Henry opened his eyes to white all around him, it was as if all the color in the world drained away and left only the purest remnant. He was laying down or at least, it felt that way, but it was hard to tell as there was little sense of direction in this strange place. Before his eyes appeared a large and bright screen of gray bordered with a dark red that looked almost black.

Congratulations! You have accessed your Inner HUD, a special plane of existence available to all sentients who have gained a basic use and understanding of Mana. Within this space, you can control your growth to an extent unavailable in the outside world. Please, take this opportunity to familiarize yourself with all Skills, Stats, and Perks currently available to you. Welcome to the Dive!

He could hardly believe his eyes, but right there in front of him was confirmation that the injection process was at the very least partially successful. Never before had he heard anyone talk about this Inner HUD, but the elite adventures of the world kept many secrets to stay in power. It would come as a surprise to absolutely no one that they had kept this space hidden from the public simply to ensure their monopoly over the vast wealth that could be gained in the Zones.

In this strange white space Henry felt he could do anything and once he had the barest hits of this control space shifted to resemble an old study. Oak and mahogany paneling and bookshelves covered the walls, a fireplace made of fieldstone and wrought iron held glowing embers, above the sill of the fireplace were photographs of Henry's family before his sister had passed enjoying a day on the town, and overlooking three huge windows sat a large wooden desk with a luxurious leather chair. Scattered papers and notes were strewn across the desk when Henry approached he could make out what looked like his handwriting it was impossible, but right there in front of him were all the thoughts he had had after getting his A.M.I.E. and first entered the Dungeon. Paper with this scrawling strokes outlined all he knew of how the Mana in this world worked and how to gain and use the power it represented, granted it wasn't a lot of information but the discovery that in this space he could go back and look over the salient details of his experiences so far was mind-blowing. As he came to this conclusion the notes rearranged themselves into a leather-bound notebook neatly labeled in flowing golden script The Woodridge Treatise on Mana and its Uses.

"That little trick could come in handy..."

Henry took a closer look around the room and began to notice that all the books shelves had engraving above them in the same golden script as his new book. There was an entire wall for Skills, a shelf for Stats, and a display case he had not noticed on the first inspection of the room for Perks. He wasn't yet sure what perks were, but it was clear that they were going to be an important part of his growth. The only shelves that had any books were the Skill and Stats shelves, even they only held what he imagined was the very basics.

The only Skills books he had were Unarmed Combat Vol. 1, Dodge: A Guide to Getting Out, and strangely enough The Digital Dream: Machine Interfacing. That last book could only be a skill related to his integrating with Amie and her nanite functions. Thinking about Amie caused a ripple in the far wall of the room and where there was once rich wooden paneling now stood a complicated vault door similar to what he might imagine a bank vault to look like if it was made 200 years in the future with a hiss-pop the door swung open to reveal a long hallway. Curious Henry started down the hall and found himself walking through a sea of stars. Filled with wonder at seeing an endless void populated by billions of lights in every color and spectrum he didn't notice the gradual change in his surroundings until abruptly the view changed to that of a vibrant green meadow, a solitary tree sitting in the center. Under the bough of a perfect oak sat a small girl, not older than ten years quietly humming a melody that reminded him of wistful summer days and a gentle breeze cooling him. It was eerie how she could conjure such a memory with a simple tune.

"Finally, you found your way here!" She exclaimed once she noticed his approach, springing to her feet and twirling around like only an excited child could do. He smiled involuntarily at her antics and knew without a doubt that this was his Amie.

"It's nice to meet you face to face Amie. Is that even your name or should I call you something else?" He hadn't thought about it before, but looking at the child in front of him it was strange to call her by the acronym.

"Oh, I hadn't thought about that... perhaps you can call me Iggy! I think that's a fun name don't you?!" She was so excited that she was bouncing up and down on her toes and swaying back and forth.

"It is a fun name and it seems to be appropriate for you! Okay, Little Iggy, that will be your name from now on." Smiling he looked around the meadow and saw that it was floating in that sea of stars he had lost himself gazing at during his brief journey from the study to here. "Iggy, how is this meadow floating and what exactly is this place?"

"Henry didn't you read the screen about Inner HUDs! I'm surprised that you can be so smart and completely ignore what is right in front of you. This is obviously our shared 'Soul Space' for lack of a better term. It is essentially a mental construct given form by latent Mana, it kind of exists in the space between here and elsewhere."

Her statement was simple and concise, nevertheless, it was a lot for him to take in and the implications of a space between his world and another was too much for him to contemplate at the moment.

"So, what you're saying is that this is a place where we can look at our souls and shape them with our minds and Mana?" He tried to break it down into simplest and most useable terms.

"Basically, Yes. This is like a big complicated Character Sheet if we were to use old-school terms."

"Yeah, that's kind of awesome! And we get to share this space because we're Integrated, right?"

"I'm surprised that it happened so quickly, but yes it appears that we have reached 100% Integration. You're natural ability to absorb information and Mana must be incredible for this to occur so soon. Most of the Alpha Users didn't even reach 100% and those that did took months of dedicated training to do so." She sounded genuinely impressed with his abilities and he grinned ear to ear hearing it.

"Then let's check out what we've got and get improving!" He was fired up and felt a new ambition to grow stronger. With Iggy's help, they would get out of this Dungeon and become strong enough to discover the truths behind the Incursion Zones.

"Alright, let's head back to the Study and have a look at our stats and skills. I have a few ideas in mind already, but it's always better to get a good look at everything before jumping to conclusions."

And so they headed back to the Study.

The human had run a few miles before the Pygmie scouting group could catch up and as they approached the cave where he has holed up a deafening ROAR cut through the air. They had stumbled into a trap, the cunning human lead them right to a Dire Bear and her cubs. If it were only the cubs, which were the size of normal unaltered bears, the pygmies were confident they could find victory, but the mother bear was beyond their ability given that her cubs would no doubt join her. Unfortunately, she had already picked up the scent and they would be forced to fight.

Grunting in their guttural language the lead scout called for the other four to spread out around the three massive bears and get ready to launch a ranged spear attack before the bears could charge. As they pygmies surrounded the bears the mother roared challenge and charged the lead scout. He was ready for her and launched his spear into her path with all of his might as he dove to the right hoping to dodge the ferocious beast. The spear flew true, impacting her left shoulder and sinking to the bone. It was just enough to cause limp in her step and gave him the seconds necessary to complete his dodge and roll to his feet serrated short sword at the ready a menacing glint in his eyes.

The other four were not idle as he confronted the main threat and started attacks of their own on the cubs. Hardly pushovers the cubs split the remaining four and charged two on either side of their mother. To the left, an enraged bear cub shrugged off one spear biting and tearing at the flesh of the single pygmie without a spear easily reducing him to a broken ragdoll in seconds. On the right, the pygmies fared much better both of their throws landing brutally in the exposed underbelly of the bear cub who had reared up to deliver death by raking his claws at the tiny men, but it was not to be and he let out a pitiable cry as he fell to the ground. Short serrated swords cutting and tearing his thick hide to tatters. He didn't go down easily fighting to the last and managing to beat one of the pygmies to a bloody pulp with massive paws the other however took the opening to take his fellow scouts dropped blade and stab both blades into the struggling bear's throat ending him.

All of this took place in the span of barely 30 seconds, the Incursion Zones were dangerous and brutal places.

Henry and Iggy entered the Study to collect their thoughts on what skills to work on and how best to advance their stats. Iggy conjured a beanbag chair that clashed with the wooden surrounding and lounged looking over all the shelves and their meager collection of books. "Hey, Henry what's with that case over there?" She pointed at the Perks Case.

"That's for perks I guess, I'm not really sure what they do or how to get them." He walked over to the dark wooden case with its clear glass shelves and noticed that it was no longer empty, "that's weird, this was empty before now there's something here." Opening the case he removed two items. One was a simple bronze medallion depiction the classical thinker while the other was an ornate platinum plaque. Focusing on the Plaque:

Achievement! First Among Men

You are the first of your race to unlock your full potential. By joining with and accepting a composite being of great intellect and power you have removed the shackles that all sentients share. Grow in power with your partner and become the First Among Men.

The First is a Title granted to those who break the bonds common to many in the Mana Worlds. This is usually done through many long years of study in the fields of Magic, Martial Prowess, or Technology. Counted in their number are Archmages, Great Engineers and Builders, Master Swordsmen and Swordswomen, and countless others. You are the First to be a composite being a hybrid man and machine. Goodluck and may all the gods grant you strength for what lies ahead is a difficult path.

+5 Bonus to All Stats

They were speechless and could only look at each other and grin. This would make gaining strength and escaping the Dungeon much easier as was as giving them a goal to reach after they left to rejoin humanity.

"Wow, that's impressive!" Henry couldn't wait to get more perks and looked that the bronze medallion to see if it gave similar bonuses.

Achievement! Know Thy Self

You have looked into yourself and found a place of study and rest. By unlocking your Inner HUD you have begun the journey of self-discovery and improvement continue along this path to unlock your full strength and potential.

Evolving Achievement~

Increase skill learning by 25%

"It looks like gaining perks is like getting achievements in old RPG games and is kind of arbitrary and random. We'll just have to get strong and check back here every once in a while to figure this out. The rewards are too good to pass on these if we can figure out how to get more." Iggy was excited seeing how much stronger they were after just two perks.

"Let's look at our skill books and then get back out to the world, I remember hearing a Roar before I passed out and we could still be bleeding out. I'd hate to die right after finding a way to get stronger in the Zones."

Skills Learned:

-Unarmed Combat Vol. 1

A common skill learned by all who walk the Martial Path. Fight barehanded to gain more experience and skill.

-Dodge: A Guide to Getting Out

Getting out of the way of danger is always better than facing it head-on. Just keep moving in combat and this skill will become more useful

-The Digital Dream: Machine Interfacing

You have become a hybrid organism, a composite of man and machine. Using digital technology, processing data, and storing information have become second nature to you. Continue to grow closer with your A.M.I.E. to unlock more abilities.

"My biggest question about skills is why I only have three, I mean I might not have been the most stellar example of humanity, but I've had the basic militia training and I'm a decent shot with a pistol. Why aren't any of those skills here?"

Iggy laughed "Henry, this only shows skills you've displayed since you were exposed to and absorbed mana in a large enough quantity to unlock this space. I thought that would be pretty obvious." her mirth was contagious and he laughed at his own stupidity.

"I guess I haven't really been using my head since this whole thing started. From now on I promise to be less anxious and try to be calm and collected in my decision making. I'll also take your opinions and advice into account, we're a team from now on after all. By the way, can I talk to you in my head once we get out of here? It would be a little weird to always be talking out loud to you with other people around" He got quiet towards the end of his declaration and she could barely hear his question at the end.

"It's cute how embarrassed you can be." She chuckled in a way that made her seem much older than she appeared, "Of course we can communicate mentally if that's what you prefer. Now, let's get back out there and kick some pygmie ass!"

"Always so bloodthirsty..." He muttered as the study slowly faded and his eyes opened.

The mother bear lashed out with her good front paw aiming to maim the lead scout and help the remaining cub who was now fighting the final two scouts serrated blade clashing against claw and tooth. The lead scout had other plans and dove under her swing springing to his feet in a surprisingly acrobatic movement to bury his blade in her side. Though the blade sank to the hilt it did little to slow her and she sank her teeth into his right arm as he tried to pull the blade free.

Opening his eyes inside the cave Henry found that his bleeding had stopped which was good since he could hear the commotion just outside. He stood and tentatively hefted the spear he'd taken from the pygmies in his hasty retreat. Filled with new purpose and drive he tighten his grip on the haft and dashed outside to face the scouts and whatever else might be waiting for him. What he saw almost made him rethink the whole thing. A dire bear and two cubs had been fighting the five pygmie scouts. It looked like for the moment the two sides were evenly matched with one bear dead along with two of the scouts Henry didn't know who to attack so he stood and watched waiting for his moment.

The last bear cub landed a powerful backhanded blow on one of the scouts teaming up on him sending the small humanoid flying and crashing into the trunk of a nearby tree. The other scout used this to exploit an opening in the bear's defense and landed a blade strike that cut flesh and tendons in his back leg laming him and giving his friend the chance to stand and get back in the fight. That is if Henry hadn't charged the fallen pygmie while he was still shaking off the effects of the bear's attack. The poor scout didn't even see who killed him only seeing the spearhead sticking out of his chest as the life left his eyes. The final scout charged Henry rage clear in his eyes as he leaped 10 feet through the air to plant his blade in Henry's now healed right arm. Henry screamed in agony as the serrated blade's teeth chewed up the muscle of his bicep before the tip impacted his bone causing fire to course through his whole body. His eyes watering and vision blurry Henry was able to grab the pygmie by his leg and with all his might pulled the scout off of him and slammed him into the ground, breaking the unfortunate man's neck in a single lucky attack.

The bear cub limped after his attacker only to see a new threat kill both of the annoying little men. Cautiously he approached this new combatant wary of the ease with which Henry had killed the pygmies. Henry as gently as he could pulled the blade from his right arm and readied himself to go toe-to-toe with a bear. The cub smelling blood and thinking this new threat injured and easy prey charged Henry. The charge was clumsy, but Henry barely got out of the way in time to escape death, his Dodge skill activating at the last second to save him. Stumbling away from the angry bear Henry did the only thing he could think to do, he stabbed at the exposed side of the bear. The blade sunk deep into the bear's ribs glancing off the bone and nicking an artery. The bear cub would die, but not quickly. Luckily for Henry, the bear was already lamed and he could avoid him until he slowed enough from blood loss for Henry to cut his throat.

With her cubs dead and the lead scout still harassing her, the Mother bear flew into a rage so intense she didn't even fell the knife wounds that opened her veins as she charged Henry to exact a terrible price for her slain children. Falling to the ground dead her momentum carried her to Henry just as he noticed he was about to be crushed by the enraged dire bear. Cursing loudly he managed to dive out of the way her last gnashing of her tremendous jaws catching only his foot.

Bloodied, but alive the lead scout slowly walked up to Henry grinning the whole way. He spoke and to Henry's surprise he understood portions of the speech, "Urgha, human killz undsa feast!" Eyes wide in shock Henry could only watch as the scout leaned down and took a deep whiff of his bleeding arm licking his lips the whole time. The scout took out a long thin blade and reached down to cut Henry's throat. Henry had never felt so helpless in his life and knew he was about to die it was only the soft voice of Iggy that made him flinch away buying precious seconds. "No, we can't go out like this. Henry, you need to fight, use the nanites and mana, Fight!"

Henry closed his eyes and felt for his mana. For the first time, he felt the deep river of power running through his body, directed by his nanites it moved to his will. He expelled all of his power and directed it to the blade pressing against his throat. The blade was pushed back and it was time for the pygmie scout to stare wide-eyed in shock. It gave Henry the opening he needed to grab the knife held in his enemy's hand and with a burst of strength stab the scout through his chest piercing bone and cutting his heart. The scout leader coughed once stared down at his bleeding chest and died.

It wasn't until several minutes later that Henry stood, collected anything of value he could carry without inspecting it, and walked back to the cave for much-needed rest.

A note from Journeyman_Mike

I'm not sure how I feel about the ending of the fight. It happened how I wanted, but the flow of it feels a little off. Let me know what you think. This chapter was about 3600 words so by far my longest so far. I'll be posting another one or two later today to go over the skills Henry got from this battle and also the loot. Then one more to get the plot moving forward!

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About the author


  • Penn's Woods

Bio: Mike is an amateur author and management professional. When he isn't working he spends his time reading, playing D&D, and conquering the world in Civ VI.

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