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The System’s timer dinging. I opened my eyes and read the message. [Cultivate for 30 minutes — complete.]

Instead of jumping to my feet, I stayed on the branch with my legs crossed and my fingers pressed together. My gaze swept over the thick mist that drifted through the semi-barren trees of Fogmire. That mist swirled around me, some of it even floating to and disappearing in my chest even though I’d finished cultivating — a trick that just activated a couple days ago. When I’d first started using Mist, I had to put effort into cultivating and drawing the moist particles into me. Now the mist was drawn to me, ever flowing to me as long as I stood in it. It wasn’t nearly as effective as cultivating, like a barely-there sip on my palette instead of a flowing stream, but I still enjoyed the feeling.

However, my mind right now wasn’t on my own cultivation, but on Miles’s from yesterday. And what it meant. I just couldn’t get rid of the uneasy feeling. I sighed and bent over to rub my palms on my forehead. I should be uneasy. My planet was in danger and my own people were happily helping it along.

I hadn’t completely given up telling everyone about it. Last night I had borrowed Henry’s computer and made an anonymous post on the Hunter’s forums about the dangers of the energy crystals. Within an hour, hundreds had responded negatively to it and the administrators pulled the post down. So I made another one, only to end with the same results. Only that time my account got blocked for a month.

I was starting to understand what Kesstel said, how no one ever believed him.

It made sense. I mean, the very livelihood of billions of people depended on energy crystals. So what should I do now?

A monster entered my range of awareness. My eyes narrowed and I turned my head to the right. Even though the mist was thick, it didn’t inpead my vision. If anything, it helped me see things, as if the dew particles created a 3D image in my mind.

Forty feet away, a large lizard covered in white, opalescent scales hopped onto the branch of a dark tree. Thick black claws gripped the bark as the large dog sized monster walked head first down the trunk, a bright blue tongue slipping in and out of its mouth.

A lizard. Just like what Miles had turned into.

Its title bar popped open. [Frost Anole Lv19].

The lizard monster reached the ground and slowly walked toward me. It paused and raised its nose in the air, its blue tongue flicking in and out again. It crept towards me once more. Its feet, each toe and connected claw twice the length of my fingers, moved silently over the moist ground. Honestly, if I didn’t have an advantage with the fog, I’d have no idea it was there.

I slowly stood up and pulled out my kindjal. A second later, I held a short sword in each hand. I took aim and threw my kindjal at it. Just before the tip pierced its neck, the Frost Anole dodged to the side. The blade sank through the monster’s shoulder, pinning it to the ground.

The Frost Anole hissed and screeched in pain. Its scaled body withered, curling against the kindjal. The blade lifted out of the ground as the Anole twisted. As soon as its white belly was revealed, I lunged down. Just like before, it dodged out of the way at the last second, evading my attack. I cleanly missed, leaving a gouge in soft soil.

The monster lashed out with its front claws. I blocked with my blade, only to be smacked in the chest with its tail. I grunted, all the air was beaten out of my body. I stumbled back but kept my eyes on the monster. It lunged forward, mouth wide open and angling for my head. Its pointed white teeth were so bright against its black gums.

I froze as yesterday’s scene played in my mind. I’d watched a man turn into a lizard, then shoved my kindjal down its throat. And Kesstel’s words — God, did this monster used to be a human too?

I Feather Stepped back and brought my kindjal up to block. The Frost Anole bit down on the blade. Ice formed around its mouth and spread across the crystalized metal. I twisted, wrenched the kindjal free and kicked it right in the skull. The monster fell back a couple feet and shook its head as if confused.

But I didn’t try to get closer to it. I couldn’t help but stare at it. I swore to myself when I started this journey that I wouldn’t get stronger on the blood of a human. But if all the monsters in the Gate used to be human, wasn’t I doing just that?

My foot shifted back. I wasn’t even aware of it until the ball of my foot landed on the ground. My eyes widened, in shock. I was … hesitating.

The Frost Anole instantly caught the scent of my weakness. In a flash, it jumped at me.

I swung around and leaped into the tree. I paused for a second, then fled as fast as I could through the mist.

An hour later, I sat on top of a red bricked building overlooking Gate Square and watched the activity below. When I first had the impulse to Feather Step up here, I thought I was being silly. But I’d needed to get away from the bustle and noise below. Maybe then I could clearly think. The black Gate loomed ahead, just as intimidating at this height as it was when I was on the ground next to it. I’d rarely associated it with anything good, but right now, it seemed more sinister than ever before.

If I was to believe Kesstel’s words, there was a parasitic planet on the other side of the Gate. One that could turn people into monsters. No, was turning people into monsters with energy crystals. According to my Daily Tasks, I still needed to destroy five of those crystals. I sighed and shoved my hands through my hair, messing up my ponytail. It had all been good and fine when I didn’t know that the monsters used to be human.

Kesstel said that after someone turned into a monster, there was no way to turn them back. But was that really true? If a Hunter could transform the one way, why not transform back? What if every monster I killed was someone who had a family waiting for them at home? A brother or sister, a mom or dad desperately waiting for news of their missing loved one?

My sigh turned into a moan of frustration as guilt tore at me. I knew what I needed to do, the System’s Daily Tasks were very clear on that matter, but I …

Slowly, I stood up and walked away, back to E Hostel.

*****

Ding! [For failing to comply with the Daily Tasks, a 24 hour punishment period is now in effect.]

*****

My eyes cracked open. I slowly focused on the off white ceiling above me. It was the same ceiling I’d stared at every morning for the last year. Why did the act of staring at it feel different? No, I was what felt different. My body felt … heavy. Sluggish.

I sat slowly up and dropped my face into my hands. What was going on? I wasn’t poisoned yesterday and all my injuries had been healed by my Limited Regen ability.

The System dinged. I dropped my hands and looked up.

[Daily Task: Cultivate for 30.]

[Daily Task: Destroy 5 Energy Crystals. Upon completion, stats will be returned.]

[Task: Prevent the Energy Crystal in Feng Jungle from crossing into Earth.]

I gasped. “What?” Stats will be returned? What did that mean? My stomach sank and twisted painfully as I pulled up my stats window. Oh my god. I was still level 17, but my stats had been reduced to what they were before I had started to level up. I stared at the single digit and dinky little 12 HP bar, feeling numb.

The bottom of the screen read: [Failure to complete yesterday’s Daily Task has incurred a Punishment Period. All stats have been reduced to their original value until the next Daily Task is completed, or for 24 hours, whichever ends first. Abilities and Skills are still available.]

That’s why I left so odd. I’d gotten used to the feel of being stronger. Of the feel of power coursing through every muscle as I moved. Of my radius of awareness being wide enough to feel any threat within forty feet off me. Suddenly, I was back where I’d started. A weakling with no awareness, just waiting to be picked off. It was horrible, seeing all my hard work suddenly disappear.

I stared at the message at the bottom of the screen, fully understanding what it meant. If I wasn’t going to do what the System wanted, I didn’t deserve the benefits it gave me. If I didn’t complete today’s task, the Punishment Period would start all over again. It allowed me to keep my Abilities and Skills, but if I didn’t complete the next Daily Task, those were probably going to be taken away next. How long would it be before I lost the System all together?

My inside froze. No. No! I couldn’t lose the System. I had just gotten my life together, I was finally making enough money that I wasn’t losing sleep and nourishment trying to figure out how to help my family. I was finally becoming confident in myself, thinking that maybe I was worth being alive.

If I lost the System, I’d be a nothing again. I couldn’t go back to that. I didn’t want to be weak anymore.

My hands fisted together until my palms ached. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I slowly let the air out, forcing my panicked emotions to calm down. I’d gotten comfortable with the System and its seemingly lax rules. I took for granted the fact that it didn’t punish me the last time I didn’t fulfill the Daily Task when the Gate Surge happened. But there was a line, and I’d crossed it yesterday. Blatant disobedience.

I wasn’t mad at the System for my punishment. I was horrified at knowing that I was a nothing again, but at the same time, it felt like a heavy weight was taken off my shoulders.

I’d been stressing about how to figure out which monsters used to be humans. About thinking that I was tearing apart someone’s family, and if I should really do it or not. I was under the illusion that I actually had a choice in the matter.

But I didn’t.

Even if they used to be human, if the System told me to destroy the energy crystal, that’s what I was going to do. There was a giant monster on the other side of the Gate Vale, waiting to absorb my planet. Every crystal I destroyed kept it at bay. It was a drop in the ocean, but that was my task. Prevent the crystals from getting into Earth.

I finally looked at the last task that popped up. [Task: Prevent the Energy Crystal in Feng Jungle from crossing into Earth.] It didn’t say Daily on it. So, did that mean that I could take as much time I needed on it?

I frowned. I’d heard about Feng Jungle recently, but where? As I thought, I got up and walked to my closet. My hand paused just before I touched a shirt hanging in there.

Ah, wasn’t that where Emma said the Stone Mace Guild was going to go tomorrow, or the next day? Slowly, I pulled the shirt from the hanger and put it on. The Feng Jungle was a long ways away from the Gate entrance. Since cars didn’t work in the Gate and horses were moving targets, in order to get to the farther away places, magic was required. It was something I’d never done, since I’d never been paired with a mage.

The Stone Mace Guild was going there for a special mission. While I changed into pants, my mind raced over past events. Wasn’t it just last year that another Guild carried out a special mission that brought a car sized crystal out of the Gate? Was that what the Stone Mace Guild was doing? Bringing a huge crystal out of the Gate? That would probably be the energy crystal I was supposed to keep from getting to Earth.

I opened my contacts and looked at Emma’s number. It was time to phone a friend. Since I didn’t have my own cell phone yet, I went to Henry’s office and used the phone there. I glanced at the clock, habit made me a morning person, but I didn’t know if Emma was. I hoped I wasn’t waking her up too early.

“Hello?” Her soft voice carried through the speaker.

“Hey, Emma, it’s Jyn.” I paused and tapped on the desk, trying to think of how to word what I wanted.

“Jyn! Good morning!” Instantly Emma’s voice was amped to a thousand watz. “Oh my goodness, I didn’t think that you’d call me so soon.”

“Yeah, about that,” I paused. “I want to ask a favor from you.”

“Of course, anything for you,” she said without hesitating.

I blinked, completely taken back. Emma, I thought aching inside, you really shouldn’t be so fast at promising things. You don’t even know what I’m going to say! I took a deep breath and focused on what was important. “You said a couple days ago that you were going to Feng Jungle with your Guild? I, ah, I’ve always wanted to see it. It’s not a place that I can get to by myself, you know? So I was hoping that you’d let me go with you?” I tried to keep my voice as longing and sweet as I could, selling ‘cute’ with all my guts to get what I wanted.

A disgusted shiver shook my body. God, I couldn’t believe I acted like that, but I had to get to Feng Jungle somehow. For the first time, I actually felt like a leech. Other Es attach to groups and Guilds all the time, doing petty work so they could brag about the places they’d been and showing off the ‘free’ energy crystals they’d earned to other Es. It was something I swore I’d never do, but here I was, leeching off my only friend.

I dropped my head to the desk and started bonking my forehead on the wood.

“Oh!” Emma sounded surprised then she hummed in thought. “Ah, well, I’d have to ask. I’m sure that Mason wouldn’t mind me bringing a friend. Other Hunters bring people all the time.” I had a feeling that Mason wouldn’t say no to anything she asked. Sadly for him, I doubted Emma had figured that out yet. “I’m glad you called now. We’re leaving in an hour.”

My eyes widened and I froze, head flat on the desk. They’d leave in an hour… and I was on probation. I might be going to one of the toughest locations in Gate Vale, where I needed to kill five monsters to fill my Daily quota, and only with my beginner stats.

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About the author

MichelleRReid

Bio: I am an author, mother, wife, and jack of all trades. I mean, every mom is, but I’ve found that through my research for different stories, I’ve picked up a lot of random (and sometimes actually useful) knowledge and skills.
I’ve had a vivid imagination since I was a child. And as much as I wish I could actually live in the worlds in my head, the closest I can get is with the words I put on the page. These characters are like real people to me. The funny lines they say, their emotions that make my heart bleed, the amazing things they can do that I physically can’t, the adventures and sights that I can see in my head. I love sharing those things with my readers and hope that they can feel at least a part of what I do.
I do have other works that are published through Amazon. They are not LitPRG, but I'm still really proud of them. Check them out if you have the chance.

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