“There!” Ava clenched her fists together and swung them through the air in an upward motion, almost losing her grip around the branch. “Whack it!”
Leon glanced up at her and sprinted toward the round green bush she looked at, just as the level 3 wolf sprung out at him, jaws wide. It landed with a thud in front of his feet, snarling, and the fur on its neck standing on edge. The yellow letters over its head wobbled with each breath.
Leon took a stance and held the wooden sword and dagger in front of him. He swallowed and leaped forward, slashing the swords in a cross. Just in time, the wolf jumped to the side, narrowly dodging the hit, and the weapons clacked together. Leon licked his lips and started to circle around it. When he got halfway, the beast’s muscles contracted, and it launched at him. Leon kicked, hitting its chest and knocking the beast back. He followed up with two steps and swung the weapons in a cross again. They hit over the beast’s upper back and it yelped.
Leon sucked in a breath at the pitying sound, but jumped a little on his feet, ready for the counterattack. It came seconds later, and with another kick, followed by one strike from each wooden blade, the creature sagged down. Leon stepped forward and plunged the sword into the beast’s chest, and the body splintered into pixels.
“How many have we done?” Leon asked, huffing and looking around the small forest clearing by the main road for additional predators.
“Four,” Ava said, leaning forward on the branch. “You’re getting good. Or... well, for someone who hasn’t done something like it before coming to Gaitol. You could work on your sword skills, because now it looks like you want to use them as clubs.” She climbed down and brushed off her hands on the green dress. “I suppose your fatigue is pretty high now, right?”
Leon ignored the first part. “Close to exhaustion, but I might be able to do one more.”
“Let’s not.” She stepped forward. “So, today’s bounty is only teeth and coins, right?”
Leon nodded. “I guess so. And in such little time. Your idea about how to get them to come turned out pretty great.” He stepped forward and pocketed the fang and the coin from the pile. “So, you wanna head back?”
Ava shrugged. “Actually, I wondered about what you spoke of earlier.”
Leon straightened his back and turned his head toward her. “What?”
“About trying to unlock skills without leveling up. I want to try it too.”
Leon forced down his smile. “Look, I have no idea how to do that. Or if it will actually do anything.”
“But you haven’t really tried for long, right? You gotta try harder.” She scratched at her cheek. “What have you done so far?”
Leon told her about the morning’s activities.
“That’s pretty cool, that you can get some money for exercise.” She sighed. “Wish I could do the same, but I have no skills that are offensive.”
“There has to be something you can do. Like...” Leon looked up into the trees. “Climbing?”
Ava laughed. “I don’t think that’s a thing. But come on, if you aren’t exhausted, you can take down another tree before we head back. Maybe it will give you enough material to sell them.”
Leon shrugged. “Don’t really need to. Gave every last kindling and sap to Margaret.”
“Still, there’s no harm.” She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. “Unless you have something else to do?”
Leon chuckled. “Alright, coach.”
He approached the nearest tree and started going at it with the wooden blades. It took longer than he remembered before the tree crashed onto the ground, giving him the same items as before, but also a berry, which was classed as a low-grade crafting ingredient.
“Do one more,” Ava said and pointed out another. “You can do it. I’ll help you home if it’s too much.”
“Then you should start climbing some trees or something.”
Ava rolled her eyes but did as he said.
When he’d got halfway through the trunk, she shouted, “Come on, Leon. Hit harder! You can do it. If you keep going, maybe you’ll unlock a skill soon!”
A blue box flashed up.
’Party Member Ava has unlocked a skill!
Buff Morale—F (0%): Increases a chosen player’s vitality by 2 Skill Points for 80 seconds upon cast.
Command to Activate: ‘Activate Morale’
Cost: 5 MP’
Before Leon could close the window, Ava screamed out.
“I have a skill! I unlocked a fucking skill! Can you believe it? Ah!” She lost her hold on the branch and fell. Leon started forward, but she somehow caught the branch with her hands. She peered down and landed in a crouch. “That was scary.”
Leon jogged to her and held out a hand. “Are you okay?”
“Sure,” Ava said, grabbing it. “Got a bit too excited.” Her cheeks flushed. She peered behind his back. “The tree’s still standing.”
“You want me to care more about a tree than a friend?” He raised an eyebrow as he pulled her up.
“Well…” She cleared her throat. “I’m here to support you, not to be a burden.” Ava’s serious tone was betrayed by the smile she wore when she beamed up at him. “Because now I can!” She bit her lips, and somehow, it was like the energy needed to get out. She jumped around on the spot and punched the air. “I got a skill! A skill! A skill!”
Leon chuckled. “Well earned, I suppose? Since it’s special and all, you must have done some good things for people around.”
She stopped bouncing and poked her bottom lip, glancing to the sky. “I’m not sure. But I suppose eleven months should have brought something.” Her skin paled. “What if I don’t get another skill for a year?”
Leon walked toward the tree he’d hit. “You will. Now that you’ve started to level up, maybe it will go quicker.” And maybe her interest in clearing the tower had something to do with it as well. The last line of text from the beginning of his journey here rang through his mind. Upperworld and Netherworld have their eyes on you. But why did they want people to climb the tower? It couldn’t be just to give them an extra chance at life, could it?
“Come on, don’t stand and gawk all day. Get going! Now I have something to train up as well.” She pursed her lips in thought. “Well, twice a day, anyway. For now.”
“Is your healing spell scalable as well?” Leon asked as he swung at the tree. It emitted a dull “thuck” for each hit.
Even though she’d just fallen, she climbed up the same tree again. It had a thick dark-brown root and lime-colored leaves, and the dress blended in well. Ava sat on the branch, swinging her legs. The tree in front of Leon groaned and crashed to the ground.
“Again!” she said, pointing to another thin, yellow tree.
“I’m not sure I can complete another—”
“You can! Doesn’t your vitality affect your fatigue levels? I read up a little on it when I was bored. There’s so little to do when you don’t have a job and can’t do anything to change it. Well, at least now I’ve gotten off the street, but there’s still quite a lot of free time.”
“Good! Let’s practice.”
Leon laid in bed after having slept two hours. It was mid-afternoon, and he’d have to sleep twice in one day. He turned to look at Troublemaker, who slept on his discarded shirt on top of the chest, where it had made a nest for itself.
Was this all he could do? If it took Ava eleven months to gain a skill, and she only got it once she’d joined a team and was fighting, then maybe the system only rewarded the ones who wanted to scale the tower. Hert had a profession, or rather, a skill tree that he’d unlocked, but he was level five, meaning he must have fought before settling down. Once, he too must have aimed to climb. Wonder what made him stop?
Leon’s lips jerked. Considering his cowardly nature, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if he heard about the first floor from others and chickened out because of rumors. Leon sighed and Troublemaker stirred at the sound. The rabbit looked up at him with purple eyes and jumped from the chest to the floor and toward him. He sat up and put the back of his hand on the floor. Troublemaker crept into his hand, and he held the small being against his chest. Soon enough, the rabbit could probably jump onto the bed all on its own.
Leon stopped the petting, and the rabbit looked up at his still hand. That was an idea. As far as he knew, he didn’t rack up any fatigue while moving. Maybe that could serve for agility? It was worth a try. And maybe he could even add some weight?
He peered at the backpack. The backpack weighed nothing, even with items in it, but the blades did once they were out. Strength and agility. He smiled. As long as he kept within the walls of Pura, he could run until he grew bored of it, right?
Troublemaker looked after him as he drew out the short sword and wooden dagger, and continued out the door, leaving the backpack behind. Leon headed downstairs and looked at the time again. It wouldn’t be dark for another two to three hours, so any route should be fine—he’d stay within the city, though, so he wouldn’t be forced to fight.
Leon looked at the board with the map at the foot of the stairs and followed the roads with his finger. Since the inn was drawn at the top of it, the only route he could choose without having to backtrack would go through the slums. That should be fine, since he could complete his run before night fell. Happy with the decision, he headed out and started walking. According to the map, it was a pretty linear route, with only a few turns that he’d memorized. It shouldn’t be so hard.
Once he’d crossed the town square, he firmed his grip around his weapons and started off at a jog. The point of star patterned square he exited led into a narrow street full of houses, but lacking people. If he’d seen any horse carriages, he guessed one would barely fit between the rows. The houses were two or three stories high and continued for a good while, with the occasional back alley. Balconies on the top floors held small private gardens with iron fences, but the further he got from the square, the smaller both buildings and rooms became. The smooth window panes changed to smaller, rough ones, and the inside apartments grew tighter.
When he turned a corner, he almost bumped into a red-painted food cart where a man sold different grains. He gazed up at Leon, but when he spotted the weapons, he swiftly looked in the other direction. Leon stopped, taking in the scene. Even as the stalls in the square he left had begun packing up for the day, this square teemed with life and merchants set up their stalls. Rich smells of curry wafted through the area, but as he stepped in on the cobbled ground, he spotted his last meal. Who’d have thought hamburgers existed in a place like this?
The people in the square stood mainly in groups; talking, gesturing, and laughing. They all wore basic clothing in wool, and, on occasion, leather. They seemed to wait for something to begin.
Leon’s stomach rumbled as he crossed the plaza and stood in front of the blue wagon. It was like a small house on wheels, and inside the window stood a balding man with the bushiest mustache Leon had seen in real life. He scanned the menu on the cream paper nailed to the side of the service window. The cheapest burger came at three coins, and he took a quick peek at his account balance. 31 coins in total. He knew he shouldn’t, since he’d already paid for meals at the inn, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Hey,” he called.
The older man looked up. “Heya. I’m open in about half an hour.”
“I had no idea I could find burgers here.”
“Just don’t ask what’s in ‘em and we’ll both be happy.”
Leon frowned. “So, what’s going on here in the square?”
“Ah, new, are you? It’s just the night market. Once every week. People wanna taste foods from home, or sometimes get the chance to let loose a little to the band.” He waved with a spatula toward the edge of the square where a few people had almost completed erecting a scene. On the side stood three women and two guys, all with different instruments. “Bit of advice though—get the food you want and get out. They may be bards, but they sure can’t play or sing.”
Leon nodded and looked at the people over there, then he spotted a sign behind the stage rigging and remembered what the guard had said—that Margaret’s inn was the second cheapest. This must be the first, then. He turned toward the building. “I think I’ll come back later, then.”
Did it have to matter what was in it if it tasted as it should? Actually, he’d have to think about that one. He hadn’t encountered something that left meat, but for it to be better not to know, it couldn’t be something savory.
Leon passed a few groups who threw glances his way, but as soon as he looked back, they continued their lively conversations and moved slightly away. He wished he’d left the swords. Once in front of the building, he looked up. It was taller than The Drowning Goblin, but less broad, and more stones seemed to be missing, making him wonder if any of the tenants felt drafts even with closed windows. “The Laughing Bard” stood carved on a hanging wooden sign, and “Pub & Inn” beneath the name.
Leon pushed open the door and came into a well-lit area. The stones in the wall were stained with soot, and loud voices came all around him from the multiple tables. He’d stepped right into the pub part of the building, and men and women of all ages sat across from each other with tankards, cheering. In front of him stood a bar with six barstools, but also a divide in the middle that revealed wooden stairs leading up to the second floor.
“Hello, young one,” croaked a voice. “What do you want?”
Leon looked around, but couldn’t locate where it came from. Then a head full of gray popped up behind the bar. Leon approached. A man older than time itself stood on a step-ladder, resting his palms on the wood. His ears were almost as long as his face, and his nose claimed a majority of it. He smiled, revealing a missing tooth in the lower jaw.
“Just looking around,” Leon said. “Had no idea this inn was here.”
“Are you a Scab, then?” The man tapped his fingers on his temples. “No, you carry weapons. Why? Do you want to join the Skurkmen? If so, you’re not welcome. Too many repairs.” He spat to the side.
“The what now?”
“Never mind, then. But what are you doing, flaunting your weapons, if you don’t want to join them?”
“I—” Leon thought about explaining, but let the words fall. It didn’t matter. “Anyway, I just wanted to take a look in here. I’ll leave.”
“Don’t cause any trouble, young man! I know the guards!”
Leon hurried out of there and into the plaza again. The Sku... Leon stopped, racking his brain. The Whatever-gang seemed to be trouble, and he was happy he didn’t have to deal with them. No matter who they were, it didn’t sound like something he’d like to get involved with, even if he couldn’t get hurt by players until he reached level ten. Still, the surrounding people didn’t know he meant no harm.
Leon tried to conceal his weapons as best he could and continued past the hamburger wagon. The square had started to fill up with even more people, and a man with a small child on his shoulders passed him. Leon turned to look after them. How odd to see children, but that also meant there were NPC families here, not only odd people like the innkeeper. It didn’t matter if the band sucked or not; it seemed like a nice night out. Too bad he wouldn’t stay to check it out.
He continued past a stall where an old Asian lady threw rice in the air and caught it with a wok pan. The whole square had exploded with smells rich in culture, and he promised to return someday, without weapons and a little more coins in his account.
Once he’d passed the plaza and entered another cobbled road, he began running. Not that he’d thought about it before, but he actually wanted to know more about the city; and what better time than when he was almost exhausted? Leon pulled up his status window, just to be sure, and as he’d thought before, nothing had changed in skills, stats, or fatigue. He looked at the skills, shining empty except for his “Insight” and “Warrior’s Build” which was passive and basically useless when he hadn’t stuck a critical strike once and thus couldn’t take advantage of the 10% less damage.
“I said stop!”
Leon closed the box and looked over his shoulder. A blue-clad guard with an iron helmet covering half his face came running, spear pointed directly at him.
“I’ll kill you!”
Heart pounding, Leon increased his speed. What had he done wrong? The buildings had changed into little better than stone and wood ruins, with leaking roofs. He’d entered the Slums already?
“You can’t run forever!” the guard huffed, and after a minute, he changed it to, “Well, you want a poster on your head?”
“Why are you chasing me?” Leon called.
“Scabs...” the guard panted, “aren’t there for the joy of killing them! Skurkmen scumbag!”
Leon slowed off and raised his hands. “My bad!”
The guard stopped a few feet in front of him and jabbed him with his weapon, making Leon stumble backward.
“I’m not Sk-Whatever, I’m just training.”
“Pff, that’s likely,” the guard said. “Sword training then, ey? Maybe putting you in for a night will make you learn not to lie.”
“Look, I suck with swords.” Leon let his arms down. “Besides, they’re wood.”
“One can get splinters. Rot. Die. Just like you would.” The guard stabbed toward him, and Leon jumped back, hit a rock with his heel, and went sprawling back.
“Give me a chance to explain,” he said, spear pointed at his throat. If this guard was an NPC, he could actually kill him.
“One shot,” the guard mumbled. “Damn rules.”
Leon quickly explained his reasoning, and the guard’s grimace turned to a smirk. Then, when Leon finished telling the details, he burst out laughing.
“You’re an odd one!” he shouted, tilting the helmet to wipe a tear from under his eye. “Never heard of such a thing.”
“It’s not that stupid, is it?” Leon said, crawling back up on his feet.
“Well, we all have different views. I’ll tell the rest of the crew to watch out for you.” The guard’s smile disappeared. “But if you ever kill a Scab or anyone else, you’ll have another thing coming.”
Leon shrugged. “Sure.”
The guard waved him goodbye and went off mumbling something about ‘joke of the week,’ while Leon looked into the sky. It was getting darker. He took in the surroundings, closed his eyes, and envisioned the map. It wasn’t that far through the Slums. He’d make it.
Leon walked down the street, trying to avoid the looks of the Scabs around him. They scurried off to gain more distance, but kept a watchful eye on him. Just when he would run, he noticed a tall but slim black building, without a missing stone in the foundation, and held up a full roof. It looked alien among the ramshackle buildings, especially since it stood between two of them. Leon approached the board outside the white marble door, which read:
‘Portal to the first level of the Tower of Katastoph
Welcome, Player. If you are ready to venture into the first floor, place your hands on the stone door. You will be transported into the tower and your quest and test will begin.
Caution: Once you enter the first floor, you will not be able to leave it until you have played it through. If you succeed in clearing the floor, you will be transported to this location and the teleport will become unavailable.’
Leon backed away to look up at the building. It looked like a mini version of the tower, now that he knew about it.
Someone pulled on the hem of his shirt. A young girl with pigtails looked up at him. She had missing teeth, but what stood out the most were the two in front, which were a little bigger than suitable. That made him think of the baby rabbit, and he smiled. She wore rags, and her blond hair, even when pulled into a hairdo, was a mess. She tugged at his shirt again, seemingly unfazed by the weapons in his hands.
“Mister, do you have something I can play with? I’m so bored.”
‘Will you give the child a toy?
The prompt made an image flash up in his mind.
“No.” The box disappeared. “But I think I have one I can give you later. You two could be twins.”
The child squealed and ran into the nearest group of Scabs.
A box popped up.
‘Do you wish to add this as a personal quest?
Warning: Personal quests do not give rewards.
Leon nodded and started off running again, turning corner after corner, and through three mostly empty plazas. Not of people, but of stores or stalls overall. He slowed when he entered the fourth plaza. Had there even been a fourth one on the map? He thought back to it, but he just couldn’t recall. Evening was really coming on now, and lamps glowed in the streets, though far apart. This was the time that Ava hinted was a bad time to be here. But why? There shouldn’t be interest from thieves if they can’t keep anything for themselves. Besides, he had nothing to steal, except for the weapons in his hands and those were useless for a Scab. Not to mention that they feared them.
Still, Leon continued at a jog and was surprised to see the groups of Scabs sit down on the street, all in a fetal position. Maybe that’s how they sleep? Leon followed the road for a while longer. There hadn’t been many turns on the map, but what if he’d missed one? Actually, it might be a good idea to ask someone, if possible.
Leon changed his path to the nearest group. He slowed down when he came closer; something in his mind or body, maybe both, told him something was wrong. The three men and two women in the group looked at him with disinterest but scanned his frame all the same. They stood up, glaring at him.
“Uh... could anyone please tell me how to get to the—” He swallowed. The group moved closer and something shone in their eyes. “I think I’ll find my own way, then.”
Leon backed off and jogged again, but halted when one of the Scabs said something. He turned around. A woman with unkempt brown hair hanging down the shoulders held out a pleading hand, but no message had prompted.
“Ignore,” he said, just in case.
“I don’t have any—” Wait, didn’t Ava say that Scabs didn’t get hungry? The memory flashed in his mind. They don’t get hungry, not like we do. A chill crept up his spine. Nah. It was impossible. Right?
Leon ran, and all around him, the sitting groups rose and ambled toward him, holding their stomachs and stretching out their arms.
“I haven’t eaten in weeks,” one complained. “Don’t run.”
The crowds amassed in front of him, and he held his sword and dagger in a cross in front of him.
I’m an author who loves isekai and wanted to make an attempt at creating a litrpg world (or several) and I hope you’ll enjoy them.
CHAPTER RELEASES (Blood Curse)
My goal is to publish one chapter every weekend. How well I manage with completing that goal usually depends on my work schedule. If it's been a hectic week, it might be a little later, and if it's been a slow week (or I've procrastinated on another project) there might be two chapters released closer together.
I hope you enjoy the story! I really appreciate all comments and feedback, so if you have anything to say, feel free to voice it :)