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For the second time in the same day, I awoke dazed and confused. I anticipated more burning white noise, so I gingerly opened my eyes only to be surrounded by mellow greenery. Slowly, I checked myself and my equipment. My wounds were gone, although my clothes were still riddled with holes. Even the blood was still fresh and moist. The magazine loaded in my rifle had only 23 rounds left. I wasn’t sure how long that would last or if I would ever find more ammunition. Worst of all, my radio was dead - in hindsight, that may have been a bad choice. At least my multitool was still good to go. It seemed anything relying on electricity was useless or broke during the transfer.

I fumbled for my locket and finally opened it to see Rebecca. The picture was almost three years old - it was taken right before she went to college. Before the war started. I wondered if she received word of my death. I hoped the government took care of her needs in my stead. Eventually, I set the locket in my pocket above my upper arm. Military uniforms had pockets everywhere, so at least I could carry plenty of miscellaneous items.

Then I spent a few seconds trying to figure out how to use that «Menu» Seras mentioned. At this point, I had gone past insanity and just accepted the situation. Adapt and overcome - it was a familiar motto. Simply thinking of the word ‘Menu’ and visualizing a 3D representation based on what I remembered of it was enough to call it up into the forefront of my vision. The blue scrawl was very flowery - not my first choice and I wondered if I could change the settings or if it was Seras’ own sense of aesthetic.

There were three main options:


«Status»
«Map»
«Squad Chat»

“Pretty barebones for a video game.”

I had to at least make fun of the situation in order to cope. But with no one to quip back, I was crushed by a wave of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

I opened my «Status» to distract myself. I had to keep moving forward.

Status

Name

???

Level

1st

Class

Ranger

Subclass

None

Health

13

Mana

13

Attributes

Strength

14

Wisdom

16

Dexterity

14

Intelligence

16

Constitution

16

Charisma

12

Aspects

Marksmanship

E

Survival

E

Communication and Tracking (Unique)

E

Devotion (Unique)

E

Skills

Comprehend Languages

The user can read, write, speak, and listen to any and all languages with total fluency.

Source: Goddess of Balance, Seras

Select Fire

For any ranged attack, the user may choose to fire in three modes: semi-automatic, three-round burst, and fully automatic.

Source: Marksmanship

Telepathy (Group)

Adds the Squad Chat function to the Menu. The user may designate up to three Squad members to benefit from this ability.
Source: Communications and Tracking (Unique)

Movement and Tracking System

Adds the Map function to the Menu.
Source: Survival, Communications and Tracking (Unique)

Familial Bonds (Special)

Gains resistance to Charm and Fear. Also increases melee damage.
Source: Devotion (Unique)

Spells

None

An honest-to-god character sheet. Is this world based on a tabletop?

I poured over stats like a murderhoboing min-maxer. If I was going to play this game, I was going to be damn good at it. My survival and most importantly, my chance to see Rebecca, hinged upon the successful completion of my mission. Seras claimed I was chosen by a lottery, but I doubted that was entirely true. I was probably picked randomly from a whole category of candidates that were tailored in a specific way: active and experienced combatants desperate enough to accept a one-sided deal with a deity.

Based on the single tabletop I’ve ever played, my «Attribute» distribution was pretty good. Assuming the average was 10, then I was above-average in virtually every category. However, seeing my life reduced to an arbitrary number as low as 13 was disconcerting. I skipped over my «Aspects». As far as Seras implied, most people only had two at birth and they didn’t change easily, or ever. So I was stuck with these four for the foreseeable future.

«Skills» were my next major concern. «Select Fire» appeared useless at first glance because my rifle already had the same fire modes, but if it applied to any ranged attack, then that greatly improved its versatility. Even if I ran out of 5.56, I wouldn’t be completely helpless. I'd have to throw some rocks and see how far I could push this «Skill».

«Telepathy (Group)» was probably derived from my radio, but the object itself was inoperable. I wasn’t sure if electricity was even available in this world. At the moment, the radio was deadweight but I didn’t discard it yet. I needed to confirm the world’s technological state before making any hasty decisions.

Are squads and parties the same or do they have different mechanics? Either way, I couldn't test anything about the «Skill» until I met someone trustworthy. I shelved it for now.

The «Movement Tracking System» was a god-send in this situation and I noticed it was a combination of «Survival» and «Communications and Tracking».

Does that mean mixing «Aspects» produces different «Skills»? I filed that tidbit away for later.

And last but not least: «Familial Bonds». I smiled at how it was my only defensive «Skill». I just knew Rebecca was protecting me, and she wasn't slacking off either, because innate resistance to two types of status effects was a pretty huge deal in any RPG. The final bit about melee attacks turned my smile into a chuckle. Seras must have added it; inflicting physical violence had nothing to do with the original spirit of the «Skill».

Is this a reward or a warning? She can alter my character sheet at will, without me even knowing. That’s a frightening piece of information.

I felt relieved and somewhat optimistic for the first time since I died, which in no small sense of irony, was a lifetime ago. But I deflated like a balloon immediately after I opened my «Map». Instead of a world map of some kind, it was more like a medium-range radar grid system that revealed creatures, terrain, and topography. It was still miles better than wandering blindly through the wilderness, but I was hoping for something far more comprehensive since the item it was based on had an extremely detailed map the Earth downloaded into it. The «Map» itself was annoyingly defaulted to the center of my line of sight and blown up to occupy a majority of my field of view, so I mentally fiddled with the ‘window’ until it 'shrunk' and ‘stuck’ on the top right-hand corner of my vision.

Jesus Christ that was obnoxiously difficult. Seras, you need to hire a new UI dev.

After a bit more testing, I noticed the «Map» orientation was fixed, even though the cursor that indicated where I was facing shifted with my movement.

Is it locked to bear True North?

I decided to just travel in what I thought was north and I kept the «Map» steady to prevent myself from getting side-tracked. It took me a few minutes of observation, but I determined the field of detection was a circular sphere with a radius of approximately 300 meters, the same distance most infantrymen were trained to engage targets at.

Judging by what Seras said, «Aspects» were intrinsic to a person, so it stood to reason their «Skills» were just as influenced. If someone else had the same «Skill», it was likely there would be subtle differences based on their experiences and how those «Skills» developed. I doubted anyone else with «Marksmanship» had «Select Fire». And even if they did, they wouldn’t have the three-round burst option because it was based on my service rifle, a weapon from an alternate universe.


Curious and eager to test my «Skills», I picked up a small pebble and activated «Select Fire». Somehow, I instinctively knew how to use the «Skill» and I threw the rock as hard as I could at the nearest tree trunk, with the mental image of my rifle's selector lever thumbed to three-round burst. The pebble then multiplied in mid-air and slammed into the tree. They left three small holes in a neat group.

Didn’t I just violate some really important law of physics?

I blinked owlishly then checked my «Status» window to see my «MP» had gone down by 2.

“So each projectile costs «MP». I guess it’s not just free. But… this means I now effectively have 69 rounds. Ha-ha…”

Not even crickets laughed at my dirty joke. I shook my head to clear my mind.

But what does the semi-automatic function do if I don’t fire my rifle?

Thinking nothing of it, I picked up another rock, activated the «Skill», and the pebble launched itself from my palm at the same tree.

Well that’s fucking cool. So semi-automatic is literally semi-automatic. I just have to ‘load’ some ammunition and it will fire on its own.

A quick scan at my «MP» said it decreased by 1. Was the cost based on the mass of the object? I wanted to test one of my 5.56 rounds, but their limited number kept me from haphazardly throwing them away and using larger rocks cost the same. There were no boulders nearby for me to play with, so I couldn't learn much more.

The sounds of my experiments must have scared some critters, because I saw a squirrel scramble out from beneath the cover of a tree branch. I mentally designated the squirrel as my target, activated «Select Fire» again, and launched a pebble at its head. The pebble hit dead-on and killed it instantly. I felt my eyes go wide.

On Earth, if someone told me they could throw a pebble and kill a squirrel in a single try, I’d bet my yearly mortgage against them. I couldn’t exactly guess the velocity of the pebble, but seeing as how I could still track it with my eye, I assumed it was about as fast as an arrow but far more accurate.

Can I curve the trajectory?

I wanted to experiment even more, but I was chilled by another thought: my «MP» wasn’t recovering and I had no idea how to get it back. If it fell to 0, I might lose my «Map» or even my whole «Menu». I decided to stop testing any «Skill» until I figured out how to regenerate my «MP».

I picked up the squirrel and continued north for several hours until a small river appeared on my «Map». There was also a line of brown running alongside it and when I finally arrived, I discovered it was a dirt-beaten road that went east to west in either direction.

A sigh of relief escaped my lips. The lack of any sign of civilization until now was weighing my mind down with anxiety, and a road was a promising indication of some kind of settlement. I decided to backtrack a few hundred meters but kept the river and road at the very edge of my «Map» while I set up a small campfire to roast the squirrel. I used my multitool to ignite the flame, then I skinned and field dressed the carcass. The motions came to me even though I had no serious experience with processing wild game. I figured it was my «Survival Aspect» at work.

So they provide undocumented passive benefits too. Just how far can I stretch this system?

A source of freshwater and a hot meal went a long way to boosting my morale but it did nothing to increase my «MP». Either the food wasn’t nutritious enough or «MP» didn’t regenerate after eating like in some video games. It wasn’t long before night fell and I realized I hiked for until sundown without stopping to rest or drink any water.

Was 16 «Constitution» really that effective? Did it also improve my immune system? What about my pain tolerance?


I wasn't tired and I felt the stress from the last 24 hours would keep my blood boiling for a while longer, so I decided to stargaze until I fell asleep. I let the fire die to a dim smolder. I didn’t recognize any of the stars, not that I was any good at astronomy, but I was at least expecting to find the Big Dipper.

I really am on a different planet. In a different universe. Just wait, I’ll be home soon, Rebecca.


I had no idea when I fell asleep, but a series of mad shrieking jarred me awake.

I instinctively reached for my rifle and rolled behind a tree for cover and concealment. My muzzle was already pointed in the direction where the voices were coming from.

On my «Map» were 12 yellow dots: two were larger than the rest and three were surrounded by the remaining seven. A woman screamed. That prompted me to break cover to close the distance. I dropped to one knee behind just within the shadows of the treeline bordering the road to get a better idea of the situation.

The seven I detected earlier were well armed men in comparison to those they accosted. They were dressed in a mix of plate and leather and brandished swords and spears. They looked like standard foot soldiers. The remaining three were also dressed in finery I would have expected from a noble in a video game. Two of those were females and the lone male was literally speared to the wall of a nondescript wagon. The two largest dots on my «Map» were a pair of horses strapped to the wagon.

I clicked my tongue. I had no idea what was happening. At first glance, it was a simple highway robbery, something you would see in any trope-ridden fantasy story, but each of these men had the same emblem of a dragon brandishing a flaming sword in one claw and some kind of orb or egg in the other etched to their right pauldrons. It was a blatant reminder that I had no idea what the socioeconomic or geopolitical landscape looked like.

Hell, I don’t even know the name of this fucking planet.

Frustration welled up within me and paralyzed me to inaction. I watched while the two women were dragged from the carriage and thrown to the ground. The men slapped one into submission, a girl with brown hair in a blue dress with white frills - she looked like a maid - and they gagged and bound the other, a blonde in a red dress with a golden brooch bearing the same emblem the soldiers wore.

I read enough random trivia tidbits to know that colored clothing of any kind, especially deep hues like blue, red, and purple were an indication of high ranking nobility or even royalty.

Is this some kind of political assassination? A coup? Hostage taking? What are my Rules of Engagement? Are they corrupt? Do I have any moral obligations to fulfill here?

Thousands of questions ran through my head. For all I knew, those girls could be skin-wearing monsters and these warriors were just performing their civil duties in dispatching them. One uninformed decision could have catastrophic consequences.

But when the blonde screamed for help while praying to the «God of Protection», I found myself raising my rifle anyway.

“Fuck it.”

I caught everyone’s attention. While they all scrambled to react, I flipped the safety off my rifle with a silence-shattering click and activated «Select Fire». Each round turned into three as I pressed the trigger seven times in less than two seconds.

The armed men looked dazed and confused by the ambush. Their surprise was amplified further by the loud explosions that echoed from my rifle. It was then I realized I had no hearing protection, so the rifle killed my hearing along with all seven targets. The 5.56 rounds sleeved their metal helmets like a pen pushed through paper.

That was fast - too fast. I’ve never shot that fast and that accurately before. It was like a meme clip straight out of an FPS streamer killstreak.

My «Menu» suddenly lit up in the aftermath, but I ignored it and patrolled the area to clear it of any more hostiles. I didn't want to rely too heavily on my «Map» before I determined its limitations.

The two women remained prone on the floor all the while. They held their arms up to shield their heads and cover their ears. After confirming the kills, I checked my ammunition: 15 rounds left and one in the chamber.

Fuck, I’m burning through them fast.

I tried to save the nobleman impaled on the carriage, but his corpse was long pale and cold. I managed to pry him off the spear and laid him respectfully on the ground. Then I shut his wide, blood-shot eyes to give him some semblance of peace. At some point, the blonde pushed me aside to attend to the body. Her words were incoherent and coated thick with desperation. It was something I was used to seeing: she was bargaining for his life. It wasn’t long before her pleas went unanswered. Her voice cracked and she fell to sobs.

“You have our gratitude, Sir Mage,” came the maid from behind and I spun on my heel to square up with her. I was so absorbed with the corpse and blonde that I forgot about the other girl. The ringing in my ears also impaired my situational awareness.

“She weeps for her father, so please, grant her a bit of reprieve and privacy.”

Somehow, that didn’t sound like a request, so I followed her as she led me away. We were close enough to keep watch, but not so close as to intrude upon the girl’s grief.

“Are you with the Royalist Faction, Sir Mage?” The brunette asked. She was an older shapely woman, curved in all the right places. Her corset only amplified her best traits and I found it hard to focus on her eyes, so I settled for her chin.

“I was told we had no remaining allies of worth to turn to!”

“Wait, slow down,” I shook my head, and gently raised one hand to calm her down. “I was just passing through. I'm not from around here.”

The brunette blinked once then her demeanor shifted. “I apologize, Sir Mage. I had assumed you were sent by the Royalist Faction.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I understood the gist.

This is bad, I thought as my brow twitched. I wanted to slowly learn about this world, but if I play this wrong, I could make more enemies than I’m ready to deal with.

“May I elicit your aid on behalf of my lady? Please, you are our only hope. I will offer whatever you ask in recompense. Even my body, if it would please you.” She must have noticed my stare drifted below her neckline every few moments.

I should just abandon them here. It would be easier for me to just walk away and continue on with my plan to gradually assimilate into this world. I’ve already done my good samaritan act for the week. There is no objective reason for me to help them.

“All right, just pay me back with information,” I closed my eyes and answered. Resignation colored my tone. The brunette seemed to relax and beamed me a strained smile. I wasn’t entirely sure if it was predatory or grateful, but she definitely took advantage of my goodwill.

Even so, I couldn’t just turn my back on a crying girl around Rebecca’s age.

We introduced ourselves once the blonde recovered enough of her composure to speak. She went by Lydia and offered no surname. The maid’s name was Anna. I introduced myself as Levin, my gamertag. It must’ve fit the setting nicely, because the pair immediately took the alias at face value. I also didn’t pry too much - it was clear this was some kind of clandestine affair.

We held a makeshift funeral for Lydia’s father. I gathered some wood and we burned the body on a pyre. I was floored when Lydia used some kind of «Spell» or «Skill» to burn the entire thing to cinders. Fire exploded from her upraised hand like a flamethrower overloaded with napalm. I asked why she didn’t use it when she was being attacked.

“This «Spell» drains all of my Mana because I can’t control the size or heat, and I’ve never used it in battle.”

It went unsaid, but it was obvious she’d never killed anyone before. I stopped pressing after that; killing was never easy, and I couldn’t imagine what it was like to burn someone to death. In all my years on the battlefield, I never had to do such a thing.

We needed to flee at speed, so I confessed I had no idea how to deal with horses. Anna told Lydia and I to board the carriage while she drove. That left me to converse with the blonde in the wagon.

“From which country do you hail, Sir Mage?” Lydia asked. She seemed eager to distract herself from her recent tragedy and so was I.

“The United States of America,” I answered after a moment.

“I’ve studied many maps of Valeria, but I’ve never heard of that country. Pray tell me more?” She asked, bewilderment clear on her face.

“Uh, it’s a place of freedom and democracy,” I tried. Unpacking the United States in one sentence was impossible. Maybe someone with more eloquence could do it, but that person was definitely not me.

“Freedom? Democracy? So you have no slaves and rely solely on a Senate for governance? How progressive. It sounds like the Arcadian Empire, aside from abolishment of slavery. How do you handle labor shortages?”

I scratched my head. She was getting more information out of me than I was getting out of her.

“Uh, we rely on technology and outsourcing.”

“How adanced your Magitech must be to drop all slave labor? Your country must have a revolutionary Magic Crystal processing method!”

Lydia seemed excited and I grew more and more despondent as I felt my lack of social, cultural, and technological norms hamper my ability to communicate effectively. What was that about Magic Crystals?

“How are Magic Crystals used in this country?” I asked to fish for more information and Lydia leaned back. It looked like she grew even more and more confused.

“Surely you jest, Sir Mage. They are used in nearly everything - in every aspect of our lives. Does your country have some other means of siphoning magical energy?”

“Right. I knew that. I was just curious how different it was-”

“How many Magic Crystals will it take to recharge your staff, Sir Magus? I will do my utmost to replenish it.”

“M-my staff?”

Lydia motioned gracefully at my rifle. Her every movement was refined and from the way she spoke gave me more and more clues as to what or who I was dealing with.

“Don’t worry about it. I don’t think I’ll be able to use it for much longer, anyway.”

I waved her off, trying to sound nonchalant. She let the matter rest and then I pegged her with more questions. I made up some bullshit story about a teleportation experiment, but to my luck they were not entirely unheard of. Teleportation existed and it was common enough for it to go awry in bad situations. But the Magic Crystal cost was prohibitively expensive, so teleportation was rarely used by mortals. Apparently Demons could freely teleport, which opened a whole barrel of questions I left uncorked for now.

I also learned that the only way for mortals to regenerate «MP», or Mana in the vernacular, was to absorb it from Magic Crystals. Higher capacity crystals were built into objects and constantly recharged, like batteries. Elves and Dwarves could regenerate Mana somehow, and I wanted to know how or why, but I wasn’t about to ask Lydia for an extensive biology lesson right after an attempted kidnapping.

“What happens if you have negative Mana?” I asked while I silently checked my «Status» and saw I had consumed more Mana than I possessed when I spammed «Select Fire» earlier. I was down to -4.

“Negative Mana? Well, you grow sickly and weak. Some people with extremely high «Constitution» can resist the effects, but I’ve never heard of anyone surviving in a negative Mana state for very long.”

I must have gulped out loud because Lydia’s eyes widened. She reached into her dress and pulled out a ring hanging on a long, golden chain wrapped three times around her neck. It had a deep red gemstone embedded on it and the insignia of a knight riding a dragon was carved into it. She reached for my hand without asking and pressed the stone against the back of my hand and I felt warmth flow into my body. I didn’t notice it at first, but it was like an invisible weight had been lifted from my back.

“That’s enough, thanks,” I said with a sigh. The confusion and fascination were going to be permanently etched into her face at this rate, because Lydia continued to look as bewildered as before.

“You know when you’ve reached your Mana tolerance so easily?”

I swallowed my reply. There was something off about how she asked that question. It was as if no one else had a «Status» window.

“Can you tell me your «Status»?” I asked, trying to emphasize the final word in a unique way. If it came off as weird, I would just rephrase the question to be more innocent, but the way Lydia looked away and blushed made me click my tongue in self-deprecation. Groping my way through social norms like this was not my original plan. The only saving grace I had was «Comprehend Languages». I didn’t even know what language I was speaking.

“That is… a very personal question, Sir Mage. I also don’t have a Divination Orb, so I cannot, even if I wanted to.”

So normal people can’t access their «Status» without external assistance. It’s possible that no one else has a «Menu», either.

“Can Magic Crystals generate electricity?”

“Electricity?”

“Er, like lightning.”

“Yes, of course there are «Spells» and «Skills» that can produce lightning, Sir Mage. Surely you know of at least a few of them? Your Spellcraft was so loud and fast, I thought you were summoning lightning and thunder down from the heavens! The Separatists were all slain before I could even blink. You were magnificent and the way you survey your surroundings resembles that of a highly trained knight. Surely, you are a «Spellblade»?”

She’s trying to guess my «Class». Should I react like she did and pretend to be offended? No. It’s better to act strange and aloof and lean into the ‘stupid foreigner’ trope for as long as I can without alienating her too much.

“Ah no, I’m a «Ranger».”

Lydia blinked once and her whole body stiffened like a board.

“So you cannot cast «Spells»?” Her tone was a mix of caution, hurt, and anger. I had to be careful. Years of dealing with Rebecca had taught me if I said the wrong thing now, Lydia would stop speaking to me.

“Ah, no. I’m sorry for the confusion. I don’t know any magic.”

Lydia was silent for a while then she sighed and folded her arms.

“All is forgiven,” her tone was tolerant and regal. Once again, I was starting to understand who I was talking to.

“I, more than most, understand the need for a traveler’s secrecy. I will not hold this falsehood against my savior and someone who has lent their assistance to me. Was everything else a cover story?”

“Yes and no.”

“Will you not be more honest with me?”

“Sorry, ma’am. Like you said, sometimes travelers need to keep their secrets.”

“Will your secrets bring harm to me or Anna?”

This was the crux. It sounded like she would let bygones be bygones so long as whatever secrets I kept did not negatively affect her or her maid. I firmly shook her head and looked her straight in the eye.

“They won’t, I promise.”

Lydia nodded and unfolded her arms.

“Well, it’s an honor to meet you, «Ranger» Levin.”

I narrowed my eyes. The way she said that was disconcerting. It was extremely respectful; a far cry from how superior her tone was until now.

“I never thought I would meet one of the six Heroic Classes wandering out in the middle of nowhere.”

It was going to be a long night.

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Tyonis

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