Still invisible, Hitomi surveyed her surroundings.
She had crashed down through a thick layer of tree canopy, but the dense branches had sprung back from the intruder forcing her way past them. The brief glimmer of moonlight faded, and she was in the darkness once more.
But not for long.
With the power of [Night] cloaking her magic, she sent attack spells upwards; cascades of invisible lightning, gouts of unseen ice, conjured blades of force that were visible only as ripples in the air.
She did not want to hit anyone by accident if she fired through the trees, or trigger any tremor sensors by striking the ground.
And yet, she continued.
Hitomi ran through her most commonly-used spells in rapid succession; surveillance, defense, direct attack, camouflage, buffing, and so on.
Anyone who could see raw mana in the air might well be blinded by the veritable torrent of magic coming out of Hitomi as she tested the limits of her spellcasting in this new world.
Yes, Hitomi was a magic caster.
Gazers were monsters which naturally wielded potent eye rays. Those rays mimicked the effects of certain spells. However, they were not a substitute for proper spellcasting. Hitomi had chosen to abandon her innate racial abilities to use arcane magic.
Normally, that would have been a foolish choice for someone like her, with a high proportion of race levels.
In YGGDRASIL, racial class levels represented a character's power and advancement as a member of their race, just as job class levels measured a character's mastery and refinement of the skills which defined their jobs.
For example, low-level demons would only have levels in the Imp race class, while high-level ones might have levels in things like Succubus, Cornugon (Sword Devil) or Pit Fiend. Most of the advanced racial classes had requirements much like job classes did; usually a certain number of levels in basic race classes. This enforced a logical progression from weak creature to strong creature. One could view it as a form of evolution.
As such, a character with a lot of racial class levels was essentially declaring that they valued being a powerful monster over mastering warrior, thief or mage-type skills.
That in itself was not a bad thing. Monsters usually had high base statistics, all manner of special abilities, and some even had a limited form of spellcasting in their own right. Dragons were a prominent example of the latter, but the more advanced angels could use divine-type magic as well.
However, in Hitomi's case, she was a Gazer. Gazers possessed spell-like abilities, but they were not proper spellcasters. Their racial levels did not contribute to normal spellcasting, unlike those of some other races.
The problem was that as mentioned earlier, Gazer special abilities lost a lot of their effectiveness at the higher levels of play. That made developing a Gazer character less than ideal, because they would rarely be able to pull their weight and handle challenges on their level.
For most players, actual power was immaterial. They just wanted to feel that they were being useful to their group. But Hitomi played solo for the most part, and part of her enjoyment derived from being strong enough to stand by herself.
Hitomi's solution came from her intense dedication to her character concept. Said devotion led to a rare class known as the Beholder Mage.
The class was rare because in order to attain it, one would have to fully progress themselves as a Gazer -- a heteromorphic race which was very difficult to play and develop under normal circumstances -- and then promptly throw away everything they had gained to become something else entirely. It was like a soccer player winning the national championships and then declaring that he would become a world-class player by chopping his legs off.
However, in this case, it was worth it. The problem was just finding out that it was even possible in the first place, and actually following through with a seemingly foolhardy decision in a game where accurate information was at a premium.
According to their backstory, Beholder Mages were those Gazers who ritually sealed off the magical properties of their central eyes and their ray-firing eyestalks. In exchange for this ruinous sacrifice -- it essentially meant sacrificing everything it meant to be a Gazer -- they gained tremendous arcane power.
In terms of raw spellcasting ability, they were slightly-above average generalists. What set them apart was their affinity for ray-type magic and the conversion of their eyestalks -- which fired eye rays -- into spellstalks -- which cast spells.
Any Gazer who qualified for Beholder Mage had ten eyestalks. Once the class was completed, all ten of them could independently cast spells. Thus, while any individual spell cast by a Beholder Mage could not hope to compare with the firepower of say, holders of the World Disaster class, a Beholder Mage who cast attack spells through all ten of their spellstalks at once could more than equal their damage output through sheer weight of fire.
Granted, Hitomi had only managed to reach her maximum output with hotkeyed spells, meaning her flexibility at her full rate of fire was very poor. In addition, her MP pool was around the same as other magic casters of her level, and the Beholder Mage class did not discount the amount of MP used when casting spells. This meant that her stamina when firing on all cylinders was very poor.
Still, she could just cast one spell at a time, like a normal magic caster. In fact, she often did so, in order to conceal her true power and conserve MP.
In this case, Hitomi had run through almost her entire repertoire far more quickly than a normal magic caster could, thanks to her multiple spellstalks. She had learned two things from these experiments.
The first was that since the spellcasting process was literally intuitive to her, she had the potential to be more powerful than she had ever been in YGGDRASIL.
The second was that MP -- mana -- depletion felt a lot like being tired.
Dammit, I got carried away... fired off too many spells at once and burned through my reserves...
Hitomi had quite a few enemies in YGGDRASIL. How they would have rejoiced to see her in this state, having drained herself in the spellcasting equivalent of masturbation! They would have mocked her for her foolishness even as they put the boot in.
Still, even that had been informative. She now knew she had limits, which meant that she knew how far she could push herself -- when to fight, and when to run. Knowing one's weaknesses was at least as important as knowing one's strengths, if only to keep them from being used against you.
Still... this feels great. All this power, dancing at my fingertips... well, brimming in my eyes...
Hitomi yawned. Phenomenal cosmic power aside, she was still tired as hell. Of course, she was still looking around even as her central eye closed.
Still, what does this power mean in this place?
She had been a maximum level -- level 100 -- character in YGGDRASIL, and the abilities she had tested thus far seemed to match up with that. But how did that compare to the denizens of this world?
Hitomi remembered when she had entered a new area after outlevelling the old one. She thought she would steamroll everything like she had in the previous region, and then she had nearly been flattened herself by a seemingly harmless monster.
Being level 100 was not the end of the YGGDRASIL experience. Rather, it meant that one had reached the point at which levelling up was less important than refining one's character build and honing one's skill as a player. There were monsters out there which could threaten or even kill prepared parties of level 100 characters, and they could only be defeated by knowing one's class and role (and having a good team).
That might well be the case here too. If she underestimated anything or anyone, the consequences might be dire indeed.
YGGDRASIL was just a game, after all. The stakes now were much higher -- especially since it appeared that dying now was for keeps.
That would be a pretty messed-up way to go, being eaten by some horrible monster in a shitty place like this...
Hitomi regarded her surroundings once more, as she reclined in the air.
Indeed, this was a shitty place. It stank, the terra was hardly firma, it would have been pitch black if not for the hole she had blasted in the tree canopy, it was humid and the noise...
What was that noise, anyway?
It sounded like something was crashing through the undergrowth towards her...
Elsewhere, the mastermind watched as the battle played out.
There had been six intruders this time, but like the others, they lacked the ability to see through the illusory terrain that it could create.
Still, they had reacted well to being surprised. Their teamwork was quite remarkable, and the strange powers they commanded had even allowed them to inflict meaningful damage on its first servitor.
It had learned something useful -- the ones in the hard, shiny skins were less of a threat than those who carried long sticks. While the glowing projectiles of the stick-bearing ones had caused nigh-unhealable wounds to its servitors, they were not as resilient as the shiny-skinned ones who defended them.
Speaking of which...
The mastermind shifted its attention to the ragged lumps of flesh that had once been called Muk-tuk and Nishiru.
While in direct control of the second servitor's body, it had stealthily advanced to seize the two of them before drawing them back beyond its phantasmal screens. Then it tore them apart with its multiple heads, shredding them with quick and lethal efficiency and before dumping their remains at its feet.
Meanwhile, its first servitor -- temporarily released from direct control -- took on the others.
Two of them had shiny skins, and one of them had steel fangs in its hands. Then, as one of its servitors' heads fell limp with a hole driven through it, it mused that the long branch that one of the shiny-skinned ones was carrying was a steel fang as well.
By themselves, the steel fangs were hardly a threat to the servitors. It was when they severed heads and the glowing bolts struck -- or when the steel fangs were set alight -- that they could damage the servitors beyond their ability to recover. Even then, forcibly ripping apart the damaged area allowed for healing to take place, but that was dangerous during battle.
Now that the stick-bearers were gone, the remaining intruders were easy prey for the servitors. However, one of them seemed to be fleeing its companions. The other three appeared to be trying to block its servitors from pursuing.
It's getting away, the mastermind mused.
It would have to seize or kill it. Seizing might be better. It had made no obvious contributions in battle and it seemed weak. However, the mastermind could make it a slave and extract what it knew.
Perhaps that might be better than relying solely on its servitors.
They were powerful beings and capable in direct combat, but they could bleed, and that meant that they could be killed. Therefore, the mastermind would need to learn more about its surroundings to make more effective use of its powers and pawns. In addition, having a mouthpiece would be helpful for when non-destructive interaction was desired.
Still, it would not do to sacrifice a servitor of proven power for one of dubious worth.
Thus, it was decided. The three remaining intruders would be eliminated. The runaway would be captured or killed.
The mastermind ordered the first servitor forward. It charged with a roar, and was repulsed by one of the shiny-skinned ones, the smaller one with the two big scales on its arms. The other two, the one with the steel fangs and the one with the long fang, laid into it as well.
That was fine. It now had their attention.
At the same time, the mastermind assumed direct control of the second servitor once more, and had it approach as swiftly and stealthily as possible before it threw itself into the middle of the group.
Before the shiny-skinned ones could react, the second servitor crashed into the intruders. The ones with the steel fangs and the one with the long fang managed to evade in time, but the smaller one with big scales was too slow to avoid being trampled underfoot.
The mastermind did not attack it. Instead, it left its foot on top of the big-scaled one, transferring all its weight onto it so it sank into the mushy surface of the swamp. It flailed mightily under the servitor's foot, but it could not get the leverage to break free.
Eventually, it would sink beneath the surface. Eventually, it would succumb.
The mastermind could wait. Time was on its side. A slow and certain victory was better than risking everything in a decisive gamble.
As the mastermind harried the remaining two fang-bearers, it ordered the other servitor to hunt down the one who had fled.
He held the crystal before him, its invisible light illuminating the dust that Arctos had scattered on the way in. He had taken off the Eyes of the Owl -- they limited his peripheral vision too much, and after he had almost lost his way the first time, he did not want to make it any harder for himself to find the right path.
He had no idea how long he had been running. Adrenaline had a way of making seconds stretch into hours.
The swamp squelched beneath his boots as he strained to follow the glowing trail of the dust that Arctos had scattered.
His blood sang within his veins as his heart pounded in his chest, and every breath he took seared his lungs and throat.
All he knew was that he was tired as hell. As the thought crossed his mind, it became reality, and his body slowed from its mad sprint through the pitch-black swamp.
Now he was jogging, and now that his mind was no longer blanked by panic, the thoughts he had left behind in his mad flight caught up to him.
How had things ended up like this?
How had everything gone so wrong in the span of just a few minutes?
It hardly seemed real. A short while ago he had been trekking in the company of his friends, and now he was fleeing for his life through a hostile swamp.
This was supposed to be a simple scouting mission. Find the monster, get eyes on it, and then leave. No fighting needed. Just one last job to pay for it all, so they would have something to talk and laugh about in the tavern for their farewell party.
He could still hear the clash of metal against flesh, the grunts as Arctos, Igni and Pardus struggled against the Hydra -- creatures which were hard enough to kill even with proper preparation.
Their shouts still echoed in his ears.
We'll get them back.
His friends had stayed to give him a chance to flee, and he had taken it.
We agreed on this.
He had left his friends behind -- even if it was at their insistence -- in order to save his own skin.
We all knew the score.
Their words were supposed to encourage him, but all they did was gouge deep furrows into his heart as he replayed them in his mind. Right now as he forged through the pitch-black depths of the swamp with only the feeble light of a trail of glowing dust to guide him, he was profoundly aware of how alone he was.
He could imagine them now -- Arctos, dashing and sliding through the mud, grimacing as he took wound after wound which he could not heal because he was too heavily pressed. Pardus, fending off one hit, but taking another as the sheer weight of the Hydra's offensive pressed against him. Igni, his movements growing more and more sluggish as he pitted his stamina against a foe that could come back stronger from having its heads cut off.
Nishiru and Muk-tuk were gone; probably taken by that second Hydra. Julian did not know what had happened to them, but given what the creature had almost done when it had him...
He squeezed his eyes shut against the mental image that played in the dark of his mind, and hot moisture forced its way out of the corner of his eyes. When he opened them again, he realized he was was looking at a glowing blur, and furiously blinked the wetness from his eyes.
This realization was accompanied by another -- that this was all his fault.
He had killed them. He might not have put a crossbow to their heads and fired, but their deaths could be directly traced to him.
He had taken the job. He had sold his friends on it. He had told them it would be easy enough, that there would be nothing to worry about.
They, in turn, had believed him. They had brought him out here, guided him through the swamp, defended him, and now, they had given their lives for him.
The enormity of all that pressed down on him like a mountain, and his shoulders quivered under the crushing weight they now bore.
Nausea filled his chest; not born of his fatigue, but of his disgust for himself.
I'm despicable. I don't deserve to be here. I don't deserve to be running away while the others are dying for me.
But just before he could think that he did not deserve to live, he heard a spine-chilling roar from behind him.
It was a very familiar roar.
It bypassed his conscious mind, and his legs moved on their own.
He still wanted to live, after all.
He ran and he ran and he ran.
Branches whipped at his face and vegetation crunched underfoot as he ran like never before. The fresh terror of knowing that something was after him spurred him to greater heights of movement until--
--Until he bounced.
It felt like he had run full-tilt into a brick wall. So sudden and so intense was the impact that his entire body went powerless, and he felt like a prisoner in a cage of flesh as he collapsed face first into the sod. The sensation of mud in his nostrils and his mouth made him panic, and he spat and snorted, trying to get the disgusting smell and taste out of his sinuses.
He scrabbled and pulled and clawed at his face, and then he realized something terrible had happened.
He had lost his grip on the crystal.
Julian's spine turned to ice as he realised the implications of that. He scrabbled for the Eyes of the Owl, which hung from a chain around his neck, but they were gone. The fresh friction burn there told him that he had pulled something off his neck and flung it aside in his blind flailing.
Yes, blind was the operative word. He was completely blind now. He was only human, in a place where humans should never have been, and he had lost his way to see and his way to flee.
Dropping back to his hands and knees, he reached around, muttering a desperate prayer that he would find one or the other.
Hitomi, on the other hand, was perfectly calm. Well, not perfectly. There was something about the way Julian was scrabbling in the muck that irritated her.
She had been floating toward the source of the noise when Julian had come running out of the darkness on a collision course with her.
She had been floating toward the source of the noise when Julian had come running out of the darkness on a collision course with her.
Why had she not gotten out of his way? Why had he allowed him to run into her? Perhaps she wanted to see if he would notice her presence. That itself was a test of his abilities, and he had failed.
Granted, it was a bit unfair to expect anyone other than a very high-level thief-type character to spot her through [Perfect Unknowable], but at the very least, she could be sure of a couple of things:
-- Julian seemed to be an ordinary human.
-- His equipment was... quite disappointing.
It barely registered as magical to her innate arcane senses. While it was possible that it might have been powerful gear that had been disguised to appear weaker, some pieces of evidence ruled it out.
For starters, anyone who possessed such powerful equipment would be pretty strong themselves. Someone like that would not be blundering through a swamp in the middle of the night. They would be even less likely to be fumbling around looking for something they had no hope of locating in the dark.
Her potent eyesight rendered the darkness as bright as day, while her arcane vision showed both items glowing faintly in the muck.
Julian was nowhere close to finding them.
What a mess.
This did not just refer to his mud-splattered appearance. His voice had broken into sobbing, and tears oozed a clean trail down his filthy face.
On all fours, sightless, begging a god that would not hear for help that would not come.
It annoyed her.
Why did it annoy her?
If she was a true sociopath, she would not care about him. She did not revel in his suffering either. But there was something about the way he was crawling like this that struck a chord in her heart.
You're pathetic, she did not say. A shameful display. Have you no pride? No dignity? Are you a man, or a rat?
And now Hitomi was angry.
He was muttering about some "Anya" and "Mira" or something even as his hands quested futilely in the mud. Were they his lovers? His family?
Then a third roar breached the night, and Julian tensed up.
He looked so pathetic now.
Almost as pathetic as she had been back then.
He looked so pathetic now.
Almost as pathetic as she had been back then.
Hitomi clenched her hands into fists, and as the sound of something huge drew closer to them, she released them, and said a single word.
And then the world turned to morning.