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Tabitha and I stopped in the middle of a large clearing, an oddity considering how deep in the forest we were.

 

All around me, ferns and other bushes had grown to cover what used to be barren soil. Tree saplings dotted the edge of the clearing, slowly encroaching in on the open space. Inevitably, the trees would once again take over, and any passing hunter wouldn’t be able to tell there was a clearing here in the first place.

 

Only those like myself, who knew what once stood here and who called it home, would remember the battle that took place here.

 

Looking to my side, I meet Tabitha’s eyes. She’s been watching me since we stepped into the clearing, not saying a word, but that was hardly new.

 

“This was where we fought the goblins," I inform her in a somber voice. Almost a year ago, our village marched on the goblin village, and so much had changed since then. Yet, standing amongst the last remnants of what was the goblin’s camp, I can’t help but imagine what it would’ve been like if I was as strong as I am now? Would I’ve been able to take on the goblins by myself?

 

I kick a burnt piece of wood hidden underneath a patch of vines. No, that's a stupid idea. Even if I were as strong as Tabitha, I wouldn’t have been able to solo an entire goblin horde by myself. Then again, I glance at my armored companion, and I could imagine her pulling it off. Maybe it’s just me putting her up on a pedestal, but I couldn’t see her losing to a bunch of level 50 goblins, no matter how many there were.

 

“I figured as much,” Tabitha responds, eyes darting to various spots around the clearing. I don't know how she did it, but she perfectly picked out the pits we dug to cremate the goblin corpses. “Does your village deal with goblins often?”

 

"Yes, but nothing like this. Ever since I was a baby, there have always been small bands of goblins roaming the forest. However, it was only last year that a horde came out of the magic-dense region. Have you seen a lot of them on your patrols?”

 

I've heard the hunters mention that they've started to see small bans of goblins again, but not at the frequency they once did.

 

“A few," Tabitha tells me. But, by her tone of voice, I could tell she doesn't consider them worth mentioning further. “Are we close to the magic-dense region?”

 

“We are,” I point north. “At the speed we’re going, we’ll reach it in two hours. Do we stop here for the night, or do you want to get closer before we break for camp?"

 

“Here will be fine,” Tabitha says, setting her bag down. “It will be better to camp now and travel two hours tomorrow rather than risk camping on the edge of the magic-dense region. So enjoy it because tonight will be the last peaceful rest you’ll get until we leave.”

 

I take Tabitha up on her advice and settle in for the night. We get a small fire going, but I don't have anything to cook, unlike last night. It was surprising, but for some reason, we've encountered fewer and fewer animals the closer we got to the magic-dense region.

 

Grabbing some jerky and a biscuit out of my bag, I sit down next to the fire and nibble on my rations, though it didn’t take long to finish them. It was still too early to try and sleep, and Tabitha didn’t look like she was in a talkative mood, so I started to meditate.

 

I was still trying to create physical threads of mana, and thanks to our proximity to the magic-dense region, I didn’t need to worry about regaining enough mana by tomorrow. I was already absorbing 10% more mana than usual, and that was without me pulling it out of my surroundings.

 

Sitting there, illuminated by the firelight, I tried practicing my mana skills. Only…. I couldn’t focus enough; the mana around me was far too distracting.

 

I didn’t notice it when we walked into the clearing, but now that Meditation was amplifying Sense Mana, I could sense the pockets of dark mana twisting underground. And all of it centered around the cremation pits.

 

The mana was as dark as the void that surrounded my soul. When I looked at it, the mana sent shivers up my spine and reminded me of when I met the goddesses Ilia and Ebeon, be it to a much lesser degree. This was the first time I’d seen so much death mana in one place. And that was the only thing it could be, mana that personified death.

 

Although it was spine-chilling to watch, the dark mana was fascinating to observe. It was the slowest type of mana I’d ever seen, churning and shifting even slower than the water mana in snow and ice. I thought the mana form of death would be corrosive or clash with the other forms of mana around us, but it didn’t. Instead, the death mana seemed to follow the path of least resistance, acting like slime placed in sand. It mingled with other forms of mana but didn’t mesh with it. I spent the next couple of hours watching it, even as the sun went down.

 

From fiction back on Earth, I thought death mana would be more sinister and try to devour everything around it, like a virus in a zombie movie, but that didn’t happen. In fact, when I focused on the borders of the mass of death mana, where it interacted with the mana around it, I saw an interesting thing happen. The other types of mana were feeding on the death mana and growing more vibrant in return. It was a slow process, but it was happening nonetheless.

 

I guess it makes sense; when organisms die, they break down and become nourishment for the living; it only made sense the same was true with mana. If it wasn’t for the possibility of undead spawning, I’m sure death mana wouldn’t be as feared as it is.

 

While making a few hypotheses on the nature of death mana, I watched a small bubble of it break off from the whole and squirm its way up to the surface. I was expecting to see it disperse into the air, but instead, it started to inflate like a horrific balloon animal as soon as it broke ground. And it wasn’t the only one.

 

Multiple spheres of death mana emerged from the ground around us, and I watched in horror as they took on the shape of goblins. “Tab- tab- Tabitha!” My voice cracked as I tried to get her attention.

 

“I see them, don’t worry,” she assured me as I drew my hammer and stood up. Would a hammer even work against a ghost?

 

Ten feet away from me, a spectral horned hob wielding a wooden club formed and started to float towards me.

 

I wasn't going to wait for some ghost to get the drop on me, so I Flash Step next to it and swing my hammer at its head. My hammer passed right through the ghost, obliterating its head into thousands of mana wisps. I smile as the air pressure from my swing is enough to disperse the rest of it. I guess ghosts aren’t as dangerous as I thought.

 

My smile quickly falters when with Sense Mana, I watch, horrified, as the ghost slowly starts to reform. Nearly twenty ghosts had appeared around the clearing, and I was about to start panicking.

 

“Aaliyah, stop it!” Tabitha’s voice cuts through my anxious thoughts as I am about to swing my hammer where the ghost would reform. I pause mid-swing and turn to look at Tabitha, who was still calmly sitting in her seat next to the fire. "Leave them be and come sit back down," she ordered me in a way that left no room for argument.

 

“But?” I anxiously look at the specters around us, then back to Tabitha.

 

She points at the seat across from her, Sit!”

 

Lowering my weapon, I nervously make my way back to our campsite, eying the multiple specters around us. “They can’t hurt us?” I ask tensely.

 

“They cannot,” Tabitha reassures me, going so far as reaching over and shoving her arm into another ghost goblin that was floating close to her.

 

The specter doesn’t so much as flinch as she waves her hand around to make a point, even as her movements disperse half the ghost. The ghost’s eyes are empty, and it never even glances at us as it slowly reforms and continues to float in the direction it was initially heading.

 

“Are they ghosts?” I nervously ask.

 

"Remnants," Tabitha tells me like her one-word description would answer all my questions.

 

“Are remnants ghosts?” I push for further answers while nervously looking around us, trying to track each remnant's movements.

 

“Not quite; there shouldn't be enough death energy here to support a ghost,” she lazily explains, calmly glancing over each apparition. "If there were a ghost among them, it would've been the first to appear, and it would’ve lunged at us immediately. There might have been enough death energy here to support one ghost initially, but if you said it’s been a year since the village’s slaughter, most of the energy should’ve dissipated by then.”

 

“I thought we burned corpses so things like this wouldn’t happen? And energy; are you talking about the death mana underneath us?”

 

Tabitha smirks at me. “I suppose you would be able to sense it with your skills,” she eyes the ground underneath us. “Do you sense any bodies?” But before I can answer her question, she starts second-guessing herself. “No, if there were any here, they’d have already crawled out by now.”

 

“Can you not sound so relaxed!” I hiss, to which Tabitha only smiles wider.

 

“I take it this is your first time seeing the undead.”

 

“No, I see ghosts walking around the village every day!” I snap sarcastically.

 

Tabitha shrugs. “I don’t know everything you’ve experienced. In any army, it's a commonplace to learn about the undead and what to look out for. What you see around us are remnants, fragments of the souls of the goblins who died here, empowered by the death energy underneath our feet. They can’t interact with anything in our world, and nothing would happen even if you walked through one. So, really, you don't know any of this?" Tabitha gives me a questioning look.

 

“No!” I scowl, cursing my lack of knowledge. “I’ve been to the area the village scatters people’s ashes; how come I’ve never seen one of these remnants before?”

 

“Probably not enough fresh ashes," Tabitha explains to me. "Remnants need death energy to exist; once it dissipates, so do they. It takes dozens of freshly dead to summon one of them.”

 

“Do they know that we’re here?” I ask in a quiet voice.

 

“Who knows,” Tabitha remarks. “I don’t think they do.”

 

Even though I’m afraid to ask, I know I need to. So, I gather my courage and ask Tabitha, “What about other undead? What about ghosts?”

 

“Ghosts are a step above remnants,” Tabitha tells me. “Unlike remnants, ghosts can interact with our world, and like other types of undead, they are drawn to living creatures, especially those with high levels.”

 

“Why is that?” I ask, having a decently high level myself.

 

“The higher someone’s level is, the more death energy they release when they die. Ghosts and other undead need that energy to live; that's why they are violent to anything living. But you don't have to worry much about astral undead; they need a specific environment to move about. You can starve an astral undead by simply avoiding its territory; eventually, they'll disperse. It’s zombies and ghouls, and to a lesser extent, skeletons, that you need to be wary of. Dead flesh and bones trap and even produce a small amount of death energy, allowing undead with a body the ability to roam. That’s why cremation is considered a must.”

 

“What about Drey?” They have to have enough regular deaths to produce remnants. Now that I think about it, what about after large-scale battles. What would it be like if remnants formed then? Wouldn't they look like your comrades? A shiver runs up my spine.

 

“Priests with specific skills watch over graveyards. They help the death energy disperse faster, so Remnants don't spawn,” Tabitha explains to me.

 

Then they probably have priests travel with the army to keep the dead from rising. I knew there were priests in this world, but I never thought about what they did. They have to use magic to disperse the death mana, but is it the same type of magic everyone else uses or is it based around faith? I’ll have to ask to speak to one when I leave the village. Though, if they worship those shitty gods, I’ll have to watch my heathen tongue around them.

 

Tabitha has told me a lot, but she still hasn’t answered my biggest question. “So, what are they?” I watch as a remnant floats between us and through the fire.

 

“Weren’t you listening?” Tabitha looks a little exasperated. “I told you they’re called remnants. Do I have to explain everything again?”

 

“No, I got that part, but what ARE THEY? What are they made out of?”

 

Tabitha shakes her head. “Why must you always ask me philosophical questions? Do you think I know how the world spins or what the Gods have planned?"

 

I resist the urge to explain gravity and magnetic fields to Tabitha; as to what the gods are planning, I'd rather not know. "I was just curious,” I smirk.

 

“You’re always curious,” Tabitha tells me with a deadpan look.

 

"So, you shouldn't be surprised," I snicker.

 

The back and forth with Tabitha did wonders to settle my nerves. The eerie specters were still unsettling to look at, but now my curiosity outweighed my trepidation. I saw the remnants form out of death mana, or death energy as Tabetha refers to it. Huh, death energy does roll off the lips a little easier.

 

Regardless, I know they’re made out of mana, but Tabitha said they were soul fragments, didn’t she? If I use Sense Soul, I should be able to see if that is true or not.

 

I activate my skill and struggle not to let my surprise show on my face. I’ve come to trust Tabitha a lot, but that didn’t mean I was comfortable disclosing my tier 5 skills with her.

 

In my eyes, the remnants weren’t soul fragments; they were moving chunks of experience; and not in the ‘if I kill them, I’ll earn experience’ kind of way. No, the remnants were experience points shaped and animated by death energy. Using my skill on the remnants didn't cause any feedback as living people did, so I could stare at them indefinably, meaning there wasn’t truly a soul in any form there.

 

I wasn’t 100% sure, but I’d wager these remnants were composed of the experience that naturally dissipates after something dies. Somehow the death energy must have gathered them and made the specter before me. They were the outer part of a goblin’s soul; that's why they take on their appearance. And if that was true….

 

I could devour these ‘ghosts’ without fear of repercussion. They weren’t alive by any definition, so it should be ok. So, holding my hand out, I start to activate Soul Devourer.

 

“They won’t bother us while we sleep; if anything, they'll keep any local wildlife away. You, ok?” Tabitha’s voice brings me back to the present.

 

I swallow a lump in my throat. What the hell was that; I almost activated my tier 6 skill even though Tabitha is right there! It was like as soon as I justified absorbing them, I didn’t think about anything else!

 

“I’m fine,” I force a smile. “Just getting used to their presence,” I add when Tabitha doesn’t appear to be convinced by my lie.

 

Tabitha’s eyes narrow, but she doesn't push me more than she already has. "Alright then, you took first watch last night, so I’ll go first tonight.”

 

“Sounds good,” I quickly wrap my rain poncho around me and use it to cover my face, so Tabitha can't see my panicked expression. I roll on my side, facing away from her, and question why I almost did something so stupid. And perhaps worst of all, why a part of me still wanted to devour the remnants, consequences be dammed.

 

Since the Grey thing, I haven't used Soul Devourer; I thought I was above being affected by the skill, especially since Mental Resistance recently hit level 60, but I guess I was wrong.

 

This was not something I wanted to deal with right before I entered the most dangerous place I’d ever been in both my lives and that included the mine I lost my life in.

 

I try to bury my feelings of unease, but my usual tactic of hiding my emotions deep down wasn't helping me this time.

 

Tonight was going to suck!

 

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A note from kosnik4

2,900 words.

 

How’d you like the undead explanation? I know I mentioned their existence ages ago and never really did anything with it.

 

Next chapter Aaliyah and Tabitha will finally be entering the forest proper.

 

I hope you enjoyed the chapter, and as always, stay safe.


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kosnik4

Bio: Just love a good story.

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