Power 48 Speed 31
Fortitude (HP) 19 Resistance 33
Wind Qi: 6
Ice Qi: 8
Water Qi: 6
Fire Qi: 18
 Advanced Reading Lv. 1: [0/1,000,000 Words Read]
 Knife Hand Level 1. [0/5 Unaware Combatants Killed]
Item Skill Progressions
“You really gonna carry her the whole way?” Ramon asked as Lars continued to plod forward with the injured woman on his back. “I can take over for a bit if you need.”
“Huh? Oh, no, it’s fine,” Lars answered after taking a second to process what Ramon had asked him. He wasn’t trying to ignore the other man, he was just trying to focus on the task at hand: taking one more step. They had been walking for a few hours, and between the monotonous boredom that came from having nothing to do but focus on putting one foot in front of the other and the slowly growing aches in his muscles from having to carry the hundred-pound woman on his back for nearly six hours after already being fatigued from combat, his brain had turned to soup. The only way he was able to maintain the fast pace as they climbed up and down mountainous forests was to give his brain a simple task: count each and every single step. It worked at first, and he had been able to distract himself from the pressing need to stop and rest, but after losing his place multiple times, he had simplified his method to only noting every four steps he was making. One, two, three, four and two, two, three, four over and over again, resetting when the first number hit ten.
That same focus also meant that he hadn’t noticed Ramon picking berries or paid attention to what they were until he was broken out of the daze and his brain started functioning on a higher level again. “Wait!” Lars called in a loud, throaty voice, doing his best to shout without actually shouting. He didn’t know if anyone was close enough that a proper yell would have drawn unwanted attention, but he had to stop his newfound friend immediately. “Don’t eat those!”
“What? Why not?” Ramon asked, looking at the clumps of slightly fuzzy, fingernail-sized orange and red berries in his hand. “Krowenberries are delicious, right?”
Yes. They are. Which is why we must kill him and confiscate his berries for the greater good: your–or more accurately our–taste buds. Please proceed. I approve of your protest.
“Those aren’t all krowenberries,” Lars warned, doing his best to point at one of the short berry bushes without dropping the woman on his back. “Those are joowangberries.” He couldn’t blame Ramon for not knowing the difference. In fact, he expected his ignorance. After all, bloodlines determined everything in this world, and Ramon’s porcupine bloodline was a good one. It was a pedigree which insured that Ramon had never needed to forage or do the menial labors of weaker people like Lars. Which, in turn, meant that was no reason for him to ever learn the subtle difference in plants and berries or for him to find out which was which.
Even if Ramon wasn’t really the Qilian he seemed obsessed with being, a porcupine was no laughing matter either. By using Qi-infused tail attacks, porcupine cultivators could take out opponents of higher Qi levels, even if it often cost them their own lives. Their deadly capabilities were the exact reason why many villages used them as defenders if their population didn’t have the bloodlines needed to foster high-level cultivators who could protect them. The only downside–and the main reason they were rarely included in hunting parties or employed outside of defensive groups–was that their tails took a very long time to regain their quills. Ramon had already spent the great majority of his during the fight with the sect cultivators, and until more grew, which he assured wouldn’t take too long, the poor porcupine would have to walk around looking like a soft-tailed otter- or beaver-blooded demi-human.
“I don’t get it. Those definitely look like krowenberries,” Ramon objected, eyeing the berries in his hand carefully.
“It’s because they’re meant to,” the woman on his back said, saving Lars the effort. “It’s how both of the species stay alive.”
Lars knew how to tell the two apart, but he didn’t know how one looking like the other insured both of their safeties. “What do you mean by that?” he asked, genuinely curious. It was a harmless question, but he winced as soon as it left his mouth. He held no regret over his own curiosity, but he knew that, as a slave, she would be magically forced to answer, and just the thought of her being compelled to do anything made him think of his mother and what she was going through.
“The krowenberries are soft, easy to chew, sweet, incredibly nutritious, hold moisture well, and can slightly restore the eater’s Qi. Yet, despite that, one look around will show you that the berry is so abundant that you’ve been able to fill two small pouches with them while we’ve been walking. This is because of the joowangberry, which, unless processed right, is the opposite of the krowenberry. While a krowenberry’s Qi is gentle and restoring to the consumer, the joowangberry’s Qi is harsh and wild, capable of rampaging in the eater’s gut. They both taste the same, but if you eat the wrong one, it will leave you with stomach pains. In some cases, it might even kill you. Since they both look nearly identical, grow on identical-looking plants, and ripen at the same time, most animals can’t tell them apart, and thus avoid them entirely if they can,” she explained.
Lars frowned to himself as she spoke, unable to enjoy what would have been otherwise fascinating information if not for the way he had extracted it.
“So, the joowangberry protects the krowenberry from being overeaten,” Ramon concluded.
“If the krowenberry was overeaten, the berries would never get a chance to ripen, and the plant would go extinct. But the krowenberry and joowangberry both need to be eaten eventually, when they’re ripe, or else no new bushes will spawn. So, while the joowangberry protects the krowenberry from being overeaten, the krowenberry returns the favor by making sure the prize is tempting enough to draw in animals desperate enough to take a gamble eating them–generally ones that are starving or that might have gone a while without water. These helpless animals are how the berries made it from one location to the next, filling the forests of Yeongju as they do today.”
“How in the heck do you know all that?” Ramon asked. His curiosity about herb lore seemed genuine–something that Lars hadn’t expected from anyone belonging to a combat-specialized bloodline. “They didn’t teach us any of that when I was growing up.”
“Outer-sect disciples are no better than slaves or servants. I spent most of my days picking different herbs, ingredients, and berries in hopes I could gain enough points turning them in to earn a place to sleep at night,” she replied, sighing.
“So, that raid on our village . . .” Lars had to ask, but he didn’t want to make it sound like a question. He didn’t want to force her to speak about it.
“Each gold coin worth of treasure we brought back would have been a point, and each slave we captured would have been 50,” she explained. “A full day of foraging wouldn’t get me more than 10, the amount I’d need to afford three meals and a night in a warm bed in a room with a fire. And, believe me, it’s far better being forced to sleep on a cold floor in the sect’s ice chamber, their idea of recticute for those who fail to perform.”
Even though her description painted a horrible picture of what life was like for the outer-sect disciples of Falling Flowers, Lars’s wanted to drop the woman and beat her when he heard what she said. He words left a rage slowly boiling inside him, an anger strong enough to narrow his vision and cause his breathing to become slightly ragged. My mother’s life, the life of each useful woman and child I grew up with, is only worth a few meals and a few nights rest for someone a clan treats like a servant already?! He wanted to scream, but he wouldn’t let himself just in case someone might notice. A person’s life is so worthless?
That’s right. That’s how the world thinks of life. You thought I was the evil one, but you’re just soft. It’s okay to be mad. It’s okay to kill them. Lives are worthless to people in this world. This world is nothing but a game, and lives are the currency. Go ahead. Drop her. Kill her. You know you want to. She would have traded your precious friend Dawn’s life for five nights’ rest. She deserves to die.
“So, how can you tell the two berries apart?” Ramon asked. His question thankfully interrupted Lars before his temper got the better of him and he ended up succumbing to the voice in his head–a voice that, as much as it pained him to admit, sounded less and less insane by the hour.
“It’s the color. A lot of beasts and animals have trouble seeing colors. They see only different shades of red, whereas we can tell that’s dark orange, and that one is light red. No matter what shade of red it is, it’s a krowenberry. If it’s orange, it’s a joowangberry.”
“Ah . . .” Ramon nodded in understanding and began picking the orange-colored berries out and tossing them on the ground.
Tell him to keep the berries.
Lars, never having heard this request from her before despite the number of times they had traveled through the forest, didn’t have any idea what would come of following her advice, but he still did as she said. “Separate out the orange ones into a different bag. I have a use for them later,” he told Ramon.
For some reason, his trusting porcupine companion seemed relieved to hear the request. “Sounds good,” he said, dropping down into a squat. “I’ve been picking all these berries for two hours. I’d hate to think I’ve been wasting my time.”
“Can’t we do that later?” Lars asked. “I’m not tired yet, and we need to keep moving. We need to make it to town as soon as possible.”
“Lars, don’t talk to me about safety now,” Ramon said. “You had us run in there, where we were almost butchered by the clean-up crew, just so that you could mercy kill a friend and some random people and get you some girl to enslave. I followed your pace, risked life and limb to help you send off some loved ones, so now you can follow mine and get a little rest.”
“That’s . . . Those aren’t the same,” Lars argued. But even as the words left his mouth, he was already looking for a place to set down the woman.
“They might as well be the same. With all of this walking after hurting my foot kicking that dude’s body until I was sure he was dead, my poor feet are about to need a mercy killing too. Come on. I got enough berries to give us all a good supper, so let’s make camp.” Ramon dusted off the spot as if the ground could ever become less dirty and then plopped down.
If there was one thing Lars was always happy about when it came to being human, it was the ability to sit down without an issue. There were, after all, animals that laid down on their sides, and not their butts, simply because it was their only option–a fact that he was reminded of while watching Ramon try to adjust his tail so he could comfortably rest on his rear.
Ramon pulled out a huge handful of broad, seven-tipped leaves that he had apparently gathered along with the berries while Lars was zoned out. “If your feet are still good, could you get some firewood? I’m going to try and sew these up.”
He really is resourceful, Lars thought as he set the woman down and started into the woods. Despite being in the middle of a forest, finding firewood more of a task than he initially expected. There weren’t a ton of dead branches just lying around on the ground, and it took him a little over half an hour before he was eventually able to gather together a modest stack of branches, twigs, and other dry stuff that was large enough to keep a fire going for the night. He pulled down some thin vines that he found creeping up the side of a tree to tie the bundle of sticks together so that the loose wood wouldn’t fall off and so that he could set it down as he added more to it. Having all the wood securely strapped together made it easier to carry everything in his arms as he walked, but by the time he was finished, it was so large that the branches were actually blocking his vision. It wasn’t much work keeping the entire thing balanced in his arms, but it was hard to find the markers he had laid out so that he could find his way back to camp.
Are we going to stay with that those two for a while?
“Yeah, we might have to,” Lars answered. He wanted to say “Yes, we definitely will,” but he didn’t know if the situation would ever come close to being permanent. He considered Ramon to be trustworthy, but he had no idea what Ramon’s intentions were. He had been more than helpful so far, but there was no telling whether or not Ramon would leave him the moment they found their way to a new town.
You’re getting close to level 2. We could kill something.
“I’m not killing them, okay? Can you stop asking?” Lars grumbled at her.
You don’t have to kill them, but you should kill something. These woods are filled with predators that have Qi. Each one of them wants to murder you, so I think you should return the sentiment.
“. . . You’re not wrong,” Lars admitted, gulping as he thought about the types of monsters that he and Ramon might run into before they ever got close to a town.
Quest: Kill or Be Killed.
Quest Objective: Hunt down and butcher a predator that lives within the forest.
“No quest reward listed?” Lars asked after ready the task that had been generated. “And if I didn’t have to kill a person to complete one of your quests, how come you never generated one of these beast-hunting ones before?”
I can’t tell you the reward until after you clear the quest. Those are the rules. As far as why I never gave you one of these quests earlier, well, I didn’t much feel like experiencing the less-than-wonderful sensation of being eaten alive. Given how weak you were, it just seemed the natural outcome that you’d die if you ever tried to fight something that wasn’t trusting or stupid enough to let you get a killing blow. In short, I had to find something for you to kill that couldn’t or wouldn’t kill you first.
“But now I can? You think I’m strong enough to kill something now?” Lars asked. He mentally cycled through and brought up his stats and took a look at how much Power, Resistance, and Speed he had now. Even though he was 4.8 times stronger than he used to be, the only weapon he had on him was the knife he had taken from the first dying woman he had shown mercy to–and it wasn’t the best weapon. The short blade didn’t have very much reach, and the handle consisted of nothing more than a simple leather wrapped around the metal, so Lars wasn’t sure how well it would do against some of the beasts he had been warned about.
You’re bleeding, you’re noisy, you smell awful–I don’t think you’ll have a choice.
Her reply sent a little chill through Lars’s bones. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, I guess.”
Well, you know, in case you do die . . .
What’s that . . . at the end? Lars listened to her trail off and read the omission at the same time. “What? In case I do die, what?” Lars demanded as the word bubble disappeared.
It’s been nice sharing these years with you.
“Hey, what’s with that talk? I’m not dead yet,” Lars grumbled. He wasn’t actually sure how to handle those words. It was the first time that she had spoken to him like that, and that fact alone was rather scary. “We got a few decades left together, so don’t go acting like it’s the end of the line already.” He couldn’t believe it, but he was actually trying to reassure her–even trying to reassure himself at this point–but no reply came.
He walked in silence for a short time, but after a few minutes, he tried to get a response from her again. “So, what do you think of Ramon and the girl?” he asked her. “Ramon’s nice, but the girl . . . something is off about her. She seems like life has messed her up a bit. I mean, who gets punished–sent to a cold room, whatever that is–just ‘cause they didn’t work hard enough one day?” It wasn’t at all unusual for Lars to discuss his thoughts with her, so he thought it might get her talking again, but she remained silent without so much as a single word during the trip back. His heart even sank a little when he reached the camp, where he’d told himself that he’d resist talking to her out loud. He didn’t want Ramon or the girl, whose name he still hadn’t asked, to think he was crazy, but that took away his opportunity to prompt a response from the voice in his head.
Why is she so silent? Lars wondered as his feet crunched their way toward a ring of logs and large rocks Ramon had set up while he was gone.
“Ah, good,” Ramon said, looking at Lars from his work. “You brought vines too! I found a few around here, but I need much more for the project. Glad you thought ahead.” He walked over and helped Lars unload the bundle of fire fodder.
“The vines?” Lars asked as he started untying the knots he had made with them to hold everything in place. “That’s what you’re happy about?”
“Yup,” Ramon replied, eagerly nodding his head. “You were gone a while, so you haven’t seen it yet, but check this out!” He pointed to a spot near one of the large stones with a blanket of leaves twice the length of Lars’s chest and thick enough that he couldn’t see through it. “I’m gonna make it into something nice. It’ll definitely be useful”
Lars started piling up some kindling and putting some of the smaller twigs over it so that he could get the fire going. “You’re really into that, aren’t you?”
“Well, umm . . . Yeah. My parents wouldn’t let me make stuff like this. They were always . . .” Ramon trailed off and stared down at the vine in his hands.
Lars recognized the expression on Ramon’s face. It was one he hadn’t seen often, but something that every person somehow knew institutionally. His eyes had flattened out, his forehead had creased, the line of his lips had widened a little and begun to tug downward on both ends. He was grieving. You watched them die, didn’t you? Lars kept the question from escaping his lips as he studied Ramon’s expression, trying to find some way he could help or something he could say to offer his newfound friend a little support.
Unsure of what to say or do to help Ramon, who seemed to be breaking down little by little in front of him, and with his internally-generated murderous-advice column not offering anything at the moment, he turned his attention to his slave. She was already studying them curiously, and his shifting gaze made her focus in on him for a brief moment. When his eyes met hers, however, she quickly turned away. Yeah, your people did this, Lars thought angrily, the reminder of why he hated her and them now fresh once again in his head.
Whatever, he sighed, clenching his fist for a moment before loosening it and going back to work on the fire. Nothing I can do now. Ramon will talk to me when he wants to talk to me. He started looking around on the ground for anything he could use to generate a spark, and then a thought occurred to him. “No chance you have any fire Qi?” he asked, trying to cheat his way to getting a flame going.
She shook her head. “Water.”
Well, I have fire Qi, but . . . how do I use it? Lars wondered. This was the point when his inner psychopath would normally assist him with the tutorial, but she was still ignoring him for some reason. He put his hands on the fire and tried to imagine it igniting, but nothing happened. He simply didn’t understand how to control the elemental power. Ramon walked over to his side and snapped his fingers, causing a series of sparks to rain down across the twigs and kindling that Lars had arranged. The kindling didn’t immediately burst into flame, but with some careful blowing and gentle coaxing, he was able to create a proper campfire.
Lars looked over at Ramon to say thanks, but when he saw that his companion’s face still hanging like a wet cloth and that he was making that vine blanket he was so proud of, Lars decided not to interrupt him. He considered striking up a conversation with the girl, but even just the thought of her reminded Lars of what had happened to his mother and everyone else in the village. Rather than stoke that anger, Lars leaned back against one of the logs Ramon had propped up and pulled out the one item he had on him to deal with the silence: Tao’s Beginning Guide to Cultivation, the book he had been carrying when the tragedies began.
Lars sat in silence until the sun set and the darkness became so bad that he was having trouble making out words on the paper, forcing him to put the book up.
As he was stashing the book, he heard a loud crunching sounds coming from Ramon’s direction.
“Hey, if you’re going to use the restroom, make sure to do it far from here, and don’t forget to dig a hole,” Lars said as he stood up and dusted off his butt, thinking he might have to do the same thing. “We don’t want that smell wafting over to us.”
“What? I’ve already used it,” Ramon replied, his voice coming from a much different direction than expected. Lars had called out loudly, thinking that Ramon had been the source of the noise, but as soon as he heard the man speak, he realized the porcupine-blooded cultivator wasn’t sitting in that direction anymore but was halfway between him and the girl now, using a stone as a pillow along with a now-much-larger leaf blanket covering him.
“Then . . .” Lars’s eyes darted between the girl, Ramon, and the direction the noise was coming from. “Crap, get ready,” he warned.
“Get ready for what?”
Can you seriously not hear it? Lars blinked in frustration as he pulled out his knife, quickly looking around for something else that he could also use as a weapon. He saw that the stack of firewood had grown while he was reading, and there was one branch there that was the perfect size for what he wanted. The stick was about two and a half feet long, and the wood felt like a club once it was in his hand.
“What are you doing?” Ramon asked as he got up and looked around. “I don’t see anything. What’s going on?”
“Something is near,” Lars said, gripping the stick tightly. He couldn’t put his hand on why the sound was familiar, but he knew it belonged something large and dangerous.
Wait, the leaves are moving. Lars glanced over at the girl to see if she was the cause of the sound as it was now a little louder and coming from her direction. Unfortunately, she wasn’t even bored. She even managed to look bored while sitting in place and staring at him like he was some sort of idiot. Then, while he watched, her eyes perked up, and her back straightened as she stood up and turned around.
“Do you hear it too?” Lars asked.
“How did you hear it before me?” she responded, answering his question with one of her own.
Because I’m used to the quiet, Lars thought. That was the first explanation that popped into his head. He came out in the woods all the time, and his hearing was one of the few things he was actually very proud of.
“I don’t hear anything,” Ramon grumbled as he joined them on the other side of the fire and peered off into the pitch-black woods. “What’s it sound like? What are you listening for?”
“Shh,” Lars answered, trying to get him to be quiet. If you can’t hear anything, it might be because you won’t stop talking. He strained his ears and listen for any sound that might give away what was going on, but the noise and the odd crinkling and pushing of leaves were gone for the moment.
“What do you think it is?” Lars asked, looking over at the girl. She was the only one who had probably seen any real portion of the world and the only one who probably had any real concept of the threats that they might encounter outside the small village that Lars had lived in for practically his entire life.
“That . . . That sound. That hiss . . . I’ve heard the strongest-blooded dragon cultivators occasionally make something similar, but . . . Otherwise? I don’t know,” she answered while keeping her eyes fixed on the woods.
Dragon-blooded cultivators. Is this a dragon? His heart sank as fear set in. He didn’t know much about dragons, only that they were very rare ancient monsters said to live thousands of years and considered both unkillable and cruel. The thought of one of those horrid monstrosities coming toward them–stealthily creeping up as it likely intended to play with its food–was terrifying.
“The Yong clan hunted the dragons of the area to extinction with the help of the Fire-Walker sect, so that can’t be it,” Ramon explained. “Or . . . maybe it’s just a baby. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t attacked yet.”
The speculation gave Lars a small bit of hope, and he relaxed just a little. He didn’t want to fight off any type of dragon, and if they had been hunted to extinction, it was highly unlikely that they would randomly come across one now. But then that hope was quickly dashed, and his anxiety returned.
“No, you have it backward. They hunted an adolescent dragon that was threatening the area and lost seven ninth-stage Qi cultivators in the process,” the girl said, correcting Ramon.
“We’re dead then, aren’t we?” Ramon replied, backing up a step.
Lars tried to ignore that thought as he quickly considered the ways he could run away. He was really starting to be grateful that the voice in his head hadn’t insisted he go out and kill animals in the woods when he was younger, but he was also sorely regretting the decision to stop pushing for another town and set up camp. We could have made it by next morning, Lucas thought as he gulped down his anxiety at the prospect of fighting a legendary beast. There has to have been a town close to us.
Then something came flying out from the woods as it struck.
“No! NO!!” Ramon screamed as he jumped to the side, the large, scaly skinned beast shooting right past him. “Don’t!” Ramon continued to scream as he tried to escape it, but even though its initial attack missed the initial bite, the follow-up with its body didn’t. The tail end of the easily thirty-foot-long beast slammed into Ramon’s legs, instantly coiling around one and causing him to fall forward onto to the ground.
Thanks to its proximity and the firelight, he was finally able to get a good look at the beast. Despite launching itself through the air like a projectile, the strange creature was almost as thick around a small tree and completely unwinged. Its head was shaped like an arrow with the tip chipped off, and its open mouth was filled with tiny little jagged teeth that looked more like splinters sticking out of its gums than a threatening row of fangs. Its long body was covered in scales, and it didn’t have any legs or feet that Lars could see.
What do I do?! Lars screamed at the voice in his head for guidance as he ran forward with his club and smashed down onto the thing’s body.
That’s an Ophidian beast called the snake, or “Baem,” as many of the local cultivators call it here. This particular one specializes in eating large prey whole, so I would highly recommend running.
What? Lars was furious, but he didn’t think she was being mean.
Lars swung at the snake with every ounce of strength that he could muster, and the creature shifted its body and pushed outward in a convulsing motion that slammed into Lars’ chest. Lars was thrown back several feet and left staggering as he tried to maintain his balance, but his blow didn’t even seem to affect the snake enough to draw its attention away from Ramon.
Wait, Lars thought, shifting his knife to his main hand. If crushing damage doesn’t work . . .
That will penetrate it a little, but stabbing it will only anger the thing, making it focus on you as its primary target. The snake will be lethargic after it consumes its prey. I suggest that you and your slave just run. Well, considering her condition, I suggest you just run. Your safety is the most important thing, and your friend might as well already be dead.
Lars completely ignored her advise as he shifted around, looking for an opening. The long serpent had tightly wound itself around Ramon, and it was so focused on striking Ramon that it didn’t seem to care what either Lars and the girl were doing. The coils tightened just a little every time the porcupine-cultivator shifted in his struggle, and Lars could tell that it was only a matter of time before he lost the ability to fight back.
You sure it’ll make it switch targets? Lars asked, glancing behind him and trying to eye a good escape path.
You’re not going to outrun that thing in a short-distance sprint. Stop it.
Lars had spent about two decades ignoring the voice’s morality and following his conscience instead, and he wasn’t about to start listening to her now. Ramon saved my life. At the very least, he might live another day. Lars sprang forward, fully intent on driving the knife into the scaly beast. Before he ever got close enough to strike, however, its tail whipped around and slammed into his shoulder, spinning him around like a top and sending him crashing to the ground face-first. The impact left him dizzy and disoriented as he tried to collect himself.
You can’t stop it. Your friend is dead. Run, or it’ll go for you next. That beast is a stage four monster. It would take a stage five Qi cultivator to be on even grounds against it in a fight.
I don’t care. I have to get it to switch . . . Lars was having trouble collecting his thoughts, but he managed to push himself up once again. When he looked back, however, there wasn’t much left of Ramon. He could barely hear muffled screams, and only Ramon’s lower legs and feet dangled out of the beast’s wide maw. The snake had already managed to swallow over half of his friend whole, and watching Ramon’s legs trying to kick but not being able to was painful. He hadn’t really known Ramon before today, only occasionally passing him in town, but he felt like he was watching a close friend be eaten alive.
“If you don’t give me a way to kill it, I’m going to die trying,” Lars threatened the voice in his head as tightened his grip on the knife. He knew now that it would be a matter of time before Ramon was completely dead if he didn’t act soon, and he was hoping the voice had a plan since he didn’t.
Ice Qi. You don’t have a lot, but with the girl’s water Qi, you should be able to chill the beast. The stamina and energy of the snake are dependent on the temperature outside. Have her generate water, cover the snake with it, then use your ice Qi to freeze the water.
“I can’t use ice Qi,” Lars said, looking over at the young woman. “Whatever cultivation moves you have, use them. Cover that thing in water until I say stop or until you can’t do it anymore!” He instantly regretted his choice of words since it meant that, if he died, she might very well keep at still keep at it until she died too. But he didn’t have time to waste correcting himself and figuring out the best logical way to boss her around without sending her to her grave.
“Yes.” She practically snarled the word through gritted teeth, but she did as instructed. Her Qi-based spell took longer than most. She raised her hands up above her head and stretched toward the sky then dropped them to her sides and gracefully pushed out toward the snake while stepping forward and dropping down onto a single bent knee at the same time. Water started shooting out from her hands onto the snake almost the moment the motion was finished, but the snake was apparently too occupied with finishing its meal to pay her much attention.
Now, start adding that ice Qi. To use it, you need to simply focus on your heart. Imagine your heart freezing over as the ice inside you erupts out into your veins and spreads through your blood vessels until it exits your fingers. You only have a very tiny amount of ice Qi, so this will be draining, and it will likely hurt you in the process. You’ll be sacrificing your health to create this effect, and every second will be one hit point drained from your total of 19. Please don’t kill yourself trying to save him.
Focusing on any part of his emotions or his heart or his blood vessels was tough because most of his focus was on the giant snake that was now pushing its head past Ramon’s feet. Crap, just get it already. Come on! Lars struggled to find his focus and complete the move. He couldn’t even find his heart, much less focus on it freezing over and sending ice shooting through his veins.
The snake slowly began uncurling and straightening itself out after finishing devouring Ramon. The giant bulky heap of flesh that used to be the porcupine-cultivator was painfully obvious.
IF YOU DON’T FOCUS, YOU’RE DEAD!
The all-caps message and the accompanying scream echoed in his head, and Lars took a deep breath and tried to calm his nerves. This time, he didn’t aim. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to ignore the very real threat in front of him. He pushed out every bit of ice Qi he could from his heart and only opened his eyes when a winterish grip seized his hands. Much to his surprise, he saw a very strong, chilling wind flow out of his hands. The water on the ground slowly began to turn to ice, but it was splattering and running off of the snake far too fast for it to freeze. Yet, despite that, the cold was clearly affecting it. The snake recoiled a little, its movements slowed, and it turned away from Lars as if it were going to flee, but the mass of Ramon’s body created a big bump in its body that seemed to make it difficult for the thing to move.
While it wasn’t painful, more numbing than agonizing, Lars could see his health dropping as he continued to channel the cold. He glanced over at the girl and saw that she didn’t look so good either. Her face was strained, and beads of sweat were streaming down her face. He then turned his attention back to the snake and pressed to freeze it. It took eight total hit points, but it finally did as the voice had promised and stopped moving altogether.
“Stop!” he called out to the girl.
Whoa! Did not expect that to work! Quick! Finish it off! Cut your friend free!
Lars didn’t have to be told twice. He brandished his dagger and rushed toward the snake with it in hand. Fearing the beast might only be playing dead and not wanting to risk the thing turning on him, he used his free right hand to activate the skill Knife Hand and aimed at the snake’s eye the moment he got close. The skill exploded forward into the serpent’s skull, and a moment later, the numbing, worn-out sensation from having fought the creature at the expense of his own life force was gone. It was replaced by an odd, slightly painful feeling as a cloud of black and purple Qi lines exploded from the snake’s body and rushed into him. The lines pulsed to some unknown rhythm as they entered him, and it was nauseating.
Congratulations. You have successfully killed a Baem. You have gained 53 stat points. Your elemental affinity with poison Qi has increased by 32.
What in the hell? Poison Qi? But he didn’t let his thoughts stop his actions, and he instantly went to work with the knife, cutting at the monster’s flesh. It was hard to get the dagger through the skin, so he took 27 of the 53 new stat points and put them all into Power, hoping it would give him the strength to actually handle the snake’s corpse. While this point dump didn’t make it easy to tear at the creature’s flesh, it did significantly speed up the process. He drew his blade back and forth in a line, trying to open up the thing’s belly.
“Come on! Help out!” he called to the slave, only to discover that she was already next to him. He had no way of knowing if she wanted to be helpful or if she anticipated his order before he even made it, but she already had a knife of her own out and was ready to go to work. She started hacking away at the creature with him, and a few moments later, they finally managed to dig through the scaly exterior and reach Ramon’s body. After that, it was only a dozen seconds until they pulled his body out of the snake. The force needed to yank him through the sloppy and uneven cut combined with the exertion from the fight left them both gasping and out of breath, and as the porcupine-cultivator’s body came free, they both collapsed back onto the ground.
“There we go,” Lars said, leaning forward to see the fruit of his labor. “Got you free, buddy.” Ramon’s skin looked like a layer had been stripped off and he was a solid red color with tiny blotches of white here and there. And he wasn’t moving. His body was twisted around so that his torso was at an unnatural angle to the rest of his body, his chest cavity had been caved in, his bones were shattered and several jutted through the mangled flesh. There was no doubt about it. Now that he could see Ramon clearly, he knew Ramon was dead.
“What the hell?” Lars muttered, swallowing down the revulsion he felt. Even though he had watched people die all day, he hadn’t expected to lose Ramon so randomly or so soon after having survived so much with him that day.
“Hell?” the girl asked, looking over at him.
“It’s . . . Don’t worry about it. It’s just an expression that . . .” Lars paused. That the voice inside my head says to me often? That was the truth, but he couldn’t think of a good lie to tell just now while confronted with Ramon’s lifeless corpse.
“He’s really dead, isn’t he?” Lars asked, both to the voice in his head and the girl next to him.
The voice didn’t respond, but the girl did. “Yeah,” she said. “I’m . . . I’m really sorry for your loss. You two seemed close.”
“We weren’t, but I wish I’d gotten to know him better,” he sighed, leaning back.
“But this happens a lot. You should try not to take it so hard.”
“This happens a lot?” Lars asked in disbelief, his eyes still fixed on Ramon’s body. “People getting eaten by Baems? Are you telling me that death to monsters in the woods is just commonplace and that I should be totally fine with it? No big deal; someone died. It’s barely an inconvenience?”
“Not this way, but death does happen a lot. Most mothers will have ten kids and consider themselves fortunate if four live long enough to start families of their own. Life is cruel and heartless. From what I saw, it didn’t seem like your village was reflective of this. It seemed peaceful when we arrived. But death is a staple of life in most places in this world.”
“I don’t need your damn lecture on life right now!” he snapped. “Life wasn’t cruel. Life wasn’t harsh. It’s your stupid, freaking people who made it that way. Life was easy, filled with berry-flavored ice cream, roasted nuts, and seared meat. This”–he pointed at Ramon’s body–“is what your god-awful sect caused. This isn’t how life is normally supposed to be!” Lars continued venting his anger, but she just watched him silently, although he could feel her studying every micro-expression on his face.
“How in the hell can you just be so calm after he died?” Lars asked. “You were talking to him a few minutes ago. He was helping collect berries for you. He was making blankets for us. He was a good guy. HOW CAN YOU BE SO CALM ABOUT IT?!”
She still didn’t answer. He hadn’t phrased it as a command, and so she just continued to stare at him.
Feeling defeated, in a voice that was barely above a whisper, he asked, “How can you be okay with enslaving people?”
“Time, hopelessness, and cruelty wash away all morals. You’ll learn that in time,” she stoically. Then, without another word, she turned away from him and began tending the fire as if Ramon’s death had never happened.
As she busied herself, Lars felt an odd pain strike his chest, and his health pool went from 11 out of 19 to 10.
What in the . . .? Lars wondered, clenching his chest.
It’s the Poison Qi. You are now producing a poison your body can’t handle. You need to take an antidote and put some points into Fortitude, or you’re going to die soon.
“How do I do that?” he asked in a panic as he looked at the snake in front of him.
“Do what?” the girl responded, looking up at him strangely.
The freezing might have preserved the parts you need. Quick, cut the snake open farther down its tail and remove the gallbladder. I’ll direct you as you go. You’ll need to harvest the liver next and then mix those with both the berries and the leaves from the joowangberries. There are a few more ingredients, and you’re going to need to use your fire Qi, but this won’t be impossible. Other than the leaves, berries, the gallbladder, and the liver, the last main poisonous ingredient you will need is a pink jumping spider. You can find them 10 or 12 feet up on the bottom of the trees’ leaves. It may take you a bit to grab one, but don’t worry about their bite. You already have much deadlier poison in your system. Theirs won’t affect you.
“That’s comforting,” Lars said sarcastically. He began working his knife back into the snake, carefully following the directions as she guided him to the parts he needed and told him how to harvest them without damaging them. Apparently, if he cut accidentally punctured the gallbladder, the bile would ruin the parts he needed.
After that, the other ingredients were relatively easy to harvest, and he was able to dig a hole to mix the ingredients in without a problem. Lastly, he used fire Qi, a stone on a stick for mashing, and the voice’s guidance to finish creating the concoction. It smelled absolutely rancid, but even after sinking 10 points into Fortitude, Lars was down to four out of 29 total hit points, so he couldn’t afford to wait. With his stomach churning in revulsion, he reached a hand in the little pit and slurped up the antidote. It took three handfuls, but a box finally appeared in front of him that let him know that his character sheet had been updated.
 Poison Immunity Lv. 4: You are immune to poisons of the fourth level and may withstand up to 128 poison Qi internally at any given time before taking damage.
Skill Specific Quest: Ingest 10 different types of poisons of fourth level or lower in order to raise Poison Immunity by one level.
“That’s handy,” Lars muttered as wiped the foul-smelling sludge off the sides of his mouth.
“What did you make?” the woman asked Lars. She had been watching his every movement since he began cutting into the snake again, but she hadn’t voiced a question until now.
“It’s an antidote,” Lars answered. “I was poisoned by the snake, but drinking this . . . It cures the poison, and . . . Well, it makes me immune to this poison in the future.”
“What?! Even my . . . Even the head of our herbalism department couldn’t make such a thing.” Her eyes widened and grew round in astonishment as she looked down at the mixture. “Is it . . . Is it safe?”
“I wouldn’t drink it if it weren’t,” he sighed, looking around for some water. Maybe I could use some Qi to make some clean water. She could, and I have water Qi, right? he thought, wanting to wash the foul stuff’s taste out desperately.
“That’s . . . How do you know how to make that?” she pressed, a hint of suspicion in her voice. “No one mentioned finding pills or even salves when we were . . .” She froze, but her eyebrows twitched back and forth with a little consternation as for a moment. “I mean, I’m sorry. I just . . . Where did you learn how to make that?”
“I didn’t have a person teach me,” he said, carefully choosing his words. He realized that he was doing it out of habit more than actually caring if she knew he was a little crazy or if she knew he talked to himself, and after considering it for a moment, the idea of letting someone else know of his condition was tempting. He had gone his whole life with the voice warning him not to even tell his mother, but now it was different. Because of the girl’s bond with him, he could just tell her not to ever share his secret, and she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t be able to even if she wanted to.
“If you didn’t have a person teaching you, how did you know how? You were . . . You were talking to yourself earlier. Is that–”
“Yeah,” Lars interjected, anticipating her question. “It is related. I have the greatest master in the world living within me”–he tapped his finger against his head for emphasis–“but don’t tell anyone about it. Ever. Don’t hint or even try to clue in another person to this fact.” This was his first time deliberately bossing her around, but it felt good to finally tell someone. After two decades of hiding it, he was finally able to be honest.
Aww, shucks. The greatest master in the world? You insult me by placing me as only the best of such a small, tiny backwater, but I like that you meant it as a compliment. However, I don’t remember ever telling you it was okay to talk about me.
“Well, you knew what I was going to say, and you didn’t stop me,” Lars argued, “so, I figured that was consent.”
“So, your master taught you how to make that. What an amazing master,” the girl said. She seemed honestly astounded by the abilities of the voice. “I heard once that Jeju’s head alchemist struggled just to cure a Chittering Scorpion’s venom, even using priceless ingredients and toiling nonstop for days, and yet you just produced a cure for a giant snake’s bite on the spot?”
That “master” was a con artist. The Chittering Scorpion’s stinger doesn’t have a deadly venom in it. It just has an agent that causes incredible pain so strong the victim wishes that they were dead. The effect lasts for a few days and then flushes itself out of the body, leaving the victim in perfect condition—minus the scar from the stinger, of course.
Lars couldn’t help but chuckle as he listened to this explanation. More than once, a medicine man had come to his town claiming to be a great alchemist, and every single time, the voice had told him that the guy was full of it in some way. Lars was really used to her mocking anyone who claimed to have knowledge of the world.
Well, my master is just that much better of an alchemist than that charlatan,” Lars said, imagining this was the compliment that she was after when she gave him that information.
“That’s amazing,” the girl in front of him responded. “I . . . I had always wanted to be an alchemist. It’s why I signed up for herbalism gathering instead of construction or one of the other trades when I failed my inner sect tests at the Falling Flowers. I never thought that I’d meet someone who could . . .” She looked at him expectantly, but her face fell and slowly morphed into a dejected frown. “Never mind. Just forget it.”
“What’s your name?” Lars asked, tired of not knowing what to call her in his head.
“Desdemona. But people usually just call me Mona. It’s easier.”
“Desdemona”—Lars let the word sit on his tongue for a second as he once more eyed the mixture—“you were in charge of harvesting herbs and ingredients. Does that mean you have something with you to store this in?”
“Uhh . . . yeah.” She pulled out a few glass vials and a tiny metal scooping instrument that Lars had never seen before. It was like a spoon, but the head was small enough to easily fit in and out of the vial. “How much should go in one vial?”
“Let me,” Lars said, taking the containers. He used the guidance of his apparently amazing and wonderful internal master alchemist to portion out the immunization rations. There were four full vials’ worth of the cure, and the voice assured that each contained enough for even someone weighing 250 pounds, to become completely immune to many poisons the same way he was.
“So, are you going to sell those? I imagine they’d be worth a fortune if you could prove they worked,” Desdemona asked.
“Maybe,” Lars answered, looking at the four vials. After a moment, he handed one to her. “You should take one yourself. You might have been poisoned too.”
“Huh?” She looked shocked. “I . . . um . . .” She stared dumbfounded at the vial.
“This doesn’t mean I like you or that I even approve of who you are. There is no reason you should have been in my town, and there is no reason you should have just gone along with what they were doing–selling people for a comfortable night’s sleep. I still think you’re a monster.” He made sure to spell it out clearly for her, not wanting her to give her the wrong idea. “But I’m not you, and I won’t become you either. Take one and drink it so that you don’t die before we reach a town.”
“You know, one of these might be worth enough to buy one or two more stage-two Qi cultivators, ones you don’t hate, right?” she asked, clearly not understanding his gesture despite hastily complying with the order.
“Yeah, I know,” Lars said, walking over and lying down next to the fire. He was done with the conversation and with her. He just wanted to close his eyes and forget about everything–forget about the town, his mother’s possible fate, the people he had to kill, what he had been forced to do to Desdemona, and what had happened to Ramon. It had been a long, rough day, and as he closed his eyes, he was hoping for a little peace and quiet. Unfortunately, he didn’t get that. Instead, a familiar voice crept in his head as a message appeared in front of him, one he could see even with closed eyes.
You know, “master” isn’t a bad name for me. If you ever feel like you need one.
Are you mad that I’ve never asked for your name, but I’ve already asked hers? Lars was a bit amused at the tone she used. He had wanted to shut the world out, but for some reason, her voice was incredibly comforting at the moment.
No. Why would I be? I don’t need a name. I’m part of you, so for now, your name will do just fine as my own. But, if you need to give me one, you’re welcome to use the word “master.” It’s a fitting moniker since I’ve taught you everything you know, regardless of how ungrateful you’ve been.
Fine. Lars chuckled a little at his “master’s” tone and jesting seriousness. You’ve been a good master. I’ll try not to be unfilial if we make it through these woods.
That’s the spirit! Now, you or your little slave girl still have work to do if you want to make sure another monster doesn’t try to eat you before dawn, so let me walk you through the best ways of masking your scent and how to hide the light from your campfire while getting the most out of the warmth. You’re going to have a long night ahead of you, little disciple, so prepare yourself. Also, eat some of those joowangberries. They’re delicious, and that Poison Immunity will protect you against the harsh effects.