Many of the streets in Boston had been turned to rubble—in addition to the monsters, there had been several powerful earthquakes across the world as well. Powerful enough to collapse whole buildings and destroy the streets.
After about five minutes of riding our bikes, I felt a building sensation that someone was watching us.
Glancing around, I couldn’t see anything, so I didn’t mention anything to Uman.
The feeling of being watched persisted, until I finally noticed a monster a few blocks away to my left. My best guess was that it was a velociraptor. It ran on two legs, had a long tail, and was about the size of a large dog.
I only caught a glimpse of it for a moment, before it disappeared into a nearby destroyed building.
Not long after, I heard a distant sound, and I saw another velociraptor, two blocks away on my right, scurrying along.
I felt a burst of fear. They were following us, but not attacking. Biding their time, for something.
“We’re being followed,” I said, nervously, stopping my bike. “Velociraptors.”
Uman laughed. “There’s no need to fear anything that appears this close to a city. Until the second wave, at least. I’m sure they are just low-level scavengers.”
He rode on, and I pedaled quickly to catch up.
He was probably right.
But five minutes later, the monsters appeared en mass, about forty in front of us, and more approaching from behind.
The velociraptors of came in various sizes—from the size of a turkey, to about twelve feet tall, ranging from level 10 to level 30.
I felt my heart rate increase, and my palms grew sweaty.
I would try to do this on my own, without Samantha’s help.
There was no point in waiting. I threw a knife at the nearest velociraptor, and watched as the knife landed, hilt-first, on the creature’s chest.
They were already upon us, so I drew the Vampiric Blade, and attacked the nearest monster.
My blade slit the velociraptor’s throat and beheaded the creature with barely any resistance, and I watched it collapse on the ground.
Just like how I killed Lord Ignatius, I thought to myself. Just like how Adia’s father stabbed himself, so easily, in front of me.
“Jarek! Snap out of it!”
At the sound of Uman’s voice, I turned my head and noticed a velociraptor had bitten his calf, and he was fending off another with a knife.
I struck the velociraptor that was biting Uman, killing it in a single blow. Then I felt one of them try to bite me, but it couldn’t get through my battle robes, and I shook it off easily.
Two more bit at Uman, and I put some mana into Agility, moving around Uman, trying to keep all the creatures off him.
“Use your aura!” Uman shouted, frantically.
“I-I don’t know how!” I continued circling around Uman, trying to clear a perimeter, but there were too many of the velociraptors.
“Then we need to find cover!” Uman started heading toward the nearest wall, and I followed him.
The velociraptors had given up on attacking me, due to my high-quality battle robes, but Uman had it rough. He was bleeding in a half dozen places, and he clearly wasn’t cut out for physical combat.
Once we got to a wall, the situation improved.
The movements of killing monsters was familiar. I could almost feel myself falling back into a familiar rhythm, anticipating their attacks, and striking when they were off-balance.
<Would you like the combat shadow?> Samantha asked. It was the first time she had spoken in a long time.
No. Don’t talk to me.
I needed to learn how to do this myself. Everybody else could become fighters without an A.I. to help them. I’d already had a huge leg up, and I could figure the rest out on my own.
It wasn’t long until the velociraptors realized that we were more trouble than we were worth.
I trembled, slightly, looking at the carnage around me.
Uman was drinking a healing potion, and he did not look happy.
Once he finished, he gestured for me to take a seat on a nearby block of rubble.
“We need to talk about what’s going on.” His familiar, friendly tone had an edge to it. “I almost died, twice. What happened to your fighting skills? Your intuition?”
I frowned. “I can’t tell you.” I started to get up, but Uman reached out and grabbed my arm.
“Then let me guess. The Atropos Schema is riddled with inheritances—techniques, spirits, or items that can help people grow stronger. Most likely, you found an inheritance—perhaps one that enabled you to overcome Lord Ignatius’ thrall through possession or some other technique. The details are not important. What I need to know is, what will it take for that…natural talent to come back.”
I frowned at the question. “It will never come back,” I said, resolutely. “Never.”
Uman studied me intently. “It sounds like you don’t want the powers to come back. What if you need to use them? To save your siblings?”
It was frustrating, being unable to lie to Uman. “We’re done, here,” I said, getting up. “Even as I am, I am strong enough to save my siblings.”
“You may be strong enough to find them,” Uman replied. “But are you strong enough to protect them?”
I didn’t respond to that, and we kept walking.
Despite my own words, I knew: If I needed to, I would rely on Samantha to keep me and my siblings safe.
We encountered several more packs of monsters as we continued to Hiver Town, and as we did, I felt I was finding my rhythm again. Uman, to my frustration, didn’t even take out his knife, saying that I needed to learn how to protect people.
Several times, Uman almost died—he would be dead, at least, without the benefit of the healing potions he carried in his Interdimensional Pouch.
“If the Hiver residents attack us,” Uman said, as we rode our bikes next to each other, “Are you strong enough to kill them?”
It was a loaded question, and from the way Uman asked it, it was clear what he wanted to hear.
I already had a lot of blood on my hands. I didn’t want more human blood on my hands. These were just normal people, before the Schema appeared.
“I will do what is necessary,” I said, trying to convince myself I believed it. Anything, for Petra and Justin.
Uman didn’t look convinced, but he didn’t press.
Approaching Hiver Town, it looked like any other Schema-approved town that I’d seen. I could see walls surrounding the town, and a guardhouse above the gate with two men wearing assorted armor.
We were in a park, in a suburb outside of Boston.
The two guards watched us warily as we approached.
“Names, levels, and classes!” They demanded from the guardhouse.
I made my fake information public, and presumably Uman did as well. I was wearing a cloak that covered most of my body, hiding my valuable equipment from any prying eyes.
“Welcome to Hiver Town,” the guards said, opening the gates.
It was an incredibly anticlimactic feeling, entering so easily. I had been ready to break down the gate by force, almost yearning to fight to free my family.
Perhaps it was my mana-elevated Luck stat that helped me out.
Hiver Town was not what I had expected. It looked much like Reed Town. Kids were playing in the streets, merchants were hawking their wares, and the town was bustling with people. Of course, there was fear in people’s eyes, but everyone was afraid. There was probably fear in my eyes, too.
I still wasn’t used to walking around these Schema-approved towns. It was a disconcerting feeling, seeing a whole new style of architecture—many buildings were either log or rustic brick buildings, strangely identical, since they were purchased and placed here by the Atropos Schema. After traversing the ruins Boston, it felt like traveling from a post-apocalyptic city into a fantasy video game.
I walked with Uman around town for about half an hour. I wasn’t sure what Uman was looking for. It would have been great if we could see a kidnapping in action, but no such luck.
“What is our plan, again?” I asked. “It feels like we’re walking in circles.”
“We are,” Uman admitted. “I wanted to get a feel for the town before we decided on a course of action. Let’s find a private place, and we can talk through our options.”
Uman led me to an inn. Once again, it felt like I had been transported into another world. It felt like a stereotypical fantasy tavern—a bar, large mugs of beer, rustic wooden tables and chairs, and people garbed in cloaks eying us suspiciously.
We paid the man tending the bar for a room, and soon enough we had some semblance of privacy.
To my surprise, there were actually some Old World comforts in the room we rented. The mattress didn’t fit the bed frame, but as I sat on it, I guessed it was made of memory foam, and the comforter and sheets were clearly machine made. The chair and desk were a more modern design as well, and there was some ostentatious modern art on the wall.
Uman dragged the chair over to the bed and faced me. “Now, there are three strategies we could take. The first option is to march up to the town mayor. You could torture him until he reveals everything he knows.”
I felt my face paling at the thought. “Why is that your first option? Do we even know for sure if the town mayor is kidnapping people?”
Uman frowned. “He is probably complicit somehow, but no, we don’t know how involved he is. If Hermes Whispers did know, then I’m sure word would get out to Dawnbreaker, and she would transition Hiver Town into new leadership. Mayor Hiver has kept his position despite the rumors because the people here like him, and nobody can prove anything.”
“I’m not torturing him,” I said, expressing more firmness than I felt. Petra would do it in an instant, if it meant keeping Justin safe.
“Of course,” Uman said, as if he had expected me to reject the option in the first place. “I was listing the options in the order of the time it would take find our family. Torture would be the fastest, and also the most questionable. The next option would be to wait around, look weak, and maybe someone will kidnap you. With your build, there isn’t much you’d have to worry about. You could give me all your equipment, and the bead necklace has a concealment rune pattern on it, so you won’t need to worry about somebody noticing it. Once you’re kidnapped—“
“Wait,” I cut Uman off, shifting on the mattress. “Why am I the only one being kidnapped?”
“Two reasons,” Uman continued. “I can’t guarantee my own safety, and once I’m captured, I’m basically completely helpless. Another liability for you. Secondly, someone needs to keep your supplies safe, or go call in reinforcements if necessary.”
“And how do I know you won’t just run off with my stuff?”
Uman sighed. “I guess you’ll just have to trust that I’d rather have my wife back. I feel like you’re underestimating yourself, here. If I run away with your stuff, you could find me, and take it back.”
“And what’s the third option?” I asked.
“We could wait around here and keep an eye out for suspicious behavior. Watch the Teleportation Circle until we see something suspicious. Your heightened perception would probably help. The catch is we have no way of knowing how long that would take, or how successful we’d be.”
I sighed. “Fine. I’ll give you my stuff, and we can hope someone will kidnap me. But how will you escape?”
I started packing all my fancy equipment—my multiple D-rank weapons and equipment—into my pouch.
“I have a few single-use items that should do the trick,” Uman said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll wait for you back in Boston. It’s safer for me there.”
Just when I was taking off my pouch, I heard an all-too familiar voice in my head. <Oh, for Schema’s sake. You learned the Concealment Rune Pattern Blueprint, remember? We can modify your Interdimensional Pouch so it will have an option to conceal itself. You can’t just give millions of coins worth of equipment and weapons to someone like that. Even if you do completely trust him—which you shouldn’t—he has already admitted that he is pretty much completely physically helpless.>
I froze, and Uman quirked an eyebrow at me, even as his hand was outstretched to take the pouch.
I have no reason to trust you, I shot back to Samantha. You let me get mind controlled. You could have freed me before I even first set foot in the Crucible.
<Think of it this way, Jarek. I’m not some mysterious being in your head. I’ve been very clear from the beginning about what I want. I want you to get stronger, and every decision that I’ve made has had that reasoning behind it. I had a hunch the Crucible would help you get stronger, at the cost of some personal autonomy. I took the chance, and ultimately, it worked out. Now, unfortunately, my drive for strength has conflicted with your own desires, and I have learned my lesson. But what devious plot could I possibly enact just by teaching you how to modify an Interdimensional Pouch? I’m doing this to benefit you. No ulterior motive. I just don’t want you to be left alone without your hard-earned equipment. This is 100% your decision. Trust Uman with your stuff, and let yourself be captured, defenseless, or let me show you how to use the Concealment Rune Pattern Blueprint to modify the pouch so that nobody will notice it, then you have all the firepower you could need to save Petra and Justin.>
I hated how persuasive Samantha could be. Honestly, I couldn’t see a problem with her suggestion. It was like having a demonic shoulder angel, that would give you good advice 90% of the time, just so that in the last 10%, it could truly screw you over.
And do you guarantee that there will be no downsides to this?
<There is really only one downside,> Samantha said.
Here we go, I sighed mentally. The innocent catch that would drive me to ruin, somehow.
<The pouch runs on a Mana Shard. The shard will be used up slightly faster thanks to the Concealment Rune pattern. Mana Shards can be bought at any City store, so this is barely worth mentioning as a downside.>
Dealing with Samantha was grating, frustrating, and traumatizing. Her ever-so-innocent voice, ringing in my ear, reminded me of all the times she had made me betray myself. The way she had changed me to trust her, molded me to become more callous. The way she had made me act with casual disregard for my own body
But this was a time when everyone was making compromises. And modifying a Rune Pattern hardly even counted as a compromise.
Uman was still watching me with a half-quirked smile.
“I’ve got a better idea,” I said, opening my pouch and equipping all my Rune Master gear.
The first step, according to Samantha, was emptying the pouch. I felt a bit of pride at the way Uman gazed longingly at its contents.
<Your Interdimensional Pouch is standard issue,> Samantha said, going into her lecture mode. <This means that while it has no modifications, it is highly customizable. Once you deactivate the pouch and disconnect the Mana Shard, you will see whole areas of the pouch left blank to allow for customization. You can see this with runes that lead to the Mana Shard—you will need to add a few more runes that function as a valve, to increase the maximum flow of mana out of the Mana Shard. The valve needs to connect to the Concealment Rune Pattern>
Uman watched me, curiosity in his eyes, but not interrupting, as I began my work.
It was a painstaking process, because one wrong stroke of my Rune Master’s Knife could break my whole pouch.
After a short dinner break, Samantha finally pronounced the Interdimensional Pouch finished.
Interdimensional Pouch (E-rank): Has an internal space of about 5x5x5 feet. Allows you to summon an item inside the pouch by placing your hand over the pouch and picturing what you want. Enchanted to be weightless. Conceals itself from prying eyes.