Chapter 4: Finding That Middle Ground
Apparently, the teleportation room wasn’t meant for teleporting anymore. It was circular and the ceiling was higher than normal, even for this royal palace. In the center of the room was a pedestal with a square imprint at the top, like an important book had gone missing.
“This place once stored the most valuable object in the entire Kingdom: the teleportation tablet," explained Reinfeld as he walked towards a table. "It was stolen last winter by an enemy spy, but we will be retrieving it soon. For now, I must give you what we came here for.”
He shuffled through some papers before finding a seemingly important stack of them.
“Here we are,” he said. “You will each receive one of these papers. They will teleport you back to this room when you rip them in half. Do be careful. Accidents happen.”
He handed one to each of us.
The horse ride to the northern forest was uneventful and plainly boring, but I had the idea to make myself a riding animation so I wouldn’t fall off without having Feya there to hold on to. I asked her a bunch of quick questions on how to ride, and observed her technique and the other servants’.
I hadn’t tested out the new animation since it wasn’t meant to work when riding behind someone, but ideally, my body would stay balanced using my hips, and I would put all of my bodyweight into my heels so my centre of gravity would stay low. If it ever came to galloping, my body would stay bent forward at a 45 degree angle.
Not all Heroes had come. More than half had stayed behind because they either felt too weak for the upcoming mission, or were still too scared to fight. I wasn’t going to judge them. It was of our own free will to come or not, so no one was to blame.
We arrived at a treeline of dense foliage and dark brown bark. The rangers leading our group pulled their swords out and began bushwhacking new paths towards the bandit camp. The rest of us also got off our horses and quietly followed them with our weapons drawn.
It felt just like when I entered one of my imagined dungeons, but darker. The thick leafy branches overhead were blocking every inch of sunlight and the humid ground beneath our feet kept us from sitting down to take a break. The forest smelled like nature and rot.
Two hours and a few light scratches later, we all grouped up for the mission.
“The camp is up ahead,” said Arthur. “Everyone sticks together, no one dies. Understand? Good... Let’s put an end to these heathens! ON ME!”
Our whole party began to charge, our heavy armor making a low rumble on the field. The bandits had made camp in an open area, something very convenient for our charge. By the time we had reached the first tents, they had just finished organizing themselves for our attack.
The camp contained about a hundred bandits, all with terrible equipment and even worse training. We mowed them down, completely slaughtering them.
My blade tore at throats, sliced arteries and would sometimes even cut a bandit in half at the waist. I was merciless, mostly because I'd learned that these bandits were monsters in the literal sense as well as the societal one. This 'northern forest' was a massive collection of dungeons. These bandits had generated memories and feelings, but as much as I sympathized with them, they regularly led raids on villages outside the forest.
My kill count escalated quickly from these fodder monsters, but I was aching to get myself some more EXP. I kept tabs on the battle, intent on spotting some kind of leader or boss monster.
I somehow finally noticed the huge towering man swinging his greataxe on the other side of the camp. He chopped wildly at two other Heroes as he voiced deep guttural noises. His skin was glowing red as if he was in a bloodrage and his long beard was matted with dirt and dried blood. The Heroes fighting him weren’t able to scratch him.
I got into position and shot two ice shards at his eyes.
The man’s instincts seemed to kick in. He blocked both shards with his greataxe, using it as a shield to protect his entire face all at once.
“Not half-bad…” the man said as he turned towards me.
Maybe I should have put more thought into my strategy…
I created another ice shard using the rest of my mana, but I didn’t send it right away. I ran towards the man, taunting him in the process. His anger rose even higher and he charged at me like a bull. As we neared striking distance, he lifted his axe to cut me in half and I brought my sword up to parry it.
In one simple move, my blade was shattered and my health was dropped to half.
However, the giant of a man was faring much worse. He dropped like a boulder, his right eye streaming blood. My shard had hit him right when he had hit me, but in a much deadlier location. Goblin skulls and human skulls must have a different structure, because despite this man’s much higher strength than the goblin boss, he was dead in an instant.
My sword broken and my mana depleted, I was defenseless. I bent over and picked up the monster’s axe.
The bloodthirsty axe of Gras, a giant and cruel bandit leader.
Bloodrage: Drains the wielder’s health to increase their strength. Toggle: +20% strength, -5 HP/sec.
Requirements: 16 strength
Gras’ Axe had a toggleable ability, unlike the Ring of Greed that only had a description. I could exchange 5 HP per second to have a 20% bonus to my strength stat. Maybe that’s why Gras went down with a single hit. His health was already at a critical level.
A stray thought flashed through my mind.
Could this mean I could edit the item’s effect?
Quickly stepping out of the fighting, I deleted Storage from my fourth simulation and created the axe instead.
Simulate has grown to Lv.5!
When I concentrated on the axe, a simulated me materialized to wield it. I tested the balance of the weapon before swinging it in a massive arc.
Activating Bloodrage, the fake me turned a shade of scarlet. I began unleashing harder and faster blows under the effect that drove me. I could somehow tell that my HP was dropping rapidly.
Before I noticed, I started tweaking things.
The red hue from my skin was gone. It was useless and it looked weird in the first place. I also nerfed Bloodrage in an attempt to find an optimal middle ground.
Drains the wielder’s health to increase their strength. Toggle: +0% strength, 0 HP/sec.
I was able to nullify the effect entirely. Regardless of the obvious non-existent use of a +0% strength bonus, this test opened the door to ever-increasing opportunities.
Increases the wielder’s strength. Toggle: +20% strength, -5 MP/sec.
Empower seemed a lot more useful to me than Bloodrage, and it was starting to demonstrate just how far Ability could take me. I briefly wondered how Ability would be like if it ever leveled up.
Health Regeneration for Intelligence:
Weakens the wielder’s intelligence to increase their health regeneration. Toggle: -100% intelligence, +25 HP/sec.
I was reluctant about reducing my intelligence stat. Would it affect my actual thinking? If I activated the effect as it was, would I become a vegetable that couldn’t turn it back off again? The same could also be asked about strength. My total health had always been ten times my strength. If I ended up with zero strength, would I die instantly? I’d have to be careful in the future.
I discovered a few more things:
Health Regeneration for Mana:
Weakens the wielder’s mana to increase their health regeneration. Toggle: -100% MP, +10 HP/sec.
Trading all of my mana was a lot weaker than all of my intelligence. Mana was only one of the many effects of intelligence and was thus worth a lot less, it seemed.
This brought forth another question: could I increase a stat that was “hidden”?
Defense for Mana:
Weakens the wielder’s mana to increase their defense. Toggle: -100% MP, +10 defense.
The label that showed the price in mana changed to red and indicated an infinity symbol. I also tried with the speed attribute since I remembered agility increased it as well, but it didn’t work either.
Hypothesis: it was either impossible to change these attributes, they didn’t exist, or I wasn’t powerful enough to do it yet.
Weakens the wielder’s agility to increase their mana regeneration. Toggle: -100% agility, +25 MP/sec.
I decided to stick with this last one. I could turn it on and off at will, and even during fights, Feya could keep me alive when I wouldn't be moving. It would only take a dozen seconds to fully replenish my mana anyway.
The battle against the bandits was over by the time I snapped back to reality.
“Are you okay?” Feya asked as she approached. “You seemed out of it after your sword shattered...”
“I’m okay. Look: I got this humungus axe to replace it.”
Feya eyed my new weapon. "That is one big axe."
I sent the axe to Storage.
A healer dressed in a green robe went around and made sure everyone was healthy. We hadn’t lost anyone due to the level difference between us and the bandits, who were at most level 4. Even our weakest hero was level 6. It also helped that we had a very powerful AOE healer in our midst (Feya).
Thinking about levels, many dings had been heard over the course of the battle.
Level 16 Human Male
EXP: 335 / 1280
Titles: Chosen of Lorea
Stat Points: 6
Intelligence: 18 + 1
Ice Shard Lv.4
Looking over my stats, I decided to finally put points into agility. I knew the techniques from my simulations made up for the lack of motor coordination in most cases, but I figured that if anything, defense would increase my effective health. At least, in theory. I didn’t know if defense actually existed.
Six stat points later, I felt much better... Like I could jump twice as high, run twice as fast and stand on one leg without wavering. Even my breathing was softer and more equalized.
Agility was the stat that made itself noticeable when boosted. Then again, many of my discoveries so far had been because of my increased intelligence. I could connect invisible dots about stuff, and now I finally realized the potential of raising it. Maybe agility was a mistake...
“Good work, everyone,” said Arthur. “Let’s pick these uglies clean and rendezvous back in Ilonya.”
The next day, I was a lot more pleasant.
“Good mooorning, Feya!” I sang.
Feya, who was dutifully carrying a pair of buckets across my room, jumped.
“Do not scare me like that! You were sleeping so soundly mere seconds ago!”
I shrugged. “Time waits for no one!”
“Tell that to the Hero waiting for you in the hall. He just got here, but hurry up and go talk to him.”
Two minutes later...
I paced back and forth in my master bedroom.
“I’m in it waist-deep, man…” Alex said, trembling. “I’m a goner! What do I do?”
“You’re saying you obtained the Assassin class?” I asked.
“How in the world did that happen?”
I was astounded. Who knew scaredy-cat Alex had enough life experience to get such an edgy class?
“Maybe ‘cuz I used to do gymnastics?” he asked.
“Oh... now it makes sense,” I answered sarcastically, closing my eyes in resignation. “But if I’m getting this right: a group of highly dangerous assassins is after you?”
He nodded again.
“That’s great! Looks like you’re on your own on this one, Alex.”
Feya escorted him out the door.