Chapter 16 – Power Leveling

Eleventh of Learning 1142

Stalker made her way back toward her lair, mind ablaze with what she had felt. What she had learned. Ideas that had never occurred to her before crowded her mind. If she had been human, she’d have gone insane, but she wasn’t– she was just a kreve. She didn’t know that having so many new thoughts at once wasn’t normal…which didn’t mean she didn’t find it overwhelming.

She moved on instinct, not paying attention to the path she traveled. She had changed. Something about touching the shadow had altered her on a basic level. She was both kreve and not kreve at the same time. She was something else. Something had placed its mark upon her when she touched the darkness, and now she was changing.


She was more than a kreve now. Much more. She thought about her pack with a pang and realized she was no longer one of them. That stung. She was changing—would continue to change. But for tonight at least, she was still Stalker. Still herself. And tonight, she could mourn the loss of her pack, for she knew with absolute certainty she would have to leave it.

She couldn’t parse all the changes, the ideas, the chaos in her mind and didn’t try. She simply watched, the way you’d watch a pack of animals before a hunt. She didn’t try to possess any cache of knowledge. She saw it swirl in her mind, taking note of various things that made no sense, not requiring them to make sense. In time, they would…or they would not.

It was a kind of trance she had never experienced and when she again had time to look around, she realized that she was very close to her lair. She had traveled long into the night, and in a short time would be home. Home. It was the wrong word she knew. It was where she had stayed, but it wasn’t safe. Nowhere was ever really safe. It was a place to sleep. And now, she would be leaving behind even that bit of safety to follow… follow… she didn’t know. But she somehow knew that hunger was no longer her most pressing concern.

She reached the cave in which she laired but didn’t enter. Instead she sat, threw back her head and howled. Unlike her normal summoning, this was somehow different. Mournful. Desperate. And the pack heeded her call. They came.

Not all at once. They came in twos and threes, tentatively, cautiously. They gathered in a group unable to explain the tension that had gripped even the least intuitive of them. In the end, even the young males that lived on the periphery of the pack showed up, pacing around the outside of the gathering, neither accepted by the others nor driven away. Their focus was on Stalker, who continued to howl, seemingly oblivious to their presence.

They crowded around, watching her uncertainly. When she finally stopped howling, she looked at each one of them. None moved. And she knew that they too could sense that she had changed. That she was no longer part of the pack. For a very long time, they remained unmoving, unblinking. There was no longer tension, just an unbearable sadness laced with an unconscious understanding that things were about to change.

A young female finally broke the stillness. She approached Stalker and lay down, rolling onto her back, showing her submission. Stalker dipped her head, and licked the female. Eyes half closed, she ran her tongue repeatedly over the female’s fur. She didn’t understand what she was doing, wouldn’t have been able to name it, but anyone with second sight would have seen it immediately. She was casting a spell. A nameless spell. A spell never cast before.

The female was only the first. The others followed. One by one they knelt before her as if they were her subjects, and one by one she cleansed them. Enchanted them. And when it was done, hunger was no longer an issue. She looked at them one final time, bowed her head, then turned and ran off into the night. The others did not follow. They remained behind, watching her go, each thinking their own kreve thoughts, but all of those thoughts were tinged with sadness and loss. Stalker sensed it, then closed her mind to it and ran as she had never run before. Free of the pack, free of her hunger, she ran with a singular purpose. She ran as if the world depended on it. She ran into the night, and other creatures sensed her and moved away, for they had never sensed anything quite like the creature Stalker had become.


Dreek sensed the creature while it was still far away. It had touched him on some deeper level, though he didn’t know how he knew that. This event was beyond his understanding. The only thing he knew for certain is that whatever it was, it was no longer completely kreve. It was something else.

As it approached, he thought about waking the others. He didn’t move however. There was time, and he needed to consider the ramifications of what he felt.

He was so lost in thought, he didn’t realize that Merck had joined him. Was standing beside him. This startled Dreek, because nothing could sneak up on him. Nothing without using some sort of skill. Did he maintain his thief’s skills after all? No, that wasn’t it.

Ressssen had told them all to talk more with Merck, to include him, so against his better judgement, Dreek nodded to him. “You sense it too.”

“I do. It’s coming.”

“What do you believe it portends?”

“I do not know, but it is important.”

They remained silent for a long time, both following the creature’s progress toward them. Finally, Merck spoke.

“It will not hurt us.”

“I know.”

There was nothing else to say. Striker was the next to join them, suddenly awake, sensing the creature approaching, not understanding why or how. Ressssen and Borin followed together and finally Garne. The Misfits of Karmenon stood watching the night. Dawn was not far off, but none of them felt tired. There was a tingle in the air. The electricity before a storm. This was an event of some moment, and they all knew it. They felt it in the very core of their beings.

When it appeared, running as no Kreve had ever run, they watched it. And when it reached them, they welcomed it into their midst without a morsel of fear. But it was Striker who the kreve that was not a kreve approached. The creature crept to her, sat on its haunches and rolled over on its back to show its submission. Striker, as if in a trance, reached out to touch it. And when she did, the spell was broken. Complacency gave way to confusion.

“What in the name of all the gods was that?” growled Garne.

But Striker didn’t move. Didn’t listen. She wasn’t really there. Entombed in the darkest recesses of her mind she heard a voice. A deep, melodic voice unlike any she had ever heard. And what it said was impossible. They were words she knew she would never hear, but she heard them now regardless.

You have reached Hunter Level 5. You have reached Hunter Level 6. You have reached Hunter Level 7. You have reached Hunter Level 8. You have reached Hunter Level 9. You have reached Hunter Level 10. You have reached Tier 2. Hunter class has transitioned into Beast Master class. You have reached Beast Master Level 1. New skill unlocked – Beast Friend. Strength, dexterity, constitution, mental strength, mind power, sight, hearing, sense of smell, sense of taste, tactile sense and natural armor have all increased. A change this drastic to your body is bound to have considerable affects on your ability to function. Suggestion, this might be a good time for a nap.

The confusion around her gave way to concern when Striker crumpled to the floor, unconscious.


The assault began as soon as Chari opened her eyes– an assault sensory in nature rather than physical. Everything around her was off kilter, bordering on the bizarre. The colors, or in some cases lack of color, the way everything around her seemed to change, but never while she was watching, the way objects that were supposed to be solid seemed to ebb and flow as if they were floating on unseen currents. It was as if the rules that governed reality had decided to take a holiday, and what she was left with was pure, unadulterated chaos.

Like the landscape, the sounds around her seemed unrelated to anything going on. Whispers on the wind, moans, creaks, the roar of a predator, tapping, bird call, a thousand sounds competing with each other for which was the most out of place.

Dahr touched her arm to get her attention, and she tensed, half expecting an attack, though she realized it was him before she reached for her sword.

“This place is different from where I was last time,” she said.

“We’re missing Eric.”


She looked around in every direction, but there was no sign of him, and nowhere he could be hiding as the ground, for all its writhing, was relatively flat.

“Eric! Eric!”

She started calling out as loudly as she could, trying to ignore the numerous distractions. There was a lot of sound to compete with however, and she felt that even if he were fairly nearby he might not hear her.

“We have to search for him!”

Dahr shook his head. “He’s not here, I think. He’s…elsewhere.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just do.”

Chari felt frustrated but nodded. She had trouble finding her footing in this place, both literally and figuratively, so Dahr took the lead, something she hadn’t expected.

“This way,” he said, as he started walking over the undulating ground. After a moment of hesitation, Chari followed. Only then did she realize she was clad in leather armor that covered much of her body. It fit so perfectly she hadn’t even realized that it had replaced her outfit until now. She noticed also that Dahr had been given no gear at all. He was wearing the same outfit he’d worn beforehand; a light-colored tunic, leather breeches and boots, yet he seemed completely at ease.

“You seem to be more comfortable here than I am.”

“I’ve been here before.”

“When?” asked Chari, confused.

“I’ve dreamt of this place. I’ve talked to my god here.”

“I see.”

She really didn’t see, but now wasn’t the time to discuss it. She had to remain alert, and the constant turmoil around her made it difficult.

Nothing seemed stable here. Nothing stayed in place. Vibrant colors crept into some features of the landscape at the same time fading from others, leaving behind only shades of gray. A few solitary trees protruded from the ground, thin, barren and mismatched, no two looking the same. Everything seemed to pulse, or expand and contract as if alive. Chari drew her sword, though she didn’t know why. Something had set her on edge, but she couldn’t tell what it was, as if she’d seen something out of the corner of her eye that shouldn’t have been there.

And suddenly there were undead everywhere. Living corpses, some looking half decayed and others more like people who’d only recently died. She hacked into the closest, energized by fear. The creature had once been a woman, but Chari could no longer name her so. She realized that for the first time in her life, she was looking at a zombie. Outrage fueled her ferocity. This woman should have been allowed to rest in peace. That she wasn’t was a crime worse than murder. A murder ended when you died but this…it was like being killed every moment of every day, over and over again, until someone set it right. This poor soul was a prisoner of circumstance, until Chari could free her. Her blade was a whirlwind as she struck out in fury again and again. When the creature crumpled to the ground, almost completely dismembered, Chari risked a glance at Dahr, who had a sword in his hand, though he hadn’t had one with him when she’d looked at him earlier.

“Where did you get the blade?” she called out, already moving to engage more zombies.

“I needed it, so I have it. I told you this. It’s just how it works for me.”


She didn’t have time to say anything else.

The one she had attacked was the only one within striking distance. She hadn’t seen it form, almost as if it had been there all along, and she’d only just noticed. The sensation made her head spin.

Chari didn’t wait for the rest of them to approach. She didn’t even think any of the others had noticed her. She charged at a small group that was closer than the others. She used Puncture, stabbing the closest zombie through the midsection. It didn’t do anything. She dodged a flailing arm and drew her sword back out, swiping hard as soon as it was free. Her sword bit deeply into the side of the creature, but stopped just short of halfway through. She used Amazing Strength and powered the sword through its spine and out the other side. The head and torso dropped right in front of her, while the legs took a step backwards before collapsing.

She took a cut at her next opponent, when she felt something grab her right ankle. She looked down. Though she had cleaved the zombie in two, it had continued to fight. She stamped down hard on its wrist with her left foot. Half of the zombie’s forearm shattered into bone dust, but the hand remained attached and started to squeeze. It was strong. Damnably strong. Chari growled, partly in frustration and partly in pain.

Finally she swiped at the ground, severing the zombie’s head. At once the hand released her and fell to the ground.

“Cut off their heads!” she shouted.

“Or you can burn them,” Dahr shouted back.

He saluted Chari with his sword, and it burst into flames. There were three of them in front of him, and Chari took a step in his direction to help, but he didn’t need it. His flaming sword passed through all three, and they started burning. She started to say something, realized two more had reached her and honestly, what could you possibly say to a first leveler who could do that? She had seen evidence of Dahr’s unusual abilities before, but that was ridiculous. It was a good thing he was on her side.

She glanced at him one more time as he summoned a gale to push three of them back. Then she turned her attention to the two in front of her. Having already learned her lesson, she fought a defensive battle, only striking when she thought she could decapitate one, saving Amazing Strength for just that moment.

After the first went down, she tried Puncture again, but this time aimed for her target’s head. The force of her thrust caved in the area around the eye socket and didn’t stop until most of the blade was sticking out from the back of the zombie’s skull. She could barely stop her hand before it made contact with its brain. She pulled back quickly, making it look as if she had used Puncture in reverse. The zombie collapsed in front of her, sending up a small cloud of dust into the air that reached her knees as the magic keeping the bones together deserted it.

The undead were myriad and ferocious but they attacked with no strategy. No thought process. Zombies were just angry corpses. They were the weakest form of undead, which was good, because, gods, there were so many.

The battle raged on for what seemed like days, but it was at least hours. Somehow, Chari and Dahr kept the pace up. In the real world, of course, they’d have suffered fatigue, but that didn’t seem to be a problem in this place. Nor was hunger or thirst apparently.

As Chari’s concentration began to flag, she heard Sheba’s voice from every direction.

“You have reached Warrior Level 2. New skill unlocked. Frenzy. Changes to your body are required for you to use this skill safely. Your strength and dexterity have increased. Puncture and Amazing Strength are now 5% more effective, and Puncture has the ability to pierce higher quality armor. Frenetic Defense is 3% more effective and now offers a small chance to block an incoming projectile.”

“Way to go!” yelled Dahr, and she realized he had heard the message as well.

Almost immediately, her concentration and energy redoubled. A level! She’d gained a level! In just a couple of hours. A small group of zombies approached, and she leapt toward them and attacked using her newest skill. Her sword danced among them as if it had a mind of its own. One swing became five. The speed of her attacks for the brief time they lasted insured maximum damage, and would definitely make it harder to block her. She didn’t seem to have a huge amount of control over it, yet anyway, and it didn’t last long, but it was a tool in her arsenal that would help, particularly in situations like this when she was outnumbered so heavily.

A moment later, a voice like thunder announced, “You have reached Nexus Level 2.”

She had never heard the voice before, but she assumed it belonged to George. She waited for the announcement of a new skill before realizing there probably wouldn’t be one. Dahr didn’t get specific skills. She had already seen him do things no other class could have possibly done at that level. He seemed like he was as at home with weapons as he was with magic, moving seamlessly between melee combat, fire magic, wind magic…it was crazy. Perhaps his god was stronger here and it wouldn’t work like this in the real world. Yet she’d seem him do crazy things there as well. How much more powerful could he possibly get as he leveled?

She was saved from further speculation by a clubbing blow that knocked her several feet back. She needed to pay more attention.

They came from every direction, and she put them down, usually by decapitation, but occasionally by a well aimed thrust through the brain. She glanced at Dahr, who was using fire magic again to burn them. She’d been worried she’d have to protect him, but in reality, it was more likely she would need his help than the other way around. That bothered her, considering that he was two years younger and lacked her training. She wondered then about the nature of his god, and why Dahr, of all people, had been chosen.

At least she’d gained a level. It drove her to fight harder, to use her skills and training to their fullest.

For a long time there was nothing but endless fighting. She took her share of hits, but nothing she couldn’t handle, and the armor managed to minimize at least some of the damage. Still, she was unprotected around her joints, the armor ending above her knee and the boots going halfway up her calves left a gap where she could take damage. Similarly, the bracers on her forearms didn’t protect her elbows. Even her throat was exposed, and she had no helmet, which meant some of those hits hurt, particularly the head shots. She received her share of scratches and bruises, though she managed to avoid getting bitten. She knew they weren’t like some undead. They couldn’t turn her into a zombie, but all the same, any zombie that got close enough to bite her was going down if she had any say in the matter, which apparently she did.

She pushed herself to the limits of her abilities and even beyond, ignoring the pain from the hits that didn’t come often but were starting to have some effect on her agility. She started fighting more defensively again, if nothing else, just to clear her head and get a better look at her surroundings. For all the undead she had put down, and she’d lost count at this point, there didn’t seem to be fewer of them.

“You have reached Warrior, Level 3. New skill unlocked, Shred. Your dexterity has increased. Frenetic Defense is 2% more effective and your chance to block incoming projectiles has increased.”

The fact that Sheba’s voice was becoming familiar to her didn’t escape Chari’s notice.

The new skill was every bit as visceral as the name suggested it would be. Even as she tried it for the first time, Dahr became a Level 3 Nexus, but the undead assault seemed like it would never end.

Shred superimposed a ghostly, barbed three-prong blade over the top of her existing sword, transforming it into a weapon that could literally shred an opponent. Adding Frenzy and Amazing Strength into the mix would make it even more effective. As it turned out it wasn’t particularly useful against zombies, but against an enemy that could actually bleed? It would be devastating.

Another hour. Two? Four? She didn’t know. She was fighting now. She was motion. She was death, or in the case of the undead, redeath. They appeared, and she put them down against a backdrop of undulating ever-changing reality, though she had finally gotten used to that.

A zombie attacked her from behind, and she felt its hand rake the back of her neck. She faced it, and, just as she was about to strike, realized it was the same woman she’d already put to rest at least once, the very first zombie she had faced.

“You shouldn’t have come back,” she said gently, and she put her down for a second time.

Her heart hurt. She had at least thought she was sending these poor people to their final rest, but she wasn’t. That’s how it had been in the Undead War as well. Nothing stayed dead. She wasn’t helping at all. All the energy drained out of her. What was the point? How could she keep going knowing the creatures she was attacking were already victims? Where was the honor in that? She let her guard down only briefly, but was forced to resume her attacks, because the zombies weren’t going to stop.

Another year passed, or at least it felt like it. Her heart was no longer in it. She just wanted it to end. She wanted to go home. She wanted to see Eric again. She hoped with all her heart that his experience was better than hers. She was fighting on instinct now, barely paying attention to what she was doing. And then, Sheba’s voice pulled her out of her despair.

“You have reached Warrior Level 4. New skill unlocked, Tremendous Leap. Your dexterity has increased. Musculature and flexibility increased to allow for safer landings. Frenetic defense will now block all slow moving projectiles and has an increased chance to block faster projectiles, but remember, no block is guaranteed. There are skills that make certain shots unblockable. There is no such thing as a perfect defense.”

She had leveled again. She didn’t think she would. Of course, that’s why she was here. To grow stronger to deal with whatever was coming. And the skills she was getting were amazing.

She tried the newest. She leapt into the air and cleared the entire group of undead in front of her. As she did, she heard a loud voice informing her that Dahr was still keeping pace. Both of them Level 4. Amazing. The futility she had felt only a short time ago vanished as suddenly as it had come on. But the rage that had sustained her this far was gone, and she felt tired. Not physically, but mentally.

It was what overcame her in the end. No matter how much she wanted another level, she was mentally exhausted and found it harder and harder to focus. She took more hits in the next hour than she had the entire time she was there. And still the undead came. Was there no end to them? Battered, bruised, bleeding, she fought on, but eventually she had to fail.

The armor she wore protected most of her body, but the few exposed areas bled from multiple wounds. She dared not split her attention to look at Dahr, but she guessed that he was in much the same condition. And then, as suddenly as it had started, the undead were gone.

She immediately looked for Dahr and found him laying on the ground, bleeding from many wounds, some of which looked serious. There was no healing potion. No one to call for help. It was just her, and Dahr. Helplessly she looked around for something to bind his wounds. It wasn’t like she could tear her armor.

“Hey,” she called out. “I know you didn’t bring us all this way only to have Dahr die here, but I have no way to help him.”

She didn’t expect a reply, and she didn’t get one from George, but while she was looking up to the sky, Dahr’s voice reached her.

“It’s okay. I have a healing potion.”

“Where did you get that?”

“No idea. That’s how it works. It might have been dropped by one of the undead.”

“Your class is insane, you know that right?”

He made a face as he downed the bright green potion. “Oh that’s nasty. Yeah, it’s a very strange class. I’m still getting used to it. The thing is, it doesn’t work if I just want something. I not only have to need it, but I think my god must need me to have it as well. He wanted me to level faster, so my skills helped me steal the potion. If George didn’t want me to have it, I’d never get that skill.”

“It’s just so strange. I’ve never heard of any other class like it.”

“And you won’t. My god assured me that I was the first.”

“I don’t know if you know this or not, but you and your brother, you’re both weird.”

Dahr chuckled, and climbed to his feet. “And proud of it.”

Then the world started fading, and they were back in the anteroom.


Prince Eric had fled the place he arrived, searching for Chari and Dahr, but eventually became convinced they had appeared elsewhere. He prayed fervently that they had ended up together. And he prayed for their safety. There was nothing else he could do for them.

And in truth, he had his own problems. He was alone in this place without any knowledge of what dangers he might face. Wait, was that a figure on the ground in the distance? It could be someone propped up against something that resembled a rotted tree stump, but he couldn’t be sure without getting closer.

With nothing else to orient him, Eric moved toward the figure, and as he approached, details penetrated the visual cacophony that seemed determined to distract him. He tried to focus as best he could and eventually saw that the figure was a woman propped against the jagged stump of a broken pillar. She wore a pale blue gown, torn in places and stained by the elements. As he drew yet closer, he saw there was dirt on her face as well, and then he was close enough to recognize her.


“Eric? I’m hurt. Help me…please.”

Eric forwent what little caution he had used in his approach. He ran to his mother and knelt beside her, eyes filling with tears. “Are you all right? What happened? How did you get here?”

“Be careful. We’re not alone. There are undead everywhere. They’ve moved off for now, but they’ll be back. Please, don’t let them kill me.”

That was the moment Eric knew that this wasn’t his mother. A devotee of Sheba would have fought with her dying breath rather than begged for another to protect her. But she was too real. The illusion too perfect for him to completely ignore. The set of her jaw when she was stressed. The way her lips trembled as if she might give in to tears, the love in her eyes that threatened to engulf him. And she was injured. What he had first took to be merely grime was mixed in with dried blood, though it was harder to see amid the various shades of gray. She couldn’t stand. Couldn’t defend herself. Who would do something like this? Create an image of his mother and make her so defenseless? Was it to hurt him? This couldn’t be Sheba’s doing. Who then? George?

He took a few moments to try and comfort her, even though he knew she wasn’t real. If it was a test of some kind, he needed to act how he would act if she was there. He had to believe in it. He had to…to protect her.

As soon as the thought entered his mind, he felt rather than heard something approach. He whirled, calling his shield and pulling his blade from it in one swift motion. He’d been practicing that, and he was pleased with how smoothly he could do it. It didn’t hurt that it looked amazing.

The thing that approached him was alone and quite small. It was also undead. It wasn’t a zombie. He’d seen pictures of those. This looked more like a ghoul, which he realized made his situation more difficult. Ghouls paralyzed you when they touched you. Some of the more powerful ghouls could even drain your life force. He not only had to defend himself, he had to defend his mother as well. And the nature of this test became clear to him.

He used Shield Bash to knock it away from his mother, then moved out to meet it, shouting to keep its focus on him.

“Hey, you! What the hell are you, even? Did you look this bad when you were alive?”

The taunt seemed to enrage the creature, and it charged him furiously. This surprised Eric who thought that it wasn’t a particularly good insult, and he could do better. As it approached he got his best look at it yet. It looked almost like a child who had been taken before its time. Probably size had something to do with that. Its skin was a sickly green, its eyes blazed red. Its mouth was full of sharp teeth, and its hair was brown and patchy as if parts of it had fallen out. It wore some sort of rags that might have once been clothes, but that was all he noticed before it closed the distance.

He had heard that ghouls were hard to kill, partly because of their paralyzing touch, but also because of their speed. They were very fast. A single touch would give it enough time to kill most people, so you had to avoid that. But ghouls weren’t like zombies or skeletons. They weren’t mindless undead. They weren’t just fast. They feinted. They changed direction quickly. They distracted. They also died like any other undead when you cut their head off, which didn’t take Eric as long as he thought it would. While it had been trying to find a way through his defenses, he was waiting for an opportunity to decapitate it. Undead 0, good guys 1. So were his thoughts, when he heard the scream. His mother!

Eric started to run back to where his mother lay, but there were already two zombies on her. He screamed at them. “Get away from her you cowards.”

Admittedly not his most creative line, but he was panicked. And to his surprise, the undead turned their attention from her and moved to meet him. He tried to see if she was alive, but it was impossible before he was forced to defend himself. He was still too far to protect her, so he fought a defensive battle, moving the zombies closer to her. He struck, blocked and dodged. They weren’t hard to fight, not even two of them at once. What was hard was keeping an eye on them and everything else at the same time. But they weren’t like the ghoul. There was no guile or deception in the way zombies fought. Just a hatred for the living. Maynor had once told him they were jealous of those alive because they could no longer get drunk, but Eric thought he had probably made that up.

The defensive battle made the fight take longer, but he eventually dispatched them, and nothing else had appeared. He ran back to his mother and saw she had new injuries. She could barely sit up now. What he wouldn’t give for a healing potion.

“Are you okay?”

“Eric,” she whispered. “It’s so cold.”

Even knowing she wasn’t his mother, Eric shivered. He had trouble focusing. If this was meant to be training, it was effective. He heard them coming this time and turned. There were five of them. Five zombies.

“You will not have her,” he said in a normal speaking voice. “You can not stand against me.”

When the zombies all went for him, he thought about his skill. Is this what Taunt did? Draw creatures to him? Did it make them more sensitive? What a weird skill. Then they were on him, and he moved to defend himself.

It took him longer to dispatch the five than the first two, but not significantly longer. He thought he was more efficient this time. He made effective use of Shield Bash and Taunt too apparently but his other skill, The Bigger They Are, didn’t help him in this fight. At least he thought that was the case.

While he fought, more and more undead came, and he taunted and blocked and dodged and struck with his sword, taking several blows but always recovering his balance. He should have been exhausted but he wasn’t. First they arrived in groups of five or six. Then groups of about ten. He fought them off with barely time to check on his mother in between. And then a new group spawned nearby with a dozen undead, but one of them was a ghoul. This fight was more tricky than the others had been.

Understanding Taunt better, he saved himself trouble by shouting, “What an ugly bastard!” Of course, it worked and everything attacked him. He wondered if it worked this way in the real world as well.

He fought a defensive battle, never tiring, without a single misstep, until he saw the ghoul dart around him and go for his mother.


He turned to get it, ignoring the zombies who weren’t fast enough to stop him from bashing the ghoul away from her before turning to face them again…but he was too late. The ghoul had touched his mother.


Rage consumed Eric. He attacked furiously, his sword and shield moving so fast, it was hard to follow or would have been had anyone actually been there to try to follow it. The zombies fell so fast that by the time the ghoul had made its way back, they were mostly dead.

Eric didn’t waste more time on the zombies. He went straight after the ghoul and ran it through, but it didn’t stop it from attacking. His thrust didn’t even slow the creature. It swiped at him and he ducked back, then had to dodge a clubbing blow from a zombie.

He growled and swung his sword hard. He didn’t quite cut off the ghouls head, but he cut through the neck so that it’s head flopped to the side and it collapsed to the ground. And then he heard a voice from all around him. Sheba’s voice.

“You have reached Tank Level 2. New skill unlocked…Vengeful Attack. Strength and dexterity increased. Shield Bash now does 5% more damage to enemies and 10% more damage to rigid objects. Your desire to protect those in your care defines you. On those occasions it doesn’t work out, you have a new, deadly way to express your frustration.”

Eric finished off the zombies quickly and ran to his mother, but it was too late. She was motionless and her lifeless open eyes stared back at him reprovingly. And though he knew it was some dream creature or an illusion, it didn’t take the pain away from how he’d failed her. He was supposed to protect her. He threw back his head and screamed, not elated at gaining a level, but infuriated by his own failure.

He held the blade he hadn’t even bothered sheathing and cried out.

“Come then. I’m here. I’m right here. Throw yourselves at me, and I will end you, one at a time or all at once it makes no difference. Come to me, for I…am….vengeance.”

And the undead obeyed. Not a dozen, but a score, ghouls and zombies together, but Eric didn’t care. He charged into them as if he were a man possessed which wasn’t far from the truth. He didn’t think about the danger. He had no fear of failure. The undead had to pay for what they had done, and pay they would. And pay they did, one after another, or sometimes several at once. Eric was a hurricane of fury and he beat them back and though they fought hard, they broke themselves on him. Nothing that approached him survived.

For how long this went on, he had no idea, but at some point during the fight, he heard Sheba’s voice again.

“You have reached Tank, Level 3. New skill unlocked, Endurance. Your constitution has increased. You now have a small chance to resist weak poison, mind control magic and highly contagious diseases.”

Had he been able to think about it, he’d have realized that that skill wasn’t much use here, where he didn’t tire, but it could be helpful in real life.

The flow of undead never ceased, and Eric never stopped killing. He was covered in gore, barely aware of his surroundings, he only had eyes for the undead. He laid them to rest, once and for all. Everything that came against him fell. He didn’t notice his own injuries or slow down for even a minute.

Time stretched out. He couldn’t tell if he’d been fighting for days or minutes when he heard the goddess’s voice one last time.

“You have reached Tank, Level 4. New skill unlocked, Protector’s Leap. You have reached Tank Level 5. New skill unlocked Reflect Projectiles. Strength and dexterity have both increased. Musculature and flexibility have increased to insure safer landings. Shield bash now does 5% more damage to enemies and and extra 5% damage to rigid targets. You can now reach those who need your protection more quickly and block yet more dangers. But remember, unblockable attacks exist, and you must always be wary of them.”

Two levels? At the same time? Impossible. Under any other circumstance, Eric would have been ecstatic, but now, his mind had room only to consider his failure to protect his mother. The undead would pay…all of them.

And pay they did, falling in waves that broke on the shore that was Eric, as if they had always been destined to return to their eternal slumber. And then, a short time later, they all disappeared, along with his mother’s corpse. Eric wasn’t even tired, wounded though he was. He didn’t even take a moment to examine his injuries. Instead, he looked around hoping for more undead.

He had fallen short. The undead had paid, but it wasn’t enough. No matter how many he killed, it wouldn’t bring her back. Not if this had been real life. He had to be better. He had to be.

Then the world faded, and Eric felt his consciousness slip away.



Forward to Chapter 17 – Crime Pays

Return to Chapter 15 – The Other Other Realm


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