Chapter 361: Growing Pains
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Author's Corner: Thank you to Alex Wierzbicki for joining the Patreon!

A certain kitsune sat within a high tree, her eyes closed. She was dressed in nothing but rags, her bare skin easily visible beneath the tattered clothing. She was waiting, listening. Every sound that passed her area would be registered, and would become another target.

He wants me to succeed. My trial cannot fail. It had been a week since Dale left her the note that he was going away for a while. And in that week… she had died once. An unfortunate encounter with some bad herbs had slowed her reaction speed enough to allow too many hits in.

Now for this, her third attempt at the trial… she had increased the difficulty. She still used the same starting skill, but she was no longer a level five character in a level ten region. No, she had spent some time moving further away from the area. Now, she had hit level ten, but everything she encountered was at least four times her level.

One wrong move in a fight would mean instant death. No carelessness was allowed. She had to be vigilant at every moment, just as it had been in her youth.

Her ear twitched, and she recognized the sound moving closer. A set of paws gently stepping on dry leaves. And then another. Her head shook slightly as she denied the possibility of a fight. From their gait, she could tell that these were the horned wolves that inhabited this area. The fact that she could hear two of them meant that there was likely a third as well, maybe more.

Although she could confidently take these creatures on one at a time, this confidence only extended to one wolf. If a second joined in, or even a third, she was not even confident in her ability to escape with her life.

Waiting again, she allowed the wolves to pass, keeping her presence within the trees concealed. Soon, she heard another animal. This one was much closer, throwing up instant alarms in her mind. The sounds of branches creaking, the gentle hiss of a thin tongue licking the air.

Tsubaki’s eyes opened in time to see a pale blue snake staring at her from across the way. As she looked at it, its color shifted, from pale blue to deep brown, slightly blending in with the bark behind it. Not enough to fool her sight, but likely a good defense against lesser animals.

Immediately, Tsubaki’s ki began to channel through her palms. She had no items to pull mana from, and thus couldn’t use any magic or chakra, but she could use her bare hands. When her fingers curled, a soft light spread out from the tips, looking to take the shape of claws.

The snake quickly seemed to recognize the threat, or perhaps she had been in its agro range all along, and it was preparing itself to strike. Either way, the camouflaged creature surged forward at an insane speed. Tsubaki’s instincts kicked in, and time seemed to slow as she tilted her body to the side. She wasn’t fast enough to catch the snake in its attack, but she was able to avoid it, if only barely.

As its body was fully extended, its head twisting to try to take another strike, Tsubaki’s ‘claws’ traced along its underbelly. Although the movement looked slow to her, it was as fast as she could move her body. And as she moved, her claws became sharper, drawing the ki from the serpent to empower her own attack.

There was a hiss of pain as it drew back, giving up its chance for a second attack. A thin line of blood a couple inches long appeared beneath it, showing that her attack had had an effect. The snake stared at her for what felt like an eternity before striking out again, its fangs extended and ready to take her life.

This time, she was faster. The ki she had stolen was redistributed to increase her speed, and she performed the same move as before. Only this time, instead of tracing along its stomach, she started from the corner of its mouth.

The snake apparently was caught by surprise with this move, its body falling free from the branch and carried with its momentum. If Tsubaki hadn’t reached out to grab its tail, it may have flown beyond her reach, and become the prey for another beast. But, her hands caught the tail in a vice grip, swinging it around.

When the head of the snake crashed against the branch that it had originated from, its slowly depleting health bar plummeted, its body falling limp. So, she let it go, allowing the corpse to fall from her hands and down to the forest floor below. Instead of looting the slain creature, she immediately jumped from her branch, vacating the area before another monster could come along and discover its easy meal.

The trial of blood did not allow for any external assistance such as weapons or armor to be brought in, so Tsubaki refused to loot anything that was not already wielded as a weapon, such as a humanoid monster’s spear or sword. Unfortunately, the area that she had taken up camp in had no such humanoid monsters, nothing that carried its own weapons or armor.

She hunted, because even if she knew that she did not need to eat, she had to simulate the conditions as perfectly as she could. That meant hunting enough monsters that she would be able to feed herself without fear. And as the seconds ticked by, she was greeted with a familiar reward screen.

You have hunted a monster far surpassing your own level in a fair fight, and refused to claim any valuables from it! You have earned one Hardcore Ticket.

She didn’t know how many of those tickets she had accumulated in the last several days. In order to resist the urge to use them, she had not even looked at her inventory screen. When she had first received the ticket, she had asked Vivi what items existed in that lottery, out of curiosity. Maybe there was something that could benefit Dale?

What she learned was that the Hardcore Lottery existed for those who sought a more realistic experience. There were some powerful weapons in it, of course, to allow fighters an easier time with those challenges. Yet, most of the prizes were harvesting or crafting equipment. Skinning knives or mining picks, and things of that nature.

As Tsubaki ran through the treetops, she could hear the distant howl, the signal that the snake had been found.

Knew it… I knew it. I cursed at myself for my previous guesses as I exited the training area I had established. My body felt like it was on fire, the flame burning just beneath my skin. Looking at the clock, it had taken me nine days to ‘perfect’ the next step along my path to divinity. As one might guess… this means that the process was surprisingly easy.

Yeah, no, that’s a lie. I could tell that the process was only easy because I was in the Admin Room. The feeling of having your body torn apart and reformed, one piece at a time… it’s enough to shatter a man’s soul. If I was truly capable of taking damage here, I don’t think I would have been able to complete the training that quickly, if I was even able to complete it at all.

I was able to do it, though… I was able to finish, and do it again… all it took was a little testing, and a lot of pain. Moving over to my bed, I sat on it, leaning forward and taking deep breaths while I called Leowynn back to myself. If this was what it meant to become a false god on this path, I could see why most first ranked Keepers avoided it. There were probably less painful ways to do so through other methods, but this was the one that Balu had thought most fitting for me.

Speaking of which… there was a reason that I hadn’t been too worried about entering training when I did. I had glanced towards my next opponent briefly, but the information had only made me smile.

Time until Starkiller’s attack: 90:09:16:32

That’s right… my next opponent was Balu herself. I felt a sense of relief that it was her, as she had proven to be a trustworthy friend, whether it was personally or through the guild. If not for her assistance, I might actually be dead by now.

Sure, I could feel a similar sense of security if my opponent was somebody like Kathy… but let’s be honest here… Kathy’s just as likely to send me a monster she considers weak, but reproduces like crazy. No ill intent behind her action, just a warped common sense that would make her more terrifying than a normal enemy.

Glancing towards my interface, I saw that I had  a conversation request waiting from her. I shook my head with a small smile, though, deciding that I would wait until I had finished upgrading my body. I let everyone know that I was cutting them off for just a little while and, with a small groan, I selected the option to descend, appearing once again in my throne room.

“Leowynn… can you go to Tsubaki’s room?” I asked with a tired voice. “I need you to make sure that neither of you interfere with this. It should only take a few minutes this time… but if she knew what it meant, she would immediately rush over.”

Leowynn appeared before me in a golden mist, offering a sad smile as she nodded her head. When she floated through the doorway and out into the halls, I got up. It was time to use one of the long forgotten rooms in the citadel, the ‘cultivation chamber’ that blocked off energy signatures from escaping.

Part of me was hoping that this would lessen the pain that Leowynn would feel transmitted over my soul, but I knew that that was not too likely. Instead, I sat down in the center of the room, cross legged. There was no ritual to begin here, merely the start of the process.

Lifting my right hand, I gathered my ki, focusing it to weaken my flesh and bones rather than strengthening it. Immediately, a numbness could be felt, as if my hand had fallen asleep, the pins and needles you feel from circulation being cut. And then… I brought in my divine soul. 

The golden light slipped into my weakened flesh, and I bit my lip to avoid crying out. Blood spilled from my fingertips as the flesh peeled away, falling off in strips. However, a new fingertip was present in its place, one that I could just barely feel as my own. This process repeated again, growing more intense as I slowly worked it along the rest of my hand.

As each portion was formed, a thin layer of ki spread out to wrap around the ‘divine’ flesh, holding it in place. It still felt as if I was shoving my entire hand into a blender, but I was able to keep my new ‘hand’ in its proper shape.

After the hand, naturally, came the arm. This only proved even more painful, the girth of my arm meaning that I had to destroy and reform more at once. Soon, I was able to taste the blood pooling in my mouth, having bitten a bit too hard on my lip.

This was a pain the likes of which I had only experienced when training to become a god. A pain that nobody should ever have to endure. And it was just getting started.

Once I finished my right arm, I moved onto my left, following the same process. And then, my legs. After that was where things started to get tricky… It took some trial and error to figure out whether I should convert my heart first or my brain, as both were organs vital for survival.

Ultimately… I found that I had to convert the heart first… and when I did so, I had to quickly move on to the brain. You can survive for a brief period of time without a heart, but if you lose the entirety of your brain… there is no hope.

So, my torso came next. I laid down on the stone floor in order to avoid collapsing, but couldn’t stop the screams passing my lips once my divine soul ‘replaced’ my stomach, my ribs, my lungs… my heart. I coughed up blood, turning over to my side to make sure that I didn’t choke on it, and quickly moved to the final step.

Even I couldn’t survive the process of reshaping my brain like this normally, there was no way. My brain was the primary center of my consciousness, and losing that meant that I would have a lapse in the control of my power. The body that was only being held together by a thin layer of ki would shatter, and I would be a lifeless head.

This was what had taken me nine days to perfect. Focusing, even as I felt my consciousness growing faint, I entered my soul. With my mind fully within my soul, and my soul making up the divine portion of my body, it grew more solid. And then… my head exploded.

I’ll admit, I was scared. I was waiting for the ‘you have died’ message to appear. Part of me knew that Terra would never let me come down here and do this if I hadn’t gotten the process right, but that part of me was vastly overshadowed by the primal fear of death.

Where my head had exploded, there was… still a head. The difference between this method and the ‘perfect self’ lay in the fact that there was no time transition between destruction and creation. In fact, it was the creation of the divine body that caused the mortal flesh to erupt, but that divine body was already fully joined with the connecting tissue.

Was I distracting myself from the pain by going over the theories I had been studying these past few days? Holy hell, yes I was! Was it working? I wish!

With my body now fully formed, there was only one true step left. Opening my mouth, I coughed out the last bit of my blood and spoke. “Gather…”

My word summoned the natural energy from the surroundings, bringing them surging towards my body. Natural energy had a stabilizing effect, which was why it was used as the final ingredient for evolving both the soul and body to divinity. And as it washed over me, infusing my divine body with energy, I could feel myself becoming stronger. 

The pain began to recede, leaving only the scar of it in my mind. The numbness faded, and my body felt properly under my own control. As a test, I removed the thin layer of ki from around my right hand, fully prepared for it to erupt in a violent explosion and having to quickly repair it. Instead… nothing. There was no change.

Letting out a sigh, I deployed my world sight, thankful that it too was attached to my soul. I scanned over my body, ensuring that everything was stable. Anywhere that looked less than safe, I guided the natural energy towards the region to fix it. And soon…

Congratulations! You have earned an achievement!

For converting your entire body to the Divine Body, you have earned the Demigod achievement! +25 points, +5% Divine Energy Affinity!