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I ran.

 

I ran with everything I had, sprinting, running, uncaring about the dangers and threats, directions and diversions, nothing else - just running.

 

Fleeing the golden chains and shackles behind me, running from the dwarves. I’d take the terrors of the deep, the chilly unknown, bad food and terrible water, if it came with freedom.

 

If it came with being able to see my family again.

 

So I ran. Endlessly, unceasingly, fueling myself with [Sunrise] every time I felt my energy starting to flag, grabbing a drink of water when I was thirsty, chowing down on snacks from my bloody backpack. Every time I thought to stop, to slow down, I heard echoing footsteps, forcing me to pick up the pace again, redouble my efforts to avoid capture.

 

Now and then I stepped up into the air, taking flight with [Scintillating Ascent]. I didn’t know how I was being tracked, if at all, but I figured I’d make pursuit a bit harder if I flew a bit.

 

I was encouraged by the fact that whenever I landed, I didn’t hear any echoing footsteps. However, inevitably, as soon as I started running, they’d start back up a few seconds later in hot pursuit.

 

Without Ranger Academy, there’s no way I’d be eating food that had my dried blood on it. With the training, I didn’t even bat an eyelash at it. Nor did I mind the number of floating things in the water I was drinking, located in small pools here and there.

 

What did disturb me was when I found another body in an extra-large pool - practically a small lake of water - with large chunks bitten out of it, only needing three toothmarks to entirely bisect the body. My mind mechanically analyzed that whatever did this either had a very large mouth - or was gigantic.

 

Either way, my sleep-deprived brain decided to avoid large bodies of water underground.

 

I don’t know how long I kept running, doubling back when slimes approached, dodging down side tunnels the moment a weird noise met my ears.

 

I just knew I needed to get away and get down.

 

Exhaustion crept at me, started to eat at me. I fought it off with [Sunrise], and healed my aching muscles with [Dance with the Heavens]. I’d theorized I could go a long time, run endlessly - it was being put to the test.

 

I don’t know how long I ran for. I do know that exhaustion kept creeping back, only to be beaten away by [Sunrise], just for it to rear its ugly head and snap back, harder each time.

 

[Sunrise] wasn’t a sleep substitute. It was simply energy. I’d need to eventually sleep.

 

Eventually.

 

For now, I just kept running, running, deeper and deeper, just chanting and repeating a few thoughts endlessly in my head.

 

Need to escape.

 

Movement is life.

 

Go deep.

 

Need to escape.

 

Movement is life.

 

Go deep.

 

Other thoughts slowly faded, becoming garbled insanity as fatigue and exhaustion warped my thoughts, causing the bad idea fairy to masquerade as the good idea fairy.

 

Go for a nice swim. Cooling, fresh water, makes the trail hard to follow.

 

I’ve gone deep enough. I should level out, and consider going higher.

 

Bounce on the slime! Could use a bit of fun and distraction. Look how it wobbles. Wibble-wobble.

 

This is probably far enough. I should stop, and rest.

 

Good ideas? Bad ideas?

 

I was fairly certain most were bad ideas, but I was so tired. The dwarves were relentless in their pursuit, metal boots on stone always echoing from around the corner. I just knew I’d come up with my core ideas, the ones I was holding onto with every bit of mental strength, when I was awake and alert. I’d just follow them, until I made it to a safe place.

 

I don’t know how long I ran for. The only rough comparison I had was Ranger Academy.

 

I had thousands of stats more now than I did then.

 

I had never been so tired, my limbs dragging so hard, my mind as cloudy and as foggy as I was now.

 

It was at least a week solid that I ran, the part of me whispering, screaming to stop, ignored by the rest of my brain, which just held onto and kept following the core ideas I’d established.

 

Maybe it was two weeks?

 

Surely, I couldn’t have run for three solid weeks…?

 

At that thought, I slowed, ducking into a narrow dead-end passage. I tried to whip my foggy brain, begging for sleep, into shape, keeping a half-ear on the footsteps.

 

There was no way I’d run for three weeks straight. I wasn’t that fit?

 

Although, [Sunrise] and [Dance with the Heavens] could keep me going forever.

 

There was no way to mark the passage of time.

 

My Arcanite was totally full.

 

I had no snacks.

 

I’d quickly paused to answer nature’s call how many times again?

 

Fuck.

 

I really could’ve gone three weeks straight. No wonder I was feeling all sorts of loopy.

 

Also, now that I was thinking about it - no way had I been chased for three weeks solid. I looked down at my feet.

 

At my new boots.

 

My new, never-worn-before boots.

 

My metal boots - something I’d never worn before.

 

I stamped experimentally, hearing a footstep echo back a few seconds later.

 

I was a complete moron! I’d been scared of my own footsteps! I was never going to stop beating myself up over that.

 

I looked around the place I’d found myself.

 

Cozy. Secure. One entrance. No water.

 

I hadn’t forgotten all my tricks, and I decided that here and now was the time to blow my [Tripwire Alarm] utility skill. I’d figure out how to protect myself while I slept another time.

 

I used the skill on the entrance, killed my own [Lantern], had enough presence of mind to wrap myself in [Mantle], and was out like the light.

 


 

I woke up in near-total darkness, not quite feeling rested. I assumed it was because of the massive back-to-back chain marathon I’d just run. I wanted to stretch, but the faint glimmering of hundreds of tiny stars reminded me that I was wrapped in my [Mantle]. I put a brief eye on my status, and any lingering sleepiness or brain fog vanished as I saw that I only had half my mana left… and it was steadily ticking down.

 

I instantly jumped to the one conclusion I’d been paranoid about for years, one of the downsides of my shield skill. With constant, weak pressure on my shield, it’d protect me, at the cost of mana. Keep it up long enough without me noticing, and I could get entirely drained of mana, vulnerable to whatever monster of the week wanted to gobble me up whole.

Slowly, carefully, I used [Lantern] to brighten my surroundings, letting a faint trickle of light see what the problem was. I felt my heart race, stifling a scream as the full horror of what my problem was came to light.

 

Spiders. Spiders as big as my head were everywhere. Eight pale legs attached to a hairy body, blind white eyes seeing nothing, they didn’t seem particularly interested in me, or wanting to devour me.

 

No, they were just filling up this particular cave, and standing on my shield seemed to be a side-effect. I checked their level.

 

[Deep-Dwelling Cave Spider].

 

Oh fuck me sideways, they were all above level 350. More like 370.

 

Still, I hadn’t seen hide or hair of them before, but I froze as one of them made a strange clicking sound.

 

The same clicking sound I’d heard when we first fell into the mines, the same pervasive, omnipresent clicking that joined the dripping, the clanging, the echoing footsteps, squelching slimes and far-off roars.

 

Either way, the spiders had to go. I was going to fight fire with fire, and bugs with bugs. Or something like that.

 

Slowly, carefully, I opened a small hole in my [Mantle], and let a trickle of [Kaleidoscope] butterflies loose. I carefully controlled them to hover near the spiders, burning my mana at high speed as I prepared a devastating alpha strike.

 

When I’d filled the room with butterflies, when my mana was too low to justify continuing, I made my move.

 

I hated doing it, but exploding my butterflies on top of my shield like this would simply break my shield, draining me of mana in the process.

 

I dropped my shield at the same moment I detonated the butterflies, the combined explosion of hundreds of the tiny things in such cramped quarters magnifying the explosion.

 

I was mostly immune to my own Radiance skills. I wasn’t immune to the side effects, like the overpressurized blast trying to tear my body apart. Fortunately for me, my new dwarf-forged armor helped both with the blast, and with the spiders trying - and failing - to crawl on me, and my smooth armor.

 

A good number of the spiders flat-out died in the explosion, while more fled in panic, screeching in pain. Only a few seemed to realize I was the cause, or were just lashing out at anything that moved. Either way, sonic waves assaulted my ears as some of the crawling spiders on me tried to bite through my armor.

 

My armor mostly held, dents and chips joining the neat puncture in the middle of my chest. I played whack-a-spider with Radiance beams and [Kaleidoscope] butterflies as fast as I could to peel the last of them off.

 

Thank goodness for my armor. It’d stopped me getting hurt, and more importantly, stopped me from feeling the hairy spiders crawling on my skin. Nooooooo thank you.

 

Then, not three breaths from when I’d first started, it was over. I was alone in a cave, miles underground, with the carcasses of two dozen dead spiders, panting and heaving. The charred spider scents was tingly in my nose.

 

Why did it have to be spiders?

 

Not seeing anything better to do, I sat right back down, and overcoming a hair of initial revulsion, I grabbed a spider and started to cook it.

 

Completely, totally, ridiculously overcook it. I wanted to taste charcoal, not spider.

 

I checked over my notifications, hoping for sweet, sweet distraction from what I was putting in my mouth.

 

Sustenance. Nutrition.

 

[*Ding!* Congratulations! [The Dawn Sentinel] has leveled up to level 367->369! +3 Dexterity, +24 Speed, +24 Vitality, +170 Mana, +170 Mana Regen, +48 Magic power, +48 Magic Control from your Class per level! +1 Free Stat for being Human per level! +1 Mana, +1 Mana Regen from your Element per level!]

[*Ding!* [Celestial Affinity] leveled up! 367->369]

[*Ding!* [Center of the Universe] leveled up! 367->369]

[*Ding!* [Dance with the Heavens] leveled up! 367->369]

[*Ding!* [Sentinel's Superiority] leveled up! 367->369]

[*Ding!* [Long-Range Identify] leveled up! 367->368]

[*Ding!* [Mantle of the Stars] leveled up! 367->369]

[*Ding!* [Persistent Casting] leveled up! 259->265]

[*Ding!* [Cosmic Presence] leveled up! 285->286]

[*Ding!* [Sunrise] leveled up! 132->166]

That was probably the weeks of running and using the skill, and less so the fight. Constant use, combined with high-pressure? Recipe for sweet, sweet levels.

[*ding!* Congratulations! [Butterfly Mystic] has leveled up to level 307->309! +8 Strength, +8 Dexterity, +70 Speed, +70 Vitality, +70 Mana, +70 Mana Regen, +70 Magic power, +70 Magic Control from your Class per level! +1 Free Stat for being Human per level! +1 Strength, +1 Mana Regen from your Element per level!]

I ignored all my capped [Butterfly Mystic] skills re-capping. I should consider doing that with [The Dawn Sentinel] as well.

[*Ding!* [Nectar] leveled up! 301->303]

[*Ding!* [Scintillating Ascent] leveled up! 281->284]

[*Ding!* [Kaleidoscope] leveled up! 265->269]

[*Ding!* [Sneaking] leveled up! 11->140]

Well. That was one way to power-level a new skill. Use it to run for my life for weeks straight. Artemis would be proud.

[*Ding!* You have slain a [Deep Dwelling Cave Spider (Sound, 368)]//[Deep Dwelling Cave Spider (Dark, 350)]]

That was interesting, and rare. Monsters, even if they were caster monsters, generally only had one turbo-charged class. These spiders seemed to have two elements at their disposal. Sound probably helped them navigate, and I was guessing the Dark both helped them hide, and tear through whatever landed in their grasp.

Although… where were the webs? Did the spiders, like, sing webs? Or did they just make them naturally, or were they one of the spiders that didn’t use webs?

I wasn’t sure about that. I had never been interested in spiders.

[*Ding!* [Oath of Elaine to Lyra] leveled up! 308->315]

I guess potentially sacrificing my freedom, and making the call to value others over my own well-being had rewards. I don’t think I’d ever gotten so many [Oath] levels for a single person. The bandit camp when I was an idiot teenager jumping into the line of fire of Rangers potentially qualified, but it was hard to tell on an individual basis.

Still, it all worked out in the end.

I looked around, and mentally amended that.

It will have worked out once I was no longer at risk of this place becoming my tomb.

I continued to mechanically eat ...don’t think about it… as I reviewed my memories of my fleeing, trying to replay it in fast-forward mode, trying to work out where I was.

[*Ding!* [Pristine Memories] leveled up! 206->207]

I shook my head in frustration.

It wasn’t that my skill was failing me. It was that I wasn’t able to follow and build a mental map of nearly three weeks of running, jumping, doubling back, going down ramps, dodging monsters, and finally ending up here. It was just too much ground covered.

However, reviewing my memories, there were distinctly different types of tunnels. The most obvious was the dwarves neatly carved and polished stone corridors, obviously with an intelligent hand behind them. Then it became cruder, carved out of stone, but still mined and dug out by hands and skills of intelligent creatures - likely the dwarves. Then a layer that seemed to be mostly natural cracks, the rocks and cave settling in such a way to permit movement and motion. A natural cave system.

Then the last layer, where it changed again. Becoming sleek, like something melted through it, or hot things constantly flowed. I hadn’t gotten far into this level before I’d stopped.

Putting the pieces together, I paled.

Odds were good that somehow, I was in a volcano, exploring the magmatic chambers. Toast, when the next eruption occurred.

I shivered at the thought, which seemed to produce a contradiction.

Shivering? It was cold down here, not hot! A point for it being a dormant volcano.

Right. At this stage, going up seemed to be the right call.

I left my little cave that I’d inadvertently shared with the spiders, noting that it was carved out of normal stone, while the tunnel was the melted or heated stone from before.

Wait.

Spiders?

In a volcano?

Ok, I knew this was Pallos, and judging things by my old logic had bitten me in the ass more than once. I could believe volcano-spiders. I was doubting volcano-spiders without a Lava element.

Which left… monsters. Like whatever had tunneled right next to us when I was with Drin, Fik, and the rest, looking for Toke.

On that note - while he annoyed me to no end, and drove me nuts, I was a little sad at Ned’s - the real Ned’s - passing. Upon reflection, I think the Changeling got him that night when I was on watch. To think - that could’ve been me. I shuddered at how close a call that was.

Reflecting on the fight, I noticed one more thing.

The spiders had been entirely silent when they walked around, only clicking to each other to communicate. Given the absence of light, and how blind they were, it sent the hairs on my neck crawling.

Something could be sneaking up behind me right now, and I wouldn’t know it until their jaws were closing around my head.

With that lovely thought, I flared [Lantern], and started moving.

Upwards.

Towards light, air, the sky, home, my friends and family.

Towards freedom.

 

[Name: Elaine]

[Race: Human]

[Age: 19]

[Mana: 300330/300330]

[Mana Regen: 237088 (+227901.45)]

Stats

[Free Stats: 4]

[Strength: 672]

[Dexterity: 1067]

[Vitality: 7422]

[Speed: 7422]

[Mana: 30033]

[Mana Regeneration: 30086 (+22790.145)]

[Magic Power: 13831 (+217838.25)]

[Magic Control: 13831 (+217838.25)]

[Class 1: [The Dawn Sentinel - Celestial: Lv 369]]

[Celestial Affinity: 369]

[Cosmic Presence: 286]

[Solar Infusion: 110]

[Center of the Universe: 369]

[Dance with the Heavens: 369]

[Wheel of Sun and Moon: 311]

[Mantle of the Stars: 369]

[Sunrise: 166]

[Class 2: [Butterfly Mystic - Radiance: Lv 309]]

[Radiance Affinity: 309]

[Radiance Resistance: 309]

[Radiance Conjuration: 309]

[Lantern: 188]

[Nectar: 303]

[Sun's Heart: 309]

[Scintillating Ascent: 284]

[Kaleidoscope: 269]

[Class 3: Locked]

General Skills

[Long-Range Identify: 368]

[Pristine Memories: 206]

[Sneaking: 140]

[Bullet Time: 283]

[Oath of Elaine to Lyra: 315]

[Sentinel's Superiority: 369]

[Persistent Casting: 265]

[Passionate Learning: 355]

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Selkie

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