“I tried to change, to give the Hales a chance and it is working… somewhat. I always knew they were good people — after all, who would take in a kid like me —, but now I truly see it. They will never replace the void left by my parents, but they don’t need to. I just have to accept their help and stop looking back, nothing good is waiting for me back there.”
~ Third entry, Leo’s journal
Twenty-seven days and thirteen hours. Not even an entire month to get to Nick, Lily, and Leo’s adoptive parents. Truly this race against time couldn’t compare to some of the deadlines Leo received during his time as a University student or reporter for the local news.
Back then Leo knew what he was doing and even if the deadline was catching up to him, he never gave up because it was something he practiced for years. But now? Now Leo was going in almost completely blind, guided by a System that barely provided him with any useful information.
Out of the frying pan into the fire. Leo sighed, picking up two small rocks and randomly throwing them on the Gateway’s platform.
The pebbles clattered against the mysterious material, bouncing a few times before finally stopping just next to the gate. The entire platform remained unchanged even after the small intrusion and so Leo took a step forward.
No matter how much Leo wanted to run away and continue his main task with renewed vigor, he had to at least investigate the gate a bit further. He might not get the chance to study it in the future depending on what would come from it.
And so, without a sound, Leo placed his foot on the dark material. Just like with a normal rock, the ground was hard under his feet as he walked towards the gateway. Hell, even with all of the violet lines, it had no irregularities, just like a perfectly cut and polished stone.
Leo almost held his breath as he stopped before one of the thick pillars that made the gate. Hand shakily raising towards the dark surface, he gasped, jerking the limb away as even after a single touch a surge of foreign Essence tried to force itself into his body.
Leo recognized the energy easily. The same powerful Essence that he drained from every Voidling he killed. Only here the Pure Void Essence was wilder, trying to attack him after a single contact. Completely unlike the energy Leo took from other creatures.
He shook his head, taking another minute to just walk around the gateway, scanning it from top to bottom with both his eyes and Identify. Though he didn’t dare to touch the structure again with unprotected skin. Maybe if Leo had more control over his own Essence, there would be something else he could do, but for now, a simple investigation was just fine for him. Not that he found anything useful anyway.
“If you could tell me just a bit more. Anything that isn’t just a warning,” Leo muttered, reading the description of the Planetary Gateway once again.
Dismissing the information, Leo sighed as he turned away from the alien structure and began walking in the same direction he had previously chosen. There was nothing left here for him and it was high time to move on.
But even as Leo wandered through the wheat fields, his mind just couldn’t give up the new mystery of the Void Gates.
Thousands of those things just grew in random locations, adding to the chaos that already settled over the Earth. And that was without adding the possibility of creatures other than Voidlings coming through the gates. Leo didn’t want to believe that there was something worse than Voidling out there, but he watched enough movies to know to never dismiss this option.
And once again I’m trying to drown myself in all of the negativity I can muster… Lily would be proud of me. Leo snorted and tried to force himself to think about something that really needed his attention.
Leo had to fix this skill before he went into the city. There was no way the monstrosity he called stealth now, had any chances of hiding him from Voidlings waiting at every corner. Against one or two low-leveled Cursed Humans it might work well enough, but what if Leo met more types of monsters during his journey with enough brain to see through his trick.
Yeah. Let’s get to work.
The protective barrier sprang into existence with just a thought, all of the imperfections now clear as day. Leo lessened his hold on the Essence and smiled when the skill didn’t fade away.
Once again Leo focused on the holes in the barrier and unlike the last time, he slowly filled each of them, giving every gap a moment to adjust to the new flow of Essence. Sometimes Leo had to fight his soul energy for control, but it never took longer than a few seconds to make it obedient again.
As Leo worked, his walking speed almost slowed to a crawl, and not once did he try to speed up, his pace. The improvement of the skill too important to throw his focus somewhere it wasn't needed.
Alright, one problem down. Two to go. He thought, scanning the entire ability for every flaw in the density of the barrier.
There were plenty of those irregularities. Places where the layer of Essence was almost nonexistent or where it became so thick that Leo had to wonder how the skill still worked.
He poked those spots, trying to understand how to fix this new problem. Filling holes was one thing, but adding or removing Essence that already formed a skill was another. Forcing more Essence over the thin layer only destabilized the skill and any attempt at cutting off the flow of energy ended with stealth vanishing from his body. Such an outcome always forced Leo to take a few deep breaths, unless he wanted to delay his progress even more.
Starting from the beginning could get old very quickly and Leo really wouldn’t mind punching something very hard.
In the end, Leo found the perfect solution to his problem just when a road leading to the eastern entrance to the city appeared on the horizon. For another few minutes, his body walked on autopilot as his mind activated stealth once again, ready to finish the job.
Like each time Leo started by filling every hole, and then and only then he used his new plan. Instead of pushing more Essence into the thin spots, Leo slowly transferred the excess of energy from the thicker places to even out the entire barrier.
With every imperfection fixed, he could feel more and more of Essence’s movement inside the barrier. And when the last damaged layer was gone Leo stopped as he registered the lack of any sound around him apart from the light breeze that rustled through the wheat.
Wait a second. Leo frowned as he took another step and the usual thud of his feet against the ground was missing yet again. Is that what you’re capable of? He thought as he felt around the barrier that was just a step away from being fixed.
Leo sat down on the hard ground and closed his eyes. With every improvement he made to stealth, the ability required less Essence and time to form and now even muffled the sound Leo made. Just what else it could do if the Essence from the filled gaps managed to act like the rest of the barrier.
Can it truly be so simple?
Even now with all the points in Mind, Leo barely could feel the Essence of the environment, much less use it. But it didn’t mean that there was no way to achieve the same thing that the skill did during its formation.
Legs crossed, Leo once more utilized his previous trick. Only this time he exchanged Essence between two places, tightly intertwining the Essence imitating the energy of the environment with the Essence Leo used to fill the gaps.
The new energy could no longer ignore the previously formed barrier as it was forced to adapt by the overwhelming pressure from every side. Leo grinned as the crimson spots slowly disappeared from the skill, slowly forming a perfect — at least for now — ability.
And then when the last imperfection faded away, Leo gasped, his body bending forward as the barrier squeezed his body and before disappearing. No matter how much Leo wanted to complain about being manhandled by his own skill, he just couldn’t stop the first genuine smile from forming on his lips as a notification appeared before his eyes.
Congratulations, your Stealth evolved.
True Stealth (Uncommon):
With practice and hard work, the shortcomings of basic stealth were removed. Now you can truly walk among your enemies as Essence guides you on your way. But beware, that nothing is ever perfect.
Advanced ability capable of shielding you with a strong layer of controlled Essence. When activated your Essence signature will be harder to detect while your scent and any sound you make will be hidden. The efficiency of this skill is dependent on your Mind and Dexterity.
Instead of being led by instincts like before, the knowledge on how to properly form the skill from the get-go rushed inside Leo’s mind. The smile on his face widened as he finally understood every single thing about his ability, even the bit about opening his Essence to the environment so it could gain the required properties.
Standing up, Leo called the True Stealth forth and shivered as the barrier surrounded his body. He felt around its edges, searching for the usual imperfections, but found none.
“It worked,” Leo muttered, only for the sound to never leave his mouth. It truly did.
A bit over a day passed and Leo somehow managed to force a skill to evolve by gaining meager control over an Energy he had never used before. What more could he accomplish with more control? With more time?
Leo stood up and threw his bag over his shoulder. The pain faded into the background as Leo walked, his head spinning with all the ideas given to him by a simple evolution of the skill.
Maybe there is really a chance to survive this shit.
Unlike the road Leo crossed before, this one barely had enough space to let two cars pass next to each other. Not really that surprising as the road didn't lead anywhere important and no one really cared about replacing it with something better.
And so the road remained, full of holes and without even any sort of surface markings. As the road just got worse with every mile further into the east, barely anyone used it and thus Leo only met two Voidlings on his way back towards the city.
The first one never noticed him as Leo plunged a dagger inside its head and the second was howling inside an overturned car by the road. Not even a challenge at this point, but Leo knew he would get his chance as soon as he noticed the building that signaled the official entrance to Wolford.
A simple petrol station with three pumps, a store and a small parking lot on the side. Nothing special at first glance, but most citizens of Wolford knew better, including Leo. With a very unique name of “Fill me”, the local petrol station had the best prices in the entire Wolford and even people from the opposite side of the city drove here to refill.
As such Leo wasn’t even surprised when he counted over a dozen Voidlings walking in the area, with cars abandoned at every corner. Some of the vehicles just stood crushed at the side of the road, while most were just parked in the lot or next to a pump.
From here Leo had options to choose from. He could either go around the petrol station and enter a small residential area that stood next to the industrial part of Wolford, Leo’s original target. Or he could approach the small store from the back and try to kill a few Voidlings.
I can’t run anymore, not after I just promised to change. I have to take some risks if I want to grow stronger and this is a chance I might not get again. Leo thought, his eyes never leaving the station. Besides, I might be able to kill a bit more than just a few. He added as one Crystalized Essence slipped into his hand.
Nodding, Leo retreated into the wheat field and moved, crouching all of the way towards a place where the farmlands met with the back of the petrol station.
With the shop hiding the rest of the station from Leo's sight, he quickly scanned the area and grabbed the dagger from his waistline. He had to get to the backdoor of the shop and thankfully only one Voidling decided to guard the back of the petrol station.
The true stealth formed around his skin and Leo moved, the only car — a yellow sedan — in the back becoming his first cover. He peeked over the vehicle’s mask, searching for the lone monster.
Still there, good. Leo noted as he watched the Voidling investigate the wall of the shop just a few feet away from the backdoor.
A short, soundless run was all it took to bring the monster to the ground, a dagger piercing its brain. Claws followed soon after and the body turned into dust as Leo approached the closed door.
Cursed Human (LVL: 2) slain | Experience awarded | 1 Ether gained
Leo gripped the handle and twisted, praying to whoever was listening to grant him this small mercy. The lock clicked and Leo sighed as the door opened without a sound.
Taking a quick peek inside, Leo confirmed that the small office indeed lacked any surprises that could jump out at any moment. Though with the few changing lockers and boxes standing in the corner, one could never know and so Leo checked every object he saw. Just to be sure.
Leo nodded as he closed the lid of the last box. No surprises indeed. Now for the next part of the plan.
He opened the door leading to the main part of the shop and hid behind one of the shelves with candies as a quiet screech reached his ears. A quick look over the shelf made Leo grin a bit as he noticed only two Voidling mulling between the shelves.
Just like the one outside, they two met a quick end as Leo snuck behind them and with one blow rendered their brains useless.
Part two finished. Leo noted and moved to drain the bodies and loot whatever useful he could find inside the shop without alerting the Vodilings outside. In the end, only some dry food was added to his backpack and so the time had come to begin the third and final part of the plan.
Leo stopped in front of the entrance to the shop and took a deep breath. Fingers and claws gripped the edges of the sliding doors as his eyes closed. It is now or never. The last opportunity to stop before everything goes to hell.
Eyes opening, Leo gazed at the creatures walking outside, weaving around the pumps and the broken cars. He could leave and every rational part of Leo’s mind screamed at him to do just that. But should he really listen?
No. Not when he promised to change. Not when Leo knew what could come in the near future. And not when he needed to get stronger, fast.
Leo shook his head. It was never an option to begin with. Let’s see if my plan can work.
And with that Leo, yanked. The doors snapping open with a bang.