Four people stood starring at the massive cube. The bearded man had truly just taken off, not bothering to stay and try to solve it. The earth mage, the rogue, the gunman, and Jake were the only ones left, and from the looks of it, the gunman and rogue were also close to leaving. Jake wasn’t sure if the earth mage actually had a clue about the puzzle or if he was just staying out of pride.
The puzzle itself was very much a Rubik’s Cube, but not the kind with colors or easy symbols. There weren’t only six types of symbols but instead hundreds, and from Jake’s initial assessment, he believed that before one could figure out how to solve the Rubick’s Cube part of the puzzle, one had to first determine what each of the six sides should look like.
Compared to the puzzle he had solved with Reika, this one was far harder.
”Could we just try all the combination and solve it like that?” the guy from the Court of Shadows asked.
”Sounds like a great way to waste the rest of the Treasure Hunt,” the rogue woman said, speaking for the first time.
Jake nodded. While he had never been that much into Rubik’s Cubes, he had watched online videos on them while bored. A simply 3x3x3 cube already had possible combinations in the quintillions. He doubted he would manage to brute-force a 15x15x15 cube even if he spent the remainder of his entire D-grade lifespan.
He considered if even trying to solve it was worth it. It would no doubt take a while, and he could clear more Vaults if he found some he could open just by killing stuff. Well… he could try if moving the rube around incorrectly would trigger some combat mechanism like the tree.
”I’m going to try and manipulate the cube. It may cause enemies to appear, so be on guard,” Jake said as he extended a string of mana. The cube happily responded as Jake moved one of the rows, making it turn, and-
”-oody waste of- wait, what the fuck?”
Just as Jake manipulated the cube, the bearded man suddenly appeared. Jake looked confused at him as he looked back at them with a confused expression. ”Did you drag me back or what the actual fuck just happened?” the bearded man asked.
”We just moved the cube,” the shadow assassin explained.
Jake ignored their conversation as he sensed the area. Faint traces of space-affinity mana surrounded the spot where the bearded man had appeared, and when Jake really focused on himself, he noticed something. A small mark, not dissimilar to his own Mark of the Avaricious Hunter was on his body, or more accurately, his soul.
”Someone try to leave the valley,” Jake said, needing a guinea pig.
”Here we go again,” the bearded man said, not even asking twice as he took flight and began flying away. Meanwhile, Jake turned the cube repeatedly. The moment the fire and ice mage was a few hundred meters away, he got teleported back where he had originally been, still firing flames out of his feet.
”Okay, fuck this,” he complained. ”Ya messin’ with me, or we actually stuck?”
”Seems like it,” the shadow assassin said, looking quite worried. The others did so too, especially the fire and ice mage and the rogue looked very bothered. The earth mage didn’t visibly display any signs of being annoyed or put off, though Jake theorized that had more to do with honor than his actual feelings.
Jake sighed internally. That pulse earlier had likely been the source of the mark, and when Jake inspected it more closely, he had no idea how to remove it. He did feel like it would disappear within a day or so, though. He guessed the lower duration was the trade away for it being hard to remove… or maybe it was just far above his level.
So, solve the puzzle or be stuck here for a day doing nothing… I guess this is the system’s way of not just letting people run between the most straightforward challenges, Jake concluded.
”What’s the game plan?” the rogue woman asked, looking up at the cube. ”I don’t know anything about these magic things.”
”I know a bit,” the shadow assassin chimed in, seeming truthful.
”I fucking hate shit like this,” the ice and fire mage said, making it obvious he was quite knowledgeable on the subject.
”I am quite well-versed in magic circles,” the earth mage said, making it clear he wasn’t very good at it.
They all looked at Jake. He just shrugged. ”I don’t really know much.”
It was the truth. Jake really didn’t have any solid grasp on these kinds of magic circles or runes or anything like that. He was just a fast learner and generally good at magic, which he leveraged when it came to solving puzzles. During the puzzle in the tower, Reika had been the one with the knowledge of magical runes, not him.
”So, we’re basically fucked,” the shadow assassin sighed.
”The mark keeping us trapped will be gone in around a day,” Jake informed the others. ”Also, the teleportation only triggers when the cube is moved.”
Jake only stated these things as he stood there observing the cube. He hadn’t realized the way his words could be interpreted before he saw three of them back away from him slightly. The three – all except the elemental mage – looked warily at him.
”What?” he asked, throwing them a glance, making them only back off more.
”They think ya gonna kill us all to make sure no one moves the damn cube,” the elemental mage answered.
”Oh,” Jake said with a nod. ”I guess that works, but it also seems risky. Someone else could just come around and move the cube and teleport me back. Imagine if that happened during a fight…”
”Sounds like a get outta jail free card,” the fire and ice mage answered with a laugh.
”Yeah, no thanks… let’s just solve this crap,” Jake said, turning to the three wary people. ”The best way to not tempt me into believing going full murderhobo is the best option would be to actually prove yourselves useful and help solve the damn puzzle.”
”Way ahead of those morons,” the elemental mage snickered as he took out a small notebook and began writing stuff down.
The tentative onlookers seemed to realize the best choice was to actually try and solve the puzzle, as they all got to work.
But not before Jake tried firing an arrow at the cube.
That didn’t work either.
Relying on the natives had always been a good tactic when it came to finding and exploiting the resources of the local land. It was why settlers and explorers always tried to subjugate or ally with the local forces upon landing on foreign ground.
They knew the lay of the land. They were familiar with where all the valuables were hidden. However, often these natives were not friendly. Sometimes diplomacy simply wasn’t working, or, more often than not, it wasn’t considered worth it to ally with them. With superior power, forced servitude was simply the easiest and most efficient solution.
Sultan was more than aware of this, as he appeared in the Treasure Hunt. He had done what few could and forcefully employed the local wildlife. The Ekilmares were in his eyes not foes to hunt down but beasts to use. They knew of the land and where the valuables were, just like a native of a conquered land.
He only had a single slave by his side going into the Hunt. It was the pathfinder named Summer whose primary skill was her ability to mark and see through the eyes of others. This ability proved extremely useful during this Treasure Hunt, especially in concert with the temporarily dominated vampires.
Sultan had a hard time deciding if keeping the woman around or not was the smart choice. He was aware of her stalker tendencies, and he was surprised that when Ms. Wells had given her the choice of being under the confinement of Haven or to stay with Sultan, she had chosen to stay.
That is until he realized that those stalker tendencies had been turned to him. She was the kind of lunatic that fixated on a single target, and her type seemed to be the man who had everything… and apparently, Sultan fit that description. He would have thought someone like Mr. Thayne was more her type, but perhaps even she had a tinge of sanity in her mind making her not pursue him.
Sultan naturally didn’t have any positive feelings towards her, but that seemed to only attract her more. This is why he found the entire situation unsettling. It had all become more complicated, and as he was no longer allowed to torture her – a rule he had followed – she had only become more servile and obsessed. Ultimately, however, he decided just to make use of her. She was in his mind an indentured servant, working with him until anything else was demanded of him or circumstances changed. He did not fear betrayal either, as she was bound by the rules in her contract… and Sultan also had certain skills he hadn’t fully disclosed to Haven related to mind magic giving him assurance. Not because he didn’t trust them – he trusted them as much as he would trust anyone that wasn’t himself.
Haven had been good to him so far. They had some talented craftsmen and women, and he had made ample use of the System Store. However, it was more what simply being related to Haven granted him. It was like a protective shield hung over him. Once people knew where he was from, they didn’t dare to strike at him out of fear of retaliation. Retaliation he doubted Lord Thayne would dish out even if people went for Sultan, but the fear of the possibility proved enough most of the time.
Not that he feared getting into a bout. He could handle himself.
Sultan had always been alone and had always needed to handle his own matters. He had learned the value of money from an early age and had resolved himself to never be poor. Not again. Wealth in the old world had been synonymous with power. Money could buy you the local police; it could make you immune to borderline any scrutiny, at least where he had been from.
His father had been wealthy, so the day he took advantage of Sultan’s mother, no one dared complain, not even she. His mother had been a servant but was in all but title a slave. She had no possibility of fleeing, no passport to travel, and was worked to the bone with only a single bed and a bit of food as payment.
So when the man who would become Sultan’s father took a liking to her and began taking advantage, no one stood up or said anything. When she got pregnant, the man simply tossed her out onto the streets, not a penny to her name.
Sultan had grown up poor. Not the ’no birthday presents’-poor, but the ’barely surviving’-poor. His mother had done what she could to survive and raise her son, but he still had to do many things to survive. Out of all the people he had ever known, his own mother was still the person he respected the most. That was also why he would never take advantage of a slave in the same way his mother had been taken advantage of.
That didn’t mean he would ever claim to be a good person. Quite the opposite. He had learned to find pleasure in inflicting pain upon those he believed deserved it. He still remembered the day he looked his father in the eyes as he took everything from him. The day he destroyed his own ’family’ and left the formerly prestigious man in shambles, a poor beggar on the street. His wife divorced him, his children shunned him, and all his former business partners cut him off, acting as if he was dead. It was pure euphoria.
It was only beaten out by the day he saw his own father working as a servant. Sultan had believed the old man would have killed himself, but no, the old bastard had been too much of a coward to do that. Could Sultan have ended his father’s life? Yes, he easily could… but the day he saw the pure misery in his eyes, he knew a life of servitude was a worse punishment than death. He had come to believe that for those in power to be dragged from their high towers into the streets to struggle with at the lowest rung of society was the best punishment. Ah, but that didn’t mean there were no celebrations when he heard his father died of a heart attack from overworking himself.
Sultan was also fully aware many would view him as a hypocrite who was just as bad as those he despised, and he wasn’t going to argue against it. He didn’t need to be a good person – just competent enough to make sure none could drag him from his own tower. His way of doing this? Not being the one sitting at the top.
Lord Thayne was at the top of the tower, and Sultan was perfectly fine with that. He had his own rules and his own creeds, just like Sultan himself, and as long as the merchant managed to identify those and play within the Chosen’s rules, he should be fine. In the end, it was all about benefits and perception – so as long as Sultan stayed a benefit to Haven and not a liability, he would have a tower to weather all storms.
”Master, the vampires have located the closest Vault and begun fighting the guardians there,” Summer said.
”Then let us move,” he answered. Sultan controlled his ship – because of course he brought his ship to the Treasure Hunt, anything else would be silly – and set course for where Summer directed. He leaned back as they sailed through the air at high speeds, rivaling most individuals with powerful movement-related skills. His vessel was not cheap, after all.
It didn’t take them long to reach their destination, where he found the Ekilmares fighting. Those controlled by him were clearly losing, but that was only to be expected. An unfortunate downside with domination was that often the dominated targets weren’t as powerful. It wasn’t due to a reduction in stats or anything like that, but simply the fact that any being not moving according to its own will wouldn’t be as strong.
Sultan had many theories why this was, but none seemed quite right. Ultimately, it could simply be system-imposed rules, but alas, it was just something he would have to deal with.
He took a deep breath as he prepared himself for combat. Waving his hand, a musket appeared in it, gilded symbols of gold adorning the beautifully crafted weapon. The ship shifted and turned its side to the combat in the valley below, cannons appearing at starboard.
While his vessel was a great tool for transport, that didn’t mean it couldn’t be used for combat. Quite the opposite.
Summer also summoned her own bow, not even having to be told to. Sultan trusted her to simply do her job, as he raised his own weapon.
”Fire,” he muttered.
A barrage of magical explosions overtook the valley with no regard for the Ekilmares he had dominated earlier. This was one of the advantages of using them – friendly fire wasn’t a thing.
The vampires quickly noticed they were being assaulted and began running towards the floating ship. Sultan simply smiled as he shot one of the vampires in the front. It stumbled back from the impact, and instead of continuing to run for the ship, attacked another of the vampires beside it.
At the back of the vampires was one called a Matriarch, and it was by far the most dangerous foe present. It opened its maw and fired off a beam of energy, forcing Sultan to activate the shields on the ship while navigating it to move. Unfortunately, the ship was impacted, and the shield managed to block the blow successfully, but it still left some cracks in the barrier.
Sultan shot for the Matriarch, and she didn’t even dodge as she was hit by one of his bullets. He tried to use his mental domination but felt the rebound as if something had hit him in the head. Too much resistance.
The more intelligent and the higher level a creature was, the harder it was to dominate. This was why sapients like humans were impossible to directly control, no matter their level. One could still control their movements, but not their mind. From the response the Matriach gave him, it was either too strong or too smart to control both its mind and body. Luckily for him, he had other ways.
He took out one of the many items he had acquired from the Hunt. It was one of many anti-vampire weapons left by the Pure Ones in the form of a rare-rarity sword. He held no doubt it was an item many others would greatly value. Sultan valued it too… but he valued victory more.
With his hands on it, he channeled a certain skill from his profession. The sword began to warp and distort as it suddenly imploded into a small metal ball – the item destroyed forever. He took the metal ball and put it into his musket, and took aim once more.
It was an expensive shot and not one he planned on wasting. The skill could also not be used repeatedly, truly only giving him one chance. He directed the vampires he still had dominated to head for the Matriarch as he controlled the ship to bring it closer. Meanwhile, all the usual Ekilmares were still being bombarded by the ship and Summer, who continually used Powershots and other magical arrows.
Turning the ship, he made the front face the Matriarch as a compartment opened up, revealing a large canon. Energy began swirling as he aimed his musket. The ship fired first, making the Matriarch dodge the blow as it was hounded by its own brethren. Her movements were predictable, giving Sultan the perfect opportunity.
The musket released a blast of mana as the pellet was propelled forward. The Matriarch’s instincts clearly made it aware of the danger this attack represented, but it failed to dodge as it was mid-air.
What had once been a rare-rarity sword, now reduced to a single bullet, penetrated the body of the Matriarch as it screamed out in pain. Silver veins spread from where it had been hit as the attack did its job. The skill allowed him to reduce an item of rare-rarity or below to a single bullet, amplifying the power of its enchantment significantly and delivered a good portion of the power found in the item's Records at once.
The Matriarch stumbled and screamed as it took significant damage, but more importantly, the vampire became utterly unable to heal from the wounds inflicted by its brethren. Cuts and bruises soon covered its body, and Sultan kept shooting with Summer as he also repositioned the ship to keep up the assault, the canon at the front single-use.
It still ended up taking them a good while to finish the job, as the vampires were incredibly durable. The Matriarch died from accumulated wounds, as Sultan claimed the Vault.
Above all else, Sultan was a merchant. Yet, in this new world, a merchant had to be able to defend himself. He knew he could never reach the same level of power through his own efforts as others. He wasn’t as naturally talented at combat or magic, so he simply did the second-best: he bought all the power he could – his profession and class both amplifying his abilities to do so.
He always carried many weapons to turn into bullets in his inventory, some of them rarer than others. Rarity, however, wasn’t always everything. For he had found that a certain set of weapons Haven had given him access to were incredibly potent. Ones he saved as trump cards.
It was the toxic scrap metal Lord Thayne had created and discarded in large quantities a while ago as he was practicing transmutation – now reformed into weapons. Unfortunately, these weapons were all impractical and impossible to use as actual weapons due to their fragility, but for Sultan?
Sultan only needed them to last for a single shot.
So one could say that Sultan didn’t only leverage the Lord of Haven’s strength socially, but also in many ways literally – something his Patron god had continually expressed was a path he should keep walking. Because even the strongest would require a support system, and Sultan planned to become part of that system and stay an invaluable asset.