Without a watch, I couldn’t estimate time precisely but Dolores informed me that it had taken me approximately an hour to finish building the little den. Throughout the whole process, the twin kittens watched me warily from behind a patch of bushes. Every now and then, they would stick their little black heads out of the branches and stare at me. When I returned their gaze, they would shrink their necks back into the bushes. It was so cute and I struggled to resist the urge to tease them.
After padding the den’s floor with soft leaves, I skinned what was left of the Wailing Hound. I ripped three of its canines out of its mouth and with the aid of a sizable stone; I nailed down its hide into the den’s opening to cover it. All that was left was a water source, so using my Otherworldly-tier sword as carving knife once more, I thinned down a log into the vague shape of a flat bowel and poured water into it from my container. I placed the bowel inside the den and got out to admire my handiwork.
It wasn’t the best of dens but it looked cozy and relatively safe for two little kittens. Now, all I needed was to get them inside it. Using the true and tried method of baiting, I threw little pieces of meat inside the den and retreated behind a nearby tree.
The little ones hesitated for while, their eyes darting everywhere probably wondering where I went. After some time, they gained some confidence and stepped out of the bushes. The brave one sniffed the air couple of times, its cute black nose twitching as it caught the scent of delicious, nutritious meat. It followed the scent to the den, its less advantageous sibling trailing nervously behind it. The brave kitten didn’t enter the den right away, it first encircled the area, sniffing the ground and the air several times. It inspected the hide with its nose and its paw before gently batting its head against its sibling. It let out a soft, adorable ‘meow’.
I unconsciously smiled, mentally high-fiving the bolder twin for being such a cautious and smart cookie.
Deeming the area safe, the brave one led its sibling into the den. The hide draped over the opening after they entering, shielding it from prying eyes. A moment later, my Perception stat picked on the sounds of chewing and munching.
Pleased, I switched to my Voidling form and used its advanced senses to imprint the little ones’ scent into my mind.
I gently addressed Dolores, “Dolores, please mark down the area for me.”
|[Area ‘Den’ is successfully marked]|
While working on the den earlier, Dolores kindly filled me in on several things. She, yes I no longer referred to her as it, informed me that she had an internal navigation system in which she would mark down any area I had already explored. In other words, she and I were creating an ever expanding map as we went. I did the actual scouting while she mentally created the map using her hyper-advanced intelligence. In this sense, we were a team.
As long as she marked down a certain location in her data, she could lead me back to it without any issues. Relieved that I wouldn’t have to worry about forgetting the way back to the den, I continued to talk to Dolores.
“Say Dolores, should we continue going east?”
So far, I had been purposely going further and further east because I had wanted to see if there was any end to this part of the Wailing Woodlands.
However after stumbling upon those two gigantic monsters, the horned black feline and the white wolf, I started to reconsider the direction in which I had been heading.
If I remembered correctly, the book mentioned that the Elemental Spirits lived at the heart of the Wailing Woodlands. This ancient race unconsciously emitted their mana into their surroundings. The rich thick mana, which they naturally leaked, fed all living things in their vicinity. It mutated plants into sentient monstrosities while it modified the evolution of nearby monsters, causing them to grow stronger and smarter than the rest of their species. The white wolf from earlier was a perfect example of this.
In other words, the stronger the monsters I encountered were, the closer I was to the heart of the Woodlands. And the closer I was to the heart of the Wailing Woodlands, the more my chances of survival decreased.
At my current level, I had no hope of fighting off such monsters so I had to slowly build up my strength in less dangerous regions. Once I reached a certain rank, I could perhaps entertain the thought of venturing deeper. As they say, if you want to run, you have to learn how to walk first.
Dolores spoke up, cutting my line of thoughts.
|[Inadvisable. Taking into account Reader’s current level, it is likely safer to head west instead of east.]|
Pleased that Dolores and I were of the same mind, I nodded. “Yes, let’s head west then. Maybe, we will stumble on more Wailing Hounds I can grind for experience points.”
Throwing one last glance at the den, I changed course and headed west. My Voidling form was naturally agile and flexible which offered me great jumping abilities. With my enhanced alien-like physique, I used trees as my stepping stones. I traveled across the dense forest, jumping off from one thick branch to another like some monkey.
My Voidling Strands helped me control the momentum of my jumps, ensuring that I landed as quietly as possibly on my target location. In my way, I plucked some fruits hanging off the trees and munched on them, replenishing my Stamina stat back to full.
It didn’t take me long to came across the stream which I had discovered a day earlier. I asked Dolores to mark its location down and kept exploring.
|[Area ‘Stream’ is successfully marked.]|
While roaming, I encountered many small-sized red shapes. However, the moment they sensed me they would scatter away instantly. Dolores helpfully clarified that they were Crimson Hares, an omnivorous beast-type class that fed on fruits and small insect-monsters. They were generally harmless and fighting them wouldn’t generate me much experience.
I decided not to bother with them and went ahead. Eventually, I found what I was looking for.
In my Voidling form, my vision was essentially thermal, meaning I couldn’t see details or full colors. However, I was compensated with superb hearing and scenting senses. I recognized the stench coming off that hazy red shape as soon as I saw it.
A roaming Wailing Hound. I grinned, excited. Guess it is time to do some hunting.
I needed 80 experience points to reach level 3. Each Wailing Hound with the same level as me awarded me with 30 experience points; this was of course with the 20% Level-up Speed bonus taken into account. This meant I needed to hunt at least three Wailing Hounds to progress to level 3. The Wailing Hound as a monster wasn’t particularly weak. However, I concluded from my past experiences with it that it lacked greatly in Vitality stat, which made it vulnerable to sneak attacks and critical hits. As long as I landed a stealth attack successfully, it would be done for.
In truth, the current me wasn’t all that different from the Wailing Hound. I also lacked in Vitality and my Strength stat wasn’t that outstanding. I had to rely on my Voidling form, speed and ambush tactics to win. If I ever encountered a monster with decent Vitality and Strength stats, I would struggle miserably.
Therefore for now, I had to carefully pick my prey and refrain from biting more than I could chew. The Wailing Hound would do for now.
I didn’t attack right away. I landed softly on the tree closest to my prey and took my time observing it. It was currently busy feasting on a Crimson Hare it had hunted. Its entire snout was soaked in the blood of its breakfast, which likely served to block my scent. Like a panther, I crawled closer to the end of the branch, making my movement as soundless as possible. My Voidling eyes honed on my prey.
[Name: Wailing Hound]
[Race: Monster] [Type: Beast]
[Stats: ??] [Skills: ??]
I knew I had one chance to land a surprise attack. If it was successful, it would be the end of this fight. The ambush tactic I used earlier to kill the other Wailing Hound proved to be quite effective. I had enough Stamina to execute the combo and since I was of the mind that if something wasn’t broken, there was no need to fix it. I went ahead with it.
I jumped while I simultaneously activated 【Void Step】and【Impale】.
[【Void Step】 skill activated]
[【Impale】 skill activated]
The next time I blinked, I found myself right behind the unsuspecting Wailing Hound. Without hesitation, I wedged my sword deep into its neck.
Instantly, a familiar notice popped out.
|[Wailing Hound is immobilized for 30 seconds]|
I continued to press my sword deeper and deeper into its flesh until I destroyed its larynx. Breathless and unable to move, the monster couldn’t do much but let out a final feeble wheeze and embrace its death. Eventually, breath left its body and it pathetically slumped over, falling next to its mutilated breakfast.
Dolores chimed in.
[You have slain a Level 2 Wailing Hound]
[Origin bonus ‘20% Level-up Speed activated.]
[30 experience points gained. 50 experience points until Level 3.]
[「Voidrippler」, your equipped sword, has consumed 1 soul]
[Offer「Voidrippler」 17 souls to unlock next rank.]
I let out a deep breath I didn’t know I was holding. I guess I was as excited as I was nervous. Smiling to myself, I walked to the carcass and called out my inventory. Since I leveled up last time, Dolores explained to me that the number of slots available for storage corresponded with my level. Level 2 meant two open slots.
However, she also added that I could store up to two items in one slot as long as they were identical, which meant I could store two Wailing Hound carcasses in one slot, or two water containers in the other. The allowed number of duplicates followed the same logic as the number of slots. It increased with each level-up. This meant by the time I reach level 10, I could store up to a ten identical items in one slot.
The earring which I previously didn’t pay much attention to turned out to be a priceless treasure. Similarly to my sword, it evolved alongside me which made me wonder if the same would apply to the armor set Dolores promised to award me once I reach level 10.
A hint of childlike excitement coursed through my body, heating up my blood. The satisfaction of achieving a set goal, of moving on to the next thing was what gave me a sense of purpose. As long as I had something to strive for, I was a happy man. This subconscious restlessness to always do something haunted me throughout my entire life. I always had to do something, to fix something.
If a car’s engine broke down and refused to start up, I could always pull it apart, find the cause of the problem, replace it and put it back together. If it still refused to work, I would repeat each step in different ways until it did.
I had days where I would lose sense of time and spend hours into the night in the workshop trying to fix something. Old Jim said I had a passion for these things because I was a fixer. That was what I did. I fixed things, in work and in life. Those things I couldn’t fix no matter how hard I tried I would sweep them under rag and refuse to dredge them up again, acting like they didn’t exist.
Like my mother.
I was a fixer until I was not.
I smothered the few people I dated. I craved to be needed, to be relied upon. I would want to fix all of my partner’s problems, to take care of them and to shelter them. I always ended up being resented every single time.
“Sergio, you are sweet but you are just too…much.”
I lost count of how many times I was told this by my exes. The biggest irony that ever was: a fixer that couldn’t fix himself.
At least this fantasy realm with all of its nonsensical elements still made more sense to me than the real world in some way. In this fictional world, as long as I strove, I could get to the next level, to the next step, to the next goal. Forwards, here I could always walk forwards. All I had to do was to tick a checkpoint and move on to the next.
It was eerily comforting.
Shaking my head, I drove away those wayward thoughts and returned my focus to my current ‘reality’.
I stuffed the carcass into the magic circle and climbed up a tree. I continued forwards, jumping from one tree to another while I kept munching on fruits along the way. My Stamina stat, which had dropped sharply to 18 points after using two skills, began to gradually fill back up.
Several hours later in which I alternated between repeating the same sneak attack and replenishing my Stamina, I managed to hunt two more Wailing Hounds and reached level 3.
[Origin bonus ‘20% Level-up Speed' activated]
[Reader has leveled up!]
[10 experience points, 80 experience points until Level 4]
[You have unlocked 【Void Veil】skill]
[You have been awarded 10 Stat points to spend]
[You have unlocked a third free slot in Inventory]
[You have unlocked a third duplicate spot in Inventory]
[「Voidrippler」, your equipped sword, has consumed 2 soul]
[Offer「Voidrippler」15 more souls to unlock next rank.]
Interesting, another unlocked skill.
I called out to my trusty partner, “Dolores, what is 【Void Veil】?”
|[【Void Veil】: an active skill exclusive to the Voidling race. The user can move without emitting any sound for 60 seconds. Consumes 3 Stamina points per use.]|
As I listened to Dolores’ explanation, a thought took root in my mind. Rather than being given skills randomly, it appeared the rewards system followed a predefined logic. The skills I was awarded corresponded with the way I performed as I hunted.
I got 【Void Grasp】 after I intuitively used my Voidling Strands to drain my target’s Stamina. 【Impale】was gifted to me after I chose to land a hit that would restrict my target’s movement. In my latest hunts, I purposely chose stealth tactics and it awarded me a stealth skill. This meant Dolores was actively analyzing and gathering data about me and this was how she narrowed down the choices of my rewards. In other words, she was observing me and handing me the tools that corresponded with my problem-solving style.
Since I woke up to this world, I did feel that Dolores wasn’t some random creation. She behaved in ways similar to those highly advanced AIs from recent sci-fi movies. She was self-conscious and self-aware. More than that, she appeared to be connected to some other dimension. I mean how else was she able to manipulate space and give those Otherworldly-tier equipments?
She had a purpose and whoever made her also had a purpose in gifting her to me. What those purposes were, I had no idea. She seemed to be genuinely helping me in growing stronger. She previously said that she was some sort of guide awarded to the Reader so maybe this was what she was designed for. To guide me into the final quest.
But why? And who attached her to me? And for what reason was I even ‘invited’ here in the first place?
Those questions lurked in my head since the moment I got here but because I knew I currently had no answers to them, I chose not to voice them out but now, I was suddenly struck with a sense of curiosity as well as suspicion.
I didn’t know if she noticed the unprecedentedly grave tone in my voice but she took a little longer than usual to answer me.
“Do you know who made you?”
|[We do not know. We only gained self-awareness the moment Reader accepted the Invitation.]|
Hmm, so she only came to being when I was transported here? Are AIs capable of lying? But is she even one? Maybe rather than an AI, she might be an entity of an entirely different kind.
|[Reader need not worry. We will not and cannot harm you.]|
I wryly smirked. Of course, she could read my thoughts. She had been doing it since I came here. Even if I had chosen to hide my suspicions from her, she would naturally feel them anyways.
“Alright.” Antagonizing Dolores was of no benefit to me. In fact, in my current situation, she is the only thing I could rely on. It made me uncomfortable; nonetheless having her around made things less lonely. For now, I should refrain from prying into the hows and whys.
Forwards, I reminded myself. I need to move forwards.
“Please show me my stats interface.”
「Stamina : 30/30」「Vitality: 15/15」「 Mana: 25/25」
「Strength: 20 」「Intelligence: 25 」「Agility: 10」「Perception: 10」「Charm: 0」
Stat Points to spend : 10
This time instead of spending my 10 points on Stamina and Vitality, I split them evenly between Agility and Strength. I belatedly realized that the higher my Strength stat was the more likely I was to land a critical hit. Agility was a useful stat because it would afford me the ability to jump higher, sprint further and attack quicker. Since I would still need to rely on stealth and ambush attacks for now, it was logical to invest some points in Agility.
After sorting out my stats, I asked Dolores once again to mark down this location. This area was going to be my hunting grounds until I at least reached level 8.
|[Area ‘Hunting Grounds’ is successfully marked.]|
I looked up at the clear sky. The sun was sitting right in the heart of the endless baby blue expanse. It was likely noon now which meant I had been hunting for at least three hours. I needed to check on the kittens and feed them again.
Using Dolores’s navigation system, I followed its direction back to the den. Along the way, I gathered some sweet fruits in my hands, hoping to leave them for later.
When I reached the den, I deactivated my Voidling form. Through my experience with the Crimson Hares, I came to notice that weaker monsters tended to be more sensitive to my nonhuman form. They perceived it as a threat which made sense, since my Voidling form seemed to be optimized for predation. My human form would naturally be less threatening to the kittens.
Instead of disturbing the little ones, I took a seat on the ground some four meters away from the den. I took out the three carcasses I had hunted along with my butchering stone knife which I had previously stored in the inventory.
I sliced few pieces of meat from one of the carcasses and placed it next to me. After that, I began the rhythmic and now familiar process of skinning the monsters. I focused all of my attention on my task, taking care not to ruin the hides. I had the idea of making a sling bag and sewing it with sturdy vine.
Although I appreciated having an inter-spatial inventory, the storage space I was allowed was still limited. Having more storage options wouldn’t hurt. I also knew that at some point, I might have to carry the little ones on me. After reaching level 10, I had already decided to leave this area and travel further west until I could find an exit route out of the Wailing Woodlands.
Determined, I started to think, wondering if it was possible to use the Wailing Hound’s canines as needles to close the leather shut. It didn’t need to be perfect as long as it could hold two little kittens.
As I was immersed in my task, I noticed one little black furball in my peripheral vision. I hid my smile as I pretended I didn’t notice it. I continued to work. The black furball jumped, taking some of the meat I had previously placed into its little jaw. It then swiftly run back to the den, hauling its prize.
I chuckled as my ears picked on the chewing noises and the occasional satisfied meow.
Now that the task of feeding the little ones was complete, I started my next task in earnest. To make the sling bag, I would need at least two hides, the third I could use to design some makeshift padding for my feet, some sort of primitive sandals so to speak. In my Voidling form, it didn’t seem to matter but in my human one, it would be nice not to have sore soles.
Before I could use any of those hides however, I needed to clean and dry them. Now that the skinning process was complete, I stored the three identical carcasses into one slot in the inventory.
I rose to my feet and threw the hides over my back. I headed towards the stream to wash and dry them. Later, I could take some time to wash myself as well. I walked leisurely, inhaling the fresh air around me, taking a moment to enjoy the lush greenery of the forest. It had been so long since I last took a moment to myself like this, just taking in life. I started to work as early as eighteen years old and since then, I had been busy working myself off trying to support my ailing nana.
As my mind wondered to thoughts of the past, my Perception stat picked on the little paws behind me. My lips curved upwards in a gentle smile. It seemed I had some curious little stalkers on my track.