How does deer meat taste like?
Differently from a frozen chicken bought in the closest mall on Friday night. Not like beef in a burger from a roadside eatery. Even a turkey stabbed for Thanksgiving tasted quite unlike.
Deer meat tasted like deer meat with ketchup, pepper, and greens. One just had to take a bite.
Robert lifted his eyes and said,
"It's getting dark."
Mindlessly consuming the meat mob answered with 'hm's and chaws. They were eating on the doorstep to the castle: no one wanted to miss a monster invasion.
"You know, I am almost a vegetarian," commented John suddenly. He seemed to be filling himself up pretty happily.
"Why, because everything else tries to kill you?"
"Ha-ha. Think it's funny?"
Nomad crossed his brows seriously and answered after a short pause,
"Well," John dropped his shoulders. "Look around. You watch horrors? There are six white people here and me. What do you think happens with the black guy taken in the cast to shut up the rights shouters?"
Sorry for being too white, the girl grumbled inwardly. A quarter of Korean blood didn't leave her many chances during the gene lottery known as conceiving.
"Look at myself. You must think 'That's one big black fella. Surely he had his share of fights'," John grimaced and then snorted. "The closest I ever got to was Tekken on my PS4."
"What about your school?" asked Dunkan.
"Good one, safe neighborhood. Whatever pocket bullies there were they had better targets than me."
"Sport?" asked Nomad.
"Basketball, you say," the 'big black fella' rolled his eyes and bit onto a bone. "Not bad, not good. Mediocre is the best."
"It's really getting dark."
On Jean's note, everyone nodded. The day wasn't ending with the dawn, suns still looked bright as ever. It seemed like the great filter, which was protecting them from the transition into a gaseous state, had started to block more and more visible light.
"The gate is still opened. We have... an hour until the barrier is activated."
Again, everyone nodded on professor Lauster's words. Alice was the last to put down her plate and wipe her mouth and cheeks.
"Surely everybody has their thoughts on our situation. Each of us made several decisions in the last hours. Alice here decided we don't need to risk a war with goblins yet. No!" the woman gestured a 'shoosh'. "We will not bash her for that. There wasn't any pre-arrangement regarding suspiciously sapient races. Asking her or Duncan to murder someone and then bear the consequences is both reckless and borderline immoral."
"No! Robert. Anyone with eyes in the forest down there can see the castle is habitual now. Alice might have lost a few hours of suspense yet left a peaceful solution possible. However, Alice. What others are complaining inwardly is surely not as simple as your decision itself. What we all really decry is your failure to communicate it. Please!" Melissa Lauster again quieted the clamor.
"It's not completely your sole fault, either," continued she kindly. "We got used to acting alone and making all the choices for ourselves. That was the purpose of Phase One of these Training Grounds – or one of them, I suppose.
"Even I've failed. I admit to forgetting to ask us a simple question.
"We made several jointed decisions since the beginning of Phase Two. I find them to be very reasonable. Yet it's not enough so I shall ask you all: from now on, are we acting as a team or not? We decide with a simple hand lifting. Yes or not."
The very simple inquiry indeed struck the former students. Alice especially. As the girl could barely tolerate faults in others she was able to condemn herself just as easily. Calm, blameless analysis pointed at her mistake without cornering her against all.
Alice closed her eyes, isolating herself from the world. Team, team... she was familiar with a term, but the girl rarely teemed with anyone. From her experience, someone would always be a person who carries all the load. In school projects, she had been that person for the necessity to keep high grades.
Robert and John lifted their hands at the same time. Jean and Nomad followed and Duncan after, reserved and slow.
They are all smart people. They will do their best, too. It's just...
"Unfair," murmured Alice and opened her eyes. Professor Lauster was watching at her calmly and tiredly. No one knew, but her speech had cost her many repetitions. The rest were staring at the short girl with impatience, masked and not. 'We made our decision, so get over it already', she felt a vibe.
"Let me tell you something about the templates."
"That's all, I think," summed up Alice and squinted at the half-baked team expectantly.
"You can have several classes? Isn't it OP as f..." the guys rioted.
"No-no-no. And I explained during our phase one, right?"
"Months passed for us," shrugged Nomad after Robert cast an uncertain gaze aside.
The girl explained fuzzy parts again. Robert blinked.
"I get it now. You must spend a hell lot of points to keep up with normal classes and you don't have attribute points. That..."
"Sucks," the guys baring Duncan said in unison.
Then Alice opened her status and described the skill list in it. She felt pretty safe since it only had her hunter template's items in it.
Alice Sung-Hyun Branson
|Age: 16||Strength: 10
||Hunter Level 9||105,600/129,000|
|Race: Human||Agility: 13||...||-/1,000|
|Status: Calm, Satisfied||Dexterity: 13
|Total Level: 9||Endurance: 11
|Skill Points: 13||Mind: 2
|Battle Points: 19,250->21,879||Vitality: 5||...||...|
|Observation: 3||Stealth: 3||Butchering: 2|
|Hunt: 4||Bow↑: 5||Spear↑: 5|
"...and I have 13 skill points."
The silence was the answer.
"What, that bad?" inquired Alice gloomily.
"Well... I am level 8 now, halfway to 9," Robert started carefully. "I have four masteries leveled to 5 and a sword art. My basic skills greyed out on their own. I also bought 'Observation' from the shop. If you make specific inquiries to it the system would show you what you want, he-he. Something like that, I think?"
"He is a Swordsman, advanced class of Warrior," added Duncan suddenly for everyone. The gazes made him shrink back a bit, but not cease talking. "I am Sage, an advanced class. We also have Witch, Shaman, Inscriber, and Artificer, all advanced classes. My Wisdom skill says so."
All gazes focused back on Alice.
"Hunter, basic template."
Worse than a basic class...
"Hey, don't pity me! I can cultivate instead!"
John's eyes shone. Professor Lauster frowned and carefully asked,
"If we are talking about that, Witch skillset includes cultivation and preparing of potions and extracts of all disturbing nature."
"That's not it, teach. What she means..."
Another round of explanations was lead by John, a big fan of Chinese novels. Alice was at most adding meager personal experiences to his descriptions, which was very helpful to her mission of hushing up the Leviathan part.
When John explained the gist of it, the team only had only one question.
"Can I/we cultivate?"
"Well, I'm definitely talented or else the systems wouldn't force it on me," Alice was never modest. "The system shop has a special test I want to take for my leveling plan. 5,000 battle points. You might as well take it too."
"If it proves useful," Robert shrugged.
"Besides, I really know nothing about cultivation. We need the library."
For a few moments, everyone was musing about a wonderful future waiting for them and all the costly stuff they had to buy to reach it.
"Okay!" professor Lauster clapped her hands. "We have a few more minutes until the active barrier is installed.
"I believe, Alice wants to say that, as a team, we would have to spend our points on castle upgrades equally and it puts her at a severe disadvantage personally. Can we do something with it? Hm?"
"I have an idea," lifted her hand Jean a showed her notebook. "Look at this list."
|Tower of Trials||0/10,000|
"We all need the active barrier, that is why we bought it. Personally, my class needs this Magic Workshop to function and that's it. We all have the most important, right?"
Jean then murmured 'well, not this storage...' and beamed,
"Scar, pick one! You would take care of it, upgrades and all and we would take care of the rest."
A generous offer, so naturally Alice felt embarrassed and therefore angry.
"We'd spend 50% more points..." pointed out Robert.
"Not if she takes her part in castle renovations," counter-argued John. "I agree. Heck, I am ready to spend twice the amount she spends as long as I don't have to fight.
"What?" he snarled at common disapproval. "Don't give me this 'giant niggas must act manly' bullshit. Some people are cowards and even this bullshit system admits it. Crafter, see, I'm a crafter. Not gonna step out of the barrier without a damn good reason. Ever. I can pay for protection in points, craft, and chores, and I think it's fair."
He nodded several times and looked around proudly. Alice, like all, was speechless. Her fists were itching, but she kind of admired the guy. Rare man would confess to cowardice, and so brazenly to boot.
Then she looked down at a pile of dirty dishes and the 'chores' part instantly became tempting.
"Well, if no one's against..." professor Lauster declared slowly.
She looks at me. Alice clenched her teeth and lifted her hand. Inwardly the girl swore to repay in some way.
The castle wall flared up with calm grey light. Something shifted and the light vanished.
"Barrier is up. Simple, right?" commented Nomad deliberately for Alice and Duncan. "Well, let's look closely?"
"Team, go!" giggled Jean.
The group walked to the gate. A barely observable veil of shine was encircling the whole castle like the outer wall. About five meters away from the real one. Alice squinted: she could discern hieroglyphs and runes covering the whole barrier in an intricate pattern. And behind them...
Behind them, far away down the mountain dozens of small figures were swarming in the dusk.