Chapter 30: Are You In?

Stephen’s smile turned into a rueful sigh, but a quick peek at his side brushed off his immediate concerns.

[Congratulations. You have evolved your eyes to the next stage.]

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[You have successfully awakened the Rings of Hades.]

[You have gained the innate ocular ability, Chains of the Fallen.]

[Amount of chains you can control: 1]

[Your overall strength and expertise in the use of this skill will determine the set number of chains you’ll have at your disposal, and their respective might.]

His aching joints were nothing but forgotten at the sudden information his recovering brain was exposed to. He blinked; once, twice. Stephen’s hand at last unconsciously slid up to graze over his eyes. Nothing seemed out of place, he mused to himself. There was no abnormality he could speak of, despite the startling increase in eyesight. It was like switching a video’s resolution from 240px to 1080px, he was a bit put off by the brightness he was perceiving his surroundings with.

“Is something the matter?” Jadesin yanked him out of his reverie, “I hope you’re not about to take back what you just said.” a playful smirk played out on her face.

“Nuh-uh…”

His cheeks were abruptly clasped by Jadesin’s hand as her face zoomed in, “I must admit, you have some scary yet beautiful eyes, truly peculiar… even amongst high ranked creatures.” her words elicited an arched eyebrow from him, “Tell me, what are you?”

Stephen slowly grabbed her offending appendage by the wrist and pulled it down, “Do you have a mirror?”

There was a short pause.

“Of course,” she replied with a smile, “It’ll be brought to you in just a moment.” and then she snapped her fingers, prompting her retinue of lamias standing outside to slither in with practiced mobility.

“Yes, Lady Jadesin?”

“Fetch our newest friend a mirror so he can inspect himself.”

“Yes.”

With a subservient nod, they both skidded out of the ramshackled lodge they were in.

Jadesin slanted herself on the lip of a desk, her fingers breaching the silence with a rhythmic drum on its wooden board. Her other hand busied itself by tousling a dangling chock of ebony-black hair as she hummed a pleasant melody, all the while staring at him.

“…” Stephen cursed his current lack of means to defend himself with, her intense scrutiny was making rather uncomfortable, “Yes?” he braved through his vexation with a question.

“Hmm, you’re still sore right?”

“Yeah… while my injuries are mending back alright, the post-operation ache is really bothersome.”

“That’s perfectly normal, but fret not. After we go through the finer points of our partnership, I’ll help you with all I’ve got, that’s a promise.” she crossed her arms, “However, for the sake of a solid cooperation between us, we need to lay down the foundation with trust and sincerity. So… answer me, what are you?”

Stephen demurred, “I have not signed anything yet, don’t go around babbling it as if we’re already in cahoots.”

“Oh, but you need me just as much as I need you.”

“What makes you so sure?”

She shrugged, “If you attempt to step away from our own piece of land you’ll be nothing but a walking appetizer for the monsters outside. You’re basically stranded here, and that makes us lamias the only allies you can get.”

A frown marred his features, “Are you the strongest one here?”

[Analysis Complete!]

[Lamia, Female, Age 28 years, Rank: 3, Encore Power: 123]

“Yes, why do you ask?”

“Well… you know, this kinda makes no sense,” Stephen chewed around his words a bit before pressing on, “If those creatures are really so strong why haven’t they made a move to sweep away your tribe and steal your territory?”

Jadesin leaked a forced chuckle, “Everything will be explained in due time, Stephen. I need your word that you will aid me, first.”

“You’re making me trudge in the dark here, Jadesin.”

“Uhh… yeah, I guess my request has been rather unreasonable.”

“Why don’t you go straight to the point and tell me what exactly is it that I need to do?” he leaned back for more comfort, “And then, maybe, just maybe, I can mull it over and decide whether to go for it or not. That’s the best that I can concede for you.”

“It’s a bit more complicated than that, and I’m just afraid I’ll be left alone should you refuse… you see–“

The rustle of the veils acting as a makeshift door cut Jadesin off, “We’ve returned with the item requested, Lady Jadesin.” one of the lamias sent for the task spoke out, proffering the matriarch a slightly stained mirror embedded on a rusty and poorly-crafted iron circle.

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“Uh… oh yes, thank you.” Jadesin wetted her lips in frustration, “You both may go now… Oh, wait. I’m quite famished, to be honest. I’d be most grateful if you could bring me and Stephen a tray with food in around… let’s say 30 minutes?”

“Of course.”

Her retainers replied readily and filed out. Now left alone with Stephen, she handed him the mirror, “Here.” and then snaked a couple of steps back, where she silently gave her churning thoughts the needed attention.

Stephen spun the glass around, his face perfectly aligned in the center. His ruffled hair shot everywhere like a very bad case of bedhead, and beneath that disheveled mane stretched his pale skin. But the most eye-catching feature was his eyes. The usual crimson color of his irises had taken on a darker shade; now resembling swirling puddles of wine. Besides that, neon-red like belts hemmed around his slitted pupils, standing in stark contrast with the bordeaux underneath.

They seemed like stray pools of radioactive blood, and he couldn’t help but find them fascinating, almost bewitching in nature.

“Did you find anything of concern?”

Stephen looked up at Jadesin, of course she wouldn’t know that his eyes weren’t quite like this, “No problem here…” he was admittedly tempted to see what exactly those chains were, but decided to put a plug on his bubbling curiosity, “… what were you talking about?”

The lamia matriarch cleared her throat and composed her thoughts, “Stephen… the current situation in the forest is slowly plumbing down towards a full-blown war nobody will be able to prevent.”

“I honestly thought they were already warring each other…”

“Well… no. Would you call a squabble between children ‘war’?”

Stephen shook his head and prompted her to go on.

“They are just probing themselves, trying to push each other and see where the limits are… they’re always on the lookout, scouting new territories, this is still nothing, this is still relatively peaceful. You were just unlucky at being caught in the crossfire. The true monsters haven’t made their moves yet.”

“That sounds awful…” he grimaced, “How do you know all of this?”

Jadesin gave him a pointed stare, “You’re asking someone who saved you a lot of questions yet refuse to answer any. That isn’t fair, is it?”

“Uhh… yeah, sorry about that. I’m having a hard time dealing with the suddenness of it all that I don’t wanna rush it. I need more information to elaborate a more accurate conclusion on my course of actions.”

“Urghhh!” she grunted out in exasperation.

“Please?”

“Fine!” she conceded, “Stephen, I was not messing with you when I said you wouldn’t have it easy getting out of here without our aide. Dark times are approaching, and we’ll all get yanked within and swept away if we do not prepare in advance. I don’t want to die, Stephen!”

He was startled by her abrupt rise in voice, and he could distinctly read the restlessness written on her face, so easy for him to see. She was desperate for his help, but what could have done to put an end to the upcoming war that would host as protagonists monsters way out of his range of skills?

Stephen voiced out his concerns, “And prey tell what can I – a helpless rank 3 – do? You’re pinning your hopes on a lost cause, I might have successfully fled from a rank 5 Earth Golem, but you saw how wreaked I was!”

“I’m not expecting you to dominate and wipe out everyone else, I need your assistance to ensure my – and that of my tribe’s – survival! I… I…” she stammered on, biting her bottom lip, “I’ve come to a decision quite a couple of nights ago, and your unforeseen appearance might help me lead that idea of mine to fruition.”

“And what would be this idea of yours?”

Jadesin hardened up her expression, “I want to conquer and bring to my side all of the low ranked tribes within our immediate surroundings. That would greatly boost our Bellic power, and enhance our odds of survival, something the other tribes are most likely worried about as well.”

“Wait… there are weak tribes in our vicinity?”

“Yes, heading east from here we’d meet up with the Orc tribe. They’re fairly strong.”

“Can’t you fellas just lay out an agreement between yourselves? Where would my help come in this circumstance? Are you perhaps expecting a fight to break out?”

Jadesin wetted her lips at the barrage of questions directed at her, “A simple agreement wouldn’t do, I’m afraid. Orcs may be quite powerful individually, even more so when in a group. But it’s universally known that they’re stupid. A raw display of strength would seal the deal, and not only with them but with any race we’ll come across. Diplomacy will hardly be useful in times of war, they need to know that we’re strong, and that we’re worthy of their cooperation. That will put us at the peak of the pyramid, and we’ll hold substantial power over them.”

“Sooo… you wanna fight them and then convince them to somehow join us?”

“Exactly,” she nodded vigorously, “We shan’t come across as desperate–“

“But that’s what you are.” Stephen interrupted her.

“–Yes but they don’t need to know,” she waved him off with a wrinkle of her nose, “The point is: with your presence here we can easily subdue the Orc tribe, they only have a rank 3 warrior amidst them. And from there on we can journey further west and slowly draft more small tribes into ours.”

“You want to create an intermixed and big tribe with the lamias at the top?”

“Yes, well… it won’t be a monarchy. Every race will appoint a diplomat that will participate in a council where we’ll discuss and make decisions about the overall ongoings of the tribe.”

Stephen hummed in mild surprise, “Seems like you have it already planned out.” he crossed his arms, “But what makes you think that those races won’t join the big ones instead of yours?”

“And what makes you think they will accept them? Most creatures are xenophobic, there’s no way they’ll let someone different than them in, especially weak creatures such as us.” she scoffed.

“Then isn’t your big dream doomed from the start?” he pressed on, “Why would they join you?”

Jadesin’s lips curved into a predatory grin, “Because nobody wants to die, Stephen. And that’s exactly what will happen if they don’t have a strong backup. This isn’t a war, this IS the war. Behemoths and titans will fight it out whilst we just need to be preoccupied of surviving the aftermath. I told you, I don’t want to conquer because I want to win, I want to conquer because I don’t want to die.”

Stephen fell into a thoughtful silence.

“Unfortunately, time is not our dearest friend at the moment. I’d like to start off as soon as possible, and for that, I need your answer. Are you in, Stephen?”

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