Jake traveled for a bit over a full day before reaching the place he had dubbed the Insect Plains. The plains themselves looked idyllic besides giant hill-sized mounds and holes covering the ground. Occasionally he saw insects crawl out, but none of them were even above level 60.
The insects were all termites. Giant dog-sized termites. However, as he stood there and felt below the ground with his sphere, he did detect movement of larger ones - ones the sizes of cars. Jake guessed these were the D-grades, or maybe just powerful E-grades. Either way, he would hunt them soon enough.
But, now, he had a mask that wanted awakening.
Honestly, there weren’t any preparations to be made. Jake just went a bit away from the plains and found a nice grassy hill overlooking it in the distance. There, he took off his mask, and using his Alchemical Flame, he burned away a patch of grass a few meters across and placed the mask in the center. Then he took out the bottle of Soul Renewal.
[Soul Renewal (Unique)] – A bottle of Soul Renewal offered directly by the system due to Earth’s performance during the Treasure Hunt event. Soul Renewal is able to heal any wound to the soul and restore any damage or temporary affliction imposed upon it, including afflictions of the Truesoul.
“Are you ready?” Jake asked, getting no response. Yet he had a feeling the King was aware. Waiting.
Jake himself was ready for whatever would happen when he poured the liquid on the mask. With a string of mana, he manipulated the bottle as he opened it and tipped it for the liquid to fall out. It hit the mask but did not spill off it. Instead, it appeared to sink into the mask and become one with it. For every drop that hit the mask, Jake felt like more awareness and consciousness returned to the King, and as the bottle emptied and the final drop fell, he felt an aura be reborn as his vision shifted.
The landscape was bare, as a figure appeared. Jake instantly felt everything around him as he perceived the entire infinite space, and just by feeling that, he knew where he was.
At the same time, he also felt his body outside. The last time he had found himself within the odd space was back during the Trial of Myriad Poisons, where he fought the draconic version of himself. Well, it wasn’t really a fight.
Yet there was also something else there. A mask lying on the ground, mimicking how it looked in the outside world.
Jake was not the first to speak but patiently waited. Soon enough, he heard a voice echo in his mind, no longer weak and tired.
“You have come far in a short time, hunter,” the voice of the King said in his mind.
At the same time, the mask lifted itself off the ground. Out of it sprouted a root-like tentacle that further split into dozens of parts every second as they took the shape of a humanoid form. A fleshy black form with a mask on it soon stood before him, with the bark-like skin slowly growing on it as the hands and feet turned ivory and clawed.
This happened both within this weird space he believed was his soul and in the outside world.
“And you have come back to life,” Jake commented as he Identified the Unique Lifeform before him.
[Fallen King – lvl 140]
“It is questionable if this fallen one was ever truly dead… or perhaps I was. My body was destroyed, but I managed to preserve a fraction of my soul to rebuild. I merely needed a new vessel to facilitate that recovery… and that vessel was you,”the King explained, surprisingly forthcomingly.
“Very open, huh?” Jake commented. He was busy feeling out the aura of the King, both in this space and in the outside world. Many doubts dominated his mind, like why the King of the Forest was now called the Fallen King, and also why he felt an odd connection with the King still there. Most surprisingly was that he still had the mana from the mask… which had to mean it still existed, despite now clearly being on the being in front of him. Or was the mask the one wearing the body? So many questions.
“Deceit will offer me no benefit in this scenario, while truthfulness may lead to a conclusion we are both satisfied with. As you no doubt know by now, my return does not mean the severance of what binds me to you,” the King said as he moved his clawed hand, opening and closing it. “My mere presence within your Soulspace should be proof enough of this.”
“No, no, it is not proof enough,” Jake said. “I know close to nothing about soul magic in comparison to you, but what I do know is that you being here isn’t normal. You said I wouldn’t regret resurrecting you but gain something instead… so don’t leave out any details.”
Jake didn’t let his attention leave the King as he felt the Unique Lifeform move both inside this Soulspace – as the King called it - and in the real world. The King could apparently exist in both places at once, while Jake was only aware of the outside due to his Sphere of Perception. This only proved his point of who knew more of soul stuff.
“Very well… when I fell, I managed to keep a fragment of myself alive within the mask to one day return. You obtaining the mask and linking it to your soul served as the fuel to what would one day give me enough energy to regain awareness. That day was when you reached the same level at which you had slain me. The fuel was your very mana as you channeled it through the mask, as it amplified a portion of your soul to increase your mana capacity. Your evolution to D-grade was the time a faint ray of consciousness appeared, and since then, I have been slumbering within, experiencing only dreams. Ah, but I did see that healer who dared stare upon my exposed soul so openly and made him aware of his folly with a subtle threat to rip his soul apart,” the King explained in detail, the last part with great joy.
Jake, still debating if he should believe everything frowned. “So, you’ve been leeching off me?”
“Symbiotically growing with you. To begin with, I am a symbiote over anything else. This vessel you see before you is one I crafted myself and adopted as my primary Soul Shape,” the Unique Lifeform continued.
Still unsure, Jake had flashbacks to the battle with the King of the Forest that long ago. He had often imagined how he could have done better, done worse, and how he had compared every powerful enemy to the King for a long time. But now that he stood before the Unique Lifeform, Jake had even more questions.
“How did you lose?”
It was a question that had burned in his mind for a long time. He wasn’t sure how he had won in the end. How the King had not managed to somehow pull out a victory, how all of the quest items had worked to flawlessly, and how he had not been killed in that last massive wave that shattered the outer layer of his soul.
“Arrogance, miscalculation, and ignorance,” the King merely answered. “I had not put the items of those Beast Lords in my mind… you see, not a single one of them were worth anything. I did hold some respect for the Great White Stag, but the others? Utter fools and weaklings of no consequence. Weaklings who failed to reach D-grade, especially the stupid pig.”
“How exactly did the tutorial work?” Jake asked, perplexed by the words. Clearly, the King was not some conjuration unique to the tutorial but had a vast history beforehand. “How did you end up there?”
“I… was born in a shithole. When I first gained awareness, I was on a small insignificant planet. The strongest beasts were D-grades, with only a small few settlements of enlightened races like humans. The strongest human I had ever seen was only barely a D-grade and fell to a single attack. You see, while I cared little for the inhabitants, the system one day gave me a quest. Conquer my planet, capture the four beasts you knew as the Beast Lords within dungeons, and attend the tutorial as a final foe that only the most talented would have a chance to encounter.
“I shall be honest, actually engaging in combat never seemed realistic once I saw it was only humans entering the tutorial. They had less than two months to reach a level at which they could challenge me… it was preposterous. Yet you managed to do so – with help – and my loss is inarguable. Even if the circumstances were truly in your favor.”
“Explain,” Jake insisted.
The King’s eyes flickered behind the mask as he seemed to laugh. “Do you truly believe the system wanted you dead? That it wanted me to kill you? My task was never to kill you; in fact, it would penalize me for ending your life. I chose not to kill you… and I realized too late that I would have to or face death myself. Until the very end, I believed I could merely make you fall at any moment and be done with it. I saw no danger until it was too late. And now, I find myself shackled to you for my own hubris.”
Shackled? Jake questioned in his head. He knew something weird was still going on as a connection persisted between them, one he could not quite comprehend. The King kept mentioning it… and it gave him a bad feeling.
“So… what happens now?” Jake asked.
“That, I do not believe is up to me to decide,” the King answered.
“What do you mean?”
“Did I not say what the reward for my resurrection would be? It is I. It has always been so. Circumventing death is no simple task… and in order to do so, I needed a shackle. A bond. One you created the moment you chose to bind the mask to your soul, allowing me to anchor my existence.”
“But I am the owner of the mask, whi-“
That is when the realization struck him. Suddenly the words of the Viper that he would have mixed feelings made a lot more sense as he felt incredible complex emotions all at once as he asked…
“What happens if I die?”
“I die,” the Unique Lifeform answered as if the answer was obvious.
“What happens if you die?”
“Either true death or another round of recuperation… the prior more probable,” the Unique Lifeform casually answered.
Jake really didn’t want to ask the final question but did so anyway…
“Are you… forced to stay… or?”
“I can choose to banish my existence to the void of nothingness at any moment if that is what you ask. But if I can choose to relinquish the bond that keeps me shackled to you as my unwilling master, then no. That only you can do.”
Wanting to ask the next question even less, he still forced himself to.
“And if I willingly remove the bond?”
The King didn’t answer, them both knowing the answer already. The King would die. Perhaps permanently this time around. By now, the realization had truly seeped in. Jake had willingly entered a completely one-sided contract with the King by binding the item without knowing it. In essence… the creature that had once been the mighty King of the Forest was now no more than a slave, shackled to Jake.
“I am not okay with this,” Jake outright stated.
“The choice was not one made with consideration but one of desperation and opportunity. I had the choice between death and to try and find a new path bound to my killer… do not think you are the only one unsatisfied with this scenario, hunter,” the King stated outright.
“How to break the bond?” Jake asked, already determined to get rid of it as fast as possible.
“If I knew a path to do that, I would have lied to you to manipulate you into doing that from the get-go instead of trying this method, wouldn’t I?” the King chuckled, the laugh echoing in Jake’s mind.
“Then what the fuck do you suggest?”
“An agreement,” the King said. “A contract, if you may. A mutual promise, where we both can come out of this situation with what we want… the only question is, what do you desire?”
“This shitty situation not to be a thing?” Jake said with exasperation.
“This does make me question why you invested exorbitant fees in healing my soul,” the King questioned.
“Well, duh, of course, it was so I could fight you again and win properly,” Jake said like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Truly a simple hunter, with an even simpler request. This scenario does not make that an impossibility or even difficulty. But if you cannot think of terms, let me propose a deal. Naturally, my goal is release and true freedom. That is all I desire. In return, I shall offer my assistance where you deem it necessary. But do not think for one moment I shall act as your pawn or slave… I have chosen to avoid death, but I still find it a preferable existence to one of eternal servitude,” the King proposed.
Jake listened closely, getting a better understanding of the King. He had a strong feeling the King was aware of his stance on that whole slavery shit already and was the only reason he even bothered.
“So, how will this work?” Jake asked.
“A promise. There is no true contract, no compulsion. You will hold the ultimate power as you can terminate me if you so wish, but that is it. Our words should be enough, hunter. If you swear to assist me in regaining freedom, I shall swear to assist you till then and never truly became your enemy even if I do regain my freedom. The favor of giving me a second life is one never forgotten,” the Unique Lifeform said.
Still standing within his Soulspace, as the King called it, Jake saw no reason to refuse. If it is temporary…
He didn’t like it. He really didn’t. This entire thing made his stomach churn, yet the thought of throwing away the mask and effectively killing the King again seemed equally fucked up. And no matter how much he hated the idea of forcing someone to serve him, he couldn’t deny the potential benefits of the King as an ally. He was strong and clearly knew things.
“Fine,” Jake agreed. He felt an almost palpable wave of relief from the King but paid it no mind as he asked. “But do tell… how strong are you now compared to back then? Can you fight as you are? What are your limitations?”
He felt the King almost smile. “Limitations… I am bound to you. In time, you shall know what limitations may be placed upon me, as we shall no doubt discuss this in deeper detail. How strong am I compared to then? Does the question matter? We never fought. Not truly. And finally, if I can fight? Please… I have observed you for a long time. Just ask the question you desire the answer to.”
The King in front of him in the Soulspace suddenly began disappearing as it turned to mist and flew over to him as it landed on his face and formed a mask. At the same time, a mask also formed on his true body outside as the space shifted. Jake disappeared from his Soulspace of his own volition as he now stood on the grassy hill, the Unique Lifeform in front of him.
Jake just smiled as he waved his hand, his new bow appearing. “Up for a rematch?”
An ominous laugh echoed in his mind as he felt the area around him distort as he felt an aura be released from the Fallen King before him. The creature began floating slightly above the ground as the wisps of light in the holes of the mask lit up brighter than before.