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.