Interlude: Plans, Meals, and Gales

Poking James, Nora gave him a once-over. While she had seen him during the day before, this was the first time when she’d been able to unabashedly stare at him. “I’m coming with you.”

“Are you sure? It might not be safe…” James half-heartedly tried to dissuade her, even though he knew it was futile, and to be honest, wanted her to come along. 

“Of course, but where are we going?” 

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Gesturing toward the kitchen where a [Knight] and [Maid] were cooking, he said, “Well, we left Natusha a few months ago and are heading off toward Diana’s hometown.” 

Tapping her lip thoughtfully, Nora noted, “Natusha, huh? That’s pretty far away. Like what, three thousand miles? And through no man’s land.” 

Nodding, James laughed. “Yeah, but we’re a pretty strong group, and we had help.” James’s mind flashed back to that group of hardy adventurers. All those weeks ago, they’d diverged on those two path: to the right had been the road to more hostile lands, which the heroes had sought to clear; to the left had been a road through a series of prosperous towns toward his merchant contact Gorgox. Although the two [Knight]s of his party had deferred to him about which path they would take, he’d run the numbers and realized that the cost, time, and effort required to traverse the Dark Lord’s lands had far outweighed the risks of being preyed upon by [Bandit]s. With two [Knight]s, a [Berserker], and his modern weapons, any [Bandit]s would find themselves very dead. A few more moments of thought had solidified his decision since a Dark Lord combined with inspiring heroes equaled bystanders getting hurt in the crossfire. James had been perfectly fine exploiting the heroes and using them as a free guard service, but getting close to their so-called destiny or whatever was just asking for trouble.

Although his friend and two love interests had eagerly eyed the right path, expecting to join the heroes, James had imagined the most likely scenario—he and Howard would very likely die some way or another while Kira and Diana would be captured and rescued by Olaf’s group. In fact, with Theseus tied up with Petulinia, it would’ve been perfect since Ivan and Olaf would’ve found their partners even if Diana’s aunt would be a bit upset. Following how such stories went, Kira would revert to her Hershan role of being a ‘pleasure pet’ to the heroes, and Diana would turn into the ‘strong but love-struck damsel’ archetype who would have her father seek vengeance on the dark beings that would have killed him or, more likely, Howard. It had been with a heavy sigh that he had pointed left, much to the surprise of the entire party.

James could even remember the last words he’d shared with them: “It would seem that this here is where we must part ways.”

A smile graced his lips as he remembered the sorrowful looks the heroes had gazed at him with. It had almost been to the extent that they had begged him to continue enlisting their services. 

Rubbing her arms, Nora wrapped her tail about her waist. Shifting nervously on the couch, she feared that the silence threatened to overwhelm them as they tried to figure out what to say. 

Brought back to the moment, James paused before opening his mouth, not at all aware of Nora’s tension. Finally, he asked, “So, what do you know about me?”

Shrugging, Nora replied, “What everyone does. What any half-par [Mechanic] can tell…” 

James quirked an eyebrow. “Oh really? What is that?”

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Carefully watching his facial expressions, Nora began, “Well, I suspect you have some Craftmanship-type Class to create such phenomenal work and that you’re of a quite high level.”

James mysteriously smiled, but Nora blithely continued, “Hmm… Well, you seem to be using some type of lost enchantment technique to somehow use mana crystals to power your systems rather than creating it into a permanent spell-type fixture. Beyond that, I’ve noted the relative affordability of your creations at the downside of them all constantly requiring new power sources.”

“Right for the most part, but completely off about the Class part. Also, I don’t like to think of my devices as implementing spells since that often ends up limiting my thinking.” 

Nora barely heard James’s second sentence, so engrossed was she in James’s first statement. “What do you mean? It’s not a Crafting-related Class? Do you have a new Class? Did you discover one of the Hidden Classes!?” 

Smiling in amusement, James cut off Nora’s excitement. “Nope, I don’t have one.” 

Nora paused. “But… how do you create such wondrous creations and so quickly then? To create decent new devices, you have to be at least over Level 40…” 

Letting Nora think about it for a bit, James asked, “Why does creating something require the System’s help?”
Flustered, Nora argued, “Well, for one, you lack the experience before hitting that benchmark. In addition, the System grants Skills around then that enhance creativity… While it’s not unheard of for Crafting Classes to create something brilliant at lower levels, it’d be statistically improbable for you to be creative enough to do all this within a few years without some serious System aid. Unless you Forsook your Class?” 

“What? No, no!” James hastily shook his head since he knew that was a bit of a taboo because forsaking a Class usually required a serious sacrifice that would leave a person missing bits of themselves. Many an [Archmage] had researched the subject, with the current theory in the vogue being that the System integrated itself directly into user’s souls, so the disappearance of its existence would leave trace damage. 

“Well, if you didn’t break your Class… Wait, did you never have one?” Nora frowned, trying to figure out how it had happened. “But then, we go back to the problem of it being impossible for you to be so skilled.” 

James rubbed the back of his head. “Well, you got me there. I wouldn’t have figured out half my ideas so quickly if I didn’t already have some basic plans from my homeland. As it stands, I’m just a second-rate plagiarizer. Although, the magic crystal stuff was all me since they don’t even exist in my homeland.”  

“Wait! Your homeland has an entirely different crafting system?” Nora stared at James intensely as if trying to figure out all his secrets.

“Something like that. Anyway, I don’t need to rely on the System to come up with my own ideas.”
Nora interrupted, “But you’d be able to do so much more if you had a Class!” 

Finally, James sighed, sitting on the sofa next to Nora. “I was… born with a defect. Much of this world… rejects me. I cannot gain Levels nor have a true Class.” After all, he wasn’t sure whether she was ready to hear that his home wasn’t even part of this world. 

The Kabali woman gazed at him in concern, trying to ignore the hidden fear within her mind. If the father of her child had such a mutation, what if it carried on to their children? As if he could read her mind, James explained, “After some experimentation, I suspect it has to do with a… ritual I experienced. A [Mage] made a mistake in a space spell that made me end up here.” After all, crossing dimensions was sort of a ritual, he justified, and the second part was definitely true. “I recently had the chance to examine something else that had undergone a similar ritual and discovered that the System too seemed to ignore it. Thus, I can say with some certainty it won’t pass on to my progeny as it has seems to relate more to the ritual.” A flicker of a smile appeared on James’s face as he remembered Caesar’s constant complaints about a hostile omnipresent force that had sought to contaminate him but been repelled by something. It had taken a long time to convince the robot that it was just some weird effect of this place. 

Little did he know that some rituals could pass on through family lines…

Pacified, Nora leaned against James’s broad shoulder. She whispered, “I would’ve still wanted to be with you even if that had been the case, but that soothes some of my worries.” She tilted her chin so that she could look down into his eyes. “I admire you all the more, James. Even if your designs come from your home, to be able to so quickly create them here without the aid of Skills is phenomenal.” 

“I’m glad you appreciate my skills, and I hope to impart them on you.” James paused, seriously considering her. “I’m not sure whether it will create a Class, but regardless, I need you to promise not to share the knowledge of how to make weapons from my designs.”

Nora looked at him with worry. “What about our children? Do you want your secrets to die so quickly?”

Chuckling, James rubbed the back of his head. “Sure, they’re okay. I don’t mind sharing my secrets with them.” 

Biting her lip, Nora nodded. “I shall make a blood oath binding my very soul to this pact.”

James wrapped her in a hug. “No need to be so serious. Just promise me. I trust you.” 

“I promise.” Nora relaxed in James’s embrace, listening to the sound of his firm heartbeat. 

Kira called out from the kitchen, “Food’s ready. Now if everyone” The Hersha coughed loudly. “Would stop wasting time and help set the table to help out this poor [Maid]…” 

Nora blushed, and James just chuckled. He said quietly for Nora’s ears alone, “Don’t worry. Kira’s just a bit ruffled at there being someone new. She’ll calm down soon enough.” 

“I heard that!” The sound of clattering cutlery resounded from the room next door, and the catgirl set a plate down all too hard. 

Paling, only half in mock fright, James hurried to set the table while Nora giggled in the background. A disheartened [Knight] pouted at him, and he shot her a look of sympathy. Based on the [Knight]’s worn appearance, it looked like Kira had used Diana to release some of her irritation by forcing her to help with dinner.

—-

Clapping his mitted hands together, Olaf tried to ignore the freezing gale blasting into his face. After taking a glance outside of their cave, he retreated back toward the fire that Ivan, the team’s [Thief], had set up a few hours ago. Surprisingly, the city thief had picked up a few Skills for surviving in the wilds. Olaf ignored the little voice in his mind that suggested it was because Ivan had hidden from local [Guardsmen] in the forests around villages. Thank god that they’d carried a few fire supplies before their travel or they’d truly be doomed right now. Petulinia sneezed, wrapped in blankets by the flames. She moaned, “F*@k you, Olaf. We could’ve just stopped with the Kabali and been perfectly fine. If we’d just done some of their local missions, we could’ve just gone with that merchant guy and his harem.” 

Ignoring her, Olaf’s mind drifted back to a certain [Baroness] before returning to the moment. He gruffly muttered, “Someone wasn’t complaining when they received an advance in gold for taking on some winter quests…” 

Marianne scowled. Standing up, Ivan flashed everyone a |Conman’s Smile|. Olaf wasn’t sure what was more sad, that everyone ignored it or that Egor was using it to calm his own team… Seemingly oblivious toward everyone’s apathy, Ivan said, “Cheer up, you three. At least our Captain here made sure we’d have the supplies to survive out here.”

Theseus laughed darkly. “Says the [Thief] wrapped in enchanted fur pelts.” 

Egor shrugged. “I use my money well. Besides, you could just ask your goddess to warm you.”

Huffing in annoyance, Theseus mumbled, “First, I don’t like the innuendo in that sentence. Second, divine power shouldn’t be used for such silly things.” He went to sit next to Petulinia. 

In response, Petulinia stoically rolled over to not have to look at him. Olaf grimaced. Both Ivan and he shared a look of sympathy. Not long after they’d saved a village from some marauding undead, Theseus had hooked up with a local, which to his great misfortune, Petulinia had observed. Since then, the team dynamic had been a bit strained, to say the least, and despite Theseus’s numerous offers to use his divine magic to cure her, Petulinia had claimed she didn’t want his cheating hands anywhere near her. While that was great and all, both Olaf and Ivan were far too perceptive to miss the longing looks both of the lovers sent each other’s way every few minutes. It was starting to grate on their nerves. 

Standing by the fire, Olaf tried to warm his hands above the flickering flame, careful not to let his clothes catch a spark. Trying to break the awkward, tense silence, he ordered, “Ivan, stop teasing the magic users. You know damn well they’re the only reason we survived that Ice Wolf attack a few days ago. And Petulinia, if you have the energy to complain, you have the energy to conjure a wall so we can use those pelts for blankets…” 

Groaning, Petulinia waved a hand at the entrance, and a wall of frost slowly coalesced into existence, leaving a few gaps to allow the proper flow of air. Nodding in thanks, Olaf chewed on some dried rations while he ruminated on how they had ended up here. Not long after meeting that metallic beast that James had tamed, the group of heroes had been offered a pair of Quests by a local Noble. Between clearing a route covered with real [Bandit]s and an abandoned village on the outskirts of the Dark Lord’s lands, one that had been brimming with annoying and low-valued undead… Well, they’d chosen the latter since their group didn’t have the stomach to hunt fellow humans, and that had led them here. Best of all, the village was in the direction of the Howderwhit Duchy, where they’d planned to look for some new jobs.

After taking a few side Quests that were along the way, the group of four had offered to take along James’s group, but Olaf had discerned James reluctance, which admittedly, wasn’t unfounded. Olaf sighed as a chilling gust blew throughout the cave despite the protective ice wall. Petulinia sneezed. How heroes traveled was rarely comfortable, and more often than not, bystanders would end up as casualties. Still, it was a pity. Throughout their travels, Olaf had glimpsed a fraction of James’s strength, and that fraction had suitably impressed him. Had they’d had his help, perhaps they wouldn’t have ended up in this mess, although they also probably wouldn’t have Leveled up as much as they had. Staring through the translucent ice wall, Olaf waited for the storm to pass. After all, they had a Yeti to kill. Unfortunately for them, something dark had other ideas for them.


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- my thoughts:
Sorry for the delay, but it's a slightly longer chapter. I also will be putting Dungeon's Escapee on hiatus to try to post three chaps of TBE a week. Sorry >.<
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