For a while after Hitomi slew the second Hydra, the swamp was silent.
Not even the sounds of insects and animals could be heard. Then again, those noises had been scarce around the lake ever since the Hydras had moved in. Either they learned not to make noise and hide, or they ended up as Hydra food.
Considering it was typically the first group who tended to survive long enough to raise offspring, the lesson quickly spread among the survivors.
After Hitomi's brief but bloody battle, the denizens of the swamp held their breath, wondering what its new conqueror would do. They understood the hierarchy here: they were weaker than the Hydras, and Hitomi had slain the Hydras. Thus, she had the power of life and death over anything within her reach.
However, it would seem Hitomi did not intend to exercise that power. After some time had passed, the animal instincts of the swamp creatures reasserted themselves, and they slowly, cautiously began to emerge and make their presence known.
Eventually, the swamp seemed to let out a collective sigh of relief, and the sounds of wetland life began to filter through the surroundings.
Hitomi lounged in the air as Julian gathered the remains of his colleagues below, her legs crossed and her arms and back leaned against an invisible armchair as she idly studied her surroundings.
It was kind of disappointing, all things considered.
This place looks about as bad as the last place. It's like a backed-up toilet. Or a landfill. You'd think a lake would have the decency to look good, but...
Perhaps if the newly ascended Obsidian Dragon had heard this, he might have taken offense. Whether or not he would be able to do anything about it was a different matter entirely.
Hitomi's mind wandered to other things. The two Hydras, for instance. The first had originally had 10 heads, while the second had 12. That made them credible low-mid level threats in YGGDRASIL, but they had massacred Julian's party. Granted, most of that was because her newly-acquired slave had provided illusionary terrain, learned from how they fought and took direct control of his minions, but even so, if the adventurers were on-level with the Hydras, they should have put up more of a fight.
Still, you could chalk that up to bad luck. Being surprised and unprepared tends to be fatal, especially around monsters.
That was not a slight on the adventurers' abilities. The simple fact was that they could not anticipate every emergency and threat and carry every possible countermeasure on them. Every pound of gear spent defending against a threat which did not come up was another pound of wasted carrying capacity.
This was why monster knowledge and knowing about their targets was so important for adventurers. In this case, it could not be helped; they were the ones who were supposed to gather information about their foe so future adventurers would be better-equipped to face them. Their plan had always been to get eyes on their target and then immediately retreat.
It was not their fault that their opposition had made skilful use of unexpected and powerful abilities to trap and kill them.
In fact, the Hydras seemed far more powerful than anything in the region. They were not exactly legendary monsters, but Julian said that this was the first time he had encountered one in the flesh, and he would never have taken the job if he had known they were around.
Speaking of which...
Hitomi decided to check on Julian.
The journey back passed in silence.
She would have teleported him home right away, except that she did not know where his home was. Therefore, they would have to settle for the comparatively slower method of physically travelling to the location in question.
The cleanup was messy, arduous and almost enough to turn Hitomi off the idea of looting corpses for good. Fortunately, it was mainly Julian and her conjured [Invisible Servants] going elbow deep into the muck and gore to look for body parts.
The bodies of the Hydra did not yield any data crystals or coins, which was somewhat disappointing, and more proof that she was not in YGGDRASIL anymore.
The corpses of Julian's party went into disposable Shrouds of Sleep, which in turn went into Hitomi's body-transport inventory. Igni was unconscious on top of a [Floating Board], while Julian sat beside him, gazing out into the distance.
His physical injuries were superficial, but there was no telling when, if ever, his mental scars would heal. He was still responsive when she spoke to him, but in all other ways, he sat limply beside his unconscious comrade, staring out into the distance. His powerless body looked like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Fortunately, he was still responsive enough to point her in the right direction; else she would have had to waste time casting the spells necessary to compel him to speak.
Hitomi, on the other hand, hovered beside the [Floating Board]. More specifically, the [Floating Board] followed her like a horse pulling a wagon. Hitomi briefly considered going back out through the swamp, but she realised that having to dodge branches would slow them down.
Therefore, they climbed out of the swamp through the opening of the clearing and skimmed over the treetops until they were clear of the swamp. The effect was not unlike sailing over a quietly rustling sea of darkness, lit by the moon as it slowly plunged to the sea in anticipation of a new day.
Hitomi wanted to ask Julian more questions about himself and the world around her, but he looked like he was too out of it to do anything more than sit still. Instead, that left her alone with her senses and her thoughts.
Why was I helping him, anyway? What did I gain out of it? Wealth? Power? Information?
No gold coins, artifacts or data crystals had come out of the Hydras when she had searched their bodies. She was already at maximum level, and enemies as weak as the Hydras would probably only give her a pitiful amount of XP anyway. Information... well, the Hydras proved that her favorite attack spell worked well on the natives, and hopefully, her newly acquired aboleth minion would yield useful information... but that still did not answer the question of why she had specifically chosen to help him instead of ignoring him and doing whatever she wanted.
She looked at Julian through one of her eyestalks. He looked utterly defeated, broken in spirit, if not in body.
Certainly pitiful, but she did not consider it her goal in life to help everyone who looked a little beaten down by life.
Hitomi remembered, back in the swamp, when she had looked down on Julian crawling around on his hands and knees, unable to see. She knew exactly how that felt. The time and place might have been different, but that particular brand of complete and profound helplessness resonated with her.
After that, everything had just been a matter of seeing the endeavour through to the end.
Poor bastard, she thought, and then they were past the swamp.
Hitomi guided the [Floating Board] down to almost ground level, until her own feet nearly touched the ground.
Flying around was guaranteed to draw attention (most likely hostile), but she could hover faster than she could walk (and besides, not touching the ground was cooler). Looking in all directions, she was struck by how beautiful this world looked from so close up.
This is the sort of thing you could only find in old photographs, she thought. But now it's real.
She felt the cool, clean air blowing in from the sea and across rippling fields of green. This was not a stagnant, salty surge within the swamp, or the dry, slightly biting cold from two to three miles up, but a gentle refreshing breeze that seemed to blow away the dark clouds in her heart.
Indeed, as it washed over Julian, he seemed to visibly perk up, taking a deep breath that filled him with life once more.
"Feeling better?" Hitomi asked, without looking at him.
Julian started, as though he had woken from a trance, and then he looked down at the [Floating Board] and Igni lying beside him. He tried to force a smile to his face, but he failed. He decided to nod instead.
"Yeah," he lied. Then he realised that this was not the tone to be taking with his savior, and he straightened up.
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "And... thank you."
He bowed, as much as he was able to do so while sitting down.
"Thank you for saving me, and Igni, and... well, for everything else. If there is anything at all I can do to repay you..."
"Anything?" Hitomi mused. "When you promise anything, you have to be prepared for the request to be everything."
Julian swallowed. He had gotten caught up in the moment and said something unwise. It was true that Hitomi had saved his life, but he had inadvertently opened the door to end up surrendering that life to her.
Then again, was that not right? She had saved him. Now he was technically her responsibility. It was the mirror of that "you keep what you kill" philosophy that the beastmen liked so much. Maybe it would be better to call it a life debt or something.
And indeed, that was what it was; a life debt. Putting any other price on that was essentially telling her how much he valued his life and her efforts.
All he could do was pray that she would continue to be merciful.
"But you already own everything of mine. Without you, I would have ended up like my other friends..."
Here he looked away, his chest suddenly full and heavy. Then he looked back, his eyes downcast.
"...So please, if I can help you in any way, please ask."
It was then that Hitomi realised something interesting about boundaries; they not only kept things from growing past them, they also encouraged things to grow up to them.
Now that Julian had said that she could take anything she wanted... she did not feel the desire to actually oblige him. Part of that was because she was wondering if there was some hidden catch, and another part was because she was wondering if she should actually live up (down?) to his expectations.
In the end, his faith was well-founded, because Hitomi replied: "I have come here from another land. Tell me about where we are now."
Julian blinked, and then he nodded.
"Yes, Ma'am," he said, and began speaking.
"I see," Hitomi said. The talk had taken quite a while, and had been quite informative.
Julian had grown steadily more animated the more he spoke, and by the time he was interrupted, he almost sounded normal again.
Meanwhile, the distance flew by under their feet.
According to Julian, the region she had arrived in was known as the Agrand Republic. It was a mountainous region, located on a peninsula which thrust out into the ocean. The Republic differed from many of its neighbors in that it was largely populated with demihumans instead of humanoid creatures. Humans like Julian were a rarity, as were creatures like Dwarves and Elves.
Its most famous feature was its leadership. The Republic was led by a Council, and on that Council sat representatives from the major member races, including Goblins, Ogres, various Beastmen, and even aquatic creatures like the Sea Lizardmen and the Mermen. However, five seats were reserved for the Agrand Republic's most potent denizens; the Draconic leaders of the Republic's Dragonflights, some of which had earned the title of Dragon Lord.
A Dragon Lord typically referred to an ancient Dragon -- one of the oldest of its kind, or one who could wield their Wild Magic, or one who had obtained some exceptional power that set it apart from others. There were three Dragon Lords extant in the Republic; the Blue Sky Dragon Lord, the Diamond Dragon Lord, and the one considered the most powerful of all, the Platinum Dragon Lord.
Oddly enough, the Platinum Dragon Lord's seat of power was not in the Republic itself, but far to the south, in the mysterious deserts below the Slaine Theocracy (a fiercely pro-human nation).
The capital city of the Agrand Republic, fittingly known as Conclave, was built up against the side of the Karakem Mountain Range, which dominated the heart of the Republic. It was generally considered to be the domain of the Platinum Dragon Lord, even though he rarely took up residence in his mountaintop lair, and each of the Dragons who were permanent Councillors had quarters there just below his. In general, height was equated with status and power, and so wealthier and more influential people could live in higher dwellings.
The heart of Conclave was constructed of volcanic stone quarried from the heart of the mountains and worked by artisans of various species. Every member of the Council had their position because they controlled a ward of the city, though the Platinum Dragon Lord's own domain was overseen by his Silver Dragon adjutant.
Conclave was in turn surrounded by the suburban regions, which were generally occupied by the less savory denizens of the city like Goblins and Ogres. It was hardly a slight on their character, but their homes tended to be more squalid, cramped and low-altitude. Still, said Goblins and Ogres served an important function of the city in that the ranks of the City Guard were often drawn from among their number. Hobgoblin sergeants led Ogre and Goblin constables patrols, being that the former tended to be smarter than the latter.
Beyond the suburbs of Conclave were the rural regions, less developed and typically home to the few farmlands of the Republic, often tilled by Centaurs, who did not favor the cramped environs of Conclave and enjoyed being able to run around large fields and plains.
Julian's own home was in this region, and he had a sturdy house built on top of a cape, affording him an impressive view of the sea and the land.
Speaking of which, the sea and its bounty were vital to the Republic. Arable land was at a premium in the country, and a lot of food came from fishing the oceans that surrounded the Republic on all sides. The Sea Lizardmen and Mermen came into their own here, managing and gathering the bounty of the waves with such skill that they were awarded seats on the Council.
Then, there were the Beastman races, ranging from the Panther Tribe which stalked the lush jungles on the other side of the Karakems from Conclave, to the Luna Moth Beastmen (technically Insectmen) who lived on the peaks of Karakem and praised the sun and moon.
Hitomi listened attentively to Julian's spiel, in between changing course to bring him closer to his home. However, just as Julian was about to begin discussing the Cyclops and the Dragon-Blooded, he pointed to the distance.
"Look, we're almost there."
Hitomi swivelled an eyestalk in the direction where Julian was pointing, and she saw the land rise, capped by a surprisingly large log cabin. Something about it seemed strange, however, and when she squinted, she saw the answer; just before Julian told her.
"Made of stone," he smiled. "Well, technically, it was made of normal wood, but I had a colleague enchant the outer walls with the [Petrify] spell. So it was cheap enough to build, but solid enough once finished..."
Julian fell silent. Nishiru was arguably the one who had helped him the most with building his home, and now...
"Never mind that. Let's just go there first; I'll do the rest."
Hitomi was sure they had not made a sound as they pulled up to Julian's home. [Floating Boards] did not make any noise, and neither did she as she floated.
Neither did they glow or do anything like that.
So that would mean the only reason why someone would burst out of a well-lit house early in the morning and run right for them was because...
"Anya," Julian breathed, a hint of excitement rising to his face. "She's still up! But why, she should be resting..."
When Hitomi turned a quizzical eyestalk to him, Julian blinked and replied, "Oh, er, Anya's my wife. She's pregnant, she shouldn't be up so late... I'm sorry, but could you let me down here?"
Hitomi slowed down just long enough to watch Julian hop off and run up to the silhouette which, upon closer inspection, was taller than Julian himself.
This "Anya" woman was not human. In fact, she looked to be one of those Beastmen Julian was talking about earlier, looking like an anthropomorphic mountain lion who stood over six feet tall. She was dressed in a floral print garment that could not hide her bulging belly and displayed her sinewy arms to the world.
That said, there was no mistaking the look of pure delight and relief on her face as she picked up her husband and swung him around in a circle before pulling him up to her face level.
Hitomi instinctively ducked her head.
Was it jealousy? No... she did not feel anything for him.
Resentment? Probably not; she had no reason to hate him.
Still, the feeling was quite close to them... which was when she realized it.
She was envious -- a subset of jealousy -- of Julian. Her resentment was directed at the bond he shared with someone; the fact that there was someone waiting for him, to welcome him back and to let him know he was wanted.
For all her life experience, for all her time in the game, despite everything Hitomi had done... she had not managed anything like that.
Home for her was just a place where she hid from the real world to enter the virtual one. But even in YGGDRASIL, she had not managed to accomplish anything close to what Julian had done.
I was looking down on him all this while... but I'm the pathetic one.
Anya was licking Julian's face, in some sort of savage greeting ritual, no doubt. Hitomi could not bear to watch any more. Every second only turned the knife further. Instead, she invoked the [Invisible Servants] from before to offload Igni and the corpses of his people, dismissed the [Floating Board], and moved on.
She passed Julian's house as she did. It was a solid, fortress-like place with cool gray walls of petrified stone. Yet, it glowed from within with an inviting warmth.
It was a warmth Hitomi had not seen in a long time. Her own dwelling place in the real world was a run-down apartment without any lights (not that it mattered for her anyway) and with nobody to welcome her back.
Her mind flickered back to the places she had dwelled in during her YGGDRASIL days. Being that she was immune to fire and light, what passed for a home base was a portable hole in the side of an active volcano's lava tube, screened by a [Force Wall] and [Mirage Terrain] spells.
A literal hole in the wall, she mused. Just a place to be safe when I logged in and out.
Hitomi sighed, and moved on.
Soon, she came to the edge of the cliff near Julian's house. The loving couple was behind their house and no longer in sight, which was something of a relief.
Sometimes it was better not to feel at all than feel bad.
Hitomi turned her attention to the scenery before her. The ocean at night glittered with light reflected from the dipping moon, the wave-filled surface sparkling like there were stars in the water. A pure-white sandy beach stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see, with the swamps to her left and the city of Conclave to her right.
And in between was a sprawling expanse of water, joined to the sky by an eternal horizon.
The breeze came in, and it slowly blew away the dark fog of negative emotions in her heart.
I don't have to stay here, she thought. This world is big. I should explore it.
In YGGDRASIL, she had been well-equipped to wander even the realms of Muspelheim, Niflheim and Helheim; the lands of fire, ice and the dead, the heteromorphic home planes. She had been adept at surviving in a world where everything was potentially hostile, and it seemed as though the one she was in was not as bad.
Besides, if what Julian said was true, then in all honesty, Conclave held little appeal to her. If Julian, as an adventurer, was stronger than the vast majority of people, and if she was far more powerful than him...
A quote from an ancient philosopher came to mind: He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.
Assuming his description of Conclave was accurate, she would not need to abide by their laws. She would be a law unto herself. An absolute, supreme being, a single point of order from which a descending hierarchy would unfold.
Obey Hitomi! Or her peace shall fall upon you.
And her peace would be the peace of the sword. Or death ray, since she could not actually wield a sword.
The god route, in other words.
So, world conquest, huh, she thought, looking up at the setting moon.
She remembered the sprawling view below her when she had been in the sky. All that could be hers...
"Yeah, right," she mused bitterly. "It never works out. Besides, it's not like I've got anything to prove or any legacy to leave behind."
Still, where did that leave her?
The beast route? Wander from place to place, surviving on instinct, avoiding contact with people... it sounded bad, and then she realized that it was exactly what she had been doing during the time in YGGDRASIL. She went where her whims took her, avoiding people lest they decided to try and turn her in for a bounty...
I leave YGGDRASIL for a brand new world, and then the first thing I do is hide from it? This is bullshit.
But then, what else could she do? If only...
She turned an eyestalk back towards the stone house, where Julian and his wife were now surrounded by a group of smaller figures who had rushed out to greet him. They seemed to be throwing their arms around him as well.
Hitomi bit her lip.
She had wanted them, once. Before...
She sighed heavily, expelling as much of the negativity choking up her chest as she could.
She almost succeeded.
I don't belong here. I've done my part. I should go.
Saying so, Hitomi prepared to step over the edge of the cliff when --
A distant voice came from Julian as he waved to her.
He called out two more times before Hitomi realised he was waiting for her to turn and face him, and so she did.
By that time, three people had reached her -- or rather, three children. They all looked like classical catfolk, with human features, cat ears, tails and some unusually-colored skin.
Two of them were boys -- twin boys, who looked to be around 10 or 11. They had mischievous yet curious grins on their faces, and they eagerly drank in the unusual sight of Hitomi and her many eyestalks. They flanked a girl who seemed to be 15 or 16. She seemed somewhat reticent, and there was a nervous smile on her face.
"Um... hi," the catgirl said, "My name's Mira, and these are my brothers, Ico and Cal."
The twins beamed to Hitomi, and she smiled back without thinking.
"Dad told us to come over and ask if... you wanted to come in and sit down with us for a while? He's very grateful, and he said it was the least he could do."
What had she just heard?
An invitation? But that meant...
He wants me to come in. That's nothing. That's normal. But...
Just because she did not need to be part of society did not mean that she could not try to fit in anyway. Would that be so bad?
Hitomi had avoided contact with others for a long time because of the stigma against heteromorphs in general and the enemies she had made in particular. But this was a new world, a fresh start.
Julian had told her of the many species here; particularly the Cyclops, who were excellent warriors and smiths. Perhaps she could pretend to be one of them, and by extension, one of the people who were accepted here.
Maybe, just maybe, there was a third option, between becoming a god or a beast.
And besides, was mankind not the place where the rising ape met the falling angel?
It felt as though she had been wandering through the darkness, stumbling blindly on, but then a shaft of light had come down from the heavens -- and from it, an angel had appeared.
"We made a bit of extra fish," the angel/Mira said. "Maybe you'd care to share it with us?"
"Look, the sun's coming up!"
No, they were pointing behind her. But then, why did the paths their fingers were tracing go right through her?
Hitomi could see it too, without turning around. There was a warm red glow on the horizon, a promise of hope and potential.
She felt the same way.
"Yes," Hitomi smiled. "I would love to."
The boys tugged at her hands, and she obligingly floated after them.
The sun rose behind Hitomi, and her world filled with light once more.