A fire crackled in the damp cavern. Drops of water fell from stalactites onto small puddles, this dripping sound recurring almost frequently. I could see the dim glow of the moon coming from just around the corner. This cave we found was quite shallow. But it would do.
Edithe and Daniel were both sleeping. They trusted me to keep watch without losing focus, and I was going to ensure their trust was not breached. This place was dangerous— as expected. We knew the Plaguelands was not going to be an easy expedition. The encounter with the Skeletons proved that.
Generally speaking, undead were supposed to be weak. However, the undead here in the Plaguelands were a different story. And that was because of simply how this place was formed.
A powerful necromancer by the name of Lilian had taken over a small kingdom. The nearby countries were afraid of her, so they performed a [Hero] summoning. The Human man that came, Zacharius, went to slay her.
But something happened. His trip took years, when the kings thought it would take months. They sent their men to check, but Lilian had not died.
And when Zacharius returned, he did not return victorious. He returned by Lilian’s side.
They conquered all the countries that summoned him to kill her, razing it all to the ground, and reanimating the fallen countries into what was now known as the Plaguelands.
Even though Lilian was long dead now, her magic still remained. The Skeletons we had fought were just small showings of her true power.
“I’d like to meet someone like that…”
I murmured under my breath. There was a light stirring and Edithe’s head popped up.
“...did you say something, Salvos?”
Blinking, I turned to face her. The red-haired woman was rubbing at her eyes, a groggy look passed over her face.
“You were awake?”
“Couldn’t get good sleep.”
She spoke simply as she got to her feet and walked over to me on wobbly legs. Plopping herself down to my left, she leaned against the cave wall.
“What were you muttering to yourself about? Who do you want to meet?”
“Oh, I just wanted to meet someone strong who will be my companion. Like Lilian was to Zacharius!”
“But you’ve got Daniel, don’t you?”
“Yep, but I want someone strong!”
Edithe stared at me for a moment.
“...I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear that.”
She shook her head as a light laugh escaped her lips.
“I didn’t think you knew about the Quisling and his betrayal.”
“I read books!”
I proudly exclaimed. There were a lot of things I could not do while in Viechester, especially at night. So, I had to settle with what I could do. Which was a lot of reading and just making strange trinkets with my fire.
I could dress myself entirely in fire jewelry now!
“You really thought this through then, didn’t you?”
Sitting up, Edithe faced me with a serious look. I wanted to give a cheerful reply, but I realized she wanted to hold a proper conversation.
“But you understand now that helping me level isn’t going to be easy, right? After our most recent fight. I only leveled because I had accumulated experience from all the fighting I did before. And because I managed to kill one of the Skeletons.”
“Yep. It’s going to be pretty difficult.”
“And you still want to do this?”
She fixed me with a worried look. It was not one that showed fear of dying, however, not like Daniel. Instead, she was worried for me.
“Don’t you think it would slow your growth? I know you promised to help me get stronger, but if it’s too difficult, it’s fine. I can just go back to Viechester, get stronger on my own, I don’t need to bring you down—”
I placed a hand on her shoulder, cutting her off.
“We’re companions, Edithe.”
I stood up as a smile spread across my face.
“I’m doing this because I want to, not for any other reason. The question is: do you want this?”
She sunk back as she drew her knees into a hug. I peered closely at my companion, inspecting her as she averted her gaze. She started.
“It’s kind of dangerous, and I don’t know if it’s a good idea. Maybe I might level up all the way to Level 70, but still get a Class advancement that makes me useless. It might be a better, safer idea to just restart from Level 10, you know?”
“Is that what you want?”
Reiterating my question, I waited for her to respond.
“What… do you mean?”
“If this isn’t what you want, you can go back. No one is forcing you to be here. I do prefer if you’re here, Edithe, because I think you’re my companion. However, if you don’t want to be here, you don’t have to force yourself.”
Her eyes went round. She seemed to deliberate over it as her face grew dark. I could not image what kind of thoughts raced through her mind— Humans were still so weird to me, even after I had spent so much time with them.
Until finally, she met my gaze and held it.
“I want this, Salvos. If there’s a chance I can get stronger to help those around me… I will take it.”
I grinned, without baring my teeth.
“Then get some sleep! You’ll want to be fully rested for tomorrow!”
A small smile broke up on Edithe’s face. Her lips curled up as she got up, nodding.
“I will. Thank you, Salvos.”
“Are we all ready?”
I stood outside of the cave with two of my hands on my hip, and my other two folded across my chest. My companions dragged themselves out into the light. Both of them were well rested but they still seemed slightly apprehensive.
“Uh, how far do you plan to go into the Plaguelands, Salvos?”
Daniel asked with a raised hand. Shrugging, I turned around and started down the hill.
“As far as we can!”
“You don’t think this is a good idea, right Edithe?”
He groaned, but the red-haired woman followed after me. He paused and eyed her.
“Wait, you’re fine with this? She’s being reckless again.”
Pausing mid-step, she took a deep breath and faced him.
“But so am I now.”
Daniel stared at Edithe and I as we left him behind.
“Oh come on, am I the only sane one left here?”
“You’re the only slow one here! Hurry it up!”
The oozing miasma that pervaded the landscape grew thicker as we made our way further into the Plaguelands. There were a few thickets of trees, jutting out of the ground almost like spikes; they were rotten and dead like everything else here.
It was like they had been shriveled up into nothing more than the core of an apple.
[Vurats] filled the skies, but they did not dare to set foot on the desolate ground. The occasional pieces of broken bones poked out of the earth, their white sheen visible in the sable portrait. We stayed away from it.
We did not know whether these were corpses or undead. Neither did we know their numbers. We would choose our fights wisely.
The sky turned darker, coated by the blight to cast this strange dark-green glow. There was no sound. An eerie silence held this place, empty of the luscious vegetation and animal-life I saw in the Motharis Mountain Range.
It was almost… nostalgic.
A single Skeleton made its presence known with the clacking of its bones; I spotted it first and directed my companions attention to it. It was only Level 87— one of the weaker ones. So, we approached it.
We could not just have Edithe fight it alone. She would die. So, instead, I sent a [Scorching Wave] its way, whittling it down with as much of my flames as I could.
The flames splashed off its bones like it was being hit by water. The Skill barely had any effect. Daniel intercepted it and stuck at its femur. It collapsed, and Edithe raised her staff.
She threw the charged ball of electricity and it exploded into a bolt with a thunderous clap. The Skeleton spazzed, its entire body vibrating from the lighting. Then it broke into its various pieces, no longer moving.
“Did you level?!”
I excitedly ran up to Edithe and identified her. She did not even respond before I sighed.
“Aw, you didn’t.”
“I told you it’s going to be hard, Salvos.”
“But I even used my bad Skill!”
Pouting, I crossed all four of my arms. At this point, I was hugging myself for comfort.
“It must be Daniel’s fault for taking too much experience!”
“Wait, what did I do?”
“You did fine.”
Edithe smiled at him gratefully and looked down at her open palms.
“That’s one of my best spells, but it’s draining. I just have to get stronger. Let’s go, find more Skeletons to hunt.”
And we did. It was almost routine— the way I saw to take out the Skeletons. It was no different than finding wild Demons with Haec and killing them.
Back then, I would lure them in with my speed, drawing them to Haec. He would then engage with them as I struck them from the side. It was slightly different now, with me actually being able to hurt these Skeletons.
However, all I had to do was treat Edithe as the me from then and we worked like clockwork.
“[Aura of the Sentinel].”
Daniel called out his Skill, and his weapon was coated in the same light as the day before. It was golden, not white like from his [Hero’s Slash]. The Skeleton got caught on his blade. It grabbed at the aura and it reeled back, seemingly in pain from touching it.
And Edithe finished it off. Its skull popped out of its head as a blast of ice struck it. Another notification went off in my head. No level for me. No level for Edithe.
“The sun is beginning to set again.”
Daniel pointed out, resting his hand on the hilt of his sword as it sunk into the earth.
“We should head back.”
We had decided the cave would be the place for us to reconvene, since it was what we knew as a safe place. Today was far less productive than the day before, however we were still getting used to fighting in the Plaguelands.
Plus, we probably fought less Skeletons than that horde from yesterday since we only took on individual ones. We trekked through the landscape dyed in orange until we saw the familiar hill at the periphery of the Plaguelands. There was a smaller field of the blight flowers off in the distance, on the other side of the hill, but we avoided it.
Inane conversation filled the air between us as we crested to the top. I poked Daniel on the side, annoyed that he did not tell me what his real level was.
“When did you get that Skill, even? You just suddenly have it, and you’re not telling us!”
He fixed me with a glare and spoke in a hushed whisper.
“You know why I can’t say anything, Salvos.”
His eyes darted over to Edithe, who was leading the way. She had been exhausted, so she could not wait to lay in bed and just sleep. He continued.
“You know why.”
“Why can’t you just tell her, then?”
He halted to a stop just outside of the cave entrance as the red-haired woman went in with a yawn.
“...I don’t know how she’ll take it.”
“You’re just afraid!”
“Thanks for pointing out the obvious.”
Snorting, Daniel shook his head and gave me a serious look. He took a deep breath, and when he spoke next, he spoke in English.
“I can’t, like, just tell her. It’s not a simple matter. Rachel is a child, and you’re you—”
“Exactly. So, I can’t break the news as simply as with you.”
I started, but was interrupted by a scream followed by a blast. I exchanged a look with Daniel for an instant, before bursting into action.
[Self Haste] took over me. [Flame Burst] thrust me forward. I rounded the corner and saw Edithe surrounded by three Skeletons. She was already bleeding, clutching at her stomach, as if she was caught in a surprise strike.
I was just about to rush forward when I realized that these were not any ordinary Skeletons. Each of them was armed, unlike the ones we fought before. Sword, shield, spear—
[Skeleton Warrior - Lvl. 103]
[Skeleton Warrior - Lvl. 100]
[Skeleton Warrior - Lvl. 101]