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Randidly folded his arms, his eyes narrowing. The only reason he had remained this long was that he couldn’t set aside his nagging feeling that she would be incredibly useful to have on his side. Even still… he was still made nervous by-

But then her shoulders slumped, and her whole demeanor changed. Tears began to form in the corners of her eyes.

“I… I’m really glad I met you. You are the first person… you are the first person to really see me. To see me. Everyone else is just blinded by the skills, and….” She sniffed, and then looked at Randidly with an odd expression. “How attractive do you think I am? Be honest.”

With his eyes fixed on the table between them, Randidly was almost squirming. Give him a sphinx with infinite mana any day. This aspect of life was something he was simply never good at. His experiences in the dungeon taught him how to act in life, but never how to interact.

“Honestly…?” Randidly said tentatively, and Raina nodded. He shrugged helplessly. “...honestly, rather plain…your body is very…. Uh…. well endowed, but your face…. Although that changes when you smile. But I can’t be sure that’s not the skill…”

Raina leaned forward, her hair swinging to cover her face. The table was silent for almost a minute, before she straightened, a strange look on her face.

“That… hurt more than I expected it to. I’m not… I mean that’s how I used to be, but ever since the system came…” She shook her head, seemingly very sad. “I’ve felt lost though, unsure of who I was. What I wanted to be. What I had become. Thank you, you’ve helped me remember. Plain, ha.”

Raina stood, her smile sad, but still making Randidly want to smile back at her. And ultimately, that made him not trust her. She put a business card down on the table.

“This is my address. If you want… we can talk again. I’d really, really like to talk again. Please visit.” Then, to Randidly’s surprise, she leaned over, and pressed her lips against Randidly’s cheek. He stood still. His perception had seen her coming, and he had ample time to React, and his Agility was so high that it would have been simple to evade her, but he was simply surprised.

Randidly had obviously had girlfriends before, and sex, but… those had always moved slowly, building over time. This sudden kiss… left him at a loss.

What had him most stunned was that there was no familiar influence of her charm on him. It was a genuine moment, without a skill.

Raina pulled back, and they looked at each other for several seconds.

Then she tried to smile, but failed. “You…. you’re not going to visit, are you….?”

Randidly shook his head slowly. This woman… he could not trust her. She left then, Matilda allowing the other two into the room, who looked with wide eyes at Randidly.

Karlito was the first to speak. “Randidly, man… on your cheek… that lipstick… did Raina…?”

Sighing, Randidly stood, and walked out into the night, leaving the people behind. Feeling annoyed, he scaled a nearby apartment building, quickly climbing 20 stories to the roof. There, he let out a long sigh.

He really needed to work on his people skills. If only the system had skills for that…

A notification popped up, a welcome distraction from his current annoyance.

Congratulations! Your Thorn Lvl 4 is ready to level up. Due to diet and influence, Thorn wonders whether he is a Lone Hunter, or a Team Trapper.

As mulled over these choices, another notification popped up.

Congratulations! Your Arbor Lvl 2 is ready to level up. Due to diet and influence, Arbor wonders whether he is simply a Lonely Tower, or a Pillar of the Community?

Randidly narrowed his eyes at the timing. It was strange enough that both were leveling at the same time, due to the seemingly increased difficulty for his Soul Plants to level, but they also both had similar references. Were they developing a symbiotic relationship with each other…?

That didn’t sound right, otherwise there would likely be more of a connection between the two levels. Randidly supposed that without his presence, both had been forced to be exposed to more humans. Perhaps they were simply wondering what their purpose was, in the grand scheme of things.

This was a lot more likely for Arbor, with its higher Brain Function, but still…

Because he wasn’t sure of the effects of either, Randidly split the difference. Arbor… well, all he really knew about the thing was that it was vain. As such, it seemed to make more sense that it would be a part of a community. Meanwhile, Thorn was designed to lurk, and slaughter monsters, which meant Randidly preferred it as a Lone Hunter.

Satisfied, Randidly made both of his selections.

Thorn is now Lvl 5. Physicality has increased by 3. Brain Function has increased by 2. Particularity has increased by 1. Thorn has learned the skill Thorny Whip.

Arbor is now Lvl 3. Magical Aptitude has increased by 1. Brain Function has increased by 1. Particularity has increased by 4. Arbor has learned the skill Aura of Arbor.

Randidly looked at the ultimate results from the level ups, slightly aggrieved.

Thorn (Blood)

Lvl 5

Survivability: 8

Physicality: 10

Magical Aptitude: 2

Brain Function: 6

Particularity: 9

 

Battle Ability: 18

Special Skills: Flexibility, Strangle, Dig, Thorny Whip

 

Arbor (Attention)

Lvl 3

Survivability: 2

Physicality: 1

Magical Aptitude: 4

Brain Function: 8

Particularity: 12

 

Battle Ability: 2

Special Skills: Elaborate Dance, Aura of Arbor

Randidly shook his head. Thorn’s level had gone how he had predicted, and he was delighted to discover that his Battle Ability increased to 18. That meant that Thorn could handle himself around enemies at level 18. Average enemies, at least.

Meanwhile, Arbor, the soul seed he had never seen, continued to focus its points in particularity, earning the ambiguous ‘Aura of Arbor’. It was probably useful, but…

Would it have killed the thing to grow a little in terms of Battle Ability…?

****

20 men left, and 19 men came back, led by a Dozer that had enough of a beard that the time he spent in the dungeon must have been a few weeks, at least. No one spoke as the men returned, cutting a brutal path through the wandering monsters. The men were covered in blood. Several had several glittering, high level weapons that they didn’t leave with. The squad's sole knight had two shields, one on each arm, rather than a sword strapped to his waist.

They marched in silent formation, the discipline brutally apparent, making clear the absence of one of their number.

But even more notable than the absence of one of his warriors was the midnight blue kitten that Dozer had cradled in his arms. Daniel looked at it curiously, and was surprised when it was dumped on him by Dozer, who promptly walked over to Annie, picked her up, and carried her off.

Daniel, frowning, opened his mouth to say something, but Regina put a hand on his shoulder.

“Leave him be. Glendel already reports that the monsters from that dungeon have ceased, they have obviously won. We don’t need to know the details until he is ready to tell them.”

“But what about…?” Daniel looked helplessly at the cat, that seemed to suddenly come awake, yawning. It blinked violet eyes at him, then gently, gingerly raised its paw and placed it against Daniel’s face.

Daniel couldn’t help but smile. The cat smiled up at him, it seemed, and flexed its paw, its claws sinking into his face.

Daniel’s howls earned chuckles, even from the freshly returned squad, who collapsed, releasing all the tension that had kept them wound through this journey. They had made it home.

****

Nathan frowned at his sister, who was standing next to Arbor, but also dangerously close to the strange, thorny creature that now frequented the area by the tree. Both of the strange plants were glowing slightly, the thorn creature writhing on the ground, and Arbor growing upwards, fast enough to see with the naked eye.

“What’s going on?” Nathan asked.

His sister smiled serenely at him. “The Ghosthound has willed it, so they are changing.”

Nathan thought his sister was being weird, but said nothing. As he watched, the light around Arbor dimmed, but the thorny vine creature began to thrash more. Watching closely, Nathan could even see the thorns on the vines slowly growing more twisted, longer, sharper. These weren’t the needles they were in the past, but were more like hooks, aiming to rip flesh.

“Why did Arbor stop growing if the other one still is?” Nathan asked, but his sister just smiled and walked away, back towards the village.

Surprised, but glad they could leave and go see the return of Dozer’s squad, Nathan followed.

They wound their way through the coffee farm and the banana farm, moving quickly, sticking to the shadows. Although they hadn’t been forbidden from coming here per se, it was getting increasingly difficult to do so.

Then, returning to the farming area proper, they relaxed somewhat. This was the area that it was relatively okay that they play in, although not usually so late. Farmers and Potion Makers walked back and forth, discussing ratios and ingredients.

But instead of turning upwards towards the Classer Compound, Kiersty kept walking towards the middle of the valley, where the mage battalion guarded the road coming through the mountains.

Kiersty walked through the men sitting around taking breaks, even while the sound of spell casting evidenced the proximity of the front lines. They drew a few stares, but mostly because of the presence of children, not because any of them planned on stopping the two kids.

Still, Nathan was quite nervous. To his relief, they stopped, almost directly next to the watch tower, right behind the spot where the relief squad waited, ready to assist their comrades. Kiersty pointed, and Nathan’s gaze followed her finger.

Quickly erupting from the ground was a grey, ashy piece of wood, that looked like an exact duplicate of Arbor. Faster than any plant had a right to move, this Arbor clone grew upwards, until this Arbor was the same size as the original  Arbor’s new size back in the field, about as tall as a grown man. Then its branches began to spread, curling upwards.

Then, four flaming leaves bloomed on the tree, the relief squad turning to gaze at the tree with wide eyes.

Notifications popped up in front of Nathan, that he tried to read, but made his head swim.

You are under the influence of the skill Aura of Arbor. This allows you to make use of a Gift of Arbor. Regeneration is also passively boosted by 10%.

Gift of Arbor: The next active skill used will use 50% of the normal amount of mana or stamina. Gift of Arbors grow at a rate of 1 per hour per sprouting. As long as you are within the Aura of Arbor, Gifts from any sprouting may be used.

“There might only be two now,” Kiersty said, her voice loud, and a little shrill, “But soon… this place will be covered in them. May the blessing of Arbor be with you all!”

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