He remembered the food served at both occasions. But what was her name? They danced to this song, but he couldn’t remember her face. She loved the oldies, always playing them while she worked in the garden. Didn’t they have a son together? No, that was someone else.

Noah’s mind continued to slip through time, each song conjuring up a memory. He remembered studying at MIT while listening to Two Steps From Hell. He remembered the stereo blaring Metallica when his convoy was blown up in Syria. He remembered Mozart playing in the hospital as he died from pancreatic cancer. He wasn’t aware of the mutterings escaping his lips, recalling conversations from across time and space.

When next he woke up, it was night out, and the earbuds felt like hot coals in his ears. He looked at his phone, now with a quarter battery left. How many more times could he listen to music before his phone just became a useless block? He put his head back on his pillow, instead listening to Tin’s breathing as she slept soundly beside him.

---------------

A knocking on the door shocked Noah from his slumber, and he would have sat up, if not for the throbbing pain in all of his muscles. He groaned and fell back on the pillow.

“Who is it?” he asked.

“It’s Holly, I’ve got your food!” Ah, one of the chambermaids.

“Please, just leave it there.”

Noah slowly sat up and released another groan. Wait a second, he felt better. He felt like he just gotten the shit beaten out of him for three hours straight, but he could finally move around. His fever had lessened and the soreness was due to the strain it had put on his body.

“Tin, let’s eat breakfast.” She didn’t respond. “Tin?”

He turned to her, seeing a flushed face, moist with sweat. The gentle breathing he had listened to last night was now an anguished pant. “Shit. Tin can you hear me?”

He tapped her cheek a few times and her eyes opened. “Master?”

“There you are. I need you to tell me everything you feel, everything that hurts.”

“Ah, I’m sorry. I haven’t started the tea yet.” She tried to sit up, but he stopped her. She was so weak that he almost didn’t need to.

“Don’t worry about it, I’m fine, but you caught the springburn sickness. I’m going to get you through this.”

“It’s so hot in here. Don’t worry, I’ll wash away your sweat. I just need to…” She trailed off and tried to roll out of bed, and Noah had to grab her before she could fall to the floor.

“Tin, can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?”

He showed her his hand, but she just looked at it with glazed over eyes. “Are we going to go hunt monsters today?”

‘Shit, it’s hitting her even harder than it hit me. She’s already delirious.’ “No, we’re staying here. Everything is fine, I’m all better now. Just leave everything to me.”

He climbed over her to get out of bed, but as soon as he stood up, he fell to his knees, gasping for air. He was on the mend, but he was still in a shitty situation. He crawled over to his backpack and pulled out a health and mana potion. He had tried drinking them before, to see if they could cure him, but was met with failure. He downed them both, and the pain racking his body subsided. His strength and stamina were still close to zero, but at least the soreness was gone.

The first thing he needed to do was get her fever down before she suffered serious damage. Next to the bed was the wash basin, filled with rags. Just as Tin had done when he was sick, he draped them across her body.

“Master, your fever,” she mumbled. She began trying to put the rags on him instead, and he had to repeatedly stop her and pin down her arms.

“Just hold still, that’s an order.”

Noah got dressed and limped over to the door. Outside were two food trays and a pitcher of fresh water. He brought them in, and having already experienced the pain of this disease, he brought the pitcher over to Tin, rather than just a cupful. He lifted her head and poured the water between her pale lips. She released sighs of relief between each gulp, and every time he thought she was done, she’d lean her head forward, as if trying to grab it like a dog not wanting to surrender its toy.

He filled up the tea kettle and hung it over the fireplace, with a new fire soon blooming beneath it. When he was sick, he hated the fire, the heat it gave off. It was the only time he was grateful for the draftiness of the room, all the little holes for fresh air to slip in, but it was needed. As he waited for the kettle to boil, he retrieved Tin’s breakfast and once more lifted her head. It was warm porridge, probably made with him in mind, but now perfect for Tin.

“Time for breakfast, Tin. Can you open your mouth for me?” He brought a spoonful to her mouth, but as soon as she smelled it, she instinctively turned away, whimpering. “I know your throat and stomach hurt right now, but you need to eat. You need all the nutrients you can get.”

She gave in and he fed her bit by bit, washing it down with some tea. He then scarfed down his own breakfast and looked outside. He was thinking clearly now and knew what would help Tin’s chances with this sickness.

“Tin, listen to me. I’m going to go out and get something that will help you feel better. I’ll be back soon, and until I get back, I want you to stay in bed. Can you repeat that back to me?”

“No… Master should leave errands to me.” Once more, she tried to sit up and he pushed her back down.

“Tin, you’re sick and you need to rest. I’ll take care of everything.”

“I can do it! Please let me do it!” She was crying, trying to escape his grasp. He held her against him, waiting for her pitiful flailing to stop. She soon went limp and he laid her back down.

“Listen, I order you to remain in this bed, do you understand? I ORDER you to remain in this bed!” She gazed at him with swimming eyes and nodded. “Good, now go back to sleep. I’ll be back before you wake up.”

He got up and took a deep breath, then cast his invisibility. The innkeeper would give him a hard time if she saw him outside of his room, might even kick him out. While his magic was ideal, his body was so weak that his mana might not last long. He left the room and locked it behind him. The hallway outside was empty, but he could hear plenty of people in the bar. Getting down the stairs was difficult, as his head was sent spinning with each step. No one noticed his presence, and he made it through the breakfast crowd and outside. It felt nothing short of euphoric to breathe fresh air and soak in the sun.

A bit of his strength had returned, so he released his spell and made his way across town to the apothecary. Inside, the old woman watched as he looked through a menu of her wares, ***********ing plants that helped with everything from fevers to upset stomach.

“I’m guessing that girl of yours is under the weather, and you’re not looking very healthy yourself.”

“It’s been a rough few days.”

---------------

Tin was on the floor when he returned to their room at the inn. The door actually struck her head when he opened it.

“Goddammit, I told you to stay in bed.” He put down the bag of herbs and rolled her onto her back. “Tin, wake up.”

“I’m sorry, Master, I’ll tend to the horses in just a moment.”

She was completely out of it. He scooped her up and carried her to the bed. He needed to make some medicine for her, but he couldn’t do it while she was crawling around like this. He took the blanket and tore off a long strip, then used it to tie her wrist to the bedframe. Restraining her was not an ideal solution, but at least the fabric wouldn’t leave a mark.

A strange look appeared on Tin’s face as she looked from her wrist to Noah, almost mournful, and she spread her legs for him. “I understand, Master. I won’t cry this time.” Apparently, he wasn’t the first person to tie her to a bed.

“Christ, even your hallucinations are depressing,” Noah muttered.

He laid the blanket over her and left her on the bed, then went to work. In the time since he first started making his own potions, he had bought a cheap compounding kit, including a mortar and pestle. He wasn’t a skilled herbalist like the apothecary, but most of the plants in this world were just like those he knew from his past lives, and had built up plenty of survival knowledge. People easily faded from his memory, but knowledge and technical skills were held onto. The pursuit of education was one of the few habits he chose to continue in every lifetime, as it was the closest he could get to finding meaning in the multiverse.

As he toiled, Tin continued to mutter in her sleep, occasionally crying. Nothing Noah heard could be called pleasant. He eventually stopped to check on her, see if he could shake her from her nightmares.

“Tin, wake up, I have tea.”

“No! No!” She started flailing, knocking the cup from Noah’s hand. He grabbed her and pinned her down. “No, please stop! It hurts! Mama, it hurts! Make him stop!”

“Tin, snap out of it!”

The last thing he needed was someone overhearing this and misunderstanding. He covered her mouth, waiting for the nightmare to end. Perhaps he should have picked up something to sedate her. Would he have to completely bind and gag her to keep her still and quiet? That would likely push her further into the delusion, and with this disease ransacking through her body, the stress might kill her. How could he calm her down?

He left her to retrieve a cup of water and splashed it on her face. That seemed to shake her awake. “Huh? Master?”

“Tin, say my name.”

“N-Noah.”

“Good, you’re back. How do you feel?”

“It… hurts.” Fresh tears began to pour down her cheeks.

“I’m making medicine to help you feel better, but there is something else I want to try.” He retrieved his phone and put the earbuds in her ears. He had a playlist of easy listening songs, mostly instrumental and soundtracks. He ***********ed one, “Vide Cor Meum”, one of his favorites. It was gentle, set at a low volume, but the sound of the strings and voices, right in her ears, made Tin freak out.

“What is this? What is this?!” she exclaimed in shock. Her first instinct was to pull out the earbuds, as if swatting a mosquito when hearing its buzzing, but Noah stopped her.

“It’s music, it’s just music. Have you ever heard it before?”

“Music?”

She thought back, trying to remember while her mind was still hazy. Her fellow slaves, they used to have work songs when they toiled in the field, sort of a means of expressing empathy and solidarity, that they all shared the same pain. She knew a boy who used to play the flute, though not very well, and once, she heard the wife of one of her former masters playing a harp from within her mansion. They could be called music, but they all paled in comparison to what she was listening to now.

It was the most beautiful thing she had ever heard. In her soul, a thirst was quenched that she had never noticed before, and she felt as though a summer breeze was rolling through her body, sending shivers of bliss up her spine that made her forget her fever. It left Tin stunned, her eyes wide as dinner plates with her mouth hanging open. She looked at Noah, seeing a rare smile on his face.

He rubbed the top of her head and gently laid her back down. “Just rest now, ok?”

She nodded, staring up at the ceiling as the song continued. Noah resumed his work, eventually completing his medicine. It wasn’t a cure, but it would help reduce her symptoms. For the next three days, Noah looked after Tin, doing all the things for her that she had done for him. Thanks to the medicine, he was able to prevent her from hallucinating, though she still had nightmares from her lifetime of abuse. When that happened, Noah would put the earbuds in her ears and play a song for her, and she would immediately settle, as if hypnotized.

For Noah, hearing music had flooded his mind with memories, making him relive scenes of his past lives when he heard those songs, but for Tin, it was the opposite. Having lived a life without music, the notes and voices filled every facet of her mind, forcing everything else out, every bad thought and memory. When she was awake, she’d listen while watching Noah make her medicine or practice his magic, and when Noah looked at her, there would always be a smile on her face.

---------------

It had been a week since Noah fell ill, and he and Tin were going for a walk around the village. His strength had returned, but she was still weak, and hopefully some fresh air and exercise would help her feel better. They had been cooped up in that room for so long, and the beautiful weather was just what they needed. Normally, Tin would walk behind Noah, as a proper slave, but today, she was bold, hanging onto his arm. She claimed it to be to help her walk, that she was weak and needed to lean on him, but the smile on her face told of her dishonesty. Noah allowed it, as she had taken such good care of him when he was sick and it was his fault she fell ill after him. He certainly owed her.

What bothered him, though, were the looks they were getting. It had been a week since she had last “helped him” with his magic training, but the two of them were still a bit of a celebrity couple, so when they saw the way Tin held onto Noah, they all grinned like they had just heard a dirty joke. There was a saying going around, a joke, that even those who had never met Tin had heard her voice.

“Master, when I was sick, I’m sorry for misbehaving.”

“Huh? Where’s this coming from?”

“I just… hope you didn’t hear me say anything that would make you think any less of me. I’m sure I talked in my sleep.”

Noah didn’t even hesitate. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You were quiet as a church mouse the whole time.” She halted and let go of his arm, and he turned back to face her. “Why? Did I talk in my sleep?”

Tin opened her mouth and stopped. The things she had heard her master say when he was delirious, both great and terrible things, many of which she couldn’t understand, such as when he started speaking other languages or reciting lines from textbooks.

“No, other than cursing.”

“That sounds about right.”

---------------

They climbed up a hill overlooking the village, using a fallen log as a bench while they soaked in the scenery.

“This is some nice countryside,” Noah said.

“I suppose so. This is the only thing I know. I have nothing to compare it to.”

“I’ve seen what happens when nature is taken for granted, when everything is used up without any thought of the future. It is an ugly, nauseating thing. I try to make myself appreciate nature whenever I can.”

“Where was that?”

Noah picked the name of a town from one of the maps. “Nellow.” Truth be told, it was multiple lands, in every timeline.

“Is that we’re you’re from?”

“Yes.”

Tin looked at him, the man who she called her master. She knew when he lied. She saw him do it to everyone he talked to, especially her. There weren’t any tells for her to read, he never stumbled or hesitated, and she had seen it work time and time again, but there was something about his eyes, a hollowness she thought she saw. She had tried asking about his past, but his gaze was always empty, even when he spoke with a smile. He never asked her about her own past, but it was nothing she wasn’t used to. She had grown up being treated as an object, both a tool and a toy. Intimate conversation was not something a slave should expect from their master, but she had never had a master that made her feel this way, that was so kind to her.

“M-master…” she stammered.

He turned to her, trying to remember the last time he heard her talk so nervously. “Yes?”

“Please, forgive my impudence, but I know you’re lying to me. I beg you, tell me where you came from, the things you’ve done, anything. I only wish to know more about you.”

He stared at her, unsure of what his next move should be, but as he saw the wetness of her eyes, his fear waned. “I talked in my sleep, didn’t I?”

“Please forgive me for lying to you, but some of the things I heard… I didn’t think you’d want someone like me to know.”

“It doesn’t go well when I tell the truth. Being honest has brought me nothing but trouble.”

“If you refuse to tell the truth, I can live with that. I can live with lies, as long as they come from you. All I want is something I can paint in my mind, a scene that I can see you in.”

Noah looked up at the sky. “I grew up near the coast, and my father had a boat. He wasn’t a fisherman or merchant, rather, it was a hobby. In the summer, when the weather was good, my family would go out on the water and go fishing, simply for the enjoyment of it. We’d catch mackerel and try to use them as bait to catch big stripers, but it never worked out. One time, we brought our dog with us, and I remember finding a grape-sized tick on his eyebrow and putting it on my hook, seeing if I would catch anything. You wouldn’t believe how bright it is out on the water.”

Tin moved closer to Noah, clutching his arm and leaning her head on his shoulder. At night, when they lay in bed together after having sex, she would often snuggle up to him just like this. “Please, tell me more.”

So Noah regaled her, telling her what it was like to grow up being poor, what it like to grow up being rich. He recalled fond memories of his siblings and holidays as an only child. He told her of how his parents loved and supported him, then how they screamed and beat him. He described amazing machines and the technology of the modern world, and the fight for survival in the aftermath of the apocalypse.

Tin listened without saying a thing, never questioning his contradictions, only enjoying the stories that Noah wove and what they told her about the man he was.

.

.

.

Succession

.

.

.

Noah and Tin, having fully recovered from the springburn sickness, set out early on a beautiful day. Summer was upon them, so the mornings had lost much of their chill, though everyone paid for it in sweat later in the day. Unlike before, when they roamed aimlessly through the woods to hunt monsters, they had a specific location in mind. Noah had heard rumors of an abandoned mine that was taken over by goblins. A hive, a nest, a colony, whatever it could be called, it spelled trouble for the village. Goblins ate and bred like rats, so if they managed to find a good place to dig in, they could bolster their numbers in very little time. They had claimed the area several times before and had to be flushed out, and while attempts had been made to seal or destroy the mine, the goblins always found a way back in.

They were following one of the maps Noah had bought, with several pieces of advice written down that he had received from other adventurers. It would take a day to reach the mine, so they exercised restraint and avoided fighting monsters whenever possible. Hopefully this mine would be a great source of revenue in scavenged weapons, meaning it would be best to travel light and not gather along the way.

They arrived at the mine early in the morning of the following day. Finding a safe place to set up camp had been difficult, for this was the territory where the goblins roamed. The mine was carved into the base of one of the small mountains. At one time, it might have been a fairly decent operation. There were plenty of signs of the buildings that would have stood around it, now reduced to piles of kindling. There had once been a wooden shack built around the entrance, sort of like an airlock, perhaps to keep the rain out some time ago, but it was just a rickety skeleton now. Many of the materials and abandoned equipment were harvested to construct weapons and barriers for use against intruders, with a handful of goblins keeping a constant watch.

Noah and Tin were hiding nearby, scouting the entrance. “You wait here and I’ll take out the guards. I’ll wave you over when it’s all clear.”

“Yes, Master.”

Noah concealed himself and advanced towards the mine. He counted seven goblins in total. One was on the roof of the shack erected around the entrance, perched like an owl with a bow in hand. Two more were sitting on the wooden walls at the perimeter of the camp. The remaining four were at the entrance, though they were preoccupied with a game of dice.

Noah went for the one no one would notice, the sniper above. He approached the entrance without fear, invisible and inaudible to the goblins keeping guard, but that would change. The only way to the sniper was to climb up onto the roof of the shack, but it was so weathered and fragile, it looked like it couldn’t support more than the weight of one goblin. However, it was worth taking the risk. He reached the side of the shed and began the climb, using the mossy cliffside as a secondary ladder to help minimize the weight he put on the old wooden boards.

He was careful with every placement of his hands and feet, so as to disturb as little as possible. His illusion would conceal the marks he made, but only within a certain range. He had experimented with Tin’s help, finding that footprints would be revealed after ten steps, so he had to stay within that range to keep them within his illusion. Besides, if he ended up ripping a board right out of the wall, his illusion wouldn’t be able to conceal it. It could conceal traces of his activity, but not replicate objects. The climb was difficult. The wood of the shack had frayed over the years and riddled his hands with splinters, while the hard clay on the cliff crumbled and made it difficult to get a solid hold. Regardless, he managed to climb up onto the roof.

The roof itself was like thin ice, and if he ended up breaking through or snapping any of the beams, the goblin would surely feel it, even if he couldn’t hear it. Noah pulled a rock out of the cliff and threw it into the foliage in the distance. The goblin perked its head at the noise, and in that instant, Noah closed in and stabbed it in the back with his short sword. It died before it could even voice its pain.

Noah left it sitting there and climbed off the shack, then snuck over to the two goblins sitting away from the entrance. They looked bored as can be, struggling to stay awake. Noah approached the first one, leaning against one of the wooden walls. He dispatched it with his knife, striking the base of the brain stem. The wound was small and the goblin simply went limp, never feeling a thing. To its friends, it would look like it had simply dozed off. Noah slew the other goblin the same way, without creating any noise or disturbances.

Finally, he approached the entrance, where the four were still gambling. He stood over them, the sun passing through him perfectly and its rays illuminating their game. He ***********ed his longsword for this, even doing a few practice swings to figure out the reach and force required. When he was satisfied, he gave a mighty slash, beheading all four beasts at once. Their bodies dropped to the ground and Noah released his spell, then waved Tin over.

As he stood guard, she searched the bodies, and for each one, cut off their right ear. Most monsters had some useful body part that could be sold, like their hides for clothing or their meat as food, but aside from collectors of grotesqueries like skulls and other things to put on display, nothing about the goblin was sellable. However, since they were such a nuisance, their species had an ongoing bounty. The local baron would pay adventurers for every goblin they killed, and their right ears were the proof. The goblins also sometimes carried valuables, such as weapons, candles, and even coins. Tin searched them all, and whatever goods she collected went into her backpack.

“Ready to go in?” Noah asked.

Tin nodded. “I’ll follow you wherever you lead, Master.”

From her pack, she drew a lantern and lit it. Noah would lead, but she would provide the light. This meant that he couldn’t simply disappear and leave her at a safe distance while he picked off the goblins one by one. He needed her right beside him so that he could see what he was doing, and would have defeat the goblins drawn to the light.

They entered the mine, and were immediately assailed by the stench. This was the first time Noah or Tin had ever seen a goblin nest, so the smell was new to them. It reeked of sewage and rotting meat, much of the latter probably human.

“This air might be toxic. Tell me if you start getting dizzy, because if one of us loses consciousness, we’re both doomed.”

They delved into the mountain with Tin lighting Noah’s way. Everywhere, there were the remains of animals that the goblins had eaten, picked down to the bone. In a way, the goblins provided a valuable service to the ecosystem. Because monsters and animals spawned both organically and through magic circles, the landscape should have been buried under all of their corpses. Instead, the scavenging beasts would take their finds to their den, continuously sweeping the forest clean.

They soon came upon the first branch chamber, just like in an anthill. It was small, about the size of an average bedroom. Inside, several goblins were sleeping atop a mountain of pelts. Most of them were female or younglings. It wasn’t proper sport to kill such prey while they slept, but this was an extermination job, so things like honor held no meaning.

“It would probably be better if you didn’t watch this,” Noah whispered to Tin. “Look away and listen for any approaching.”

She did as ordered, a mournful look on her face as she averted her eyes while keeping the light of the lantern focused into the chamber. Noah drew his short sword and began stabbing the monsters in their sleep. Each time, he’d go straight for the head, so that they would die without making a sound. He was steady, methodical, taking them out one by one with none of his victims even suspecting a thing. It was unnervingly easy, and when he was done, he harvested their ears.

“Master!”

Noah heard it with a monstrous shriek. He ran back out into the tunnel as a goblin charged from deeper within, armed with a wooden spear. Noah pushed Tin out of the way of its first thrust, then sliced off the top of its head with a strike to the temple. More must have heard its cry, because another two goblins came running at them.

The first that tried to approach swung at Noah with a large dagger. He stepped out of its range and kicked the goblin in the chest, nearly sending it flying. The second blocked the swing of his sword with a wooden club, but he forced it against the wall and drove his knife into its chest. Leaving it to die, he returned to the first, struggling to breathe, and ended its life with his sword.

“Master,” Tin said, handing him a damp rag. He used it to wipe the blood off his hands while she looted the corpses.

They moved further on down into the tunnel, finding it expand into a larger chamber and fork out. There was still plenty of mining equipment, but much of it was being used to hang food from. The bodies of both humans and animals had been skinned and were being cooked over bonfires. The goblins were jumping around and squealing in delight as the smell of their feast wafted through the mine. Human flesh cooked over a fire, it was a smell that took Noah back to some dark timelines.

Tin gasped in horror at the sight and one of the goblins spotted them and squealed something in their bestial language. The dozen or so goblins in the chamber turned their attention to Noah and Tin and began to approach, armed with the blades used for butchering their food. They chanted the same squeal, probably something along the lines of “more meat!”

“Tin, stand back.”

He summoned his clone and sent it running to the right side as if to flank them. The goblins paid no attention to the fact that their prey seemingly just split into two, and were drawn to the movement of the clone. With that opening, Noah attacked from their exposed side with his longsword and beheaded three of the beasts. The goblins, sensing the deaths of their comrades, turned their attention back to Noah and swarmed in. He kept them at bay with wide swings, while leaving his left side open to taunt them. One by one, they tried to attack from the apparent blind spot, but he would dispatch them before they could actually reach him. Any that got in close enough to attack found their weapons blocked by Noah’s shield, and then his sword would slash at them from below and split their stomachs open.

Once their ranks had been cut in half, they began to retreat back to the bonfire. As this was their den, they didn’t show their backs and instead tried to ward Noah off with threatening screeches. Their guard was raised, and while they were stupid, they wouldn’t fall for the same tricks as the others.

Noah cast both of his spells, and while he had his clone remain where he was and pretend to be standing his ground. He snuck past the goblins and attacked from behind. He slaughtered three before the remainders noticed, but as they couldn’t see him, they could do nothing but scream in confusion. They made it too easy for Noah to finish them off. Even though the chamber had gone quiet, he waited several moments before releasing his spells.

“All clear.”

Tin went to work, gathering up valuables. The blades might be worth something to the blacksmith, but they’d have to wash the dried blood off them first. As Tin searched the goblin corpses, Noah looked around at the other bodies being stored here. There were plenty of freshly killed humans and animals that were waiting to be cooked, so it was possible that their pockets hadn’t been picked yet. Noah dug through the pile of bodies, ignoring their stench, but one of them caught his attention.

It was a boy, a bit younger than him, and unlike the others, his limbs were bound. He wasn’t cold like the others. Noah checked his neck, and while it was weak, he found a steady pulse. Wait a second, he had seen him before. Noah had gotten to know plenty of people around the town in the past month, and learned to recognize others. He often saw this boy with Beth and Mira, carrying a sword and dressed as an adventurer. They frequently ate together at the Old Wineskin. Noah assumed they recruited him to join their party.

“Tin, I found a survivor.”

He retrieved a health potion from his pocket and poured it down the boy’s throat. As it took effect, Noah examined him. His clothes were good quality, but still the kind used by outdoorsmen. He had a decent physique, showing signs of training and hard work, but while there were calluses on his hands, there were healing blisters from wielding a sword. He was probably a farmer, but came from money.

He at last woke up and looked around, struggling to see. Even with a bonfire nearby, this wasn’t exactly the best place to wake up in.

“Where am I?”

“You’re in a goblin den. I’m guessing they must have struck you in the head, giving you a nasty concussion. I gave you a healing potion, so your vision should probably clear soon. Hold on, I’ll cut you loose.”

He severed the boy’s bonds and helped him to his feet. For a moment, he seemed back in good condition, but as he looked around, he began to panic and hyperventilate, and Noah had to catch him before he could fall back down. Either this was entirely new to him, or he was realizing how close he was to the most gruesome of deaths.

“Calm down, everything is fine. I’m Noah and this is my subordinate, Tin.”

“Did… did my father send you? Are you here to rescue me?”

“Your father? No, we’re just here to kill goblins and steal their loot. How did they capture you?”

The boy seemed to be able to stand upright on his own, so Noah let him go, though he was struggling to remember. “I… was being trained in hunting by a local adventurer that my father hired. I had just shot a boar with my bow… then I felt a massive pain in the back of my head and blacked out.”

“Your father, is he a noble?”

“Yes, Ivan Fault. The baron in charge of the town. I’m Oath Fault, the next head.”

“Well, Oath, we’ll help you get back to town as soon as we’re done with this mine.”

“This mine? What are you talking about? We have to get out of here! The goblins will be arriving any second!”

“I just finished taking care of a good number them, see?” Noah pointed to the bodies of his victims. “I’m confident in my abilities. Besides, it took a lot of effort to get here, so we’re not leaving until our pockets are filled with goodies and we can barely walk. Tell me, do you have any talents? Can you use magic or any weapons?”

“I… I have some skill with a sword.”

“Some, huh? So best case scenario, I can expect you to hold off a goblin that might sneak up on us from behind.” Noah took off his backpack and forced it into Oath’s hands. “Otherwise, you’re my new pack mule.”

“You can’t be serious!”

“You have to pay off the potion I used on you, and consider it a down payment for us getting you back to town. There is food and water in the bag, you can eat while you walk. Tin, give me a sword.” She handed him a chipped hand-and-a-half sword, taken from one of the goblins, and he gave it to Oath. “And I’m renting this to you, unless you would prefer to go unarmed. So, what do you say? Either do some work, or I can knock you out, steal your clothes, and sell them to cover the cost of that potion. Which is it going to be?”

“Fine, I’ll help you,” he muttered.

“Smart choice.”

The three proceeded deeper into the mine with Noah taking point. Every few minutes, goblins would attack, desperate to defend their home. Noah dispatched each of them with a flurry of slashes and stabs, leaving Tin to collect the goods. Oath was understandably nervous, and it left him unable to even touch the slain gargoyles, so Tin ended up doing most of the work and just putting the finds in his bag. At least he wasn’t complaining. Noah eventually tasked him with collecting goods found in the tunnel, while Tin would stick to looting corpses.

“I’ve seen you with Beth and Mira at the inn. Aren’t you an adventurer like them?” Noah asked.

“I used to be a farmer, I just started fighting monsters recently. I’m still not used to it. But this is incredible. I’ve never seen someone kill so many goblins singlehandedly.”

“Well I can see how they might be able to get the drop on someone if they ambush with superior numbers, but when you face them head on, it’s like fighting a group of ugly, feral children. Oh, speaking of which, I see another breeder.”

The sight before them was nauseating, as what appeared to be a big green pig was nursing a litter of pint-sized little gremlins. While the male goblins went out into the forest to gather, the females would tend to the younglings. Despite being less than half a foot tall as newborns, they would reach full-size in just six months, hence their voracious appetites. Noah dispatched the breeder and stomped out the younglings, much to Oath’s horror.

“They were just babies! They couldn’t even fight back!”

“They wouldn’t have been babies very long. In just a few months, they would be roaming the forest, killing whoever crossed their path and dragging them back here to be devoured. You and Tin are carrying packs full of the possessions of their victims. I’m not judging them for doing as nature commands them to, I’m simply dealing with a threat before it can become a threat.” A thunderous roar made the three teens cover their ears and wince. “What the hell was that?”

“A hobgoblin,” said Oath, “otherwise known as a goblin chief. They’re a rare breed. I hear that only one out of ten thousand goblins can grow to become a hobgoblin. They’re much bigger, smarter, and stronger than a regular goblin and can even learn magic. We need to get out of here, right now! It’s heard the deaths of the younglings and is coming for revenge!”

“Perfect. He’s probably hoarding the best stuff. Let’s go.”

“This is insane! The regular goblins may be weak, but hobgoblins are stronger than humans in every way!”

“Your issues are duly noted. I’m going after that chief, and if you run, you’d better hope that he kills me. Let’s go.”

Oath turned to Tin, hoping that she might speak up, but her expression was completely blank, as if she was daydreaming. “You can trust my Master. He is strong and skilled.”

Noah set off towards the source of the noise, but they need not travel far, as their foe came to greet them from the depths of the mountain. It stood over six feet tall with a far more muscular form than the lower goblins possessed. Like them, it wore a loincloth, but it was also garbed in pieces of stolen armor, including a metal helmet. Looking over a pair of boar-like tusks protruding from his mouth, he glared at the intruders with indescribable hatred.

“You will suffer for the deaths of my kin!” he snarled.

“Huh, so it really is smarter. Oath, you remember your job, right? If any other goblins come, you have to deal with them.”

He didn’t bother waiting for a reply and stepped forward with his longsword in hand. The chief was armed with the same type of sword, though with a larger blade. On the battlefield, it would likely be used against cavalry, killing both riders and their horses with one slice. The chief thundered towards him with his sword raised high. His speed was certainly faster than a human’s, and with the strength he was probably wielding, Noah didn’t want to try his luck by blocking or parrying. He sidestepped when the cleave was made and attempted a sideways swing towards the goblin’s head. It raised its hand, blocking with a metal arm guard, then forced him back.

It immediately closed the distance to make the same sideways swing Noah had, and with the sword’s greater length, he didn’t have the time or room to get out of the way. Instead, Noah rushed towards the sword to block it with his own. As the goblin straightened his arms, his swing would become more powerful, so he had to intervene at the earliest possible moment.

Sparks flew off their blades as Noah’s sword halted the goblin’s. It released one hand from the hilt of its sword, using what little momentum it had left to swing at Noah. He avoided its backhand by a hair’s breadth and countered with a punch to the Adam’s Apple. It staggered back, wheezing in pain, but without dropping its defense. Its pain tolerance was remarkable.

Noah gave it no time to recover and went on the offensive, slashing and stabbing at the goblin while it did its best to block. In moments, it had regained its dual-hand grip and was able to fend Noah off. It raised its sword for another cleave, but Noah’s eyes caught a distinct glow along the blade.

“It’s using magic! You have to dodge!” Oath shouted.

Noah’s instincts had already told him the same thing, but while he was able to get his body out the way, his sword met the goblin’s blade head-on and snapped. The beast’s weapon buried itself in the stone ground, shaking the entire cavern, and Noah rolled away to avoid any barehanded attacks like before. He got to his feet, examining his weapon and the enemy’s. The speed of the goblin’s swing had increased, as well as its strength and the durability of his sword.

It must have been warrior magic, something he heard of while gathering info in Clive. Warrior magic was the ability to activate weapon skills that would improve their abilities in battle, such as cutting deeper and withstanding more force without breaking. He had witnessed magic a few times during the last month and had become familiar, but this was only his second time since he arrived that he was actually fighting against a magic user. Perhaps it would be best to finish this fight while he was unharmed, rather than continue pushing his luck. On the other hand, Oath hadn’t seen his magic, and he wanted to keep it that way. He’d just have to work harder with his physical abilities.

The goblin charged with his sword slightly raised to either block or attack. It wasn’t glowing like before, but his last attack had shown that he could harness his magic in a fraction of second, so Noah couldn’t risk being in the way when the next swing happened. Noah readied himself, still holding his broken sword. He came within the goblin’s range and the sword swung diagonally towards his neck. Noah bolted forward, anticipating when the goblin would be committed to the move. He swung his broken sword towards the goblin’s wrists, making him pause for the briefest moment to consider the threat of fatal injury, and that moment was all Noah needed to draw his short sword and clip him across the stomach while zooming past.

The wound was severe, having used the inertia of the goblin’s charge to overcome the wall of abdominal muscles and slice deep into the organs. The goblin staggered, his guts spilling onto the ground. Noah finished him off before he could regain any of his strength. He took a deep breath and listened for any attackers hiding nearby.

“Clear.”

“Well done, Master,” Tin said while bowing. Beside her, Oath was in a daze.

As Tin went to work removing the goblin’s armor and checking for personal possessions, Noah examined the sword used. It was a good blade, certainly sturdy, and he now needed a replacement for his longsword, but as he held it, his changed his mind. His original longsword had the maximum allowable weight and size, and anything greater in either category would hinder his movements too much.

Oath approached him. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”

“I’ve studied various styles and forms of combat throughout my life, including archery and swordplay, mostly out of boredom or for exercise, and I’ve had plenty of experience killing. Your father pays people for every goblin people kill, correct? Will I get extra if I bring him the head of their chief?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him myself. He’ll want to know about this.”

“Master, I found something.” He turned to Tin, who was holding up the hand of the goblin to show him the ring on his little finger. She removed it and handed the ring to Noah, and he could immediately feel the magic within it.

‘Huh, a magic ring found in a goblin tunnel. What could possibly go wrong?’ He gave it a closer look under the light of Tin’s lantern and found a crest, depicting a shield with a swan on it. It was the national symbol of Uther. There was also something written on the band with a foreign substance. “Oath, what do you make of this?”

“That’s the ring of an Utheric knight! Anyone caught wearing one without being knighted can lose their hand as punishment!”

“I heard of those guys. They train as some noble school. Why so steep?”

“The ring is gold, but is inscribed with a rare metal called avenium, which can imbue objects with very high-level spells. I once heard that a sword with avenium runes can hold more power than the ten best steel swords. Knight rings are inscribed with a spell that creates another world where items can be stored.”

“How many items?”

“I heard it can store up to the same weight as the one who caries it, but you only feel the weight of the ring.”

Noah put on the ring and channeled some of his mana into it. It was a strange feeling, like he had just put his hand into a stuffed bag. He could see his hand, but not the objects he was touching. He felt a small bottle and closed his hand around it. The ring acknowledged that as a ***********ion and materialized the bottle. It was full of a yellow liquid, probably some kind of potion, or it could just be olive oil.

“This’ll come in handy.”

“Just wearing that ring is a serious crime!”

“What ring? I don’t see a ring,” Noah replied as he stowed it in his pocket. “See? No crime is being committed. Now zip it, we’re not done searching this mine.”

The rest of the day was spent in those dark tunnels, searching for goods. By the time he had faced the hobgoblin, most of the other goblins had already been killed, so there was little resistance. They found the bulk of their prize down in the lowest chamber, where the hobgoblin appeared to have been sleeping. The goblins were excellent thieves, stealing whatever they could get their hands on with travelers being their favorite targets. There were weapon stashes, bags and barrels of food, ropes and chains, clothes and armor, plenty of tools, and a small fortune in coins. He even found the armor and sword of the knight that the goblin chief had killed. This haul was better than Noah hoped, and while they couldn’t carry all of it, the ring helped collect the best pieces.

When they finally stepped out of the mine, the sun was setting. There could still be goblins in the woods, making their way to the mine after a day of hunting, so the trio wasted no time getting a safe distance to make camp. A tree, nearly as thick as a school bus, offered them shelter. They bedded down at its base with its raised roots acting as walls and a fire warding off anything that might try to attack during the night.

Dinner was traveler’s rations, the standard food for anyone camping in the wilderness. While he ate, Noah examined all of the items in the ring. There were numerous potions, spare sets of men’s clothes, some tools and knives, rations, and a few gold coins. He took a closer look at the armor and sword that the knight had been using. There wasn’t much he could do with the armor. Minus some plates he could use on his arms and legs, it was impractically heavy for his fighting style, and considering how steep the punishment was for wearing the ring, getting caught with it would probably be a bad idea. Hopefully the blacksmith would be willing to buy it.

The sword, on the other hand, was a definite prize. It was a longsword like Noah’s broken one, but with an ornate guard and handle, as well as a line of runes going up the blade, inked with avenium. There was a spell imbued within it, he could feel the magic, but it didn’t react to his mana the way the ring did. It was probably illegal for him to possess, so it would be best kept in the ring, but once away from prying eyes, it would be an excellent trump card once he figured out how it worked.

“So how long have you been an adventurer?” Oath asked.

“Several years. Why?”

“I was just making conversation. You said you studied several different schools of combat. Who taught you? Where did you get your lessons?”

“The town I grew up in, there were plenty of former adventurers willing to pass their skills on.”

“And your parents?”

“I haven’t seen them since I set off from home to make my fortune.”

“So, do you—”

“I suggest you stop for a moment and ponder why I’m not asking you questions about your life or trying to get to know you.” Noah glared as him, unblinking. “Think hard.” Oath wisely closed his mouth.

They set out at dawn the next day, wanting to get out of the forest as soon as possible, to both avoid danger and reach the shops before they closed for the night. It would take them most of the day to return to Clive, and that was without all the weight they were carrying, so they had to try and keep a good pace. By around midday, they reached a large open pasture, but before they could cross it, a grievance was made.

“I can’t go any further!” Oath exclaimed.

“Master, please forgive me, but I too am at my limit.”

“Well we’ve made considerable distance, and I believe it’s about lunch time. Sure, let’s stop here for a break.”

Tin and Oath settled at the edge of the pasture under the shade of a tree and prepared lunch. While they worked, Noah took a walk through the field to make sure there weren’t any predators in hiding. It was when he reached the center that he stopped, hearing something. It was not the rustling of grass or the growl of a wolf, but the neighing of horses. He looked into the distance and saw four men on horses break free of the forest and gallop towards him with their swords drawn. Bandits?

“Tin, take Oath and get back into the forest, deep enough that you can’t even see me!”

Tin didn’t understand, but when she heard the horses in the distance and the hollering of the approaching men, she hurried to her feet and dragged Oath into the woods. With them out of the way, Noah faced the oncoming enemies.

“Thanks for the horses,” he said as his brushed his hand over his eyes.

He was rendered invisible while he sent off his clone, running to the side with its illusionary sword drawn. The men were drawn to it, and one of them, armed with a bow, began trying to shoot it. Noah controlled the clone like a puppet on strings, and while it moved, he put the knight ring on his finger and activated it, materializing his bow and an arrow. It took him a moment to aim and release, striking the archer in the chest and sending him tumbling off his horse.

The other horsemen realized their friend had been killed, but there was no time to look for the enemy archer. They had to close in on the young man with the sword. They tried to run him down with their blades outreached, but before they could strike their target, another one of their ranks was taken out with a well-placed shot. The two remaining men swung at Noah’s clone, but for the sake of appearance, he had it dodge while he took out the third man. Only one man was left, but he didn’t bother going after the clone. He was smart enough to cut his losses and flee back into the woods.

“Tin, Oath, you can come out now,” Noah said as he released his magic. They appeared from the woods, seeing Noah with the three horses standing nearby. “Loot the corpses and then let’s have lunch. The way back to the village will be much easier now.”

With the horses, they managed to make it back to the village in the late afternoon, when most of the shops had closed, but there were still a few open that they could sell their loot to.

“Thank you for getting me back here,” said Oath.

“No need to thank me, you paid off your debt.”

“Still, I’m glad you didn’t just knock me out and steal my clothes like you said you would. I have to go see my father, he must be worried sick.”

“I’ll expect you to bring that horse back.”

“Yes, yes, I know.”

They split up, Oath returning home and Noah and Tin selling their goods. They first went to the blacksmith, as most of their goods were scavenged weapons. When Noah laid them all out on the counter, the blacksmith couldn’t help but voice his surprise.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one man with a haul like this. You really did all of this yourself?”

“Well I had some help carrying it back. But there is another thing you might be interested in.”

Noah held up a canvas bag and set it on the counter. Its contents had originally been in the ring, but he had emptied it before entering the shop. The blacksmith looked inside and gained a stern look.

“You found this in a goblin den?”

It was the armor of the slain Utheric knight.

“That’s right, but that was all. I was hoping I could find the sword or ring, but they were gone. So, are you interested? This armor has better steel than anything in your shop.”

“I could get beheaded just for having this!”

“Which is why you better melt it down fast to make into something really nice that you can sell for a lot of money.”

The blacksmith mulled it over and released a deep sigh of resignation. Whether it was money or his artistic instincts thinking of all the things he could make, he couldn’t allow the armor to leave the store.

“Fine, what do want for everything?”

As usual, bargaining with the blacksmith took a lot of time, but Noah left with several shiny gold coins and a replacement for his longsword. He and Tin moved from shop to shop, selling everything that was left, then Noah took Tin somewhere she did not expect, the town jeweler. Unlike other stores, this one had guards posted inside and outside, and all the merchandise was behind a counter, with iron bars blocking it off from the customer. An old man was sitting at the counter, scrutinizing a jewel.

“Ah, how can I help you?”

“I was hoping you could appraise this for me.” Noah took out a black gem, the size of the first joint of his little finger, and laid it on the counter. The old man took the gem and looked at it through a series of lenses.

“Oh, this of superb quality. Where did you find this?”

“A goblin den.”

“Ah, of course. Goblins are brutish, nasty creatures, but they have a strange luck when it comes to finding things. This is an enhancement gem.”

“I thought I sensed magic in it, it appears I was right. What is it used for?”

“When grafted to an enchanted item, it boosts the strength of the enchantment. Imagine a magic sword that can cut through twice as much as a normal sword. With this imbued into the pommel, handle, or blade, it will now be able to cut through four times as much as a normal blade. They are a favorite of nobles, for not only to they improve the enchanted items, but they make them more visually appealing and extravagant, perfect for showing off. At balls and formal events, you’ll find high-ranking nobles with jewel-encrusted swords on their hips.

Would you be willing to sell it?”

“Actually, I was hoping you could set it into something.”

Noah took out the knight ring and slid it across the table, only letting the jeweler see it. At the sight of the ring, he became tense.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to…”

“I’m willing to pay handsomely. I’ve already sold the armor that went with it.”

Like the blacksmith, the jeweler took a deep breath. “Tob, Gon, could you two please step outside for a minute?” The two guards, despite their curiosity, left the store, giving Noah and the jeweler their privacy. The old man stared at Noah. “Do you have a death wish, boy? Just having this could—”

“I’m aware of the punishment, but you already decided you’re willing to take a risk. Cover the runes with gold leaf and set the gem. If it looks good and the ring’s spell really is enhanced, I’ll pay you ten silver coins.”

“Twenty.”

“Thirteen silver. Come on, no one out here is going to care about this. You think some royal knights are going to come bursting in? You could show this to the baron and he wouldn’t care.”

“Fine, fifteen silver.”

“Deal.”

“I’ll have it ready by noon tomorrow.”

Noah and Tin left the jeweler and headed back to the inn to call it a day, but as they approached, Oath appeared. “Noah, my father wants to speak with you.”

“Can’t it wait? The sun is going to set soon.”

“He says it is of great importance. He also wants to reward you for saving me.”

Noah looked over to one of the bags hanging off the side of his saddle. It was full of severed goblin ears. Was he really willing to bring those into their room at the inn? It would probably be better just to get paid now.

“Fine, just let Tin and I drop off the rest of our haul at the inn and lead the way.”

After stopping at the inn, they rode out of town towards the north, to the baron’s estate. Being a noble, he was better off than any of the villagers, but his house was far from extravagant, just nicer looking and larger than anyone else’s, a rustic manor, surrounded by fields that slaves tended to. Leaving their horses in the stable in the back, Oath brought Noah and Tin into the mansion and stopped before a set of double doors.

“Father, I’ve returned with Noah,” he said while knocking.

“Enter.”

Oath opened the doors of the private study, and behind the desk, an old man with a long beard was filing paperwork on parchment. He looked older than Noah expected, for a son so young. Standing beside him was a woman, dressed as a maid.

“You must be young Master Noah. My son has told me of your great strength and skills. You have my undying gratitude for saving him, and my respect for your accomplishments in battle.” The baron didn’t get up to shake Noah’s hand, but that was to be expected of a noble.

“You are very welcome, Lord Fault.” Noah replied with a bow of his head.

“You deserve compensation for your efforts. Twice, you have saved my son’s life.”

From his desk, the baron drew a sack of coins, likely silver, and handed them to Noah.

“I appreciate it. While we’re on the subject, I also have numerous goblin ears that I’d like receive payment for.”

“Ah, of course, of course. You also deserve extra for dealing with that goblin chief. Amelia,” he said, turning to the maid beside him, “please count up the ears and calculate their payment, and please take my son and this lovely young lady to the parlor to relax. Master Noah, if you have time, I would like to speak with you about some important matters.”

“Very well, then.”

The maid left with Oath and Tin and the doors were shut behind them. Finally, the baron got up from his chair and walked over to a whiskey decanter with a set of glasses. “Would you care for a drink?”

“I’d love one.” Two glasses were poured and one was handed to Noah. Compared to the modern world, the alcohol consumed in these lands was tough to force down, yet the quality of the whiskey surprised him. “Oh, that is good.”

The baron sat down. “I cannot thank you enough. If my son had perished, that would have been the end of my line.”

“I’m sure a man like you could work up a few heirs. There are probably some already running around the town.”

The baron gave a bitter chuckle. “I suppose we should get down to business. You have already proven yourself a great rescuer and guard for my son. I would like to hire you to do it again.”

“Not more goblins, I trust?”

“Actually, something a little more difficult. I want you to help him capture a dungeon crab.”

“Pardon my ignorance, but I am not familiar with the term. I come from a land without such things.”

The baron got to his feet and began searching a nearby bookshelf. “Dungeon crabs are massive terrestrial beings, spending their lives deep beneath the earth. However, they surface from time to time, poking the tips of their shells out of the ground.”

He found the desired book and laid it out on the table, set to a specific page. There were two pictures, the first of what looked like a hermit crab, with a pointed shell several times its own size and no claws. The second showed the tip of the shell poking out of the ground with a hole in the top, but just that was the size of a lighthouse. Had the artist actually seen a dungeon crab fully revealed or was he just going by his imagination? For a creature of this size to move underground without being noticed, it would have to rise up from under the earth’s crust. A few days ago, the town had experienced an earthquake. That must have been the crab rising to the surface.

“Because they dwell so deep in the ground, they accumulate precious metals and gems inside their shell, which form vast labyrinths, hence its name. A man can get rich in one day exploring it.”

“But I imagine it’s not that easy.”

“You’d be right. The shell is teeming with parasites, ants when comparable to the crab, but deadly monsters to us humans. When a crab surfaces, the parasites will leave and become a danger to everyone and everything in the area. No one is quite sure why dungeon crabs surface like this. Some believe it does it when the parasites have grown too numerous and it needs to cut their numbers down, either by setting them loose on the surface or using treasure-hunting humans to cull their population. Others believe the crabs feed on the humans that enter its shell, and use the parasites to kill their prey for them. Many believe it simply surfaces to get fresh air, like a whale.”

“And you expect us to capture one of these things?”

“It’s just a figure of speech. To capture a dungeon crab means to get down to the deepest part of its shell, where the most priceless metal is.”

“Avenium, I’m guessing?”

“Correct. Anyone who can secure a cup’s worth and present it to the kingdom becomes a noble. That’s why I need you to help Oath capture it.”

“But as your son, isn’t Oath already set to inherit your title?”

“Oath is… my third son. His oldest brother, Colt, was raised and groomed to be my successor, and the second oldest, Victor, was raised to be the successor if anything happened to Colt.”

“Making Oath the spare of a spare.”

The baron grimaced. “He spent his life working the fields while his brothers hunted and earned achievements. However, both Colt and Victor died in battle at the start of spring, so Oath is all I have left. He has a good heart…”

“But no talent, skills, courage, or reputation, and he’s a bit of a brick.”

“Unlike the son of my younger brother, Edwin, a baronet. He is petitioning the kingdom to revoke my title as baron and give it to him and his eldest son. I need to prove that Oath has what it takes to be a baron, and the best way to do that is to conquer a dungeon crab. I’m too old to sire another heir and time is running out. Oath already has an adventuring party that he trains and fights with, but their skills aren’t good enough to conquer a dungeon crab. I would like you to join their party.”

“Why me?”

“Because you are young. There are numerous older adventurers with skills like yours that I can hire, but then my brother will argue that they just conquered the dungeon and handed the prize to Oath.”

“Which is exactly what you want me to do.”

“But the fact that you are young means that you’ll fit right in. No one will question one extra young man joining my son’s party.”

Noah gave a huff while weighing his options. On one hand, a political squabble between family members was the last thing he wanted to get involved in, and there was no telling if he was even skilled enough to successfully conquer a dungeon crab. It was an unnecessary danger. On the other hand, the idea of getting his hands on some avenium and other rare metals and gems was a tantalizing idea. He could get enough money to fund any venture he wanted for the rest of his life. Plus, it would get him to the capital, and perhaps let him make some valuable connections. There were probably plenty of adventurers who would give their right arm for the chance.

“Would I be giving orders or receiving?”

“The team is yours to lead. They’re ready to set out whenever you are.”

“And how long do dungeon crabs normally remain surfaced?”

“A couple months. This one appeared several days ago, thirty miles to the northeast. It won’t be long before its swarming with adventurers.”

“Very well, we’ll depart in one week. I want to use that time to evaluate the team, see if there is anything I can do to polish their skills before we go.”

“That would be a blessing.”

Noah got up from his seat. “I have some business to attend to tomorrow, but I’ll return in the afternoon. Make sure everyone is assembled.”

This time, the baron stood up and shook his hand. “Consider it done.”

Noah left the study and retrieved Tin in the parlor. As they stepped out onto the front porch, Oath came to see them off.

“So my father talked to you about the dungeon crab?”

“That’s right, I agreed to go along with it. I’ll return tomorrow.”

“I appreciate it. I’ll see you then.”

Oath gave a deep bow of gratitude, and in the distance, Noah saw a flash of movement, and then heard a sound that he was well used to. It was the sound of an arrow buried deep into muscle and flesh. Launched a second earlier, it would have hit Oath square in the back, but because he bowed, it found its mark in the center of Tin’s chest.

Noah didn’t say a word, but before either Oath or Tin could react, he had already leapt off the porch and was sprinting towards the origin of the arrow. He had left his bow with his horse in the stable, so he’d have to kill the assassin up close. He could see the man hiding behind a scarecrow and recognized him as the fourth bandit from earlier. They weren’t just random marauders, they had been hired to kill Oath!

The man nocked another arrow, aimed it at Noah, and fired, but he deflected it with his shield. He closed in, able to see the shock in the man’s eyes as the distance between them vanished with terrifying speed. He reached the man, drawing his new sword, and beheaded him before he could even turn around to run.

The body hit the ground, but Noah had already left, sprinting back to the mansion. There, on the porch, Oath was gathered with several servants, giving her one healing potion after another, as despite the removal of the arrow and the wound closing, she wasn’t getting better. Noah could see it, her veins darkening, her flesh getting pale, and every breath seeming to cause her pain. Everyone moved aside and Noah embraced Tin, cradling her head.

“It was a poison arrow. We don’t know what was used, we have no antidote for it. Noah, I’m so sorry!” Oath exclaimed, shedding the tears that Noah should have. Instead, he just stared at Tin, his blank silence unnerving those around him.

Tin looked into his eyes. “Master…” she whimpered. “Please, I want to go back to our room. I want to go back to our bed and sleep beside you. I want to help you train your magic. I want to walk with you through the woods and hear more stories. There is so much I want to do with you!”

She was crying, but Noah showed no emotion. Instead, he pulled out his phone and put the buds in her ears. With the last few sparks of energy, Vide Cor Meum began to play, slowing her tears. “It will be peaceful, I promise. Just let the voices take you there,” he said.

He cupped her cheek and she smiled. That touch was all she needed. “Thank you for making my life a beautiful one,” she whispered. Then she closed her eyes listened to the song, soon releasing her final breath as the last notes played out.

All was silent, no one knowing what to say. Shadows began to creep into Noah’s mind, a cruel voice making him shake. ‘Great, now I have to do everything myself…’ He shook the voice aside.

“Noah…” Oath began.

“I’m going to bury her. Give me a blanket to wrap her in and a shovel. I’m not asking.” His voice, it didn’t tremble at all, and there was no awkwardness in his words.

“We’ll take care of the grave, you should—”

There was the slightest twitch on Noah’s face. The gears in his mind were grinding together. “I’m not burying her here. I know a proper place.”

The servants rushed to fulfill his order, bringing out a soft quilt that Noah knew Tin would have liked. He wrapped her in the quilt and carried her to the stable, getting onto his horse with her and being given a shovel.

The whispers came back. ‘I’ll just throw her into the woods.’ Again, he forced the voice out of his mind. “I won’t be back for a day or so.”

Cradling Tin, he gave his horse a kick and it took off with a cry. The sun had set, the woods now at their most dangerous, but Noah didn’t hesitate to ride down a familiar road and into the wilderness. For hours, his horse galloped through the forest. When it tired, he would give it water and a health potion to restore its stamina, but that was the only time he stopped. Monsters routinely tried to attack him, but he ended their lives with his bow. As the moon moved across the sky, Noah, holding Tin in his arms, felt the warmth slowly leave her body.

It wasn’t just the monsters outside that were attacking, but the ones in Noah’s head. Evil whispers flooded his mind, trying to get him to turn back.

‘She’s just a slave.’

‘I should just go home.’

‘There is no point in risking my life.’

‘Nothing matters.’

‘It’s all meaningless.’

It felt like all of his muscles were just loosely within his control, and if his focus broke, his body would act against his will, throwing Tin aside and riding back to the village. He had to force himself forward, despite every selfish instinct trying to hold him back.

Finally, when the night was at its darkest, he reached the desired spot. It was the waterfall that he and Tin had camped at. There were some wolves drinking from the river, but he scared them off and ignored the small slimes crawling around. The area itself hadn’t changed in the last few weeks. There were still the remains of the fires he had made, and the clay basin was undamaged.

He tied his horse to a tree and lit a torch, holding it while he carried Tin. ‘I’ll just dump her and go.’ He brought her behind the waterfall, where there was a small dry area with plenty of river silt, deposited by the waterfall. He dug down as deep as he could, forcing aside any thoughts to give up and spare himself effort. He laid her down on the cold earth and opened up the blanket, looking at her one last time. She looked peaceful, almost content. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver coin. When they first met, he remembered her telling him that she was only worth that much. He clasped her hands over her chest, holding the coin.

‘What am I doing?’

‘This coin is valuable.’

‘I shouldn’t just throw it away like this.’

He climbed out and buried her, then built a pile of rocks on her grave so that no animals would dig her up. Finally, he turned to the stone wall at his side and began carving Tin’s name into it with her dagger. The scratches were faint, but they wouldn’t be simply washed away, like if he had simply drawn the letters on with a rock.

TIN

Those three little letters, a little twinkling light in his mind, like a faint star, told him that they looked lonely, and he focused on that. He should put more. She’d want that. But what should he write? What did Tin mean to him? Who was she? What was she in relation to him? Did he actually care?

TIN

A FREED SLAVE

It was all he could come up with, but it didn’t satisfy him. There had to be something more. He hadn’t loved her, it had been a long time since he loved anyone. Did he even like her? She was loyal and helpful, and took care of him when he was sick. He also took care of her. Was that enough to consider her important to him? He couldn’t tell. He had spent countless lifetimes pretending to be a friend, son, a classmate, a coworker, a husband, even a father. When was the last time he actually liked someone and wasn’t just wearing the façade of politeness while putting up with them? When was the last time he told someone he loved them and wasn’t simply lying to their face?

He had buried so many people, most of them more than once. It was hard to tell those who were important from those he pretended were important, those who were remembered and those he didn’t deem worth remembering. Who mattered to him? Whose death mattered? He had long since lost the ability to tell, and was struggling to regain it.

Finally, some emotion. Noah punched the rock wall and split the skin on his knuckles. “Come on, think!” He shouted those words to himself over and over again. He was scratching at his own mind, trying to draw blood from stone. What had Tin meant to him? Or at the very least, what would she have wanted to hear? Noah focused on that, trying to imagine what he could have said to make her happy.

TIN

A FREED SLAVE

A PRICELESS COMPANION

Satisfied, he stepped out from behind the waterfall. In the east, he could see the sky beginning to brighten. He took a seat next to the clay basin, watching the sun come up while he searched his mind for that little twinkling light.

.

.

.

Cooperation

.

.

.

It took a full day to ride back to the village, repeating the original journey he had made when he first arrived in this timeline, but now doing it alone. Like the day before, he arrived as the sun approached the horizon. Fatigue gripped him, so he went straight to the inn. He took his seat at his usual table and the innkeeper brought two trays of food. “I was worried when you didn’t show up for dinner last night or breakfast this morning. Where’s Tin?” she asked.

“She died.”

The woman set down both trays. “I’m… I’m so sorry.”

“She was just a slave,” he replied. He then pulled one of the trays over and ate his meal in silence.

Having lived out of the inn for the past month, everyone who came for drinks was used to the sight of Noah and Tin eating together. A few people, noticing her absence, inquired just as the innkeeper had, and Noah told them the same thing he told her. His emotionless response angered Holly, one of the chambermaids, and she grabbed Noah by the collar and lifted him to his feet.

“She was a nice girl! Everyone here knows how devoted she was to you! Don’t you dare say something like that about her!”

Noah stared her in the eyes. “Does any of that even matter?”

Perhaps it was the way he said it, or the coldness of his eyes, but she dropped Noah back to his seat and stormed off in disgust. After that, no one approached Noah. When he was done with his meal, he made his way up to his room. This time, when he opened the door, there was no greeting. The candle was unlit and there was no fire in the fireplace. It was just a dark room.

Noah shut the door behind him and went straight to bed. Having gone two days without sleep, he was exhausted, and a deep, dreamless slumber enveloped him.

---------------

“How much longer are we going to wait?” The impatient voice came from a young man with a halberd on one shoulder and an obvious chip on the other. He was sitting on the front porch of the Fault mansion, along with Oath and the two other members of their team, Beth and Mira.

“He said he would be back today, but I know he also has business to attend to,” Oath replied.

“Do you have any idea where he rode off to?” Beth asked.

“No clue.”

“I don’t care how tough you say he is,” the man with the halberd said, “if he rode out into those woods at night, he’s dead for sure.”

“Shut up, Trevor. When Beth and I met him, we knew that he was the real deal.”

“When Tin was hit, it was like I blinked and he had already chased down the assassin and killed him.”

“I still call nonsense on him taking out three men in that field.”

“I looted their corpses myself.”

“Oh, there he is!”

On the road leading to the mansion, a galloping horse with its rider could be seen. Noah approached them and climbed off his horse. “Sorry I’m late.”

“That’s the nice ring. You look more like a noble than I do,” said Oath.

It was the knight ring, all done after the town jeweler had worked on it. The avenium runes had been covered up and the enhancement jewel was set on top of the crest. It was certainly gaudy, but sometimes gaudiness had its own charm.

“Thanks. Beth, Mira, you’re doing well, I see. When did you form this party?”

“Right after we met you in the woods. We looked around for anyone willing to team up with us and found Oath and Trevor,” said Mira. “And I’m sorry about Tin.”

“Me too,” Beth added.

Noah simply nodded. “So the baron has asked me to lead this team to conquer the dungeon crab. Before we do that, I need to—”

“You aren’t leading anything,” said Trevor. “You’re not the boss of us, just the babysitter for the baron’s son.”

“You’re just going to bitch and moan throughout this whole ordeal, aren’t you?” Noah asked.

“Fuck you. Try giving me orders and I’ll shove this halberd up your ass.”

Noah took a deep breath and rubbed his temples. “Ugh, one of you people. This is the last thing I need.

Listen, here’s what’s supposed to happen: you and I spend the next week playing the game where I act as the stern yet understanding authority figure, and you keep throwing temper tantrums due to some unspoken deep-seated issue. By the time we arrive at the dungeon crab, you’ll hate me more than ever, and almost get us killed, probably with me having to save your life. However, your screwup will help you realize you’re full of nothing but bravado and horse shit, and you’ll finally decide to listen to me, allowing me to break your hard outer shell to help you solve your behavioral problems, which I’m guessing is about your father, or feelings of inadequacy, or something along similar lines. We’ll capture the dungeon crab and form a long-lasting friendship of respect and trust.

Now, that is what is supposed to happen, and as much as I would love to go on that emotional journey with you, I have literally a million better things to do with my time. So, let’s nip this in the bud right now. You and me, one on one, until one of us can no longer stand. The loser has to listen and obey the winner until the dungeon crab is captured, including an order to leave the party.”

Most of what he said went over everyone’s heads, but bless Trevor’s heart, he was smart enough to realize he had just been insulted. “You son of a bitch!” he barked as he got to his feet and pointed his halberd at Noah.

“That’s the spirit. Give it your best shot, because if you don’t take me down, you’re going to end up swallowing a lot of blood.”

Trevor took a stance, leaning back and gripping his halberd with both hands, and enveloping the blade with mana with runes appearing in the air. It was just like the spell the goblin chief had used on his sword to increase the strength of his slashes, meaning that getting hit with that halberd would surely be deadly.

“Trevor, stop this! This is insanity!” Mira implored.

“No, don’t get in his way,” said Noah as he removed his ring. “The most important lessons hurt the most.”

Trevor lunged with a decent form and thrust his halberd towards Noah. It wasn’t just the destructive power of his halberd, his speed had more than doubled. “Mountain-Splitter!”

It was by a thin margin, but Noah stepped to the side and the blade missed. He grabbed the shaft of the halberd and delivered a bone-crushing punch to Trevor’s nose, causing him to let go and stagger back.

“That was a good thrust. I imagine you’ve spent plenty of time practicing it.”

Trevor’s face was pouring blood, but he remained standing and glared at Noah with limitless hatred. “Give it back!”

“Fine, but I think it’s been established that you can’t hit me with it.”

Noah tossed the halberd back and Trevor caught it. He wasted no time in charging the blade with mana, producing an impressive aura. This time, instead of a thrust, he made a wide swing. “Erasing Cleave!”

Once more, Noah simply backed out of his range, escaping with zero damage. Then, when the coast was clear, he closed in and delivered and uppercut to Trevor’s jaw, busting his teeth and making him an even bloodier mess. This time, Trevor couldn’t stay on his feet and fell back, trying and failing to contain his cry of anguish. Looking around, Noah could see the baron’s servants watching from the fields and through the windows.

“Noah, that’s enough! You two need to stop this!” Beth exclaimed.

“He’s the one who decides when we stop. Feel free to give him a health potion, though.”

“I don’t need a fucking health potion!” Trevor shouted.

He scrambled to his feet and went at it again. He abandoned the idea of using magic and attacked Noah with a barrage of rapid-fire stabs. Noah deflected each attack with his shield, and when Trevor tried to get in close for another swing, he once again grabbed the halberd and stopped Trevor from moving. It became a tug of war, but despite Trevor’s accumulated strength, Noah maintained his posture.

“You know what I’m going to do now, right?” Trevor tried to figure out how Noah would throw another punch, but instead, he let go of the halberd and sent Trevor falling onto his ass. “Your skills with that thing aren’t that bad, at least, if you just stick to hunting monsters, but you’ll never hit me with it. Try showing me how good you are with your fists.” Noah placed his hand on his longsword and slowly drew it halfway. “Unless you’d prefer to stick to armed combat, in which case I’ll gladly humor you.”

Trevor abandoned his halberd and charged, sending a straight right punch towards Noah. Noah caught his fist and then struck his elbow, snapping his arm like his bones were made of glass. Before Trevor could even scream, Noah silenced him with another punch to the nose, once more knocking him to the ground. It didn’t seem like he was going to get up, so Noah took out a health potion and poured it on his face. The spray woke him up and healed his nose and mouth, though his arm would have to be reset before a potion could mend it.

“So, do you want to keep going? I can go all day if you want. I mean it, I’ve got nothing but time. And we can go whenever you want, this isn’t your only chance.

Now I suppose there are a number of ways we can go about this. We can do the whole emotional journey thing, but the fact that I’ve explained it kind of takes away the magic. You can just leave the party, I’ll give you that option. There’s the option of waiting until I have my back turned and then getting your revenge, which, again, you are free to do so at any time, but at your own risk. Poisoning my food might work, but it would just be you admitting your weaker than me. I suppose your best option would be to shut your fucking mouth, accept that I’m stronger than you and smarter than you, and pay attention to what I will teach you, as it will improve your skills and your chances of survival.

From there, we can go to the dungeon crab, and you’ll easily overcome challenges that would have killed you at your current level of strength. With a good amount of effort and coordination, and no shortage of luck, we’ll conquer the dungeon crab and become rich beyond our wildest dreams. There is always the option of betraying us down there and running off with all the loot, but boy, oh boy, you’d better make sure I’m dead, because you don’t want me coming after you, you really don’t.

So, what do you say?”

Everyone was silent, waiting to hear Trevor’s response. He was glaring at Noah and taking deep, angry breathes through his nose. “You say you can make me stronger?”

“I guarantee it.”

“We conquer the dungeon crab and we’re done, right? I never have to see you again?”

“You can retire to some fancy beach house, you’ll be so rich. I’ll never bother you again.”

“Fine.”

“I’ll let the three of you fix his arm. I need to speak with the baron inside.”

Noah stepped onto the porch and entered the house, walking right by the spot where Tin had died. “Is the baron in?” he asked, addressing one of the maids.

“In his private study, sir. He’s waiting for you.”

Just as Oath had done the day before, the maid knocked on the double doors and announced Noah’s arrival, with the baron granting entry. The old man was behind his desk. “That was quite the spirited match outside. Your skills are the real deal.”

“The real skill is producing results from it.”

The baron walked over to his whiskey set and poured himself a drink. “I’m glad you returned. I’m sorry for the loss of your companion.”

“Don’t worry about it. I already killed your brother and his son.”

The glass fell from the baron’s hand and shattered. “What?!” he exclaimed.

There was an immediate knock on the door. “My Lord, is everything fine?” a butler asked.

Noah’s gaze never left the baron, without any sense of fear or anticipation of what might come next. He simply waited for a reaction. The baron gripped the corner of the desk but managed to control himself.

“Everything is fine. We are not to be disturbed.” When he sensed the butler had left, he turned his attention back to Noah. “You wouldn’t even give me the chance to talk you out of vengeance?”

“It was nothing of the sort.”

---------------

It was midmorning, and Noah had just claimed his ring from the jeweler, the last of his morning errands, and with information given by those around town, he now stood before the home of the local baronet. It was in the outskirts of the town, one of the farms, and neither the fields nor the house were on par with the baron. Despite the rank of noble, baronets were simply commoners with the prefix ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’.

He found the baronet repairing a cattle fence behind the house. He was identical to the baron, but without the beard and sporting fewer wrinkles. Noah was invisible, so the man didn’t even notice him approach, but was calm when Noah pressed the blade of his knife to his throat and told him to drop the hammer he was using.

“Sir Edwin Fault, I presume?”

“Who’s asking?”

“Did you hire four men to kill the Oath Fault?”

“Now why would I try to kill my beloved nephew?”

“To get your son the rank of baron. But if you aren’t going to answer my questions, I suppose I can always ask him, or maybe your wife.”

“You must be the bastard who saved him from that goblin den. I had to pay that adventurer a good deal of money to kill him. To think he’d be such a chickenshit and leave the job to goblins.”

“Did your son know about the hit you put on his cousin?”

“He would have killed that talentless brat himself if I hadn’t talked him out of it. He didn’t do anything. You have a bone to pick, put that knife away and let’s solve this like men.”

Noah’s answer came in the form of a fluid flick of his wrist, severing Edwin’s jugular and sending him tumbling to the ground, trying pointlessly to stop the bleeding. Noah stood by to confirm the death and then made his way towards the fields, where the baronet’s son was working.

---------------

“There was a time when I took great joy in making people suffer, and I’ve been working to change myself since then. I don’t allow myself to kill for pleasure or vengeance, and certainly I didn’t kill them for what they did, but what they would continue to do. Associating with you and your son has already cost me the life of a loyal subordinate, and I’d rather not give anyone the chance to get in my way.

If I were to allow them to live, they would continue to try and kill you and Oath, and I’d have to clean up the mess, just like I’ve been doing since I found your son in that goblin den. The last thing I’d want is to capture the dungeon and then get ambushed by your brother’s henchmen when we’re too tired to fight back. I assume you had forgiven your brother because he is your family, despite his attempts to kill Oath, but you’re hiring me to keep Oath alive, and if I’m going to do that, it will be done my way.

If you have any objections, state them now.”

Ivan didn’t respond. He simply slumped in his seat and exhaled deeply. Deep down, he knew that his brother had to be dealt with in one form or another, in order for his son to inherit the rank of baron. However, even if it had been slim before, there was always a chance of reconciliation. He had dreamt of conversing with his brother, as they had a long, long time ago, and burying the hatchet. Now that possibility was gone forever. Noah claimed he hadn’t acted out of vengeance against his brother, but Ivan couldn’t help but feel he was the one being punished.

“I thought as much. Despite your brother and nephew dying, I’m aware that your son still had little prospect of inheriting your title, so the dungeon capture will proceed as planned. We didn’t have the chance to talk about payment for this job, but don’t worry, I’m not interested in money or land. There is something else I want.”

---------------

It took more than one healing potion to repair Trevor’s arm, and that could only be done when the bones were reset. He was all patched up by the time Noah made his return.

“I promised the baron we’d set out in a week for the dungeon. That was two days ago. For the next five days, I’m going to evaluate each of your skills and see where improvements have been made. First, we’re going to hunt some monsters. I want to know your combat skills and see how well you work as a team. You all have your weapons, so we’re going to depart now and travel light. Any objections?”

No one said anything, not after watching how he thrashed Trevor. But their silence was not out of fear, rather an awareness that Noah knew what he was talking about. He was the oldest of the group by only a year, but they all sensed he had much more experience than they did.

“Good, then let’s depart. Oath, you know the area. Please lead the way.”

“I actually know the location of a magic spawning circle. Let’s head there.”

They gathered some supplies and set off into the wilderness, leading a pack horse to carry back their harvested monster parts. From the moment they were enveloped by the darkness of the trees, they were vulnerable. The territory of the monsters was well-established, due much in part to the summoning circles that they spawned from. They only intruded into human territory when there was a shortage of food or their numbers had grown too great, issues that were both solved by the constant flow of adventurers working to curb their population.

As they walked, Noah spoke to everyone.

“Mira, we talked once before about this. Have you developed any skills for close-quarter combat?”

“I’ve been training with my staff since then. Oath and I spar a lot when we’re not hunting.”

“What about magic?”

“I haven’t been able to develop anything for fighting enemies up close.”

“We’ll work on that. Oath, Beth, can either of you use magic?”

“I can’t,” said Oath.

“I can create water, but not in any kind of attack. I use it to fill up my water skin.”

“Good, we’ll definitely need that in the dungeon. You’re still using your bow as your main weapon, right?”

“Yeah, and I got poison for my arrows just like you…”

She trailed off, remembering what Oath had told her. Tin had been shot and killed with a poison arrow. Noah paid no attention to the drop of her speech.

“What about close-range? Any weapons?”

“I use a knife.”

“Good. Trevor, you can activate magic when you thrust and swing your halberd. Anything else?”

“Nope, the halberd is all I can use.”

Noah had picked up some scraps of info on the different branches of magic in this world, and Trevor appeared to be in the warrior class, just like the goblin chief. Warriors could only activate their skills with specific weapons, which depended on the individual. He wasn’t exaggerating when he said the halberd was all he could use. He couldn’t activate his magic with any other weapon.

“We’re here,” said Oath. He then stopped in his tracks. “On second thought, I think we should turn back.”

Noah looked ahead. On the forest floor, he could see a large magic circle, consisting of runes and assorted shapes. Standing in the circle was a bear the size of a minivan. However, its body was faint, translucent, like it was just a hologram, but with each passing moment, its color deepened.

‘Is it teleporting? No, it’s solidifying. The circle is converting mana into physical matter and assembling it. So, that’s what it means for a creature to be summoned.’ “I’ve never seen a bear like that out here.”

“It’s a sledgepaw, a rare breed. It is to regular bears what that hobgoblin was to regular goblins. We should get out of here before it attacks. This is a little bit out of our league.”

“No, it’s perfect. We’ll wait for it to finish spawning and then take it on. For all we know, the dungeon could have far worse monsters.”

“All right, then let’s take formation,” said Oath.

“Wait for it to attack us. Taking your time in setting up a firing squad while it spawns won’t give much experience or information.”

It took only a minute for the bear to fully materialize, immediately spotting Noah and the group and labeling them as enemies without any kind of hesitation or confusion. It released a roar of fury and charged, signaling the start of the battle. Noah kept his distance while the group spread out, surrounding the bear. Beth nocked a poison arrow in her bow and shot the bear in the neck. It turned to her and snarled, about to lash out with its claws, but Oath attacked from the side and slashed at its shoulder with his sword. The beast’s hide was tough, and Noah couldn’t tell if the attack had actually done any damage. Enraged, the bear knocked Oath aside. Like Noah, he was wearing leather armor, and while it stopped the bear’s claws from reaching his flesh, the armor itself was nearly destroyed by that one swipe.

“Oath!” Mira cried out.

Trevor stabbed the bear in the thigh with his halberd, and while he drew a roar of pain from the beast, it hadn’t forgotten the arrow in its neck and attacked Beth. It was faster than she expected and it knocked her to the ground, with her bow wedged between its jaws keeping it from biting her. She was crying in anguish as it weighed down on her, saliva from its mouth splashing on her face with its massive fangs inching closer and closer.

“Guillotine Swing!”

Trevor swung his halberd like he was splitting wood, and the axe blade, glowing with magic power, dug deep into the bear’s back, though it missed the spine.

“Earth Surge!”

Having gathered her mana, Mira struck the ground with her staff. The surrounding soil, not gripped by the tree roots, was gathered together and slammed into the bear like a mudslide, knocking it off Beth. The bear was slow to get back on its feet, as its strength was fading with each lost drop of blood and the poison was taking its toll. Regardless, it still could crush the skulls of the feeble humans with a single swing of its mighty paw.

Oath was back on his feet and charged with a shout of determination and his sword raised high. Seeing him approach, the bear reared back on its hind legs, and despite his vigor just moments ago, the sight of the towering beast robbed Oath of his courage. He was paralyzed with fear and the bear swung at him. Instinct saved his life, the instinct to raise his sword and block the attack, though the force still slammed him into the ground. An arrow was buried in the bear’s chest before it could attack again, managing to pierce a lung, and Trevor stabbed it in the stomach.

The bear fell back and rolled onto its legs, roaring in fury but then breaking down into a fit of bloody coughing. Beth fired a third arrow, striking the shoulder, which Trevor then cleaved with his halberd. As this was going on, Mira rushed over to Oath’s side and helped pull him out of harm’s way. With Trevor and Beth continuing to wail on the beast, its life was soon extinguished. Its massive body collapsed and Oath and his friends released their held breath.

Noah, who had been observing, got up from the tree stump that had been his seat and approached, and while everyone patched themselves up, he severed the bear’s spine with his sword to make sure it was dead.

“Congratulations on your kill. However, it was rather messy.”

“Messy?!” Trevor exclaimed. “Look at how big that monster is! We took it on while you just sat back and watched! We’ve never faced anything that big before!”

“Its size wasn’t the biggest challenge. Your disorganization was.” Noah took out his knife and began carving into the bear to remove its hide. He looked only at his work, but he continued to lecture them. “You surrounded it on all sides, which, while good when facing something smaller and prone to running, left Beth and Mira defenseless. Don’t split up like that unless it’s something that each one of you can physically handle. Beth, consider all the time that you spent pinned. That was all time you could have spent firing arrows had you and Mira kept your distance. Though speaking of arrows, your aim was very good, both that shot to the neck and to the chest. But from now on, the two of you should hang back while Oath and Trevor fend the enemy off.

Oath, when you first attacked, what were you aiming for?”

“I don’t know, I just wanted to inflict some damage.”

“You should have gone for the head. With a monster of that size, did you think a flesh wound or muscle damage would kill it? Unless they’re well protected, you should always aim for the vital spots. Swing at the head, stab at the chest. Same with you, Trevor. When you attacked its back, were you aiming for its spine?” He didn’t respond. “I’ll take that as a no. Take aim with your attacks, and not just at openings in your opponent’s guard. You should try studying anatomy, figure out where the most vital points are. You went at the belly, that was smart. It’s soft and hard to protect, but you stabbed too low. You should have gone higher, towards the liver, or at least the stomach.

Mira, you did well in getting Oath out of danger. However, you waited too long to cast your spells. I see that you developed a new spell, and while it did manage to get the bear off Beth, it was a larger-scale spell not suited to the forest. I remember you once told me you can create a dust cloud and send rocks flying? You should have stuck with that. A bit of dust could have blinded the bear and maybe even hindered its sense of smell, and a rock or even hard-packed dirt can inflict plenty of pain when striking the head or the crotch.

And Oath, you know what I’m going to say, don’t you? You choked, and your mistake put the lives of your friends in danger. It was instinct that saved your life. You need to make these kinds of decisions faster. Before we head to the dungeon crab, we’ll have to remedy that. Now, all of you give me a hand. This bear is going to help fund our preparations.”

Everyone joined in, helping to remove the bear’s hide as intact as possible. When it was done, Noah placed his hand on the hide and tried to seal it in his ring. The enhancement jewel had doubled the carrying capacity of the ring, but the hide was so heavy that the ring was refusing to accept it. He’d have to remove some things first.

Noah held out his hand and closed his fingers around an invisible handle. A sword appeared in his grip, the sword that he had taken from the hobgoblin. He had even found the sheath that went with it, something that the regular goblins wouldn’t have been smart enough to take. It was much larger than his broadsword, and he had assumed its size might be useful against a large enemy. Oath, who knew both the real identity and power of Noah’s ring and what it was known for, was exempt from the voices of amazement the others made. Even Trevor was shocked by the huge sword appearing out of thin air.

“Oath, where did you get your sword?”

“Uh… it was my grandfather’s.” Oath stuttered, feeling an automatic sense of danger by being queried by someone who had just revealed a sword.

“May I?” Noah held out his hand and Oath reluctantly handed it over. Noah looked it over. He was an experienced blacksmith once, a week-long learning course at a metalwork school that turned into a career, though while his memories were a bit fuzzy, he could still recognize the craftsmanship put in. However, his focus wasn’t on the actual quality of the metal, but the length of the handle. It was a bastard sword, otherwise known as a hand-and-a-half, which could be held with either one hand or two.

“It’s good. And your father said you grew up working the fields, right? Lots of plowing and clearing trees?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“I want you to try using this goblin sword for a while. Swinging a hoe or an axe require leverage, leverage that your grandfather’s sword can’t give you with the length of its handle. Your hands are too close together and it’s throwing off your center of gravity when you hold it. This larger sword will allow you keep your hands farther apart and provide a more similar motion.”

He handed both swords to Oath, but he only took his grandfather’s sword. “I can’t accept that. That’s your trophy for killing the monster.”

“You’re just renting it from me. Besides, if this venture works out, I’ll be rich enough to buy an even better sword.”

“As you wish, then.” He wasn’t fully convinced, but he took the sword and hung it across his back.

“Ok, let’s change our strategy a little. We’ll take the formation of a W, with Oath in the middle, me and Trevor at the sides, and Beth and Mira in the back.”

It would have perfect if they could fight another sledgepaw bear and compare strategies, but considering its rarity, it would probably be a long time before it respawned. They set off instead to find more monsters, not having to hike long before coming across a pack of wolves. They took formation and stared the beasts down, all armed and ready to fight.

“Beth and Mira, you two are our main form of attack. The three of us are just a shield. You’ll have to focus on not getting us caught up in your attacks.”

“Right!” They both replied.

Arrows began flying past Oath’s right side and rocks and pieces of packed earth were flying past his left. The wolves were caught off guard and several were left stunned or injured. A wolf standing directly in front of Oath managed to avoid the onslaught and leaped towards him. Oath swung his sword, nearly losing his balance and falling over. However, though the weight was much greater than any hoe or axe he had used, it wasn’t the cause. It was the ease he felt, the swing now more reminiscent of a familiar motion, and he was able to use muscle memory to call out greater strength and skill. The ease robbed him of his tension like he had removed weights from his shoulders, causing him to stumble. The sword carved through the airborne wolf like a buzz saw, nearly slicing it in two.

At the same time, the wolves that were still on their feet scattered to try and flank the group. Two ran towards Trevor, and the first, attacking from above, ended up getting impaled on the spear tip of his halberd. The second tried to close in, using the death of the first as a distraction, but Trevor swung his halberd down and buried the axe blade in the wolf’s back.

On the other side, three charged towards Noah. The first pounced, sending Noah dodging to the side and then beheading it with a downwards swing. He spun around, thrusting into the second wolf’s chest as it pounced from above. The third tried to attack from his blind spot, but drew his short sword and cleaved its skull open.

All that was left were the wolves stunned by the opening attack, but they had been dispatched with Beth’s arrows. The only fight had taken a handful of seconds, causing Oath and his friends to all exchange shocked glances. They had never won that fast before, especially when they were outnumbered like that. The value of Noah’s advice had been proven.

They stripped the wolves of their hides and collected all other valuable body parts, then continued their journey. There was still plenty of time before they’d have to set up camp, so they wanted to get as much hunting done as they could. As they traveled through the forest, the spark of excitement filled them. Now that the young adventurers had improved their strategy, they wanted to see how else they might get stronger, and what this new boost would allowed them to do. They were hiking through a hilly area, sticking only to the flattest ground for the sake of their horse. It was when they were traveling along a floodplain that Noah stopped them, his eyes glued onto the nearby hill and a large fallen tree.

“Look over there. See the ground where the dirt and leaves have been disturbed? Goblins probably laid a trap and are hiding behind that log. Mira, can you launch one of your spells to try and smoke them out?”

“It’s a little far, but I’ll try.” She stabbed the ground with her staff. “Earth Bind!”

Like a crack splitting ice, a visible line ran through the surface of the ground over the area behind the log. There was the sound of shrieks and several goblins scurried out from their hideout, with one caught within the stone jaws of Mira’s spell.

“Beth,” Noah said.

Beth perked up and took aim with her bow, managing to snipe one of the scattered goblins. From behind the trees around the log, more goblins appeared, howling like monkeys. They charged town the hill, a dozen of them, with two hanging back with their own bows.

“Beth, take out the archers. Mira, try to funnel them so that they don’t flank us. Oath, if more than one goblin attacks you at once, don’t do another downward slash. It’ll leave you open. Trevor, don’t let the momentum of your swings take you out of position.”

No one questioned him, and as Beth waged a long-distance exchange with the archers up the hill, Mira created pits and blades of earth that burst up along the flanks of the goblin horde. They swarmed for Noah, Oath, and Trevor. The fastest goblin reached Trevor and dropped a club towards his head. Trevor swung his halberd, and while the blade failed to strike the goblin, it did get caught on the handle, hurling it towards Oath, who dispatched it with a cleave. He then swung his sword from the side like Trevor had done, catching two goblins in the temples and slicing off the top of their skulls.

At the end, Noah was stabbing and slashing any goblin that came near. He overpowered them whenever they tried to block and every swing of his sword sent blood splattering across the nearby trees. A goblin arrow planted itself in his stomach, nearly sending him tumbling to the ground. His leather armor had slowed it down a bit, so it didn’t reach his organs, but as someone who had been shot numerous times, getting hit with the splintery goblin arrow hurt a lot more than most bullets.

“Mira, I’m hit. I need a dust cloud!”

“R-right!”

She stuttered momentarily, but regained her composure and sent all of the dry soil around the goblins airborne, blinding them and leaving them coughing. He only had a couple moments, so Noah ripped out the arrow with a hiss of pain and spurt of blood and poured a healing potion on the wound. As his flesh stitched back together, the goblins managed to clear their eyes of the dust and resumed their charge, but just like before, Noah mowed them down. The battle was over in less than a minute. Once again, Oath and his friends exchanged glances of excitement.

A few battles later, the setting sun put an end to their hunting for the day, and they set up camp between a cluster of large trees for protection from monsters and wind. They built up a fire in the center and cooked meat from the slain bear. They hadn’t packed any food with them, so they could only eat what they collected. Dinner was eaten mostly in silence. Noah was new to the group and they hadn’t gotten used to him yet, so the others couldn’t immediately talk at their usual conversational depth.

Between bites, Noah took out a canteen full of water and added some pine needles from his pocket. Metal bottles were more expensive than glass bottles and water skins, so everyone noticed when he set it next to the fire.

“You’re making tea with pine needles?” Mira asked.

“Pine needles help ward off scurvy even better than lemons.”

“Really? Where’d you hear that?”

“Just something I picked up.”

“Where can I pick up interesting stuff like that?” Beth complained. “Where did you learn to fight monsters?”

Noah thought back through all of the fantasy novels and role-playing games he had enjoyed over the years. “That? That was just intuition.” It would be best to shift the conversation away from himself.

“What are you going to do after the dungeon crab?” she then asked.

“That question seems like bad luck, don’t you think? They say that when men plan, God laughs. What about you? You get to become a noble if you capture a dungeon. You could be set for life. Oath is going to inherit his father’s title. Are you also aiming for nobility?”

“I’m going to keep traveling and exploring,” said Beth.

“I just want to make enough money to settle down and start a family,” Mira added.

Oath’s future had already been laid out, so next it was supposed to be Trevor, but he didn’t show any interest in even acknowledging the question.

“I have no interest in becoming a noble,” said Oath.

“Then why do it?” Noah asked.

“Because my father wants me to.”

“Again, why do it?”

“I already told you. My—”

“And what does that have to do with anything? You’re old enough now that you can set out on your own. You’ve found your talent with that blade. Keep being an adventurer. Do whatever you want to do.”

“Isn’t my father paying you to make sure I become a noble?”

“I fully expect you to become a noble, even if I have to tie the title around your wrists. I just want to make sure you have a strong reason so that you won’t choke up. So, go on, tell us the real reason.” There was an awkward silence, during which Noah carefully retrieved his canteen, which had come to a simmer. “Unless, of course, you already gave us the real reason. Your father wants this, and you want to make him happy.”

“Is that really such a strange desire?”

“You want him to finally treat you like he did your brothers. You want reconciliation, to make everything right so that all the years of neglect can be made up for, that it was all worth it.”

“For someone judging, you sound like you have experience.”

“No, I was the opposite. My dad was like yours. He thought a parent’s love had to be earned and wouldn’t accept failure. If I wasn’t the best, then I wasn’t his son. Unfortunately, I didn’t care, and I told him that. I told him that his approval meant nothing to me. I never had any intention of making him proud.” In actuality, he had several fathers who followed that mindset. It was a personality type that made an appearance every now and then.

“What happened?” Beth asked.

“Oh, he hit me, several times. Yeah, he went nuts.”

“So what did you do?”

‘I waited until he turned around and then I stabbed him in the spine. He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.’ “I left home and became an adventurer.” He took a slow sip of his tea. “You have to figure out your own reason for doing things, your own reason for living. Neither your parents nor God can give you meaning. It’s something that you have to create for yourself, and if you don’t do it carefully, if you pick an idea or a belief that is faint and fragile, it’ll fall apart in your hands and you’ll have nothing.”

The camp went silent, everyone staring into the flames rather than take the risk of making eye contact with someone else. Beth, no longer eating, hugged her knees to her chest. “My father was actually an adventurer. He taught me how to shoot a bow and always told me of his adventures. Sometimes he’d disappear for weeks at a time, but he would always come home late and night, when I was asleep. We had a game where he would hide under my bed, just before dawn, and went I’d step onto my floor, he’d grab my ankle and pretend to be whatever monster he had just fought. It made me a light sleeper, because I’d always try to hear him sneak in and catch him.”

“I wish I knew my father,” said Mira, trying to keep the conversation going.

Like before, it became Trevor’s turn, but he still showed no interest in participating. They then realized that he had already fallen asleep.

---------------

They set out at dawn the next morning to continue hunting, while making their way back to town. Just like the day before, their new formation proved unstoppable against the monsters of the forest, and they found themselves carrying so much loot that it was draining their stamina faster than the battles. They had to take frequent stops, and as usual, Noah would use that time to gather valuable plants.

At last, they broke out of the cover of the forest, now trekking across farmland with the village not far off. Despite their fatigue, their spirits were high. The sun was setting and their trip had been both productive and informative “I think we should just go straight to the dungeon crab tomorrow,” said Oath. “We’re already strong enough.”

“Not yet,” said Noah. “We’ve built a formation, now I want to improve your abilities.”

“So more hunting?” Beth asked.

“No, training and exercise to increase physical strength and mana reserves. All of our loot from this trip is going to fund it.”

Upon arriving to town, they first stopped off at the local tannery to sell off the pelts. The owner of the shop, a skinny man who struggled to grow a decent beard, Luke, met them as they entered his store. As one might expect, tanneries weren’t known for their pleasant aromas. It smelled like a wet dog that had just fed on roadkill. The air had moved beyond simple stench and now had its own taste, a very gamey flavor. It annoyed Noah every time he stopped by.

“Mr. Noah, I haven’t seen you lately. And the young master, I’m glad to see you are doing well. What have you come with today?”

“We have pelts to sell, including a special piece.”

All of the wolf and other hides were stacked on the counter, with the last, belonging to the sledgepaw bear, having to be laid out on the floor like a rug.

“A sledgepaw? And in such good condition! This is definitely a rare find!”

“We fought it as soon as it finished spawning,” said Oath. “That’s as fresh as it gets.”

Luke bent down and examined the hide, paying close attention to wounds created during the battle. “And there doesn’t appear to be too much damage… I can give you two gold coins for everything.”

“Two and half?” Noah asked.

“Two, that’s my limit. This thing has some big cuts in it.”

“Fine.”

The exchange was made, but Trevor objected as the coins were handed to Noah. “Why do you get the money? You didn’t fight it!”

“I’m not keeping the money, just holding onto it until we spend it.”

Next, they sold off some goblin weapons to the blacksmith, and anything else that they had managed to collect, though their final stop was the apothecary, and rather than selling, Noah was buying. Oath and the others stood back and watched as he ordered armfuls of different plants for sale with the old woman watching him with an eye of interest.

“I’ll also take every health and mana potion you’re willing to sell.”

“Why can’t every customer be like you?” she asked, teasing him.

They returned to the street. “Ok, let’s call it a day. Tomorrow morning, we’ll meet back up at the baron’s home and begin training. I’ll use these plants to whip up lots of potions.”

The group split up, with Oath and Trevor heading off their respective homes, Beth and Mira returning to the inn, and Noah running a few more errands. Night fell, and like the women, Noah made his way to the inn. It was bustling as usual, but the table that Noah sat at was quiet. He ate dinner quickly and went up to his room. By candlelight, he ground up the plants he had bought and mixed them together. He had a long list of potions and tools to make for this dungeon adventure, so even his nights would be busy. An hour after he started, he heard a knock at the door. He answered with his knife in hand but out of sight, as was natural. He opened the door to see Beth standing there, a smile on her face that was coy, nervous, excited, and embarrassed, all mixed together.

“I wanted to tell you again how sorry I am to hear that about Tin. But just because she’s gone, that doesn’t mean your nights have to be lonely. I want to experience the legend that everyone in town has been talking about.”

An honest smile, rare for Noah, crossed his face. However, it was more in amusement than lust. “That seems like something that would really bring us some bad luck later, considering the whole dungeon crab thing.”

“What?”

“Nothing. As much as I would like to say yes, it would be best if we both went straight for bed, considering the training I have planned. Plus, I still have a lot of potions to make.”

Her spirits were deflated, but she wasn’t ready to give up. “Are you sure I can’t change your mind?”

“I’m sure. But if you still have strength tomorrow after dinner, then I’ll happily indulge you.”

“I’ll look forward to it.” She then gave him a wink and went back to her room.

---------------

“The training I have in mind will consist of long sessions of muscle training and then magic training in a physically exhausted state, replenishing strength with potions, and repeating the process.” Noah addressed Oath and his friends in front of the baron’s mansion. By his side were a large sack full of red and blue potions, as well as some other concoctions. “It’s a combination of two workout routines I’ve created.”

Mira looked away for a moment, pondering something. She then perked up in shock. “That’s what was happening with you and Tin at the inn!”

Oath, Beth, and even Trevor looked at her, taking a moment to process what she had said, and then swerving their eyes back to Noah like a car drifting around a corner. Oath had forgotten that little fact, and Trevor, resigned to bearing a silent grudge, was remembering those rumors he had heard and finally feeling a bit of respect towards Noah.

Noah let a small laugh escape. “Yeah, that’s right. My theory is that mana output is a combination of physical and spiritual energy. When your spiritual mana can’t keep up with the demand, your physical mana picks up the slack, but it means your spirit gets only part of the benefits of training. Therefore, the best way to train your spirit’s rate of production and reservoir size is to either do so after you have just depleted all of your stamina, or during battle, when you are using up both, though I believe the latter is less efficient. Tin was assisting me with the expenditure of physical energy.”

“All morning?!”

“I have a lot of stamina, which is the result of the other exercise routine. Over a long period of time, I’ve mastered several different forms of exercise and refined them to target muscle growth in a specific way. People and other large animals have three kinds of muscle: red muscle, which is muscle that is great for stamina and running; white muscle, which is muscle for physical power and explosive force; and pink muscle, which is a combination of both. My routine focuses on producing pink muscle. Unfortunately, sex isn’t the exercise routine, God, though I wish it was.

Oath, I saw you struggling to lift your new sword, but making perfect slashes every time. Because of all the time you’ve spent swinging a hoe or an axe, neither of which is very heavy, you have a lot of red muscle, which lets you go for a long time up to a certain limit.

Trevor, I noticed your movements decline faster than Oath, despite expending a similar amount of energy. Your stabs and slashes, while initially quite powerful, made a steady decline. You have too much white muscle, which lets you carry more than Oath, but not as far.”

To Oath, it made sense. He had yet to see Noah truly fatigued, not after clearing the goblin den or even when they returned to the village the previous day. At the same time, he was able to slice through monsters and carry their remains with great strength. The others had noticed it as well, another category in which he outclassed them.

“Wait a second, if that was your “special mana training” you were doing with Tin, then that means you can use magic,” said Beth. “You told us you couldn’t.”

“I wasn’t sure I could trust you when we first met. I was willing to tell you how to make yourselves stronger, but not how to make me weaker.”

“You’ve been hiding magic this whole time? But we showed your ours!” Trevor yelled.

“And let that be a lesson to you in the future. The sooner your enemy knows about your strengths, the sooner they know about your weaknesses. When meeting new people, conceal your abilities until the last moment, because that moment might be a battle. However, since you followed me on that hunting trip and are willing to undergo my workout routine, I believe that it’s only fair to lay my cards on the table.”

He covered his eye and disappeared, drawing shouts of surprise from everyone.

“Noah?!” Oath exclaimed, looking around for him.

Noah released the illusion and they all yelped again. “I can make myself invisible. When I first unlocked this ability, I could only do it for a few seconds at a time. After a month of training, I could do it for more than five minutes.” He’d keep his second spell secret, as well as the true duration he could hold the both of them for. His trust in them was still in its infancy.

“I’ve never seen or even heard of a magic like that before. Maybe some kind of holy spell?” Mira muttered.

Her words took away a lot of his nervousness. He still knew so little about the magic in this world, there was no telling how common powers like his might be. For all he knew, this lie might make him look pathetic. However, if Mira had never heard of it, there was a chance that it was rare enough to not be considered common knowledge.

Noah retrieved some bottles full of a green liquid and tossed one to Oath and each of his friends. “Drink that, it’s a little something I whipped up from the plants I bought yesterday, along with some honey. It’ll give you a little extra energy. These next few days are going to be exhausting.”

.

.

.

Forging Strength

.

.

.

Pained gasps.

A feminine whimper.

“Oh God!”

Beth collapsed, fighting for every breath with Noah standing over her, the two of them drenched in sweat.

“Come on, get up,” he said.

“I can’t do anymore!”

“You know what comes next.”

She looked at him with eyes full of hate. “You’re a monster,” she hissed.

A clear, steady stream was produced, arching onto the ground with a splash.

“Oh, she broke her record!” said Oath.

“I wish my mana would grow that fast!” Mira complained.

The water spurting from Beth’s fingertip trickled to a halt. She rolled onto her back, feeling like the hard road underneath her was now as soft as the king’s mattress. It was the second day of Noah’s training, midmorning, and he was running laps with Oath and his friends around the Fault estate. Since yesterday, this what they had been doing with most of their time, running almost nonstop. It was Noah’s rule that they had to run until they collapsed or nearly threw up, and then immediately cast magic until their mana was completely depleted. Oath was exempt, but only because he had no aptitude for magic.

Noah crouched down and fed Beth a watered-down healing potion, just something to restore her stamina a bit. While she recovered, Oath, Mira, and Trevor sucked in air. This was the only break they got, when someone collapsed.

“I’m starving, can we eat lunch now?” Trevor asked.

“I can’t even think of food,” Oath groaned.

They all complained throughout the whole ordeal, but in truth, no one had yet given up and refused to go any further. Despite their anguish, they didn’t give in. It wasn’t to prove their determination, rather it was the simple fact that Noah’s methods were producing results. Just the day before, at the same time, if Beth cast her spell, it would have just been a few drops falling from her finger, less of a fountain and more of a leaky faucet. Also, everyone’s stamina was increasing noticeably. Thanks to the health potions, they could perform weeks of daily exercise and recovery in a number of hours, compressing the rate of improvement so it was much more obvious.

“Yeah, I’d say so. I’m on my last legs too.”

Oath and the others groaned in relief and began throwing down everything they carried, as well as stripping off any armor. Noah was making them run in all of their adventuring gear with their weapons in hand, and in time, he’d incorporate weights to prepare them for carrying the dungeon crab’s treasure. There was a field nearby, but they didn’t care and squatted down right in the middle of the road to eat. It was on the baron’s estate, so there wasn’t the worry of traffic.

They each carried lunches made by the maids and were chowing down like ravenous animals. Even Noah was giving in to his hunger and stuffing his face. But as he ate, his eyes swept over everyone in the group. This workout was definitely intense, shredding muscles and then immediately repairing them. In this case, the antidote was worse than the poison, according to the town apothecary. He had spoken to her the morning after he returned to Clive while on his way to pick up his ring.

---------------

“Using potions for exercise? It would be a good idea if it wasn’t such a bad idea,” the old woman said. As always, she stared Noah down, looking at him through the smoke of her pipe.

“I can’t imagine I’m the first person to think of using them this way. What I want to know is if there are any dangerous effects. You always have them in stock, so getting the ingredients isn’t an issue.”

She took a deep inhale and released a large smoke cloud. “There is a downside.”

“Am I going to have to pay you to find out what it is?”

“In a rush, are you? Yes, it’s always people like you using this method. Mana and health potions, as well as all other concoctions used by adventurers, may seem like bottled miracles, but they are a double-edged sword. If overexposed, the body can forget how to repair and restore itself. If a wound is repeatedly inflicted on one spot and healed with potions, eventually the body will lose the ability to mend that spot on its own. Cuts will bleed ceaselessly, broken bones will become like rock, and organs will eventually shut down. The effects are even worse if the potion is consumed, rather than poured, as it spreads throughout the body.”

“How long before major damage is inflicted?”

“If used for daily exercise, potions will lead to death within two weeks. Lesser damage depends on the user.”

“And what about mana potions?”

“Mana potions stunt the development of magic. The more often they are used, the harder it will be to create and learn new spells.”

Noah thought back to his “training days” with Tin. He had performed them every other day and with watered-down potions, multiplying his reserves countless times and giving him an edge, but there was no telling how much it had hindered him in the long run.

“And of course you decided to wait until now to tell me, despite all of the potions I’ve been buying for the last month.”

“Are you expecting an apology?”

“No, I just have something I want you to look at and I would prefer some honesty.”

---------------

Three days, that’s how long Noah was willing to use the potion method. That would hopefully leave them with enough time for the side-effects to wear off before they entered a dungeon. So far, everyone’s physical stamina was continuing to rise, but if he saw them plateau or even reverse, he’d cut them off, cold turkey. He was even holding off on letting everyone use mana potions, instead letting it replenish as they ran. He didn’t want to push back the date of their departure if he could avoid it. If anyone got a wound, he made sure to watch closely, to make sure their blood was clotting.

“All right, let’s head back. We’re doing the same routine as yesterday.” Everyone groaned and cleaned up their mess, but before they could return to the manor, Noah stopped them. “Hold on, we’re doing lunges.”

“Please, not again!” Mira complained.

“You’ll thank me later.”

With their weapons in hand, everyone began doing long steps, stretching out one leg and leaning down with their other knee almost touching the ground, and they had to keep a fast pace. It was sweaty, painful work.

“This is so embarrassing, we look ridiculous,” Trevor muttered. He seemed to love complaining, but since Noah beat him in a fight, he was keeping his word about following directions. “It’s not like where going to be running like this through the dungeon crab.”

“No, but it’ll build up your strength and stamina. The most important physical asset in combat is leg strength.”

“Wait, really? Even for sword fighting?” Oath asked.

“Really. If you support your body with a solid foundation, you can fight while staying on your feet longer. It doesn’t matter how hard you can throw a punch or swing a sword if your legs just buckle as soon as you meet resistance. Think of it as like trying to fight while standing on slippery ice vs solid ground.”

Just like before, Noah pushed them to the point of collapse. Normally, this kind of reckless training would be frowned upon, but they needed to stress and tear their muscles to the absolute limit, mend them with potions to make them even stronger, and repeat, with mana depletions after every collapse.

There was no rest for them when they returned to the manor. Under Noah’s instruction, Oath and the others began stretching and lifting varying weights in various ways. To the slaves working the field, it looked like a basic workout, but Noah scrutinized every movement, from the form their arm took when lifting a heavy stone, to the precise angle of their hips when they twisted their bodies. Every movement had to be perfect, so that all the stress went to specific muscles. Had he the means, he would go even further, focusing on individual muscle threads.

In a way, Noah was grateful that this opportunity came along. Being an adventurer kept him active and fit, but it didn’t build strength in the same way as this workout, and coming to this world had scrambled his routine. He had to use this chance to properly polish his physique. He had planned on teaching this workout to Tin to make her stronger and capable of defending herself, but that opportunity was gone.

Once they reached the middle of the afternoon, Noah had them move on to the next stage of their training. Oath, Trevor, and Mira stood side by side, all of them gasping for air and cursing in anguish as sweat poured down their faces. For Oath and Trevor, the workout was simple, though far from easy. They held out their weapons as far as they could and kept their arms raised for as long as possible. They had to keep doing it until they collapsed and they couldn’t feel their arms, at which point, they’d take a health potion and start again.

“Ah, dammit!” Oath cursed as he dropped to his knees.

“Fuck, you’re weak,” said Trevor.

“For once in your life, just shut up!” Mira hissed, unable to maintain her usual polite personality.

Her training was similar to theirs, only using magic. Before her floated a lump of earth as large as a beer keg. Dirt from a bald patch underneath continuously floated up and added itself to the mass. For her training, she had to maximize the amount of earth she could lift, as well as the duration, and level of compression. She’d rotate it in the air to keep it from becoming lopsided, but every time it moved, she struggled to retain control.

Noah told her she had to be able to turn dirt into solid rock in seconds, as well as train her body to produce mana faster.

Nearby, Beth was sparring with Noah. She held a sheathed knife in her hand and was swinging and stabbing at him with reckless fury. Despite her efforts, he’d block and deflect her attacks away from his body, using various fighting styles he had learned across the multiverse. As soon as she paused her onslaught, he’d attack, forcing her to heighten her reflexes for dodging.

Finally, when the sun set, Noah said the magic words. “Let’s call it a day.”

On cue, everyone collapsed. Even Trevor abandoned his tough guy bravado and simply went limp.

“I think I might be dying,” Mira moaned, spread eagle on the ground and staring up at the sky.

“I’m too tired to eat and too hungry to sleep,” Beth added.

“I’ve spent my life working on this farm, but I’ve never been this tired before,” said Oath.

It seemed that their stamina had been pushed to its limit, beyond the point that potions could replenish. Now they needed food and sleep.

“I should probably head back to the inn while they’re still serving dinner,” said Noah.

“You guys can have dinner here,” Oath said.

“Why didn’t you say that yesterday?”

“Sorry, but after a day like that, I couldn’t spend another minute thinking about training and the dungeon crab.”

---------------

The table was old and unvarnished, hand-carved with roughly sanded planks, though time had helped to soften its edges and the low-quality table cloth hid its surface. On it, candles burned to illuminate the room, which smelled like the baked fish Noah and the others were eating, along with bread and some vegetables. In the modern world, not even soup kitchens would serve food of this destitute level, but after a month in these new lands, Noah had managed to calibrate his taste buds.

It was only the five youths present. The baron was not taking part. As with lunch, everyone ate voraciously, their bodies begging for sustenance to try and make up for the fat they had burned. It was surprising that Mira actually noticed Oath had stopped eating, staring had his half-finished dinner.

“Oath? Is something wrong?”

“No, I’m just trying to remember the last time I sat at this table with this many people.”

‘Oh my god, that is so corny,’ Noah thought, drinking from his glass so as to not break his straight face.

“You’re going to make me sick,” Trevor muttered. Noah resisted the desire to thank him.

“What were your brothers like?” Beth asked.

“My oldest, Colt, was a soldier, serving under General Tarnas against the barbarians in Handent.”

“He really served under Tarnas?!” Beth exclaimed, bolting to her feet.

“Is that a good or bad thing?” Noah asked.

“Adwith Tarnas is one of the nation’s greatest heroes, and easily the strongest paladin,” said Mira, trying to hide her embarrassment with a smile. “Most children are raised on his stories, and for as long as I’ve known Beth, she’s been a huge fan.”

Beth sat back down, a drunk smile on her face. “When I was young, he and some of his forces passed through my town. Watching him ride down the street, wearing golden armor… I was no longer an innocent child. I had awakened my womanly desires.”

“You never heard of him? What rock have you been living under?” Trevor asked.

“A large one. Tell me about the war, I’m curious.”

“Oh, well, according to my brother, it started when the barbarians began ransacking villages along the border, eventually leading to the famous slaying of High Priest Grybaen by Chief Waer. After that…”

The conversation had taken a strange turn, but Noah absorbed every detail while making his plans for the future. That night, at the inn, Beth didn’t go with Mira into their shared room, but followed Noah into his. She had been too tired the previous night, but tonight, she had just enough strength to indulge her curiosity.

The third day of training was just like the two before, including the same routine, but now with weights added. However, the consumption of potions had dropped in every activity. The growth they had gone through over just a few days would have normally taken weeks or even months. In the late afternoon, their training was changed. Now instead of simply holding out his sword, Oath was practicing his slashes like he was studying kendo. He needed to make both his attacks and his recovery faster.

Next to him, Trevor was improving his thrusts, using what Noah had taught him and incorporating his legs so he could increase the strength with less effort. He had also given Trevor the challenge of writing out the letters of the alphabet in the air with the spear tip, to heighten his accuracy. Beth and Mira had switched places, now with Beth straining her magic and Mira staff-fighting with Noah. Unlike Mira and Trevor, Beth’s spell couldn’t be used for fighting and she appeared to be reaching the limit of her magical aptitude, but creating fresh water was something they’d need if they spent more than a day in the dungeon.

On the fourth day, Noah met everyone at the baron’s estate as he normally would. He held out a backpack full of potions. “Today, I want you all to see if you can follow the routine on your own. Until we enter the dungeon crab, I am completely banning the use of all potions.”

“That’s crazy!” Beth exclaimed, with the others similarly nervous.

“If you can’t do the day’s workout without potions, then you simply aren’t ready for the dungeon crab, and the longer we wait, the more competition will have. I don’t want to reach the bottom of the shell and find all of the avenium already taken.” He put the backpack down and put on a jacket with all of its pockets filled with rocks. “Come on, time to start running.”

The workout proceeded as planned, but with no less complaining. Now without potions, they could only gather their strength during breaks, but the number of times they had to stop and rest was as Noah predicted. On the fifth day, Noah faced them with the morning sun burning away the mists clinging to the baron’s estate. For Oath and his friends, this was the last day of training and they all felt confident. They weren’t blind to their own growth. They now stood with bodies covered in weights, ready for Noah to give the signal to start their morning run.

“Since today is the last day, we’re going to do something different. Trevor, I want you to hit the ground with a downward strike and your strongest spell.”

“What for?”

“Just trust me. Pour as much mana as you can into the axeblade and give it a shot.”

Trevor grunted and held out his halberd, and from the moment he began channeling his mana, everyone noticed the difference. These past several days, whenever he, Beth, and Mira practiced with their magic, it was always in a state of exhaustion, forcing their bodies to squeeze out every last drop of power. This was the first time in days that Trevor was using a spell while at full strength. What would have been a shimmering aura around the blade was now like a great colorless flame, causing his friends to instinctively step back.

“Whoa,” Trevor said, unable to pick any other words. He held his halberd with trembling handles, feeling like it was a rabid animal in his grip. He raised it above his head like a blinding torch. “Execute!” Apparently, saying the name of the spell helped focus the mind and increase the potency of the spell. To Noah, it seemed a bit ridiculous, but it did make things a bit more entertaining.

As per the name, he swung down with the halberd like he was performing a beheading, and the moment the blade touched the ground, it was like a mortar round had gone off. A chest-thumping explosion was heard and dirt and rock were sent flying in all directions. Originally, what would have simply buried his weapon in the dirt, had now opened up a crater the size of a bathtub. Just as incredible, the intensity of the mana flowing from the halberd had not lessened in the slightest, nor did Trevor appear fatigued.

Everyone was stunned, with Noah flashing a rare smile. “Mira, your results would probably be similar if I asked to use your strongest spell. Now that you have all this mana to work with, think of it as a resource for experimentation. I don’t know how the two of you develop magic, whether you just create new spells yourselves or learn by watching others, but I want you to devote yourselves to improving your skills. Show me something new. Today, we’re forgetting about strength and stamina and focusing entirely on technique.

Beth, I want you to practice your archery until your fingers bleed and you can shoot the wings of a fly. As for Oath…” Noah drew his longsword. “You’re going to be fighting me.”

---------------

Beth’s chest heaved with each movement, and her nipples, chilled by the evening, pointed out and drew arcs in the air. Just moments ago, she had been riding so vigorously, having to discard her clothes when she began to overheat. It had been a struggle for her to keep her moans contained, especially with her hips refusing to obey her commands and slow her bouncing.

She now took a gentle pace, rolling her hips from side to side while she regained her strength. Her pretty face was one of intoxication, her mind overtaken by lust and endorphins. Her smile was lewd, her face flushed, her lips wet, her pupils dilated. Noah could see the fresh sweat on her body with the light of the night sky. What was just supposed to be a quick tryst to scratch the ol’ itch had turned into something a little more intense.

Sitting up, Noah kissed her breasts and grabbed her ass, kneading it like dough. Beth had a nice athletic figure, not much fat on her, but the ass of a volleyball player. Noah’s lips on her nipples, his manhood stirring her up, and his hands massaging deep into her muscles, these stimuli combined into a force that Beth was struggling to withstand. They were out in the woods, so Beth’s moans could attract monsters, or even worse, the ears of her friends.

Mira knew about them, so Oath and Trevor were probably aware as well, but still, it would be a bit rude make them hear the sounds of moans and flesh against flesh. That was Beth’s thinking, but Noah didn’t care either way. His only fear was getting stuck in an awkward conversation with everyone because of this. That, and the fact that he and Beth were breaking the rules of every horror movie and having sex in the woods. The flag they were raising could have been visible from space.

Beth’s strength gave out, a final climax draining her and leaving her body limp. Noah was forced to lower to her to the ground, but she didn’t object to him continuing to thrust until he had a climax of his own.

“Come on, we should get back to the camp,” he said.

“What a romantic thing to say after filling me up.”

“You know what this is.”

She giggled. “Relax, I’m kidding.”

They got dressed and returned to the camp, where their fellow adventurers were awake and waiting for them.

“What are you all doing awake?” Noah asked.

“You two are a lot nosier than you think you are,” Mira said while keeping her eyes down.

“You do make it awfully hard to sleep. I thought some wolves were tearing apart a goblin out there,” said Trevor. In retaliation, Beth kicked him while circling the campfire to reach her spot.

“Watch it!” he shot back.

Noah took his own spot and stoked the fire. “Enough. Everyone, get some rest. We’re going to need our strength for tomorrow.” They were less than half a day’s hike to the dungeon crab.

“None of us can sleep. We’re too nervous about tomorrow,” Oath said.

“It’ll be fine. In twenty years, you’ll ask your children ‘did I ever tell you about the time I conquered a dungeon crab?’ And they’ll groan and say, ‘yes, father, a hundred times. We’re sick of hearing about it.’”

“Are you going to do anything with the territory?” Beth asked. “Change any laws?”

“No. Clive is perfect the way it is, and I don’t want to change anything.”

“You’re letting a golden opportunity slip by,” said Noah.

“What do you mean?”

“I assume that as long as the kingdom gets its taxes, it won’t care about how things change, so you might as well try some things. Think of the town as the place to perform social experiments.”

“What’s a social experiment?” Trevor asked.

“It’s when you put people in a certain location with certain conditions and see how they react. You can see how human nature plays out. Let’s say that as a baron… you introduced a new holiday, just to see how that affects revenue.”

“That sounds really wrong,” Mira muttered.

“It’s a way to learn about people. In the center of town, put up a statue with a sign saying not to touch, that the paint is wet. Then you can see how many people are actually going to touch it.”

“What is that supposed to do?” Oath asked.

“How many people are in Clive, a hundred? If half of them touch the statue, then you could make the argument that half of the human race is dumb enough to touch paint even when they know it’s wet. Or perhaps it’s simply that half the town can’t read.

If you repeated the experiment in another town, maybe a big city in another country, you’ll probably find that different numbers of people will touch the statue. Then you can get down to figuring out why. Why do different areas have different results? Are the people simply dumber? Is it a literacy problem? Is there a culture of rebellion to authority?

There was once an ancient city named Rome, which had a massive stone battle arena called the Coliseum. It was so massive, that the emperor put the minds of his best architects into figuring out how to design it so that the spectators could easily get in and out, otherwise, they’d start a riot. You get a bunch of people together in close proximity, one of two different things may happen, sometimes even both at the same time. The first is that people will want to withdraw into themselves. They’ll want to create personal space, establish a perimeter, draw that line in the sand that no one can cross. If someone crosses that line, they may get fearful, they may get violent; no matter how small it is, it produces a negative reaction.

The other is to surrender to the will of the group. If everyone around you is saying something, you’ll assume it’s right and repeat it, because you want to believe in the group, you want to believe you’re right. You want to believe that you’re in the presence of people who know what they are doing. If you’re in a mob where someone is shouting for the death of the king and everyone cheers, part of you will naturally agree.

Someone losing their temper will start a fight, that fight will spread and trigger more fights, and suddenly the orderly masses that were simply trying to leave the Coliseum are sweeping through Rome, having abandoned all thought of civility and now simply destroying everything in their way.”

“That could never happen,” said Beth, as if Noah had just uttered a child’s nonsense.

“I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. Once you establish the rule that escape is not available, that candle starts burning, and it burns quick.”

“I don’t know. I think people are good at heart,” said Mira. “They don’t just go crazy like that.”

“Then you could prove it. Let’s say you could create any kind of social experiment, completely free repercussions, like a dream. What would you do?”

“How am I supposed to know?”

“The rest of you? Just think ‘I wonder how many people would (blank) if I (blank)?’ Or ‘what would happen if I put (blank) and (blank) together?’ Literally whatever you wanted to know, or simply just see.” Everyone looked up into the distance, trying to process the challenge. “Think about it. It’ll help you fall asleep.”

---------------

A solid thump woke Oath up, a sword striking the ground just inches from his face. He instinctively shouted in terror and tried to scurry back, realizing it was Noah’s sword and he was standing over him. His friends, light sleepers in an area this dangerous, woke up in a flash and got to their feet with their weapons raised, confused and alarmed by the sight of Noah in the predawn light. Was this an assassination attempt? However, they looked down and spotted Noah’s real target. It was some kind of insectoid creature, a stubby centipede with a bulbous shell. It was the size of a squirrel, with frightening pincers.

“What the hell is that thing?!” Mira exclaimed.

“It’s one of the parasites from inside the dungeon crab. I did as much research as I could on the dungeon crab whenever I had the time.”

Looking at Mira and Beth, he could see them shuddering in revulsion.

“You mean to tell me that there are more of those things in that crab?”

“Almost certainly, but they’re flooding out into the woods, so just means that the more we find out here, the fewer we’ll have to fight in the crab. Now let’s eat some breakfast and get a move on.”

---------------

It was a literal mountain of upturned earth and shattered bedrock, the result of the dungeon crab rising up from the planet’s crust and jutting out the tip of its shell. At the very summit was the entrance, but the mountain was no indication of just how large the actual crab was. Before they could go down, they’d have to climb up.

“Look up there, I think I see a tent.”

Noah scanned where Beth was pointing and confirmed. “Someone must have set up camp there before heading in.”

“There are camps all over the mountain. There must be a lot of people in there,” said Mira.

“Most of them have probably been killed by now. Those camps are abandoned,” said Trevor.

“Trevor!”

Despite Mira’s anger, Noah agreed with Trevor. The closer he looked, the more tents he saw, and the majority of them probably belonged to the dead, but he didn’t want Oath and the others chewing on that. “Relax. Everyone going in just packed light because they want to carry as much treasure as they can, and probably couldn’t carry anything extra when they came out. We’ll be in the same situation when we come back.”

“Wait, I see people too,” said Beth.

She was right, there were plenty of adventurers roaming the mountain.

“They must be scavenging for gems and precious metals. When the crab appears, it probably pushes up more than just stone and dirt.”

“If you can get gold from sifting through the dirt, then why bother going into the dungeon?” Mira asked.

“They’re after whatever they can get their hands on, unlike us. We’re after avenium, and it can only be found inside.”

They put their fears aside and began climbing up the side of the mountain. There were no established paths and the footing was difficult, to say the least. The dirt had settled since it was first moved by the arrival of the crab, but there were no plants to hold it all together, so it was like hiking up the side of a sand dune in many areas. They also had to be wary of the big stone chunks mixed in. They were freshly broken and hadn’t been weathered by the wind and the rain, so they could easily cut through skin. While climbing, Noah grabbed a stone handhold and his palm was skinned by the crystal-like sharpness.

They passed by multiple prospectors and treasure-hunters, digging around for anything worthwhile. No one paid them any attention, and they offered none in return. However, that changed when they heard the sounds of fighting. Nearby, they saw a bearded man fighting off one of the dungeon parasites that had wandered outside. It was a four-legged crustacean, the size of a wolf. It swung its heavy forelimbs like clubs and tried to force the man onto his back.

“Noah, we need to help him,” said Mira.

“Keeping him alive isn’t my job. Besides, any strength you use against that one monster will be strength you can’t use in the shell.”

“Then consider this a field test!” Mira held out her staff. “Shatter Mace!”

Pieces of stone and packed dirt flowed to the end of her staff, joining together into a hardened sphere, the size of a basketball and covered in sharp protrusions. She left the group and ran over to where the man was fighting, with her weapon not hindering her movement at all. Rather than physical strength, she was holding the sphere together and lifting it with mana.

The beast had the man pinned on his back and he was fending off its snapping pincers with his pickaxe. Sneaking up behind it, Mira raised her staff and brought it down onto the monster’s back, unleashing the full weight of the stone and breaking through its shell. The monster hissed in pain and fell over, and she dispatched it with another swing, this one crushing its exposed head. A week ago, such a task would have been impossible for her, but under Noah’s tutelage, both her skills in magic and physical combat had been multiplied several times over.

“Thanks,” the man grumbled before dusting himself off and walking away.

She returned to the group, where Beth was clapping for her. “Well done!”

Noah, however, clasped his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t do that again.” There was very little anger in his voice, but still, she shrunk away. “The same goes for the rest of you. We’re not here to play hero, we’re not here to save lives. We’re here to make money and conquer the dungeon. Our strength, our attention, our weapons, our potions, they are reserved only for our own use and our own benefit. If you save someone, it had better be to use them as a pack mule or a meat shield. Understood?” Everyone nodded. “Good, then let’s move on.”

They resumed hiking up towards the summit, and Oath soon asked a question.

“Noah, you researched dungeon crabs, right? Did you recognize that monster?”

“Yes, it was one of the parasites mentioned in the books your father had.”

“Do you know what else we’ll find?”

“Unfortunately, no, there was actually very little written information about the dungeon crabs and what exists within their shells. Those who remain in the upper portions and survive share their information, but those who delve deep enough to reach the avenium either die or keep it a secret.”

“Wait, why is it a secret?” Trevor asked.

“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because the nation’s nobility doesn’t want people knowing how to join their ranks. In this crab are the keys to the kingdom, after all. Too many young upstarts could break the balance of power between the rich and the poor, or they could form factions that get in the way of the higher-ranked nobles. Some information gets out, of course, from those who manage to escape with their lives but don’t conquer the dungeon, or from other countries, but I imagine that the only adventurers who are really informed are those already working for high-level nobles.”

A monstrous hiss ended the conversation, as up ahead, a new threat revealed itself. It stood on a pair of muscular legs, like a predatory bird, but it had a small body and no neck, only a forward-placed skull that resembled an alligator. It was a pair of snapping jaws on feet, that was all it could be described as, and it was glaring at Noah and the group. It had the high ground, and after emitting another hiss, several more appeared, from both above and the sides.

“A pack-type parasite, interesting,” Noah said as he drew his sword. “Get ready, everyone, the fighting starts early.”

They took formation, with Oath in front and Noah and Trevor guarding the flanks, while Beth and Mira attacked from a distance. The monsters closed in all at once, leaping through the air while flashing the talons on their feet and spreading their jaws.

“Trevor!” Noah shouted.

“Phalanx Spears!” he cast while swinging his halberd like a flag.

A trail of mana was left behind with each movement, and the mana solidified into floating blades like mist condensing into ice. The floating blades pierced three of the beasts before they could land, two more were wounded, and the rest had their concentration broken and failed to pounce properly. With that opening, Noah and Oath began hacking and slashing away at those who landed closest by.

“Earth Bind!”

Mira stabbed the ground, and beneath the wounded beasts, pits opened up to swallow them whole, then were closed with earthen spikes like cage bars. It wouldn’t hold them long, but it kept them out of the fight. Not only could Mira now manifest the spell multiple times from one casting, but the ground proved perfect for its use. Those who had avoided Trevor’s spell and Noah and Oath’s swords tried circling around, but Beth dispatched them with her bow, and any she missed ended up getting cleaved by Trevor. Once all of the mobile ones were slain, the wounded were put out of their misery.

“Good, well done,” said Noah.

Normally they would then harvest the monsters for valuable pieces, but the market for dungeon crab parasites was too niche to be worth the effort. Besides, they wanted to save as much room for treasure as they could.

They continued their climb, and after a couple more monster battles, they reached the summit at midday. There, sticking out of the ground was the tip of the crab’s shell, like a light house on a rocky cliff. Noah could see the curl of the shell, and before them, the opening, a doorway large enough for an elephant to walk through. Noah reached out and touched the shell, made of substance somehow strong enough to withstand the heat and pressure of the earth’s interior.

In the month since Noah’s arrival to this world, he had seen plenty of things that shocked and baffled him, from magic to monsters, but just the sight of the entrance blew him away. To think that such a creature like this could exist, that something so massive occupied this world. It blurred the common sense accumulated from more than a hundred lifetimes. Where did these things come from? Were they made by magic? Perhaps by some kind of god? How old was this one? Was it intelligent? What was its life cycle?

“I never thought I’d ever see something like this,” said Oath, similarly amazed.

Everyone in the group was staring at the white tower in awe and accomplishment. True, the real struggle had only just begun, but compared to what they were doing not too long ago, just reaching this place was a huge accomplishment.

“Look at this view,” said Beth.

Without any trees to block their sight, the mountain summit let them see for miles in all directions.

“I think I can see the village!” said Trevor.

“Let’s break here for lunch, gather some of our strength, and then head inside.”

They all sat down and Noah pulled food and water skins out of his ring. He had enough food and water to feed them all for several days, and thanks to Beth’s magic, they could refill their canteens whenever needed. However, everyone carried two days of rations, just in case they got separated. Their lunch consisted of dried fish and fruits, as well as some bread, something light to keep them moving. Up atop the mountain, there was a nice breeze, and the view was spectacular.

“Noah, remember what you were saying last night about social experiments?” Beth asked. “If I could try one, I’d want to see what happens when you put only women together and task them with building a society. What would Clive look like if it had only women?”

“A female-only society? Yeah, that would certainly be interesting. Ok, paint a picture for me. What do you expect would happen?”

“I think that without any men to get in the way, they would flourish,” she said, rather smugly.

“Until there is a spider that needs to be killed,” said Trevor.

“Come on, I want details. For instance, there are roles in society that are typically considered manly, and others that are considered womanly. If only women perform the manly tasks, then what will change? Will the nature of the task change, or will the women change? Will the women who spend all day hunting, blacksmithing, and all those other jobs start acting rough and crass like men?

You’re an adventurer. You spend your days hunting, fighting, scavenging, getting down and dirty. But you also consider yourself quite girlish, right? But how do you think a girl who spends her days weaving and taking care of children sees you? Will a divide form? The Type A personalities arguing with the Type B?”

“Type A personalities?”

“Never mind. Oath, you got an idea for an experiment?”

Oath took a deep breath. “Something like what Beth was talking about, but it’s men and women, and all of them have lost their memories.”

“Oh, that’s the good one. The total erasure of culture and starting from scratch. If you completely remove nurture from the equation, then you can truly see how nature manifests. Will men and women follow paths considered normal by society? Will they adopt the same roles that their ancestors have? Or will they do everything new?”

Everyone watched as he started putting things away. He didn’t need to say anything, they knew it was time to take the plunge.

.

.

.

The Gauntlet

.

.

.

Once they had finished eating, they packed up their things and entered the shell, with Noah taking the lead and holding a torch. Because of the shell’s twist, they had to descend a spiral passage, like a staircase but without actual stairs. The walls, floor, and ceiling of the passage were perfectly smooth, but there were no straight lines of any kind. It was like wandering through a narrow canyon carved by flashfloods. Most of the floor was covered in dirt and broken stone, perhaps seeping in from the opening of the shell. Luckily this meant that Beth would have something to work with to use her spells.

The crab had been venting its shell for more than a week, but the air still had a staleness to it. It smelled earthy, like a mineshaft or a quarry, but he could also smell the biological signature of the parasites. The air seemed fine to breathe and the torch didn’t appear to have any issues burning. Was all that oxygen from the outside? How long could the oxygen last if the crab went back below the surface? How long did the dungeon crab live underground before surfacing? Either the crab and its parasites could function in an oxygen-poor environment, or something within the crab could produce a human-friendly atmosphere.

They had descended fifty feet when the first fork appeared, another tunnel branching off from the staircase.

“We’re going to keep going down, right?” Oath asked.

“Yeah, whatever passage leads us down, we’ll take it.”

One of the bipedal parasites burst from the branching tunnel, aiming for Noah. He stepped to the side to dodge, drew his short sword, and stabbed the beast through the spine when it landed.

The deeper they delved, the more branching tunnels they came across, but they continued their descent, until reaching a large chamber at the bottom of the staircase, with five tunnels spread out. The staircase had been just wide enough for two people to walk shoulder-to-shoulder, but these tunnels were like subway lines. There were signs of adventurers coming through here, marking the tunnels to try and keep track of which paths they had taken. There were also some blood splatters, torn clothes, and a broken sword.

“What’s that, hanging from the ceiling?” Oath asked.

Above their heads, gooey threads dangled like icicles, and at the base of each, a small ball of light.

“Cave worms. Their bodies are bioluminescent, attracting prey, which get caught in their threads like spider webs. This is a good thing. We won’t need this.” Noah extinguished the torch and stored it in his ring. “Ok, let’s split up. We can cover more ground that way.”

“Wait, WHAT?!” everyone exclaimed.

It was the hardest Noah laughed since coming to this world. “Relax, I’m just kidding. Can you imagine? Let’s take this path over here. It looks like it continues to slope.”

They took the right-most path, further descending into the dungeon crab, and soon stopped at the entrance of a branch chamber, hearing movement within. They stayed against the wall so as to avoid drawing the attention of whatever was inside. Noah signaled the others with his hand and cast his invisibility, then stepped into the doorway. The sight before him was a grotesque, a pile of maggots, each the size of a football, feasting upon the remains of some slain adventures. Their fat bodies quivered as they peeled flesh from bone. The walls were honeycombed to house the creatures between meals, and three adults were standing guard.

The guards were bugs of some kind, consisting of four legs surrounding a head and torso that were mixed together with wings between the legs. The legs were armor-plated and sharp, and their downward-pointing face had teeth like an angler fish. They looked almost like winged bar stools. Noah drew his sword and killed one of the beasts without it ever realizing it was there. Seeing their comrade spontaneously die, nearly being sliced in half in the process, the other two began to panic and search for the invisible assailant. He killed them almost as easily as he had killed the first.

“Clear,” Noah said as he released his spell.

He reappeared, just as Oath and the others entered the room, immediately broadcasting their revulsion at the remains being fed on. Noah knocked the pile of bodies over, and kicked away the maggots so that he could begin poking around with his sword.

“Don’t loot them!” Oath said in disgust.

“Why? Because we didn’t kill them? We’re adventurers, we thrive on the deaths of others, be they humans or monsters. Meh, nothing great.” He was able to collect a few weapons and arrows, but that was it.

“Hey, something’s coming!” Trevor shouted. They ran out into the hall, hearing the sounds of wingbeats. Further down the tunnel, several more four-legged bugs were flying towards them, having likely detected the deaths of their comrades. “Phalanx Spears!” he then cast.

He blocked the passage with an array of mana blades and Beth began firing arrows, but the armor plating on the monster’s legs proved stronger and they smashed their way through. Oath took down one, but a second tackled him from the side, tearing into him with its teeth and claws. Noah killed it before it could inflict more damage, then fended off the others with well-placed stabs. Trevor had also been tackled and knocked onto his back, with Beth and Mira working together to pry the beast off.

Noah was still on his feet, so the monsters were heading towards him. He put away his longsword and instead switched to his short sword. The first bug that tried to tackle him was met with his shield and then a sudden thrust. He repeated the strategy, breaking the enemies’ inertia by blocking with his shield and then stabbing while they were disoriented.

The battle had ended and healing potions were used where needed. This certainly was an interesting environment for battle. Most of the monsters seen so far had hard outer shells, something Noah and his group had little experience in dealing with. Their group focused on attacking rather than endurance, as they were always fighting beasts that were as vulnerable as themselves. Aside from Noah’s shield, the group didn’t have much in way of defense outside of light armor—and a strong offense, of course.

They continued on deeper, passing by countless branching tunnels and eventually coming to another fork. Once more, their ears stopped them from proceeding, as they heard movement down one of the tunnels, and soon saw it as well. It was a flood of centipedes, just like the one that had tried to kill Oath that morning.

“Holy shit!” Mira shrieked, something very out of character for her.

“Come on, this way!”

Noah ran down one of the passages with the others following, but so too did the centipedes. It seemed they were familiar with the scent of people and now hungered for Noah’s group. He slowed his pace, letting the others get past him, then untied a bag hanging from his belt and scattered its powdery contents across the floor. It was lye, the best he could make within reason. It was much more caustic than what he had made in the forest with Tin, and when the centipedes ran through it, getting it on themselves and breathing it in, they immediately began to writhe and curl in pain. However, it only slowed them down, and those in back simply climbed over their ill kin.

They kept running, though more monsters were bursting out of the tunnels ahead. Noah and Oath took them out to the best of their abilities, trying to at least incapacitate them with one slash. Those not slain retreated immediately as the group passed by, not wanting to become the prey of the centipedes behind them.

“There’s a room ahead!” said Trevor.

“Mira, wait until we reach that room, and if I give a signal, use your Earth Surge spell,” said Noah.

They entered the chamber, though regret filled them immediately. A new, colossal danger awaited them. It was a worm, coiled like a hissing cobra, with a body more than ten feet wide and long as a football field. Its flesh was rough, like living stone, and it was covered in countless small feet. Towering over them in this arena-like chamber, it stared without eyes and roared from a mouth that was simply a pit of teeth.

The sight of the monster shocked everyone into a stunned silence, like Oath when standing before that bear, but not even Noah could chastise them, for he too was momentarily crippled by fear. The fraction of second between two beats of his heart seemed like it would last forever, but that next thump shook him from his stupor, letting him collect his thoughts and began working on a plan.

“Mira, do it now! Beth, shoot some arrows into that thing’s mouth or anything else that looks soft! Oath, you and I will be the decoy. Trevor, you attack with all your magic. We need to just wound it long enough to get away!”

No one else moved, but Noah giving Oath a shove woke them up. Mira turned back to face the oncoming wave of monsters, and counted with a wave of her own. She cast her spell upon the earthen ground, taking control of all of the rock and dirt and unleashing it on the centipedes like a mudslide. While that was going on, Beth was firing arrows at the worm’s mouth, striking its exposed flesh but only doing enough damage to piss it off.

It turned its attention on Oath and Noah, running at it from its left and right side. It lunged at them both, aiming to eat Noah and swat Oath with its tail. Noah made himself invisible and dodged the worm’s mouth when it lost track of him, and Oath blocked the attack with a swing of his sword, breaking into the monster’s skin. As they had distracted it, Trevor could now unleash his charged magic. Both the spear blade and the axe head of his halberd were glowing with a radiant storm of mana, and runes spun around the shaft. He charged towards the worm’s coiled body, released a roar of fury, and brought down his blade like a divine smite.

“Voulge Slash!”

It was a combination of his stabbing and cleaving spells, and while the motions were the same as just a normal swing, it inflicted damage differently in the form of a slash. It had less penetrating power than the other two, possibly failing to break the worm’s rocky exterior, but it would do much greater damage to the flesh. His mana, having solidified around the head of his halberd, carved deep into the worm’s flesh, and as Trevor swung his weapon down, he left a deep cut on different segments of is body. Blood poured from the wound and the worm shrieked in agony.

“Let’s go!” Noah shouted.

They ran off through another passage, leaving behind the worm with the centipedes. They didn’t stop running, wanting to get as far away as possible. They kept maneuvering through the dungeon, fighting the monsters leaping out while they searched for a safe spot. It seemed like every time they slowed down or even paused, something would burst out and attempt to take a chunk out of them. Finally, when they were gasping for air with their throats feeling as dry as sand, the group found a chamber with a small opening and no monsters inside. They set their packs against the entrance, hopefully to help keep the monsters from detecting them. They all slumped down on the floor. Even Noah was feeling sick from the adrenaline.

“Fuck! This place is a death trap!” Trevor exclaimed as he poured a healing potion on a deep puncture wound in his thigh, caused by something resembling a cycloptic tiger catching him with one of its giant fangs.

“No wonder nobility is the prize for conquering one of these things. You deserve to be a damn king if you can survive this place,” Beth panted. Despite fighting from the back, she was covered in monster blood.

“Guys, I gotta tell you, I’m not sure we’re ready for this place. It’s too soon,” said Oath.

“Don’t say that. We’re alive, aren’t we? We managed to get through it and find a place to rest. Not too long ago, we would have died before even reaching the dungeon. We can do this, right, Noah? Noah?” Mira turned to Noah, seeing him staring at his trembling hand, but with an expression that, frankly, didn’t fit the situation.

After dying so many times, death was no longer something Noah feared. It was to be avoided, but with about the same amount of effort used to avoid dying in a video game. He still possessed the survival instinct in some fashion, but he could no longer properly appreciate the greatest risk of death in a given situation. He was no more afraid of guns that he was a coffee table’s sharp corner. But what he felt when he saw the worm was true fear, when he realized that not only was the worm the most likely cause of his death in that room, but that it was a death he wanted to avoid more than any other. That feeling of fear, after so long, it was as though some of his soul’s thirst was clenched.

“Noah?” she asked once more, hearing him chuckle.

He shook himself back from his thoughts. “Sorry, I was just thinking about this place.”

“And?”

“A snail.”

“What?”

“The book at the baron’s home, it had a picture of a dungeon crab. It might have just been a guess at what it looked like, but it was of a giant hermit crab. However, hermit crabs don’t create their own shells. Snails do. Hermit crabs just take them over. So, either we’re actually inside a snail, or if this really is a hermit crab, then that means it probably got this shell from a snail, and if there are these gargantuan crabs and snails living within the earth, what else is down there?”

“And how does that help us?”

“It’ll take your mind of things. We’ll be fine, we can get through this. Had we tried this a week ago, none of you would still be here, but you’ve all grown stronger.”

“So what should we do?” Oath asked.

“Exactly what we’ve been doing. Just watch our step, take it one challenge at a time, and keep our rhythm steady. Besides, I’d say there is plenty of incentive to stick around.”

Everyone glanced around the chamber and gasped when they realized the ground was gleaming like a starry sky. It was hard to tell under the blue light of the glow worms, but it was bits of metal and gems mixed into the dirt.

“Our first score!” Beth exclaimed.

They began collecting the glimmering pieces and cleaning off the unwanted dirt and rock. Most of it was raw and diluted, so excess sediments had to be scraped, hammered, and rubbed off, and even then, there was no telling how much gold or silver was collected until it could all be properly melted down. Despite the find, Noah couldn’t deny his disappointment. When he had heard about these dungeons and the treasure within them, his inner nerd had been imagining something more along the lines of an actual treasure chest. That worm back there could be considered a mini-boss, after all.

With their spirits lifted, they left the safety of the chamber to continue their descent.

“Trevor, you take point,” said Noah.

“What?”

“I mean you’re in front, in the middle space. Oath will now be opposite from me, where you once were. In these narrow tunnels, we don’t need to worry about an enemy circling around to Beth and Mira, so it would be best to put your long reach directly in the front. If we enter a wide-open space, we might switch back.”

Trevor stepped forward and led the group, and not long after they departed, they faced off against a pair of the four-legged monsters like the one that Mira killed outside. Now in the center, Trevor warded them off with his halberd.

“Oath, with me. Trevor, don’t let them stand over us,” said Noah.

He and Oath stepped forward, keeping just out of range of Trevor’s halberd with Oath delivering a mighty cleave. His sword cracked into the monster’s shell and struck its brain, though the wound was shallower than Oath expected. Nearby, Noah was fending off swings and stabs of the beast’s jagged forelimbs, but when an opening came, he hacked one of them off and then thrust his sword into the monster’s face.

“These shells might be worth something.”

Knives in hand, they carved the top shells off, each one the size of a tower shield. They were hard enough to stop Oath’s cleave and rather light, so there was the good chance they’d be worth something to an armor dealer.

They proceeded onwards, fighting their way through wave after wave of the shell’s inhabitants. They survived each encounter, but not without shedding blood. They kept their eyes peeled, not just for monsters, but for glimmers of treasure. They searched every room, finding gold, silver, and gems of all different colors. They also found plenty of signs of human activity, though rarely any bodies, same with the monsters, and the dead ends were a constant annoyance.

“Wait, hold up.”

“What is it?” Trevor asked.

“This section of the hallway, we should avoid it. Look at it.” The next hundred feet of the tunnel had a different consistency than the rest. It was a fleshy, perforated surface, like a dish sponge. “Something like that is probably some kind of trap. We need to backtrack.”

“It looks fine. It probably means we’re getting close to the bottom of the shell.”

“It very well could be, but it’s also too suspicious to risk. We’re going back.”

But as they turned around, they heard screams and shouts and terror, and from the way they just came, another adventuring party appeared, a group of several adult men with low-quality leather armor.

“It’s coming! It’s fast!” one of them screamed.

“Run! You have to get out of here!” another shouted when he spotted Noah and his group.

Mira stepped forward to try and stop them. “Wait, you can’t go this way!”

She was shoved aside like she had been struck like a charging bull, the man who did it knocking her in the chin with the handle of his axe to get her out of the way.

“Mira!” Beth exclaimed.

She and Oath rushed to her side, while nearby, the screams of fear became screams of pain. The men, having entered the hallway, now found themselves being assailed from all sides by flying stingers. They shot out of the holes in the walls and ceiling like bullets and imbedded themselves in the men. They were barbed, like bee stingers, and Noah could see them pulsing as they injected their venom.

“Get her on her feet. Something is coming.”

Mira was pouring blood from her mouth and seemed delirious. Oath forced her to drink a health potion, but it wouldn’t get her into fighting condition soon enough. The monster the men had feared arrived, some kind of hulking crossbreed between a grizzly bear and a komodo dragon. Its back was covered in thick scales and its underside didn’t seem very weak either. It stood on its hind legs, exposing its deadly claws, and released a roar from between two rows of shark-like teeth.

Beth, standing behind Oath and Trevor, shot it in the stomach with an arrow, though the wound was shallow, and it would take time for the poison to kick in. Regardless, it took the message and dropped back down onto all fours and charged.

“Mountain Splitter!” Trevor cast.

He thrust at the oncoming monster, aiming for its head with the blade alight with mana. The beast managed to avoid a lethal injury, instead staking the blow in the shoulder. Its scales were like thick stones and just as hard, so while Trevor reached the tissue underneath, most of the energy was deflected. Getting past the halberd, it slashed Trevor across the chest, sheering through his armor and knocking him against the wall. Noah took out a lye bomb and struck the beast in the face, blinding it and making it stagger back.

“Beth, save Trevor. Oath, get over here!”

Noah didn’t give it any chance to recover and lunged for the monster, slashing and stabbing at any spot that looked soft. He focused on the wounded shoulder, but the beast was guarding it well, and despite being blinded, it was swinging its claws with deadly accuracy, and even Noah ended up with some deep cuts across his thigh. Oath came out from behind Noah and brought down his sword on the monster’s head, doing some slight concussive damage.

“I’ll distract it.” Noah cast his invisibility and charged at the monster while drawing a length of thick chain from within his ring. He wrapped it around the monster’s neck and jumped onto its back. He pulled with his full weight, forcing it to rear back on its hind legs so that Oath could slash it across the stomach and expose its internal organs

“Earth Surge!” Mira cast as he got out of the way.

Since Oath had created a way in, Mira bombarded the monster with a blast of dirt and rock, aiming for the laceration. It fell on its back, too wounded to continue fighting, and Noah finished it off.

“Good. What is everyone’s condition?”

“Unhurt, but tired,” said Oath.

“I’m out of mana and I can barely stand,” Mira whined.

“Trevor looks ok, but I think we should stop for the night. I’m starving,” Beth said.

“Yeah, it’s probably night by now. We’ll call it a day.”

They searched around, finding a room for them to camp out in. They made a door out of monster shells and barricaded it with their bags. There were no glow worms in this room, so Noah lit his torch.

“Let’s eat quick and get some sleep. I’ll take first watch.”

After a restless night, they left their enclosure. “There is something I want to check out,” he said. He led them back to the corridor that had killed the other adventurer group, only to find that the corpses were gone, same with the armored monster that had given them so much trouble before. “Interesting.”

“What? Something just came along and took the bodies. What’s the big deal?” Trevor asked.

“This hallway probably kills whatever enters it with those spikes. Only something heavily armored like that bear-thing could have gotten to them, but there are no drag marks, no footprints. Maybe one of those giant bugs flew in and pulled them out without being detected, but I’d say it’s more likely that they were eaten by something other than just a parasite.”

“You mean the crab?” asked Beth. “How?”

“I’m not sure, but I’d like to figure it when I have the chance. Let’s go.”

They set out, continuing their exploration. The monster onslaught was relentless, a wave emerging every couple of minutes, each one pushing the adventurers beyond their limits, both from the numbers and the strength they carried. Everyone received injuries, even Noah. While his invisibility granted him a margin of damage compared to the others, stealth did little against such vast forces. There was simply not enough room to dodge or retreat. They were running through their reserves of potions faster than Noah had anticipated, but not beyond his planning, and he still had enough to make the full trip.

He assumed they had reached the body of the creature, or at least were no longer in the unoccupied portion. More fleshy corridors were appearing, most of them containing some kind of biological trap like the spikes from before. Wherever this deepest portion of the shell was, it had to be close by. Besides, there was also plenty of incentive to take the risk. While they did a lot of traveling, much of their time was spent gathering treasure. Their packs and pockets were getting heavy with precious gems and ores, and even Noah was dumping stuff out of his ring to make room.

That weight was currently a hindrance, though, as they found themselves running from another wave of centipedes. The consistency of the corridor had also changed, where they were now passing through a chain of 30x30ft rooms, each one with a deep bowl-like floor.

“Whoa! Stop!” Noah shouted.

Everyone halted at the entrance to the next room, blocked behind his arms. The floor of the chamber was waist-deep with dark water, or at least, they hoped it was water. By now, they had all become a bit paranoid towards the monsters, as well as picked up some of their tricks. There could be untold beasts lurking in that water, ready to grab them and drag them under, perhaps injecting them with poison with needle teeth or barbed stingers. But the centipedes were closing in fast, and there wasn’t enough time to backtrack to a branch passage.

Noah summoned some food from his ring and sprinkled it across the surface of the water, and the next few moments passed by with agonizing anticipation, but nothing came up to feed, which was good enough for them. Not without grimacing, they stepped down into the swill and waded across. The next room had a pool of water like the first, and the next after that, and the third, and it was taking their toll. Despite all of the running they had done, there was only so much that stamina could do in this kind of workout. However, as he moved through the fifth, Noah noticed something.

It was a layer of crude oil floating on the water’s surface. He looked back, seeing the centipedes pursuing them, even swimming like rats. Noah and the others got out, but he turned back with a flint and knife. This was something he wanted to avoid doing in this oxygen-low environment, especially since he was now soaked in oil, but he struck the flint against his knife and spent off a spray of sparks that set the pool ablaze, filling the chamber with a wall of fire.

He rejoined the others, passing through several more rooms and taking multiple turns, but they finally had to quit and catch their breath and gasped in relief that they were no longer being pursued. Even Noah needed rest, so no one said anything and they all just leaned against their knees, sucking in air with their faces over the surface of the water.

Noah stood up straight, and as he breathed in, the ground disappeared from under everyone’s feet. Some kind of organic trap door had opened up beneath them, and the pond of dark water became a roaring whirlpool. Standing in the center of the room, Noah and Beth dropped helplessly, disappearing down a vast throat. Trevor, Oath, and Mira were saved by the skin of their teeth. Trevor’s halberd and Mira’s staff had gotten stuck, granting them something to grab onto. They were hanging over the entrance to the throat like a bottomless well of living, quivering stone.

Sensing the obstruction, the walls began to close in to try and dislodge them. The three youths couldn’t help but shout in terror as they struggled to climb up out of the throat. They were drenched in filth, struggling to hold onto their weapons and get any kind of purchase. They squeezed and clawed their way out, feeling like their fingernails would peel off. Their faces were pressed to the sloped floor, forced to breathe in and taste the swill. They reached the next room, but despite their exhaustion, they couldn’t rest yet. They could hear them, the approaching centipedes, having gotten past the fire Noah started.

They forced themselves onto their feet, barely able to stand, but once more having to run. They were in a dire situation, but Noah and Beth were even worse off. They were forced down a pit of flesh, gasping for air and feeling around for anything they could grab onto to stop themselves. To Noah, it ranked as one of the weirdest moments in his entire multi-life history. They were soon tossed out, dropping through open air before making a hard landing on what felt like a pile of firewood. It was pitch black, no cave worms around, and the moment Beth tried to breathe in, her burning lungs cried out in a new anguish. The air was toxic, she could taste it, and every breath hurt. She coughed and wheezed, her face turning purple.

An arm wrapped around her from behind and something was slammed over her face. Instinct made her throw her elbow back in self-defense, but it failed to land a hit.

“It’s me! Just breathe!” Noah shouted.

It took effort, but she drew in a deep breath, and at last, it was clear. She drank the filtered air in greedily, while the thing over her mouth was tied around her head. It felt like leather, and it smelled like… charcoal? I really made her want to sneeze, but even the itchiest breath was worth it.

“Noah?”

“I’m here, hold on.”

There was a spark in the darkness and a torch was lit, Beth seeing the same device attached to Noah’s face.

“What is this?” she asked.

“A gas mask, something I whipped up. I was worried about the air quality in the dungeon, though I’m not sure how much faith should be put in them. We should get out of here, quick.”

Beth looked down and shrieked. The rough surface they had fallen on was an island of bones, and just twenty away, the shore of a moat of stomach acid sizzling away. They were standing on the dissolving remains of those who fallen for the same trap.

“Oh God, this isn’t happening! This isn’t happening!” Beth cried as she crumbled.

Noah would have chastised her for losing her nerve, but considering the situation, he too was almost ready to snap. “We’re not dead yet. Here, hold this.” He handed her the torch and looked around. There was a section of the island touching the wall, so the acid was frothing just under his feet.

He leaned over towards the wall and slashed at it with all of his strength, but the sword simply slid off, throwing him off his balance and nearly sending him tumbling. He reformed his footing, this time attempting a stab. Once again, his sword, despite striking the flesh head on, simply bounced to the side, and he fumbled. He tried again and again, but his gauge of its resilience was that it was beyond his level of strength. However, he wasn’t out of ideas yet.

Sheathing his sword, returned to the middle of the island, then began scooping up armloads of rot-slickened bones. He piled them against the wall, then removed a tightly-bound canvas package from his ring.

“What is that?” Beth asked.

“Give me the torch.” She handed it to him, and he touched a connected black string to the flames. It came alight, and he forced the package against the wall, pressed with his shield, and backed by the pile of bones. “Ok, back! Back! Back!” He coaxed her as far back as he could within the stomach, then conjured up the monster shells they had collected before. “Duck down behind this and try to cover your ears!”

They got behind the shield-like carapaces, then an explosion blasted off on the other side of the room like it had been struck by lightning. Smoke filled the air, and lethal shrapnel sprayed their defenses. Beth released a scream from the massive shock, but Noah held her still, and though the torch had gone out, there was now a hole in the side of the stomach, from which bioluminescent light was pouring in and stomach acid was pouring out.

They did their best to avoid getting splashed with acid and climbed out into a new chamber. “That explosion will have drawn monsters. We have to go.”

“What about the others?”

“They’re heading for the same place we are. We’ll meet them there eventually. Come on.”

She followed him through the labyrinth, managing to avoid combat and find a room where they could rest. The air was stale and disgusting down in these tunnels, but compared to the fumes of that stomach, Noah and Beth removed their masks and felt nothing but gratitude and relief with each breath.

“I… need to rest…” said Beth.

“Agreed, but I think it would be best if we cleaned off first.”

Beth pointed her finger at him. “Make Water.”

Water began pouring from her fingertip with the volume and intensity of a garden hose. Noah leaned into the spray, scrubbing off the filth and trying to get everything clean. Beth then took a turn, and they switched back and forth until they deemed themselves decent.

“I thought you could only use magic to make yourself invisible. What was that back there?” Beth asked as they both stripped off their soaking clothes.

Noah, standing with his back to her, rung out his shirt. “That was a bomb, made of something called black powder.”

Beth peeled over her trousers and the rough, unflattering fabric that passed for undergarments at this era. “So it was alchemy?”

“Sort of, there wasn’t any magic involved. It’s just a powder that reacts violently to fire.” Noah shed his own pants, still slippery with oil.

“So, that thing you made… Was that something else you just whipped up like those gas masks?”

“Yeah. It’s been a while since I made one, plus I couldn’t really experiment to make sure I got it right without drawing suspicions.”

Beth ignored the shirt she was trying to dry out and turned to Noah. “Just where on Earth do you go to learn how to make stuff like that? You said you couldn’t find information on the dungeon crab, but you knew to make these gas masks.”

“It was a job I took before I came to Clive. I spent a few days working in a mine. Down there, they were using black powder to blast apart rock and they had to use these masks in case they hit a gas pocket.” The answer seemed to placate her and he bowed down. “Can you spray my head again?”

.

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The Story of Oath

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Oath, Trevor, and Mira fell to their hands and knees, close to passing out. They had finally managed to escape the centipedes and were now back in a normal corridor. Their strength was next to zero, and Trevor was knocking back potions. Only once all was calm did they finally get back on their feet.

“We need to find Noah and Beth,” said Oath, “we should—”

A solid fist striking his face both cut him off and sent him falling to the ground. His eyes were rolling like billiard balls, but the sound of Mira’s screaming forced him to focus. Trevor had tackled her and driven a knife into her chest.

“You son of a bitch!” Oath bolted to his feet and attacked Trevor, knocking him off Mira, who was choking on her own blood.

As they fell over into a storm of grappling and beating, Mira used what little strength she had to retrieve a health potion from her pocket and pour it on the wound. She passed out, stuck in a race between bleeding to death and recovering in time. Nearby, Oath and Trevor had gotten to their feet and were now hurling punches wildly.

“Trevor, what the hell are you doing?!” Oath shouted.

“Getting you out of my way!” Trevor yelled back.

He retreated, going after his halberd. Oath did the same, retrieving his sword and raising it just in time to block Trevor’s thrust. Despite his strength, Trevor was able to exert more continuous force, and the spear tip of the halberd pierced his shoulder. Oath couldn’t contain his cry of anguish as he was pinned against the wall. It was a stalemate, Oath stuck where he was, but Trevor unable to let up the pressure.

“It would have been better if Mira had followed those two in the pit. I didn’t want to have to kill her, but I couldn’t risk you two teaming up against me.”

“We weren’t going to team up against you! What the fuck are you talking about?!”

“I just didn’t want her to intervene when I tried to kill you. It doesn’t matter, I’ll just tell the others the two of you were both killed by the same monster, if they’re even still alive.”

Oath struggled to contend with the blade in his shoulder, but it felt like the wound was just getting bigger and bigger. “Why are you doing this?!”

“I need you out of the way so that I can become the baron. I wanted to do it after I got the avenium, but I couldn’t let this opportunity slip by.” Oath was forced down towards the ground, leaving a trail of blood across the wall. “You’re the last of the main Fault family, so once you and your father die, I’ll be next in line to receive the title.”

“You’re another member? But my father said the branch family had been slain!”

“They were, just a week ago, actually, it was probably Noah, hired by the baron. But he only thought to kill my father and my half-brother. He didn’t think it worth investigating further, to find a bastard like me living in Clive. The town will be mine, it should be mine!”

Oath reached around, grabbing a stone on the ground. Fate was kind to him, guiding his throw and striking Trevor in the eye. He staggered back, bleeding horribly, and Oath wrenched the halberd out of his shoulder and scrambled to his feet. He could barely feel his left arm, and he could neither open a health potion nor properly swing his sword with only one hand. Should he drop his sword and go for a health potion? Abandon it and use his knife instead?

Trevor, facing a similar predicament, chose to retrieve his halberd and stare Oath down with his one good eye while launching stabs. Oath did his best to parry the blows, as he didn’t have the strength to do another shoving match. He was losing ground, fast.

“So all this time, you were just waiting for a chance to kill me? From the day we met?!”

“Not at first, not until you came out to us as the baron’s son, but when I found out about the dungeon crab, it was perfect. I could use you to get the avenium, so no matter what, I’ll still become a noble!”

Oath pulled away and reformed his stance, then went on the offensive. His capacity for wielding a sword had greatly diminished, but still, he could fight, and his wide swings forced Trevor to retreat. True, Trevor had the longer reach, but it was much easier for Oath’s sword to break his halberd rather than vice versa. Oath pushed him back, trying to get past the swinging axe blade.

“You’re insane! You think you can get the avenium or even escape this place on your own?”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take. I want you to die down here, unburied, eaten, robbed of your little family burial plot behind your mansion.”

“What could I have possibly done to make you hate me so much?”

“I just plain don’t like you, even before I knew you were the baron’s son. I wanted to kick you out of the group. You’re too weak to rule these lands. You can’t even use magic.”

As Trevor spoke, his blade began to glow with mana, and Oath instinctively stepped back. His sword would likely snap if he tried to block or even deflect an attack like that. This time, when the swings and stabs came, he only dodged, not letting the two weapons touch.

“All you do is let that arrogant prick take care of everything and toss out orders. Clive would burn to the ground on the first day if you took over.”

Oath swung his sword, just narrowly catching the halberd’s shaft and stopping Trevor long enough to close in. Trevor raised the halberd to block, but a cleave of Oath’s sword snapped it, leaving a shallow cut across his forehead and chest. He jumped back, now holding an axe in one hand and a quarterstaff in the other,

“I can do plenty on my own, without Noah,” said Oath.

“Shut up and die,” Trevor shot back before charging at him.

---------------

To Beth, it was horrifying, the vastness of the chamber, for this grand cathedral to be just a small pocket of this wretched labyrinth. Noah, however, felt a spine-chilling excitement. This was no ordinary chamber, as not only was it as large as a football stadium, it had a bridge stretching across, perfectly flat, and a ceiling with great outward-bending arches holding it up. No, they were chains, each link the size of an SUV, and encrusted by the shell. So too were there great statues adorning the walls, a pantheon of small creatures and great titans, all of them entombed by white, like flies in a spiderweb. The chamber was flooded, hence the bridge, but not with water. It was a lake of mercury, glistening from some unseen light force beneath its depths. The air above it was filled with fly-like hummingbirds, hanging their heads directly down and touching their beaks against the surface as if fishing for something. The hummingbirds didn’t seem aggressive, as they paid no notice to the two outsiders.

Noah and Beth crossed the bridge, staring in awe at the structures.

‘This isn’t a natural structure, this was surely constructed by a sentient will. Who made it? How? How many people know about it? What happened to this place to end up like this?’

It was his first time facing questions like these, for the presence of magic in this world created infinite possibilities that he would never have seen in previous worlds. Everything unusual he ever encountered was either manmade or caused by nature, but the presence of magic added all new options, instigating curiosity. It could have been done by a whole other species, using power beyond his understanding. It was a new way of thinking, one that invigorated him.

They crossed the room without any conflict, entering a hall with normal-sized rooms on either side. In these chambers too, there were structures and shapes encased by the shell. Were they people? Furniture?

“Interesting.”

---------------

Oath and Trevor were locked in combat, struggling to avoid each other’s attacks. Oath had broken Trevor’s halberd in two, taking away his ability to use magic, but he still lunged and fought with the remains, granting him two smaller weapons. He would swing the head of his halberd like a hatchet, forcing Oath to block with his sword, and then use his free hand to strike Oath with the halberd’s shaft. The blows were delivered at full-strength and Oath couldn’t stop them.

“You don’t deserve to become the next baron if this is the best you can do. You must be the weakest of the family.”

“Trevor, listen! Do you really think you can get out of here without my help? Stop this, and we can both walk out of this dungeon alive! You can still become a noble with the avenium!”

“That’s not good enough. I want the land that my father couldn’t have, the authority. I want to spit on his grave as the unwanted bastard and flaunt the power that he lusted after. I want Clive, and I want to rip it out of your hands. It’s not good enough for me to win, you have to lose!”

A memory then flashed through Oath’s mind, and despite the dire situation, a chuckle let slip. “I remember Noah saying that you were a jerk probably because of something to do with your father. I think he even said you would betray us. It must be embarrassing, to be sized up so easily and have your true colors seen!”

“Shut up! If he’s still alive, I’ll kill him after I’ve killed you!”

Trevor charged at Oath, and finally, Oath managed to deliver a wound of his own. He blocked Trevor’s two-fold attack and pushed forward, his sword slicing Trevor’s shoulder. Trevor dropped the broken shaft, his arm now slick with blood, though Oath was in the same state, no longer able to grip his sword with both hands. They stared each other down, picking the moment to strike. Trevor’s broken halberd was lighter and shorter than Oath’s sword, so it would be easier to wield, but he wouldn’t be able to block well with it, so he’d have to focus entirely on offense. For Oath, his defensive situation was better, but while he could move his sword with one arm, his speed would pale compared to Trevor’s and he’d be lucky to inflict much damage. His best bet would be to block and then try to overpower.

Looking at his cousin, Oath was reminded of that scene from the field, when that group of men attacked him, Noah, and Tin. He had been utterly useless, just pulled into the woods while Noah took care of the threat with ease. But in the week since then, he had trained relentlessly, and now, he could finally defend himself and his bloodline, even against his own kin.

“This is your last chance, Trevor,” said Oath.

“No, this is—” A hole opened up in Trevor’s chest with blood pouring out.

Noah appeared behind him, his sword seemingly materializing out of thin air and now wet with gore. The blade had gone straight through Trevor’s heart, leaving both he and Oath stunned. Trevor tried to speak, but all that came out of his mouth was blood. Noah dropped him to the floor, pulled out his sword, and then pierced the back of Trevor’s skull for good measure.

“Stop! What are you doing?!” Oath shouted.

“I’m fulfilling my contract. He became an enemy, so I dealt with him.”

“It wasn’t your place to decide he should die! Trevor wanted to become the next baron in my place, so it was my responsibility to take him down!”

“What are you talking about? He wanted to take your place as Clive’s next baron?” Noah asked.

“He… he said he was my cousin, an illegitimate child. He kept it hidden all this time.”

“Oh please. His father wasn’t ranked high enough to have an “illegitimate child”. Trevor was nothing more than a common bastard. And while I’m sure he had some hard-luck backstory about growing up on the streets that would make us all pity or support him, I’m simply not interested. We don’t have time for you two to bond over your daddy issues.”

Beth arrived, standing beside him. “What’s going on?” Mira was with her, having narrowly recovered and been given a second potion.

“I can’t just leave it this way!” Oath yelled. “I can’t just walk off without knowing how it would have ended! If I could have beaten him myself!”

“That’s just your pride talking, but pride won’t keep you alive in this place. Should I have just sat back and let you continue your childish squabble? I was hired to keep you from dying, not help you satisfy your ego.”

“Wait, what happened?” Beth asked. “What happened to Trevor?”

“He tried to kill me and Oath,” said Mira.

“You can’t be serious! After all the time we spent together, he just turned on us like that?”

“It was his plan from the beginning,” Oath muttered. “He’s my cousin, and as soon as he found out we were in competition for the title of baron, he planned out how to use us and kill me.”

“We’re not going to make it out of here, are we?” Mira asked.

“We should have turned back when we had the chance!” Beth tearfully exclaimed, falling to her knees as the pent-up strain finally released itself.

“Crying and worrying about it won’t help us,” said Noah. “Look, we’re all exhausted. Beth and I found a room we can rest in. Let’s set up camp and get our strength back. You three go, I’m going to sort through Trevor’s things.”

“Noah, you can’t,” said Mira. “Trevor may have gone crazy, but it’s not right to just rob his corpse.”

“Well you can either choose to stop me, or you can go, eat some lunch, and put the whole thing out of your mind. So what are you going to do?” Mira backed down and briskly walked off with Beth behind her. “And you go too,” he said to Oath.

“I’m not going to leave you alone here.”

“When the adrenaline wears off, you won’t be able to. You’ll collapse and I’ll have to carry you to the campsite. You’re injured, go patch yourself up. I’ll be fine.”

“I guess you will, won’t you? Nothing ever gets to you,” Oath muttered.

“I hear talking when I want to hear anguished footsteps. Go.”

Oath limped off after Beth and Mira, and Noah began picking through the treasure that Trevor had gathered, as well as taking tools and supplies that he had been carrying. It had gotten to the point where he really had to be picky about what he could take with him, as he was reaching the limit of what he could carry and still move effectively.

Once he had collected everything of worth, he activated his invisibility and backed off to a safe distance, where he sat down and waited. It happened after only a few minutes, openings in the floor appearing like cracks in ice, but the shell wasn’t actually breaking. They were seams, invisible to the naked eye until they actually opened up, and from within, a green slime appeared. Rather than simply spreading out under the force of gravity, it was moving willfully towards Trevor’s corpse. It enveloped him, and though Noah could not see it, the body was being disassembled in pieces the size of grains of sand. In time, the slime retreated, leaving nothing but some bones and scraps of fabric.

‘So that’s how it feeds.’

He went to the camp chamber, where everyone was sitting against different walls. There was a dead look in their eyes, exhaustion that was both mental and physical. They had each held a hope deep down that they would make it out of the dungeon crab together, all of them, that their party would survive this trial and remain whole. Trevor was rude and untalkative, but his loss left a void, and they suddenly felt much weaker without him. But with the truth they were forced to accept, was it really a loss? After all, he showed no hesitation in trying to murder the people who were thought to be his friends.

“How could he do it?” Beth asked. “How could he lie to us for that long? Pretend to be our ally? All those battles where we had to depend on each other, did that really mean nothing to him?”

Noah sat down and began unpacking his lunch. “You’d be surprised how long you can keep the lies going, how easy it can get.”

“Have you lied to us about anything?”

Noah stared at her, challenging her to accept his answer. “Plenty of things, none of which matter in this situation.” He tossed some food to everyone. “Eat up. It doesn’t matter if Trevor is dead, it doesn’t change our plan.”

“No, it changes everything.” Beth stood up. “We should leave. While we’re still alive, while we still have supplies and potions, we should leave. We’re not ready for this place. We weren’t ready even when we had Trevor. We have plenty of treasure, more than enough to live happily. Isn’t that enough?”

“It’s too late to turn back now, to leave here without the avenium. I’m sure by now we’ve almost reached the bottom of the shell.”

“What are you really getting out of this? You’re so sure we can do this, you keep pushing us forward. What is it that you want so badly as to risk all of our lives?”

“The same thing as you, an adventure. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“I was wrong, this is too much.” Beth gave an indignant sigh. “Oath, Mira, you agree with me, right?”

Oath took a deep breath. “I can’t walk away from this, not now. I want to see this through to the end. I need to. I don’t want to live my life as a coward.”

“Mira?”

Mira hugged her knees to her chest and hid her face. Was she refusing to take part in the conversation or had she simply shut down completely?

Beth turned back to Noah. “We’re in over our heads. It was a mistake to come—”

“You’re free to leave whenever you want,” said Noah, cutting her off. “I don’t expect anything from you. If you want to go back to the surface, you can just walk right on out that door.”

“After everything you and I have done together, you would say that to me?!”

“Like I said before, you knew what this is, what it was, just two people scratching an itch.”

“Well because of that itch, I’m late.”

Mira tensed in shock and Oath’s eyebrows nearly shot off his face, yet Noah didn’t even flinch. “And?” Beth stammered at his question, not sure how to respond. “Again, you knew what the deal was when we started, no attachment. I’m getting that avenium, and there is nothing you can say to stop me. You can either leave now and try to make it back out on your own, or you can come with us down to get the avenium and we’ll make the trip back together.”

“This is an obsession! I don’t know what the baron promised you, but let it go!”

“That’s enough. Everyone shut up and get some rest. We set out again in an hour.”

---------------

Trevor’s absence took a heavy toll on the group. Beth and Mira continued to attack from behind Noah and Oath, but the monsters still withstood barrages of stones and arrows to try and sink their teeth into something. Normally, Trevor and his halberd could have warded them off, breaking their momentum so that Noah and Oath could go in for the kill, but now, they had to be the main defensive wall and block everything with their swords.

They battled through the monsters, but took injuries with each clash. It wasn’t just their formation that had been disturbed; Noah could see the group morale at the edge of an abyss. Noah was indifferent, but the others were grappling with despair. Which hurt more? Losing a friend? Or finding out he was never their friend at all?

At the moment, they were surrounded by centipedes in a wide-open chamber. Noah, Oath, and Beth were stomping on the little bastards as they drew close, while Mira was swinging her staff, equipped with her Shatter Mace spell. She was wild, taking out her strain and frustration on the beasts, with her screams of exertion becoming louder with each swing. Rather than helping, the onslaught of monsters only seemed to increase her drunken aggression. Beth, on the other hand, was acting sluggish, paralyzed by fear and the loss of hope.

As Noah stomped on every centipede that came close, he heard a scream. A few of the beasts had managed to jump up onto Mira and were digging in. Oath rushed over to help her, but that left two sides of their formation unguarded, and the monsters were closing in.

“I have a plan!” Noah said. “When the monsters move away, everyone head towards that passage over there!”

Before the others could say anything, Noah drew his knife and slashed his wrist, sending a torrent of blood pouring onto the ground. Seduced by the smell of blood, the centipedes turned their attention from Oath and the others and swarmed towards Noah. He took off, sprinting across the field of armored backs and spindly legs, leading them like the Pied Piper.

The trio didn’t hesitate and rushed towards the exit, though looking back to see Noah’s situation worsening. Once he saw them reach the doorway, Noah turned around and made himself invisible. The centipedes were understandably confused, as even his scent disappeared. His blood, shrouded in mana, vanished as it fell. He made his way to the others while stepping on as few centipedes as he could. By the time he reached the exit, he had already used a healing potion to mend his wrist.

“Let’s go.”

The doorway brought them to a winding staircase. However, unlike the tight spiral of when they first arrived at the dungeon, this staircase spun down the walls of a chasm-like chamber like grooves on a drill bit. It was too dark to see the ceiling or the floor of the chamber, but in the blackness, there was a twinkling star, far below their feet when it should have been above their heads.

“Everyone, be extra careful and step quietly. I think we’ve reached the bottom of the shell.”

They proceeded down the staircase, this one having actual stairs. The darkness swallowed them from the lack of cave worms, but Noah lit his torch, easing everyone’s fears. It when they reached the bottom of the stairs that their fears all came rushing back like a flood.

‘Of course,’ Noah thought bitterly.

The bottom of the room was occupied by some kind of massive slumbering monster. This circular chamber was more than a hundred feet wide, and the beast was coiled up all over itself like a snoozing boa constrictor. There was no telling what its real size or form was, and Noah’s torch couldn’t provide enough light to properly reveal its appearance. But in the center of the room was the prize for this journey. The walls and staircase were solid shell, but the floor under the monster was flesh, and in the middle, in a raised basin, was a pool of powdered metal with a turquoise gleam. It was avenium, just like on Noah’s ring. It was so close, but the risk before them was giving everyone doubts.

Oath stepped forward. “I’ll go,” he said as quietly as he could.

Noah grasped his shoulder. “No, I’m better at stealth, remember?”

Oath turned to him, loudly whispering. “Please, it has to be me! The whole reason why we made this journey was so that I could become a noble! I need to be the one to get the avenium. Let me earn my title.”

“None of that matters, not in here. All that is important is getting the job done and getting out of here alive. If you want to do things the “right” way, do it on your own time. I’m going to do things the smart way. If this thing so much as twitches, leave me behind and run as fast as you can up the stairs.”

Noah didn’t wait for him to reply and activated his invisibility. True, this monster slept with its eyes closed, but he couldn’t discount its sense of smell and hearing. He moved past Oath and stepped onto the fleshy ground. Whatever this thing was, it had a lot of tentacles, and they were spread everywhere. He stepped lightly, double-checking every spot before putting his weight on it. It was difficult, not just on the outside, but the inside. Noah had not been able to escape the ravages of fatigue, and his muscles were becoming unreliable.

For Oath and the others, it was nerve-wracking, as they couldn’t see Noah, just the torch he was holding over his head. Every time the light trembled, they imagined him fumbling, stepping on one of the monster’s tentacles and waking it up. When the torch finally reached the basin, they released their held breaths. It was a substantial amount of avenium, at least two liters of the glistening dust, and it was so fine as well. Perhaps it was expelled from the crab like a splinter, and it would accumulate in the basin over time while the crab was underground. ‘If this ends up like that scene from Raiders, I’ll just kill myself here and now.’ Noah rested his hand atop the avenium and sucked it all into the ring, every grain.

Nothing happened, there was no reaction from either the monster or the basin. Noah waited a few moments to be sure, then turned and made the return journey back to the staircase. Once he reached Oath, Beth, and Mira, they all resumed breathing and began the silent climb back up the stairs. It was when they reached the halfway point that a terrifying roar shook the chamber, and rather than below, it was coming from above. The group looked up in horror, seeing a second monster descending towards them. It appeared to be the same species as the first, looking like a colossal lion with a teeth-filled beak and tentacles growing from across its back that it used like spider legs to help its descent. It was like some kind of Lovecraftian griffin. Just one swing of its paws would kill a sledgepaw bear. Had it also been nesting in this chamber? Perhaps the mate of the one down below?

“Beth, take it down!”

“Too late!”

It reached across the chamber with its tentacles and swung over, its beak wide open. The group scattered, managing to avoid its beak, which smashed into the wall, though Beth ended up losing her bow over the edge of the staircase. One the talons on its forelegs made its mark and clipped Mira’s face, but that was all it took to crush her skull like a Gallagher melon. Oath and Beth, seeing her headless body slump to the floor, were left in stunned silence. Noah, already back on his feet, stabbed the beast in the eye, forcing his sword in all the way to the hilt. The beast howled in pain and jumped back with his sword pulled from his grip, and it wasn’t the only one in agony. Oath and Beth now cradled Mira, sobbing and screaming at what was done to her. Beth, Noah could understand, but Oath’s reaction stood out.

‘Goddammit, don’t tell me he loved that girl.’ “We got to move! There is nothing we can do for her!”

“No, I can fix this!” Oath sobbed. “Give me all the healing potions we have!”

“Her head is gone, she’s dead. No potion can fix that.”

“Please, don’t ask us to leave her,” Beth whimpered.

Another roar echoed through the tunnel, this one from below. It seemed the first monster had woken up. Oath scrambled to his feet, not in fear, but rage. He grabbed his sword with tears streaming down his face.

“I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them both!”

“This is no time for heroics! We’re leaving!”

“GET OUT OF MY WAY!” Oath howled while throwing a punch.

Noah deflected and countered with a jab to the throat and a knee to the stomach. Oath collapsed like a house of cards and Noah grabbed him and hoisted him over his shoulder. He turned to Beth and handed her his bow to replace hers. “Keep those things off our tail. If you run out of arrows, I’ll give you more. Now move!”

They raced up the stairs as fast as they could. Noah was struggling under the effort of hauling Oath and everything they both carried, and he had to hold the torch as well. Ahead of him, Beth was raining arrows down on the two monsters to the best of her ability. They seemed aware of the poisoned tips and were keeping a safe distance, but they were still following them up. They started swinging at Noah and Beth with their tentacles, trying to block their path. Beth would slash at them with a knife to make them retract, but it was just getting worse and worse, as ahead, they could see the centipedes swarming down the staircase, having followed the group down.

“Noah, what do we do?!” Beth exclaimed.

“Run and fight! That’s all we can do!”

They continued their charge up the stairs, stomping on the centipedes and ignoring the feel of their pincers digging in and not letting go. Their bites didn’t appear poisonous, but they put bullet ants to shame on the pain scale. Not even Noah could maintain a poker face with them biting down on his legs.

With luck on their side, they escaped the chamber, running down several corridors before arriving at a chamber where they could rest. Noah dropped Oath on the ground and began ripping off the centipedes biting his legs. It was strange for Beth, to see Noah so winded and injured. He collapsed near the wall, downing a healing potion to stop his bleeding. Oath, having regained consciousness, got back to his feet and approached the doorway with his sword.

“Don’t even think about it,” said Noah.

“I refuse to leave her body down here. I’m going to get my revenge on that beast and bring her home to bury her.”

“It’s a monster, it doesn’t understand your feelings. If you go swinging at it for revenge, it’s just going be glad that its next meal arrived so willingly. Besides, Mira has probably already been devoured.”

“Don’t say that!” Oath shouted.

“Noah!” Beth added her voice to the outrage.

“You just need to accept it. She’s gone, there is nothing you can do to help her. Nothing can be done to change what happened. I’ll say it as harshly as I need to if it gets the message through your thick skull.”

“What would you have done if it was Tin who died in there instead of Mira?”

“I would have left her. I’ve seen plenty of people die. This isn’t my first time leading people into combat, and casualties are to be expected.”

“So you were just waiting for each of us to die?!” Beth exclaimed.

“As long as I could fulfill my contract, I was prepared for all possible losses, though I’m honestly disappointed that you two all came here expecting to do this without losing anyone.”

“Is that all we are to you? Just future losses?”

“Yes, that’s right.” Noah got to his feet. “Look, we’ve got the avenium, so the hard part is done. Now we can head home.”

“Two of our friends are dead and we’re in the bottom of a dungeon crab! How is that not the hard part?!” Beth screamed at him.

“Because I have an idea on how to get us out of here.” He took out a water skin from his backpack and poured in some powdered avenium from within his ring, then shook it up and handed it to Oath. “Both of you, douse this on yourselves. Try not to let any go to waste.”

“What will this do?” Oath asked.

“When I activate my invisibility, I wrap myself in mana, as well as anything I touch or hold, but for some reason, it won’t work on anything living. The mana just won’t stick on, like it’s being repelled. However, I did some research on avenium. It is a metal, but it bends light like a crystal, and it manipulates mana the same way. I can’t apply my invisibility to you, but if you’re covered with powdered avenium, it may help me conceal you a bit. Try it.”

Oath sighed and poured some of the concoction on his head, then went to work rubbing it into his skin and clothes. He handed the rest to Beth and she did the same. Noah activated his magic and grasped their hands. The air around them shimmered, their bodies becoming faint, like they were shrouded in a heat haze. They became like mirages of their true selves. Oath and Beth voiced their shock as they looked at each other, and the fact that Noah could hear them was concerning. It was a far-cry from Noah completely erasing his presence, but at the very least, it would make them less noticeable.

“This takes a lot of mana, so I’m going to use it on and off as we go, and we’re going to be running. If there is anything you don’t want to carry, leave it here now.”

Beth and Oath couldn’t see Noah, but they stared at the space he occupied. He could see it on their faces, the distrust, the frustration, the fear, the sorrow, the exhaustion. They’d just have to suck it up.

“Let’s go, and step lightly.”

They left the chamber and began their journey back to the surface. They no longer moved in formation, and they tried to keep a quick but quiet pace. When monsters were nearby, Noah would activate his spell and they’d do their best to avoid detection. It didn’t always work. At one point, they were being pursued by a pack of the bipedal carnivores like the ones they had faced outside. It was too many for them to take on, and the longer they stayed in one spot fighting, the greater the chance more monsters would be drawn.

Noah, pulling Oath and Beth along, activated the spell in his right eye.

“What the hell?!” Oath said in shock as he watched the clone fall back, while the real Noah was still gripping his hand.

“It’s another illusion I can create, just keep moving!”

As they ran, Noah had the clone start waving his arms and shouting at the approaching monsters, doing whatever he could to draw their attention. They passed through the clone in utter confusion, turned around, and tried again and again. Their eyes, ears, and noses were all telling them that prey was standing before them, but no matter how many times they tried to bite down, their jaws closed around nothing but air. They were so distracted that Noah and the others managed to get away.

“Why didn’t you tell us about—”

“Shut up!” Noah barked back. “If you can talk, keep running instead!”

---------------

Spring was planting season, so the farms on the Fault estate were in a frenzy. Oath, the baron’s third son, was the “lord” of this task. He and the slaves spent their days working the fields, though there was little distinction between them. He lived and ate his meals with his father and brothers, at least, when they were at home, but his ranking in the family was just a step above “bastard”. His father lauded all of his praise on his brothers, with the younger always trying to surpass the older and win the estate.

The oldest was a soldier, a squad leader, one step below true knight. He would be gone for months at a time, then return home and brag about the battles he fought for the glory of Uther, and how he bolstered the reputation of the Fault household. The middle son was a proud hunter and skilled in magic, a talent he often lorded over the older brother. He claimed magic to be infinitely superior to swordsmanship, meaning he, the magically-affluent, was the future of the bloodline. Neither brother liked Oath, simply treated him like one of the servants. He was just another laborer. His father, on the other hand, wasn’t cruel like them, but he simply didn’t care beyond paternal instinct. His mother was long gone.

Oath had been outside when he learned of their deaths, but on break. Lying on a sun-warmed grassy hill, he watched the clouds pass overhead. As the third son, he was compelled to keep his head down, to focus only on the task in front of him and not rock the boat. Skygazing was the only time he’d break that rule, abandoning the fields to instead focus on farming his own mind, to forget about his life and responsibilities and try to figure out what was left.

He knew nothing of the world beyond his home and village, couldn’t even read, and most of his socialization came from talking with the slaves during work. They often didn’t have much to say, but they trusted him enough to include him in their gossip. He wasn’t like the baron and his oldest sons; his feet were more used to the soil of the field than the floorboards of the Fault household. Those conversations were the only time he could learn of things beyond simply swinging a hoe or scythe, to discover that there was more to existence than just crops and livestock, and when he gazed at the sky, Oath would use that glimmer to try and develop himself, find out who he was. That was the plan, at least, but he was disturbed by one of the maids of the house.

“Master Oath, your father requires your presence immediately.”

The applied honorific was just a courtesy acknowledging his bloodline. There was no honest respect in her words.

“Understood.” Oath got up and followed her to the house, where she led him to his father’s study. As he approached, he heard nonsensical shouting and things falling over.

Inside, the baron, Ivan, was pacing back and forth, unhinged and drenched in tears. Papers and items from his desk were scattered across the floor and he was gripping a whiskey glass with a shaking hand.

“Father, what is it?”

“Oath, Colt and Victor have perished.” Ivan picked up a letter with a broken wax seal. “Colt was killed in battle on the Petosic Steppes.” He threw it aside. “And Victor was killed by a bear while hunting. His remains were found this morning.” He emptied his whiskey glass in one gulp and staggered, looking like he was on the verge of collapse.

Oath took a moment to process the news, but there wasn’t much to process. There was no such thing as sibling love in noble households. “I’m sorry, Father.”

The baron fell back in his chair. “Oath, you are now my only son. That means that you will inherit my title when I die, unless my conniving brother manages to steal it!”

“Father, I can’t be a baron!”

“This is not something you can refuse! I will not allow our house to let nobility slip from its fingers! But you’re right. The way you are now, the kingdom would be wise to hand it over to Edwin, so we’re going to change that. From now on, I am going to sculpt you into a suitable replacement.”

After that, everything changed. From the crack of dawn until late at night, Oath was trained in combat, etiquette, and reading and writing. The tools of the farm were replaced with his grandfather’s sword, and hours not spent swinging it were spent hunched over one book after another, studying by candlelight. None of it stuck. Unlike his brothers, he was born without talent and raised without an education. He couldn’t use magic, could barely fight, and was about as cultured and learned as the lowest peasant. There was little hope for him.

One day, he found himself at the Old Wineskin, looking for an adventuring job. People would post notices, requesting items like valuable plants or monster parts, or tasks like escorting someone through the forest. Helping around town would give him some achievements he could use to prove his eligibility for inheriting the Clive barony. He had also heard some weird rumors about the inn, about some crazy couple that had the loudest sex imaginable. From dawn to midday on every other day, anyone in or near the inn would be flushed with embarrassment as they heard a young woman’s cries of euphoria, along with the knocking of a bedframe threatening to break apart. However, today, the inn was quiet. The only voice he heard was addressed to him.

“Hey you, by the notice board, over here!”

He looked over to the source, spotting a table occupied by three youths like himself, a man and two women.

“Me?”

“Yeah, come on!” one of the women said, a tall and bubbly blonde.

Oath crossed the bar to them. “What is this about?”

“You wouldn’t happen to be searching for a party to join, are you?” the other woman asked, a cute brunette with short hair.

“Oh… uh, yeah, I guess. I haven’t been making much headway on my own.”

“Well take a seat!”

Oath hesitated, feeling the man beside him shooting daggers from his eyes. He was sizing him up, and apparently didn’t like what he saw.

“No, change of plans, keep moving. We don’t need any more weaklings in our group.”

“Shut up, Trevor,” said the blonde. “Ignore him. I’m Beth and this is Mira. We’re currently in need of a swordsman in our group, and you look like you would fit right in.”

“She means you look weak enough that no one better would have invited you to join their groups, and no real adventurer would sully their dignity by joining this gro— Ouch!” Beth had just kicked him under the table.

“You’re not allowed to badmouth the group while being a part of it,” she scolded.

“Truth be told, none of us are very good, but that just means we should stick together,” said Mira.

Oath finally took a seat and put a hand on the sword hanging from his belt. “Ok, sure, I’ll join you guys. My name is Oath. I’m actually kind of surprised, I thought this place would be… louder.”

“Oh yeah, those stories? We’ve actually met them, Noah and Tin, the couple who make all that noise,” said Mira.

Now Trevor seemed interested. “Really? Were they freaks?”

“No, normal as can be,” said Beth, “and they’re both barely older than us. You’d never think it when looking at them. The guy is actually really smart. He gave us a lot of great advice about tactics and magic. We tried to get him to join our team, but he wanted to work on his own, him and that slave girl. God, I envy her.”

“Settle down, you’re so indecent,” Mira said with a sigh. She then turned to Oath. “Anyway, welcome to the group!” The smile she flashed at him made his heart flutter in a way it never had before.

For the next few weeks, Oath and his new friends adventured together, fighting what monsters they believed they could beat, but were most often forced to run away and tend to their wounded bodies and bruised egos. But no matter how many times they were beaten, Oath was never dejected, because it was the first time he felt truly accepted, and with people his own age, no less. True, Trevor always gave him the cold shoulder, but Beth kept the spirit of the group raised, and Mira… she was something else altogether.

She spoke with him, laughed with him, and smiled with him, all moments of confusing bliss that he drank like fine wine. He was drawn to her, pulled by a force that he could not describe. One day, after they had managed to kill a wolf, and only just barely, he and the others all collapsed from exhaustion. Mira, sitting next to him, ended up placing her hand on his. The moment her fingers touched his, it was like cold lightning surged through his nerves, a frighteningly powerful sensation, but one that made him feel more alive than the battle just moments before.

Perhaps it was just the adrenaline and the endorphins, but he looked at Mira, and she, realizing the contact between them, didn’t pull away, and instead gazed at him with a shy smile and rosy cheeks. The first time Oath fought a monster, he froze up in terror, and it wasn’t the last time his fear got the better of him, but at that moment, he broke through his fear, turning his hand over to hold hers. They gazed at each other, their stomachs filled with more butterflies than a meadow in summer. That was the moment he realized his feelings for her.

The next day, his father sat Oath down in the parlor of their home. With them was a gruff middle-aged adventurer with a bow. “Oath, no matter what, you must not let anyone outside of your party know this. I’ve just learned that a dungeon crab has surfaced nearby.”

Dungeon crabs were one of the great anomalies in the world, but their mythology was thin. They were vague creatures, described as living fortresses that rose up from the ground. Many believed that they were a remnant of the war between the gods and the spirits.

Oath wasn’t sure how to respond to the news, so his father continued. “Adventurers who manage to capture a dungeon crab by taking the avenium inside are granted the rank of baron or higher by the kingdom. If you and your friends can accomplish this, then there is nothing Edwin can do and my title will be passed on to you without question.”

“My friends and I can barely face the monsters in the woods. We can’t handle a dungeon crab.”

“I am well aware of your weakness when it comes to swordplay. I’m hoping that switching to a different weapon will unlock your potential. This man is Sendal, a veteran adventurer and archer. He’ll teach you how to use a bow.”

Just looking at Sendal, Oath could tell he wasn’t the friendliest guy, but his father wouldn’t change his mind. That day, he and the archer rode into the woods to hunt, and that was the last thing he remembered. When next he woke up, he was in a goblin tunnel, racked with pain flowing from the back of his head down to the tips of his toes, but it was waning, thanks to the potion he had received.

Helping him to his feet was a young man, a bit older than him, with a girl standing behind him. Noah and Tin, he had heard those names before. They were the source of the strange rumors about the Old Wineskin, but more than that, Beth and Mira had vouched for Noah’s strength. Oath was skeptical, especially when Noah declared that he was going to clear out the goblin den himself, something that was nothing short of suicidal. Despite his life being saved, Oath wasn’t feeling very grateful, considering he now had to work as Noah’s pack mule while he marched to his doom.

But then he saw the results. Noah slaughtered the goblins with ease, never displaying any kind of magic. Oath and his friends had repeatedly tried hunting goblins, nearly dying every time, but they fell like reeds with every swing of Noah’s sword. Then, when the goblin chief revealed itself, Oath got to witness true swordplay, and the memories of his older brother’s skills were painted over by Noah’s battle. Had he and his friends attempted this, they would have ended up being cooked and eaten.

During the journey home, they were attacked by bandits. Tin, obeying Noah, pulled Oath into the woods before he could even grab his sword. The battle lasted only a minute, leaving Oath in awe when he saw the bodies of the slain bandits. He rode back to Clive with Noah and Tin, and when he arrived back home, his father threw his arms around him, wailing relief to see his son’s return. It was the first time his father had ever hugged him.

“Father, there is something I need to tell you.” They went into his father’s study and closed the door behind them. Oath, standing while the baron sat, leaned against the desk. “The hunter you hired, he knocked me out handed me over to goblins.”

“Damn him! Edwin must have bribed him to get you out of the picture. But if he handed you to goblins, how did you escape? Did you fight your way out?”

“No, I was saved by someone, a man named Noah. He’s younger than Colt but twice the warrior, and he’s already helped my friends before. He wiped out a huge goblin nest himself and even killed a hobgoblin.”

Ivan leaned back in his chair. “If a young man of such skill were to join your party, perhaps you might be able to capture the dungeon crab.”

“I was thinking the same thing.”

“Bring him here. I’ll talk to him.”

The next thing Oath knew, Tin lay dying, and he watched as Noah slew the assailant. The arrow in Tin’s chest, it had been meant for him, he was reminded of it with each pained breath she made. Crushed with guilt, he applied every potion in the house, pouring them on her wound and down her throat, but her condition didn’t improve. As Noah approached, Oath braced himself for the worst. It was Oath’s fault that she had died, her life ended because he had been saved, so would Noah demand his life as compensation?

But Noah didn’t acknowledge Oath. He simply kneeled down and held Tin. There were no tears, not even a trembling breath. Tin voiced her final goodbye and closed her eyes, while Noah simply stared at her like a statue. Noah then departed with Tin, riding off to find a suitable place to bury her. Watching him ride off, Oath remembered the smile on Tin’s face when she said goodbye, and imagined that look on Mira, the pure, honest, intoxicating emotion. He wanted to see her. He had nearly died, and he wanted to take the risk he never could have if he hadn’t been saved.

To his father’s protests, he rode out to the Old Wineskin, and as soon as he entered, he heard Mira’s voice. “Oath!”

There they were, gathered at their usual table. Never was he so happy to see his friends. He crossed the tavern and took his seat. “Hey.”

“Your father told us you were out training with an archer,” said Beth. “I’m rather insulted you didn’t ask me first.”

“You guys aren’t going to believe this, but I swear this really happened. That archer knocked me out and handed me over to goblins. I was even taken to their den.”

Trevor just scoffed and Beth was likewise skeptical. “I’m actually not that mad, you don’t have to make up excuses.”

Mira gave him the benefit of the doubt. “Really?”

“Yeah, but I was saved by that Noah guy that you told me about, he and Tin. I watched him clear out an entire mine full of goblins single-handedly.”

“Of course someone like you would need to be saved,” said Trevor.

“An entire mine?!” Beth exclaimed as she bolted to her feet.

“We can barely fight a handful of them,” Mira sighed.

“Anyway, listen to this.” He leaned in and waved for them to all do the same. “A dungeon crab has appeared nearby.” He was lucky that everyone understood that term. He didn’t have faith in his ability to explain it. His friends all fell back in their seats.

“You honestly can’t be thinking of trying it!” Beth exclaimed. “We’d be dead in an hour!”

“Listen, Noah has agreed to join our team and train us. With his help, I’m sure we can do it.”

“We don’t need some freak’s advice,” said Trevor.

“Did I forget to mention that he also killed a hobgoblin?”

Trevor didn’t respond.

“I don’t know. I think it’s way too early for us. Why? Are you really that broke?” asked Mira.

“There is something I haven’t told you guys. My full name is Oath Fault, son of Baron Ivan Fault. I’m his third son but I’m next in line to receive his title.”

“Damn it, he’s delirious! Everything he’s said so far was a hallucination.”

“Oath, did you eat some strange mushrooms in the woods?” Mira asked with honest concern.

Stared in continued silence.

“I swear to you, it’s true. I’m sure the archer gave me to the goblins to keep me from inheriting the title. When I returned home, that same archer tried to kill me, but ended up killing Tin instead.”

Both Mira and Beth were left in stunned silence. While they had only met her once, the news of her death was a shocking blow. Her endless moaning had become a point of pride in the villagers, considering it a valued quirk in the identity of their home, like the swallows returning to Capistrano. Besides, they had both seen the love in her eyes.

“Yeah. Noah killed the guy and rode off with Tin to bury her. He said he would be back the day after tomorrow.”

“That’s awful,” said Beth.

“Poor Noah,” Mira added.

“I don’t think we should have him with us. We can do the dungeon crab ourselves,” said Trevor.

“No, we wouldn’t stand a chance without him. Just talk to him, you’ll see.”

Beth raised a beer mug. “Anyway, I’d say this calls for a drink. Let us rejoice the safe return of our comrade, toast our approaching success, and mourn a fallen friend!”

Oath wanted to laugh, but truth be told, he’d need some liquid courage.

Late into the night, the four adventurers splurged on food and drinks, until all was quiet and the innkeeper was preparing to close up the bar. Trevor had gone home, Beth was currently passed out, and now it was just Oath and Mira.

“I hope this dungeon crab thing works out,” said Mira, more than a little tipsy.

“Yeah, and all the wealth from the adventurers is really going to help this village.”

“With that money, I can finally pay off my mother’s debts.”

“You never said your mother was in debt.”

Mira giggled. “I guess we both kept secrets. I never liked adventuring, but it was the best way I could make money after my father left. In a way, I’m glad I did it, but I just want a nice quiet home life.”

“Well I’ll become the baron of the town. Maybe you could settle here.” Never in a million years would a sober Oath have the courage to do so, but he reached out and held her hand like he had on that day in the woods. “And I could make a home with you.”

Like him, Mira was fueled by liquid courage, but she got to her feet with little grace and great courage, and pulled Oath to his. “Come on,” she mumbled with an embarrassed smile. They were both more than a little drunk, so they had to help each other up the stairs, giggling with each step. They reached the door to Mira’s room, and as she fumbled with the key, Oath leaned in and stole a kiss. It was his first, as well as hers, and while he got her mostly on the nose, she touched her lips with a smile and a blush.

They got the door open and stumbled into the room, shutting it behind them. Mira lit a candle and then made herself at home in Oath’s embrace. Standing in the middle of the room, they kissed once more, this time able to put their hearts and souls into it.

“Are you ready for this?” Oath asked.

“I think so. Are you?”

“I’m not sure. I don’t have any experience with being with a woman. I mean… I’ve seen animals on the farm…”

Mira burst into laughter, which, second to her yelling at him, was the absolute last reaction he wanted at a moment like this. “Beth has told me how to do it, don’t worry. Now that we’ve kissed, the next step is we take off our clothes.”

Oath was already sporting a woody, and those last four words nearly pushed him over the edge. He took off his coat, Mira removed her cloak, and for a moment, they paused, feeling the tension as they gripped their shirts, but upon struggling to actually pull them off, they couldn’t help but laugh. Mira’s breasts were exposed, and Oath, a swirling torrent of adolescent hormones, was caught like a deer in the headlights. They… were so… beautiful.

“Don’t stare like that,” Mira said, covering herself and looking away in embarrassment.

“I’m sorry. Can I… can I touch them?”

“I… guess.”

She hesitantly lowered her arms, and Oath, with trembling hands, began to caress her modest shelf. That softness, that smoothness, he was drawn to them like sugar. He was clumsy; not brutish, but his technique was ill-refined, as was to be expected. Regardless, Mira shivered and purred from Oath’s touch, afraid of being so vulnerable, both her body and her feelings exposed to another for them to do with as they pleased. Perhaps it was the presence of that fear that made it feel so good, the fear of being touched so intimately, mixed with the joy of finding someone whom she wished would do so.

Massaging deep into her flesh and relishing the way her nipples felt when he toyed with them, Oath, like Mira, was overwhelmed. The chance to explore a woman’s body like this, to know it, intimately, it teased his most innate, instinctive curiosity. He was so excited, trembling like a leaf and feeling like he was going to jump out of his skin. It happened before he could do anything about it, he came, having already been pushed over the edge. Flushed with shame, he did his best to try and hide it, but to Mira, it looked like he was just getting impatient.

She lowered her hands and pushed off her trousers. Oath didn’t immediately react, but that was because he was trying to gather his thoughts and his strength. When he realized what she had done, he didn’t have time to think, and simply dropped his own pants. This time, it was Mira’s turn to stare, as she tried not to think of when their group last fought goblins, most of which weren’t wearing anything.

Mira climbed into bed, hiding herself under the blanket. “Now… you get on top of me… and I think you know where your thing goes.”

Oath put out the candle, plunging the room into total darkness. He meandered his way back to the bed, feeling the covers. His hands found Mira’s body and he felt her stir like a frightened animal. He slipped under the blanket and their naked bodies met, first in the form of an embrace, then in the form of a kiss, and finally…

---------------

Noah, Oath, and Beth sprinted up the winding staircase towards the exit of the dungeon crab. They were covered in blood, sweat, and dirt, and had countless untreated injuries. Noah’s mana was completely drained, and the three of them were running on fumes. They couldn’t tell if the monsters were still chasing them. After all this time, the chorus of roars repeated in the back of their minds no matter what.

Finally, when their bodies felt like they’d fall apart like sandcastles, they breathed fresh air, and felt the sun shine upon them. They burst out of the top of the crab’s shell, collapsing near the doorway. For the three of them, it was like a religious experience. Beth crumbled, tears pouring down her face, a mix of happiness, misery, relief, and mourning, and as the sun rose, Oath stared like his soul had left his body, turning him into an empty husk. As for Noah, he dropped the knight sword he had been using and gripped the earth with shaking hands. How long had it been? How long had it been since he last fought that hard for his life? How long had it been since his survival instinct pushed him that far? No, when it was more than just his survival instinct pushing him? The fear, the adrenaline, the endorphins, the pain, they flowed through the folds of his gray matter like a flood across a desert.

“Get up, on your feet.”

Noah looked over, seeing Oath standing with his sword pointing at him.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Noah muttered.

“You heard me, get up and face me.”

“Oath, you’re kidding, right?” Beth asked.

“No. You and me, Noah, right here, right now.”

“You ungrateful little brat. After all I did for you, you have the nerve to point your sword at me? The sword I gave you?”

“You didn’t do this for me. I was just a prop in whatever deal you struck with my father. Now Mira is dead and I was robbed of my chance to settle things with Trevor. We never should have gone in there, but you kept pushing us. We never should have let you be a part of our team.”

“Oath, it’s not his fault! You also wanted to keep going! Just put your sword down and we can all go home!”

“No! I have to do this!”

“You’re right,” said Noah, getting to his feet, “you were just a prop, but I’m still under contract and not allowed to kill you. Once we’re back and I’ve gotten my reward, then I’ll put you down as hard as you want.”

“No! I’m done listening to you! From the moment we met, you’ve run my life. I was supposed to be the one to seize the avenium, to seize my own destiny, not let you take it and accept whatever scraps you toss my way! I couldn’t avenge Mira, I couldn’t beat Trevor, and I couldn’t even conquer the dungeon crab! I can’t go home this way! I refuse to live like this! But if I beat you, that’ll be enough.”

Noah gripped the hilt of the knight sword, and the sensation he got back was far from ideal. His body was at its limit, he could barely even stand. He was out of potions, they all were, so there was no way he could quickly recoup his strength. At least Oath was in the same situation. Despite his anger and bloodlust, he was on the verge of passing out. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was another story. If Noah fought him in this state, even the smallest wounds could prove fatal, then his deal with the baron would be out the window.

“I’m not going to indulge you. If you want to get yourself killed, do it after we get back. I want to live long enough to cash in everything I’ve collected.”

“You can’t talk your way out of this!”

Oath charged with his sword raised, attempting his signature cleave. Noah stepped to the side, nearly falling over as he did so. Rather than a slash, he struck Oath in the stomach with the handle of his sword. Oath nearly retched, but regained his footing and punched Noah. He tried to dodge, but was still grazed and staggered back, drawing his sword completely.

“Stop this, you two don’t need to fight!” Beth pleaded.

“Tell him that!” Noah argued.

Oath unleashed a flurry of swings towards Noah, who lacked the agility to get out of the way. Instead, he had to block and parry each swing. They locked blades, pushing against each other in a shoving match.

“You chose to go into the dungeon crab,” said Noah. “You chose to follow me, despite knowing how dangerous it was for Mira. You put your pride and your nobility over her. I killed Trevor because you were too weak to get it done and you would have woken up that monster with just three steps. You don’t get to blame your incompetence on me.”

“You’re a heartless bastard! You couldn’t even shed a tear for Tin, no wonder you didn’t care about us!”

“Grow up!”

Noah let go of his sword and punched Oath, sending him staggering back. Noah touched his hand to his eye, casting his invisibility. He only had enough mana to remain hidden for a few moments, so Noah tackled Oath, disarming him and knocking him to the ground. Three solid blows to the face left him unconscious.

Noah dropped to his knees, gasping for air with his spell coming undone. Hopefully, Oath would be much more sensical when he woke up. As Noah got to his feet, there was a monster’s snarl, followed by Beth’s scream. One of their pursuers from within the shell had arrived and was attacking Beth. It looked like some kind of cycloptic tiger with a mat of quills across its back. Beth was pinned, her arm in its mouth with her flesh being torn and her bones breaking.

“Damn it!” Noah growled.

Beth still had his bow, so Noah pulled out his short sword and threw it, winging the beast in the shoulder. It turned to Noah and charged, and Noah, trying to activate his magic, realized he had used the last of his mana to deal with Oath. He jumped to the side to dodge the lunging tiger, but as he hit the ground, he realized he had less strength than he thought. He had planned on hitting the ground with a roll and then jumping to his feet, but he just fell like a tree. All he could do was roll on his back, and this time, when the tiger pounced, he wasn’t able to dodge. It tried to sink its teeth into his neck, but he blocked its mouth with his sword, though he could do nothing about its claws, digging into his shoulders. It was pushing down on him with its full weight, and he didn’t have the strength to hold it back.

Noah stared into its one, fist-sized eye and watched slobber pour from its mouth, mixed with the blood from the cuts that his sword was creating. This certainly ranked among the top of his weirdest deaths. Yet when his strength was about to falter, Oath attacked the tiger from behind, slicing off his head with a swing of his sword. Oath then kicked the tiger’s corpse off Noah and pointed his sword at him.

“You’ll never get a better chance than this,” Noah said with a smirk.

Oath took a deep breath and sheathed his sword. “I suppose saving your life is as much an accomplishment as ending it.” He held out his hand to Noah. “Let’s go home.”

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Epilogue

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The town of Clive was bustling, filled with adventurers following the news of the dungeon crab’s emergence. Around half of them would die within its shell, but those with skill and luck came back to town with pockets full of ores and gems. Having returned to town just the previous night, Noah had tried listening for gossip of whether or not anyone else had managed to capture the dungeon. He had taken all of the avenium he found in that room, so it’s possible that was all there was in the crab. Oh well, they’d just have to make do with everything else they found. The majority of the adventurers were smart enough or perhaps not ambitious enough to go very deep into the crab.

But that’s not what Noah was focusing on at the moment. He was at the inn, sitting on the bed in Beth’s room and examining her arm. It had been badly mangled by that tiger and wasn’t fully healed. Since they were out of potions at the time, Noah and Oath had to wrap it and tend it as best as they could. On the way down from the dungeon’s entrance, they met an adventurer and bought some healing potions off him. However, they weren’t able to completely reverse the damage. The flesh on her arm looked molted, like severe stretch marks, and the muscle underneath was out of proper shape. At least the bone had been reset properly, but the way Beth winced as she stretched it per Noah’s instruction, he knew that she was lucky to still have it at all.

“I’m sorry, but I don’t think you’ll be able to draw a bow or lift anything heavy anytime soon. If you find someone with healing magic, they might be able to undo the damage, but otherwise, I can’t imagine your arm will ever regain its full use or strength.”

“That’s fine,” she said with a monotone voice and dead fish eyes. She shuddered, as if shaking herself awake. “No, it’s not fine, it’s terrible. But… I don’t have to worry about using a bow.”

“You’re quitting being an adventurer?”

“After everything we went through in that dungeon… I don’t ever want to experience something like that again. I’m going to try and find a healer to mend my arm, but after that, I’m going to do what Mira wanted and settle down and build a family.”

“That’s for the best, I suppose.”

“Thanks. And Noah, about what I said to you in the dungeon, about how I was…”

“You’re not pregnant. Mira was.”

She looked at him in shock. “How’d you know?”

“I have enough experience with women to know how to avoid getting them pregnant, and I can tell when it’s close to that time of the month. Mira told you she was late before we entered the dungeon, didn’t she? You pretended it was you instead. Did you lie to try and save yourself, or her?”

“Both, I guess. Oath didn’t know, he can never know.”

“I’m surprised they were able to keep it hidden from me. They always seemed a little protective of each other, but I had no idea they were so intimate.”

“She told me they were both drunk when it happened, and later told Oath that she thought it would be better if they focused on getting stronger for conquering the dungeon. After, they would have the rest of their lives to…” She trailed off, then looked out the window and sighed. “I’m going to go visit her mother and siblings, tell her what happened. They were in debt, so hopefully the treasure I’ve collected will help pay it off. I owe Mira that much.”

“This should more than cover it,” said Noah, handing her a small bottle of avenium.

“So much trouble, so many tears over this metal dust,” she muttered, staring at the bottle.

“Take care of yourself,” Noah said before getting up and leaving.

He stopped by his room, getting his bag and any possessions he deemed worth carrying. He had already sold off all of his ores and gems, so he had plenty of gold coins with him, along with various other tools and treasures hidden within his ring, including a vast fortune of avenium. He put on his backpack with his swords hanging from his belt, including a new longsword, and left the room, locking it behind him. Downstairs in the tavern, he handed the landlady the key.

“Thank you for your hospitality.”

“Aye, I’m a bit sorry to see you go. But before you do, you should talk with your friend. He certainly needs some help.”

At the counter, he saw Oath slumped over with a half-empty mug in his hand. After returning to Clive, he had checked in with his father only briefly, then came straight to the inn and started drinking to drown his sorrows. It was a miracle the boy hadn’t died from alcohol poisoning.

“Are you planning on drinking away your entire fortune?” Noah asked.

Oath raised his head, looking at him with bloodshot eyes. “Leave me alone.”

Noah took the stool next to him and ordered a drink. “I will, soon. For now, just humor me.”

Oath sat up and wiped his face. “Remember that hunting trip the six of us took in the beginning? When we were sitting around the fire, you told me that I had to decide my reason for living, for fighting, that I had to create my own meaning. When I went into that dungeon, I thought I was doing it for my father, to finally win his approval. But when Mira died, I realized I had done it for her. I wanted to prove to her that I was a man, that I was just as strong as you and Trevor, and I wanted to prove it to myself. Everything I failed to do, they were the achievements of the baron that I wanted to be. I loved her, but my pride got her killed. Now… I just don’t want to think about it, any of it. I just want to forget so everything will stop hurting.”

Noah, having received his drink, downed it in one gulp and slapped the glass on the table, then took a deep breath. “If I were to give you one last lesson, one last piece of advice, would you take it?” Oath just glanced at him, neither agreeing, nor refusing. “Stop drinking. Go home and mourn her properly.”

“Why?”

“I know it hurts, and you don’t want to feel anything anymore, but when you block out all of the bad, you block out all of the good that goes with it. Cherish your feelings for Mira, your memories of her. Don’t try to bury them and forget. Be grateful that it hurts. Believe me, there is nothing more painful than being truly numb. When you’ve lost all meaning and sensation, you end up in a very dark place, where you’ll do anything just to feel again, and you never fully come back from that.”

For a moment, the words went over Oath’s head, but then his eyes widened as a memory flashed through his alcohol-soaked mind. The face Noah made when Tin died, that stony expression, it finally made sense.

“Is that what happened to you? You lost someone?”

“I’ve lost a lot of people, more than you can imagine. Losing a loved one, mourning them, it’s supposed to be hard, because if it’s easy, you forget how to do it.” Noah then got up and shouldered his backpack.

“Where are you going?” Oath asked.

“I have business in the capital.”

“My father and I are going there in three days. You can travel with us.”

“Nah, I’ll find my own way. Besides, I’ve already given your father enough avenium to ensure you become a noble, so there is no point in sticking around here.”

“You never told us what he promised you. Why were you so obsessed with conquering the dungeon?”

Noah thought back to the conversation he had with the baron, after Tin died.

---------------

Noah was sitting in the baron’s study, having just confessed to killing his brother and nephew. “We didn’t have the chance to talk about payment for this job, but don’t worry, I’m not interested in money or land. There is something else I want.”

“Which is?”

“I want a letter of recommendation to the Uther Knight Academy. I heard they only grant admittance on the good word of a noble, such as yourself.”

Ivan scrunched up his face and nearly spat out his drink. To be an Utheric knight was a great honor and responsibility, as while they ranked below barons on the nobility scale, their achievements could give them greater authority and political influence. “I have no interest in putting my good name on the line for a stranger. Just take some avenium for yourself and become a noble. You’ll be even richer than a knight. Or if you want to serve your country, just join the military.”

“Any schmuck with a pulse can be con***********ed and turned into a soldier. I’m not after wealth, prestige, or achievements, and I don’t care about this country.”

Noah then reached into his pocket and placed a yellow potion on the baron’s desk.

“What is that?” Ivan asked.

“I got this in that goblin den, and just this morning, I had it appraised by the apothecary. It’s a high-level antidote, able to cure almost any poison. I doubt even a baron like you could afford one. I had this with me when Tin was shot and didn’t know it could save her life. She died because of my ignorance. I’ve come to realize that despite my skills and experience, I don’t know nearly enough about this world. I want to change that, and to do so, I need an education. Spending years in an ivory tower doesn’t interest me. I want to learn how to live and properly fight in this world, and the best place to do that is the knight academy, where they supposedly train the best of the best. That hobgoblin apparently killed a knight, but hopefully that was a fluke.

So what do you say? Is your son’s future not worth a single letter?”

---------------

“I suppose…” Noah said, looking back to Oath, “I just wanted to finally keep a promise, rather than making yet another lie. Good luck to you, Lord Fault.”

Noah left the inn and walked over to the post where his horse was hitched. He rode out of Clive, and when he was finally alone, he held out his hand, and an envelope appeared on his palm from within his ring. On it was a wax seal, the Fault coat of arms. With this, his path was laid out before him. His next stop: the Utheric royal capital.

.

.

.

*Roundabout plays*

To be continued…

*Roll credits*

Please comment! I'm going to try to have vol 2 ready by the end of the year.
4 comments

moooow2Report

2020-08-04 04:05:35
good story!

melcanicReport

2020-08-02 17:39:23
I am actually surprised you didn't format this and try to sell it on Amazon or another self-publishing site. A little bit of extra editing to fix a few grammatical and spelling mistakes, but otherwise, a fantastic story. Good premise. I loved the story though. Looking forward to the next tale.

johnc351Report

2020-08-01 21:43:38
Am glad you posted the entirety of book 1, will be waiting on the next book of this tale.

SaraKras01Report

2020-08-01 09:17:54
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