Chapter 44 - Reunion

A chill breeze woke me up from my slumber. I got down and stretched out the kinks in my joints. A tree branch is not the most comfortable of beds. Neither did sleeping only a couple of hours help. Yet despite all that, I was refreshed. More than expected, in fact. 'Is the simulation changing my physique?' It probably meant my body wasn't the real flesh and bones from Earth, but a "virtual avatar". Hopefully.

I absently scanned my surroundings and lifted the cold waterskin to my lips. 'Nothing dangerous nearby.'

I gulped down all the water and glanced around at the Circle of Stupefy I had carved in the ground around the tree.

It was easy enough to un-target myself from the spell - I just had to stand inside the Circle while it was being formed. I was hesitant to test what would happen if I moved out and back in again.

I walked out of the Circle and away from the "camp". I was far too scared to sleep on the ground or make a fire. The Circle ran around the tree in a loop. I sighed as I noted the halfway decent attempt at spherical protection.

In the end, I was not able to pull it off. The Circle always targeted things inside its girth. Nothing I could do would make it expand its working area. So I expanded the Circle instead. While it would work just fine if a land-lubber attacked, ariel or underground attacks would be undetected until they actually touched the surface. If I had managed to select outside the Circle, I would have had it inscribed into some item and carried along with me. 'Oh, well.'

I picked up a fist-sized rock and threw it in. The Circle was triggered and it blasted the rock away. 'Better not keep live Circles around.'

I filled up my waterskin next, oriented myself according to the Sun that was showing its head, and started my way south parallel to the mountains.

¤ ¤ ¤

Something was wrong.

It was almost mid-afternoon. I had kept my course south, yet to sight the fortress, still marching in the supposed untamed land. And I kept getting several magical pings in my radius, all the monsters running hither and thither.

Until a few hours ago.

It was quite weird, having gotten used to the presence of having monsters on the periphery of my senses. Their absence put me on edge.

I was on an active lookout for signs of any high-level monsters. Eyes peeled and ears strained. 'I don't think I'll get much sleep tonight.'

The forest was getting denser. The sun was no longer shining down on my head constantly, the tree cover providing relieving shade now and then.

'Is it just me or is that mountain closer than others?'

It seemed like one of the mountains had decided to grow apart from the range and jutted out slightly. As I gazed at the out-of-line peak, something magical made its presence known.

I immediately stopped my trek, vigilant for any movement. There was none. I waited still.

After waiting for several minutes, I decided that it was not a monster. 'I seriously need an upgrade to this skill.'

I stepped cautiously across the dry leaves, taking care not to crunch loudly. Nearing the magical signature, I noticed my perception guiding me towards a particularly old and gnarly tree.

While I was sure there was something there, for the life of me, I couldn't see anything. Just an ancient tree with all the scars to show for its age.

A stiff breeze moved the canopy overhead and the sunlight hit the tree trunk while I was staring at it. As soon as the trunk was visible in broad daylight, the shadows ran out of the scars and showed it for what it was - claw markings.

I was in the territory of a Dark Bear.

A conversation with Tyee ran through my mind as my fingertips grazed the deep claw marks

"If they don't breed, how are new Dark Bears created?" I queried.

"As with all monsters, Dark Bears were originally animals. Bears to be precise. Mana intruded in their bodies and twisted their spirits, turning animals into monsters." Tyee replied calmly, as we headed away from the latest mark.

"You mean mana can physically change body and mind? God, that's horrible."

"In case of monsters, yes. But it is not always for the worse. This path we follow, that guides us to our Classes, our Skills, our Evolutions - all are a result of mana working in and through us."

I bit my lip. My current hypothesis was mana was simply a resource assigned by the system, or Core as Betty called it, like memory or CPU slice. But that was based on my assumption from a programmer's perspective, where Spells were programs to be executed. Being able to touch just about every aspect of the world meant it was something more. "And what exactly is mana?"

"Kai believes it is a power of nature that transcends the physical realm." Tyee replied.

" And you? What do you believe?" I asked.

" I do not know. It is not my course to unravel the mysteries of the world." Tyee spoke slowly, then gestured in a direction ahead towards the left, "Our quarry went through here. It is young but well fed. It will laze about for a time then head back to its cave. Dark Bears are known to stalk and prey for days in one area until they are full. Then they shelter for a couple of weeks before moving on to a new hunting ground."

"How do you know it is well-fed just from seeing the mark?" I stared at the clawed bark.

"Because it is moving out of its hunting ground, in search of a shelter. I know it not just from this one mark, but from all the other marks as well as its trail and movements of other creatures in the area." Tyee gestured around, "When the Dark Bear is in the middle of a hunt, animals make sure not to make themselves known. But see here? The bush-vole is already out, digging for roots. The birds make hesitant chirps. Silence slowly lifts from the region. The hunt is over."

I observed the mark in front of me, comparing it to the ones made by the other bear. This one was longer, wider and deeper. Like made by a bigger and sharper claw.

The pin-drop silence in the middle of the forest and the lack of anything in my perception had my hackles raised.

'Should I just climb a tree and wait it out?' Convenient though it would have been to just hide away, I did not know how long I would be stuck up there. I had tried to ration my food to last, but at most I could eke out another day.

'Nothing to it then. Off we go.' I boosted my Circle of Protection and Perception to the max. A rustle off to the side had me jumping out of my skin. Flashbacks to being stalked in a tropical forest crept into my mind uninvited. It was far worse being alone.

'It's alright, you have goddamn lightning powers now. Chin up!' I strode ahead gradually, pausing at every other tree in case I needed to make an emergency escape.

Another half-hour passed as I inched onwards. The silence was deep as ever. Despite it still being the middle of the afternoon, the surroundings were getting noticeably darker. A small drop of sweat rolled down from my neck down my spine. I felt like I was being watched. Felt like I shouldn't be there. As if I was trespassing.

I stepped across another tree when multiple crunching sounds made their way across. I flinched but recovered within seconds. The sound was nearby, so I decided to take a quick look, although I was pretty sure of what I would find.

Crawling up crouched and hiding behind a large tree, I peered into the unnaturally dense darkness of a clearing where I could hear sounds. Sounds of flesh and bones being torn and shredded. I scrutinized across the view and my eyes landed on the figure I sought.

A bundle of dense fur, tight muscle, and pitch-black shadows the size of a war-horse was tearing into an already half-eaten carcass of an elk-like animal. I stared as it placed a paw the size of its prey's head on the belly and opened its jaws wide to cover the whole hind leg. With a crunch, it tore clean through tissue and marrow.

I dare not Identify it. I was pretty sure it would show the level in three question marks. I decided to leave the creature to its feast and sneak away as far as I could get. The elk would occupy it for a while.

I was still gawking as I stepped back, ready to slink away unnoticed. And stepped on a dry twig with a loud crack.


The creature instantly stopped eating and unerringly glared in my direction. I took action immediately. Readying a Stupefy with as much mana as I could force into it, which was almost half my total mana. The bear let out a bone-chilling growl. With legs shivering, I shouted as loudly as I could - "STUPEFY!" If I get a headshot, it is as good as gone.

I saw my hopes being dashed in slow motion. Just as the lightning was about to go off, the shadows around the bear pooled into its body. Fur became liquid darkness, as the darkness coalesced into a big ball of nothing. Then my spell went off as boisterously as always.

I knew I had failed to kill it. I did not get any experience tugs. I had hoped to damage it enough to at least scare it away. To my horror, the bear emerged out entirely unscathed from the shadow several meters off to the side. And it was pissed!


With a roar that shook the ground itself, the monster launched like a rocket in my direction. I defaulted to my usual escape route out of sheer habit, scrambling up the tree in a mad rush.

I found a perch on a low-hanging branch just as the bear shoulder tackled the damn tree. The ancient tree shook. I was jerked aside, but I held to the trunk like a tick.

I watched as the behemoth withdrew on shaky legs. Soon, it got its bearings and glared up at me with deep hatred and unnatural cunning. I gaped as it called the shadows again, slower this time. It seemed it was teleporting again, but with a specific destination in mind. To my dismay, I realized the destination to be near the trunk on the thick branch I was standing on, by the clout of darkness forming there. While I was unsure if the branch could even take its bulk, I wasn't just going to let it do whatever it wanted. I selected the whole trunk and whispered "Lumos". I kept a hold on the regions even as the spell manifested, and forced mana in. Then sighed with relief as its spell petered out. Lumos was a relatively lightweight spell, even after brute-forcing. I decided to keep it up and running.

The beast gave off an irritated growl as its tactic failed. It was also wary of coming near the glowing tree. I took the chance to scramble further upon another branch. At less than half my mana, I had to be careful what Spells I used next. All curses were out, they barely worked on the previous one, this one would not even feel them. I could risk an Incendio but if it did not work, I would be out of options. I decided to wait and watch instead. 'Maybe it'll get bored and go away.'

With a dark snout high up, it sniffed the air. Ever so cautiously it approached the tree. I increased the glow slightly. It stopped, calling for more shadows to cover, but did not retreat. After several seconds of sniffing and growling, it moved in again.

As soon as it was within striking distance of the tree, it lashed out and struck the trunk with claws coated in darkness. They went through the wood without any resistance. Sweat drenched the robe on my back as I stared, dumbstruck.

Without waiting, it slashed again. This time with more force. Splinters flew off and I got back to my senses. I targeted the snout and whispered "Stupefy", adding perhaps another 100 mana to the spell. At this point, I just wanted to keep the thing away from me.

It must have had an extraordinary hearing or a sixth sense because it vanished again just before my spell struck, appearing in the shadows of another tree ahead of me. It launched itself again and collided with the tree. The wood creaked and groaned, leaning back from the force but holding on. It started slashing again.

Not willing to give in, I let loose a low-level Stupefy. I turned off the Circles to conserve mana. Stupefy made quite the noise, but was harmless at this level. Yet it worked well to drive it off from the assault temporarily. It blinked away and rammed into the tree again. The timber leaned further back. I wasn't sure how long it would hold. A couple more strikes and it'll fall.

All the gears in my mind were turning full speed trying to figure a way out while my imagination threatened me with images of myself in place of the elk-carcass. 'How is it avoiding my spells?' I was a bit surprised that my thoughts were so calm despite the chaos overriding my mind and the terror gripping my heart.

Just as it rammed another time, an arrow came whooshing in, embedding deep into its flank. 'Tyee?'

The monster jumped back, more in surprise than pain. It roared in the direction of where the arrow came from. But another arrow streaked along and hit its belly. This one elicited a howl of pain, as it teleported off back several meters. Not that it helped.

As soon as it came out from the teleport, another arrow thudded into its shoulder, followed by a couple more into its back. All arrows came from different directions. The bear was surrounded. 'It's not Tyee then. Meh, he usually goes for headshots anyway.'

The bear was peppered with arrows from a distance. Even as it tried to run away, the hail didn't lessen. Whenever it teleported, half a dozen arrows found it immediately after. Soon, between angry roars and pained yelps, the bear was put down. The shadows melted away, giving way to the light. The bear was covered in arrows just about everywhere, looking halfway like a large porcupine. I felt a rush of XP increase, signifying that the bear was truly dead.

I clambered down the trunk in a decidedly ungraceful fashion, landing on the ground to find myself surrounded by half a dozen Rangers. 'Wait, they're not wearing the Royal Ranger Corp uniform!' Indeed, theirs was a greener shade of cloth while the Rangers preferred a darker one. Looking closely I noticed the insignias were different as well. Just as I was about to thank the exemplary NPCs who saved my life, a voice called out from the back.

"Pat? What the hell are you doing here?"

A voice I knew quite well.


Chapter 43 - Of Might and Magic
Chapter 45 - Not Tinkerbell