After resting for a bit, I got up and dragged the Wailing Hound’s carcass closer to the stream’s bank. After letting go of the carcass, I placed my hands on my waist as I looked at it. I needed to skin the monster but except for my sword, I had nothing else on me. I glanced at my sword, which was laid on the ground. It was too long which made it inconvenient for skinning.
Sweeping my gaze across my surroundings, I wondered if I could use any type of stone to craft a knife. I could use the sword to sharpen it. Granite would be ideal but I wasn’t sure if it even existed in this world. Sighing, I went about collecting pieces of stone. I didn’t stray too far from the stream, worried that another monster might be attracted by the scent of blood and rob me of my hard-earned hunt. Eventually, I managed to collect several appropriately-sized stones before going back to the carcass.
I sat on the ground, cross-legged. Pebbles dag into my skin but I didn’t pay attention. I placed my sword before me, its cold handle resting against my shoulder. I chose the best looking stone from the ones I collected and proceeded to grind it against the sword’s blade. I made use of my strength stat and my sword’s unique proprieties to make the side of the stone as sharp and smooth as I possibly could. As I continued to work with my hands, the many unsettling thoughts clamoring in the back of my mind quieted down.
This was why I chose to become a mechanic instead of going to college. Since I was a child, I had always loved to work with my hands. The process of fixing, tweaking and creating things with my very own hands offered me a sense of peace little else could. All the terrible things in my head would melt away as soon as I sank myself into my work. My work was, in a sense, my safe space.
During my early teen years and back before my nana sold the farm, I would often go around helping her repair loose fences, broken sheds and leaking roofs. I always felt an incessant need to do something. Idleness stifled me. My nana often joked about me being a restless soul who seemed to be a constant search of something.
It was nana’s sweet way of explaining away a perfected coping mechanism. This is was also the reason I had chosen to practice taekwondo as a form of physical exercise instead of buying a subscription at some gym. The discipline helped me to not get too stuck inside my own head.
I suddenly found myself thinking of my mentor and my sparring partners at the Dojang. I never missed a session in my five years there, did they wonder about me? Did they think of me?
Before I could I drown in melancholy, I shook my head. Let’s not get into that rabbit hole, let’s try to stay positive. I can do this, I can get through this. By the time I finish this final quest thing, I will go back home in no time. Yes, let’s keep that mindset.
I brought myself back to the present and continued to concentrate on my work. I didn’t know how much time passed before the stone started to take the shape I wanted it to. I inspected it carefully, noting that it was as sharp as it could possibly be at the moment.
Satisfied, I stood up and approached the carcass. Whenever a sheep grew too old or too sick to live, my nana would mercifully put them down and then skin them afterwards. She would often say that it was disrespectful to god if we wasted anything he gave us. When I was a kid, she would chase me away and not let me see but as I grew older, she would let me set by her and watch if she needed any help.
Using those memories of the many times I had watched my nana do it, I began to skin the monster. It was a long and tiresome process. Because I wasn’t proficient at it, I did nick the skin couple of times, ruining the hide in some spots. Eventually with time and patience, I managed to do it.
I put the hide aside and took my sword, chopping off the monster's head. I let it bleed out for a bit, away from the stream. It took a while for it to stop bleeding. I then dragged the carcass into the water to wash the blood and the dirt off of it. After cleaning it to the best of my abilities, I found myself in a dilemma. The carcass was almost as big as two sheep stacked on top of each other. There was a lot of meat but I had no way of storing it or persevering it.
Should I make a fire, butchered it and smoke it all at once? But how long will that take me?
As I was debating what to do, the voice kindly informed me.
|[Reader can store anything non-living in ‘Inventory’.]|
|[Inventory is a spatial dimension compressed within the artifact Reader is wearing. If Reader wishes to use it, call out or think ‘Inventory’. It currently has 2 slots in accordance with your level. Every time Reader levels up, a new slot will be unlocked.]|
I chuckled bitterly, wiping off the sweat that pooled over my forehead. Spatial dimension. Of course, you would have something like this. For a moment there I forgot I was in a RPG game-like world.
Artifact I am wearing? Ah, I guess now I know what the earring is for.
I glanced back at the dead monster I had just skinned. I rubbed my fingers against the earring’s smooth surface then called out softly, “Inventory”.
A magic circle showed up on the ground, blue this time. Deciding to no longer question anything I was seeing, I simply dragged the carcass and placed it inside the circle. The next second, the circle disappeared along with my food reserve.
Now, that was one less problem to think about. I turned to the hide and spread it on the ground. Hoping to keep busy, I proceeded to clean it thoroughly with water. I was planning to wash it then dry it so I could make a makeshift skirt out of it. Although I had the passive【50% Heat Resistance】skill, I still felt the cold in my human form. Also, I was honestly getting tired of being naked.
Once I was satisfied, I placed the hide on a boulder by the stream. The sun would dry it probably in an hour or two. Now, I needed to either find or craft something to store portable water.
Feeling cheeky, I grinned while addressing the voice, “Could you maybe lend me a bottle?”
|[That is not possible. We can only gift Reader rewards upon completing quests.]|
I laughed, “Ah, well. Good to know.”
I leaned against the boulder on which I draped the hide and close my eyes for a moment. The sunlight danced on my face, warming my skin. I was suddenly reminded of those times when I used to do this at the farm. I would lie among the wheat fields and bask in the warmth of the sun. I had my first kiss on those open, endless fields of gold.
Zane Daniels, 8th grade. Chocolate eyes, soft sweet lips and the cutest freckles.
Smiling, I opened my eyes. I carded a hand through my now short hair, ruffling it up as to wake myself up from memory lane.
Sword in hand, I got up and looked around me. I was looking for a log, specifically an empty one. I could cover the bottom with a portion of the hide so that the log can be used as a makeshift cylindrical container.
After god knew how long, I managed to find one on the other side of the stream. By the time I came back to the boulder, the sun was about to set and the sky was dyed in a dark blue hue. I checked the hide and found it already dry. I first cleaned the inside of the empty log with water. I then used my sword to rip a part of the hide and wrapped it tightly around the bottom part of the log. I took out a canine tooth from the dead Howling Hound’s mouth and used it to pin the fabric together.
I then went ahead and filled up the log with water. It held up and nothing leaked which made me overjoyed. I covered the opening of the log with another piece of the monster's hide. I tied it with a sturdy vine to keep it in place. I then placed the container inside the inventory and moved to my next task.
I gathered some dry branches and kindling and then returned to my spot by the stream. I used the stones I had collected earlier to get a spark. TV shows and movies showed making a fire to be a walk in the park.
It wasn’t. Making fire without modern tools was fucking hard work and it took forever. By the time I managed to get a little spark going off, I was already drenched in sweat. My eyes stung from having to stare at one point for so long and my hands were scraped raw from having to repeatedly grind the stones against each other.
Nearly an hour in, I started to seriously regret not picking the Mage class. It was always free real estate with mages and fireballs as far as Hollywood and video games were concerned.
Once the kindling caught the spark, I found myself jumping in the air, fists clenched and howling, “Yes! Fucking yes!”
I hurried to place some more leaves on the fire, and slowly it started to grow bigger and brighter. Using my stone knife, I sliced bits and pieces of the Howling Hound before returning it to the inventory. Besides the branches and the kindling, I also brought back some wood sticks. I used them like barbecue sticks to roast the meat I sliced.
As soon as the first piece was cooked, I stuffed it right into my mouth. It tasted like wild boar, which I had before, but gamier and fattier. As I chewed on my early dinner, I wished I had salt. By the fourth piece, I had already gotten used to the strong, seasoning-less taste.
I knew staying by the stream during the night would be a dangerous and stupid thing to do. So after warming myself up, I doused the fire I worked so hard to make. I wrapped the remaining hide around my waist like a skirt. I washed my hands and took one last drink from the stream before taking my sword and walking deeper into the forest. I was looking for my five-star stay for the night. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for: A gigantic tree which stretched far enough into the sky to make me feel safe.
I switched to my Voidling form.
Using the ends of my ‘tails’ as hooks, I climbed the tree carefully until I reached a safe height. The branch was thick and wide enough to support me so I sprawled over it. I decided to sleep in my Voidling Form because it had better senses and natural weapons. It also could detect danger faster than my human form, giving me enough time to react.
I closed my eyes and tried to sleep. I was mentally and physically exhausted but sleep wouldn’t come to me. There was simply too much going on inside my head. Like a Pandora's box, those dark and terrifying thoughts I had managed to keep a lid on so far, started to creep from their deep hiding places and crawling all over the walls of my mind.
What if I get stuck here? What if I can never go back? What if my friends forget about me? What if I am lying in some hospital in a coma while dreaming up all of this? Or worse, what if I had already died and I can’t remember?
The image of my best friend, Carter showed up in front of my closed eyelids. His messy brown hair, lazy black eyes and boyish smile. He got married last year. He and his wife, Caroline were expecting a little baby girl by December.
I promised I would be there for them but what if I didn’t get back in time? What if someone else gets to be her godfather? I am the one who is supposed to spoil her rotten and babysit her while her parents went off and had some quality time together.
I thought of my boss, old Terry. A man with a heart as big as his beer belly. He had a horrible sense of fashion and I suddenly found myself missing his tacky and epilepsy-inducing shirts.
Will I ever see him again? I never thanked him enough for taking me under his wing and giving the eighteen-year old me back then a chance. Many in his shoes wouldn’t have.
I thought of Eugene and Selim. At this point, they were more like annoying brothers to me than coworkers. We had been working together for nearly six years and we had been through a lot. I remembered how hard they tried to cheer me up after I lost my nana. The reason I could take as many leaves from work as I could back then was because of those two guys. They went out of their way to cover for me, no question asked.
Will they be okay without me? Wouldn’t the load get too heavy with just the two of them?
I thought of Ash, our feisty little manager: Five feet three with a personality as big as Selim’s appetite for spicy tacos. She and I bickered often. She loved to prank me every chance she got.
Who will she bicker with now? Who will take her evil sense of humor as well as I did?
I thought of my mother. I hated to think of my mother. Even though she had been gone for years now, just the thought of her would make me lose it. Hot white rage would surge from the pit of my gut up to my throat, crowding my mouth with a bitter, acidic taste.
The taste of hate.
I hated her. I hated her for what she did to herself. I hated her for what she did to nana and most of all, I hated her for what she did to me.
I opened my eyes. The twilight sky with the twinkling stars looked identical to the one I knew. The longer I stared at it, the darker it got inside my head. A stab of pain, which felt suspiciously like homesickness, gripped my heart. I grimaced, clenching my jaws. Without thinking, I brushed my fingers against my lips. I ached for the taste of nicotine.
“Who are you?” I asked the voice that seemed to be my only companion in this strange place.
|[We are Reader’s guide. Our purpose is to help Reader fulfill his final quest and finds what he desires.]|
What I desired?
Curious, I inquired, “Where did come from?”
|[We don’t remember.]|
“Do you know what you are?”
|[We are ourselves, what else would we be?]|
I chuckled at the simplistic yet philosophical answer. “What is your name?"
|[We don’t have a name.]|
I didn’t know why but something about the voice reminded of a character of a show I had once watched : a non-human who wanted to break through the shackles of its non-humanity.
“Would it be okay if I gave you one?”
I smiled despite myself. I found its little flustered ‘oh’ oddly endearing for some reason.
“How about Dolores? Can I call you that?”
|[Reader can call us whatever he wishes.]|
The conversation lightened my mood a bit so I teased the voice, “So Dolores, how was your day?”
Its confused reaction brought a smile to my lips, “Yeah. Your day Dolores, how was it?”
|[We don’t know how to answer that.]|
I placed my hands behind my head, “That is okay. How about I ask you that every day until one day you can think up of an answer.”
|[We…will do as Reader wishes.]|
With my heart feeling a touch lighter, my thoughts wandered to less bleaker places. The memory of a sweet laugh and dancing silver locks suddenly popped in my head. It was then that it dawned on me. Since I came to this world, I hadn’t had a single ‘hallucinatory episode’. I used to have them four to five times a day. How come I was no longer experiencing them?
A suspicion started to take shape in the back of my mind, “Dolores, you said I came here because I was ‘invited’. Who invited me?”
|[Reader will know soon enough.]|
I didn’t expect it to tell me anyway.
Okay, time to sleep.
I closed my eyes, murmuring underneath my breath, “Goodnight Dolores.”
My goodnight was met by silence. I wasn’t surprised but a touch of disappointment lingered in my heart.
As sleep was about to claim me, I could swear I heard a 'Goodnight Reader'.
I don’t know though, I might have imagined it.