Premise

 

[Writing Prompt]

There is another world. A fantasy world. Heroes are often summoned and brought before the king, asked to defeat the demon lord and save the kingdom. However, they are not heroes. As it turns out, slaves from other worlds fetch a high price and people are easily charmed with title of "hero".

This is the definition of a back-burner story. Not a priority compared to The Snake Report.

 

1 - Summoned

…………………

“To think of a World such as ours as something to be yearned for may seem strange, yet their testimony is almost always consistent. Though one can hardly believe the truth in this, just by providing the opportunity to step beyond between Planes, they feel we have done them a great service. So, can it truly be called a sin, when they accept their tasks so willingly?”

-King Sunder, Ruler of the Early Nautalin Empire, Second of his Name

…………………

As the light faded, and my eyes adjusted, I stood with all the others summoned before the King.

One moment, here. Another... there: I understood little of how I'd arrived, or why, but I knew that was who I stood before.

Nothing else could fit such a man. Seated upon a throne of gold and ivory, crown of jewels aglow in the torchlight of the great hall, he held a presence so strong, I felt the urge to kneel. Just by a glance, it was as if he took my by the neck and thrust me down until my head bowed to the floor. Before I knew it, any thought to resist was crushed from my very lungs, as this feeling held me.

From the gasps and cries to either side of me, I knew I was not alone in this.

"You may rise." The voice alleviated the pressure at once. Looking up, I could see those eyes upon us now, scanning through our midst. A horrible shiver ran down my spine, as they settled on me, for the briefest of seconds. "Welcome, chosen ones."

"Where are we-" To my right, a woman tried to speak. Turning to her, I saw her throat catch, all but choking, as the King raised a hand.

"I did not say you could speak." His voice was iron. "Heroes, all. I have brought you here to serve a purpose. Your destiny has finally come, by my Kingdom's might, you have finally arrived."

The woman gasped, breathing as the statement released her.

"Heroes?" I felt the question rise, above the rest. All the other bubbles of jumbled thoughts, fighting for dominance, and that was the one which almost reached my lips. "Was that truly what we were?"

"Heroes." The King repeated.

His words were light, truth, and magnificence itself. How could I have doubted... him... The recognition that something had just transpired which was beyond my comprehension, gave me a chill. Sucking in a breath, I swallowed down the rising sense of fear.

How did he just do that? Make me believe him- so simply.

To my left, I saw a reaction from the man beside me. Another, from a young girl, farther down the line. Their eyes seemed to shine. Had I resisted, somehow? Certainly, no one dared to interrupt as the King continued.

"The Demon Lord threatens our lands. Our armies are mighty, our walls and cities, strong: but of this plane, those who might take on the Class of Hero, are rare. Only a few, every hundred years- many who go their whole lives without realizing it."

"Class?" Another braver- or simply foolish, soul spoke up again. The King's eyes fell upon them, narrowing with impatience.

"As is my right as ruler of these lands, I grant you the blessing of [Sight]." The King raised a hand, almost indifferent as he chanted the line. "Witness."

It hit me at once, like the pressure before- an inexplicable sensation of pressure. This time, though, it was behind my eyes, inside my head.

It burned.

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 1 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 10

Endurance: 15

Strength: 11

Dexterity: 12

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 44

Health: 50/50

Stamina: 20/20

Mana: 1/100

"Amazing." Next to me, the wide-eyed man whispered the word, as he followed what I presumed were similar messages in his mind's eyes. I looked to either side, finding similar reactions. Exclamations of excitement, and wonder.

"Your task is upon you, heroes." The King waved his hand again, signalling to several armored figures among the court. "My knights shall see you receive what is needed. Weapons, armor, and coin: all chosen ones such as yourselves will need, to advance upon your destiny. You are dismissed."

The finality of such a statement.

Men in bright armor moved in, bowing to their lord, before guiding those farthest from me towards the massive archways to the edges of the hall. Looking back, I saw doors of gilded metal and runes, swing open, to reveal a city skyline of pillars and stone. Clouds of brilliant color, and flags of gold beside them. Already, the others were moving, speaking quietly with hushed excitement.

Yet, for some reason I turned back. Prickling sensation on the hairs of my neck and back, willed me to turn to the King, one final time.

Upon his throne, he looked down at the numbers heading for the door, with a cold stare. Like one might look upon insects, or filth left to rot upon the floor.

Then, he looked to me. Caught me in his presence, until I was helpless to even think of looking away. All will, all defiance, all emotion was sapped out of me- absent, as if it had never been.

He held me there, for what might have been the longest seconds of my entire life.

And he smiled.

2 - Amazing

After countless words of encouragement from those within the palace, and I'd been handed a set of leather armor, a sword, and a bag of supplies- I'll admit: I felt like a cynic.

"This is amazing!" Said the man I'd come to know as Paul, seated across from me at the long wooden table. In front of us, food was laid out in a bounty of breads and meats. Fine wine and ale, cheeses and fruits. "This- I don't even know what this is, but it's the best thing I've ever had!" He sloshed his goblet, almost spilling some of the wine.

Or, what I assumed was some sort of fantasy-wine.

"Isn't it?" Beside him, a woman with long blond hair piped up in agreement. "We're in another world, with magic, and I think I saw Dragons! Or drakes? Doesn't matter: it's amazing." She clinked her goblet against Paul's own, as they laughed. "I can't believe we're here, either."

I nodded, politely. Observing down either side of the table yielded nothing but similar results. People were cheering, celebrating. One man, a muscular fellow, had even stood up on the table, drunkenly dancing as the bards on the edge of the room played a merry tune.

We were in a new world, summoned as heroes. Like a book, or a game: we were the people plucked from ordinary lives to save the world.

It was amazing.

Even the most cynical part of me would admit this.

The King, it seemed, spared no expense. We'd been given gear, food, drink, and told all manner of things I had to presume were important. How we would train, advance (quicker than most, apparently- due to our special status as Heroes) and help the Kingdom destroy the Demon Lord. The Knights were happy to guide us, stern as they seemed, and the nobles we'd met were all but bowing to our presence.

It was almost too good to be true. Which, I supposed, was exactly what bothered me.

"So, we'll have to fight monsters." I inserted myself back into the conversation. "They told us that, right? The armorer said as much."

"They said we need to determine our talents, first." The woman laughed. "They're not just throwing us to the wolves. Or, wolf-monsters?" She shrugged.

"Monsters? How bad can they be?" Paul shouted, red now reaching his face as he tipped his goblet back again. "We're chosen Heroes! Come on, now: look!" He gestured at the rest of our number. All twenty of us, dressed up to look the part. "Besides, once we're trained, we'll be unstoppable!" He added, perhaps noting my skeptical expression.

"I suppose so..."

"Have you even tried to use an ability yet?" He asked. "Look- [Identify] this." He gestured to his cup. "Try."

"What do you mean?"

"Use the skill- just focus on it." Paul shrugged. "There's nothing to it, just like the menu."

"Use the skill." My eyes narrowed on the goblet, considering. "[Identify]?"

Name: Goblet of the Royal Palace

Description: This is a Goblet

"Ah..." I considered the text. "That's strange."

"Not strange, John: amazing! Here- try this, it'll cheer you up!" Paul chuckled, pouring half of his drink into my own. It overflowed, previously untouched. Turning away from me, and back to the blond beside him, the laughter continued, as I stared at the cup.

[Identify]

This time, I didn't say the word.

Name: Wine of the Royal Vineyard

Description: Wine - Expensive

[Skill - Rank up] - [Identify - Lvl 2]

Rank up...

Huh. At least I was right about it being wine.

[Identify]

I tried again.

Name: Wine of the Royal Vineyard

Description: Aged Wine - Expensive - Excessive Consumption may cause Status Impairments

There was slightly more information, now. Curious, in its own way. I wondered how that worked- if there was some fully unlocked description hiding somewhere for everything around me, but the skill only revealed part of it? Or, maybe it generated brand new, with each time the skill was used?

I wasn't sure if logic could really apply to something like this.

Frowning, though, I watched the deep red drops soak into the wooden table below. My own goblet hadn't been touched, previous to Paul dumping more into it, and it had overflowed a small amount. At this point, disturbing it would only exacerbate the problem.

There was no shaking the feeling of anxiety.

Glancing up at the table around me, everyone was so happy. Most were younger than I was, in decent shape- from what I could see. All of them certainly seemed fairly unattached in whatever life they were living before they came here. I had to assume there was a selection criteria which grabbed us...

Of every smiling face, there was only one other person in the group which seemed to be more reserved. Black hair, green eyes... I recognized her as the woman who had tried to speak in the throne room. While she seemed happy enough, those eyes seemed to look about the room with a sense of caution that was absent in the rest. Not focused on the table, so much as what was beyond it.

I looked too, wiping my mouth with a cloth napkin as I glanced past the table. Those same Knights who had lead us through the motions today, stood vigilant. Long swords on their hips, armor that was far beyond the likes we'd received so far. They watched us, as the bard continued to play that merry tune. Watched us, and... not with fondness.

Having learned my lesson all too well back in the throne room, I quickly looked back down to the table, forcing a smile to my lips. There was something about all this, that I didn't like. This world was certainly something amazing. The abilities were... strange. I could only imagine, they would get stranger. The gold, the drinks, the food, the armor, the titles and promises of greatness...

No, even with all these, it still clung to me.

I didn't like this.

My eyes met the black haired woman. Hand rubbing nervously at her neck, I had to wonder if maybe I wasn't the only one.

3 - Identify

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 2 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 10

Endurance: 15

Strength: 11

Dexterity: 12

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 44

Health: 50/50

Stamina: 20/20

Mana: 78/100

That night, laying alone on a bed of feather and cloth, in the room I'd been guided to, I couldn't sleep.

There were others still awake, I knew. Out in the hall we'd all be placed, many were mingling. Some, for conversation- asking one another questions of idle curiosity. Others were mingled, for... well, other things, I imagined.

Shut away in my room, though, none of these were reasons for why I couldn't sleep.

[Identify]

Silk Pillow

This is a pillow made of silk. It is expensive.

[Identify]

Feather Blanket

This is a blanket of fine cloth, filled with feathers.

[Identify]

Glowstone Lamp

This is a light source.

I had questions. A lot of questions, in fact. Each one was tied together nicely with a big red bow of worry or concern in regards to my well-being. Or, the rest of the people who'd been drawn here for... what? Defeating the demon lord?

It felt ridiculous. In fact, were it not for the actuality of the events actually putting me here, in a castle, in what appeared to be a different world, I'd be confident it was ridiculous. Yet, as it was, I couldn't be sure. For all the questions on how things worked, what I was doing here, or how I'd get home: I only really knew that I didn't like that this all felt like a very elaborate kidnapping.

What had I even being doing, directly before this? It was difficult to remember, but I was almost entirely certain I'd be missed at work soon-enough. By tomorrow, I might be fired for a no call, no show. Then, what? If I ever got home, to find my credit shot for unpaid bills, no job, no car... Did that really matter, now?

We were supposed to defeat the Demon Lord, but no one had specifically explained said we could go home after.

It bothered me. So, here I was: getting answers from the only thing I could.

[Identify]

Bed Frame

Well-crafted frame of wood. Expensive quality.

I'd managed to make the skill rank up, once. From that, I knew there was clearly a power in the concept. To see a permanent improvement in an ability- even something like this, which only provided information, could be critical. Perhaps, not in defeating a Demon Lord: I had my doubts I'd ever identify anything to death, but in keeping me alive?

Maybe.

Still, I'd been working at this for awhile now, and finding that the rank wasn't quite as a simple to improve as I'd hoped.

[Identify]

Steel Sword

Sturdy weapon with no enchantments. Intended for both slashing and stabbing attacks.

[Identify]

Leather Scabbard

Scabbard of wood and leather, inexpensive.

[Skill - Rank up] - [Identify - Lvl 3]

"Finally." I mumbled, before putting the sword down next to me on the bed.

Tomorrow was going to be a big day, one way or another.

4 - Training

The morning was... eventful.

Despite some heavy drinking, and like many other things, which kept quite a number of our group awake into the early morning, we were roused from our rooms at the crack of dawn, and brought down to a training field.

Then, without any context or explanation: we were made to swing swords.

That was that. Draw our weapons, and swing.

There was no practicing with wooden weapons, or with dummies, or anything of that sort. We were told to draw our weapons, and swing them to match the instructor in the courtyard with us. By the end of the hour, five of us were taken away by that same instructor for further training, while the rest of us were brought over to several targets and handed bows.

The process repeated: arms already tired from swinging a sword, we were made to shoot at the targets for another hour, while somewhere behind us the lucky selected for swords were made to... continue swinging their swords.

Maybe, we were the lucky ones, after all. My fingers felt like they were close to bleeding by the end of it, either way. As was my forearm, from catching the string.

[Dexterity +1]

The message flashed past my eyes, right at the very end of the next hour.

It was a good feeling, and provided at least a little bit of an explanation for whatever we happened to be doing. Still, despite the fact that I felt I'd improved somewhat by the end of the hour, I was moved on with all the rest, yet again.

This third time, to swing staffs.

By this point, of course, people were starting to complain.

"Maybe we want to take a breather?" Paul replied, tone more than a little grating, as he stared back at the staff instructor. "We've been at it all morning. It's not like many of us were soldiers- and most of them were already picked." He pointed towards the five who'd been selected for the sword. "This is new for most of us."

"Do as you're instructed." The man staring at Paul didn't budge in the slightest. "If you do, you will progress."

"What if I don't?" Paul frowned.

"That's your choice, then." The man replied.

The way he said it, though... despite Paul, and several others, walking off to the side of the courtyard to rest, I continued to swing the staff. Sure, my hands felt like the blister would probably be unpleasant, but I could read between the lines. What the instructor had said was not a threat, but a warning.

The people training us, here, were not like the King. When they looked at us, it was a strict look, but never one I felt was of ill-intentions. It simply... was. Like they had done this with many people, many times: training them for battle.

By the second time I got a message

[Dexterity +1]

The staff seemed a little more... nimble. That was the word: it felt nimble in my hands. The rest of the day was spent with the weapon, following the same forms until lunch, then again until dinner. I received one more message, for strength. Then, I was allowed to return to my room. My clothes were taken away, new, clean ones, were provided.

As I lay down to rest, I felt this was at least something potentially good for us, as a whole.

But, it was strange.

Why was I going along with this?

"Because it's the chance of a lifetime!" The memory of Paul's voice practically shouted in my ears. "This is it!"

No. That was just the thing.

It wasn't. At least, it wasn't my reason. Maybe it was Paul's reason, or many of the others who had been dropped here to play hero, but I knew that wasn't quite right.

The King's voice still hummed, in the back of my mind. That man, up on the throne... he'd done something. What had been said in that throne room wasn't just words, and that was something I didn't quite understand. The King hadn't used brainwashing, but it felt similar.

There I was, objectively considering this, and I still couldn't understand.

What I did understand, was that- while I was going along with things, I recognized I was still uncomfortable. In a lot of ways, a part of me I almost wanted to walk out the palace gates. That same part of me wanted to tell them: no "I'd rather not do any of this" but...

Where would I go?

How would I make money, or find food- or work? I didn't have a skill set for life in a fantasy world, did I? It wasn't as though they'd made it easy for me to learn anything they didn't specifically hand in my direction. What, with carting us to specific places, and providing taciturn instructors and Knights as chaperones.

Even still, I knew those reasons were superficial.

Why wasn't I angry about all of this? I'd been kidnapped and told to fight for people I'd never met, but because they were calling me a hero, and providing me magical abilities- it was a fair deal?

Some people had clearly made their minds up, believing just that, but was it really?

Wasting my last waking hours trying in vain to level the [Identify] skill again, I decided that I was undecided. Not particularly helpful, but at least I'd come to terms with it. Perhaps, it was good that I wasn't hadn't shown immediate talent, I thought. Unlike the bow or the sword, the remainder of our had been allowed to slack off if they wanted. I had continued to follow instruction, but there seemed to be far less pressure on those who decided not to. Especially, when compared to what I'd watched the selected groups go through.

Swinging a weapon around pointlessly for long enough, and suddenly it wasn't so pointless anymore. The increase in stats actually did something, I was sure of it, and If they were going to put us through a few weeks of this, maybe the training would build on itself until our stats had increased enough to make a significant difference. Who even knew what the limits were for such a power?

Of course, little did I know then, but we didn't have a few weeks.

No.

They gave us one, and it wasn't nearly enough.

5 - Too late

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 3 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 10

Endurance: 15

Strength: 12

Dexterity: 14

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 44

Health: 50/50

Stamina: 20/20

Mana: 100/100

I'd felt I had done well, but compared to the sword group, I could already see I was way behind. One of them had gained a [Skill] in the yard, and had been moved to a different area. They didn't come back at dinner, so most people assumed they'd be getting special training from here on in.

Clearly, while we were all called "heroes" there were some who already diverged from the rest of us. The Knights in charge of our training were far more focused on those who showed immediate potential, while people like myself, were simply put through the motions.

I'd have been lying, if I wasn't a little bothered by this, but I didn't let it get to me as much as some. Paul, for one, seemed keen on complaining.

Still, that night, when we were returned to our rooms, even Paul was quiet.

Something was different.

I'd known, all day, but by that night, it was a palpable sort of feeling. We were all dead-tired, and had been for awhile. The training was relentless, and it broke the partying spirit out of most of us who actually went through the motions (instead of lounging in the shade on the side of the training field.) They were working us to the bone, and what we put in, we seemed to get back out in the manner of status increases. But, that last afternoon: the instructors seemed to work us harder. Much harder. Swing after swing, they demanded more and more. Then, for lunch, the food, once luxurious, was now... plainer. Instead of ale and wine, we had water. Dinner was even more spartan. The people who had been selected for the sword and bow instruction, were given new weapons- trading in their old ones for finer equipment. Those of us with the staffs, received nothing.

I wasn't sure if they were trying to prompt another few people to earn a skill, or push us into developing a different set of stats- but the pieces started coming together later.

That evening, when people congregated in the hall (as they did every night) a few Knights came and sternly forced everyone back to their rooms. Almost, like a curfew. As the last person's complaints were muffled behind a thick wooden door, I felt sure in my assessment:

It seemed that the facade of privileged was being reduced. Rather abruptly, in fact. No matter the protests, the doors were shut one by one, and I heard locks clicking to follow. Heavy metal clinking into place, follow by a resounding "click" as the Knights made their way down the hall.

In case any of us had second thoughts?

Not to say I had any intentions of tying my bed sheets into a long cord, and scaling out a hundred foot drop from my window, but earlier in the week, I'd at least tried to get it open. Not much, but a crack.

At first, it was just to see if I could.

The castle might have provided us some gear. My new bag, clothing, basic set of armor and a sword: but there wasn't much to the room itself but a strange fantasy-take on a toilet hiding behind an ornate set of curtains, and the bed itself. There are only so many nights a man can spend trying to identify things, before they start looking for more.

I found it.

Hidden in the crevice between the window and the stone, it was a cloth. Perhaps, smuggled away from the dinner table, or something of similar quality, it was folded atop itself until it lay flat so the window could close shut on top of it.

At first, I'd simply thought it a new item to identify.

[Identify]

Prisoner's Bloody Handkerchief

This is a cloth. Inexpensive, dirty.

The unexpected classification gave me pause. Why a prisoner? Why "bloody?" It seemed dirty, but not particularly so... Unraveling it, though, gave me my answer. One word, but the dried brown made a shiver run down my spine.

Escape.

Just in time for the sound of a key sliding into place, preventing exactly that.

6 - Ritual

There was nothing I could do. Panicking and flailing on the door would likely end in a negative outcome, as would climbing out the window (and likely falling to my death...)

Pacing fell in as a nice and happy medium, between those two.

I didn't sleep well.

Rereading that note, identifying it: trying to see if I could get a piece of information I'd missed. In the end, that's all it was. A note someone has written in blood, and hidden. Likely, long before I'd arrived. Assuming anything more, was guesswork.

Just because I found an old note, didn't mean it necessarily had anything to do with me. The person who wrote it, could have been a criminal- or a thief, or...

Memory of the King's voice settled back into my thoughts, giving me yet another chill.

This was all too strange. Finding the note, was akin to the expression of "icing on the cake." and imagining what it truly meant didn't endear me to the "escorts" that arrived in the morning, to lead us away.

Though we were instructed to bring our gear, we weren't brought to the training fields. Instead, we were marched to a different section of the palace grounds. Along winding halls of ornate gold and silver, eventually we were made to descend down several sets of marble stairs, before reaching a large stone platform.

On the floor, I saw hundreds of intricate letters and shapes, carved into the stonework.

[Identify]

Runic Slab

Stone used in Magic Rituals.

If there hadn't already been an uncomfortable feeling in my belly, there was now. Thoughts of trying to run were bubbling up to the front of my mind, but one look at the Knights, and I knew it was a pointless endeavor. They were so strong, and right now... no.

There was no way I'd make it.

"You will stand here, and you will not move." One of our escorts announced, suddenly, as they stepped off of the platform. On their retreat, several individuals wearing dark robes, moved forward.

Six people... I wasn't sure if they were male or female, but with staffs in hand, they moved closer: hoods shrouded. I felt my anxiety creep up another notch. Apparently, I wasn't alone in this.

"What's going on?" A woman asked, loudly stepping forward. "Enough is enough."

"Do not move." The Knight repeated, pushing her back to the platform. Several of the hooded figures glanced in their direction. One shook their head.

"Listen, I don't know who you guys think you are, but I've had just about enough of this. Tell us what you're doing." Paul crossed his arms, joining the woman. "We're not asking for much."

"They must step back. The next batch will arrive soon in the throne room." One of the shrouded figures spoke, whisper of a voice disturbingly loud. "We must cast now, or the spells might be in conflict"

"Transfer? What transfer?" Paul asked.

"Step back." The Knight commanded, louder this time. An armored hand settled on the grip of his sword.

"Not until you tell me what you're doing." Beside Paul, the woman spoke back up. "Honestly, I'm sick and tired of this. Every time we ask you people anything, you just give us the run around." She complained. "We're tired of this shit. Some of us would like to go home."

"We can wait no longer." The hooded man whispered. "They delay the ritual. It must be cast."

"A waste." Another muttered.

"An acceptable loss. They were docile, compared to those who came before." The first replied. "Only two, the King will not mind."

"Step back!" The Knight shouted, drawing his sword. Though it sounded as a threat, I could almost detect a tone of desperation. Not for himself, but for us. "Step back- Now!"

They didn't, though.

"Not until-" Paul's voice cut off, replaced by... Something else. Not a word, but a sound. A horrible, gut-wrenching, sound. I can tell you what I saw when it happened, but I won't.

Just know, of all there was to know or see in that instant: it was red.

Then, we were somewhere else. No longer twenty in number, but eighteen.

7 - Golden Wing

By their own agreement, the Nautalin Empire promised us at least fifteen of quality this time." The woman's voice was like a knife. Sharp, and painful. "Instead, here they send a under a dozen, mixed in with scraps."

"Were are we?" To my left, someone coughed the question, trying to stand. "What happened?"

"Look at them? I count... five swordsmen, another five archers... What are the rest of these? Classless?" The woman continued. "This is shit."

"It appears so." A gruff voice replied. "Off to the front line with those, see what survives?"

"Well, we can't exactly return them now, can we?"

"No, Ma'am."

"Salvage what can be salvaged, rest to the front." The woman spit on the floor- ground.

We weren't in a room anymore, I realized, but a field. Distantly, in all directions, I could see a gray sky, and tents. So many tents...

"Consider it done." The gruff voice belonged to a large man, wearing studded armor. Above his head, I saw letters, similar to what the Knights in the castle had displayed.

Mercenary

Captain

Sitting up slowly, he approached, before lashing out with the butt of his spear. "Get up you filthy maggots! Get up! Swords and bows, to one side, the rest of you lot: with me! We'll get a class out of you, one way or another."

Quickly and efficiently, the man strode forward, weapon in motion. Before anyone thought to stop him, he was already upon us.

"What?" I tried to asked, before I took a slap to the ribs, which left me gasping- even with my armor.

"UP!" The man shouted, spittle flying. "You're property of the Golden Wings Mercenary Company, as of today! If you can't get that through your head- I'll drive one of the flagpoles through it."

There was no questioning allowed.

I got up without further suffering, but the rest who made the mistake of trying to speak, received far worse than just one hit- even the women. Bruised and bleeding, of the seven other who weren't favored with bows or swords, most were given at least a few swats with the non-bladed end of the spear.

Ruthlessly, we were marched away from our companions, the eight of us driven like cattle between rows of tents and watching eyes, until we were unceremoniously dumped by a tent that seemed to be plotted squarely on the muddiest patch of ground in the entire camp. Beside it, another man stood in attention, reacting to our guide's approach.

Squad Leader

Soldier

I saw those, associated.

"Beat them into shape. Any shape will do." The Captain ordered, delivering one last smack of his spear to someone down the line, laughing as that earned him a curse. Shouldering his weapon, he turned about. "And kill whoever's stupid enough to run. There's almost always one."

"Sir." Beside the muddy tent, the man we'd been left with frowned as he scanned us over.

Squad Leader

Soldier

???

Ever since [Identify] had improved, there were times I could work out more details. Peering in closer, I tried to see more, but failed.

"Titles but no class... how in all the hells." He shook his head. "I'd rather be honest about this." Running a hand through his beard, he sighed. "In two weeks..." He shook his head again. "Fuck."

We all stared, warily looking behind us to make sure this wasn't a trick. No one seemed interested in getting beaten again.

"What's that?" Among our group, someone found the resolve to ask. "What's in two weeks?"

"Any of you got a skill? Can't see skills as easy." He ignored them, as he looked us over. "Come on, then. Out with it."

No one was answering.

"We have the [Identify] skill." I finally spoke up. "Passive language skill, too."

"No shit." The man looked at me, halfway between irritation and disgust. "What about the rest of you? Any fighting skills? Weapon skills?" He looked us over again, but no one else answered. "Why the fuck do you have swords, then?"

"They gave them to us." Someone answered, quietly. "We usually use staffs,"

"Oh, for fuck's sake." Face in his hands, at this point, the man took a deep breath. "What sort of fucking joke is this."

"We didn't ask for-"

"Shut up." He shouted. "Next battle is in two weeks." Motioning we follow, the man turned into the tent while still shaking his head. "And you're all gonna die."

It seemed our days as "heroes" had ended.

8 - Real Training

I didn't sleep much the first night at camp. Too many things had happened, and in too short a time. Between the open sobbing one bunk over, or the shouts and yells from the tents bordering our own, it was difficult.

Instead of sleeping, though, I used [Identify] on everything I could find. I learned the ability seemed to have a range of five feet, or something fairly close. It gave me feeling... control? Maybe, just getting an answer to my questions, instead of a stern look or the threat of a beating, was something I craved at that point.

[Identify]

Bunk Cot

An efficiently made bunk intended for soldiers. Decent quality.

[Identify]

Steel Dagger

Sturdy weapon with no enchantments. Intended for stabbing attacks. Useful for around-camp purposes.

I'd found the dagger stashed in the cloth and hay of my top bunk. One of many pieces of evidence there were previous tenants. Where they were now, I could only guess, but it lead to me considering what else I might be able to find, if I looked.

Still, that night we were the only ones in the mud-tent. Three women, four men, and on the very far side- with a far nicer bunk, our Squad leader, Kepler.

Not just in name, but title- too.

Title: Squad Leader

Class: Soldier

Upon our entering of the tent, he broke down the rules for us. In essence, they were simple.

We were part of the Golden Wing Mercenary Company, which as a whole had been hired by the Nautalin Empire.

We were not soldiers, but contracted possessions, placed in his squad, which meant we were his responsibility until further notice. That meant, until we died, or he died- and someone replaced him, we were under his command. We were to follow his orders, and disobeying him could be inferred as mutiny.

He told us the camp was set near the frontlines, and the local towns- saying we made it to one, were all offered high bounties to turn in deserters who break contract. Dead, or alive. He mentioned that if by some chance we decide to run, if we don't starve- or the monsters don't get us, the people would. No one gave a flying-fuck about the fact that we were "heroes" beyond the fact that we cost more.

Aside from that, he told us pay was after each battle, and not to bother him.

Kepler, it seemed, didn't care much for us.

Not for our well-being, and not much at all. There was mention of following drills with him, in the mornings. That was apparently required of him, but he said nothing about food or drink. Considering his comments on how he expected us all to be dead, soon enough, I supposed his attitude made sense, but it still stung.

Kepler didn't want to invest in a waste of time, which- considering the state of our group, we probably were. Half of our number barely bothered with the training back at the palace. Most of us had been content to lounge around in the shade and rest.

The next morning, it turned out that was no longer an option.

[Dexterity +1]

It was brutal.

Real spears, this time. They held a different weight, and were much more tiresome than the staff I remembered back at the palace. The same forms, at least (though, with a few different motions thrown in) but absolutely no rest. No respite, no breaks- or the lashing "snaps" of Kepler's own spear would be on us in an instant. We worked for hours, until we were completely spent. Then, we were dismissed.

"If you want food, you can go find it." Kepler told us, after a healthy amount of spear swinging. "There's a cook station, but they want coin."

None of us had coin.

By us, I should clarify: Despite my introverted tendencies, I did finally get to learn everyone's name.

The three girls were Linda, Mars, and Cate. The other guys were Kevin, Scott, Jones, and Mike. Of those, Jones seemed to have taken upon the role of "leader" and begun trying to get things sorted out. After my mention of finding a dagger in my bunk, he had us checking all the others for anything we could find.

I wasn't so lucky, this time around, but I did find a few copper-looking coins. The girls, Cate and Mars both found silver ones, and even a cloth bag of some stale biscuits. After considering their options, and being told to "fuck off" by Kepler, several of the group went to locate food and bring it back. Scott, Jones, and Kevin went at what I imagined to be noon.

Then, we waited.

And waited.

Linda got anxious, and wanted to go looking for them. Mike argued we should wait. I supported Mike, but mostly because I had poked my head out of the tent earlier, and decided our neighbors were far from friendly. As I'd rather die of starvation than blood-loss, I maintained my place in the tent, and happily accepted a stale biscuit.

Scott, Jones, and Kevin came back at sundown, with a few stale loaf of bread, a cook pot with some sort of soup, and a hell of a lot more bruises.

None of them talked about it.

9 - Soldier Class

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 3 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 11

Endurance: 15

Strength: 12

Dexterity: 15

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 44

Health: 45/50

Stamina: 20/20

Mana: 100/100

The second night, we were all sick. So sick, Vitality leveled up.

It was probably the food, but it could have been a lot of things, considering how dirty the camp was. Still, despite feeling horribly ill and generally unwell, our group earned a small victory.

... and, maybe some minor form of dysentery.

Thankfully, it was over by the morning. Which was good news. Also, part way into the second day, Jones managed to obtain a class- which was also good news.

In the middle of a swing, beside me I saw Jones get... faster. Stronger? It was sudden, and even I could recognize a before and after. As it turned out, he became a member of the [Soldier] class. Looking at Jones and focusing a bit, I could make out the [Soldier] as a status, similar to my own status windows. It sat beneath the [Summoned Hero] indication we all shared.

When it happened, Kepler stopped the session, and actually seemed to brighten up a bit. He didn't say much, but he did nod approvingly. At Jones, at least. Not at the rest of us.

Still, it hammered the point: if even Kepler seemed happy about something, getting a class was clearly important.

When we all sat down after training to talk and eat the leftover bread, Jones revealed "why."

Apparently, it came with some perks. By some, I mean- a lot. His stats had all increased, and he gained an ability call [Hardy] which said it would let him live in "rougher" conditions. He also gained something call [Soldier's March] which would let him travel easier.

We all shared what messages had come up, too. Mike, apparently, had leveled strength and dexterity far more than I had. Mars said she'd leveled intelligence when trying to figure out how to read a book she'd found back at the palace. It seemed that these incremental jumps would come right along with our actions, so long as we pushed ourselves in some form.

Eventually, of course, talk shifted to when and how we were going to get home. No one had a good answer for that, certainly not me.

After eating, after we all spoke, and Jones left with the few coins he had left to try and secure us more food. Apparently, not having a class was a part of the reason it had been difficult the last time, so he seemed more optimistic. The rest of us settled in, or went back to their bunks, but I went back out alone into the training space, beside the tent.

I'd heard enough to know what I needed to do.

It was evening by then, and I spent another few hours going through the forms of the spear we'd been shown. Though most of the others looked at me funny, Mike eventually joined in. We didn't earn a class, but before we gave up, I found another point in strength was added to the tally. Mike seemed to indicate something similar.

Turning in to my bunk, before I went through my routine of [Identify]-ing whatever happened to be near me, I saw Kepler looking in our direction.

"You're all dismissed." Kepler stated, ending the training on the fifth day, waving our group to disperse. "Actually, stop." He raise a hand. "Before that, what are your stats?" He looked us over. "Direct order, tell me what you're at."

"Which one?" Jones asked.

"List all of them." Kepler snapped his fingers, gesturing impatiently. "Go."

"Vitality is 22, Endurance is 27, Strength is 30, Dexterity is 26, Intelligence is 33, Wisdom is 35."

"Of course... of fucking course." Kepler muttered to himself for a moment, looking the rest of us over. "You." He pointed to Mars. "Stats, list them."

""Vitality is 14, Endurance is 21, Strength is 14, Dexterity is 19, Intelligence is 29, Wisdom is 36."

"Hmm. Shame we're not a company of Mages." Kepler hummed to himself for a second, looking up towards the sky as he rocked his head side to side. "You." He looked down to point at Jones. "You might live. I can try to get you a skill, but it's not going to be pleasant."

"What about me?" Mars asked.

"What about you?" Kepler frowned at her. "Jones, come with me."

They left shortly after.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wishing we had more bread, complaining about said-bread, and Mars calling Kepler a complete jackass. These were all valid points, but like routine, Mike and I sluggishly made out way out to the training field beside the tent that evening.

While it didn't earn me much but another level in dexterity, Mike said he'd finally made a break-through.

[Spearman] now showed, when I looked at him. When he moved the weapon, it seemed much more fluid, much less a practiced motion- and more a mastered art.

Emboldened by Mike's progress, we practiced until Kepler and Jones returned. Surprisingly, it was Kepler who stopped to talk for a moment. He asked Mike for his stats and nodded approvingly before leaving us. Quite the opposite, though: with a murmured greeting, Jones didn't speak much, and went right to his bunk.

We found out why the next morning.

10 - Realization

Bruises.

Lots and lots of Bruises.

Jones was covered in them. From his face, to his arms, to his back and chest, and legs... He'd been beaten, badly. Much worse than when he and the others had gone to get food the first time, it seemed a miracle he could even walk.

Linda was furious. Hell, I was furious- but I wasn't sure what could be done about it. Jones didn't seem thrilled, but he said it was worth it, which was the only thing that kept Linda from marching over to Kepler and screaming at him.

Apparently, this was to earn a skill.

[Tough Skin]

Jones said it helped reduce injury from minor sorts of attacks, and slightly reduce more dangerous strikes. He said that the skill description told him some, and that Kepler filled in the rest. If the skill ranked up enough, it could even stop a knife or a sword.

But, to earn it, you really had to earn it.

Apparently, because of our Hero titles, we can acquire skills much faster. We'd been told as much, early on. When people were brought into this world, they came with that "Summoned Hero" title, which made them- us, a valuable asset. Usually, according to what Jones knew, it took several weeks of beatings for a soldier to maybe earn the ability, but Jones got it in one afternoon.

Hearing all this right from Jones' mouth, I had to admit it made a lot of sense. We were here to be turned into something of value. Or, we- as in our group of "classless washouts" (as Kepler seemed to habitually refer to us as) were here to be salvaged.

We didn't gain a class that was useful to the people in charge, so we were being put through the motions until we did. Or, until we died.

Putting all this together, instead of relying completely on guesswork, put my mind at ease. At least, for a few moments. I finally felt as though I could put my feet down on something: a foundation for which all the craziness since coming here, made sense.

Then, I realized that the uncaring, somewhat-spiteful, ruthless [Squad Leader] we'd been tasked with, had done Jones a huge favor.

"You think, maybe Kepler's not so bad?" Mike asked, quietly. "He helped you."

"Are you fucking joking-" The sounds of protest from Linda and the others took a moment to settle.

"He's not bad, he just..." Jones raised a hand, but struggled to find the word he was looking for. "I think Kepler has seen a lot of people die." He stated, eyes serious as he looked out over his bruised and puffy cheeks. "We're definitely not the first group he's had under his command, and I think they give him the people who aren't-" He stopped.

Looming behind him, an unpleasant expression stared down at the rest of us.

"Up, you lot." Kepler was glowering. "Time to train, not talk. That's an order."

We obliged.

That day, perhaps properly motivated, Scott and Kevin managed to gain the Soldier class. Both also received the same [Hardy] ability that Jones had spoken about.

After that, it was only myself and the girls still without a class.

As I went out to train, alone yet again, since Mike earned his [Spearman] class, I felt a nagging sensation.

I had all the information I needed at this point, but the list came up into a daunting sum.

I was an asset to be used: whether or not I lived was, clearly, optional. There was no running. Battle was coming, and we'd be fighting. Likely (as Kepler honestly considered a majority of us to be dead, already) surviving would be difficult. The only way to possibly avoid my fate was to train and secure any, attribute, skill, or class I could, only I had nothing of value in any of those categories.

I had no combat skill, my combat-related attributes were dramatically lower than Jones, or any of the others I'd heard- even the girls, and I was still without a class.

All I really had, was what I'd started with, and unfortunately [Identify] would likely not help me in a warzone.

So, the feeling had quickly settled back into something similar to when I was in the castle, but worse. Not anxiety, or that something was wrong, because I knew already: Everything was wrong. Our whole little group... we were essentially slaves. "Assets" Jones had called us. We were being built to serve a purpose, and if we didn't? Too bad. From what it sounds like, they'd find more.

So, no: it wasn't that something was wrong. That wasn't what was bothering me as I swung the spear. What had me in its grips, was that I finally recognized the truth of it.

In less than a week, there was a battle. One, which would be involving this entire massive army, spread out for what might well be miles in every direction. A real battle, where abilities and magic and statuses were going to decide who got to survive.

Kepler was honest, right at the start.

If something didn't change: I was going to die.

11 - Desperate

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 3 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 12

Endurance: 16

Strength: 14

Dexterity: 18

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 45

Health: 50/50

Stamina: 20/20

Mana: 100/100

Two days until the the Golden Wing company was expected to engage with... whoever it was we were fighting.

Two days, and I still hadn't managed to get a class.

It wasn't as though I hadn't thought about it. I'd considered everything I'd seen, everything we'd done, and I applied them. In fact, I applied them and thought about them so much, my Wisdom stat crept up, but despite my best efforts. Despite going out and working myself to the bone, night after night. Swinging the spear- hell, swinging the dagger. It made no difference. While my stats leveled up in a trickle, here and there, I did not earn a class.

I was the only one.

Linda, Mars, and Cate all managed to secure the [Soldier] or [Brawler] class, partly by actually getting into a real fight- after a drunken [Soldier] from a neighboring tent stumbled into ours by mistake. The other guys were out trying to get food, and I was training. So, maybe it wasn't exactly by mistake, on his part. The timing was... specific.

The girls took a nasty beating from him before Kepler bust into the scene and quite literally kicked his ass. Like lightning, was how the girls described him: supernaturally quick... and loud.

There were threats made that had the man limping away at a speed most might not be able to run. Talk of executing the man, or breaking all his limbs...

Kepler in a rage- a real rage, was determined to be a scary, scary sight.

I wondered what his stats were, but I was under the impression that asking that question was akin to asking for a punch to the gut. He'd handed "discipline" out to the others for a hell of a lot less, at least.

The important point, though, was that I'd recognized what real combat- with risks and stakes of significant value, could do. Maybe for ordinary people in this world, earning a class or an ability might take time, but I'd heard it several times now: heroes were different. It was why we were valuable, because as Heroes we could gain abilities faster, level up attributes faster, and earn a class in a fraction of the time.

All it took was one scenario. One break-through on the training field where they pushed their limits, or a panicked brawl- and just like that, I'd seen the rest gain a class.

So, why hadn't I?

Was there a situation I needed to emulate, or some sort of stat related criteria I wasn't meeting? I used the spear, just like everyone else. I practiced the forms, I pushed myself, but somehow...

That night, after training, when everyone else was asleep. I left our tent from the far exit, and started walking.

I needed to take a risk.

That was the best I could come up with: I'd played everything as safe as I could up until this point. Kept my head down, didn't draw attention, tried to think my way out of the problem. Yet, some problems- sometimes, you can't think your way out.

Some problems have no good solution, just a bunch of bad ones.

Sparring in the yard beside a tent, I saw to [Swordsman] moving so fast, they were a complete blur. I saw men assembling massive weapons of war. Catapults, or trebuchets... I saw archers pulling back bows that fired arrows with such force, the targets they aimed for, exploded in puffs of straw and cloth. [Spearman] engaged in forms and spars, moving like the wind.

For all the people I passed, half of them looked at me, frowning with disdain.

Summoned Hero

N/A

Those floating above my head earned me little favor. Several shouts, a few even spitting in my direction. Watching the camp in motion, I could only imagine why. While they slaved away for their skill, people like me showed up and earned it for a fraction of the effort. We came in from nowhere: weak, feeble people, rushing ahead to take in days what might cost them years.

How many "Heroes" had they seen?

"You shouldn't be out at this hour." Turning behind me, someone spoke up. Kepler stood, with a deep frown on his face. "If you want to end your life, you'll have your chance soon enough, but don't waste it here. That's an order."

"I'm sorry. I was looking for the others who came with us-"

"No, you weren't, and you're not sorry." Kepler cut me off. He stared at me. "You're desperate."

I swallowed the lump in my throat.

"Yes." I answered.

"Walk with me." He commanded, taking the lead. "We're going." He said aloud. To the side of the path between tents, he shot someone a look- and several boots stepped back.

I hadn't seen them.

"Since the war started, I've overseen the training of twenty different groups of you people." Kepler finally spoke, as we reached a quieter part of camp. "At first, I tried. I really tried." He continued. "I had time, back then. Months, to get people ready. To train them properly, to put them through the right motions for a skill, or to find a class that could help them." He stopped, as they reached the end of the tents. "But, the past few years, I haven't had months. Last three group, I only had a few days."

"Ah." The empty tent with too many bunks suddenly made a lot more sense. "That's why."

"Mm." Kepler replied, turning to me. "Some of them, they get lucky. Two groups back, one of the people without a class managed to help the wounded during their first battle. Ended up a [Medic] and got themselves transferred off the frontlines." He shook his head. "How many of your attributes are still under twenty?"

"Four of them."

"Which ones?"

"Vitality, Endurance, Strength, and Dexterity."

"Light, all of them. Don't suppose any of those are close?"

"Dexterity is at eighteen."

"Only eighteen..." Kepler shook his head. "Fuck."

"I..." The pit of my stomach might as well have dropped out from the look he gave me. "That's not good, is it."

"What about your Intelligence and Wisdom? Are those over twenty, at least?"

Swallowing the lump in my throat, I nodded.

"Bloody waste." Kepler let out a long sigh, as he looked out on the field. Distantly, there were other lights: fires or torches. "I keep telling them, but they don't care. Not since we started losing." He leaned back, thumbs hooked against his belt. For a moment he tapped the pommel of his sword, before pulling out his coin purse. Carefully he counted, and handed me three silver piece and four copper. "Tomorrow, go to the cook with this. Tell him I sent you."

As I took the coins, I followed his gaze, across the field... it was another army, I realized. Far across the field, was the enemy. After another long stretch of silence, Kepler nodded.

"This is the only way." He seemed deep in thought. "In the meantime, just get your Dexterity to twenty." He turned back towards the camp. "Ordinary people might have to work for months, but you've still got the title. For a little while longer, at least."

"Little while longer... Wait, what will that do?" I asked, following. "Will that get me a class?"

He didn't answer.

12 - Last ditch

The next day, I worked until my arms shook. My hands were covered in blisters, and my muscles screamed.

Dexterity +1

Strength +1

That was all I got for it. I asked Kepler if that was bad, and he just cursed about "Heroes" for a few moments, swallowed- what I assumed was pure rage, and ignored me.

After, I revisited my status, in dismay:

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 3 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 12

Endurance: 16

Strength: 15

Dexterity: 19

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 45

Health: 50/50

Stamina: 6/20

Mana: 100/100

It had not been an easy day.

I had already learned the hard way not to let stamina drop down to zero. Though it seemed to recover quickly, the harder the motion or form with the spear, the more quickly it drained. Despite a decent recover time, settling in on five or six was as low as I was willing to go without someone driving me to keep going.

None of those numbers had increased, either. Unlike Strength, or Dexterity, those had remained fixed. I wasn't sure if that was because they were locked into place, or if they operated on a different set of conditions.

It had begun to seem that the more the numbers accumulated, the harder it was to earn more. While some weapons likely favored whatever it was that assigned those ranks, there was an increasing difficulty in obtaining them. When I spoke with the others, they seemed to be in agreement with this. Jones said that from what he'd managed to learn while around camp, most status improvements past twenty, took months. Sometimes, once they were high enough: years. For most people, this meant a soft cap on what a normal person could achieve, sooner or later.

From that perspective, it almost felt like a fluke my Wisdom stat had risen at all, but then again... Even with all the perceived struggles to improve, the Summoned Hero title was almost a cheat. Which, explained Kepler's reactions.

Still, I wondered what Kepler had meant by his statement, the night before.

"Little while longer..." He'd said.

Had he meant it as "you're going to die" or had he been speaking about something else.

Was it possible to lose a title?

These were the questions on my mind, when I took the risk of finding the cook. Jones offered to go with me, but Kepler told him not to. In fact, he forced everyone to do more training, before sending me out alone.

Somehow, I managed.

Upon arrival, the cook didn't even say a word during the transaction. They took the coin and Kepler's name, then handed me a bloody package of meat.

[Identify]

Ground Horse Meat

Low class ground meat, meant for cooking. Poor quality.

I made the mistake of trying to open it, but quickly tied it back together. Small as it was, it smelled horrible, and the paper- whatever it was that held in the meat beneath the fine string, barely did its job. Walking down the path back to our tent, I was careful not to let it leak on me.

It was dark when I finally made it back. Everyone was already in their bunks. Except Kepler, it seemed. He was waiting for me.

Looking at the package, he nodded. The same way he always seemed to, when he saw something he didn't seem to actively hate.

"Good." He said, taking it from me.

"I didn't make it to twenty." I said.

"Mm." Kepler grunted, inspecting the horse meat, again nodding. "Go and sleep."

"What's that for?" I asked.

"Go." He repeated, setting the package down on the chest beside his bunk.

The rest of the night, I spent in an anxious state of barely sleeping exhaustion, and using [Identify] to revisit the same few objects, over and over. At some point, the [Identify] skill crept up another level, to four.

Then, morning had come.

13 - Calm before

Horns sounded in the distance. Arrows landed, short only a few dozen feet from where we now stood. Men on horses rode up and down the line, shouting orders as they waves swords- or flags. [Captains] or [Sergeants] were bellowing over the noise of men vomiting and praying: for ahead of them was death.

Death.

Yet, there we stood at the very front: spears in hand.

"We're on the far left flank, today!" Kepler yelled to us over the noise. "They like to pack your kind right in with the armor- but enemy cavalry is on the far right, so we're probably in luck!" He paused, as an arrow landed, not ten paces from where we stood. "There's no chance of a skirmish, either: Golden Wings has been pushing to retake the field and start building up defenses for the winter!"

"About fucking time!" Someone shouted to our right.

They were greeted with several "Aye!" scattered about the group.

Looking down the line, it didn't reassure me much. The small show of bravado was hardly capable of counter-balancing all the grim looks of terror.

"What's that mean for us?" To our center, Jones shouted back. "Retaking the field, I mean?"

"Us? Nothing, really!" Kepler yelled back. "Just thought you all might want to know what you're dying for!"

"Oh, this is so fucked." Shouting from the center of our group, somehow, among the girls, Mars, had started laughing. Turning to her, I could see the [Brawler] class aglow beneath the [Summoned Hero] text. Brown hair tied back, she laughed, while Cate dry-heaved next to her.

"Oh, we're so dead. We're so dead." Scott mumbled like a mantra, as the horns grew closer. An arrow landed, somewhere behind us. I heard that one earn a scream of pain.

"Ready!" A horse galloped past, [Captain] hollering as spears fell into the first form, down the line. Behind him, I could see figures were charging. Human figures, I realized. Densely packed, they were running at full sprint. No armor, no regard for safety- as the closest of them came into range, I could see [Berserker] repeating, again and again.

"Ah, fuck." Kepler cursed. "Of course we'd dodge the cavalry and have to deal with this, instead. Get those spears out!"

"I thought we were fighting demons!" Mike shouted.

"Demons?" Kepler turned, and looked at him with a wide smile. For the first time since I'd met the [Squad Leader] I'd never seen him make such an expression. "You thought we were fighting Demons?"

"Yes!" Mike yelled. "I thought we were fighting Demons!" Looking ahead, the men were even closer now. Behind them, archers were letting loose in full. Hundreds of shafts raining down like needles in the sky- returned by our own archers, somewhere behind us. "Not people!"

"SPEARS READY!" The Captain shouted. "READY! BRACE! BRAC-" A lucky arrow took the man through his throat, sending him tumbling down off his horse.

Blood mixed with the scent of urine was in the air, and I felt my chest tighten. The urge to run, held in check only by the entire army standing behind me: weapons already drawn.

"You really thought you'd be fighting Demons." Kepler shook his head, with an honest chuckle. "That's got to be the stupidest thing I've ever-"

Whatever else he said, I missed on account of the enemy reaching us.

14 - Battle

Blood, screaming, carnage...

I think it was Scott, who died first. Or, maybe it was Cate?

Violence.

So much violence.

When a crazed man with three arrows sticking out of him is swinging an ax at you, there's not much in the way of rational thought or observations. There's just blood, gore, and chaos.

In the end, really, it's just chaos.

"HOLD!" I remember someone shouting that, in the start. [Berserker] for a class must give some serious perks in battle, because my spear was a surprisingly perfect hit, and it didn't make a lick of difference. Impaled or not, they just kept coming. Even as more spears, from the troops behind us, layered in over our shoulders. Some of the enemies attacking might as well have been kabobs, but they didn't die.

At least, not nearly fast enough for our sake.

One of the opposing figures was a cut above the rest. [Greater Berserker] stood boldly compared to those around him, and his weapon was a force of nature. Two handed, the battle axe cleaved through half a dozen spear- to break part of our line. On either side, ferociously screaming men dived forward, seizing the gap.

The battle was met, in all the worst ways.

Scott went down.

That's how it happened... yes, Scott went down first. Then- then it was Cate. Mars was knocked down, but someone pulled her back, and one of our side took her place. At some point, I tripped, I think. I ended up on the ground, next to them. Not so lucky as Mars, someone stepped on me, another person fell on me. More bodies crashed into the line, more Berserker-kabobs, screaming and shouting. Then, the spear line was being pushed against bodies.

Not really a retreat, but step by step, things were getting wedged too tightly. I was getting stomped on as people moved. Whoever's body happened to be on top of mine, saved me from some of it, until it began to smother me. Moments later, I was fighting for air.

Mike, I realized.

It was Mike's body, on top of mine.

The wound was so bad, I didn't even realize it was him for what must have been minutes. The armor we were given didn't stop the ax he'd been hit with at all. Not the first attack, or any of the ones that must have followed it. Beneath him, surrounded by other bodies, I waited as the noise faded. Peeking out, I could see the armies were clashing, but far off. The flank we'd been assigned to was mostly... not calm, but not nearly as violent. The [Greater Berseker] fell, a pincushion. It seemed that soon after, the last of the [Berserkers] had finally been put down, and the line was approaching again. From the horns and horses emerging to lead, I had to assume there was an intent of circling around the enemy, but for all I knew there was some other objective.

The enemies reacted to this. Archers, or some other ranged group, shouting and running nearby. Either away, or towards them, I held my breath on and off, praying they wouldn't find me. There was no point in getting up early, and winding up dead for no reason at all.

So, I lay there, quiet among the dead, until nightfall. Until I had identified everything and anything. Until the bodies around me had begun to grow stiff.

[Criteria Met]

[Special Skill - Obtained] - [Hide Presence]

[Hide Presence] Level 1

You have hidden yourself in plain view of the enemy, and lived to tell the tale. While so might think of you as a coward, it's likely better than being a dead coward.

Finally, I pulled myself free and began to limp back to camp.

15 - Winner

It was morning, by the time I made it back. Leaning on a spear I'd found, I hobbled in slowly. Those awake to watch, seemed too tired to jeer at me.

Covered in gore as I was, I could have sworn one even gave me a nod.

"Hoo..." Kepler leaned back against his bunk as I stepped in, eyebrows raised at the sight of me. "Not dead, after all."

Exhausted, I stared back.

"No." I croaked. "Not dead."

"Look the part, though..." He wrinkled his nose. "Light, smell the part, too.

I looked about the tent, finding no one.

"Everyone?" My voice was raspy, throat parched.

"You coming all the way inside, or you just going to stand there?" Kepler asked.

Slowly, I stepped inside, letting the tent flaps shut behind me. I wasn't alone, I realize. On a top bunk, someone was sleeping. Mars, I realized.

Next one of the lower bunks, seated beside horribly bloodied armor, Jones looked on with a distant stare.

"Just us?"

He didn't answer.

I looked around the tent, hoping I was wrong- but there was no one else. Then, a wet rag hit me.

"Clean up." Kepler muttered. "That's an order."

"What?" I caught the cloth as it slipped from my face.

"Second though, take two." Pulling another cloth free and dunking it into a barrel, Kepler threw it in my direction.

"I... don't..." My brain was like slosh. Images of faces, of weapons, of people I knew, falling. Of screams and shouts.

"Hey there." Looking up, Kepler put a hand on my shoulder. "Cheer up, John. We won."

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 4 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 1 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 12

Endurance: 16

Strength: 15

Dexterity: 19

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 46

Health: 41/50

Stamina: 4/20

Mana: 100/100

16 - Calm after

The next few days passed in a blur. Training, then sleeping. Sometimes eating, but mostly just sleeping.

I learned a bit from what happened to the others. Jones had held the line well, and fought until the battle was over. Kepler even bragged about it, when he overheard Mars telling me- though Jones, himself, seemed far from willing to speak of the subject. Contrary to Jones, though, Mars had been hit early. She seemed surprised, when I mentioned it.

"You saw that, in all the mess?" She asked, glancing towards the tent flaps, where our gruff Squad Leader had wandered out- metal flask in hand. "Promise you won't tell a soul." She whispered.

I promised, after I realized she was serious.

"Bastard saved me." Mars's lip twitched, as she looked over to Jones, speaking quietly so only I could hear. "You're right, I got Hit. Right by the ribs, but it only got my armor. Kepler dragged me back with one arm, and then." On the spare bunk we'd all be using as a storage shelf, she lifted a mangled piece of armor to throw it in my direction, and-

Even washed, the smell alone almost made me vomit.

"Horse meat?" I coughed, throwing it back, as quickly as I could.

"Horse meat." She nodded, catching it with a grimace. "Smeared that shit all over my armor, and then he told me to stay down." Mars whispered. "Bloody-mess looked like I'd been stabbed in the gut. They dragged me back, out of the front."

"And that's how you..."

"That's how I survived." She nodded, looking back over to Jones. "Shame it was only me."

Sitting on the floor of the tent, in his usual spot, Jones simply stared at the empty bunks across from him. Unmoving, uncaring, he simply stared.

"Think he'll snap out of it?" Mars asked. "When I got my [Brawler] class, I got this skill... it's called [Numb]. Lets me feel... less. Not just physical stuff, but... all stuff." She frowned, still looking at Jones. "Been using it a lot."

That night, after my somewhat-obsessively ritualized training, I came back to the tent, to find Jones still sitting there. Still staring at the empty bunks, where the others used to be.

Summoned Hero

Soldier

They seemed more distant, than normal. As if a part of them was fading, pulsing in an uneven tempo my eyes couldn't quite catch.

Laborers came in, and they were building something out on the field. Pits were being dug, bodies were being dumped, fires were being set.

Hell, sometimes it was just fires being set.

On days the wind wasn't in our favor, God... the smell was horrible. Honorable graves for the fallen, apparently weren't a custom in the Golden Wing Company.

No, instead there was just stripping the dead of equipment.

Mercenary's Leather Armor

Used, but suitable, armor. Has been repaired, but will likely provide suitable protection from light attacks.

[Identify] continued its slow and seemingly pointless grind towards more elaborate descriptions.

I now had a new set of armor- likely stripped from the dead. My sword, my dagger, my spear, and a bag with some basic equipment for maintaining my weapons. Oil, leather, some string and a needle. Oh, and five silver coins. Apparently, surviving meant we got paid.

It also meant, eventually, things were expected of us.

By the middle of the week following the battle, we were pulled from our routine of training, and set about to labor. Though, the bodies and the scavenging had been mostly dealt with, the building and digging, was a different story.

Strength +1

Shoveling.

Strength +1

This was a different kind of training. Not elegant or building upon itself like the elegant and efficient motions of a spear, but harsh, tiring, and unpleasant. Monotony, of the same painful set of movements, to move dirt from one place, to another.

Still, I couldn't deny it was effective.

Strength +1

By the time the trench and mounded wall we'd been set to work into shape was finished, the results spoke for themselves.

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 4 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 1 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 12

Endurance: 16

Strength: 18

Dexterity: 20

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 46

Health: 49/50

Stamina: 18/20

Mana: 100/100

I was finally starting to approach the twenties for my combat related stats. Dexterity- by some miracle of several training sessions, actually was twenty.

Critically important, I felt, as these seemed to be linked to obtaining a class.

Though Jones was far from talkative, and Kepler might as well have been a mute, when it came to normal attempts at conversation, Mars had told me her [Brawler] class seemed to have links to her own status attributes. She confirmed that the class was linked to Vitality, Endurance, and Strength. Beside her status, those categories were provided and additional bonus, because of her class.

Remembering what the others had said, before the battle, it seemed Vitality, Endurance, Strength, and Dexterity were critical in the process.

Though I wasn't certain the [Brawler] class was something I wanted, it confirmed I was still quite a ways off from any class I'd seen so far. If [Brawler] was Vitality, Endurance, and Strength- Soldier seemed to be linked to Vitality, Strength, and Dexterity... or some combination of all four (Vitality, Endurance, Strength, Dexterity...)

The best I could do was keep grinding, in the hope that I might finally hit whatever hidden criteria was important.

So, I did- or tried to.

The second bout of food poisoning was much, much worse, than the first.

17 - No one cares

[Vitality +1]

If you don't work, you don't get paid. If you don't get paid, you don't eat.

[Vitality +1]

It took three days to even be capable of keeping down some bread and water. Laying still, and suffering, while the others went off to the work of building up the fortifications nearby.

At times, Mars would check on me. She did what she could, getting me spare bread, or water. Jones would... well, he'd check if I was alive, before returning to his seat by the bunk.

Kepler didn't do shit, but then- had I really expected him to?

Laying still, watching my health waver like the ebb and flow of a tide... lower... lower...

I could see how someone like me, might honestly die.

Fever, sweats, weakness that felt almost crippling. The inability to keep much of anything down. All I could do was lay in my bunk and [Identify] whatever happened to be nearby. Over and over, reading the hallucinatory text, praying that the pain would let up.

Finally, it broke through.

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 5 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 1 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 14

Endurance: 16

Strength: 18

Dexterity: 20

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 46

Health: 49/50

Stamina: 18/20

Mana: 100/100

The fifth level of [Identify] came abruptly, while staring at my dagger. It felt like being struck by a bolt of lightning, with a side of vertigo.

Steel Dagger

Sturdy weapon with no enchantments. Intended for stabbing attacks. Useful for around-camp purposes. Despite the age and small chips in the blade, this was forged by a talented-smith.

Even sick as a dog, I could recognize that the fifth level of [Identify] was significant. As the after-effects of whatever had struck with the level up faded, I inspected the dagger with a greater clarity. It was almost as if, upon using [Identify] on it with the fifth level had been the same as seeing it for the first time. No longer was it simply a possession I kept on myself, but something unique. Every tiny little detail of the weapon seemed far more important and recognizable.

The rest of the afternoon was spent trying to obtain the same effect from the other things around me.

Silver Coin

Silver Coin, stamped and minted by the Nautalin Empire. The edges have been shaved slightly, indicating previous owners might have had less than morally aligned intentions prior to exchange.

Well... that was slightly bothersome. I soon found most of my remaining coins were like that, and made a note to ask Kepler about it when he returned.

After another few hours, though, the Squad Leader still wasn't back. Neither did Mars or Jones return, which soon worried me. From what I could tell, it wasn't nightfall, quite yet, but it wasn't exactly mid-afternoon either. Evening would be fast on approach, and it was strange for the tent to be empty at this time.

I thought of trying to get up, but a sudden commotion outside stopped me short.

"The rules are simple." I heard Kepler's voice, on approach. "You're property of the Golden Wing Mercenary Company. If you run, you will be killed. Either by me, or some feral monster, or an enemy, or you'll starve."

"What-" Someone unfamiliar to me tried to speak.

"Shut it." Kepler stopped them. "That's another thing. You are to follow my orders, and don't fucking bother me. Even if you think it's important, you can fuck right off. Ask someone else."

"But-"

"I just ordered you to shut up." Kepler growled, pulling open the tent. "Pick a bunk, sleep. Fortifications just finished today and I'm sure the Company is being relocated to the next battle soon enough. So, tomorrow, I expect you to train with the others."

"Aren't us heroes supposed to be treated a little nicer?" Someone asked. "They weren't this rude at the palace- and when we got here: who was that woman, before?"

"Shut. Up." Kepler's voice boomed, earning a sudden silence. "I'm only going to say this once. Are you all listening?"

"Ye-"

"Shut." Kepler's tone brought about a new level of quiet. Sitting up to look, several terrified expressions huddled, just inside the tent. "Listen here, and listen well."

Several terrified expressions nodded.

"No one gives a flying-fuck about the fact that you're Heroes."

"But-"

"No one."

So it was, that the Squad in Mud Tent found itself increased by seven.

18 - Separate chapters aren't worth the effort.

Chapter 18-30

After just one night laying sick on my back, captive in my bunk as I listened to their conversations, I found I had some reoccurring thoughts.

Thoughts, like: "Maybe the Palace did a better job with this batch."

Or: "Maybe, the instructors decided to talk more, the nobles praised them a bit better... Heck, did the King layer on the mystical bullshit with a greater gusto?"

But, by the end, it was simply: "If I don't get better soon, I'm going to use this dagger to put an end to my misery."

Needless to say, it wasn't very long until I recognized there was a contrast between the new arrivals, and the group I had arrived with.

"I can't wait to kill a demon." From where I lay, hidden on the top bunk, I heard the subject return for the tenth time. Whispered conversations, in the night. "I can't wait to use this sword, and kill a demon."

"I've got twenty-five Strength." Another added. "I'm sure I could cut one in half."

"HA! I've got twenty-six." Someone said, excitedly. "What do you think training will be like?"

"I bet we'll get strong quicker than the palace."

"Me too."

I felt that Squad Leader Kepler's inclinations towards drinking in the middle of the day, and glowering at everyone around him, were suddenly making more sense. It was all I could do, not to shake my head.

[Hide Presence - Level Up]

[Hide Presence - Level 2]

At least, I'd managed to get one decent thing out of the whole miserable experience. Although I'd never imagined using a skill to avoid conversation, I could only pray it continued to work.

"Willful-Ignorance."

No, that would be putting it lightly.

"Selectively choosing reality?"

Perhaps, that was better. The seven new arrivals seemed far from acknowledging how horrible the situation was, and instead fully-embracing things with a level of optimism I could normally only imagine associated with happy-drunks or young-children.

I was almost glad, when from the far side of the tent, Kepler finally piped up.

"Do you hear John talking?"

I froze up, as the tent fell to silence.

"No?" Someone answered.

"Exactly." Kepler replied. "The next person who talks, I'm going to beat within an inch of their life."

A hush fell upon the crowd, at last. Long moments passed, before I finally heard a faint whisper.

Who the hell is John?"

A threateningly heavy sigh from Kepler stomped that out to relatively peaceful quiet, once again. I'd even say I finally managed to sleep, but that would be a lie.

I was still much to nauseous for that.

....

With nausea in mind, the next morning of training was just as miserable as you'd expect. Between fighting the urge to throw up what little bread Mars had left me, or ignoring the stares I was getting from all the people who realized the answer to last night's question, I was far from pleased.

Vitality +1

Endurance +1

Was the only things I earned for the suffering. Still, apart from those, it had its moments.

"Can we take a break?" Those were the famous last words of the bravest newcomer.

Once again, I had to wonder what Squad Leader Kepler's stats were, behind the scenes. If the person he was beating to a pulp had a claimed Strength of twenty-five, what must his be?

Squad Leader

Soldier

???

Even with my [Identify] up as far as it had ever been, I still wasn't sure what those "???" were, but I'll admit: I found my second wind that morning. Perhaps, all I'd been missing was the proper motivation, all along.

.................

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 5 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 2 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 15

Endurance: 17

Strength: 18

Dexterity: 20

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 46

Health: 33/50

Stamina: 11/20

Mana: 100/100

...

I met Jones and Mars as they returned the next day, apparently coming back from an effort to haul lumber towards the newly assembled fort. According to Mars, it had been so brutal, she'd leveled strength four times.

According to Jones, well... he didn't say much of anything.

But, he did look tired.

Brain-fog from several continuous days of sickness and fatigue, mixed with intense hunger: I was on my way out to try and buy something to eat, apart from stale bread. So it was, I forgot to warn them.

"Who the hell are you?" I heard Mars ask, loudly. "The fuck are you doing on Linda's bunk?"

"WOAH- more heroes!" Came a returning shout. "Are you friends of John-"

I quickened my pace, the moment the tent flaps shut behind them, heading for the cook station. However the hell that situation was going to work itself out, I wanted no part in it. I was all but completely certain that the cook's deep frown would seem friendly and familiar, compared to the following shouts.

The cook seemed just a grim-faced as ever, so I wasn't quite right, but for the sake of my own well-being, I handed over all the remaining coins in my possession, and returned to the tent with and extra several pieces of bread and a heavy pot of stew.

It was a good idea.

Coming back to a bunch of people quietly sobbing- more than a few with black eyes, and I figured it was finally time to have a sit down.

...

My group, or at least, most of my group, had quickly seemed to accept the reality that we were barely a few degree removed from slaves. There were complaints aplenty about it, sure, but we'd seen two of our number reduced to a dark pink mist, just before landing in a field to get beaten by an angry man with a spear- who then handed us all off to another angry man... also with a spear. Add that all together with being sick, almost starving, and receiving a healthy amount of verbal abuse- we understood.

By the time a majority of us were murdered in a fight we all would have much rather not been a part of, I truly think we understood our place in the world.

Sure, we were "Heroes" alright. There was some acknowledgement that we had worth, that we had advantages, but we weren't "chosen ones." Mars, Jones, myself... we knew beyond any reasonable doubt: fighting the Demon Lord and saving the world was absolutely, 100%, not why we were brought here.

I guess that was a hard pill for the newbies to swallow. Somehow, they were still holding out some sort of hope, that was really what had brought them here. Not some fucked up ritual to kidnap people and throw them into a war... Although, come to think about it: the traditional fantasies of fighting a Demon Lord might not be all that far off.

After everyone settled down- most relocating their possessions to different bunks (farther away from Mars, Jones, and myself) conversation lightened up a bit. With the miracle of warm (relatively) food, people stopped crying, and Mars stopped punching people. I took the time to explain the basics, as I understood them. How they would get paid, how wandering around the camp aimlessly was a VERY bad idea. Why the "Hero" title we had was valuable.

I did my best, with what I had. Mars helped me answer things, and Jones... well, he stared at people in a way that might have made Kepler proud, saying the Squad Leader of Mud Tent had been there to see it. Though, I felt confident he might have been off getting drunk, as he was nowhere to be found.

"What about the others?" A girl- one of the youngest newcomers, who went by the nickname of Jay, asked. "You said there were people with the [Swordsman] and [Archer] class for your group."

It was a good question. Mars looked at me, then Jones, then shrugged.

Go figure, right before bed, they had finally asked a question that stumped me. I lay awake for a long while, trying to come up with an answer. During the battle, I hadn't seen them... but that didn't mean they weren't there. It just meant I hadn't seen them. As none of us were keen on walking around camp, and the fact that the camp was massive- with separate divisions and other allied companies stationed everywhere, it wasn't as though we'd felt confident enough to go searching, either.

So, as I lay on my top bunk, spinning the dagger as [Identify] rang out the same information, again and again... I had to wonder.

Where the hell were the others?

…..

The next morning, one of the newcomers messed up: bad.

It had rained, lightly, so the field was damp. Mud Tent had earned its name, so I suppose it might have simply been a miracle that no one had been hurt up until this point. But, so it goes.

A boot decided to skid, instead of stop. A spear decided to do what it was always made to do.

There was a lot of blood.

A lot.

Kepler, usually as uncaring as they come, began barking orders. Jones was sent running, while Mars was put in charge of applying pressure to the wound. I was in charge of keeping them from rolling into the mud- and biting their own tongue.

Harder to do, when someone's strength is twenty-something, and mine... well, wasn't. By the time they exhausted themselves, writhing in agony, I just hoped that their vitality was better than most, because it was far from a pretty sight.

Then, Jones came back. With him, was a man in cloth, with a bright red head-piece.

Red Crescent

Medic

Immediately laying hands on the wounded, I saw him focus intensely. Palm outstretched, just above the bloody gash, the man seemed to be in a trance. There was a look of pure concentration.

[Identify]

I tried to see what he was doing.

Skill: Lesser Heal

Exchange with the God of Mercy. Uses Mana.

Lesser Heal... I was, to put it frankly, surprised to see anything at all. Usually, [Identify] was fickle at best for catching things that weren't objects, but I attributed this to having finally leveled the ability enough to be of some use.

Still, it didn't seem to be working. While the wound stopped bleeding as badly, the gash remained.

The man leaned in, and tried again.

Skill: Mend

Exchange with the God of Flesh. Uses Mana and Stamina.

A different skill... I was fascinated. The King's Palace had shown us all sorts of wondrous things. From the skyline of the city, I'd seen flying boats, glowing gemstones atop watch-towers. What might have even been a flying island... I'd known there was magic, in this world, but until just that moment: I'd never seen it up close. Never so literally, either.

The skin resealed, as if it were pulled together by tiny, invisible, stitches. Pale faced, almost as much as the person in which he'd been healing, the Medic stepped back. Nodding to Kepler, then to Jones, he bowed his red-clothed head, and took his leave.

As he left, Kepler handed him a small purse.

Turning to the rest of us, intense displeasure written plainly on his face, he didn't say a word, before ripping the remaining spears from whoever still happened to be holding them. Leaning them up against the wooden fence that bordered our training ground, he took a deep breath.

Several, in fact.

Finally, he spoke.

"Tomorrow." Fist clenched until his arm shook, Kepler uttered the word. "Tomorrow."

As he walked away, leaving us all in the mud, for once- for the first time, perhaps: no one was stupid enough to ask him what that meant. As we carried our fellow "Hero" into the tent, placing them upon their bunk, we all went to sleep in total silence.

Clearly, tomorrow, we were all going to die.

...

...

That night, Kepler left. For what no one knew, but most people were too scared to talk, out of fear of him coming back and catching his attention.

"I'm scared of him." On the bottom bunk, I heard Jay whisper. "The squad leader is terrifying."

Laying perfectly still, [Hide Presence] as active as I could will it to be, I waited.

"How long have you all been here?" She whispered again. "Living like this?"

"Long enough." Mars replied.

I let out a sigh of relief. I was saved from conversation, yet again. After all the commotion that day, I'd decided that I'd much rather my last moments be reflective.

"It seemed so amazing, at the Palace. With the King, and the Knights, and the City, just beyond those stone walls. I was really happy to be here." I heard the bunk creak. "I just don't understand, why did it turn out like this?"

"Someone in camp told me that summoning heroes used to be a rare thing." Mars answered. "Bargains with Gods, and fates. Will of divine forces, or things people just didn't understand. Then, there was some war, thousands of years ago, and the King from back then figured out how to repeat a ritual."

"To summon heroes?"

"Yeah, I guess that King used it to conquer half the continent before other countries allied against him."

"Oh." Jay answered. The bunk creaked again.

It didn't seem like Mars' explanation helped much.

"We can get stronger than normal people, here." Mars continued. "When Linda, Cate- when I got my class, they said..." She stopped, for a moment. "Kepler's not so bad."

"He seems pretty bad."

"Nah." Mars sighed. "He just really hates his job."

….

Our punishment was exercise.

Endless. Exercise.

No spears, no weapons, no practicing forms. No effort to try and trick our Hero title into providing us a skill, or a class, or anything of value. Squad Leader Kepler watched, arms crossed, face stern, as we did push-ups. Then, sit-ups... then, more push-ups... then more sit-ups...

Throwing up was no excuse to stop.

Endurance +1

Mars, the most vocal of our number, cursed the newcomers' existence. Loudly, she proclaimed them damned, to die a miserable death- so miserable, they would wish they had all stabbed themselves in training mishaps.

Jones, for all of his distant stares and blatant refusal to speak to anyone, seemed to agree with her. Or, at least he seemed equally as angry, if much quieter.

I remembered it was only a day or so ago the two of them were working hard-labor. Being put through fantasy-army boot-camp hazing right after, was probably worse than what I was experiencing.

"Do you even know how lucky you are?" Kepler shouted, after a sip from his flask. "There's no battle expected for months! Not one! Do you know what that means?"

No one answered. By this point, it seemed even the newcomers had caught on to the fact that Kepler didn't expect a response. He just wanted to yell at them.

"It means that you've got months until you're allowed to fucking die!" Spittle flew, the scent of poor-quality spirits, took to the air. "Do you understand?"

"Yes, Squad Leader!" This time he did expect an answer.

"AGAIN!"

"Yes, Squad Leader!"

So it went.

For an entire week, we suffered.

Endurance +1

Endurance +1

….

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 5 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 2 - Active

Status:

Vitality: 16

Endurance: 20

Strength: 18

Dexterity: 21

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 46

Health: 50/50

Stamina: 20/20

Mana: 100/100

As time passed, I had begun to grow accustomed to a specific route through camp. Three tents straight, one left turn, five tents straight, one right turn.

Every few days, I would take the couple coins I had to scrape together, and I would head to the cook station to purchase food. Nodding to the same people, watching the same soldiers spar, or drink, and finally speaking with the same mean-faced cooks.

They would stare at me, expression of displeasure, which I had learned was quite misleading. As the weeks went on, and I continued to show up, they would often hand me extra bread (sometimes with mold on it, sometimes not) and on rare occasions, a jug of stew.

"Extra, can't waste." They'd say. Or, "Still no class." They'd say.

I'm not sure if it was sympathy or pity, but having survived one battle, the soldiers near Mud Tent seemed far more accommodating. Even if the rest of the camp might as well have been off-limits, for my own safety, this small route seemed to have earned me enough social-currency to not have the tar beaten out of me. Although, there was still one obstacle...

"Well, well, well: if it isn't John the Hero!" From a wooden bench, out front of a large tent, a hand covered in scars flagged me down. "Come, drink with me, my friend!"

If I was somewhat antisocial in my life before being thrown into all of... this, well, let's just say a repressing a severe case of what was likely PTSD hadn't helped matters much. Still, there was no avoiding Hoyt the [Engineer] once he'd locked onto me. Seven feet tall, and build like a brick house... if I tried to run, I had generally figured I might have better survival chances spitting in Kepler's booze.

"Tell me more of your world! I've been thinking about what you told me, about the engine." Laughing, as his might arm slapped the bench beside him loud enough to make my ears ring, I found the day's food-run diverted.

It had been a fluke, but I'd met the man under circumstances that didn't involve me being thrashed within an inch of my life. In a drunken stupor, he'd run into me and knocked me back a clean seven paces, before I had rolled to a painful stop. Apologetic, he'd soon drawn me into something of a hostage situation, something of a conversation, and so it was I'd made a... "friend."

"So, the machines build machines?" Hand running through a thick beard, Hoyt leaned back in thought. "To create intricate things with such trust, and just assemble the parts. All without a drop of magic... I've heard these things before, but you heroes come from a strange world." He said, with finality. "Still, what is stranger, is you." He pointed to my chest. "Even now, you have no class."

There wasn't much I could really say to that. Especially not now, as the newcomers had been earning [Soldier] and [Spearman] classes, left and right. Somehow, even with all the time I'd spent here at the camp, a class was still beyond my grasp.

"You are not meant for this place." Hoyt said, solemnly. "None of you heroes are, but most adapt- accept it, for what it is. They become warriors, or they die. The best among you, become Legends, but even Legends die." Standing, Hoyt twisted, grabbing me by the scruff of my armor, while he pointed behind him. "Look, John." He said, as I dangled, helpless in his grasp. Distantly, above the tents, beyond the training field, or the battle field, where the fort was beginning to rise- built of wood and dirt, the clouds rose above far-off mountains."Never forget: the world is vast. Very vast. Lands and continents beyond seas of green and storms, and places where men have never stood."

I did look.

The fading afternoon sun was caught on the ridges, like gold wrapped in red and silver: wisps of vapor slipping over an edge of stone.

"You see." Hoyt set me back down, my feet finally touching the bench, as he nodded once more. "There is far more to life than this camp, John. More than the battles, the wars, the killing and death. There is so much more, and it is important to remember."

Not long after, I left Hoyt to his drink.

Since that time in my life, there have been situations in which I've met people I did not expect to learn from. Tall, or short, cruel or kind, I have met many people, since then, and I often found myself reminded of that moment, standing there upon the bench. No matter how unexpected, no matter who. Each and every time I spoke with the Engineer, he surprised me in some way. Every time we spoke, I learned... something.

Though I am well-aware the hope is false, sometimes I think back to that moment, and I imagine he's still alive.

….

It was five days later, when we awoke early to the sound of horns.

Horns, and Kepler screaming.

"Move! Move!" His voice shocked me awake, my hands scrambling for armor and gear. "Get up! Spears- take the spears! Take your gear!"

Jones threw me a spear, as tumbling from the top bunk, landing on my toes, my dagger was sheathed, my sword was ready at my hip. Worn armor on my chest and back, arms and shins: I looked about at the chaos unfolding.

"We're under attack!" From outside the tent, someone shouted. "They've got Mages-"

A massive explosion cut the warning short, as the impact sent half of us sprawling. Where there had once been a tent wall, was now replaced by fire. Someone- I don't know who, was screaming in the flames.

"What's happening?"

"UP!" Kepler grabbed one of the newer members by the shirt, and threw them towards the front flaps. "We're moving!"

Heading outside, we found the camp was in complete disarray. Kepler lead the way, as people ran in every direction. Some soldiers were rushing towards fires, others were following officers- some with horses, towards what I assumed was a battle. Tents were on fire. In the air, above the camp, giant balls of flame were raining down. Each impact as they landed, shook the ground.

"MOVE!" Kepler's shout didn't allow for much time to consider what was happening, before we were in a quick jog. Several times, we were forced to turn, or redirect, as flames blocked our path through the tents, or smoke was too thick to breathe. Through the heat, the flames, the utter insanity unfolding around us: by the time we made it out of the camp itself, and onto the field where the fort was being constructed, we were exhausted. Ahead of us, I saw lines forming up. Spears and archers and horses, milling about in a panic as Captains shouted orders. Men atop the unfinished fort, launching arrows and spears down below.

"Ah, fuck." I remember hearing Kepler curse, as he looked up.

Looking up, I squinted at the sight. It was early Morning, with the sun just beginning to rise, and not a cloud in sight- yet I could see a shadow on the air. For all the falling orbs of fire, still following on their arcs towards camp, there were thousands of tiny specks. Little dots of black, blocking the deep blue.

Arrows.

Lots and lots of arrows.

Yes.

"Tactical withdrawal" is a fancy and polite way of saying one is retreating, but there was nothing fancy or polite about what Kepler had us doing- so I'll just call it something plainer:

Running for our lives.

"I thought there wasn't supposed to be a battle for months!" I heard Jay shout.

"There's not!" Kepler answered. "Fucking move!"

By the time the first arrows were landing, our Squad Leader had us turning around, and moving back into camp. Or, back into the flaming wreckage, that was camp. Behind us, I heard horrible "thumps" of shafts impacting the turf.

More horns were sounding. More tents were burning. More soldiers were running.

Nothing made sense, except that Kepler had pointed us in a direction, and we were following him. Someone tripped, another person disappeared, as a ball of flame smacked down- hard. Running and stumbling, we just did our best not to think about what was happening, and run.

Endurance +1

Seemed almost a mockery.

Emerging out on the other side of camp, we found ourselves quickly being pulled into lines. Ragged and exhausted- covered in ashes, dozens of Squads were crumpling together in a mishmash of spear lines. Behind them, archers and a decent number of trebuchet seemed to be rotating into place.

"We're fighting?" Mars coughed, as we fell into line. "Seriously?"

"Shut up." Kepler ordered.

"We've still got most of the artillery." Someone suggested. "Could help."

"You've got to be joking." Mars growled. "They're shooting god-damn meteors at us. We should run."

Beside her, Jones nodded in agreement.

"If any of you run, they'll have you executed." Kepler growled back, turning to look over the rest of us. "Hell, they'll probably make me do it, too. So, shut up."

Another explosion sent a wave of dust into the air.

"This is bullshit."

"Mars, for the last time." Kepler muttered. "Either, the General issues a retreat, or not. Shut-up."

We'd had to climb a slight incline, to take the field south of camp were our forces were apparently regrouping. It wasn't a good scene, watching hundreds of tents burning, and a fort crumbling, with a clean line of sight to what was on the other side. There, the enemy army was marching forward, whatever resistance in front of them, cut down with ease. To say we were outnumbered, would have been a gross understatement.

What caught my attention the most, though, was the far back of their lines. Almost hidden, there, I saw flashes of light. Rising up, these soon brought more soaring orbs of flame to life.

"It's the Black Roses." Someone muttered. "Coalition finally sicked their bloody Mages on us."

"How'd they get here so quickly? Last I heard they were on the East, heading North."

"Our East retook the river, they must have marched them here, instead." Came the reply. "Our scouts did us dirty."

"Ah... We're right fucked, then."

"Aye." With that, came an uncomfortable number of additionally agreeing sentiments. "Right fucked."

An explosion rocked the hillside, leaving a smoldering crater fifty paces from where we stood. Several more followed, with impacts that were heavy enough to leave my ears ringing. along the line, a [Captain] on horseback came running.

"By her Generosity, the General has seen it fit that we retreat!" The Captain shouted, as he passed us.

"Thank fucking God." Mars whispered. "Let's go, already."

"Hold your ground, until the signal is provided!" The Captain shouted. "The Scroll must be calibrated!"

"What is that supposed to mean?" She stopped, as Kepler caught her arm.

"Means we get to live." Kepler replied. "But you'd better not move."

"Why can't we just leave?"

"If you want to try and outrun an invading army, be my guest. Even if it fucks up, I'd personally rather take the scroll." Kepler muttered. "Count your blessings. They probably just didn't want the enemy getting the artillery after they murdered the lot of us."

On the ground around us, dust began to swirl and glow, as patterns emerged. Runes, not unlike the ones I had seen, carved into the floor of the palace. As they formed, links and connections branched outward beneath our feet. Scripts and letters spinning in a wilder, and wilder pace.

"What is this?"

"Linked Scroll. Old as shit, more expensive than I care to imagine." Kepler ordered. "Whatever you do, don't move."

Another fire spell touched down, twenty feet away. I felt my skin prickle, smelled ozone and acrid smoke. In the air, there were more. One... ten... twenty-

"Oh shit." Mars whispered.

"Do not move." Kepler shouted, turning to the rest of us. "Do not fucking move!"

They began to land. First, farther down the hill, then closer, and closer. The ground was fire, sand and dirt were ripped asunder. All around us, grim-faces stared down the coming death.

The magic, the scroll- whatever it was working beneath out feet, swayed and shifted. Like ripples on the surface of a pond. Ink mixed, characters molded and blended together, reforming- only for another blast to shake them again. Looking up, I could see the next one approaching.

It was coming for me.

"What happens if it doesn't work?" Mars shouted. "What happens, then?"

"Just don't move!"

I could swear, I felt the embers burning. I could have sworn, they were close enough to touch my face, as the whole sky was swallowed up by one flaming ball of death, coming down to meet me.

In that instant, I wanted to run. I wanted to scream.

But, the runes beneath our feet had already taken to the air, they'd begun changing into something new. Rapidly shifting, calculating, adjusting- burning as the falling spell of fire death crashed into them, and the fabric of reality was ripped away. I saw magic beyond any comprehension, saw time fragment and distort, while all I had known and seen, turned to grains of frozen glass raining down upon the black emptiness of the void.

Then, I remember nothing.

Nothing at all.

I suspect, for a time, I was truly lost.

….

There is a space, between worlds.

I'm not talking about what would happen, if you flew a rocket out of orbit, or what you see in the night sky: I mean a true void.

Something that cannot ordinarily be crossed by mortals, or flesh.

Whether I tumbled through this for seconds, or for hours, I am unable to say. I suspect time, as we understand it, holds little meaning in such a place.

Faint as ghosts in the noon-sun, I can remember fragments, should I press myself.

Pieces, of the whole.

Images, shapes, futures and pasts- some of my own, some of others? Ten thousand of lines, branching out from ten thousand lines- so on and so forth as I follow their course to find, each thought, each action, leads to ten thousand more- yet far off in the distance, they all meet again, closing the sphere of infinite possibilities...

What I remember from that time is fleeting, but what I remember feeling has stayed with me.

Awe.

Awe, and then tree branches.

There is no intended metaphor, in such a statement.

No, it was simply a very, very, hard landing.

...

Wisdom +1

New Skill: Void Walker - Passive

Once summoned, now lost! You have gone where many will never go. What's more, is unlike almost all of those who have: you've survived. Greatly increased affinity and resistance when utilizing scrolls, portals, and transportation rituals.

...

I came to my senses alone, in a dark forest. Nestled among thick ferns and soft, damp, soil, it took a long time just to clear the burning spots in my vision- even longer to sit up.

[Identify]

Name: Gnarled Barkrot Tree

Description: A tree famed for its destructive tendencies towards other larger plant species. Bark is also mildly toxic to humans if consumed.

[Identify]

Name: Yuta Fern

Description: Uncommon plant known for their toxins. Dangerous if consumed.

Immediately trying to identify something might have seemed strange months ago, but it had been a habit for long enough that I barely recognized it as anything more than an instinctive motion. Ever since I'd managed to level it up to the fifth rank, it seemed to almost run on auto-pilot.

I didn't much like what I read, though.

[Identify]

Name: Qila Fern

Description: Uncommon plant known for their stubborn nature of survival in hostile environments. Quoted as the fern "too stubborn to die."

No, these were not good signs. I suspected, despite my landing leaving my body only bruised, not broken, this was probably a bad place to be. Still, urgency to learn more about the situation was forced to wait.

Pushing myself to my feet, took an exhausting amount of time and effort. Slowly, rising to stare out into an endless expanse of dark and shadowed trees, in all directions. Above, the canopy seemed to show only the smallest gaps of light. Eyes now-adjusted, it was as if the forest around me had been formed in a perpetual evening.

Staring out into the forest was much like staring out into an abyss. I could see uniform tree trunks, all straight and narrow, branches lacking until the canopy far overhead. I could see ferns, patches here and there, somehow growing despite the lack of light... but I could see nothing past them. The forest was everything.

It made me nervous.

I remembered once, when I was younger, I went scuba-diving in the open ocean. Sixty feet down: with light above, and nothing but darkness in all directions.

The feeling was like that.

What might be out there, waiting?

Maybe it was good I had risen so slowly, I thought, because compared to the battlefield, this almost seemed worse.

.….

The most general of theories I could come up with, for how I'd gotten to be where I was, seemed to follow on a fleeting understanding (or perhaps, better stated: impression) on the magic's after-glow.

Interference had done something, and I'd clearly landed somewhere I wasn't supposed to. Possibly, far, far away from the original destination.

I spent a good portion of my day trying to identify everything, in a literal sense.

[Identify]

Name: Ember Reeds

Description: While not lethal and actually quite harmless, these have been known for their bright red coloration and extremely painful stings. Technically edible.

Most plant-life was found to be poisonous or toxic to some effect, although thankfully not on physical contact.

[Identify]

Name: Sunder Moss

Description: Known for the pain in which it kills, this is extremely deadly if consumed. Once diluted and used for torture, in recent times other (safer) methods are preferred. In the wise words of Klaza the Brutal: "Dead men aren't much for spilling secrets- just blood."

There were exceptions.

Just by walking around the tree, I was fairly certain I now had [Boots of Death] instead of whatever they were before. In a way, I thought it was lucky I'd landed on top of the ferns, because what lived on the soil among their roots was far more terrifying.

Exploring was, perhaps understandably, difficult.

While being quiet, I did my best to creep about, to get in range of something new I could [Identify] or find if anything else had landed with me in the ferns.

For my localized searching, there was little to be found. My spear, at least, was recovered. My pack, I was wearing- so, perhaps that shouldn't be counted in the tally. My sword and dagger somehow stayed on my belt. Farther out, though... the truth is, I had extremely little interest in wandering more than twenty feet in any direction from the tree I had landed. No matter how long I tried to work up the courage, the forest remained a shaded and mysterious terror.

That presented me with an interesting scenario. One, in which I might be considered armed to the teeth, but with only a few days of terribly stale bread and a tin of lukewarm water.

Clearly, going out and hunting to subsidize the meager supplies of food would have been the rational decision. Spear in hand, a human might as well be king of any forest. With a Hero title still applied, logically, there was a decent chance of earning some useful skills, as well. Yet, in a place where just the plant-life seemed far more than dangerous enough, I found myself hesitating.

Irrational or not, starving seemed preferable to wandering. The prickling fear, spreading along the back of my neck, goosebumps down my arms...

"Don't go in the Forest. It's already bad enough."

Thus, the compromise.

Climbing a tree.

….

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 5 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 2 - Active

Void Walker Lvl 1 - Passive

Status:

Vitality: 16

Endurance: 21

Strength: 18

Dexterity: 21

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 47

Health: 46/50

Stamina: 13/20

Mana: 100/100

Even with tying my bag to a rope, and hauling it up ahead of me: it took some time, and several rough falls, before I found a decent way to scale up a mostly branch-less trunk. Eventually, though, I did find a way. Climbing higher, I was finally able to head up into the canopy, and above the tree line.

Somewhat.

It seemed that the forest I'd landed in was mostly flat. As luck would have it, though, it was good I'd landed near a taller specimen. The Gnarled Barkrot Tree I'd climbed seemed to reach out above most of the rest, and provided a decent line of sight once I'd climbed far enough.

Of course, that really meant very little, when all I could see was a haze... and more trees.

It reminded me of a game I'd played, when I was much younger. An entire land covered in a fog, making sight almost impossible beyond five hundred feet or more. Add to that, the fact that night seemed to be setting, atop the fog.

Unwilling to climb back down, I resolved myself to sleeping tied to a tree trunk. By sleeping, I mean barely sleeping, but at least the air felt cleaner. Maybe it was just my imagination getting the better of me, but I had to imagine that the farther away I was from all the poisonous plants, the better off I'd be.

....

I awoke with the dawn, and with it, wind.

Not strong, not aggressive, but steady in its push. The air flowed along at a steady gait in the morning sun, and the haze which seemed to be permanently settled above the forest, moved with it. Tired eyes blinking, I stared in wonder as the visibility increased from a few hundred feet, to a few thousand, to (briefly) miles.

The forest was vast.

I'd suspected as much. Miles of trees in all directions, with almost no break from the lush of green leaves.

Almost.

What may have been a mile off, there was something rising above the trees. Stone, or brick? From the distance I sat, it was hard to say with certainty, but I could recognize the dimensions and shape as a structure of unnatural means. What appeared to be a perfect dome, turned into a rising spear, capped with a brilliant gleam of gold.

I stared at it for a long time, before I made my decision. In truth, as lovely as slow starvation and dehydration seemed, from my uncomfortable post atop the tree, finding people and true shelter eventually won out.

As I judged the direction, and steeled my mind for the careful descent back to the forest floor, the only interruption I had was a distant rumble.

Something, which I soon found, was thunder.

….

If there was ever something worse than fighting one's way through a thick underbrush made of literal death, it's been doing so in a storm.

The fear, rational or otherwise, was almost as bad as the storm itself. Heavy rain, wind that threw branches, crashing down around me. Loud explosions that scattered what was close to daylight, through the canopy. All while I tripped and stumbled, spear kept low for hope of avoiding a lighting-rod's scenario.

While I had little doubt much of the plant life might kill me, I assumed that a bolt of electricity would be just as- if not more effective.

It was not easy going, to say the least.

Navigating around bushes and undergrowth grew more difficult, as time went on. What's more, is the appearance of statues. Stone carvings, scattered about, covered in vines or moss, blocking my progress, forcing me around additional trees and turns. Their presence was made known more and more often, growing more concentrated, until they were almost shoulder to shoulder. Bodies of men, with faces of animals. Snakes, and bears, and things best not mentioned or remembered.

All seemed to stare, in ways most unsettling.

By the time I'd managed to break my way out of the forest itself, and into the clearing I'd been hoping to find, I'd spent hours trekking, and was on the edge of true collapse. Still, my soaked boots found purchase on more than mud and detritus, setting down onto stone. Blocks of stone.

Laid before me, even in the dim light of thick storm clouds and a raging forest of leaves: I recognized my destination.

A plaza of no small size. Ancient stone, cracked and weathered as it was by roots or rain, or wind: at its center stood what I'd witnessed from afar. Ruined, but undeniably majestic. One mighty dome of bricks, layered high to a pillar of stone and gold.

What can only be called a temple, rose before me.

I entered with little though for my safety.

Having spent so much time in a military camp, working day after day, I knew my limits well. More than well enough to be keenly aware that I might be capable of no more than a few more moments of movement, before I would completely collapse.

So, like a puppet with its strings cut, I let myself fall, just within the threshold of the temple. Settled down beside a stone archway, laid in among the bricks, where darkness lurked not but ten feet further. What might well have been, for all I knew, a warren of tunnels filled with monsters and terrifying creatures: possessing the bodies of men and the appetite of predators.

Thankfully, nothing came to claim the feast which might have waited for them, as I hung my head and slept for what might have been moments, hours, or days. For all I can remember of the fever dreams felt, then, all I can safely say is the storm had still not subsided when I awoke.

...

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 5 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 2 - Active

Void Walker Lvl 1 - Passive

Status:

[??? - Lesser Status Ailment - Inflicted]

Vitality: 16

Endurance: 21

Strength: 18

Dexterity: 21

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 47

Health: 46/50

Stamina: 16/20

Mana: 100/100

"??? - Lesser Status Ailment - Inflicted"

A worrisome message, if there ever was one. Perhaps, some form of sickness? Or, some form of poisoning? Confirming my health was stable, seemed to put my mind mostly at ease. Stamina was still reduced, but I was tired.

Overall, I felt fine. Or, well-enough to move. Tired, soaked, but not physically incapacitated. Staring out at the storm, the winds were picking up. Inch by inch, the spray was creeping towards where I sat, threatening to interrupt my meal of whatever rations happened to have avoided the wet within my pack. Cautiously I turned to the darkness of the temple's hall.

It was warm and dry, there.

Very much so, in fact.

Despite the storm, the strange plant growth which covered the outside: the ruin seemed remarkably well preserved. Considering the gold I'd spotted, safely atop the tower for any and all to see, I felt it safe to assume no one had come across this place in quite a long while.

Surely, someone else would have stolen that, had they found it here... I wasn't entirely sure what gold was worth in economic terms, though I could easily imagine a treasure like that would be worth quite a lot of camp rations.

Even after dried bread and some tough salted meat, I was still hungry, but I knew it would be best to make what I had last.

Course decided, once more, I activated [Hide Presence] as best I could, and slowly made my way further inside.

….

Carvings.

Illuminated by the occasional crash of lightning and thunder, I could tell they were everywhere. Upon the walls, the floor, the ceiling... as I made my way in deeper, often feeling blindly beyond the occasional flash of lightning, they covered every inch of the narrow hall of the temple.

By the tenth step, in, I paused.

Strangely, I found my eyes adjusting. Not to the light, exactly. Beyond what the storm brought, there was little light to spare. Instead, it was as if there was some other source present. Like that of light, but not of the eyes.

By the twentieth step inside, I could see clearly once more.

There was true art, all around me. Not of a simple or crude touch, where the hands guided a pale imitation to what the mind had wished to create. No, this was the work of a master- several masters. Generations of dedication, put into place with perfect skill. Even unable to [Identify] the language carved beside the images I saw, I knew the walls told a story.

They began, with the Gods.

Gods... others... that was what I felt they were, looking upon them. Like the statues which waited ever-vigilant within the forest outside, they stared down upon bowing shapes and figures: cold.

There was little love for those mortals who grovelled at their feet, who gave offerings in their long-lost names and titles. For many panels, many blocks of stone: this remains unchanged.

They are above all. Untouchable, unrivaled by any but themselves.

Yet, on my thirtieth step beyond the threshold, I found a change. No longer looking down upon the bowing figures at their feet, the Gods look up: watching the uncarved sky. Once clutches its chest, set to kneel as patterns pool about its feet.

No longer, are they expressionless.

They are angry.

A chill to the bone, just to look. The faces of rage, beyond that of human measure, surely. Power that might break whatever it sets out to shatter, focused in hate. As fire rains down from the sky above, they raise their hands, and at last, the mortals at their feet may rise.

From their direction, a chosen few step forward, and there the gift of-

Dark.

Silent.

Nothingness.

Strange... that is what it is, to be woken from a dream, standing in the dark of a temple, beneath a storm. Where a story was once told, crafted by masters who knew their craft better than many might ever learn anything in all their lives: there was wreckage.

Fallen stone, crumbled beneath the age of time.

The hall had ended, with all its twists and turns, and I stood within the belly of the ruin, once again blind to all but the stone beneath my feet, and the empty air before my reaching hands.

Where had I come from? What direction could take me back?

Stumbling blindly in the pitch of shadows and the oppressive silence of a tomb: I had no answer.

….

Wandering in the dark, blindly feeling my way through the emptiness around me, I had time to collect my thoughts.

Oh, so many thoughts.

How I'd come to be here. From the Palace, to the battlefield, to this strange land...

Where I might go, should I get out. Of this ruin, of this forest...

On what I'd seen, who I'd met, how I hoped to live in this world- so unfamiliar to me.

Was I a Hero, or a slave?

Was being brought to this world a blessing, or a curse, or something in between?

Hands desperately reaching for a wall, a pillar- anything solid in the terrifying void of shadows and the sounds of my own footsteps, I resolved that the things which brought me here didn't matter.

None of my questions had an answer, in truth.

No, all that mattered, was the present moment.

Of the here and now.

A mind, alone in this world of nothingness. Lost in a forgotten ruin, of a bygone age, in an unfamiliar world.

If there was ever a fitting place to find yourself lost, I thought, perhaps this was it. Still, I did not pray for mercy, or forgiveness, or shout for help. Instead, I continued on forward: blind to all things.

Yet, my mind persisted, running on an endless course across the same questions.

Was there something in this world, that I was meant to become? Or, was it all random, all chaos. Unorganized happenstances which would toss me like a leaf on the wind, until the end of my days. Perhaps, it is only human, to strive and provide meanings at all.

Brought here, doomed to die a soldier, or a man lost in a forest filled with poison: if I could only be free, what would I want?

The darkness pressed in around me, like coils of winding scales. The pressure reached in, deep. For a time, I could swear I heard whispers, in the black. Voices that beckoned me from my solemn path forward.

But, forward I went.

My boots reached out, trusting the stone to be there before them. Again, and again, and again, until I finally emerged.

There I stood, on the threshold I'd once entered. Master-worked carvings of Gods and men, fires and tragedies.

All illuminated beneath the clear light of a foreign sky, filled with stars.

...

[Skill Granted - Blessing of Forgotten Gods]

To enter a place mortals should never go, and leave unscathed... This is a rare event, deserving of respect. Even from Gods.

Wisdom +5

...

Name: John

Title: Summoned Hero*

Class: None

General Skills:

Language of men - Lvl 10 - Passive

Identify Lvl 5 - Active

Special Skills:

Hide Presence Lvl 2 - Active

Void Walker Lvl 1 - Passive

Blessing of Forgotten Gods Lvl 5 - Passive

Status:

[??? - Lesser Status Ailment - Inflicted]

Vitality: 16

Endurance: 21

Strength: 18

Dexterity: 21

Intelligence: 45

Wisdom: 52

Health: 49/50

Stamina: 19/20

Mana: 100/100

"??? - Lesser Status Ailment - Inflicted"

That night, I chose to march onward and leave the strange temple of the forest behind.

Something urged me, in a way. Not quite rational, but very much real. My journey through the ruin had gripped me in the oddest of ways, and I suddenly felt as though it would be the correct choice to move on, quickly.

Marching in the night, was not a choice I would have normally taken as possible, but with the clouds and fog lifted after the passing of the storm, the stars were brighter than I'd ever imagined possible. Though I could be sure of almost nothing familiar (recognizing no constellations or patterns of any sort) I did see one which seemed to hold a different color than the rest. Deep, dark red, I chose to label it my temporary compass, and walk onward.

Soon, the canopy of branches and leaves blocked my sight once more.

I continued until morning.

....

[??? - Status Ailment - Inflicted]

Reaching for my status: The first thing I recognized, upon waking, was that the "lesser" in the Ailment, was gone.

The second thing, was how precariously positioned I was, slumped against the roots of a large tree. Surrounded by what were clearly deadly plants on all sides, it seemed a wonder I'd survived the night without fatal consequence, but I surmised that my careful diligence in not disturbing the more aggressive specimens seemed to be working.

Poisonous and toxic plants, as it turns out, are not nearly as dangerous as they seem. So long as one is keenly aware of the potential for harm (and doesn't try to eat them) it is simple enough to only travel along paths where they are less densely populated.

Still, I resolved myself to, no matter how tired I might be, scaling another tree, and sleeping off the ground from then on.

Unnecessary risks

….

That night, I woke and felt the unfortunate urge to vomit, held at bay only by the urge to remain silent.

There was something in the haze below.

Moisture rising beneath the branches, I could see it moving. Large coils of black, creeping among the ferns. Wider than I was tall, endless in length, it reached out in a horrible rumble, as it passed by.

Sitting there, tied to the trunk so tightly, that rope bit into my ribs, I swallowed the rising taste of bile, as my vision swam. Hours later, I made my descent.

As my feet met soil once more, no longer did boots march, but run. Through thickets, over fallen branches, marsh and leaves.

Morning sun above me, I ran. Hunted like the prey I was.

Endurance +1

Vitality +1

Strength +1

I ran until the messages began to blur together, and my vision was but a light at the end of a long, long tunnel. For, on my back, the gaze of a predator had set like incremental weights. Heavy, tired, terrifying: the rumble followed, as the massive form weaved among the trees.

Twice, I turned to find it. Twice I tried to [Identify] it. Twice I failed.

But- those eyes. Gods, those eyes, black as the space within the ruins: how they stared. Hungry and patient, content to creep closer, closer, closer still. No matter how fast I ran, or how fast I pushed my tired body, it was gaining on me. Stumbling out upon the sound of running water, I found my path. Losing my spear, my bag: I found my stride.

Half run, half job, but mostly just the shamble of a desperate soul: I ran on until I the stream and forest ended. Miles, miles... the influence of training and attributes should not be understated. Before coming to this world, I would never have survived such a brutal marathon. Without a doubt, my muscles would have seized, my heart would have beat its last- there would have been no way.

But, I had come to this world. I had survived up until that point, perhaps against the odds, and what had yet to kill me, then, had made me stronger.

Still, no matter how strong, how determined: there is only so far a distance the body can take you.

Before me, a cliff waited.

Steep as it was tall, what could only be sixty... seventy feet below, waves crashed against rocks. Violent white crests, frothing about stone teeth and jagged edges.

An ocean of emerald, catching the light of a setting sun. Proof, beyond the fire in my chest, that I had run for the better majority of an entire day.

Behind me, the rumble approached. Eyes of blackened ink creeping closer, among the trees. Scales all but ethereal in the shadows and ferns, I can saw I saw death. My death, to be certain. As it rose, up to the branches on high, that beast did stare past my flesh, and hungered for more than life.

I will never claim to be the bravest of souls, but or all I've seen and done, when faced with such a sight: my choice was made simple.

If someone were to ask me which was worse, the pain of the impact or the cold which followed, I would be hard pressed to give a definite answer. But, I can tell you this.

The fall was a long one.