Looking back on it, I was astonished that killing living beings en masse was not enough to deter me from moving forward. Leaving this place was enough motivation at first, but later on, I doubt that was true. Perhaps I just didn't care as much when it actually mattered? The mental acclimation sure was working its magic. Carol and Divin didn't think twice before attacking. I had no room for hesitation myself since I was critical support. However, I did see Taro and Julie fighting a losing battle against creeping apathy. I wonder how Arya would've fared if she wasn't a Healer. Her poking at a small vulture with her staff when it tried to attack Julie from the side made it clear she was being affected too, more or less.
This vulture level was the hardest fight we had to fight so far. The monsters came in greater numbers and frequency. They were slightly more powerful than the imps, though I still couldn't see their levels. We were left with a mess of bleeding cuts, many of them deep, after every fight.
Despite all that, our spirits were high. There was no threat of an ambush or death. We were all raking in quite a load of XP. At the end of our fourth fight, the biggest vulture dropped gloves that were not utterly destroyed! Julie claimed them citing her hurt fingers due to constant sniping. All things considered, we were moving at a steady pace. Eventually, Arya reached level 4. The one next was yours truly. I quickly opened my Status Window in the break that followed and made it show all my attributes.
'Whoa, 1000 mana? That's a good number!' A quick check on spells after recovering some mana revealed my range was now around 9 meters. Incendio consumed 250 points, while Petrificus ate 200. 'That means I can reduce the temperature by half five times... If it is 100, it will come down to 3 degrees!?! Nah, that'll never work though.' I was now quite clear on the workings of these spells. If it seemed too good to be true, it probably was.
¤ ¤ ¤
We followed a similar stratagem in the copse as we did in the ruins. We would encounter a flock of vultures whenever we came across a bunch of trees. After the fight, we would rest in the shade for a while then move on. Quite simple really, no great tricks involved.
My progress to level 4, especially my increased range, meant that now I no longer needed to be in the midst of things to work my magic. While I was still uncomfortably close to the fight, I was not dangerously so. At least not against the creatures we were facing now.
Arya on the other hand was now able to cast heals near consistently. During the last 3 fights and the calm that followed, she took only 2 breaks to recover mana. Many deep cuts and multiple heal spells per cut, yet only 2 breaks! Her range hadn't taken a big leap as mine though, so she still needed to be within a meter or so to heal. She seemed to have stopped sulking at some point. Perhaps having to constantly care for people around her alleviated her mindset.
Julie was actually shooting stuff! I do not know how Skills affect physiology in this place, but her progress was astounding. She could now hit a stationary object within 15 meters 7 times out of 10! She was no longer moving forward on impulse. Ever since we talked about the time dilation, her step has been light yet firm. A definite purpose.
In sharp contrast to Julie was Taro. I have never seen that guy seem down in the past week I've known him. His carefree attitude continued. His Skills with the sword were now quite improved, however. He didn't seem like a toddler with a knife anymore. At least not to my amateur eyes. His swings seemed more sleek and sharp. He was just behind Carol, who got the most fatal blows in.
Speaking of Carol, she was no longer upset. Or she was hiding it pretty well. Either way, I was spot-on about her personality. She conversed with everyone about everything. Even Divin! I wondered how she managed that. During battle though, she was the most focused of any of us. She was fun to talk with though; she and I were even cracking bad jokes now and then.
Almost everyone laughed at those jokes or at least smiled slightly if not outright giggle. Everyone except Divin. I have been with this guy for over a week now and still can't figure out what's going on in his nugget. After our talk last time, he hadn't spoken to me about it again. Almost as if it never happened. His skill, however, was solid. Despite being a front-liner, he seemed to be taking a supporting role. Sure he killed many more than myself and Arya combined. But he rarely went in for the kill. His freeze Skill came in quite handy though. It didn't freeze as much or as fast as my spell, but it worked quite well nonetheless.
Our progress was efficient. A while after me, Carol leveled up. Immediately following her, Taro did as well. Divin soon joined the club. Only Julie was left in level 3, but she was pretty close as well. A third of her arrows were gone.
In fact, even her bow was showing signs of its usage. The bowstring had spouted small tendrils at the ends. Taro and Divin's swords had small chips on the edges. Only Arya's staff was somewhat undamaged. All our clothes were now quite dirty, with various cuts and stripes. It was worst for the knights. While we could hold on, for now, I wondered how we would fight the monsters in latter levels with tattered clothes and broken weapons.
'At least my spells will not degrade with time or use,' I consoled myself. 'Come to think of it, there should be magical spells to repair wear and tear of equipment. I wonder how it would work? I have no clue how to program threads to tie together or flatten out a dented metal. Does one have to be a tailor or blacksmith type Craftsman to use such spells? Or perhaps, it's that intuitive I-don't-know-how-but-it-just-works bullshit Skills. Why isn't my magic so... magical? So not fair!' And I undid my own consoling.
¤ ¤ ¤
"It has been 7 days, 9 hours, and 36 minutes since we began from Spawn Point!" Betty's voice intoned. We were close to the exit of level 3. The vultures had been the greatest XP harvest so far. Arya was even halfway to level 5!
I wasn't doing half bad myself. I bet everyone else had accrued quite a lot as well. Except perhaps Julie. She reached level 4 not long before we sighted the exit. We were now taking our customary nap on the abyss bridge. I decided to sleep as well, given I had not slept for over 4 days now!
I wasn't asleep for long when I woke up again. Perhaps it was the constant fighting in this weird world, but I slept quite lightly. I felt something move off to my side. I opened my eyes to see a flustered Arya shuffling beside me. I looked up at her. She smiled apologetically and whispered, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up."
"It's alright. What's up?" I asked and glanced quickly at Divin. He seemed asleep, but I wasn't fooled.
"Ah, did you find the password to admin?" she asked.
"Oh... Nah, that didn't pan out! The longer that spell runs, the more resources it takes. I don't have enough mana capacity, so it abruptly ends without any proper output." I muttered. The while loop with constant calculations consumed 1 or 2 mana per second as long as it ran. But when I changed the test program to append output to file, it started off with 3 mana but within the next few seconds, it was taking up to 10 mana points per second and continued its upward trend. No way I could sustain it. Also, the file wiped itself if the program didn't conclude successfully. So, after the first time when I ran it and consumed all MP I had, I didn't run it again. I did keep in the repo, just in case.
"I see... That's too bad." she sputtered back, crestfallen. I didn't wanna leave the conversation hanging like that, so I decided to ask a random question that popped into my head. "What do you think the next level is gonna be like?"
Before she could answer though, Taro was up. We looked at him, he smiled in return before sneaking over to us and whispering, "I hope its a bursting volcano! Also, we can fight a dragon there."
'This guy!' I suppressed a chuckle. "You know we are barely able to fight vultures here, if a dragon comes up, we're dead meat." I could see his eyes were still shining. 'I would like to see a dragon though.' I paused. 'From very far away.'
We did small talk until eventually, Julie woke up. Divin, who I assumed was pretending to sleep, woke up as well. Not Carol though, we had to drag her back from her dreamland.
We made our march to the entrance of level 4. Even from the bridge, I could see the dense undergrowth that lay beyond. A level of a forest, I presumed. A sense of foreboding shook my nerves as we stepped onwards.