A caravan formed and began trekking uphill, steeply. The general mood hanging over Rowan’s shoulders rapidly soured, and not because Gabrielle was having a nap while his arms burned under the constant weight. Evidently, a couple of the Sun Elves still did not wish to be slaves, namely Zaine and Luthias. Their aesthetic faces were on a permanent scowling mode. Or was it because their morning bath had been cut short? Rowan whistled a marching tune and simply let them be. They’d come around sooner or later.
Zaine, who was amazingly the strongest of the lot at level twenty-four, carried a roped stack of eight crates all by himself. And they were heavy, massive crates filled with salvaged building materials: clay shingles and cut stone blocks mostly. The sight was comical in a way, frightening in others. That had to be a high-Stamina build. But no class? Interesting. Perhaps building a relationship here could be advantageous.
Rowan drifted toward the twenty-foot crate stack and asked, “Zaine. How did you get to level twenty-four without a class? And at your age. That is most impressive.”
Rowan held back a sigh. He couldn’t force a conversation through the slave bindings. He tried a different, friendlier approach: “I am a fair ruler, Zaine. You are doing more than everyone else here combined. Is there anything we could do for you?”
Eleven wonky strides up rocky ground passed. Zaine mumbled, “Free me.”
How unexpected. “And where would you go? We’re at the north end of Trollheim. You’d end up as their slave again.”
“I only said free me.” The tone was harsher.
“Ah, I see. And what would you do if I did?”
“For starters, I would not carry these damned crates for you.”
Muscles tightened around Rowan’s neck. “We need these building materials. Do you want to freeze in the coming months?”
“I’ll be fine. I am level twenty-four.” The tone was lighter.
“What’s your build?”
A surprise. The AI hadn’t embedded them with gamer lingo. “It’s what we adventurers call how stat points are distributed upon each level-up. My build, for example, is mostly Stamina points.”
“Oh. A third Health, the rest Stamina. It’s a standard build taught in schools.”
“And those Health points do help you in cold temperatures. Did you learn that in school?”
“I did. I was a top student in my year.” The tone was smug.
The conversation was going somewhere at last. Good. “Can you tell me some crop that would grow well in this climate?”
A shrug threatened to destabilize the crate stack. “Not much, but… beets, turnips, spinach, mana thistle, mustard, kale, I guess. Skylar and Viola could likely tell you more.”
“Yes, they are Farmers. Do you know them well?”
A head shake. “We were taken from different camps.The Trolls brought them in only days before you arrived. They needed the extra farm labor.” The tone there was masking something.
Intuition signaling, Rowan took a stab at that something: “Do you fancy Viola? Maybe I could assign her to your watch. You two could get to know each other better. That is if you cooperate.”
“Not interested.” Monotone voice.
“Is she not your type?”
“I just want to be freed,” Zaine mumbled, face blank.
Then what else do teenage boys want? Well, this is going nowhere. “Perhaps in due time—if you prove yourself trustworthy.”
“Then leave me be while I slowly starve.”
“I’ll remember to make you a nice coffin.” Rowan let his steps fall toward the back of the group, Faenin and Liluth leading twenty yards ahead. Skylar lingered much to the left while Viola swayed to the right, foraging. Their threads were pushing the hundred yard mark, and their mana bars beneath their party icons were bouncing between zero and fifteen percent. Good work. No rebellion there.
As for Luthias… he was struggling to keep up. His Stamina bar was almost drained compared to everyone else’s ranging from fifty to a hundred. Rowan slowed his steps and approached, a nicer expression painted onto his face. “Skylar mentioned you have an old wound from dark magic. Is there anything we could—”
“Demon,” Luthias said between heavy breaths, carrying a smaller crate. “Let me be utmost clear. I do not wish to be your slave, or your companion, or your ally. I wish to make good on the unwritten contract Faenin agreed on my behalf and no more like the honorable Sun Elf I am. I shall hold you to your forked tongue’s word. I shall work for my freedom and no more. Do you understand?”
The politeness from last night was long gone. And forked tongue? Rowan poked his out for a split second—and indeed it was forked like a snake’s! Interesting. Most interesting. He’d somehow missed it on Gabrielle. He was more Demonic in appearance than he’d thought. He chuckled twice, but it came out awkward. “You do remember I said we’re adventurers, correct?”
“I have studied your kind. The texts of old do not tell kind tales. To me, they are one and the same, Demons and Adventurers.”
Oh, this again, Faenin had mentioned. “That was long ago,” Rowan tried. “Most adventurers are nicer these days. I am a nice Human under this Demon skin, if I may say so.”
Those sharp Elven eyes stared more intensely. “We shall see. For now, leave me be.”
And no progress here either. At least Faenin and the cousins were warming up. The only one remained was Liluth, who was most reserved out of everyone. She had a kind of regal air about her, yet humble and kind like a grandmother who hadn’t aged a day after twenty. Rowan could see why Faenin was so protective; she was like Gabrielle in some ways. These NPCs’ AI systems were far too realistic, which was a good thing, a great boon to the game.
The ground soon leveled out to an easier incline, soil and underbrush denser up here. The smell of dense pine returned, the gaps between the trees wide barely enough for the crates to fit through after Faenin cleared a barrow path with Forester skills. He held both palms outstretched, intoning a word in the mystic language. Orbs of blueish-green mana shot out from his palms and enveloped a trunk. The mana swirled for ten seconds. The pine fell over, a perfect, slanted cut at its base. Skylar stepped over the stump with extra care, Liluth offering a hand to steady the stack.
Eventually, Gabrielle woke with a groggy incoherent mumble as a familiar frothy mountainside waterfall and stream came into view—by a small meadow of yellow flowers. Glancing at the party list, Rowan whistled with his fingers, tasting salt. He tugged every slave thread. “Let’s take a drink, charge up on Stamina!”
Luthias offered a curt not. “My appreciation.” He took leave further down the stream behind cover of an oak.
“I wanna drink.” Gabrielle poked his chest. “Put me down by there.”
“Then down you go.” He placed her by the pebbles inches away from the shallow water, his arms instantly relieved and numb. Though there was a small risk for disease, the water was spring quality and they didn’t have time to waste building a fire and waiting for a pot to boil. Why couldn’t one of those six be a Cook? Damn frustrating.
“I’m not thirsty,” Faenin called from that eroded boulder. “Liluth and I will keep clearing a path.”
“You do that.”
As Rowan knelt for a Drink, he asked himself whether cutting out a path was wise—and decided it was indeed. They’d have to make one eventually to mine the gold by the spiders, so why not cut one out all the way to the lake? It was arguably a time-saver with little risk. He nodded to himself and sipped freezing water. It had a hint of minty pine and earthiness. Refreshing.
Viola came marching out of the forest with a basket that wasn’t filled even halfway, a crate on her opposite shoulder. Slight boredom weighed down her pretty features, and she tossed a minuet grin to Rowan before putting down the crate by the other nine, bending over. Her gangly, loose rags for clothing rode up in the action, and Rowan caught a peep of her backside. She wasn’t wearing underwear. His body fired up with desire, his gaze stuck like a bee drenched in a pot of honey. Honey sweeter and smoother than anything in the world.
“Row,” Gabrielle said in an exaggerated, sweet voice. “Ya have a sex slave right here, dontcha forget, and I’m much more real than that digital hussy. I’m just a bit mangled up cus my master didn’t take care of me properly.”
A cough smoked up his throat. His gaze hitched onto her with a strong heave from his brain. “You’re mangled up because you ate mushrooms that your master forbid.”
“Hmph. Not my fault when my master wasn’t feeding me enough.”
He gave her a long look. “You wanted to be the cook. Why didn’t you stop to wash and cook them? You had all day.”
Her tongued poked. Her forked tongue poked for a fraction of a second. It was longer and uncannily reptile-like.
“Look at your tongue. It’s forked.”
Her tongue slid back out, and her eyes skipped downward, then widened. “Whoah, I’m like a snake!”
“Yes, you are. And so am I.” His tongue flapped about in front of his nose, and they shared a genuine laugh. Their crimson slit eyes met with genuine affection, this moment only ruined by Skylar staring from afar, jealous envy in his eyes. Now that was someone ripe for manipulation; however, there was one little problem: this group lacked any single girls who could be dangled on a stick… unless he was into his own cousin.
Rowan mentally slapped himself for that thought. He cleared his throat, jerking his chin at Skylar. “Hey, eyes off. Get your own sex slave, buddy.”
Immediately he was taken aback. His eyes dropped. “Pssshhffft.”
Gabrielle, naturally, caught on with ease. “Awwwww… I’m sure there’s a beautiful slave waiting for ya to rescue her. Be a good boy and we might go on some rescue missions.”
“How about you piss off,” he grumbled, stomping away for a drink by the waterfall. He grabbed a basket and plucked a blackish-red berry from a bunch.
Viola was giggling. “He’ll have to gain some levels before he can enslave anyone.” She looked at Rowan with a raised eyebrow. “By the way, are you really only level ten or is that some kind of illusion?”
Gabrielle answered in an acidic tone, “If ya didn’t get the memo, all adventurers start at level one. I am indeed level eight, and my husband is indeed level eleven.”
“Ooooh,” Viola drawled, mimicking the tone, “thank you for clearing that up, but I read somewhere that some adventurers start with levels.”
“And where did you read that? In school?”
“How did you guess?”
Meanwhile, while they wasted time bickering like feisty, hot schoolgirls, Rowan was busy checking his character sheet window. That level-up notification during the slaughter had escaped him, and now three points have been waiting all night and morning—a possibly fatal mistake. Small, but nevertheless fatal. Chagrin grilled his burns. Echoes of pain lapped at his nerves as he dumped the points into Health. Zaine’s build would have to do; two parts Stamina, one part Health. If it was taught in their schools then it couldn’t be horrible.
Name: Rowan LeMort
Level: 11 (EXP: 120/28,000)
Fate: The Demonborn
Health: 6 (8)
Stamina: 24 (30)
Flow: 4 (5)
Six off from Stamina thanks to these burns. Double ouch. And below the usual, a new section hung from fiery chains.
Demon Rank: Fledgling
+25% pain reduction at all thresholds.
+33% effective Health and Resistance against heat physical and magical damage.
-33% effective Health and Resistance against cold physical and magical damage.
+50% effective Resistance against dark magical damage.
-50% effective Resistance against light magical damage.
Path Selection: Choose One
Hellfire Mana: Imbues your mana pool with the fiery magics of Hell. You shall gain a natural but limited command over all fire, able to ignite and snuff it out at will. +10% maximum Mana points. -20% maximum Health points. -10% maximum Stamina points. (This path unlocks your latent magic if you haven’t done so already.)
Unholy Stamina: Augments your stamina reserves with Unholy strength and agility. Your melee physical attacks will also inflict dark magic damage, for a Shroud of Darkness now envelopes you. +10% maximum Stamina points. -20% maximum Health Points. -10% maximum Resistance points.
Cursed Health: Curses your body, granting you immortality at great price. Upon death, your corpse will detonate for dark magic damage, and you will resurrect shortly after at the same location. +10% maximum Health points. +10% maximum Resistance points. -20% maximum Stamina points. -15% maximum Mana points. -10% maximum Luck points.
Astounding! How did I miss this? And there’s more too. Tips! Glorious tips!
*Tip 1: You may increase your Demon Rank at a Town Hall dedicated to Draesear. Consider doing so.
*Tip 2: Your path selection will increase in power as your Demon Rank increases, but the stat bonuses and penalties remain constant
*Tip 3: You may reset your Path selection at a Town Hall dedicated to Draesear, but this will also reset your rank.
Heaving cool breaths, Rowan’s fingertips tingled as he mulled over the three paths, his legs pacing by the waterfall spray. For sure, he wasn’t going with Cursed Health—no, thank you. He wasn’t a fan of playing as the tank. Healer—maybe. Tank? Hell, no. But for the other two, his logical mind urged him to choose Unholy Stamina, but his pounding heart, his soul, dragged him by the balls toward Hellfire Magic. With that he could truly set it all on fire, and he was going to set it all on fire.
Those Trolls were going to burn. Those Orcs were going to burn. This whole damned world was going to burn if they stood in the way of Gabrielle’s Mytube success, which was the actual goal here, he had to remind himself. Either that or making it big in the real-money market.
He cast his decision into the interface window, a mental punch.
Someone said, “Row, ya’ve been pacing for a minute. Ya alright?”
“I chose Hellfire Magic,” he whispered as a brief wave of euphoria coursed from limb to limb, head to toe, the magic piercing his heart and unlocking an indescribable feeling coming from all directions, a weak sixth sense, weaker than smell or taste. Magic was all around him, a constant ambiance. A yard in each direction, he could feel it as though wading through viscous fluid brimming with energetic life. Magic was life in this world. Everything was magical down to the singular blades of trodden grass and the tiniest specks of dirt.
Then sizzling pain stamped into his face, down his neck, onto both arms, and finally his palms. One by one, maroon runic symbols printed where the pain stamped. The rune for hellfire, he somehow knew, was engraved in thicker, larger font at the center of his palms. Dark magic, unnatural and destructive and grotesque in feeling, surged outward from his heart like a bomb going off in the fabric of reality, the air rippling. Birds flew away in the outpour.
The transformation was complete, the path chosen, and out of instinct, Rowan ignited two flames on his palms. The blackish-red fires of hell, scented with sulfur, greeted him kindly with warmth. Someone in the far distance was screaming in horrid pain as though they sensed the coming chaos, for chaos at last has come to this world. He grinned at Gabrielle, and she grinned in turn.
“Wait.” He blinked. “Shit. Someone is actually screaming in pain!”
“Ya just noticed? Hehehe.”