Chapter 37 - Crypto Keys

"Indeed it is so." Kai let out a sigh, "It concerns the Calamity."

"I see..." I nodded. I figured the main campaign would come bite me in the ass some day, but this was too soon. "What exactly is this calamity?" I asked, hoping I'd get a straight answer for once. "And people around here seem quite chilled out considering their world is about to end."

"The Calamity is... depravation manifest. It hungers for life itself, seeking to twist it towards a vile purpose. It consumes all it comes across from the smallest insect to the eldest tree. I have no knowledge of how or why it was unleashed, the spirits of ancestors answer those questions with silence. But they do say that it cannot be fought by mortal means. And that soon it shall cover the entire the whole world." Kai spoke with a heavy voice. "The people here, they are born distant from the horrors of the Calamity. They know what they face, for their ancestor pass the stories onwards, but they do not understand the terrible devastation of it. For them, it is a danger still far into the future, and the prophecy promises that the heroes will take care of it, so they have discarded all responsibility."

'Alright, alright. Forget about the NPC attitudes for now, focus on the main villain. So the Calamity is like a... Plague? Yeah, that's a good mental model. How is it spreading across oceans though?' I stared at Kai cradling what looked to be a ceremonial drum, giving me time to parse her words. 'Assuming it is a plague, it must be incurable even by healing magic for it to have affected so much. Must be magical in nature. And according to Francisa, the onset of this Calamity is marked by crazed beasts. So the plague turns everyone into monsters. If this hypothesis is correct, then it means the cure would be some magical anti-biotic spell. How does a dungeon factor into this then? Is the spell locked up in there?'

I looked up, Kai's face still graced by a patient smile. Guess I should enquire more about it now that I have a willing NPC spouting exposition. "How did the ancestors fight against it?"

"Oh," the smile dimmed on Kai's face. "They didn't."

"What do you mean?" Francisa couldn't be lying about her great-grandfather.

"Can a deer fight a cyclone?" Kai questioned me in turn. "Can a weasel stand against bushfire? No, Hero. They did not fight. They were simple fodder for the unending hunger."

'Weird analogies, but okay. This sounds less like a final boss and more like an apocalypse.' I gulped.

"So... How do we fight it?" I asked.

Kai smiled, more fully than she had before. Then showed me her colorful drum, like a child showing off their first sketch. "This artifact has been handed down through the shamans Tadako tribe since times immemorial." She caressed the vibrant red and brown covering, interspersed with thick black and yellow stitches - all faded with time. "The moment I held it in my hands, I realized I would be the last one of our tribe to carry it."

She set it down on the ground between us and leaned back to rummage through her back coverings. "Ah, there it is." She withdrew a small black knife with a bone handle. "The realization came with little sorrow, for I knew that the artifact held a greater value to the world than it did to me. Rather, I felt pride that I would finally fulfill the purpose that has been handed forward by my betters since ages uncounted." She clutched the drum again, gazing fondly at the instrument. "The spirits whispered of this moment, of when I would hand over the key to a Hero. I always feared, however, if it would ever come to pass, especially as the blood cooled in my veins with the years. For all their knowledge, they are not all-knowing."

"Wha-" Before I could finish speaking up, she plunged her knife into the drum, tearing out a segment across the diameter of the head. Then she placed the knife aside and plunged her hand in, apparently digging for something. Before long, she pulled out a bright white round object with golden filigree the size of a ball bearing. An insane number of Runes immediately lit up in my perception. I quickly threw an Identify at it.


'Just great. Thanks for nothing System!'

Kai handed the thingy to me. It felt like polished marble. Cold and hard to touch. It fit snugly in my palm. The golden circles were etched such that they didn't make any grooves on the white surface, making the entire thing incredibly smooth. The design was so advanced that I couldn't even make out individual Circles, let alone the minute Runes. After examining the supposed key for a while, I looked up at Kai. She noticed my attention and immediately wiped a morose expression that had crept on her face, putting the drum behind her and pointedly ignoring it. I decided not to comment on that, instead focusing on the reason I had been kidnapped.

"It's a key eh? What door does it open?" I asked, rolling the sleek stone in my hand.

Kai made a noise halfway between a snort and a laugh. "I'm afraid that is one puzzle you must figure out yourself, Hero. My role in this saga is complete." She looked forlorn but relieved all the same as if a great burden had been lifted off her back. "The ancestors speak of 2 more keys. They say: 'The Heroes must gather all three keys before the gateway is opened.'"

"I see," I thrust the key deep into my pocket. "Shouldn't there be some, I don't know, trial or something? You simply handed the key over, that didn't seem very..." 'How am I supposed to tell this granny Centaur about video games? That an important artifact like a key was not supposed to be just handed over?'

"Indeed, there will be trials for the other keys. However, circumstances forced the hands of my ancestors. My great-grandmother was a great Seer. One who claimed to have spoken with the spirit of Lady Nostradame herself! She was warned of the upcoming conflict and took measures to ensure that it would not hamper the Heroes' ability to eradicate the Calamity, which spreads wider even as we speak. One such measure was to secure the key into a treasure of the tribe. Another was to provide fore-knowledge of certain events and how to ensure that our race, and the world, survive to the end. Our meeting has long been in the works." She spoke at length and was starting to pant again. I offered her the mug Tyee had brought in and she shuffled on the pillow to get into another comfortable position.

I was again starting to feel as if all this was scripted, and the NPCs were somehow subverting the script. Could her ancestors peek into the future? "Can Seers look into the future?"

"Ha." She snorted her amusement. "Alas, no. The forewarnings come from the Prophet herself, or her spirit at least. A Seer seeks wisdom from nature and spirits. Our ancestors are especially vast fonts of knowledge."

'Should I mention that the world is fake? That all this is but a simulation for a test-run for some weird VR software?'

"You look troubled, young Hero." She watched without blinking, the twinkle back in her greying eyes. "Please, do not hesitate to ask something. After all, who knows when we might get such opportunity to speak freely again?"

"Uh... I was just wondering." I started. 'How to best put this?' "You know that us Heroes are summoned from another world, right?"

"Yes." She looked patiently curious, "Go on."

"So, this world. It just... You know. Doesn't seem real." 'Aargh, why is virtual reality so hard to explain?' "Like, what if I told you that it was made. And that everything in it is... not real. It looks real, scarily so, but isn't."

"Oh." She nodded thoughtfully. 'Now she must think I have a few screws loose.'

Then she took a deep breath and smiled calmly at me. "I often wander the realm of spirits. It is... hard to describe to someone who hasn't been there. Often, the rules inside don't make sense even to me. But be that as it may, I believe it is no less real than the physical world."

She gestured around, wondering if I was understanding. I nodded for her to continue.

"But it may as well not be. Who can say? My belief is merely based on my faith. So, young Hero, I say reality is ultimately a matter of perspective."

I was about to interject with an additional explanation when she spoke again.

"Imagine if you meet an entity one day, in your own world, and they say that they do not believe your world is real. What do you say to that? Are they wrong in believing your world is not real? Or are you wrong in believing that it is?"

That had me stumped. Either way, I realized it was useless to ask NPCs if they were NPCs. That brought me to another tangential matter.

"Regarding your Class name. How does Seer translate to the vast ocean?" I asked. They spoke something but it never translated well.

Kai eyed me up and down for a minute, her expression unreadable. "Vast ocean... yes, that is one of the meanings of the name bestowed upon me by the spirits when I ascended." 'One of the meanings?' "However young Hero, the question is, how did you learn the meaning of my Class name without a Status Crystal?"

"Uh..." 'Shit!' I didn't know what to say. I surveyed the inside of the tent, foolishly hoping for some justification to jump at me. 'Should I just come clean?' I hesitated in replying, cursing myself for the blunder. I dithered for a good while before I heard a chuckle. I glanced up and saw Kai smiling kindly. "We all have our secrets, my dear. Fear not, I won't pry into yours."

"T-Thanks," I exhaled out. The talk stalled for a bit until Kai had another sip and queried, "Would you tell me some tales of your home world?"

Soon we slid back into an amiable conversation as the sun slowly crested the horizon, the vibrant colors of the tent fading into shades of grey.

¤ ¤ ¤

It was not long after that Tyee trotted in. While Kai was greatly enthusiastic about varying topics and eager to let the conversation flow, even I could see that it was starting to take an increasing effort for her to continue doing so.

As Tyee laid another thick blanket over her shoulders citing a cold night, she idly mused. "Did you know that there is a vast landmass up north entirely covered in ice, Hero? It snows there no matter the season. And the winds seek to flay the flesh off your bones. Or so the tales go." She adjusted the makeshift shawl tighter around herself, then sighed. "Look at me, dreaming of icy wonders when my decrepit self can barely keep the nightly chill off with a dozen wrappings. It was a good conversation we had, Hero. But now it is time to let my infirm limbs rest. Tyee, be a dear and show our guest to his dwelling. Ah, and do return later, I must have words with you."

Nodding to Kai at my gentle dismissal, I followed Tyee out of the tent. The air outside bit into the skin even with my robes on, in contrast to the comfortable cool inside. Tyee glanced behind at me trying to shake the cold off. As I walked up beside him, he queried, "Why not use the Circle on your robe to ward the chill off? Do not worry, you are safe here. No need to conserve your mana."

"Ummm, sure." I wasn't going to acknowledge that I had totally forgotten about those. 'Did I even Identify them?' I ran a quick check on both the Circles. The one on my hood came out to be

Circle of Perception

'Whoa, Neat!' I quickly checked my current range. Around 60 meters. I selected the Circle and pushed mana into it, doubling down on the feeling I had when I made the Stupefy Circle on the parchment. I didn't see the circle light up since I was wearing the hood behind but I did notice my range jump to around 70 meters. I stopped the flow and checked up on mana, down by 20. 'I guess I should check if the drain is exponential or constant. But later, for now, the other Circle.' I Identify'ed the other one, on the back of my cape.

Circle of Protection

'Huh... So this works as a tiered subscription model?' I hadn't tried to manage the volume of mana flow before, only starting or stopping it and letting the Circle take as it needed. 'Well, guess there's a first time for everything!'

I selected the Circle and nudged some mana in, imagining a tiny rivulet seeping in. My visualization exercise worked apparently because the robe suddenly felt like a sweater that had been soaked in sunshine and warm hugs. I let out a slow breath, blissfully submerging myself into the feeling.

Before I knew it, I was standing in front of an unassuming tent, with Tyee standing by the side with an amused look threatening to break into his rigid countenance. The entire route from Kai's tent had passed with barely an incident. There wasn't even anyone wandering outside, no noise to assert the existence of an entire tribe living around me. Only the varied tents that now dotted the view affirmed that yes, they did exist.

"What, no guards?" I asked Tyee, more to ward off the eerie silence than anything. He took it more seriously than I expected.

"You are a guest here, Hero." He spoke firmly. "Not a prisoner, despite what the initial circumstances may have presented."

"So I am free to leave then?" I countered.

He hesitated, but to his credit, it wasn't for long. "Yes. You may leave at your discretion. I believe Kai and yourself had a fruitful discussion, so your presence is not necessary any longer. I wouldn't recommend fleeing in the night, however. I will have words with Kai soon, I am sure I will be the one to escort you back to your city come dawn."

"Is that so." I was planning to stay anyway. I had no clue where I was, nor was I strong enough to face the monsters on my own yet. Or gather food and water in the wild, come to think of it. I was a city guy through and through. Still, I'd rather brave the wilds than get stabbed in the back. "What about Nina?"

This time he hesitated for quite a while. I waited patiently by the tent flap, alternating the mana flow to the Circle. I found out that I need not supply it continuously, the heat retention inside the fabric was excellent. "Nina is a warrior with ample glory herself. Now that Kai has decreed you be treated as a guest, she will not bring dishonor by acting otherwise."

"Huh, okay. I'll see you tomorrow then Tyee. Goodnight." I bade my farewell with a smile and walked inside the dark tent. I noticed a fluffy construct of thick woolen blankets by the side. It did not smell bad and looked clean enough, so I plopped down and started experimenting with the mana flow volumes to the Circle on my back as I settled in for another long night.

Chapter 36 - Stakes
Chapter 38 - Of Monsters and Men