"Come on, we're celebrating!" Misa grinned at Derivan. The half-orc's hand held a full tankard of beer that threatened to slosh out of the sides as she gestured at his helmet; it was only the weak enchantment on the mug that prevented it. "Take off the damn helmet already. I've never seen you once without that thing."
"I cannot," Derivan said. He sat at his corner of the table, back leaning against the tavern wall. A faint light flickered within his helmet, the only indication of his amusement. "You know this."
"Bah," Misa scoffed. "You should've met me earlier! I'd have told you that your armor was cursed. What kind of armor is black and spiky and not cursed?"
"An [Armor of Melee Reflection]!" Vex piped up. Their resident lizardkin wizard seemed a little bit dazed, waving his mug of beer around before slamming it onto the table. The liquid splashed over his hands, and he looked at it, blinking a few times. "Whoops. Good... good thing I'm not wearing robes. Bah! Wizards. Make it too obvious that they're... that they're wizards."
Indeed, Vex was dressed in protective leathers and had a dagger for a focus. Most people would have assumed he was a rogue; it was a trick he'd used more than once to keep bandits on the alert for a close-range surprise attack that never came. "Aaalso! [Black Thorn Armor]. And [Evolving Armor]. Aaand it's a very common deeck... decorative element in Ely—"
"Vex," Sev interrupted, looking exasperated, though there was a hint of laughter in his eyes. "You've had this entire conversation with Misa before. She's just drunk. And so are you. I am not healing her from a hangover again, and since when did you drink?"
Misa stared their human cleric in the eye, scowling, and gulped down her entire tankard of beer.
"I don’t need you to heal my hangovers!" she declared once she was done, wiping some beer off of her lip and pointing at Derivan. "Aaand another thing! What kind of stupid curse is that? Curses are supposed to be evil and shit! Yours lets you not eat and you just can't take it off? And what about bathing? How are you supposed to bathe?"
Misa narrowed her eyes, leaning in to Derivan — who leaned back, both amused and faintly concerned — and took a big sniff. "You don't even smell. Cheater. Your armor cheats."
"I'd take that trade... trader? Trade... off. Tradeoff," Vex agreed, looking probably far too proud of himself for remembering the word. He grasped a little uselessly at his mug, still staring off in Derivan's general direction.
Sev squinted at him and stole the mug away before he could grab it, slipping a glass of water into the lizardkin's hands instead.
Vex barely seemed to notice, gulping it down with exactly the same amount of enthusiasm without breaking eye contact with their armored teammate. "I'd be able to study so many more things! Like magic. And armor. And magic armor."
Evidently, the lizardkin had motivations. But Sev had other concerns.
"Veeeex?" Sev stared at his friend, a suspicion forming in his mind. Vex had always been quite vocal about his dislike for alcohol. And he hadn’t reacted to the change in his drink...
"I cast a spell to numb my taste buds!" Vex interrupted gleefully, looking all too excited to share the details of his magic. "Yesss. Can't win against Misa without it! Alcohol tastes weeeeird. Also I wanna sleep." Vex planted his face on the table, his snout thunking against the wood, though his fingers continued reaching for the glass of water near him. "I'm good at spells!"
Derivan chuckled softly. "I think perhaps we should retire for the night," he said, reaching for the lolling lizardkin and easily lifting him into his arms. "I will get Vex to bed. Can you look after Misa?"
Sev, having only just sighed, pointedly took a deep breath so he could let out a louder, long-suffering sigh. He glanced at Misa. She appeared to be engaged in a staring match with the air above his head, waving down extra mugs of beer and gulping them down without breaking eye contact.
"Yeah, fine," Sev grumbled.
"Youuuu." Vex poked at his armor a few times, and Derivan looked down at his friend, suppressing an amused chuckle. "You know Misa isn't really pressuring you to take off your armor, right?"
"I know, Vex," Derivan said. It wasn't the first time he wished he could smile — the light in his helmet glowed faintly in his closest approximation of one, though. "She is teasing me about it, yes? It is fine."
"Good!" Vex declared. "Cause I've told her not to pressure you."
Derivan chuckled. "I do not mind it, Vex. But I appreciate your support."
"Also your armor isn't cursed," Vex said, poking him again; Derivan froze, barely controlling the flinch that threatened to drop his friend. "Can't taste any curse magic coming from it. So... not cursed."
He knows — Wait. Did he say taste?
"Did you say taste?" Derivan repeated out loud, staring at the drunken form of his friend. "Did you... lick my armor?"
"Noooooo," Vex said, in a way that Derivan decided sounded suspiciously like a yes. "But you picked me up and my tongue wasn't in my mouth. So, technically, your armor licked me."
"I do not believe that is how that works," Derivan said, but he laughed, shaking his head in fond amusement. He nudged the door to Vex's room open with a hand, walking backwards into the room and surveying it briefly. The whole place was a mess, typical of their wizardly friend — scattered scrolls and dispersed drawings, rubbings from runes arranged haphazardly on his desk.
No doubt half of them were trapped, too. He'd made the mistake of trying to touch some of Vex's belongings without permission once.
Instead, Derivan carefully made his way to the bed and knelt to roll the lizard onto his bed. "You must sleep, my friend."
"Nooo," Vex protested. "I don't wanna... sleep. Sleep is a stupid spell anyway. It only works as a sleeping aid! I wanna make a spell that replaces sleep... that'd be neat. A sleep spell, but it just gives you all the rest that sleep gives you... how would it go? Maybe if I [Sleep]—"
Credit where credit was due — Derivan had never seen a spellcaster accidentally cast a spell on themselves.
It was quite genuinely impressive. Spellcasting usually required some level of concentration, and Vex’s ability to do this mid-ramble was a testament to the fact that he was, in fact, ‘good at spells’.
He let an amused smirk touch his eyes, glancing around to find the lizardkin’s enchanted pitcher of water. He’d let it run out of mana again. Derivan let some of his mana flow into it so that Vex would have some water for when he woke up, then slipped out of the room and back into his own, just across the hall.
There, in the privacy of his room, Derivan paused. He stared at the bed sitting just beneath the window, at the barely-disturbed covers that laid across it.
With his back to the door, he slid to the ground with a sigh.
For all that he tried... relating to organic beings was difficult.
He understood the purpose of beds. The others had certainly complained about not having them often enough. But the idea of comfort was... foreign to him.
He stared at the bed in the corner of the room. It did nothing for him, because he couldn't feel anything except when his armor was damaged. Even the weight of anything he carried was only a faint ghost of a sensation. The idea of getting drunk, or needing water, or getting embroiled in a competition to drink more of a substance that only seemed to make people feel worse when they woke up — it was all incredibly foreign to him.
Still, when he watched his teammates do those things, it was with a sense of inexplicable fondness.
With a thought, he pulled up his status, and stared at it.
Derivan, Level 26
[Disguise Status — Level 26] [Buff]
<WARNING>: Restricts your stats and skills to the chosen level.
It disgusted him to see that title — and the fact that his name was nothing more than a false label plastered onto his status was somehow even worse. It was a reminder of what he was. It was a reminder that he would never truly be a part of the society he had joined; that he was only pretending at it.
If any one of the others figured out what he really was... he didn't know what they'd do. He wasn't sure he wanted to know.
They'd been adventuring together for months, though Vex had joined them more recently. Derivan had grown attached to all of them — to Sev's protectiveness, Misa's boisterous nature, Vex's inexplicable knowledge of obscure trivia. He couldn't imagine parting with any of them, and yet...
He was helping them get stronger. It was necessary, in a world of dungeons and monster attacks; if he didn't, they could die.
...Admittedly, he was sure they'd argue the point, if he could bring it up. They were, after all, very powerful for their ranks and levels. Sev and Misa both had rare classes. Vex hadn't talked about his, but he suspected the wizard did too. All of them were clever in their own ways, and had no compunctions about exploiting all the intricacies of the skills their classes offered them.
He remembered Sev's boast about [Divine Communion] with a wry sort of amusement. The way the cleric spoke of it, it was a skill that would allow him a moment to speak with his god and request help; it would work once, and then the skill would wither and die.
So they had that to keep them safe, even if Derivan didn't help them. Even if he left.
But... he wanted to stay.
There was no real way for him to win. The truest victory would be one where they lived on without him, with the strength he'd helped them gain.
Derivan told himself that the thought was a comfort — but comfort was still a foreign concept to him, and he wasn't sure if he could make himself believe it.
The armor sighed. Still leaning against the door, he allowed himself to slip into sleep — although for him, it wasn't a true rest. It was [Meditation].
But for a short while, it helped him feel like he wasn't a monster, and that was enough.
"Alright," Sev announced. "I got us our next quest."
"Why do you always get to pick?" Vex grumbled. The lizard was nursing his head, and Derivan patted his back gently in sympathy. It seemed to help.
"Because if you pick, we'll just end up studying some ruins for a week," Sev said drily. "And if Misa picks, we're going to fight another horde. Or an Elite."
Vex paled a little at the thought of fighting an Elite.
"And if I pick?" Derivan asked.
"...Do you want to pick?" Sev looked at him curiously.
"Not as such." Derivan admitted, shrugging. In truth, he couldn't — he didn't know enough about the quest system, or the dangers they might encounter. His knowledge of the world at large was limited to the eight or so months of wandering he'd done with this very team once he left his dungeon. "But I was curious."
"I have no idea what you'd pick," Sev told him. "But I don't have any objections if you want to pick next time, but for now..."
The cleric spread a map out onto the table, then jabbed a spot with his finger. "We're collecting some mana crystals from the local Nucleus. It's a relatively low-level job, but this particular Nucleus has seen a lot of monster activity lately, so we need to be on alert."
Misa frowned for a moment. She looked like she was about to protest, but something passed through her eyes, and she sighed instead. "Mana crystals, huh?" she finally said. "Are they having trouble getting adventurers to collect them again?"
Sev nodded, offering the half-orc a slight, apologetic grimace. "Yeah. It's low-hanging fruit, but someone needs to do it."
Misa grumbled. "Too many adventurers think they're too good for 'the baby shit' once they get past level 10."
There was a brief silence — unspoken commiseration from the table. Even Derivan understood the problem; he'd seen enough of it, even in the few short months of his travel.
Mana crystals were in short supply. It was too dangerous for non-combat classes to collect them, but the job of collecting them was ordinarily slow and boring. To combat this, the Adventurer's Guild had made it so that it was the only quest available to those between levels 5 and 10, where 5 was the minimum level needed to join the Guild.
The problem was that adventurers themselves rarely stayed below level 10 for long.
Larger cities often had their own harvesting teams rather than relying on adventurers, with bigger ones and the Prime Kingdoms built directly on top of a Nucleus or a dungeon. Smaller villages, though, had precious little to survive. Their own harvesting teams were often small, consisting of only a precious few that had combat classes, and if those teams were ever unable to harvest...
Well. Mana crystals were important. They were used in everything — health potions, lamps, stoves. [Disease Purification] often required at least a grade three mana crystal. That was three days' worth of farming for a standard adventuring team, and a small village usually only had one of those.
Worse, usage of a small grade one crystal every week was required to maintain an individual's link to the system, and allowing the link to degrade was… catastrophic.
"Alright," Misa said, throwing on her pack. "Let's go." Vex blinked blearily twice, watching the way she moved with ease.
"...didn't you say you weren't going to cure her hangover?" Vex said, staring suspiciously at Sev.
The cleric shrugged. "I didn't. She's just... fine, apparently?"
"I can hear you," Misa said, half-amused, half-annoyed. "First of all, you drank like half a mug of beer. I have no idea how you have a hangover. Second, I kept drinking after you left, and I do have a hangover. It hurts like shit. I wanna punch something."
She paused, then sighed. "But... shit, guys, this mana crystal stuff? Yeah, normally I'd complain we're not pushing ourselves or whatever, but we've seen what not having mana crystals does to a village. So let's... go get some crystals."
Sev was silent for a moment, then let out an explosive sigh, tapping both Vex and Misa on the shoulder. A small, glowing light left his fingers as he did so.
"This is a one time thing," he huffed. “You’re supposed to learn your lesson.”
Derivan, perhaps wisely, didn't mention that he did this nearly every time Misa got a hangover. Misa and Vex both, on the other hand, visibly sagged in relief.
"Thanks," they chorused, and Sev nodded.
"Never doing that again," Vex added, muttering to himself.
Derivan was the only one that noticed the way Sev's hands shook briefly after he cast his spell.