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A note from Sortis

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The sky was a dull blue color, while the light of the cruel sun hammered into the trees and gave another torrid day to the living. The sounds of the screaming birds were like a menacing warning, a taunt to Evelyn’s ears.

She really hated this place. And it wasn’t like that at the beginning. She knew the struggles and sufferings that waited for her but never thought there would be minor things that would just pile up day after day and bring her to the point of breaking.

Her father was a rich man. If she had just taken a spatial ring and filled it with potions, herbs to repel insects, extra clothes, shampoo, and lotions, no one would bat an eye. And perhaps some cakes too, that might’ve made things bearable.

But no, as she was leaving her family for good and going on her first adventure, she only took her brother's old weapon. A crimson pole that could change its weight by adding mana. She wasn’t complaining about the high-grade artifact but the always itching beast skin clothes and sticky brain matter on her once beautiful auburn hair.

Evelyn took a breath through her teeth and focused on the important matter. She held the fang of the monster that stuck in her thigh and pulled it out. Blood gushed from her leg, and a teardrop seeped down on her cheek, but she didn’t make any sound. It was just a casual day in hell.

She was sitting on a rock near her last battle, lamenting her coming days. It was already her sixth month here, and likely another six months were waiting.

After her only caring family member, her brother, died, Evelyn Morris broke ties with that unreasonable family and came to one of the most dangerous pocket worlds to get strong. This particular pocket world only accepted those lower than tier-3, and the monsters who lived in it had a level cap of tier-5. It meant that any monster who advanced to tier-5 would be teleported to the outside. So, one must be either an unparalleled genius to kill peak tier-4s at the peak of tier-2 or come with a well-coordinated elite team. Or, grind low-tier monsters until you are ready to take out peak tier-4s, as Evelyn believed.

She entered as a mid tier-2, and now at the mid tier-3, she had the ability to kill anything below tier-4. One more tier advance, and I’ll raze that village to the ground, she thought. Once I’m out, I’ll go to the nearest free-forest city and celebrate. I will sleep in the best inn and interact with people.

Oh, how she missed the noisy people, the only creature she spoke to was missing for weeks, that lovely red squirrel who listened to her every nonsense with a serious face. What kind of evil monster eats squirrels anyway? It is not even considered a snack, she fumed as her grip on the pole tightened. Don’t you worry, Paprika, I’ll avenge you!

She heard rustling sounds coming from the bushes and got ready for another fight. It was a big snake, 50 feet or so, with green skin and yellow eyes. Likely, attracted by the smell of blood.

‘’Was it you, you evil bastard?!’’ Evelyn yelled. ‘’You look like an arrogant asshole who can’t be reasoned with!’’ She didn’t wait for any response from the confused snake and activated her berserker skill. At the second rank, it gave a 25% boost to strength in exchange for her stamina. Low on mana, she refrained from using [Windy Dance] and dashed to the snake.

The snake was agile enough to cope with her, but every single strike she managed to hit stunned the snake for a good second. As the fight continued, the snake got slower and slower, eventually becoming a lump of mashed meat like many of her past prey.

She examined her newest prize with glee in her eyes. I bet it's not that itchy, and the color is good, too, she mused. Back in the Union, snakeskin was well-favored among the ladies. Its skin alone would sell for more than its core. Not that she had the means to carry it all the way back. Nevertheless, this might make her remaining days a tad better. She grabbed its tail and dragged it along to her old cave to do some tailoring.

 

~~~

 

The sky was a brilliant blue, while the light of the newly-risen sun shimmered through the trees and gave the forest an otherworldly hue. The sounds of the chirping birds were like a soft greeting, a piece of music to Ethan’s ears.

He really loved this place. After teleporting out from the so-called pocket world, he found himself in a mesmerizing forest with tall trees and a sweet smell of moist soil. In a good mood, thanks to his recent loot, he wanted to hum a happy tune but decided against it. Lest a dragon hears and comes to bite me, he thought and skipped through the woods, though with vigilance for his surroundings.

After an hour of searching, he finally found an enemy, a small brown rabbit that didn't have any mana. It was an easy fight with the help of his new skill, blink. He stored his meal in his ring and looked for a secluded place to cook it.

The place he found was a riverbed that was surrounded by big and small rocks. His priority changed to a bath with the discovery of this lovely place. After getting undressed and jumping into cool waters, Ethan finally had some time to relax and think about his future plans.

His first problem was mana. After getting three exceptional skills, now he had to spare some points for intelligence, leaving only perception as his not-so-important stat. He knew with his VR games experience that dispersing his stats like this was a bad move. I guess I’ll go a bit easy on END and VIT from now on. Changing my build to a mage is also an option but would be such a waste with my close combat mastery, he thought while sitting on a shallow part of the river and placing his back against a smooth black rock.

These skills were game-changers. [Blink] had a range of 10 yards and used 25 mana. If he used it against a solid object, the skill teleported him to the nearest available space in range. He didn’t try to blink into the air or to bring his momentum with a teleport because his mana regeneration was absurdly low. A few plays with blink and fabric tear brought his mana down to 30% already.

[Fabric Tear] was for opening two parallel mini-portals, which were a bit bigger than his fist. On his second try, Ethan pushed through a wooden stick, and it appeared a foot away, where the second portal was. But when the stick touched the inner side of the portal’s circle, it got sliced like butter. That was when Ethan swore never to put his hands inside that thing.

It was still pretty useful, had a range of 50 yards, and only needed 15 mana to open. But it was impossible to open more than two simultaneously or keep them open for more than three seconds. So far, he had thought of two uses for it. One was to stab an unmoving enemy from afar. Another was to send flying daggers that would appear right before the enemy's face. He was quite eager to try the second one, but it had to wait for now.

His third skill, [Void Wrap], was a no-no. It needed 50 mana for a second, and he couldn’t even use it to evade attacks. Only invisibility for a few seconds. Ridiculous.

As for the cultivation manual, he planned to try it after the meal. Perhaps it could solve my mana regen problem. I also need to find civilization asap. There might be potions or items that give sta–. Oh, right… ‘Ani, can you locate the ship or the other biochips now?’

‘No signals from the ship but in 10.000 miles, there are 37 biochip users.’

‘Can you identify the users?’

‘Negative, only their locations if they didn’t block it.’

‘How far away is the closest one, and how many in our crew had biochips?’

‘Closest one is 2.000 miles away. 421 out of 500 had biochips.’

Even with all the advantages of a biochip, there were still many on earth who didn’t trust Ani. Hmm, that's a lot of miles. If I rush out, I’ll be monster food in no time. I’m sure everyone will prioritize survival. If everyone is separated so far, it's gonna take a while to get together, anyway. Let alone that, without Ani, we’ll face leadership problems. Honestly, I don’t care about anybody but my friends, he trailed off.

In this new world with magic, monsters, and mysteries, he once again felt alive. The first time was his encounter with VR, but after experiencing all kinds of lives, he still looked for more, like those inexplicable excitements that he didn’t even dream about were just trivial concepts. He understood that his greed for the things he was missing was a mirage. The very foundation of greed, the promise of fulfillment, was a lie. Short-lived pleasure left the person with a hollow feeling every time, while the pursuit of happiness for humans only showed progress when one is content with everything as it is. The happiness that came from the inside was permanent. Ethan felt that in this world, he could find out what truly mattered to him. It was the perfect chance to live a fulfilling life.

Of course, he still felt a slight connection to his fellow Earthlings, but after a few years here, he would feel the same for natives of this world. So, after he found Adrian, Vince, and Wu, he would stop his search but wouldn’t turn off his biochip’s signal. If someone came to him and asked for help, he would do it if it wasn’t too much of a bother. But for now, he had his own goals.

He rose from the water and looked at his body, only to see that his wounds were mostly healed. The regeneration is pretty much useless for battles, but just a day of rest is enough to fix me up. I hope it'll get better with tiers, or there are potions and the like, he thought and made his way to the shore.

Despite the lack of spices, the rabbit was delicious. Rested, fed, and bathed, he felt ready for a cultivating session. According to the void manual, he needed to move mana from the void and refine it before adding it to his own reserves. The refined mana could be turned into other energies, which basically meant collecting raw energy from the void and making it yours.

The problem was that it was too slow. After an hour, he stopped and asked Ani, ‘If I cultivate like that non-stop, how long would it take me to level up?’

‘You are already close to level 7, so it would only take 23 days.’

Yeah… fuck that. I can't even cultivate non-stop. Even if I don’t need to eat and sleep, which I do, what’s the point of spending most of my life in seclusion? ‘Was there any other change in my body I didn’t notice?’

‘Regenerations for mana, health, and stamina were doubled during the session.’

‘And why didn’t you mention this before I asked?’ he complained.

‘There wasn’t any command, and if my assumption is correct, meditation and sleep would also do this.’

Ethan chuckled wryly, still not used to communicating with Ani using commands. ‘Alright, Ani, from now on notify me of any changes in my body. Tell me your assumptions if they have immediate uses for the current situation. Notify me if my health goes under 30%. Also, show my skills and their rank in the status panel. Oh, and give me a ping when I level up.’

If it was the old Ani, there would be jeering and mocking for a good time for the sheer superfluousness of the command. But the new Ani just said, ‘Understood.’

It was sad. Losing someone whom you never thought of the possibility of their leaving always hurt. Not the concept of losing someone or their absence in your life in the future. The real hurt came from the realization of your stupidity. Your act of taking their existence for granted and not cherishing them enough. It was the second time Ethan had experienced this after his parents.

He didn’t have any siblings. His father was a software engineer, and his mother did dropshipping from home. Or at least that was what he remembered, for he was only nine years old the last time he saw them.

After the war started, people were afraid, lost, and angry. They were angry with their enemies, angry with their leaders, and angry with the a.i’s. But the enemy was thousands of miles away, and they were also suffering. Their leaders were already in their bolt holes, away from all that was happening, blaming anything and everything. The a.i, well, when there was nothing else to point at, the a.i became the target.

Ethan and his mother saw from the live stream that people were ransacking the a.i companies and killing the creators of the a.i. One of the companies was his father’s workplace. They developed an a.i for the stock market, which basically bought and sold stocks like crazy and had nothing to do with the wars going on. But it was a good enough target for those who wanted to vent.

Ethan’s mother left the house to look for her husband. And listening to his mother's advice, he waited for three days in the house. Once the food was gone, he also left and searched for his parents.

After a lot of difficulties, he arrived at the company or what was left of it. He first found the old wristwatch of his father. The once elegant and classic watch was in bad shape. He then found his father’s body on the company’s patio, hanged on a tree, rotting together with other corpses. Perhaps because of the shock, he just stood there and stared at it for a long time.

There was no trace of his mother, and in that chaos, it was impossible to find her. But he still tried. For days he looked for her, street by street, until he was completely lost with the old watch still clutched in his hand.

Ethan didn’t remember those days clearly, but he knew that he somehow ended up in the sewers with a bunch of other kids. After some time, the need for food and survival became the only thing that mattered. He forgot about his parents, his home, and even himself. He lived like a wild animal and did things that'd still made him shiver just by thinking of them.

As one of the youngest among the hundred children, he was the easiest to push around, and he witnessed that anyone could be a bully when they were desperate enough. He got beaten and robbed for every piece of good food he found, and the ones he thought friends betrayed him for a dirty blanket. It was the first time he saw the ugliness of the people and the ugliness he accepted.

About a year later, a grownup came to the sewers and told them that Animus had solved the food and shelter problem, that they didn’t need to live there anymore, and that everything would be better now.

The children listened in absolute stillness and apathy. Once the man concluded, every single one of them turned to look toward Ethan, their solemn faces sharing a single sentiment. Respect.

‘’We leave,’’ he declared with a soft and firm voice which was quite strange, coming from his gaunt face with dull eyes.

Only then did everyone start chatting among themselves or packing whatever they had. The crooked-nosed grownup didn’t speak a word after that, but Ethan still remembered the fear in his eyes when he looked at him. Ethan knew that he didn’t want to stutter while talking, so he shut up.

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