“Think about it, in a world where your all is measured by something so accurate and tangible as a number, and that number directly feeds into how powerful you are, well, of course those with more are going to lord it over those with less. Fantasizing that society wouldn't be anything but a hierarchical nightmare is simply naive.”
-The man who lived in a pithos.
“What level are you?”
“...I’m.... I’m level one…”
“Exactly. Like a child.” She flicked him on the nose.
She had to bend down to do so due to his height, a diminutive four foot six, a child’s height. Which would have been fine if he were a child, but as an adult human it wasn’t exactly ideal.
Rain reacted a moment too slowly to fend off the flick and his skinny arm whistled through the air hitting nothing.
She laughed at his flailing and wrapped her arm around Adlen’s shoulders.
“Aww look at the child rage. Pathetic.”
“I’m not a child. Just help me like you said you would and I’ll grow out of this, that’s how this leveling thing works, it builds up your body.”
“Stamp your foot harder if you want it so much, no, better yet, lick my foot,” leered the elf girl.
“Ew. Are you serious Myra?” said Adlen eyeing the Elf hanging off his side.
“Deadly serious.” She flicked off one of her sandals and waggled her toes.
Rain eyed her foot with dismay.
“Come on you worthless little shit, tongue between my toes or I’m going to leave you in the forest to die, no one will say anything, and you know you don’t have the levels needed to survive out here. Your life depends on me, on us.”
“Do you want to die?”
Rain wanted to run away never to see the horrible elf girl again, but he knew he would be throwing away the tiny thread of hope that had drawn him out of town, and likely his life too. Rain was a survivor, his life had centred around it, and survivors did what was needed to survive. So, unhappily, reluctantly, he got to his knees and crawled toward her.
“Holy shit he’s actually going to do it, what a little freak!” laughed Adlen.
Rain crept forward and stretched out his tongue, the tip about to touch the tip of her toe. Myra shrieked and kicked him in the face hard. He collapsed to the ground.
“Urgh! Gross! He touched me!” said Myra, dramatically wiping her toe on the grass as though to rid herself of the touch.
Adlen rolled his eyes. “You were going to do that from the start Myra. You’d never let a dirty little runt like him touch you.”
“Mm, true, a level one is no better than trash really. A level like yours on the other hand…” She looked up at him with half-lidded eyes then grabbed his hand and placed it on her hip.
Rain looked up at them from the ground. He hated this, he hated his situation that had led him to be so reliant on these arrogant assholes... Most of all he hated himself for being jealous of them.
Adlen was a muscular giant at six foot three inches and Myra had the look of a toned athlete, tall for a female elf at five foot eleven. The gift of levelling young, levelling young meant a stronger bigger body as it boosted growth and development.
He himself had none of that, much of his childhood had been marred by nights going cold and hungry, desperate enough to chew pieces of leather to numb the hunger pangs. He remained stuck at level one because there had been no one willing to help him find and kill a monster. Suffice to say the lack of levels and the lack of food had ruined his growth, he looked positively skeletal in comparison to the pair.
He slowly got to his knees.
“Keep perving because you’re never going to get this,” said Myra, grinding up against Adlen.
“Should we do it in front of him? It would be pretty twisted,” said Myra.
“I would, but no, the others will be back any moment now.”
“Fiiine. No show.”
Rain gritted his teeth and held back a scathing comment. He had an overwhelming urge to lay into them, but he was dependent on their goodwill and couldn't afford to go against them in the slightest.
He wiped blood from his lip and slowly climbed to his feet.
“Myra stop fucking around. The horses are hobbled, let's get inside this damn dungeon already,” said an even taller guy than Adlen who pushed aside the foliage and stepped into the clearing. A pair of girls followed behind.
Rain eyed him warily. While Adlen was an intimidating level nineteen, this one, Brax, was an incredible level twenty eight, a prodigy, and because of that one of the most desirable men in the dungeon town of Lynthia, Rain’s home. Seriously, Rain had seen him simply walk up to a random woman and take her hand and draw her away. She would happily follow, hopping like an eager rabbit into the nearest bedroom with him. It helped that he looked like an idealized adonis with long black slightly curled hair, though as always a person's level was cause for greatest attraction, a high number charmed people like nothing else.
That two of the three girls of the team seemed to have attached themselves to him did not surprise Rain in the slightest. In fact he was more surprised Adlen had any chance at all with Myra.
“Oh we were just having a little fun, nothing serious!” she pouted at him.
“Just a little eh?” he slapped his thigh and Myra bounced over to him where he wrapped one large arm around her hips.
Adlen scowled seeing that. Rain had to hold in a snort of laughter, he knew well that Adlen would love to say something but like himself he would have to keep his thoughts unspoken for fear of getting beaten to a pulp by the higher leveler.
“Hey you wanted us to go, well, let’s go,” said Adlen, clearly hoping to distract Brax from Myra. He gestured behind himself to a stone entrance.
It was an impressive thing, the entrance to a dungeon. At least twenty feet tall and built from heavy block stonework. Large angular runes from a dead language marked the thick arch, the stone chipped and marred with age beneath thick green moss that crawled across its surface.
Brax caught Rain’s eye. “Scared, little Rain? This isn't where runts should tread.”
“If you must know, yeah, I am. Weren't you scared to fight your first monster?”
Brax snorted. “Nah, power levelling is easy, you just gotta hold a knife steady once the monster is pinned, I stabbed the shit out of mine, was fun as hell.”
“You would say that, you overleveled-...” grumbled Adlen stopping himself from finishing.
“Ooh I bet you could take ‘em solo these days though!” cooed Myra running a hand across Brax’s chest. Brax smirked at Adlen’s irritation.
“Around here most monsters are easy for me. I would need to find something a bit rarer to provide a challenge.”
“Come on Brax, I’m not here to hear you brag about your levels as well as your prowess in bed.” said one of the girls who had followed him into the clearing.
“Ah, I’m pretty sure I satisfied your curiosity on the latter one. But sure let's get inside and get you your promised levels. The runt too.”
Myra clung to him as he strode into the darkness of the dungeon and Adlen followed scowling unhappily. He was followed by the two girls then lastly came Rain bringing up the rear.
Rain had to walk quickly to keep up.
That he had been allowed to join a team going to power level lower levelers was something that Rain was still having trouble adjusting to. He was the town’s runt or near enough, a stunted level one. How had he come to be like that? Unfortunately for Rain his father had attacked the town’s Ranker when Rain was a child for trying to take Rain’s mother.
Attacking the highest leveled person in town and its de facto leader when you hadn't even broken level twenty, well, it wasn’t exactly a wise decision. Still, Rain’s father had fought like a demon and by some incredible fluke he had permanently blinded the Ranker in one eye.
Which was the worst result imaginable.
The Ranker had brutally crippled Rain’s father in furious retaliation and then tortured his mother to death in front of him. Then, surprisingly, he sentenced him with a Black Mark and let him live. This meant little to the man who’d seen his wife suffer and die in front of his eyes and from then on he had escaped into the bottle.
This left Rain with a broken home and a drunkard for a father. Worse, a Black Mark meant that any descendants of the man were to be made to suffer the same punishment, ‘Sins of the Father’, in practice that meant one person, Rain.
He didn’t understand at the time, being made a pariah and being banned from being power leveled seemed like nothing, not even a real punishment. It wasn’t until he started to grow older that he realised he had been handed a slow death sentence. No way to increase his level because he was too weak to kill even the weakest of monsters and no one to help him.
His father had passed a few years ago, a decade of booze and self-harm and Rain had woken one day to find he had not returned home. He found him several hours later having passed out in an alley and caught his death of cold leaving Rain alone in the world. Things only got worse after that and Rain was reduced to begging. Most ignored his pleas for fear of angering the town’s Ranker but he had survived, just.
And now he was here, having somehow wormed his way into a group going out to a dungeon to power level. It was as he had hoped, the death of his father and so many years having passed had softened people's hearts and caused them to forget the Ranker’s Black Mark. Of course his weak and pathetic state was not so easy to ignore, but he would just have to make up for that by working really hard once he started levelling.
Ahead the two girls chattered. One a Human, one a Halfling. He listened warily.
“Did you hear?” said the Human, “Alfreda got her twenty third level a few daysa ago, if she keeps going at this rate she’s going to overtake Brax.”
“Tch, that woman has enough boys hanging off her arms, she’ll be even more smug and insufferable if she becomes one of the top levelers in town.”
“Oh like you can talk about hanging off of arms, you’re like a leech on Brax’s side, suck suck suck, and in more than one way.”
“Hey shut up, it’s paying off, isn't it? Who else can say they’re getting personally power leveled by tall, handsome, and absurdly high levelled over there.”
“Plenty of girls I’ll tell you. You wouldn't be the first.”
“I suppose you would know being queen leech.”
“Oh I’m in it for more than just the levelling.”
“Mrmhm. Next guy who comes along with a few more levels and chiselled abs and you’ll jump off Brax like a rat off a sinking ship.”
Rain had heard the way levelers spoke for his entire life, but it still managed to set him on edge. He wondered if it was because he was in a lot of ways an outsider looking in.
They caught up as the others paused.
“Eliza, Lira, keep it down would you,” grumbled Adlen, “You’re going to attract goblins or worse.”
Eliza, the Human, stuck her tongue out at him.
“We’re going down, there’s nothing up here on the first floor that will gain us levels, well apart from for the runt, but chasing down weak monsters for his sake isn't something I’m wasting my time with.”
“That’s okay, just let me stab whatever you normally fight and forget I’m here otherwise,” murmured Rain.
“Shut it runt,” spat Myra.
Brax snorted then gestured at a wide stairway. The group followed as he descended. The stairs went deeper and deeper, each stair coming down onto a new floor which Brax promptly ignored and moved to go further down.
Rain would be lying if he said he wasn't nervous. All the power leveling from scratch he had heard about normally involved the first floor where the monsters were weaker. If he was to be hit by a monster this far down he would be nothing but a bloody smear on the ground.
He almost verbalised a question, to ask if this wasn't a bit much, but instead he carefully bit it back and kept it to himself. The last thing he wanted was to be seen second-guessing Brax.
At last, the stairs ended and they came out into a cavern dimly lit from above by massive grand crystal formations. A lake filled most of the cavern floor.
“Wow!” said Lira.
“Some of the best monsters this dungeon has to offer like to hang around here. It’s prime real estate for leveling if you’re smart about it, and more to the point, it’s great for power leveling.”
Rain simply stared in wonder as the lake reflected the light of the ethereal glowing crystal. The lake had to be at least a kilometer or so across, likely more.
What a wondrous place to finally begin his journey and join the leveled.
He startled seeing the group trundle away from him and raced to catch up, hope rising in his heart.
“You see, monsters have to drink at some point, guess where they come? This lake, obviously. The short of it is that instead of wandering around aimlessly we can simply wait for the monsters to turn up here one by one.”
“Yeah yeah, very clever, this is a good spot we got it,” said Adlen
“Well they don’t know that, I’m saying it for their sake so shut your trap. Ah, here we go.” Brax came to a stop by the shore.
A large boulder blocked his path.
“Looks like a boulder doesn't it? Watch.”
He drew his sword, a brutal looking thing that had clearly seen a lot of use and he swiftly drove it into the side of the boulder.
The boulder let out a keening scream and its legs that had been tucked beneath its form sprung outward revealing it to be a gigantic toad monster with rough pebbled skin.
Brax yanked his sword free as the toad leapt away angrily hissing and screaming like a kettle.
Adlen charged it from the side and jabbed at it with the spear he had unslung from his back scoring hit after hit. The toad raged and awkwardly turned to face him.
“Myra, care!” shouted Adlen.
He sidestepped as the monster opened its mouth and a long oily black tongue lunged outward aiming straight at him. Myra took the opportunity and flung out her palm. A violet fireball flared and shot toward the toad like a screaming comet, it landed in its mouth where it promptly exploded. The toad's tongue snapped back as it cried out in pain, trying to spit out and extinguish the fire.
Adlen took the monster's distraction as an opportunity and scored a hit on its eye. Eye goop spurted as he successfully blinded it. The toad had lost all reason by this point and was charging around aimlessly. Brax stepped in and with a vicious arcing cut he chopped off one of its legs.
The toad slumped to the ground where Brax wasted no time in delimbing it.
“Lira, you’re up.”
Lira stepped forward nervously with a knife in her hand. She swallowed and then with a yell drove the knife down. The monster shuddered as she withdrew it.
“My turn!” said Eliza as she drew her sword and added a practised cut. “Easy!”
Now it was Rain’s turn. His knife was a rusty table knife he had stolen and secreted away. He had obsessively sharpened it before he had left town but it remained a poor weapon. Still, he only needed a pointed bit of metal, enough to draw blood.
He gripped the handle with sweaty palms and raised it above his head ready to plunge it into the monster's side. His arms swung down!
Myra caught his arm mid swing, her arm as unbending as iron.
She tittered. “Oh you actually thought we would let you level, how cute.”
She twisted his arm until it felt like his bones would break and he was forced to drop the knife with a gasp.
He watched with mounting horror as Brax leant down and swiftly punched his sword into the toad’s head killing it instantly.
“Oh! I levelled up! I’m level 15!” exclaimed Lira jumping on the spot with glee.
Rain could only stare at the dead and unmoving toad.
“Why.” he breathed.
“Because the town Ranker doesn't forgive or forget, but he does get sick of seeing you begging in the streets for scraps. You make us look bad when out of towners visit.” Brax shrugged. “He gave you to us.”
Rain suddenly ran at Brax with hands raised, recklessly trying to throttle him. Brax simply laughed and lightly brushed him aside. To Rain it felt like being hit by a sledgehammer and he was knocked tumbling across the ground. Breath came painfully and he realised he had likely broken a rib, likely more than one.
“Oops, I forgot how weak you were.”
“Hey don’t break my toy before I get a turn!” scowled Myra.
Rain felt a hand grab his wrist and drag him up.
“Oh, so weak, so pathetic. You’re like a doll.” said Myra.
She grabbed at his old and tattered clothing and ripped his shirt off followed by his trousers and undergarments.
“Ah I thought you would just have a nub down there like a doll, guess not, but it’s as stunted as you are, just look at that little thing!”
She pulled a knife free from her belt and poked it at his genitals, Rain’s eyes went round and he screamed as he felt the tip of the blade go in slightly.
“P-please! I didn’t do anything to you, why are you doing this! Lira, Eliza! Stop them Please!”
Brax scoffed. “They aren't going to help you.”
“Sorry Rain, it's better this way,” shrugged Lira.
“You never could accept it Rain. If you are stunted for so long you can’t ever escape that, you never had a hope.”
Myra dropped him and he fell bonelessly to the cold damp stone. Myra drove a boot into his stomach and he went rolling across the ground.
He clawed at his stomach in pain.
“T-tell me! What do you mean!”
Eliza looked between Myra and Brax. “Rain, it wouldn't have mattered, it’s not well known but past a certain point an unleveled and stunted Human is simply unable to gain levels. That's why humans power level their young so early compared to other races. It’s a racial trait.”
“No! Y-You’re lying!”
Adlen casually poked at him with the tip of his spear drawing blood. “She’s not lying, the only worth you have left is our amusement.”
“Haha yes! Dance my little doll dance!”
Myra flicked fire at Rain’s feet causing him to scuttle back in fear, a fireball landed awkwardly and violet fire splattered up his leg. Rain screamed as it ate into his flesh. He desperately smacked it out burning his hands in the process.
“Oh he has a voice on him doesn't he. Care, he might attract monsters.”
“That’s fine, we can use them to power level once we’re done with this.”
Rain crawled toward Lira, the Halfling, the only one he hoped would have some sliver of sympathy left.
“P-please Lira! I’m a leveler! I’m a person! You can't let them do this to me!” he clutched at her boots. “I just wanted to level up like you!”
Lira’s face went from what Rain interpreted as potential sympathy to a sneer of disgust.
“Don’t touch me with your filthy hands! I’ve seen you scrabbling around in bins. Eliza’s right, you’re just stunted trash and a burden on the town.”
She kicked his hands away.
Rain paused. He realised it was over. He was surrounded by monsters as bad as the monsters that inhabited this dungeon, no, worse, these monsters killed not for food but out of contempt. Anger built in his chest and all the frustrations of a lifetime kept down for something he didn’t do welled up in him.
“You- Damn you!”
He stumbled to his feet one hand still clutching at his stomach.
“You’re all psychotic amoral scum, I don’t deserve any of this! I’ll fucking haunt you, I’ll curse you! I’ll-”
Brax’s sword whipped through the air and lopped off his arm.
Rain stared down at the stump poking from his shoulder and at his arm limp on the ground. He could feel himself going into shock.
“Hey! Don’t finish him off too quick!” said Myra bouncing up behind him. Her knife went into his side with a sickening squelch.
“I-...” words fled Rain as his thoughts started to shut down.
“‘Don’t finish him off quick’ she says as she stabs him in the kidney. Fuck sake Myra,” growled Adlen. He flicked his spear and casually dismembered Rain’s other arm at the elbow.
“Do we get levels for killing him? I should get in on this!” said Eliza as she lazily gutted him. His intestines spilled out of the slit in his stomach.
“Oh gods the mess! Eliza you don’t cut there! Stomachs smell! And no you don’t get levels, that's monsters only.”
“Oh. My mistake. Well, he’s not much better than a goblin so who knows. ”
Rain could taste blood in his mouth and his vision was going hazy around the edges. He would scream but shock had fully taken hold. He could only watch as Lira timidly came toward him.
“E-everyones uhm, doing it, so I should too, right?” She pushed the knife she held between his ribs. Blood welled up in his throat.
“Rain, you lived as a stain on our town, be glad you’re being cleaned... S-still, I’m sorry it turned out this way, I still feel bad, you should know.” Lira murmured.
“F-fee..-l b...ad?” whispered Rain, red streaming from his mouth.
“Aww does the runt have a crush?” said Myra, she giggled and withdrew her knife from his side.
“I don’t think getting laid is on his mind right now Myra. I don't think much is on his mind at all to be frank. Adlen finish the little fucker off, he’s gotten boring. I get the feeling we’ve attracted the attention of a few monsters anyway.” said Brax.
“Tchh, he was never going to be much fun, I mean have you looked at the guy? He makes kids look strong.”
Adlen strode forward and with a swing of his spear he swept Rain’s legs from under him. Rain crashed to the ground insensate and on the verge of blacking out.
“Here watch this. Watch me toss his ass.”
Adlen stabbed his spear into Rain’s stomach and hefted him up into the air so that Rain was hanging like some grisly war banner. With a heave of his level empowered muscles and a flick of his spear Adlen sent Rain flying over the lake to splash down near its center.
By the time Rain hit the water he was already dead.