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They’re coming. Twenty of them. Straight ahead,” Rain said, tracking the slippery signals in his mind. “Get ready.”

 

He dropped Detection, preparing to use Refrigerate. The hounds entered the pool of light from Val’s orb, which was almost twice the size it had been the last time they’d been in the lair. Whatever metamagic he’d taken, it had made a significant difference. The hounds raced toward them along the uneven stone.

 

Rain activated Refrigerate with Extend Aura. He didn’t use any other modifiers, trusting that the base damage of the skill would be sufficient. The wave of cold that blasted out made him intake a sharp breath. He still wasn’t used to the new strength of the skill, and though it didn’t directly target him or his allies, the sudden plummet in temperature was worrying.

 

The wave of cold pushed outward, leaving a coating of frost along the tunnel as water froze out of the air, falling like snow. At rank 10, the effect was pronounced. He’d used it at this level of power before thanks to his modifiers, but he hadn’t been paying attention to how much frost the skill was creating. At the time, he’d been more concerned about being eaten alive by a pack of Kin.

 

As the wave struck the lead hound, there was a sudden yelp of surprise. The rest were quickly engulfed, the range of the aura more than sufficient to hit all of them, even those still in darkness. Rain registered a cascade of kill notifications after only a few seconds. He left the aura going for another moment or two, just to be sure, then dropped it. In all, the fight had taken less than ten seconds.

 

Well, that was easy,” Rain said.

 

No kidding,” said Jamus.

 

No fun is what it was,” grumped Carten. He stomped toward the hounds, his metal boots making crunching noises as he walked along the icy ground. He tapped the lead hound with his shield. It toppled over and fell with a thunk, frozen solid. Counter to Rain’s expectations, it didn’t shatter into a million pieces.

 

Val laughed. “You’re going to have to let us handle the next group. We didn’t get to do shit.”

 

Yeah,” Carten said. “Little Mouse ain’t so little anymore.”

 

Rain grinned. “See, this is what I’m talking about. Auras aren’t as weak as everyone seems to think.”

 

Ameliah shook her head. “These are level 5 monsters, Rain. It isn’t that impressive. The selective targeting is nice, though. I can’t think of another multi-target spell that would’ve been able to do that without damaging us as well.”

 

Right?” Rain said, still smiling. “I hear you, though. I wouldn’t want to fight that ram thing. Not with this strategy, anyway.” He shivered. His breath was coming out in frosty puffs. The tunnel wasn’t getting any warmer, so he switched to Immolate, heated the air back up to a tolerable level, then canceled it. “There, that’s better.” He switched once more, this time to Purify. The corpses melted away, the tiny Tel falling to the ground and glimmering faintly in the light of Val’s orb.

 

And he still has mana,” Jamus said, shaking his head. “We’re going to need to find another lair.”

 

Ameliah collected the Tel with her Attract skill and the group continued down the tunnel. They were in the cave-like area, not having encountered a single hound in the tiled corridors. The door that had opened onto the maze before had led them here, the lair apparently lacking the mana to generate the shifting hallways. Rain checked the completion percentage. It had dropped from 30% to 24% after he’d wiped out the hounds.

 

They ran into two more groups of monsters before they reached the chasm. This time, he just used Force Ward and let the others handle them. Carten, in particular, seemed to have something to prove. He launched himself at the hounds recklessly, heedless of their attempts to harm him. Rain’s aura seemed to be helping quite a bit, as the big man didn’t suffer a single point of damage, despite being bitten multiple times. Rain’s mana took quite a hit, though.

 

They stopped to rest before attempting the chasm. Rain used Aura Focus and Winter to recover. Nobody wanted to have a prolonged fight with the bats, so Rain decided to just deal with it. He used Detection first to confirm that the ram wasn’t lurking, then stood at the end of the tunnel and activated Immolate. He used Channel Mastery to reduce the power, but boosted the range to maximum with Extend Aura and Aura Focus. With the settings he chose, the intensity wasn’t any stronger than the base level, but the range was massive, just over 100 meters.

 

He held the skill for a good fifteen seconds, receiving bursts of kill notifications as the aura expanded to fill the chasm. When his senses returned, he immediately choked. The air was as hot as the inside of an oven and reeked of burning meat. He used Refrigerate to cool it down, then Purify to deal with the smell.

 

After that, Rain needed to rest again to recover mana. Ameliah took a quick trip down to the bottom of the Chasm to collect the Tel while the others complained about how boring the lair was now. All sense of tension was gone, though Rain was still wary. He periodically paused Winter to check for the ram with Detection. He didn’t want to be surprised again.

 

For Rain, the hardest part of clearing the lair turned out to be simply crossing the chasm. Logically, he knew that he was in no danger. The bridge was narrow, but not that narrow. He’d walked on sidewalks that were narrower. Force Ward was now strong enough to save him all on its own, and it wasn’t like Ameliah would even let him fall in the first place. Telling himself these things was only marginally effective. He fought to keep his discomfort from showing as they crossed.

 

The core room was cleared without any trouble, the remaining monsters barely making it into the room before being cut down. Val and Jamus were firing rapidly, with Carten intercepting anything that made it past the hail of magic with great prejudice. Ameliah hadn’t needed to get her hands dirty at all.

 

Once more, they left the core where it was and returned to the surface. Rain used Velocity at a low level to speed them on their way. All told, it had only taken them half a day to clear the lair, including the time spent walking to and from.

 

How much did we get?” Rain asked as the group returned to the camp. Carten tossed him the loot sack and Rain crouched to dump it out on the ground near the remains of the fire. He used Immolate to warm the air, rather than further depleting their supply of wood by starting a new one.

 

These auras are just so damn convenient. I’ve got personal climate control from a pair of spells that are supposed to be attacks. Ha.

 

He picked out three Dark Crysts and set them aside, then started dividing the Tel into piles. “Sixty-four each,” he said, scooping up his own share.

 

Eh,” Carten said, stooping to collect his as well. “Not bad for easy work. Still, I was hopin’ for more.”

 

Jamus laughed. “Don’t complain, Carten. Think about how many quests that is.”

 

Rain raised an eyebrow. “How many quests? Do you mean in terms of the rewards? It’s got to be pretty good. I don’t remember seeing that many high paying ones back in the guild.”

 

It depends on your risk tolerance,” Jamus said. “This is quite lucrative, given how easy it was. Any quest paying this much would be quite dangerous in comparison.”

 

Or annoying,” Val said. “There’s nothing worse than an escort quest.”

 

Rain laughed. “That’s funny. Everyone in my world would agree with you there. That’s just games, though. We don’t do quests in real life anymore. Or guilds, for that matter.”

 

What do you mean, ‘in real life’?” Jamus asked as he started adding wood to the fire pit. Rain was about to stop him when he noticed that he’d also brought the griddle over. Aoaka steak was worth using up a bit of wood.

 

Where do I even begin?” Rain said. “This is going to be tough to explain.”

 

Give it a try. We’ve got the time,” Val said. “I’m curious.”

 

Rain shrugged. “Ok, here goes. We’ve got these things called computers. They’re like…machines that think. Sort-of. I was going to university to learn how to program them before...” He trailed off, then swallowed. It still hurt to talk about, but he forged on. “Before my father died. I dropped out of school and…sorry, you didn’t ask for my life story.”

 

It’s okay,” Ameliah said. “You can tell us if you want. Or not. It’s up to you. I’m sorry about your father.”

 

Rain smiled. “Thanks. I’ll tell you about him later. Anyway, computers. Computers are, well, basically they follow simple instructions. You said dungeon cores are like that, right?”

 

Ameliah nodded.

 

Well, I’m still not convinced about that, but it gives me something to work with. Hopefully this won’t sound too strange to you. A computer program is just a set of instructions. If this happens, then do that, otherwise, do something else.”

 

What the depths does this have to do with games?” Carten asked. “Or with quests?”

 

Rain nodded. “Right, sorry. I’m getting to that. If you make a really complicated program, you can build a game. One of the popular types is called a role playing game, or RPG. You pretend to be someone you’re not, go on quests, have adventures, play with friends, that sort of thing. All without ever needing to go outside.”

 

I…don’t understand,” Jamus said. “Not the game part. Children do that all the time. Why do you need one of these…computers?”

 

Rain rubbed at his chin. “Well, you don’t I suppose. There’s this game called D&D where…oh. Why didn’t I just start with that? That would have been much easier to explain.” Damn it, I’m an idiot.

 

Rain,” Val said.

 

Rain sighed. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I’m really bad at explaining things. Cut me a little slack. The society I come from is very different. Honestly, this world seems more like a role playing game than reality.” He waved his hands around. “One of my theories is that this is all just a simulation and I’m stuck inside a computer.”

 

Huh?” Carten said.

 

Rain shrugged. “Well, we don’t really have computers that can do that kind of thing, but we weren’t too far away. Fifty years, maybe a hundred? Every time someone made a guess about when a new groundbreaking technology would be invented, they’d always be wrong. That’s another thing about my world. It’s changing fast. A few thousand years ago, it would have been closer to yours, but now…”

 

Humm, perhaps you could start with that,” Jamus said. “Tell us the history of your world, from then until now. That might help us understand.” He’d set up his griddle and retrieved the last of the fresh aoaka meat. He was looking down at his hands as he cut it into strips, but his tone was interested.

 

Yes. That would help,” Tallheart said. Rain jumped and whipped his head to the left. The antlered man was sitting next to him on the log.

 

How long have you been there?” Rain said. Ameliah laughed. Tallheart didn’t reply, but there was a smile in his eyes.

 

Rain shook his head. “Ok, why not? History was my worst subject in school, but I’ll give it a go. So there were these people called the Romans…no, wait, they weren’t first. Maybe Egypt or Babylon? Oh, and ancient China. That’s a really old civilization. Anyway…”

 


 

After lunch and his attempted history lesson, Rain spent some time training Force Ward. Rather than resume the punching game, he’d practiced on his own by hitting a large boulder. Force Ward didn’t work on the rock, obviously, but it did protect his knuckles. The timing was the only tricky part; he was using Aura Focus just as he struck to boost Force Ward, and thus the mana it consumed. He could already get his resistance to over 100% without that, but boosting it further made for faster training.

 

Jamus and Val hung out nearby, taking advantage of Rain’s Winter aura to do their own training. Val didn’t appear to have anything new, other than the fact that all of his spells were more powerful. He did seem to have a deeper mana pool, though, so Rain assumed he’d taken Intrinsic Focus.

 

Jamus, on the other hand, was practicing with a new skill called Levitation. The spell would let him temporarily modify the weight of anything he touched, making it float up into the sky, or so he said. Right now, he could only reduce the weight a little bit. Rain was curious, so he’d unlocked tiers 1 and 2 of Arcane Mysteries to have a look.

 

Arcane Mysteries

 

Tier 0

 

Arcane Bolt (0/10) (+)

Propel a burst of pure arcane energy

Deal 12-16 arcane damage (fcs) on hit

Range: 10 meters

Cost: 20 mp

 

Arcane Bulwark (0/10) (+)

Summon an immobile wall of arcane force

Blocks a maximum of 51 (fcs) damage of any type

Duration: 10s

Cost: 50 mp

 

Tier 1

 

Lightning Whip (0/10)

Summon a whip of arcane energy that crackles with electricity

Deals 5 arcane damage (fcs) and 1 force damage (str) on contact

Cast Time: 5 seconds

Cost: 30 mp

Sustain: 10 mp/min

Requires 5 ranks in Arcane Bulwark

 

Lightning Ball (0/10)

Charge and throw a compressed sphere of arcane lightning

Detonates on hit, dealing 202 arcane damage (fcs) in a 1 meter (fcs) radius

Lightning has a chance to arc to targets near the orb, dealing 20 arcane damage (fcs)

Cast Time: 5 seconds

Range: 10 meters

Cost: 100 mp

Requires 7 ranks in Arcane Bolt

 

Tier 2

 

Levitation (0/10)

Alter the effect of gravity on the touched object or entity

Effect may be sustained with concentration, with or without continued contact

Alteration: -20%

Cost: 100 mp

Duration: 5s (fcs)

Duration may be extended at an increasing cost of 0.1mp/s/s

Requires 23 ranks in Arcane Mysteries

 

Tier 3

Locked

 

Huh. Not many skills in here. Must be a lot of hidden ones. Looks like pure arcane stuff at tier 0, lightning stuff at tier 1, and gravity manipulation at tier 2. What’s tier 3? Time magic? Teleportation? Summoning of eldritch horrors? Hmmm.

 

Nah, I can resist. 1,100 experience for tiers 1 and 2 is all well and good, but 10,000 for tier 3 is a bit much. Anyway, there’s some interesting stuff in there. Assuming Levitation gets 20% per level, that’s weightlessness at level 5, and total gravity inversion at level 10. He looked up at the clouds, then down at Jamus, who was jumping around. It looked like he was falling to the ground just a bit slower than normal.

 

Cool, but unless he’s got a way to vary the intensity, that could be really problematic. Accidentally making yourself fall into the sky? No thanks. Pretty good as an attack, though. I wonder if Channel Mastery works. Also, would Arcane resistance block it? How would that work, exactly? It isn’t really dealing damage… Oh, and what counts as an object? Could he levitate a house? ‘Size matters not’ and all that? Damn it. There’s always more questions. Arcane Mysteries is right.

 

Rain spent the rest of the afternoon unlocking tier 1 for all of the trees he had access to. This was something he’d been meaning to do for a while, and it was a good way to safely exercise his soul without the sudden shock of a tier 3 unlock.

 

There were 144 trees in total, at least that he could see. He’d long since reviewed tier 0 for all of them, looking for anything that could boost his mana, mana regeneration, or his skills in general. There were plenty of interesting skills to be sure, but nothing that would synergize with what he already had.

 

He worked through the tier 1 unlocks slowly as his mana regenerated between bouts of rock punching. He managed to get everything, but by the end of it, he was starting to feel worsening spikes of discomfort with each unlock, warning him that his soul was reaching its limit.

 

Tier 1 as a whole held many interesting skills, but nothing that he considered immediately useful. There were a few elemental metamagic skills that might be worth a point far, far in the future, but there wasn’t anything that would benefit him enough to break from his plan, especially after the revelation about Specializations.

 

He pored over the different skill trees, thinking about potential builds that could be made and looking for patterns in the skills. He was able to glean a few things from his window shopping, but he couldn’t test his assumptions about how the skills would work in practice. Still, it was something to do while he was waiting for Winter to do its work.

 

I wish I did this ages ago. It’s just like reading through DnD sourcebooks. Fun for an afternoon, even if you never end up playing. I miss my old friends. I should have stayed in contact after I dropped out…

 

He sighed and rubbed at his eyes. It had been a long day, and all the experience he had spent had left him feeling off. Toward the end, the discomfort had stopped fading away completely with each unlock and started to build up in the background.

 

At least I’m getting a better sense for how things work now. I wonder if everyone does this? It’s not like there’s much else to do with your experience when you’re capped. Ha, maybe just not hundreds of trees at once.

 


 

The next day, Ameliah came up to Rain just as he finished his breakfast. He hurriedly swallowed and stood, wiping his hands on his pants before remembering that he could just use Purify. He activated the skill briefly as Ameliah watched him with an amused expression.

 

Good morning, Ameliah. What’s up?” Rain said.

 

Good morning, Rain. Let’s go hunting.”

 

He considered for a moment, then nodded. “Sure. We can do that. I just need to visit Tallheart this afternoon. He said he wanted to do some fittings for my armor.”

 

We should be back then. We aren’t going far.”

 

Sure then. I’ll come. I’m not sure why you need me though.”

 

Ameliah smiled. “Maybe I just want the company.”

 

Ah. Right.” Rain fidgeted. Ameliah was staring at him intently with a small smile. Damn it. I’m bad with women. I can’t tell if she’s just being nice, or if she’s flirting with me. And what’s with that expression? Rain glanced around. “Do you want to see if any of the others want to come?”

 

Ameliah shook her head. “Come on.” She turned and started walking away. Rain hurried to follow, then stopped, swore, and turned around to grab his pack. He shouldered it, then jogged to catch up.

 

Where are we going?” he asked as he fell into step beside her.

 

Just a small circle around the camp to start. Use your Detection aura and let me know if you sense anything.”

 

Oh. Right. I can do that. That must be why she wanted to take me. I’m an idiot. She wouldn’t be interested in someone like me. She’s a badass veteran adventurer and I’m…

 

Ameliah looked at him. “So, I’ve been meaning to talk to you for a while now. I haven’t had a chance with the others around. I do want your help hunting, but I also wanted a little privacy for this discussion.”

 

Rain’s thoughts ground to a halt. “About what?” he managed.

 

Ameliah took a step closer to him. “You’re kinda cute when you get all choked up like that, you know?”

 

Rain stopped walking. He could feel his face turning a furious crimson. I…what?

 

Ameliah laughed and stepped away. “Relax, I’m messing with you. Sorry, that was a little mean, but I couldn’t resist. You make it too easy. You need to work on your confidence. Anyway, that’s not what I want to talk about, but now that I’ve gone and brought it up…”

 

She paused, then motioned for him to follow. Rain unstuck his feet and hurried to join her. She continued after a moment. “I’m not looking for a relationship, and I’m not the type to just have a casual fling. I can tell you’re not either. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. It’s not that I don’t like you… I’m just not ready for anything like that…”

 

The silence stretched on. Come on, Rain, say something smooth. Anything, it doesn’t matter, just…

 

Ameliah broke the silence with a laugh. “Wow, this is awkward.”

 

You don’t say,” Rain said.

 

Ameliah shook her head. “Sorry, let’s start again. I wanted to ask you a question without the others butting in with their inane commentary.”

 

Rain nodded. “Sure, go ahead.” I’m so confused. Does she like me or not? Is there an instruction manual for this that I can order?

 

What do you want?” Ameliah asked. “In general, I mean. What’s your goal? What are you going to do when we get back to the city?”

 

Rain opened his mouth to reply, then stopped. He thought about it, then he thought about it some more. Ameliah waited patiently as they walked in silence.

 

I…suppose. I suppose I want to make the world…better,” Rain said. He sighed. “Wow, that sounds cheesy… I don’t know. Since I’ve been here, I’ve just been…reacting to stuff. I mean, at first, surviving was all I could worry about. I needed money so I could eat. My plan didn’t really go a lot further than that.”

 

Ameliah nodded. “And now?”

 

Now…I don’t know. I’ll get myself back into the guild, do some quests or something, maybe find someplace to live other than the bunkroom or Tallheart’s clearing. Maybe I can help him out there, too. I do actually know a bit about putting up buildings, assuming I can get the proper tools…”

 

And after that? You don’t want to go home?” Ameliah asked.

 

Rain shrugged. “No, I don’t think so. There’s nothing there for me. Not anymore. As for what I’ll do here…I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ll have any money problems, not since I’m level 18. I could just take it easy, go into business recharging mana in the guild or something.” He shook his head. “I don’t think I’ll do that, though. I feel…responsible. I should be doing something more with what I was given. That’s another reason I don’t think I want to go home. Either I’d lose my skills and just be normal again, or…yeah. I can’t even speculate about what keeping my magic would turn into if I went home.”

 

Ameliah nodded, waiting for him to continue.

 

I guess…I want to help people. I got lucky, getting such a high cap. I did this one quest to escort some workers in the sewer. The way they looked at me when they thought I could just magic the problem away…Well, I couldn’t. But now, now I could clear out every blockage down there all on my own. It wouldn’t even be hard. They were digging through literal shit, and an adventurer could just fix it like that.” Rain snapped his fingers.

 

So you’d solve all their problems? Become some kind of caretaker?”

 

Rain shook his head. “No, that’s not it. Well, kind of. I suppose if that was all I wanted, level 18 would be fine. I could already solve a ton of problems in the city, assuming I could work out some deal with the Watch. Purify for cleaning, Winter for mana regeneration, hell, even Velocity. I could revolutionize the shipping industry. No, that’s not what I want. Fel Sadanis…sucks. I shouldn’t be able to do that kind of stuff.”

 

Ameliah tilted her head. “I’m not sure I see what you are getting at.”

 

It should be better,” Rain said, gesturing with his hands. “Magic can solve so many problems, but not everyone can use it. The Watch is sitting on that lair to boost their own numbers, but I’ve never seen them actually do anything other than stand guard. I mean, that’s not nothing, but…”

 

Rain sighed. “Hell, even if I buy that essence monsters are really all that rare, there’s still a lot that you could do, even if you couldn’t awaken everyone. Enchantments, healing, all that stuff. That should be free. Do you know some asshole in the Guild tried to charge us for healing while Val was sitting there dying?”

 

Ameliah smiled. “I agree. It could be much better. It is better in some places, but others…others are much, much worse. So what are you going to do about it?”

 

Rain shrugged. “I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not strong enough to change the world on my own. I need to be stronger, and I need allies.”

 

Ameliah laughed.

 

Rain blushed. “Hey, come on. You asked. I know it sounds stupid. Even I think so. I’m…just some guy. Where I came from, I was a nobody. But here…”

 

Ameliah held up a hand to stop him. “I’m not making fun of you. I’m laughing because you remind me of someone.”

 

Who?” Rain asked.

 

Ameliah smiled. “Me. When I was five.”

 

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