There wasn’t a cure for Sleepers … yet. I had clung to that hope for years so that I didn’t collapse. I needed that sliver of hope. Life can, and does, beat me all it wants, but my family had to be okay. I wasn’t a chemistry expert but I knew that antidotes and vaccines were made by joining ingredients together.
A given, yes, but it only worked if it was the right ingredients. After twenty years of experimenting, if they hadn’t found the right combination that meant a couple things: The right ingredients weren’t on Earth, so they had to be in Gate Vale.
Since the disease didn’t exist until after the Gates appeared, it solidified that thought all the more in my mind. The sleeping disease must have come from the parasite … The gears turned in my head … So something from the parasite must heal it? If that were true, it meant there were either one or more monsters that Hunter’s hadn’t found or hadn’t turned into the Research Department who was working on the cure.
So I needed to start collecting monsters, every single kind, until I found the ones that were missing. My System agreed to notify me when I came across a helpful drop item for my personal cause, then all that was left was getting strong enough to take on the Gate and mastering the skills that I had.
I started in Edmond Woods and literally checked off from a list every monster I killed. Since it was an E level forest, it wasn’t a problem mining. The hardest thing was finding all of the types of monsters there that I need to kill. Three days later, I moved onto Glenn Holt. I’d sworn that I would never step in there again, but I did. Between a grudge and helping my mom, it was obvious which way the scales would tip. Four days later, I scratched off all the monsters on that list and gained another level. I got a lot of loot in that week, but none of it triggered a response from my System that I found something helpful.
Next, I went to Fogmire. I’d spent a lot of time there, but I hadn’t hunted down every kind of monster in it yet. It was also the best place to practice using mist because I could manipulate the natural fog already there. It was a bigger region and certain smaller monsters were harder to find, but a week and another level later, I finally checked off my whole list — and still came up empty-handed for ingredients.
After a day of grinding on unhelpful monsters, I stood in front of a level 16 Treant and took a breath. Late evening light cracked through the misty air and left hazy highlights on the monster tree’s gnarly bark. It seemed all the more harmless. If it wasn’t for my heightened senses, I might have overlooked the thin lines indicating its closed eyes and mouth. I spun the kindjals in my hands and whistled short and shrill.
The tree monster’s eyes popped open.
I let out another whistle.
Two limbs of the Treant shot at me. Months ago, the attacks were so fast, I could barely see it move. Now… Hah.
I swiped my left kindjal in an arc in front of me. As I did, the mist solidified, creating a half circle barrier. The Treant’s studded hands, with tiny little twigs as fingers, smashed into a barrier and stopped a foot from my forehead. Before it could react, I jumped high and threw my left kindjal. It sank into the bark at a sharp angle right between the Treant’s creepy, slanted eyes. The monster let out a guttural rumble and twisted as the blade wobbled between its eyes.
Still in the air, I kicked off a line of solid mist and shot at the Treant before it could retract its limbs. I landed on the blade’s handle with all my weight. A huge chunk of bark and tree flesh popped off with a crack as I forced the kindjal down to the monster’s mouth. Black sappy blood dripped from the gouge. The Treant let out another rumbling wail. I twisted and thrust the kindjal still in my hand right between the monster’s eyes, through the divot of exposed wood. An inch before the guard hit the tree, my blade stopped — had its energy crystal blocked it? The crystal shattered and the Treant instantly disappeared into a million tiny lights that fades away in seconds.
[You have Leveled Up!]
[Gained Skill: High Jump.]
“Yes!” I whispered and threw my hands into the air.
I knew that last Treant would do the job and get me to the next level. I was finally a quarter of the way to where Kesstel was. Okay, I didn’t actually know if he was level 100 or not, but I just assumed that he was. In my mind, he was the pinnacle of power. He would have to be to survive more than one planet collapsing, right? More importantly, I was getting stronger and checking off monsters, steadily narrowing down the possibilities toward helping find a cure for Sleepers.
I couldn’t help but feel good about myself, even if leveling up was a small victory in the grander scheme of things. It felt good to be at the top of the food chain. I felt like I was actually doing things, instead of running away from everything like I had once-upon-a-time in the Feng Jungle.
I smiled and picked up the drop items — a huge chunk of Treant bark and a piece of lumber — then opened my menu.
EXP to Next Lv 1175
Strength 50 (+20)
Constitution 44 (+20)
Stat Points 0
Mist (Improved) (40 ft)
I gasped. I was C ranked? I was finally a C rank! For the first time in my life, I was on par with most of the Hunters in the world. C was the most common of ranks, but there were obviously different levels in the rank.
Levels 1-9 were E. Levels 10-24 were D ranked. So how many levels until I was a B? Emma was a C ranked Hunter, but she was level 48, so she must be on the high side. I think. Either way, this called for a celebration.
I was practically humming as I exited the Gate. Where should I go for dinner? My debt to Henry was officially paid off and I still had some money left over from my Stone Mace contract, so I could spare to treat myself. My day-date with Aliya was the first time I’d eaten at a restaurant in Eden, so it wasn’t like I had a regular haunt.
A familiar presence approached from the right, pulling me out of my thoughts. I looked over as Kesstel walked up and stopped next to me. He was in khaki pants and a button-up plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up, showing off his strong forearms.
I blinked at him, wondering what he was doing here. Then again, I was starting to get used to him just randomly appearing. “Good evening?” I left the question open, tossing the ball onto his side of the conversation court.
“Evening. It’s getting close to closing time.” He nodded his head towards the sun, low enough to be barely visible between city buildings. “You shouldn’t cut it so close.”
I bobbed my head absentmindedly. “I’ll remember that next time.” As if it wasn’t something every single Hunter knew. There were only twelve people in Eden that could survive being inside the Gate at night, and one of them was standing beside me.
A horrifying thought suddenly struck me. What if the reason why there wasn’t a cure for Sleepers was because the needed ingredients were from monsters that only emerged within the Gate at night? God, was I going to have to work up to an S to find out? Would I even have the time before Mom passed away?
Kesstel tapped my forehead gently. “Hey. You’re spacing out on me.”
I jumped and focused on him. “I-I was just thinking something.”
He tipped his head to the side and started to walk. “Come on.”
With a sense of déjà vu, I caught up and we walked side by side. “Where are we going?”
“To celebrate,” he announced.
“What?” He wasn’t seriously psychic was he? I mean, if he were, that was a line that shouldn’t be crossed.
His lips pulled up in the corner. “Today was my last day on the job and now I’m free. That’s cause for celebration, right?”
Oh, right. He did say he only had two weeks left. Has it really been that long? I’d been so busy throwing myself into grinding that I lost track of time.
I paused when Kesstel turned and started walking towards A District. Even with my splurge money, there wasn’t a single restaurant that I could afford there. And I shuddered to think about the entry prices of the few clubs there. They were rumored to be the best in the city on food and drinks — and their prices were rumored to reflect it. There was a reason why only A ranked and higher Hunters went to them.
He noticed my hesitation and looked at me. Then he reached out and lightly took my wrist. If I wanted to pull away, it would be really easy. “Come on. It’s getting late.”
I bit my lip. “I’m actually not that hungry,” I lied. “And I’m not really a party girl, you know? I’m sure there are others —”
“None that I want to spend time with,” he cut me off. “This restaurant tastes great and there’s nothing party about it. Even if you aren’t that hungry, I’m sure you’ll find something that you like. As a gentleman, I’m paying and I don’t care if you waste my money.” He paused and looked right into my eyes. “Eat with me?” He tugged on my wrist, just enough to catch my attention.
Oh my god, what right did he have to act like an abandoned puppy? He was on the pinnacle of everything. That should be illegal! For a second, I wanted to scratch his ridiculously bred-to-be handsome face for having the gall to guilt trip me like this.
I took a deep breath and looked to the side. “Okay.”
I didn’t know if he was worried that I’d back out or something, but before I knew it, I was seated at a table at an Italian restaurant in A District. The decor was classy and sophisticated, with lots of space between the tables. Kesstel requested a booth in the back corner behind a couple decorative ferns where the lighting was low and it was next to a tinted window that looked out over the street.
I stared at the menu, trying to figure out what to do. This place served all their dishes family style, so everything came huge and expensive. Geez, I had just been going to go somewhere for cheap fast food to celebrate. Finally I settled on one of the cheaper things on the expensive menu — Chicken Alfredo. That should be good enough, right?
I glanced at Kesstel. I thought that someone like him would be celebrating in a bar, with loud music and flashy entourage. Like the glamorous lives that I’ve seen on the TV. I never would have thought he’d choose a nice Italian place to celebrate.
It was all I could do not to shift on my bench. It’s not that the navy blue cushioning or the dark wood backing was uncomfortable to sit on, but I didn’t know what to do or say. Sitting together like this, with diners stealthily eyeing us from across the room, was unnerving. It was so much different than when we were walking in the forest, where I was forced to focus on the person seated in front of me. Especially someone that I had already decided I was going to stay away from.
I blinked and realized that I was still in my armour. It was so comfortable that I forgot what I was even wearing. I bit my lips. I had a spare pair of clothes in my Items Bag. It was just a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Nothing fancy and not appropriate for a place like this, but it was better than dirty armour.
The waiter stopped by our table and smiled at us, his eyes flicking nervously at Kesstel. Even though he was holding back his aura, the D ranked young man was still affected. “Are you ready? What can I get for you?” The pen in his hand shook with a fine tremble.
I glanced at Kesstel. Was there anyone that treated him like a normal person?
He was looking at me. “Do you know what you want?”
I blinked and looked down at the menu. “Ah, yes. A Chicken Alfredo and a side salad with ranch, please.”
The waiter wrote it down. “And what to drink?”
“Just water is fine.” I motioned to the full glass in front of me.
The young man turned to Kesstel and his back became a little straighter. “What can I get for you, sir?”
“A Chicken Parmigiana, a Shrimp Scampi, a Lasagna Classico, some steamed vegetables, a side salad and a basket of breadsticks,” Kesstel said without batting an eye. “He closed his menu and handed it to the young man after he was done scribbling. “And water is fine for me too.”
I nearly choked on my breath and tried not to stare at Kesstel. I leaned on the table and lowered my voice. “These dishes are family style.”
Kesstel gave me an odd look. “I know.”
My brows rose. Did he seriously plan on eating all of it?
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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.
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