Chris woke to the feeling of being dragged across grass as Sarah huffed and heaved on his body. It was slow going—his armor weighed him down—but he was definitely moving.
He jolted up, feeling the chameleon napkins spread across the left side of his body flapping wildly. The one protruding from his nose jostled again his lips, trying to wiped his already clean face even cleaner.
He looked away after a moment. The atmosphere of the Thaumic Strata had flayed napkins from his body—still attached by dangling symphyses of skin and color-changing cloth whose beginnings and ends seemed impossible to properly determine.
At least it wasn’t painful, in fact, apart from a pressing urge to clean away food residue, he didn’t feel much at all. That was good, at least. Or bad, maybe. Better not to think of it until he was through the portal. His remaining mana in his center was wan and weak. It would do.
He finally focused on Sarah, golden motes of light rose off her like fireflies, but he’d taught her—and the other four in Kingscastle—about controlling mana, she’d be fine. What he was worried about was the sound of the Thaumic Strata’s volatile nature reasserting itself.
Chris coughed lightly. Sarah looked at him.
“I can stand.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow as one of the chameleon napkins flapped particularly enthusiastically. Was that a spot of dirt on Sarah’s cheek?
Chris shook his head. Not the time for napkin thoughts. He followed Sarah through the Thaumic Gate. The chameleon napkins shuddered and strained away, trying to return to the Thaumic Realm. Then they went limp, suddenly becoming fleshy powder that dusted away on the faint breeze coming from the gate.
Then the pain started. Intact nerves, previously transmitting relatively calming napkin vibes, suddenly registered their reintroduction to the weakness of the flesh and outside air.
Chris danced from side to side, the air against his naked skin bringing him to the sudden realization that while his hammer was fine, half his armor—and all his shield—was long gone. It felt like a bad burn, but spread across his whole body as sensitive tissues suddenly found themselves exposed.
Breathing hurt, his lungs felt raw and tender, but less so than his body. He jumped on the spot for a while, cursing everything and anything nearby—except Sarah. Even in pain, she had probably saved his life.
Then, after he realized that pain interpretative dance was completely non-productive, he dashed as fast as he could toward Kingscastle and the buildings inside.
If there was one mercy, it seemed that much of the atmosphere’s strange transmutative properties had been delayed by the mesh of small, almost imperceptible, blood vessels beneath his skin which still sagged loosely in place like cobwebs of flesh. By his best guess, the Slime had kept them intact.
“Fuck. Pain. Skill. Fuck.” He slammed open the door to the Skill Vendor. Brim didn’t even flinch. He began walking at his usual pace toward a basket, pulled out a crystal, mumbled a few words into it, light shining between the cracks in his fingers.
10,000 System Coins. Done. Chris ripped the crystal out of the man’s fingers, pulled it into his body, then collapsed in gratitude on the floor when the pain abated considerably. Not fully, but enough. Enough to reduce it to a dull ache.
Damn. It was so much worse without mana in him. Singlemindedness through pain was certainly worth it in some situations, even with the downsides. He lay gasping on his back, shivering from the experience.
“Pain Resistance, Lord Christopher. F-2.”
That explained why it was so expensive then. System Vendors probably gave products of equivalent bodily rank—unless they were independently sapient like Blibl. Blibl was too weird to be System generated. That was for sure.
To reach an F-2 rank skill, the F-1 version also had to be bought. Buying the F-2 version on its own would be like building the second floor of a house before the first.
He lay there for a few minutes more, then pulled out one of the two potions he’d gotten from Blibl. Why hadn’t he used the potion? It would have saved him a lot of problems.
He pushed the vial straight into Sid, feeling healing energy fill him and his flesh returning back to normal.
That hadn’t been fun. Well, he definitely wasn’t trying doing anything as dumb as that again for a while.
Visit a mystical realm with strange rules and geometries, see that the air transmutes things without mana—try moving mana out of your body and into another. The logic was flawless, absolutely sound, completely lacking in fault. No one could have predicted what would have happened. No one whatsoever!
Chris grumbled to himself and rolled his eyes. Now he was down to a single potion. Lesson learned. Don’t do stupid shit.
On the subject of stupid shit, he checked his Beast Soul javelin. The strange energy inside still persisted, but he was unable to determine its nature. The energy that had been in Sid had disappeared once he’d returned to the tutorial’s realm, though.
He removed the Soul Gem from him, before it did anything like turn into a hundred tons of TNT inside him.
He was running low on potions, though; so, after a few more complimentary shivers, courtesy of his frazzled nerves, he returned to the settlement control pedestal back in the keep proper. He was running low on potions only a day after he bought more, it would be wise to build an Alchemical Vendor in Kingscastle. He couldn’t go visit Hartshire every time he needed to shop, even if seeing Blibl again would be fun.
However, something was still bugging him. When he’d returned to the tutorial, a sense of inhibition that had subtly dropped away, had immediately reasserted itself. The feeling had come from a tattoo he’d almost forgotten about. The tattoo of a small castle on his wrist. That of the Settlement Core.
He was almost tempted to run back and attempt to place it within the Thaumic Strata—without doing any stupid shit this time. He didn’t want to be thinking from the perspective of a napkin for the rest of eternity. Then he considered that placing the Settlement Core right next to the Thaumic Gate probably counted as doing stupid shit as well—even if there was an area of stability. It did seem that the System was on his side in this case. The Settlement Core was probably meant for stabilizing parts of the Thaumic Strata and bringing them into the System. It would likely have the same effect as the gate did, but on a larger scale. It was certainly interesting. That was for sure.
It was also very tempting, but he reined himself in. No more stupid shit.
For now. He mentally added, then reminded himself to thank Sarah later. He’d been a bit occupied previously.
Besides, he’d just spotted something very interesting on the building listings. Beside the System Alchemical Vendor buy button was a small arrow—something he hadn’t seen before. It expanded down to reveal two options.
Option one: Boring fucking System generated human. Though he might be misreading what the System was implying.
Option two: The Messiah herself. She of the most radiant eyebrows. Bringer of life-sustaining discounts. She of the most definitive and unquestionable humanliness.
Oh, fuck yes!