Chapter 144
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Alice stood on the wooden walls of Cyra, looking at the giant pack of wolves that sat at the edge of the forest while throwing giant fireballs at the wall. Their bodies were half-hidden by the trees, making it easy for them to dodge the stray arrows and missiles that the other Mages on the walls were throwing at them, and while some wolves occasionally fell, the number of wolves that died each second was alarmingly low. The distance between Cyra’s walls and the wolves was simply too great for many of the [Archers] to easily hit the monsters with arrows, and while the Mages were having better luck, there weren’t that many of them, and their mana was limited.

That wasn’t the alarming part of the whole scenario.

The alarming thing was that there seemed to be two different kinds of monsters out in the forest below them.

Every single time Alice had seen two different species of monster near each other, the monsters had reacted the same way they did when they saw a human. They would immediately attempt to eat the other.

Now, there were two monster species close to each other, and neither species was interfering with or attacking the other.

The second kind of monster didn’t take any action at all. Alice had no idea what they were doing. They looked like what would happen if one took an ordinary crow, added a few extra eyes to their wings, and then surgically removed its torso and replaced it with a mirror. The mirror crows weren’t a species Alice recognized from her monster biology classes, and they weren’t doing attacking the wall yet. Alice didn’t know if the monster species were working together, or had a non-aggression agreement, or what. But the prospect of monsters working together was terrifying.

Alice narrowed her eyes, and turned towards Ethan, who stood on the wall just a few meters away from her, and Illa, who stood nearby and directed the [Archers] and Mages.

“The wolves are trying to burn down the wall,” said Ethan, after a few moments. “Since the wall is mostly made of wood, they’re trying to turn it into charcoal. And the crow monsters aren’t attacking the wolves, or helping them. It feels like they’re waiting for something. I don’t like this.” He turned towards Illa. “What do you think?”

“Ignoring the fact that two different monster swarms aren’t eating each other… the monsters are intelligent enough to stay out of range and use the trees for cover?” said Illa, sounding genuinely shocked. “This situation could certainly be better. Do you see either monster Alpha? If we can take them out, the monsters might stop using tactics and just charge like they usually do,” said Illa as she looked around the area, frowning in concentration. After a moment, Alice did the same.

Normally, monster alphas were pretty easy to notice. They were bigger than their subordinates, usually by quite a large margin, and they usually sat in the center of their pack and glowered at nearby food sources.

However, this time, it was hard to spot either of the alphas. Either they were hiding in the trees, or they were hidden among their subordinates – but either way, Alice couldn’t see either target.

“How long can the wooden walls last under this bombardment?” asked Ethan.

“The wooden walls have enough Perks backing them up that they are flame-resistant, but we need to kill the alpha sooner, rather than later,” said Illa, also frowning. “They can probably last fifteen to twenty minutes before giving way. Maybe half an hour if we thin out the swarm more.”

Then, she frowned further. “{Locate the Leader} isn’t picking anything up. I can feel my Perk activating, but… nothing is happening. I can’t find a result. It’s like…” Illa frowned. “Alice, that rainbow mana cascade that we saw a few days ago… it looks like the mana that you’ve spent so much time studying, right?”

Alice nodded. “It’s System mana, yes.”

Illa simply took Alice’s words in stride, nodding as she looked over the monsters.

“The feeling I’m getting from my Perk is similar to the time I tried to locate a [Nomad Commander]. He specialized in stealth and movement Perks, and he was a massive pain in the neck. Eventually, one of the [Assassins] in the group I was with managed to {Locate Target} and cut him down. But my Perk kept failing to find the [Nomad Commander], even though I could feel it activating each time.”

“Is your Perk high level?”

“No. It’s actually mostly used to find my own commander. I used it back when I was a more normal part of the army. It’s not that useful against anyone that has any sort of defense at all against it, and one of the ways [Commanders] send signals to the troops during combat. For example, my old [Commander] made sure we knew that ‘if I move west a lot, swap to ranged attacks and start harassing.’ If he needed to move for other reasons, he would use a Perk to disguise his location from perks like {Locate the Leader}. However… the problem is that monsters shouldn’t have a defense against this Perk, even if the Perk is useless against humans,” said Illa. “I’ve found the Perk pretty useful for hunting down any spidercrab alphas that pop up too close to the farms. And now it’s failing.”

Alice felt a worm of anxiety start to crawl through her guts.

The wolf alpha and crow alpha were shielding themselves against Illa’s searching Perk?

Alice started wondering if the monster alphas for these particular types of monster specialized in stealth in addition to the fire attacks of the wolves. Or perhaps the Crow alpha, wherever it was, was using cloaking magic on itself and the wolf alpha? Alice found herself dearly hoping that this was some sort of innate, biological ability that some of the monsters here had.

Because if it wasn’t a normal species trait…

Alice started to have a very bad feeling about what that meant for the world as a whole.

And, as if to corroborate Alice’s fears, a moment later, she saw something that sent chills down her spine.

One of the monsters pulsed with a type of mana none of its brethren had.

The monster didn’t use rainbow mana. Not a single fleck of the mana inside of its body resembled the insanely complex, detailed constructions that the System routinely created for its basic routines.

However, Alice still felt that the mana was completely different from the mana the rest of its brethren were using. It was like a severely dumbed down version of the System’s mana – far more basic, but still at least somewhat effective.

The monstrous wolf had some kind of Perk.

It wasn’t a real Perk. It was, at best, a mediocre knockoff Perk.

But a monster was using a Perk.

The ‘perk’ it was using seemed to enhance its magic somehow. As Alice watched the creature pour mana into small blasts of light that pounded against the wooden wall, trying to set it alight or punch through it, she became increasingly certain that she wasn’t losing her mind.

The blasts of fire from that wolf were far more concentrated than the fire beams of the other wolves. It was more controlled. Even though the creature didn’t use any more mana than the other wolves surrounding it, it was managing to do much more damage to the wall than the other wolves, simply because its fire beams were more concentrated than the others.

Without thinking, Alice immediately reached into her storage Perk and then tossed out an enchantment bracelet. On the bracelet, several stone beads were filled to the brim with kinetic and organic mana. They were enchantments Alice had made for her own use – they would fly like bullets towards any target she had, accelerate in midair, and then use organic mana to rend and tear whatever flesh they came into contact with.

A moment later, the beads on the bracelet were activated, and like a rain of bullets, they flew towards the unusual wolf. Due to the mid-air acceleration, Alice’s stone beads hit the target before it could duck behind a tree for cover.

The monster that had been using a Perk died a moment later, its body turning into a sieve, along with two of its friends which happened to be nearby.

However, a fourth neraby wolf lit up with some combination of the innate fire mana and organic mana.

Organic mana that the monstrous wolves shouldn’t have access to at all, because they were clearly some sort of fire focused species.

The creature sped up for a moment, in a set of motions eerily similar to Alice’s own when she used {Adrenaline Rush}, and then the wolf dodged away from Alice’s enchanted beads. It looked at Alice, and gave Alice a knowing smirk with its tiny, all-too-intelligent eyes. Alice felt {Enhanced Senses} mark the location of the creature like a giant beacon, alerting her to the exact location of the creature.

A moment later, the wolf froze, as Ethan flung a pebble at nearly the speed of sound at the creature. It ripped through the creature’s brain with a massive booming sound, and nearly turned the creature’s body into paste.

But even though the creature had died, Alice didn’t feel any more at ease than before.

Two of the wolves had used mana constructs that faintly resembled Perks. Monsters shouldn’t be using Perks at all. Monsters didn’t have access to the System. Only humans had access to the System. This was what gave humans their decisive military advantage over monsters, and had allowed them to totally take over the central continent and push the monsters out of most of the Southern continent. While humans had almost no foothold on the western continent, almost every other part of this world was dominated by humans, not monsters.

And now, monsters were not only cooperating, but using Perks.

Alice felt the seed of fear in her stomach start to sprout.

Had there ever been a case of monsters gaining unique abilities based on the kind of mana they consumed? Alice couldn’t remember any studies mentioning that. Even in her class on monster biology, her professor had never once mentioned that monsters could evolve in strange directions if they consumed enough mana. Monster alphas usually gained enhancements to what they already had, rather than developing totally new abilities.

It seemed like the kind of thing that would have been mentioned, if it were known to be possible.

On the other hand, Alice had no idea whether any monster in the history of the world had ever interacted with the System before. Most mana was rather basic – it was pure mana, mixed with a few small quantities of broken mana, and that was it. But System mana was a multi-layered fractal-like monstrosity of an enchantment. And for all Alice knew, in its most recent glitch, whatever the System used to know that it should give classes to humans and not monsters might have broken, or monsters might have just changed after absorbing System mana. She had no idea.

That was probably an experiment worth running right now, since the question of how monster evolution worked when absorbing huge quantities of mana was suddenly very relevant. Alice made a note to ask Ethan to catch some spidercrabs for her to experiment on later, once they cleaned up this mess.

If they cleaned up this mess.

“Right now, I suspect that the monsters are using some sort of… facsimile Perks. They appear strictly inferior to proper Perks, but they still have some similarities. And we haven’t seen the crow monsters take action yet. What can we do about it?” asked Alice, frowning.

 “If the monsters are truly using Perks… that would be… troublesome,” said Illa, frowning more deeply than before. “Monsters have been pushed back to all but the most mana-dense regions precisely because humans have access to the System and monsters don’t. This gives humans, especially older humans such as Immortals, an overwhelming advantage that most monsters simply can’t overcome. If monsters are now using Perks…”

Even Ethan shivered for a moment at the thought.

Then, Ethan shook his head.

“This pack itself isn’t the threat. It’s what this pack of wolves represents that is a problem,” he said, as his magic tendrils started to spread out. From just behind one, one magic tendril after another appeared, until there were forty mana tendrils spread out.

A few moments later, a large, head-sized stone appeared near each magic tendril, and Ethan began throwing mass volleys of stones directly at the horde of monsters. Not every single stone connected with its target – a fair number collided with trees, shattering the tree but leaving the actual monster unharmed. However, Ethan’s status as an Immortal clearly wasn’t for show, either. Each second, a dozen more fire wolves dropped dead, as an unnerving number of head-sized stones found their targets and turned the wolves into paste.

After several seconds of the wolves being massacred, the crows took action.

Suddenly, Alice felt as if she were looking at a massive mirror when she looked at the wolves. Instead of only seeing the wolves, she could also see a mirror image of herself, Illa, Ethan, and the other [Archers] on the wall who had been peppering the monsters with missiles.

For a brief moment, Ethan’s volleys of stones seemed to disappear into thin air.

Then, all of his attacks were suddenly reflected right back at him, Illa, and Alice.

Ethan frowned, and his 40 mana tendrils suddenly multiplied, until he reached 140 in total. Then, he easily stopped the wave of flying projectiles in midair.

Then, Ethan pointed at one of the wolves, before Alice saw him activate his electromagnetic seed.

A blast of lightning slithered out of his hands and leapt towards the nearby wolf. Several of the wolves reacted immediately, activating their own magic as they glared at Ethan’s lightning bolt. Ethan’s lightning bolt seemed to slow down, as if it were crawling through molasses. A few moments later, Ethan’s lightning bolt fizzled into nonexistence, failing to harm a single wolf. Apparently, lightning was close enough to fire that the wolves could control it, which was an ability that was far more generalized than the magic seeds humans had access to.

Alice grimaced.

Experimentally, Ethan heated up a few of the stones with his thermal seed, until they became closer to magma than proper stone, and then tried tossing them at the crows in the distance.

However, the globs of magma were reflected back towards the wall, and the heat from the globs of magma were absorbed and removed by the wolves.

Alice felt her heart sink further.

The monsters were definitely working together. The crows were handling physical attacks, and the wolves were handling light and heat based attacks. Meanwhile, the wolves seemed unwilling to give up their assault on Cyra’s wall.

Before Alice could stew in her dread any further, Ethan suddenly grinned, and then a few of his magic tendrils reached towards the ground. Normally, any magic performed more than a meter away from somebody required exponentially more mana to activate than before, getting worse the larger the distance was.

And Ethan didn’t seem to care about that at all, as the grass on the ground outside Illvaria’s gate quickly slithered together like dozens of tiny snakes. In moments, they formed a giant set of vines, which then lunged towards the wolves and began ripping into them.

The light wolves seemed to realize that they were outmatched after their fire beams failed to do anything at all to the vines, and giant reflection didn’t stop the vines from moving forward at all. Alice squinted at the giant reflection that still hovered in the air in front of the forest, wondering why the giant mirror stopped the stones but not the grass and vines.

“Whatever they’re doing, it can’t stop living things or non-physical objects,” said Ethan, seeing her confusion. “Not sure why, but that’s what my perception Perk is telling me.”

Wolves started to howl as the vines ripped them apart, and after another few dozen wolves were ripped to pieces by the vines and grass, the wolves started howling at each other. Then, without another sound, the pack of wolves and their crow allies turned around and began fleeing at full speed, leaving Alice feeling unnerved.

“They can’t win, so they’re running away?” she said.

Monsters did sometimes run away – but it was rare. And it was usually never when the monsters were in a pack.

However, despite Alice’s disbelief, the horde of monsters seemed done attacking the town. The fled for the woods as Ethan started launching volleys of stones at them again and the [Archers] and other Mages tried to kill the fleeing monsters. However, the distance and the tree cover made hitting the monsters difficult, and in a few minutes, the massive horde of monsters started to fade from view.

Ethan grimaced. “Down a lot of mana,” he said. “But at least we got rid of them.” He glanced at the forest, before turning towards Illa. “Any chance you have the forces to pursue?”

Illa glanced at the [Archers] and Mages assembled on the wall, and then shook her head. “Too many of them left. The monsters have already shown remarkable intelligence. If they resort to ambush tactics, or another monster swarm attacks the town, the results could be catastrophic. I don’t think it’s worth pursuing given how few competent forces I have.” Illa sighed, and shrugged. “There just aren’t enough people in Cyra to support a big army.”

“Figures,” said Ethan, with a sigh. “Alice, you’re our System expert. What do you make of the monsters this time? This all happened right after that giant burst of rainbow mana. Any connection there?”

“Well… probably. My best guess is that when the monsters came into contact with raw, uncontrolled System mana for the first time a few days ago, something happened. The monsters are using Perks, which they’ve never done before, and they’re also using tactics, at least on a rudimentary level. Normally, a monster swarm wouldn’t flee unless the pack leader died, but this time the monsters fled without being nearly exterminated first.” Alice shivered. “If that’s the case, I suspect that this isn’t a problem that is localized in Cyra, although I dearly hope I’m wrong. If not… we’re going to have yet another problem to add to the pile.”

Ethan frowned. “Do you think it’s possible to figure out what’s happening if I capture a few spidercrabs for examination and experimentation? Or some other species of monster? I can get a few boxed up pretty easily for experimentation, and I think we need to know what’s happening as soon as possible. This might be even more important to figuring out how to keep mana from driving people insane.” Alice felt some of her fear dissipate as Ethan returned her focus to experiments. She had never seen monsters acquire Perks before… but they could prove viable experimental subjects for figuring out what was going on. And she could also use them to experiment with Alice-brand System mana, whenever she got it working.

Of course, Alice first needed to make sure that she didn’t somehow empower the monster species ten orders of magnitude beyond their current level and start the end of the human race. However, since she had just seen a pack of monsters use a bunch of perks and intelligent tactics in a battle, the genie might already be out of the bottle on that one.

Alice twitched.

As much as this sounded like another catastrophe in the making, at least Alice didn’t have to worry about using experimental subjects if she used monsters as test subjects. Considering how many spidercrabs had tried to eat her when she first arrived on this planet, she didn’t feel an ounce of sympathy for them – and by every single observation made in the last few hundred years of recorded history, nobody else had ever seen monsters do anything but try to eat people.

 Since that was the case, Alice was more than happy to murder monsters in her pursuit of a way to fix this whole mess. Understanding how monsters interacted with complex forms of mana and how monsters could change and evolve had suddenly become a topic of utmost importance.

And Alice needed to figure out what was happening with the monsters as quickly as possible. If this problem wasn’t a local one, then on top of people being unable to select Perks without help, levelling up potentially driving people made, Mages failing to create new magic seeds, and the internal disorder of the church of the System, Illvaria needed to deal with intelligent, tactics and Perk-using monster swarms.

 

So, update.

My thumb still hurts.

It has been about a month now.

My doctor’s office was unavailable today, so I couldn’t schedule an appointment. To be fair, I probably should have expected that, since I live in the US and it’s the day after thanksgiving. Not many offices are open today.

Hopefully I can get the visit scheduled for something early or mid next week, I guess. I’ll have to check up on that once their office hours resume. I’m still not quite sure what that means for next week’s schedule, so… uhh… we’ll see what happens? I’ll try to remember to make an announcement when stuff gets scheduled, if it’ll affect next week’s chapter release, but I’m running a bit on guesswork right now. We’ll see what happens when I know more. Just be prepared for scheduling and chapter releases to be potentially weird or canceled, I guess? I’ll keep you updated when I know more. Depending on what’s going on with my thumb, I might need to take a bit of time not writing the story, or start my vacation next month early, or something. I was really expecting my thumb to have healed by now, but after a month of it being hard to do stuff with my thumb, I think it’s time to go see what’s up with it. After that, if the doctor says it's easy to fix and I just need to do something basic, chapters probably won't be affected. If doctor says 'don't move it for a month, do this instead and take this medication' or something, I might not be able to write during that time. We'll see what happens.

Thanks and sorry for potential future schedule disruptions,

-Acaswell

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