Author's Note! - Schedule Change Ahead!
It's been a wild, wonderful ride preparing and sharing these chapters with you at a breakneck pace! I hope you're enjoying reading them as much as I did writing them!
I will be slowing down the pace just a bit, though. - Don't worry, it won't be one chapter every other week or anything like that :)
Instead it will be Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. 3 chapters a week, every week, until book 1 is done!
Thanks again for checking out my story! And if you would like to help support me as an author, then I hope you'll check out my Endless Online & Silver Fox & The Western Hero Series, both on Kindle Unlimited!
Eric went for a reassuring smile. The furiously blazing arrow filling the entire chamber with the smells of pork left too long on the grill was instantly returned to storage. "Morlekai! Damn good to see you up on your feet! How are you feeling?”
The man’s eyes locked with Eric’s own before he slowly lowered his head. “I feel as if I owe you a great debt.”
Little more than a husky whisper, the air resonated with how profoundly he meant it, Eric even sensing an interface message which he promptly paid no attention to.
Instead he grinned and tossed the man one of the flasks of ale he had purchased at the tavern and chilled in the lake before storing, and thank goodness that drinking laws were a thing of the ancient past, and the most primal of all cultural norms was once more in effect.
If one was old enough to kill, whether as a soldier, a deputy, or otherwise, then one was old enough to drink and enjoy all the other privileges of maturity that were the hallmarks of countless eras and civilizaitons. Anything else, to Eric’s mind, smacked of political condescension and absolute hypocrisy. As if the rich and powerful were saying with their wide, shark-toothed smiles, “Go overseas and kill for your country’s national interests, which so often happen to be our political donor’s corporate interests. Then you get to deal with your PTSD and the deaths of your friends stone cold sober, while we’re getting drunk off your blood, sweat, and tears in the Hamptons.”
It was a thought that had always filled him with disgust ever since one of his gamer buddies, who was himself actively serving, had first made that cynical observation. Never mind that Eric had never really been a drinker at all, that he and his family were most definitely a part of that elite class, or once had been, and that his mother had made a point of offering them after-dinner wine since they were children.
He decided right then and there that no matter how high he got on the totem pole of life, he'd never ask a man or woman to risk their lives doing shit he himself wouldn't, and any youth mature enough to fight horrors by his side was more than mature enough for a drink with friends they could trust to watch their backs afterwards.
Eric drank deep of his own ale, smacked his lips at the tangy fruity taste, and saluted his friend. “What’s say you and I go butcher the shit out of a gang of orcs?”
A slow smile crept up Morlekai's features as he slowly got his bearings. "I think I'd like that very much, Eric."
Eric nodded, his face suddenly turning deadly serious. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Because the bad guys now have a four-hour lead on us. Knowing how fast we move, and what a lazy ass Usef is, and somehow I doubt orcs are going to rush headlong at full speed down dark hallways, crossing who knows how many realms or dimensions without keeping sharp eyes out… I'm thinking we might have just enough time to intercept them before the main thoroughfare divides into the network of tunnels hiding our home, and who knows how many other neighboring pocket realms. Or hell, just more endless hallways and tunnels."
Morlekai smiled hungrily, taking a chomp of the crispy meat skewer Eric had passed him earlier. “Then I suggest we get going.”
Eric forced himself to say it, after gathering the entire massive bulwark he had created, tightly bound slabs of meat reinforced and braced by bone and sinew, the whole thing covered with lizard hide, in the blink of an eye. "Do you… need anything before we leave?"
This earned a sardonic smirk. “Right now, all I need is the blood of my enemies, Eric. And of course, for you to lead the way, since my interface map seems to be completely blank.”
Eric nodded. “I think it’s because we really do have an overlapping mesh-work of dimensional tunnels going on. It also explains why orcs don’t just dig down, if they think there’s a rebel alliance forming underneath their feet.”
“Correct. Also they tend to be just as lazy and gluttonous as their appearance suggests.”
“And tasty,” Eric said with a fierce grin.
Morlekai blinked at this. “You’ve actually...”
Eric laughed. “What the hell do you think you’re eating?”
Morlekai frowned thoughtfully, but didn’t stop chewing. “Eric...”
"I'm going to kill them, you know," Eric said in an eerily soft voice. Fists clenched, he shivered with the intensity of his words as he led them back to the main corridor. “All of them. I’ll destroy their fortresses. I’ll burn their cities, butcher their leaders, and slaughter their soldiers! After all the horror and death those monsters have caused, I'm making it my life's mission to purge this world of every damned orc who ever fought under the Blackfang banner!"
The words echoed eerily through the hallway. Eric lurched, almost certain that he had dared something irrevocable, made a commitment that would now form the foundation of his core.
He clenched his fists all the harder, the fierce fire in his heart blazing all the brighter.
He didn’t care what the System might or might not make of his oath.
He meant every word of it, and had every intention of carrying it out.
For a time Eric lost himself in the simple act of racing through the endless tunnels, of becoming one with the darkness all around. After long frustrating moments of struggling to find his rhythm, irritating splashes and the clomp of boots against gravel slowly became the deadly silence of feet clad only in furs, at one with their environment as infravision and a growing sixth sense allowing him to slip through the stone tunnels with no more sign of his passage than the faint pervasive sourceless breeze forever flowing through the central passageways.
He soon became so lost in the zen of effortless movement, flowing from one silent step to the next, that he hardly registered his interface’s notification that both Stealth and Infravision had leveled up as he inexorably closed in on a deadly band of eight foot tall porcine psychopaths.
Like the desperate fool he was, racing to his doom.
Or perhaps like the wolf, reveling in the hunt, closing in on his prey.
As to which more accurately described him… he was eager to find out.
“Eric.” The words were not so much words as the faint caw of a crow. “You do understand what you did, do you not?”
Eric turned his irritated grimace at being pulled out of his trance into a genuine smile and nodded. “You mean the broadhead? It’s not a stunt I dare with the crossbow bolts. Not yet. But that arrow? Oh yes, that will be fun.”
“No, Eric. Not the arrow. The wall.”
Eric furrowed his brow, confused, but not thinking too deeply, lest it disrupt the zone he was in. “What do you mean by the wall?”
It was a strange thing, Eric thought in passing, as he embraced the feel of the quiet dark flowing all around him, to hear a crow sigh.
“The reinforced wall of flesh, armored lizard hide, and bone that you were using as a backstop for your target shooting."
Eric smiled, instantly understanding. "Yes! Epic, isn't it? Just thinking of an added surprise twist we can spring on our enemies. Because the last thing they're expecting is to find some massive reinforced bulwark precisely wide enough to fit the corridor we're in, and I can always tilt it a few degrees if I must, complete with arrow slits and reinforced slides, so those assholes are forced to climb over it if they want to get at the pair of us shooting at them from cover. And by the time they manage to squirm their massive armor-covered bodies over the top..." Eric rubbed his hands together with hungry glee. "We'll have wonderful presents all ready to go for them."
The crimson crow tilted its head. “Your sense of tactics is actually… acceptable. You do know your wall is a necromantic construction, however, correct?”
Eric blinked. “Come again?”
This earned a mocking caw. “Oh well, looks like the mayor won’t be getting all that meat he wanted after all!”
Eric's scowl grew. "What are you talking about? All I did was take maximum advantage of my Extra-Dimensional Storage space and my ability to visualize my own contents and imagine putting it together in a shape and form that was a little bit more, well, durable, then warm hunks of oozing meet covered by drooping hide."
The crow nodded. “I have no doubt. I don’t suppose you visualized such things as the bones and ligaments naturally inserting themselves where they’d offer the most support, reinforced by muscle and sinew to assure it all held soundly together?”
Eric nodded. "Of course! I mean, all our hunter friend did was separate the components. It was all there… right? So I just, umm…. visualized it all slipping together in a way that would make it really strong. Especially a really sturdy crenelated wall with reinforced sides and a base that wouldn't fall over."
“Of course you did.” The crow sighed. “And I don’t suppose you noticed the depletion of any of your lifeforce… or, ahem… experience points, when you did so?”
Eric frowned. "Actually, I'm kind of pissed about that. My interface said I tapped the what I had left after my last level-up. Worse, I lost another 26 hours of life by the time I was done with everything. How the fuck did that happen?"
The crow gazed at him intently. "Eric, you do know that you're walking acrooked path, now, yes? The paths of the Bloodmage. The Necromancer...” The bird paused for a long moment. “The Flesh Sculpter.”
Eric blinked. “Is that what this is about? I told you, I was just taking advantage of my ESS...”
“Eric!” The crow cut him off. “Notice any new skills on your interface sheet?”
Eric scowled. “What, no… shit.” He blinked and slowed down despite himself, scowling anew. Because right there at the bottom of his Level 8 character sheet, was a fresh new necromantic skill.
Eric Silver - Level 8 Conscript (0% of the way to level 9!)
Strength – 16 (88%)
Vitality – 21
Finesse – 19
Quickness – 15
Appearance – 10
Scholarship – 12
Perception – 17
Willpower – 17
Charisma – 13
Arcane Potential – 14
Spiritual Energy – 16
Soul Reserves – 25 (24)
Stamina – 246
Health – 306
Resistances & Recovery
Physical Resistance – 1 (Your bones are exceedingly tough to break, and you now resist a portion of all damage that penetrates your armor!)
Physical Regeneration – You recover 1 Health Point every 13 seconds.
Elemental Resistance – 0
Qi Resistance – 0
Mental Resistance – 1
Physical Age = 17 Years (+26 hours forever lost!)
Interface Recognized Skills
Acting – Rank 3
Bardiche (Glaive) – Rank 9
Bardiche (War Blade) – Rank 9
Bow (Compound) – Rank 9
Bow (Yew Longbow) – Rank 9
Crossbows – Rank 12 (True Strike)
Dagger – Rank 3
ESS Manipulation – Rank 7
Find Weakness – Rank 4
Negotiation – Rank 5
Repair – Rank 1
Saber – Rank 11 (Doom Slice)
Spear – Rank 11 (Piercing Strike)
Stealth – Rank 8
Swimming – Rank 2
Unarmed Combat – Rank 4
Necromancer Affinities & Skills
Blood Mastery – Rank 10 (Blood Claimance)
Rituals of Summoning and Binding – Rank 6
Flesh Sculptor – Rank 1
You are now an Initiate of the Path of Blood!
You are now an Initiate Necromancer!
Full Neuro-Linguistic capabilities
Extradimensional Storage Space
Fire (Rank 1, White Tier)
Wrath (Rank 1, White Tier)
Essence Related Skills:
Burst of Strength: Rank 5
Infravision: Rank 5
Heat Surge: Rank 5
Necromantic Prodigy – Adept tier Necromantic paths are now open to you!
Unformed (Trash Tier) Cultivation Technique (Flame Origin) – Rank 1
Eric scowled at his interface. “What the hell.”
The bird looked at him curiously. “What does it say?”
Eric sighed and shook his head. “Well, besides calling me a necromantic prodigy and insulting my mother, it says I now have the Flesh Sculptor skill?”
The crow looked unquestionably smug. "Yes, you do."
“Yeah, but what exactly does it mean?”
“I means you’re one of us, Eric. Not that I had any doubt.”
Eric frowned. “A vampire?”
“Don’t be an ass.”
Eric winced. “Alright, I’m just saying...”
“The world’s now rich in Arcane magics so potent it’s destroyed civilization as we knew it. But our world’s always been steeped in lore and wisdom that has nothing to do with throwing streams of fire or bolts of lightning.”
Eric's eyes widened, curious despite himself as he continued making his way down the corridor. "No shit. Okay, so we had wizards, but they didn't tap into the arcane energies available to us now. So what did they… oh. Of course. It's all in the name."
The crow nodded. "The blood, seed, or lifeforce of oneself, or one's target. Lifeforce is by far the most potent force and, for obvious reasons, limits practitioners significantly. Because all the power in the world does you little good if you die a decrepit old man before you're thirty."
Eric blinked, gazing intently at the crow. "Yeah, why do I suddenly feel like this is the farthest thing from a safe path to follow?"
The crow snorted. "For all its failings and shortcomings, the System has given our kind a priceless boon. Because now we're able to tap into the Potency of our kills, or experience points, without any lengthy dark rituals needed in order to channel our arts, and without having to tap into our own life force at all."
"And that opens up all sorts of delicious possibilities," Eric said, instantly getting it.
"It does indeed. Because as much as the balance of political, geographic, and arcane power has shifted so dramatically with the influx of arcane magic and the System, Bloodmages and Necromancers like ourselves, even when stuck with the most basic of Conscript classes, are now in a position to blossom like never before, destined to rise from the ashes of our broken world as a true force to be reckoned with!”
Eric grinned. “It almost makes me think that the interface warning me not to take any Necromantic hybrid classes was maybe just a bit jealous?”
The crow nodded. "It could be that it seeks to discourage any unorthodox mixing of power, lest natives find loopholes in a System that benefits the invaders, those whose arrival coincided so strongly with the pods and multiple arcane forces and fields that subsequently flooded our world, far more than it does the invaded.”
Eric smirked. “Like settlers automatically discounting the value of any medicinal or technological insights native populations might have as they supplant and replace native tribes.”
The crow cawed. “And all you have to do is look at Alice unleashing lightning blast after lightning blast, refueling instantly from the energies absorbed from her kills, embracing both her heritage and the System’s arcane tools, to see just how powerful those synergistic combinations between blood magic and the arcane arts can be. Even as the least of all classes, a Conscript, with a manufactured artifact, she is perhaps the equal or near equal of an elite Elven mage of her level. In terms of raw damage output, if nothing else. And even her artifact, bonded as it is to her by our arts, can neither be destroyed nor stolen without her being able to re-summon it, as it is now truly is a part of her.”
Eric grinned. “That is a sweet point. Even if she can only cast spells by claiming magical tools, If those tools are blood-linked to her, they really are a part of her, so they truly are an extension of her power.”
The crow nodded. “My sister would agree. Despite the cost.”
Eric frowned. “Cost?”
The crow dipped it's head. "For her, it cost of vitality and life both, to bind that arcane tool fully to her will, to make it an extension of her soul. Fortunately, our, ahem, bloodletting outside the house did much to replenish energies lost.”
Eric grinned. “And I get the feeling that Drake and Louie did lots of replenishing for her as well.”
The crow sighed.
Eric winced. “I’m sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said that.”
The crow shrugged. Which looked rather odd for a crow. “She is her mother’s daughter. It is an unassailable truth, no matter how she seeks to fight it, or deny her nature as she has for so long, attempting to walk the path of the pure mage, relying on her gifts alone to recharge her mana pool, where Elves shine above all other races, from what I have gleaned.”
Eric nodded. "But they won't shine above your sister if she's instantly replenished by taking out trash mobs. But if we’re fighting a boss creature...”
“Exactly,” The crow said. “Much like the lizards she couldn’t quite take out, without your assistance. Which is why she focuses her level-up points almost exclusively on increasing her Mana Pool, so she can last long enough to finish her prey off, and benefit from a massive recharge.”
“Makes sense," Eric acknowledged. "I'm glad she's hitting the gym, though. Free boosts to Strength and Vitality, if you're willing to put in the sweat and tears."
Eric smiled, enjoying the odd camaraderie with the crow as they continued to race down the corridors. Clearly the bird was still Morlekai, yet at the same time, the avian was nothing like the silent head of the family with a perpetual brooding half-smile and a plan of some sort flittering in the back of his mind.
Regardless, Eric enjoyed learning what the crow knew of the goings-on in the world above… including the constant skirmishes between the elves and the orcs who violently fought to wrest control of multiple territories from one another, and the hopes that, if worst came to worst, Junk Town's inhabitants would be permitted to cross Elven territory to get to Freetown, one of the few safe havens willing to accept traders, refugees, and adventurers of all sorts, so long as they were skilled, had goods to sell, or could find work. The soul caveat being the major goblin influence in the city, which meant that it definitely had its ruthless, cutthroat elements as far as trade and bargaining went. The easiest way to avoid any trouble, Morlekai emphasized, was just to avoid falling into debt with anyone, under any circumstances.
Eric had frowned at that part. “So no taking loans from the bank in Freetown, or going into debt with any goblin merchant.”
The crow snorted. “Which is just common sense. They’re goblins. They make payday lenders look like saints. Regardless, anyone stopping to buy supplies or trade is welcome. And so long as you stay off of every goblin’s ledgers, you should be fine. But if you're seeking to stay for an extended period, you’d best be an active adventurer or have a trade in demand. When my sister and I left, things were both stable and quiet in the city as a whole, for all that the wealthiest portion of our city's population were dead set on accruing the capital necessary to permanently retire to the Blue Quarter with the most luxurious apartments, manors, and shops, and a far more… forgiving atmosphere. So long as you had the cash."
The crow cawed with rueful laughter. “Of course, it’s every adventurer’s dream to generate enough wealth that they could move to the most luxurious quarter of the city, even if only Guild Leaders and their lieutenants have a realistic shot of making that kind of money.”
The crow gave Eric’s ear a polite peck. “You’re already an adventurer, and my sister and I will be the first to vouch for your skill, so your worth is a given. No, Eric. Freetown politics are the least of our mayor's worries. It's the fact that the orcs have not only overtaken Gilton, but have strengthened their foothold and have begun expanding their reach, forcing the elves back in their attempts to declare this entire state an extension of their territory. This is what's causing Mayor Stibbs all his restless nights. Because the one escape route we have out of the underworld that does not lead to the city still leads right to the border between elf and orc territory. The former are arrogant bastards, and you'd best lower your head and give tribute. But to their own minds, at least, they're the fairest of all races and take it as a point of pride if they can claim a world with a minimum of native casualties."
Eric winced. “Still sounds like a far cry from a life of freedom.”
"It is. We'd at best be valued serfs earning our way to freeman status and the right to one day buy property of our own. Among the orcs, on the other hand..."
Eric's jaw's tightened, his bonhomie mood, chatting with the crow on his shoulder instantly souring as he focused once more on the monsters who had nearly killed him and his sister both. Monster now doing all they could to enslave his people and overrun their world. He didn't bother saying anything else, merely picking up his pace and embracing the darkness once more, the air utterly silent save for the rustle of tiny scurrying things, the faint grunts of orcs up ahead, and the memory of his sister’s screams filling Eric with a white-hot rage.
Then he hissed and slowed down. “They’re close by!”
"Good. Then you know what to do." A flurry of wings and Morlekai was once more in the flesh, his cold, no-nonsense demeanor definitely that of the don once more.
Eric flashed a tight smile, summoning his blood-linked bow with a thought, slowly approaching his prey.