Chapter 59: Ritual

When two beasts fighting each other stumbled out of the woods into the clearing, I knew they were adult mossbears. Bigger than the one Tate killed but considerably smaller than a mother mossbears. Unlike them, they also seemed full of energy. However, one grunt from Esu and both individuals stopped fighting. It wasn’t long before the edge of the clearing, which a moment ago had been nothing but charred, smoldering trees, now looked like an impenetrable wall of massive beasts.

With my eyes glued to the edge of the clearing, I gulped. “What have I done?”

The number of beasts standing there was astonishing. It made me wonder how they all got here so fast. After all, I could hear their answer to my call from the far corners of these woods. Or were the beasts I saw here nearby when I called, and more were coming? If so, I wondered how many actually lived here?  

I sighed shakily, admitting to myself that I had no idea how vast the Esulmor Woods really were.

“You called, they came. Pack. Family,” was Esu’s answer to my thoughtless question. What a family. However, it was his family, not mine. For me right now, it was more like an army, an army of beasts.

I snorted, thinking that once I reversed my change, I’d be just a human to them, prey and very weak at that. I may have been weak, but I wasn’t stupid to do something like that here and now.

Though if what Esu said was true, if they considered me family, why didn’t they come sooner when I called, begged them to come, why did they come only after Esu made me call again with his help. Help which was still freaking me out as my feet were buried in the moss, and I was just waiting for the moment it would start nibbling at my toes. 

Yet my instincts told me otherwise. Just stand still, it’s safe, beneficial even. Because of these instincts, I even felt a particular attachment to these beasts, or rather a compulsion, you might say, but I wasn’t naive enough to treat them as family, just based on that and what Esu said.  

At my core, I was human, an enemy and prey to them.

“Mature ones strong but foolish. Lack of experience,” Esu growled. “They will challenge. The intruders will fight. If they win. They free.”

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I was speechless, still staring at the beasts, unable to imagine how the Shadows or the mercenaries could fight their way free. And I knew by his words he didn’t mean for them to fight an entire army of them. No, it was supposed to be a one-on-one fight. Man against beast. Level two hundred and fifty, against level five hundred plus. That’s what my guts were telling me when I looked at the adult mossbears.

Aspen told me how she and two units of city guards faced a manticore in a labyrinth. The beast at level 536, and they barely survived the fight. At least, according to her. I did not know the difference between the beasts in the labyrinth and on the surface, whether the manticore or the mossbear was more powerful. From what I’ve seen so far, from what I’ve experienced, it was obvious to me that the beast’s strength could not be compared to humans based on levels alone. The mossbears, for example, were more massive, covered with tough skin, armed with fangs, claws, and moss. Yeah, I was aware people compensate for their shortcomings with armor and weapons. Still…

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Now Esu wanted humans and terrans who were unable to escape like Ward or the silver-haired thought fuddler, to defeat something much stronger and more massive than them if they wanted to live. No matter how hard I tried to think about it, I still saw it as a death sentence, which may have been Esu’s intention.

“You lack experience. You fight too, cub,” added Esu as a matter of fact.

I froze, understanding I hadn’t just f***** the others in the clearing when I called this family. I screwed myself too.

“What happened, girl?” Deckard called out to me through the ring as he didn’t miss my shock at the King of the Woods’ words. “What did Esu say?”

Glad to have someone to talk to at the moment, I told him about Esu’s intentions, and despite being a grown woman, about my fears. Honestly, I didn’t expect him to tell me it would be okay, nor did I want him to comfort me. I just needed to get it off my chest.

“Why did you come?” I asked him in order to know who he was and confirm my suspicions. “We never met, and it couldn’t have been just because of what Rezso told you about me.”

“Ah, you figured it out.” He smiled. “Let’s just say I didn’t want you to miss our meeting tomorrow.”

Yay, I cheered inwardly at him, not ignoring my question this time. At the same time, I felt relieved that it was the man Rezso wanted me to meet and not some wandering master. 

“You can call me Deckard, like everyone else,” he introduced himself.

No handshakes, no bowing, under the circumstances, I didn’t expect it. “Korra Grey.”

To my introduction, he just nodded and looked around at the beasts.

“So, what are you going to fight?” He asked in a calm, thoughtful voice. 

I was about to say that Esu wanted me to fight the adults when I stopped myself, realizing that he said no such thing. Gathering my courage, I looked at the massive beast and asked in somewhat shaky growls. “Esu, who will be my opponent?”

Opponent, Huh? The executioner would be a better-fitting name for the beast that will soon kill me, but I didn’t dare say it out loud. The King of the Woods’ following roaring laugh at my question felt like a mockery of my fear. “Too weak to face mature ones. Training with the young, you’ll be.”

I’d love to say it lifted a weight off my shoulders, but the young mossbear were still massive beasts at a level of over three hundred, a far cry from the relatively small horned rabbits at level thirty-five that I fought this morning. Those battles certainly didn’t boost my confidence.

Anyway, I told Deckard about it while thinking I should get some coaching from Tate. After all, he was on a similar level to me, and to everyone’s amazement, he managed to kill one mossbear.

“Good, that’s good,” Deckard nodded.

I raised my ears, puzzled by his satisfaction. “What’s good about it? I don’t stand a chance.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, but Esu said he’s going to train you?” He asked, not waiting for my answer. “I’m not saying it won’t hurt, but I don’t think he’ll let you die. On purpose, at least.”

I bit my lower lip to keep myself from saying something I’d regret later. I wanted to curse, to tell him that my idea of training wasn’t to get mauled by a massive beast. But he was right. Esu saw me as his cub, a pathetically weak cub, not as an intruder.

“You could learn something. Practice your skills,” he said, pausing. “Levels are not everything. Trust me on that. Plus, I’d like to see what’s in you. Show me that Rezso was right about you.”

When he mentioned levels, it hit me. I have found my keys. I remembered what I’d missed before. So I ignored the fact that he wanted me to treat this as some sort of audition and looked at my status screen.

Name: Korra Grey

Race: Human

Gender: Female

Age: 29

Class: Slave (Master – none)

Level: 94

[Unspent Stat Points: 1]

“How could I have missed it?” I gasped in a growl. How could I have overlooked that I had gained another level?! 

Actually, the answer wasn’t hard to find. All I had to do was think. After all, ever since I got to the clearing, I’ve had other things to worry about than checking system notifications. Those were a problem in themselves. Whoever it was that designed the system could have put more work into them because they all sounded the same in my head.

And then there was me and my stupid emotions. When I checked my status screen, I was so excited about my [Master – none] situation that nothing else existed for me.

So no, there was no science to this. I just didn’t notice, but why the hell I got the level was a much more puzzling question. Was it because of Rutledge’s last command, do whatever you want? Or that I listened to Aspen and called the beasts? It couldn’t have been my defiance to the thought fuddler, could it?

“Why the growling?” Deckard asked, interrupting my train of thought. I looked up at Esu, wondering if I had overheard something, only to realize that he meant me, my growl over the level I’ve gained.

I waved him off. “It’s nothing. I’m just checking my status screen.”

“Good thinking, girl,” he praised me, nodding his head. “It’s good to know what your skills can do, what you can count on in a fight.”

It would have been stupid of me to tell him the truth, so I just nodded back. Yay, plus points for me. Now I should really check my skills. But before I did, I looked at the clearing.

“Shouldn’t you tell them what’s in store for them?” I asked, motioning to the Shadows and the mercenaries.

He glanced at them and sighed. “I don’t know, should I?”

That was a good question. Should he? Did they deserve it? My instincts told me to let them die unprepared, yet my conscience was not so ruthless. I looked at him, just to see him raise his hands in surrender.

“Okay, okay, I’ll tell them,” Deckard said tiredly, but I noticed his brief smile.

He turned to them and cleared his throat. “Listen up, ladies…”

I pushed his speech out of my head, concentrating on my skills.

(ding) Indomitable Will reaches lvl 117

(ding) Indomitable Will reaches lvl 118

(ding) Painless Agony reaches lvl 10

(ding) Painless Agony reaches Tier II

(ding) Tireless Machine reaches lvl 13

(ding) Perfect Equilibrium reaches lvl 9

(ding) Spatial Domain reaches lvl 11

(ding) Beast reaches lvl 11

(ding) Beast reaches lvl 12

(ding) Inner Perception reaches lvl 9

One mind attack from Morton messed me up more than a dozen from that thought fuddler, but the skill growth was just as nice. Hopefully, I’ll be more prepared next time, if there is a next time. Please don’t let there be!

Of all the notifications, the one about the tier-up [Painless Agony] caught my attention the most.

Painless Agony: lvl 10

Passive II

Whether your suffering is your master’s intention, lack of interest, or hobby, you must endure it in order to continue to serve him. You have learned to live with agony and to some extent, feel less pain. With each level gained, you feel 1% less pain.

Agony pain lessened by: 10%

II – The twinge of the body in pain can please your master’s eye, but also evoke disgust. However, it should not weigh too heavily on your heart, as you can now control this reaction of your body to the agony. 

I kind of wasn’t sure what to make of it. My hopes were that Tier II would bring me the ability to turn the pain off completely, not just the twitching. I guess I was asking for too much. “Still, what am I supposed to do with this,” I sighed inwardly, a little clueless, wondering if it was even a useful ability. But I knew it was too soon to condemn this part of the skill when it might one day save my life. 

So, a little disappointed, I moved on to the more challenging task. That was to decide where to put the one stat point I had. My indecisiveness at this point was not something I could afford. I needed to decide quickly, which put me under pressure, and so, a little shakily, I chose the same as before. The strength it was.

Name: Korra Grey

Race: Human

Gender: Female

Age: 29

Class: Slave (Master – none)

Level: 93 -> 94

Constitution: 73 (39)

Strength: 38 -> 40 (22 -> 23)

Endurance: 31 (25)

Dexterity: 23 (23)

Intelligence: 19 (11)

Wisdom: 17 (10)

Class Skills (6/6):

Indomitable Will (Passive V): lvl 116 -> lvl 118

Painless Agony (Passive II): lvl 9 -> lvl 10

Tireless Machine (Passive II): lvl 12 -> lvl 13

Swift as a Whip (Active II): lvl 11

Master’s Lover (Passive I): lvl 6

Master’s Shield (Active I): lvl 9

General Skills (8/8):

Eleaden Standard Language (Passive I): lvl 9

Perfect Equilibrium (Passive I): lvl 8 -> lvl 9

Spatial Domain (Passive II): lvl 10 -> lvl 11

Beast (Passive II): lvl 10 -> lvl 12

Never-Dying (Passive II): lvl 28

Tail of Poison Empress (Active I): lvl 9

Heart of Magic (Passive I): lvl 4

Inner Perception (Active I): lvl 8 -> lvl 9

To sum it up. Lots of skill on the verge of tier-up. In conclusion, I had a lot to look forward to. Still, I’d rather have access to them now. Not during or after the fight, and that is if I survive.

Yeah, the fight. It would be foolish of me not to admit that it was getting to me. Shallow breathing, cold sweat. Even a deep breath didn’t help me calm down enough to stop shaking. My guts were clenched with anxiety, my mind racing with the possibilities of what could happen even as I tried to think of other things, like flowers. When even the [Indomitable Will] that made me able to resist mind mages didn’t work as well as I would have liked, I pulled out the biggest weapon I had in my anti-anxiety arsenal and hugged Sage. 

A little childish and embarrassing, I admit. It worked, though.

“Eh…is this some kind of pre-fight ritual?” Deckard asked, seeing me buried in the soft hairs of my tail.

(ding) You were poisoned

I figured I was when I smelled apples. Still, I grinned, much calmer than a moment ago.

Looking at Deckard, I shrugged. “Sort of,” if being poisoned before a fight could be considered such a thing. Rather than a pre-fight ritual, it was a stupid thing to do, and therefore I refrained from telling him.

He shook his head, having his own opinion about my behavior, but made no further remarks. When he looked back at the clearing, I looked too. However, not much has changed while I’ve been immersed in system notifications and the status screen. 

The mercenaries and the Shadows were ready for battle, just like before. Although, some of them seemed more talkative, even relieved now that they knew they would not fight Esu, but adults. Not much difference, if you ask me. Yet, they saw a glimmer of hope in it.

On the mossbears side, the atmosphere was noticeably more boisterous as Esu tried to convince the adults to challenge the humans and terrans. Seeing the opponents their father had chosen for them as weak, not worth their time, they did not feel like it. Hardly surprising.

“Poor bastards,” remarked Deckard aloud as he watched the growling beasts.

It made me wonder if he felt sorry for the adult beasts. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, sorry, I remembered my years in the army,” he replied through connection as if that should explain it all. Well, actually, it did explain one thing. And that was how he knew Captain Rayden.

“It won’t be long before these adult beasts leave the nest. When that happens, the Empire will send in troops to take care of them. I’ve been one of those unlucky bastards. Posted here several times,” he reminisced, with a bitter look on his face.

“As punishment,” he added sourly. “It’s a shitty job. We had to track them down and kill them before they settled elsewhere.”

“So there are more places like this?” I asked, taken aback by the idea.

“Not in Sahal, at least not that I am aware of. The Empire has so far been thorough in this. They don’t want another Esulmor Woods in their backyard.” he explained, and I found myself nodding, while feeling kind of sorry for the mossbears. They grew up here under Esu’s protection, and as soon as they left the nest, they were hunted down and killed. It did not surprise me that when the opportunity arose, Esu wanted to train them.

“He’s okay with it?” I nodded towards the massive beast who tried to reason with its eldest spawn.

Deckard shrugged. “Esu would eventually kill males anyway, and the same goes for females. Mothers would get rid of them if they didn’t leave the woods.”

Ah, that’s how it was. Looking at Esu’s growing impatience with the adults, I realized that there could only be one alpha male in one territory. Not sure how it worked for the females, I wondered if Esu was also driven from his nest, if that is why he mentioned home when he smelled the carcass.

“What was that animal you gave him? Where did it come from?” I asked, wondering where I’d found something so delicious smelling. Eh…I mean, I was wondering where Esu came from.

A roar that resonated in my bones, bringing order to the ranks of the beasts, told me that Esu had lost patience with adults.

“We’ll leave that for another time,” Deckard remarked, watching the beasts and their behavior with caution. Then he turned to me. “Are you ready?”

“No,” I shook my head without hesitation.

He grinned, “Correct answer.”

“Really?” I wondered.

“Never be overconfident. Expect the unexpected,” he said.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I objected.

He pointed at me. “Does it make sense that Esu sees you as his cub?”

It made sense to me, but after brief consideration, I shook my head. I could see how it couldn’t make sense to him.

He nodded. “Exactly, you never know what will happen. You think you’re ready to fight mind mages, but then you’re wading through swamps while leeches as big as my hand are biting you in the ass.”

Where did that come from? I asked myself, taken aback by his outburst.

But then I responded with a nod. “I get the point, but I’d rather hear some actual advice?”

“Oh, you have some balls. I like that,” he remarked aloud, grinning and then pointed at the beasts. “You see the moss on their backs? Get rid of it, and you’re halfway there. They use it to defend, to attack, to heal, to eat if they must. But to do that, you need skills you don’t have. So you’re gonna have to beat it the old-fashioned way.”

“And that is?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.

“My way. Punches and kicks a lot of them. Looking at you, you might as well add some scratches and bites.” he said, but this time he didn’t let me respond to his snarky advice. “Eyes, nose, ears, belly, balls if it’s a male, the classic. They’re massive beasts, don’t get trapped under them.”

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