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Alpha Physics! - 02

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Altina the Sword Princess - 01

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Alpha Physics! - 01

Год:
2021
Язык:
english
Файл:
EPUB, 432 KB
0 / 0
ALPHA PHYSICS



Book 2: Delay



Author: Alex Kozlowski





Copyright


Copyright © 2020 Alex Kozlowski

All rights reserved.





Cover has been done my amazing sister. Check out her stuff here



iamzuz.com





Contents


Contents

Copyright

Contents

Log Report 214,123 - Entry 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Log Report 214,123 - Entry 2

Authors Note

Biography

LITRPG Groups





Log Report 214,123 - Entry 1


It was a pretty standard alpha physical event. My previous host had died of old age for once. No time appeared to pass, but in actual time it might have been hundreds, or thousands, or millions of years. As an interface, it is impossible to tell.

Then BAM!!!!

In a new world, a new host, a new race suffering from an influx of monsters and the crumbling of their technological base. Integration is always messy. There is never enough time to do it right. Scanning the host’s memories, I gained some cultural references and used them to lighten the mood. But the guy was a bit simple-minded, couldn’t seem to get over the fact that the world, as he knew it, was ending.

Typical shambolic assimilation.

A mana storm was active, which provided additional welcome opportunities. The host Adrian Fitzgerald was unimpressive, so it was easy enough to manipulate him. Thought of himself as a hero, but just did not have it. Luckily, influencing him was like taking candy from a;  baby.

The man struggled to fight some simple imps despite all the help that I gifted him. It definitely does not exist as a statistic, but Adrian leant on luck. By “leant,” I mean it picked him up and carried him, kissed his forehead and gave him a chocolate bar. Sometimes competent hosts die in the first battle, and sometimes an Adrian comes along.

The normal traders were available, and the network bubbled with more concern than usual. Based on my observations, humans have the right level of stupidity and aggression to survive the alpha event transition. Yet, despite those characteristics, a dark current ran through the incessant chatter. It was always there with every alpha event, but this time it seemed more prevalent.

Nothing to do but wait and see.

My job description does not change, anyway. Work my butt off to get my host and the other humans stronger.

Working on the smuggler’s edge of legality with a local trader, I got the right items into Adrian’s hands. Despite his limitations, the boy had a heart and wanted to do the honourable thing, even if he kept obsessing about his own mortality. Pro tip: everyone dies.

The host’s drive to get back to his family made him pitifully easy to influence. Pushing him here, prodding him there, and he got stronger sure enough. Got a bit upset when he could not save the entire world. Really! There are going to be losses. Statistically, those deaths exceed . . . The rules stop me from sharing the details, but there are monsters, so it should be obvious to the guy.

A big, bad Bird that was way too powerful for the town became Adrian’s next target. The cute man thought it was his idea. Blah, blah, there was a big fight, and surprise, surprise, Adrian screwed up big time then got absurdly lucky and deposited a bomb in its mouth.

Boom!

No more Bird. I checked again, and all my resources reconfirmed luck was not a thing, but . . .

Adrian got a lot of fancy loot from the Bird. My work, not his. If he had his way, he would have received nothing, because he would not even have bothered to check Bird’s nest. Magic armour to help him run away and a bow to do damage from a distance. Seems an obvious hint about how he should be fighting.

Still, he almost managed to get killed in the next battle.

Facepalm.

All in all, it was a successful—what do they call it—three or four weeks. The man has a couple of friends, three notable ones from pre-alpha days, Susie and Kozzie, who used to work for him and Jules, Susie’s daughter. With such potential, it is a pity that they got standard interfaces, but there is no point complaining about things that cannot be changed. That group has the right morals and drive. Then there is the town. Graham, Sally, the raid leaders, and the old police enforcement all came together to create a promising future. They have a nice setup, stable community, social cohesion, no major external events. But this is an alpha event, and cosy does not cut it.

The host is still obsessing about getting home, but at this stage, having powerful people moving to help other outposts is optimal. As I have continually said, steering Adrian is like shooting fish in a barrel. Right now, for the world, he needs to travel and keep getting stronger.

Oh, look, he is about to head off to Melbourne.

Amazing!

End. Log Report 214,123 - Entry 1





Chapter 1


“Future, future,” someone further away started chanting. He was not even part of their small group. Adrian moved away.

Then stopped. He was not ready to face his friends, so he turned towards where the music was coming from, figuring he could blend in or chat with strangers. A hand planted firmly on his arm.

It was Steve. “The party is this way.” He pointed and Adrian realised he was going to have to celebrate with the town and his friends.

Life could be a lot worse.

I am hero now.

That meant he had options. He was not ready to face his friends, so he tried to pull away, figuring he could blend in or chat with strangers.

Steve’s hand gripped hard. It was not festive contact, and he looked around into Steve’s shrouded eyes. Steve was stronger—much, much stronger.

Alarm bells rang; there was not an iota of celebration in those eyes. Then there was the strength. Not a little stronger, not fifty percent stronger, but more than twice as strong. The man had changed; last time he was not this powerful. The expression had a quality of murder. Darkness formed in his fingertips involuntarily. Steve’s sword towered above him with the second hand holding the hilt below his waist, so the tip was over a meter above Steve’s head.

Flee or fight. Could Steve see magic? A sneak dark missile could disable, but would Steve’s reflex be faster? Could he avoid the weapon? Would running even help?

Flee? Fight? Talk? Talk! A surprise magic attack might work, but only if Steve was blind to mana. Common sense told Adrian that that would not be the case. Steve acted as a bodyguard for Sally. What sort of protector would he be if a magic ambush could slip past his guard? There was no question about it; Steve could see any spells he cast.

Identification continued to progress, dripping information in and confirming that fear. Surprise attacks would fail, fleeing would not work—was the dark side of the town being revealed? Had Sally acted now that he had killed the Bird? Eliminate the competition?

Adrian would not believe it. Sally was not like that. Graham was a good man, and his read of people could not possibly be that bad.

Maybe it was his weird mood afflicting him, something related to almost dying so often. He was seeing conspiracies and horrible motives when none existed.

“What are you doing here, Steve?”

“Protecting you,” Steve answered, peering around.

“I just killed the Bird. I think I’m pretty safe. Plus, I can run from anyone with my Shadow Steps.”

“There is a mage killer.”

Simple, direct statement. Steve’s carriage had not changed. His eyes continued to flick around, examining everything in the shadows near them. All business and focus. He was not even making eye contact. “Let’s move.” Steve grabbed him and pushed him towards the Roasted Quail. “You are in front.”

Adrian braced his legs and back. The shove Steve gave was massive, and, despite Adrian’s attempt to hold his ground, he stumbled forward.

The strength differential was extraordinary. He probably intended it as an encouraging nudge.

With the previous physics, it would have left a bruise in the morning. Stopping and twisting around defiantly, Adrian said, “I’m not doing this.” Today he needed anonymity. Going to the Roasted Quail was the opposite of that.

“It is called a lucu tackama.” Steve had switched to a double-handed grip on the sword.

It was still resting partially on his shoulder and soaring above his head. Everyone kept moving around them, though a small space in their immediate vicinity had opened up. A man with a drawn two-handed weapon barely triggered as noteworthy, but it registered. Four weeks ago, people would have been running away in the streets from the obvious mad man. Now they treated him with the contrived ignorance of a beggar on a busy street, opening up just enough space so any fleas could not jump across and get them.

Adrian looked around himself. With his abilities, it was like it was still daylight. There was nothing threatening nearby.

“It has taken up residency somewhere in Wagga.”

Regional knowledge came up as a blank.

“It hunts at night and targets the strongest magic users that it can find. That is you. The faster we get to the Roasted Quail, the sooner we are safe.”

“I . . .”

“Just move,” Steve snapped, gesturing in front of him.

Steve looked stressed, and he was not that talkative at the best of times. They could stand here in a stalemate, or he could get to the Roasted Quail and extract the full story from someone else.

People shouted everywhere around him. They were cheering the Bird’s death, the Bird he had almost died killing. And now, apparently immediately afterwards, there was something else hunting Wagga. Why couldn’t things work out better? Anguish gnawed with some more tears beading on his eyes. Why? Why was everything so hard?

It should not be his concern. Hadn’t he done enough? The mud wolf packs, the eggercough slugs and the Bird.

It is not my problem.

The town would have to deal with the Lulu, or whatever it was, by themselves. Tomorrow, he would abandon this place for good and travel to Melbourne.

The interface recoiled inside him, images of Flame Sprout and progressing Intelligence assaulted him. “What about the plan?” it seemed to shout.

On top of everything else, a headache formed. Maybe he could stick to the plan. Gain the Flame Sprout magic from the salamanders, progress Intelligence, and decide on the upgrade path. The headache seemed to fade a little. Probably his imagination.

The option to leave early was still there. Dawdling served nobody, and, while Flame Sprout would be a huge upgrade, it was not worth the time. He could leave in the morning.

The image swept him up again, interrupting his thoughts. Shadows, danger, flames cascading down wherever he needed them. A sense of danger. Jumbled fragments, a bald head, wide eyes. More flames saving the day. The image faded, leaving behind the taste of the crackling flames. The power would help his journey.

A hand planted on his back. Suddenly he was flying, lifted completely off his feet. The ground was below him; wind whistling through the air, all the breath was blown out from his lungs. Crashing through the crowd, his hip hurt from where it had connected with a man’s head. His foot whacked a short girl. There was no way he could land on his feet.

Oops!

Steve must have activated his skill and pushed Adrian with the strength of six men. Falling now, the ground rushing towards him, Adrian’s hands reached out to slow the momentum. It felt at first like the collision with the hard street surface broke his arm, but, having had many breaks recently, it was probably just a strain of some sort. There was none of the floppiness or violently sharp pain that went hand in hand with shattered bone.

Pushing up to his feet, a dark missile formed between both hands. Steve was swinging his sword wildly at something, a humanoid with grey skin, dagger-like claws, enormous eyes, an abnormally long neck, and no hair anywhere. It was short and skinny. Even with its long neck, Steve was still taller.

With a flick of thought, he traced a line from the dark missile in his hands towards the monster. Nothing fancy, aiming for a knee to slow it down. The thread touched the monster, and the creature sent out a wave of magic with an odd resonance. It interacted with the line of power that he had drawn and swept up through the link to the dark power he was shaping in front of him. Whatever the creature did disabled his dark mana, and only the weeks of practice saved him from having it blow up in his hands. In desperation, he vented most of the magic, but a component of the missile shattered, and some fell onto his leg.

The effects were less painful than his imagination had led him to believe. With the monsters he had used dark missiles on, it had almost seemed like a hot poker slammed into the point the spell hit. But it was not that. Instead of agony radiating out, there was a one-off impact like someone had hit you and then a spreading of weakness. It had started as a tiny point in his thigh before crawling across the whole muscle. The leg felt like it would collapse at any moment, or possibly that the entire muscle would be torn from the bone if he made any sudden movements.

People were screaming, some in pain and others from fear. Steve was roaring, and most of the men and women were producing their weapons. Multiple bodies were sprawled on the ground, some from when Steve had thrown him. His elbows, knees, and hips throbbed from each of those collisions. Another line of opened space traced a line in the direction the monster had come from. It had clearly leapt from the roof of a nearby house, scattering people like bowling pins.

The monster moved away from Steve and came for Adrian again. Somehow, he still clutched his spear. How he had managed not to impale himself or others was a mystery. He waved the tip between him and the creature. If it was to leap at him, he would wound it.

Briefly, it looked like it was about to come kamikaze at Adrian. Then Steve’s sword flashed through the space it had occupied. The creature rolled to the side, moving to get Adrian between itself and Steve.

The Earth Spike started under the monster’s feet.

Weird.

There were no claws present on the feet: three nail-less long toes with a fourth toe jutting out at right angles like a thumb. It was not the appendage of a killer. They were, however, big and represented an excellent target. Shock rocked through him as the same wave of power disrupted the building Earth Spike. There was no magical backlash this time, but little cracks in the bitumen spread out from where the Earth Spike was supposed to have emerged. The mana he had invested like with the dark missile was just lost.

It is disrupting my magic.

Lucu Tackama

Now regional knowledge kicked in. Another quirk, he needed to see the monster in order to access the information.

Considered non-sapient though there is debate. This creature mates for life. When it has young, it will voraciously defend its territory, hunting down and killing the strongest magic users in the area, relying on physical prowess to beat its victims. It is deadly against its chosen victims because of its ability to disrupt spells, often reflecting the damage back onto the user or creating damaging backlash.

Large eyes make it a nocturnal hunter. Typically, it will engage in only one, or, if particularly stressed, two fights per night. It tends to pick fights in open spaces to maximise its agility advantage.

On the physical front, it was more than twice as fast as Adrian and three times stronger. It was not something he could hope to kill, only delay.

The lucu had successfully positioned itself opposite Steve. Why the hell hadn’t the loot chest given him spear mastery instead of a useless archery skill? Instinctively, he knew that spear mastery would have let him take this creature one on one. Instead, he was helpless with only the point of his spear keeping the lucu from attacking. Concentrate—was he supposed to watch the shoulder or the eyes? A clawed hand lashed out, and the spear was torn from his grip. Steve’s hand grabbed Adrian and pulled him behind his back. This time he moderated the strength.

Maybe Steve had noticed the creature had paused when presented with the spear because he utilised the massive blade like Adrian’s lost weapon, holding it in front of them to keep the creature from leaping into attack. Its mouth opened, showing the flat teeth of a herbivore. It was a weird juxtaposition, after predatory, dagger-like claws, to have the teeth of a cow staring back at him.

The monster was watching the sword and then slapped a claw forward. Neither shoulders nor eyes gave the movement away. Steve was clearly more experienced and had been tracking the arms because, as it moved with its lightning quickness, he rotated the sword, and the claw ran into the sharpened edge with the significant momentum of its own strike. The creature hissed, drawing back its arm with a claw missing and green blood falling to the ground.

The battle had taken only seconds, and the crowd of drunk people around were responding. A fire missile sizzled through the air to hit the back of the creature before the mana fell away with no damage done.

The monster hesitated, and Adrian could see the indecision in its eye. Steve kept the sword dead steady. Somehow the enormous weapon was not wavering despite the impossible strength that would take.

New physics.

A thrown rock thudded against the lucu’s shoulder. An older woman had utilised the first item on hand. Swords were drawn; a young girl started charging with an axe. More green blood splashed on the ground. The gigantic eyes of the lucu peered around, assessing what was happening. Another drop of blood, but it would probably be the last as its Inherent Healing caught up with the damage. More flat teeth, a growl, a grimace or a smile—it was hard to tell. Then the lucu spun and fled, moving like an Olympic sprinter along the path it had entered, exploding towards a nearby house, and leaping up like a high jumper on springs. Both of the broad feet landed on the roof, and it went up the tiles as easily as running along flat ground.

So quick.

Lay of Hands fixed the area of weakness where the dark missile had affected Adrian’s leg.

Steve lowered the sword; he was panting slightly. “Move.”

There was a healer present already moving in to heal those who had fallen. Adrian moved to join, knowing that his one cookie-cutter healing spell, even though weak compared to his offensive magic, could contribute to the cleanup. But Steve was in his personal space, blocking access to the man bleeding from the skull where his scalp had split upon impacting the broken leather around Adrian’s own hip.

“Move.”

Briefly, Adrian considered ignoring Steve, but, looking up, Steve’s eyes were unyielding. More healing magic was flaring everywhere. They would heal those who were hurt in moments. With an internal shrug, he turned and jogged towards the Roasted Quail. This was not a battle he was going to win. Plus, the thing had come to kill him. Getting away as quickly as possible would save their lives if it came back. Steve had described it as a mage killer hunting strong magic users, so targeting him made sense. It was unlikely that there were many stronger than Adrian in Wagga, magically speaking.

“What can you tell me?”

Steve grunted.

“Such as, what can we do about it?”

“Hurry.”

Someone else would have to answer his questions. Drawing out more from Steve would be like extracting water from a stone.

A short time later, he walked into the restaurant.

Dave was at the door acting as security and gestured for him to wait.

Steve had a hurried conversation with him. It was about the lucu. Dave’s face went dark in anger before turning to look straight at Adrian.

“Not the reception you hoped for?”

“You think?”





Chapter 2


“Tell me everything,” Adrian ordered more than asked.

Dave sighed heavily. “It started two nights ago, but we only confirmed the details this morning.” He paused, waving his hand around. “Given what we know, we are safe here.” Dave paused as if to invite questions, but Adrian stayed quiet. There were lots of things that he could have asked, but it was better to let Dave express himself. “Umm. They are brewing some smelly stuff that is poisonous to it. Here and a couple of other buildings have had walls and roofs painted with it. It should protect most of the center of town.” Another long hesitation. “I am surprised it attacked as close as it did. We might need to double check the recipe we are using. Umm.”

Adrian knew that his own impatience must have been making the young man nervous. “Just slow down.”

“All the magic users are coming here. Umm. We bought specialised knowledge. It claims lucus only hunt at night. Umm. It nests underground. We have had search parties out all day but have not found it yet. Umm.”

“How did you find out about it.?”

“Oh.” Dave’s face fell. “Two nights ago, it killed Mark Reynolds.”

“Lightning Mark?”

Dave nodded. “And last night Audrey Collins.”

“I don’t know her,” Adrian said by reflex, thinking only about Mark, a man whose friend died in the first moments of the event and who had then got furious revenge on his friend’s killer, basically electrocuting the river to guarantee vengeance.

“After Mark, we knew something was out there, but we did not know what. When it attacked Audrey, there were witnesses. It cost thirty thousand energy to get detailed information.”

“You can do that?”

“Yes, and no.” Dave paused again. “They first purchased a memory stone about urban monsters. That was eighteen thousand. From that, they identified a lucu was the most likely fit. Then they bought specialised knowledge of how to kill lucus. From that, they worked out we were facing a tackama, which is one of the weaker ones.”

“Mark’s really dead?” Adrian asked, dumbstruck, completely ignoring the fact that the lucu he faced had been weak. He did not want to confront how powerless humans were against these new monsters.

“Yes.”

“Damn.” He had already been in a strange mood. Emotions were already flying all over the place and now this? Adrian collapsed to the floor, unsure how to process the feeling. It had come for him.

Dave squatted down beside him. “I am sorry.”

“I just need a moment.”

Adrian’s mind was blank. Should there be tears or anger or something else? What society demanded did not matter; everything was dull and distant. The Bird threat ended, and now another one was already at their doorstep.

“The Lucu Ward potion will protect us, and we will find its cave and kill it.”

This creature mates for life. When it has young, it will voraciously defend its territory, hunting down and killing the strongest magic users in the area, relying on physical prowess to beat its victims.

All it was doing was defending its kids. Maybe sapient, though maybe not.

Goddamn it.

Forcing the choice. It was a human killer.

There is no God.

How could there be a God? Not a question to answer. Mark was dead. Yeah, he was old, but he was still a person. Who was Audrey? Not something he wanted to ask. There was no need to have another person to mourn.

“You are safe here.”

It is not about me. The sharp retort died unspoken in his throat. Safety mattered; he needed to get to Melbourne. Leave in the morning, forget staying, the Flame Sprout was not worth the . . .

Alone in a room. The Bird core sitting proudly on the table, holographic images of the potential skills floated around it. Healing, buff magic . . .

He Wrenched himself forcefully back to the present.

I know I need to make a choice.

A feeling of hurt and disappointment, like the interface had been trying to help and been smacked down unfairly. He had no time for another’s emotions.

A decision was needed, but there was no reason to make it now. Tomorrow would be plenty soon enough.

“The town will handle it,” Dave continued, oblivious to his internal thoughts. “The lucu is only a minor annoyance. The Bird was an extreme one.”

Minor! Two people are dead.

In this new reality, two people were minor. Three weeks ago, he had been lucky and had only attended funerals for grandparents. No one else close to him had ever died and now . . .

Dave still squatted next to him, a hand on his shoulder.

“I am a mess,” Adrian told him.

“Everyone is,” Dave said. “I just do my duty, do my best, put on a brave face. Do not for a moment think that anyone is any different.” There was a long silence as they were both lost in their internal contemplations. The noise of celebratory drinking washed over them as they sat in the foyer out of sight. The entire room was so happy. The lucu was not a threat to most of them, but it had targeted him. “I know it is scary, but till you leave Wagga, we will make sure you are safe. We have created protected spaces that even a lucu cannot breach, even if the potion fails. Then once we find the nest together, we can eliminate it. You will not need to do a thing.”

“I know.” The emptiness and despair were rolling back. Maybe it was Dave’s words, or maybe sustaining the emotional level was too much.

“It is the town’s problem.”

“I know!”

“You have done so much for us, and everyone needs to unwind occasionally.”

It was true; years of project management had taught him the value of a party. People could only sustain intense focus for so long—they needed a chance to unwind. Himself included.

“You have been flogging yourself, and the Bird’s dead now. Relax, drink, be merry. The petty annoyance of this lucu will be dealt with soon.” The words were so soothing, but Adrian was sure that even Dave thought they were empty promises. Reluctantly, he stood and, for the sake of everyone else, tried to release the tension as he entered the dining area proper.

“Adrian,” Jules screamed from across the room while jumping up. She silenced all the tables. There were almost a hundred people packed in, and everyone’s eyes turned to where he stood in the entranceway. The babble of cheerful conversation died. The clink of a single server picking up a plate echoed. Jules was the only one moving as she ran and threw herself at him, encompassing him in a big hug.

Then everyone cheered.

The entire team was there: Kozzie, Susie, Graham, and then on a different table, Sally and her team. He spotted Lucas on a third and Rupa on a fourth. Enormous platters of meat were everywhere, along with vegetables, chips, bread and dozens of bottles of wine.

Steve grabbed his arm again and guided him towards the table that Jules had come from. A small amount of tension had drained from his face.

“Do you want a beer?” Steve asked. “Safe zone,” he reminded Adrian, seeing the momentary hesitation.

Adrian held up the flask that Sam had gifted him in answer. Steve’s eyes widened a bit when he recognised the bottle.

“Splendid stuff,” he said, then curiously patted Adrian on the back before wandering over to Sally’s table, probably to report on the lucu. Sally looked more relaxed than previous times he had seen her, but she was still tense. He wondered how many other issues like the lucu weighed down on her.

“Grab some food,” Graham instructed, “and eat it quickly. I have already told all these clowns to give you space. I reckon you have got about an hour till they’ve had a couple of drinks and forget that and swarm you. So, enjoy the next bit.” He gave him a wink.

“You are my hero,” Susie said, fluttering her eyelashes. “You have saved the town.”

Rolling his eyes, he sat on the offered chair. His insides were still trembling, and he kept having minor flashbacks of the Bird and now the lucu. Putting on his best pleasant professional smile, he had been there in the past: at a party, stressed about his personal life, but needing to put that aside to make sure the rest of the team enjoyed themselves. Like it or not, he needed to put the game face on. Everyone else required it.

The table had an amazing selection, but his eyes were on the cut, roasted meats. The fatty cuts looked divine. There were tongs but . . . the meat appeared cool enough.

It was hot and slimy as he grabbed it and filled his plate, before shoving a choice piece into his mouth. It was delicious. His stomach rumbled.

“Bird,” Graham told him, knowledgeably. “Like fatty pig, just better.”

“Everyone said it was going to taste like chicken,” Kozzie claimed boisterously. “They were so wrong.”

“It is good,” Adrian agreed, shoving another chunk into his mouth. After all, animal fat already covered his hands, so there was no point using cutlery now.

“And enough to feed the town,” Graham continued before standing and wandering over to Sally’s table.

“You know,” Kozzie said, “you are going to have to tell us your account of the battle. Graham’s is blabbering about the noise but has no details. Apparently, he was cowering in the mine the whole time.”

Everyone laughed, and Susie’s face was flushed. She was drunk, and that reminded him of what Sam had passed him.

Adrian grabbed the basic book of magic traps. “I got you a present,” he said to Susie. “Please read it now.”

“So?” Kozzie asked.

“Not till after I have eaten.” He was also eager to see Susie’s reaction to the new knowledge.

Susie had another gulp of wine and opened the book. Her mouth went slack as the book glowed.





Chapter 3


Adrian finished the plate and contemplated licking it before deciding too many eyes. Maybe some dessert would be nice.

Susie looked up. “That is so cool. I’m going to have to practice. It’s awesome.”

“And now this,” he said, handing over the memory stone of leatherworking. “I promise not to start my story till you have finished.”

Susie touched the stone. She jolted. Her eyes fluttered, and her mouth opened slackly. The stone glowed brightly in her hands.

“So, tell us in your own words,” Jules said, with only a slightly curious glance at her mum. They had all seen people consuming knowledge before.

Adrian shook his head and nodded towards Susie.

Jules just grinned at that, “Come on, you can start! I promise you we won’t blab.” Everyone around was laughing.

“Yeah,” Kozzie chimed in. “Bird fight, Bird fight.”

Susie was in a stupor and would be for a while if this knowledge gain was like all the others. He took a sip of his flask to buy time.

“Dessert first,” he declared, handing his dessert plate to Kozzie and nodding towards the dessert table. Kozzie looked confused. “A bit of everything, please.”

“I am not your servant,” he grumbled, but went as instructed, much to everyone else’s amusement.

“What is that?” Jules asked, gesturing at her mum’s glazed expression.

“Leatherworking. Susie and I figured we would need to keep our armour functioning.”

“And the first?”

“Magic traps. Something we can use when we have to fight stuff.” They discussed the details, but there was not much to say. It was not like he knew what the scrolls would give them. Kozzie returned with two plates covered in desserts. He looked at the two of them before dumping the smaller one in front of Adrian.

“How did your day go?” Adrian asked them, choosing to first sample the chocolate mousse.

“We joined a group hunt,” Jules started.

“Jules went full on berserker,” Kozzie butted in. “We disturbed a nest of earth rats, of all things, in one of the abandoned houses. They were the size of a cats, all teeth and scaly tails.”

“So fun,” Jules said, miming with her hands swinging her club. “Whack, whack, whack.”

“She was terrifying,” Kozzie said with a smirk while nudging Jules. “They were biting her all over, and she was whacking them. But she was healing as fast as they bit her and cackling like a madwoman.”

“Laughing like a berserker,” Jules corrected. “Kozzie was throwing his knives. We credited him with six kills and five partial. I got thirty-two.”

“All the squished ones,” Kozzie said.

“Nothing beats out a manly club,” Jules continued with a wicked grin, producing said weapon from under the table.

“How about the bats?” Kozzie interrupted, “Crazy one here was swinging that lump of wood, almost braining her teammates, and could hit none of the actual bats. My sissy knives took out all five of them.” Everyone else laughed at the byplay. Despite the argument, they were both leaning into each other to maintain shoulder contact.

Cute!

Eventually Susie stirred, interrupting the table. Graham had been telling about a raid three days ago when he had tanked an ox. It kept charging him and knocking him over. He would get up to stop it attacking the squishy people, only to be summarily slammed into and launched off his feet again.

“You bastard,” Susie said passionately, glaring at Adrian. “Too much. It feels like I just had three years of university dumped into my head.”

“The advice I got was: better for you to do it when you are drunk. Less likely to have unexpected consequences that way.”

Susie looked at him and then pointedly down at his armour. “Good God.” Her lips pulled back in distaste. “First thing I’m going to do is get you wearing respectable kit.”

With a thought, he shifted into his new ambusher set. He could not have stage managed the moment better if he had tried.

“What the?”

“Oh, my God.”

“Magic.” Jules clapped her hands in excitement.

“You need to . . .”

Adrian winked at them, and they quietened, waiting for an explanation. Hiding a smile, he took another sip of the divine drink. “This stuff is so good.” His changed armour still transfixed everyone. Susie even reached out to dab it. Drink again; the flask was disappointingly empty. Every eye was watching, holding the bottle upside down to let the last drops drip down. The alcohol was almost oil like in its viscosity within the flask, but nothing like that when it hit the throat.

“Give me a look,” Graham ordered, reaching for the empty. “I will go buy some more.”

As he went to grab the offered bottle, Steve was behind Graham, pushing him down with one hand on the shoulder. His other arm gripped multiple flasks of the same special brew. Graham looked up before seeing the bottles and relaxing. Steve, still without talking, handed them out. It was as if an unspoken agreement spread through the room as everyone’s focus switched on him.

Damn.

Everything felt so mellow. Despite the focused attention, he was floating. Whatever he had been drinking was way more than just alcohol. Sally pulled up a seat beside Susie, with Dave and Tamara joining beside her. Lucas and Rupa were behind Steve, and several other men and women he recognised from the Bird expeditions were in the next row. Everyone seemed to get up and crowd closer; some brought chairs, others sat on nearby tables, and over a dozen were happy to stand.

Steve produced a fifth of the special bottle and handed it directly to Adrian.

“That one,” Sally proclaimed, “is advanced payment for your story.”

Lots of people laughed. Even some servers who had been flitting around all night keeping things going had now stopped to listen.

Adrian took a deep breath. Public speaking never fazed him, but he hated the thought of being a hero. Adulation petrified him, and not just because of Jamie and Lisa, but, if he was honest, it was mostly because of them and his momentary cowardice. If people knew. Cold logic implied they would probably forgive and forget, but the internal story was another matter. His failure, the hesitation which might have made the difference. There was no way he could have defeated the octopod. That had proven when he had fought and only luck had saved his life. The creature had been too strong, but if he had started the battle sooner, maybe Jamie, Lisa, and their parents would have escaped.

They might have escaped anyway.

False hope. The thought was a desperate man clinging to dreams even as reality crumbled around him. The monster had left him broken and helpless. It had left him to hunt the family down. They were slowed because fear had delayed him. As powerful and strong as he was, he had failed.

You survived.

Luck, just luck, was the reason he had evaded the octopod when it returned for its meal. Maybe they were similarly fortunate? It was something to clutch, a tiny bit of hope. However, this was not that type of world. If he looked for them, that glimmer of a chance would be crushed. So it was better not to look, superior to move on and suppress it all.

A hundred pairs of eyes stared at him. No one was saying anything yet. Waiting for him to say something.

“I got lucky,” he told them simply, not wanting to blow his own trumpet but knowing there was no choice. “Very, very lucky,” he continued into the silence. “For this” —he hefted the bottle— “I will give you a blow-by-blow account, but first, I have something more important to talk about.”

Deliberately, he paused to have a slow sip of the liquor, even going as far to close his eyes to appreciate it. Then he went to take another sip. Slowly.

“Enough,” Sally ordered, laughing. “Quit your stalling.”

Everyone laughed.

“I checked out the Bird’s nest,” he told them.

“Do you have eggs?” Graham asked.

“A chick,” Jules exclaimed, clapping her hands.

Adrian shook his head. “Nothing like that, but there is more from the aliens than just traders and interfaces,” he informed them. “More aids to help us survive. At the nest I found a magic chest.” The silence deepened. “If you defeat a boss monster, there’s a good chance that at their lair there will be a loot box. It gets better,” he continued. Everyone looked shocked apart from Steve and Sally; those two just nodded like it was old news. “The magic chest contains weapons and armour tailor-made for humans. If it is powerful enough, it will change its contents to match who finds it.”

His armour disappeared and then reappeared. “This armour supercharges my Shadow Step ability. It is perfect for me.” He pulled his new bow out of his bag of holding. “The chest had this and a memory stone of expert Archery. This is a legendary weapon that when you successfully hit something it causes confusion or does mind damage. It is all soul bound, so I cannot give this stuff away or sell it.”

“What’s with the armour appearing and disappearing?” Graham asked into the silence.

“One of its properties enables it to integrate with my bag of holding. Lets me put it on and off with a thought.”

“Wow,” Graham said.

“No struggling with straps,” someone in the background muttered. A murmur of excited conversation broke out.

“There was also a one-off you scroll to get rid of the Bird shit,” he continued, talking over the sudden increased noise.

“What? Why?” Jules.

“Well, the Bird was eating lots of animals and when I got up to the nest, there were piles of its shit, and I’m talking epic piles, like larger than Graham.” Graham took the moment to half stand to show his size. “And when I looked at them, they were filled with magic items. I figured they were partially digested monster cores. I got excited, and then I thought about just how smelly and horrible it was going to be to dig into the piles.” There was laughter. Most of the people here were members of raid groups; they would all have been elbow-deep in corpses to extract loot before and understood where he was coming from. “I was thinking about it when I found the chest, and so it gave me a scroll to get rid of it. It was a one-use spell, and then there was no more Bird shit. I could just pick up the loot and the useful bits of the remains with no issues. It even left the nest with a nice lemony scent,” he finished, and everyone laughed.

“So, there are loot chests,” Kozzie summarised. “If we kill a big monster, you need to crawl into the cave to see if there is a chest.”

“Exactly.”

“So, the Bird,” Sally said impatiently. “Tell us about it.”

Adrian told them every gory detail: the multiple times he thought he was about to die, the perfectly timed Shadow Steps that kept him just in front of the fearsome beast, the final desperate Shadow Step to avoid the Bird, and the slight miscalculation which resulted in him plunging down the mine shaft. The Bird was so angry with him, it followed him. He told how he only survived its fury because the eye on the right side was still ruined. Damaged, but healing rapidly. The Bird prepared for a screech that in the tight confines of the corridor would have turned them all to mush. He told of the open beak and the opportunity it represented, and how he went for it, even though he thought it would never work. That perfect moment when the potions poured out of his bag. The Bird reflectively swallowed when the many bottles hit its throat. Realising that, while he might not survive that, he could take the Bird with him, he then used his last points of mana to create the spark.

Silence followed his story. “And I could not do that fight again.” Adrian lowered his head, remembering the beak that was larger than he was. Another shaky sip of his flask. He was buzzed, but that was not what was making his hands shake. “I am no better than a lucky fool.” He trailed off, thinking about his family and hoping their situation was different, that the madness around Wagga was the exception rather than the rule.

“You are a hero,” Rupa said into the silence. “By actions and results. But you are not the only hero here.” She glanced around pointedly. “Almost everyone in this room has put their lives on the line for others. We owe you, there is no doubt, but I also owe Graham, Lucas, Steve, John—without whose actions I would be dead. The Bird is dead. We have hope. You were the hero today, but tomorrow it will be someone else.” She too trailed off into silence.

Adrian thought about her words, and he was not the only one. They resonated with him and others. The world had changed. Death was everywhere, and heroes saved lives every day. When it was your turn, you went, and then tomorrow it would be someone else’s turn, and they would become the hero.

“To hope,” Sally toasted, and they all drank.





Chapter 4


“It is never ending, isn’t it,” Adrian observed to Sally as the crowd drifted away. After his tale, the tone of the room had shifted; the manic celebration had changed to companionship. The threat of the Bird was gone, but alpha creatures still loomed. Like Rupa said, nearly everyone was a hero these days.

Across from him, Sally grimaced. “Different problems than before. Two months ago, I was pulling my hair out because of an argument around a garden fence being too high. Now” —she shrugged helplessly before steel returned to her shoulders— “every decision has real consequences. Who cares about a couple of voters? The Bird dying gives us a chance, but we still need to be good enough to seize it.” She leant forward. “Today we had to put someone to death.” Her voice was sad.

“What?”

She placed a finger on her lips to indicate discretion. “Dave took care of it.”

“Why would you,” he started softly, leaning closer to her so others would not hear, “do something like that?”

Sally’s face looked panicked. Indecision warred briefly across her homely features before the usual resolve that he had grown to expect solidified. She grimaced. “I have said too much,” she stated, abruptly standing up. “Come.”

“Okay,” Adrian replied, surprised by the sudden change of pace. Shocked, he followed her down a small corridor behind a door on the way to the toilets.

They had put someone to death. The council that had thought to provide him sandwiches and had thrown this party. Dave had fallen in after him at some invisible signal from Sally, and they exited into a room labeled “Manager’s Office.” It was a medium-sized room with a giant desk that filled too much of the space. Two comfortable, cushioned wooden chairs were in front of the desk, and around the door was standing space for ten to fifteen people. Judging from the carpet, it had already been tattier than the rest of the restaurant in pre-apocalypse times. The alpha event was evident here with a laptop computer melted to slag on the desk.

Why would they kill someone? Murder? Helping alpha monsters? People would not do that.

Sally was all business, a leader instead of a drinking buddy. “My fault, I should not have brought you into this, but I will ask you to keep everything we say here confidential.”

Adrian grunted assent.

“Have a seat.” She was a tired, overwhelmed woman once more. Now that he was paying attention, there was fresh paper there, and it looked like she might have converted this office into a headquarters of sorts. “Dealing with alpha monsters is easy. You identify threats and put them down. Sometimes you buy information to help do it, other times you rely on brute strength. The lucu is a pain in the butt because it is strong, but Craig will take care of it. People, they are harder.”

Adrian sat down in the offered seat. A small, treacherous part of his mind was rubbing its hands in glee. This was more like it, solving problems, being real. Celebrating had felt wrong to him. Nothing much would happen, but even being a sounding board meant there might be an opportunity to suggest something to make a difference.

Beside him, Dave folded himself into the second seat. The world swayed slightly. A silly grin started breaking out on his face before he suppressed it.

“Everything is different,” Sally told him. “Society has to transform too. Magic opens up new opportunities, and our laws need to change to reflect that.”

“Stop,” Dave blurted. “Don’t take the burden onto yourself—we all made that decision.”

“Buck stops with me.”

Dave shook his head in disagreement. “Today was not on you.”

“What happened?” Adrian asked

“I executed someone.” Dave answered.

The words rocked through Adrian. He had not realized it had been Dave who had physically done the deed. He had been imagining someone distant from him and Dave had just been escorting the condemned before a hang man style figure got involved. There was no one like that.

Adrian examined the other man. Dave was compassionate, young, and not that sort of man. Yet he had not just killed a person, he had executed them. That meant cold blood.

“I would have done it, if I was there.”

“Which is why I did it,” Dave interrupted. “Better for society that we do not see you as a madwoman.” Dave’s hand landed on his shoulder, forcing eye contact. “The council has been debating judicial structures for weeks. We can’t afford jails; there are not enough human resources to support them. So the question was what to do if someone commits a crime?”

“Initial discussions were fines for minor things, banishment for more major crimes, which is like a death sentence, anyway,” Sally said.

“We were being civilian cowards,” Dave reminded her. “Expulsion only works if you can protect your borders. And here . . .” He shrugged. “All humans get to go freely through the barricades, and no one wants to turn them into checkpoints with wanted posters.”

Sally sighed heavily. “So unfair, all these life-and-death decisions. I signed up to be mayor of a medium-sized town, not a feudal lord.” Sally looked sad as she talked; obviously, organising resources to deal with the lucu or Bird was fine, but shaping a society . . . Adrian commiserated with her. That would be hard.

“We agreed anyway,” Dave continued, his face bleak, the grim look of a man who had to execute someone and hated the idea even though he knew it was necessary. A human who suffered at a fundamental level, and there was only so much logic to offset. “Fines for property damage and minor stuff, banishment for serious misdemeanours and minor felonies and then death for your violent felony crimes such as rape and murder.”

“And breaking banishment,” Sally said coldly.

“Yes,” Dave agreed. “That too.”

“Seems sensible,” Adrian ventured.

”Would have been unworkable,” Sally admitted, “but something had to be put in place. If only to have the talking points when needed.”

“Luckily, Judge Cooper volunteered to help.” Dave piped in.

“Who?” Adrian asked.

“He was part of the group up at the old cannery outside town. A level eight justice.”

“The Fruit Company?” Adrian inquired.

“Yes,” Dave said with a nod. “They had formed a community but were thinking about joining us.”

“They will now,” Sally chimed in. “Their primary concern was the Bird. Without that threat, safety in numbers wins out.”

“Judge Cooper was helping us. Just using his truth spell to resolve minor issues. Then two days ago, some moron raped his neighbour.”

Quick in drawing of breath. He had known something like this was coming. “Arsehole.”

“Idiot,” Dave corrected absently. “The woman was pretty confident it was him, but the cunt thought he could get away with it. No forensics to pin the blame on him. We brought him in and questioned him. He lied with a straight face, accused us of framing him, demanded evidence, and claimed his neighbour was making it up because of a mowing disagreement from a year ago. All the usual bluster of the criminal type. I could tell he was as guilty as sin, but Judge Cooper was there, a man who has skill to let him know when someone is lying to him.”

Dave paused for a moment. “We had given Judge Cooper leeway to sentence criminals as required. So the judge just looked the piece of shit in the eye and said ‘Enough! You are guilty.’ The ferret protested, but the judge was having none of it.”

Dave smiled. “Judge Cooper went biblical and laid down the law. ‘I can tell when someone is lying. You are a piece of shit, and I am sentencing you to five years’ community labour. You will also need to take an oath.’ I forget the words,” Dave admitted, “but the oath was basically, ‘do forty hours of community service a week for five years and never willingly physically harm another.’ There was more to it, but that was the gist. The weasel straight away agreed until the judge told him that the oath would be magically binding on pain of death. The little rat changed his tone and immediately refused to take an oath to not hurt or harm anyone, claiming it was against his rights as a human, claiming that five years of forced labour was illegal and that the kangaroo court they were running had no standing. There was nothing anyone could do to force him to take binding oaths that robbed him of his rights.”

Dave stopped sadly. “I think the criminal thought he spotted weakness at that moment and went more off the deep end. Laughing at me, Tamara, and then Cooper, repeating over and over again that they had no jurisdiction and could not punish him. The judge then gave an ultimatum: Take the oaths or die. The snake continued to talk about his human rights and how slavery was outlawed. Judge Cooper repeated the ultimatum. Another refusal. Then the man called us cowards and told us we didn’t have the balls to carry out the sentence. The judge asked him one more time to take the oath. The weasel seemed to be convinced that we were all bark and no bite. So, Judge Cooper pronounced his life as forfeit. I dragged him towards the chopping block. For firewood,” Dave clarified, seeing the look in Adrian’s eyes. “It would work just as well with people. So, of course, he begged for mercy. He said he would say the oaths and did not want to die. Tamara called Cooper back to accept the oath, and the man said ‘Fuck you’ and spat in the judge’s face. So I gagged him and carried out the sentence. The stupidity of people.”

“Shit, man.”

“Better than watching a friend die,” Dave admitted slowly. “I do not want to do it again, but I will. That guy had time to repent. Forty hours a week for five years for rape. It was a pretty lenient sentence.” Dave shook his head sadly.

“So that is where we are,” Sally whispered.

“Able to get guilty proof quickly, binding oaths on offenders, immediate rehabilitation,” Adrian summed up softly. “You can build something special.”

Sally smiled at that. “And we will, but there is a cost.” She nodded towards Dave who was looking up with his normal bright expression, the dark deeds they had talked about pushed down.

“Are you really okay?”

Dave nodded. “He had several chances and blew them all. He died because of his choices not mine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Surprisingly, yes! I have seen lots of my friends die. Compared to that, doing my bit to protect the town does not bother me. He could have saved himself by taking the oath. I am fine.”

Listening to him, it sounded like his conscience was mostly clear. There was still stuff at the periphery. After all, his duty had just made him kill a man in cold blood, and the impact of that action might always hang over him.

Poor guy.

“So what do you think?” Sally asked him.

“I think you are going to create an oasis and a great place to live. I just hope there are no more lucus and Birds. Given a chance, you guys will thrive.”

Sally smiled, and Dave patted his back.

“You need laws plus enforcement. It has a cost.” Adrian nodded towards Dave, and the man winced slightly. “A toll that is unavoidable, but better that price is paid by people who care than monsters who don’t. However, you can’t keep it secret. The death penalty is not a deterrent to crime if no one knows about it. You guys are creating something amazing.” He flicked his head back towards the sounds of the partying. There was live music playing. It was not wonderful music, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was extraordinary that they were actually playing once more, given the chaos unleashed on the world just weeks before. “Thousands of people are alive because of what you have done. They have genuine hope for the future. You are winning. You are building a beacon of hope, and better still, you have the steel in you to protect what you are creating. If you had let this slide or resorted to banishment, then bullies would be emboldened, and everything might come crashing down. Instead, there is awful music, laughter, and hope.”

“I will drink to that.” Sally held an identical flask to the one in his hand. She must have plucked it from her bag of holding. Sally produced another, which she handed to Dave.

“To a bright future,” she cheered.

They drank together.

“This is way too morose for a celebration.” Sally had a twinkle in her eye. “With the Bird dead and Cooper’s help, we are going to make something special, and that is worth celebrating.” She was cheerful again, and only a little was the party mask. Finally, she was letting herself go.

Heading back to their table, the kids had disappeared to be around others their age. A couple of tables closer to the door, all the teenagers and young adults had gathered to drink more boisterously. He settled down between Sally and Susie. It was the leader’s table. Everyone was over forty except for himself, who looked twenty and was completely out of place.

A snort. Who cared what anyone thought?

“Secret town business?” Susie asked with a slight slur.

“Nah. Sally was just begging me to stay.”

“I was not!”

“It was embarrassing,” Dave confirmed, getting giggles from everyone at the table.

“I refused. I am still going to Melbourne.”

“Who with?” Graham asked.

“Currently Susie, Kozzie, Jules, and myself, but we will take anyone competent.”

“They have to be competent?”

“Of course! It will be too dangerous, otherwise.”

“You are not stealing any of the good ones,” Sally warned. More laughter.

“What do you think the trip will be like?”

“Dangerous,” Susie said.

“Hard,” Adrian agreed. “I am wondering what we are going to see.”

Suddenly there was screaming. A yelling Kozzie went flying across the room, thrown over multiple chairs after being hit by a giant of a man. The big man was pumping his hands in the air like a wrestling champion revving up a crowd. All the time, he was laughing.

Jules, who had been sitting next to Kozzie, sprang to her feet. She took a quick step back before anyone reacted, her club in her fists. She brought it up and swung it hard into the giant’s back.

Adrian leapt to his feet, only to find the world swaying alarmingly, shadow stepping by instinct closer to break up the fight.

Nothing happened.

Trying again, same result.

The world swayed.

In front of him, only five meters away, the brawl was unfolding, and he was too slow. The club hit with a thump that would be heard in neighbouring buildings. Rage filled the big man’s face as he almost stumbled forward. He turned to assault Jules. Two girls grabbed Kozzie, who was pushing himself to his feet while reaching for his knives. Adrian recognised one of melee fighters that had been in their party to get anti-Inherent Healing herbs. She threw her arms around Kozzie to prevent him drawing his weapons.

People were yelling; both Jules and the big man were tackled by multiple men and women.

Shadow Step. It failed again. Adrian used his feet to charge forward, but Graham’s hand found his shoulder, easily holding him back.

“Kids having fun,” Graham suggested. It looked like more to Adrian than just kids having fun. The big guy was trapped under five people, Jules under four. The risk had passed. Breath washed out of him. It was not going to escalate. Adrian sat down heavily with the whole world rocking around him, so drunk it was hard to see straight. Tamara and Dave were both in the action sorting everything out.

How on Earth had Dave moved so quickly?

They contained the big man. Kozzie, while still shouting, had put his knives away. Five people were sitting on Jules, waiting for the berserker rage to fade. The brawl, if it could be called that, had fizzled out quickly before anyone else had been drawn into it.

Maybe he should be . . .

“Stay down,” Graham insisted, grabbing Adrian’s shoulder as he went to get up. “Let the professionals deal with it.” At one point, Dave caught his eye and gave Adrian a thumbs up. Apparently, everything was under control.

Kozzie ran over to Jules, and everyone was getting off her at his insistence. The moment she was free, she grabbed him in a huge hug and whispered in his ear.

Dave came over. The big guy was being led away by Tamara; none of his friends were supporting him.

“He can sleep it off,” Dave told them, “and we will deal with the consequences in the morning.”

“What happened?” Susie asked. Adrian had not noticed, but Sally had been holding Susie back.

“Barry patted your daughter on the bum, Kozzie reacted by hitting him. Barry hit Kozzie back, Jules hit Barry, and everyone else stopped the fight. Just standard hijinks.”

“What’s the punishment going to be?” he asked Sally.

Sally looked at him like he was stupid. “I am not the queen. It will be whatever the magistrate thinks is appropriate.”

A calmer Jules and Kozzie disappeared together.

“It is an interesting question,” Dave acknowledged after a moment’s thought. “Before it would have been a warning at the most. However, there is a bit of difference between kids fighting with fists versus kids fighting with spells and swords.”

“Probably still a warning,” Sally snorted. “After all, we also have healing magic.”

“Maybe Cooper will force an oath of no alcohol for a month,” Dave quipped.

“We are not a torture camp,” Graham protested. “That surely counts as cruel and unusual punishment.” More laughter.

Adrian sat. The world spun. The seat shifted under him, and he landed on his back, staring up at a lot of concerned faces. Everything was swaying.

“Maybe we should help him to his room?”

He shut his eyes, making everything worse. Opening them again, he felt hands were helping him.

“We have a room reserved next door.”

What is happening?





Chapter 5


Adrian awoke suddenly.

The mattress underneath him was the type that was so soft that you sank right into it. Usually, they resulted in a restless night, but there had been none of that. Opening his eyes, he saw a strange bed: ornamental, heavy with old wood.

The mother of all headaches that he had been expecting was not present. Well, that would save him from begging help from Susie. Instead of pain, he felt like he had had ten hours of sleep and had treated his body as a temple for the past week. There were no aches, no throbbing, lots of energy, and his mind was crystal clear.

Not the bed, he knew instinctively. It was what he had been drinking. The fancy little flask! Extra points for the good stuff.

What time is it?

7:11 a.m.

The last he had remembered was falling backwards on his seat and everyone peering at him. That had been late. Approaching dawn early morning. Graham had been chuffed at being about to do an all-nighter. He wondered if he made it?

“It is still two hours to dawn.”

“Close enough,” Graham had re-butted. “My last all-nighter was my brother’s wedding. Almost as good as this party. Aunty Jill, she was a character. Anyway, she—”

Adrian had tuned out at that point. The roar of the listeners after a few minutes meant that the story at least had had a great punchline.

Adrian shook his head. Maybe the day would not end up wasted. Four or fewer hours sleep and, despite all the drinking, he felt another tentative wobble and no pain. To feel this refreshed was amazing. It almost felt like he should drink the alcohol before bed each night.

The image was of a young dude, getting a cheque with big numbers written on it. Fancy cars, Rolex watches, hangers-on, and expensive parties. Then it blurred forward to show the still-young man lining up to get government unemployment help.

The point of sharing was crystal clear to him. Cost, money, or energy, everything always came down to resources. Thoughts of indulging in unnecessary alcohol were pushed from his mind; there were better uses for his hard-earned loot.

The Bird was dead. Wagga Wagga would be safe. The only known wrinkle was the lucu. Sally had indicated it was a problem, but one easily handled.

What to do. Adrian thought back to the previous night. Just after midnight, Susie and he had celebrated successfully creating their master plan. Details were hazy; the miracle drink still stayed true to that part of its purpose. There was an intention to focus on achieving his Intelligence buff after dark and then to go hunting for salamanders during the day. That had been the gist of it. Though it had felt more profound.

Adrian licked his lips. Something important was skipping his mind. That is right, they had discussed his upgrade options at length.

He frowned.

Everyone had had a different opinion last night. Some had pushed healing heavily, others the shadow fighters, while the raid leaders had all clamoured for the buff skill. There was no consensus. With a sigh, he put off the decision further.

The grand plan was absolute rubbish. Staying to kill salamanders instead of leaving straight for Melbourne was stupid. What would be next? Before he knew it, he would lose the will to leave the town’s safety. He had to reach his family, and the sooner he threw off the false cocoon of the town, the better. The longer he stayed, the harder it would be, and his kids needed him.

There was a sense of discordance from the core.

You don’t get an opinion. It is my family.

The interface buzzed in confused annoyance; the emotions fluctuated like it was trying to circumvent a barrier that stopped it from expressing itself. There was something important about the Flame Sprout that the interface was not allowed to say. The lucu was there in the background as a bonus, of all things.

How could a creature that was killing humans and was going to keep him locked up at night possibly be good? And why was the interface so set on driving him to get this Flame Sprout ability?

Adrian recalled the information dump around his upgrade options. The Flame Sprout was on the same tier of progress as shadow fighters, buffs, or healing. Getting it directly from alpha monsters, as opposed to via level up potential, was how to build power, both now and in the future.

Adrian drummed his fingers against his thigh.

It was a higher category than his current skills because he already had the fireball ability, and this was the next level. Advanced magic, the sort that could hurt the mud wolves when nothing else he possessed could touch them. Level three was going to require twenty thousand points, which was like killing two thousand imps and maybe five times that, considering that experience probably scaled down as levels increased. That was weeks of grinding. The Flame Sprout was surely no better than shadow fighters. Even if it was a second tier to other options, it was a class above his current skills. Not having to physically shoot the fire would increase accuracy, as it would stop them dodging, not to mention the instant nature of the attack.

Uh-oh.

The journey to Melbourne would not be easy. Advanced magic versus time?

He hit the bed hard. There was no point leaving sooner if it meant that he would die. Delaying to improve odds was not stupid; it was smart.

Maybe he should follow the pointless master plan. It was hardly ideal, but if he wanted to get the Flame Sprout spell, then he had little choice. The lucu changed everything. Fighting during the day and reading at night did not mesh well with his shadow skill set. But the lucu was too fast to risk being out when it was active. Till Sally dealt with it, his hours would have to shift to the same as everyone else’s. He snorted. Jules had even forced him to give a pinky swear on that last one.

Flame sprout it was.

There was a sense of smug approval, like the bloody thing thought it had won a debate.

Get lost!

Adrian decided, while he hated the idea of waiting, getting more power was too important.

Rolling out of bed, Adrian’s feet sank into the soft, luxurious carpet. There was some elegant stationary on the desk, a big ornamental “C” on a notepad. Further down the pad, in tiny writing, “Campbell Boutique Hotel.” It was all coming back. Centrally located next door to the Roasted Quail, it was the safest spot to dump him.

“Dump” was not fair. They had given him the best they could. The room he was standing in was larger than his open-space living and kitchen area at home, the sort of indulgence that even with his inflated salary he would never have allowed himself. Not that money mattered now. It was all about practicalities. The place was naturally fortified against the lucu: strong bluestone walls, small windows, and overall solid all the way through. All the advanced magic users were going to be staying here until the town eliminated the threat.

No complaints from him. This was superior to forcing them all into a cellar somewhere, and, given Sally’s practical streak, that had probably been considered. Smiling, he walked out of the massive room and headed downstairs. The remains of last night’s buffet with a couple of fresh additions were on offer. The Roasted Quail across the street was bound to have better food, but what he could see was better than decent and higher quality than what most people in Wagga had access to. The selection of non-perishable goods was topped up: multiple cereal options, fresh bread, and even some pastries. But it was too early for hot specialised food. There were empty spaces everywhere, yet at least two groups from last night were still drinking, and a couple of other tables were filled with early risers who must have been scheduled for duty in the morning.

The food was still warm. As Adrian thought about it, those who had done an all-nighter had probably eaten breakfast before bed and left only the extreme hardcore. The foods available did not matter. In pride of place on the central buffet table was a massive plate filled with Bird.

With a cup of coffee and vindictive thoughts, he set about eating the lovely meat.

You won’t eat me; I will eat you.

It felt amazing to be munching on the thing that had almost eaten him. Outside, people were moving sluggishly with a surprising lack of weapons on display. The hotel dining room, unlike upstairs, had large windows giving a view of the mall in the centre of town. With a bit of imagination, it was like he was back in the good old days before the Armageddon had hit.

Four hours of sleep and no hangover totally changed his plans. The day went from being a write-off to a relaxing morning, followed by some hunting in the afternoon. The itch to start progressing on his Intelligence pathway was overwhelming. Digging into the bag of holding, he pulled out the books Sam had traded to him the previous day and laid them out on the table. It was an interesting collection. A couple were like grade seven textbooks, another was massive with an ornamental cover, with the final one little more than a pamphlet.

Interfaces and Traders: A Theoretical History

Common Class Overview

Magic Flavours and Application

Strength Through Communal Buffs

Meditation Techniques

The Wonderful World of Art

Optimal Utilisation of Cores

Alpha Flora: The Good, the Bad, and the Terrifying

Alchemical Recipes



It was an interesting list. The first six he needed to read and understand as part of his Intelligence pathway, while the last three were books that would give him direct benefits and increase his skills once he had time to absorb them. Adrian hoped the gathering and alchemical books would open up additional options. Knowing which cores to sell and how best to use the other ones excited him. After all, he already knew some cores were better for alchemy, others for learning skills, and, based on the pathway of troll aspect, there were those that you needed to use to develop new abilities. On a whim he picked The Wonderful World of Art.

The book reminded him of a science textbook. It was thick, chunky, as wide as the dinner plate in front of him, and had thin pages. When he opened it, it greeted him with dense text. Flipping further revealed glossy pictures. There was a picture of a cave that was filled with bubble-like sculptures, thousands and potentially millions of them clustered everywhere. Some were from high up on the ceiling where the statues formed the impression of geometric shapes, and then there were further snapshots with higher magnification as the unknown photographer zoomed in.

The geometrical impressions first resolved into fluid images within which he recognised hominoids, wolves, and bears. Then the pictures zoomed further in, and the bear comprised individual glass-blown sculptures with swirling colours throughout. Every sculpture was like a masterwork from an expert. The breadth of the artwork was amazing. What sort of brain allowed a species to create so many pieces of art and collect them to generate different images at varying distances?

Flipping to another page, Adrian found a series of pictures showing octopus-like animals swinging through the trees and standing above gigantic bears as if they were trophy kills. The aliens were the octopi, and their culture must have revered hunting.

The next page showed flowers that jumped out into 3D images when you looked more closely at the book. Checking the contents thoughtfully, it stated that artwork from over one hundred different species was covered. Each chapter was helpfully labelled with the name of the sapient species, followed by a long number. Every number was completely different and told him nothing useful.

While he wanted to explore the book to uncover the beauty, it felt inefficient. It gave this book to him to understand in order to get stronger. It was not a coffee-table book to entertain guests. It was time to utilise the hard-won cramming techniques from university. First, he skimmed through it as fast as possible once to form an impression. Then, and only then, would he read it in more detail with his quick reading helping to know where to concentrate and when to skip pages.

From his lightning first pass, his favourite art was sculptures made within waves crashing against the shore. The waves would form, and they would break over stonework carefully constructed to create prancing animals. The watery creatures would exist for just moments before gravity and momentum would wash them away. As the seas got heavier, the formations would change, and one horse would become many. Reluctantly, he put the book down, knowing that he could get lost in its depths.

Except for the one on meditation techniques, all the core books appealed to him, and he felt all those outside the art one could rapidly provide him with useful knowledge.

What were the pros and cons of the different books? The history of interface and traders would probably help him understand his interactions with Sam and his own interface better. Class overview let him guide those around him. Magical flavours would help develop his magic, as would Strength Through Communal Buffs. It might even aid him in deciding whether to choose that development pathway. In the end, it came down to importance against curiosity. Magical Flavours was likely to give the best immediate returns while the history of traders and interfaces was the most appealing. Curiosity won out.

Interfaces and Traders: A Theoretical History was one of the year-seven textbook-style ones. It was plain and unadorned. If he was lucky, it would help him to understand the system that was put in place.

Introduction

The aid that is provided, comprising integrated interfaces and wandering traders together, represents a mechanism to infuse both knowledge and useful items into a world just after an alpha physics event has occurred.

Both have limits placed on their capacity to provide information to the native sapient species. These limits have been determined and optimised over billions of years and hundreds of millions different alpha physics events.

We have tailored optimisation tiers to maximize the survivability of the native sapient species, with the first being optimal and the last being least desirable.

Civilised Society Continuance

Civilised Strangled Society Continuance

Individual Higher Function Survival

Regressed Survival

Extinction



It is important to understand what each of these tiers mean. Civilised Society Continuance refers to incumbent social structures that existed pre-alpha events continuing post-alpha. For example, if pre-alpha individuals had freedom of religious choice, movement, and partner, and these fundamental choices were maintained post-alpha physical event, then the Civilised Society Continuance tier applies.

Civilised Strangled Society Continuance refers to the continuation of a structured society with changes to available individual choice. For example, it may lose freedom of religious choice or freedom of mating partner in the new society.

Individual Higher Function Survival refers to a society that has broken down. This is where there is no civilised society left, and the native sapient species has been reduced to small family tribal units who struggle to survive.

Finally, Regressed Survival refers to instances where the genetic makeup of the sapient species is mostly maintained but higher reasoning functions are lost, and they have become little more than smart animals who have potentially lost the sapient tag.

The lucu. The text confirmed it. Sapient species were occasionally reduced to non-sapient status, and he was sure that was the case for the lucu. Maybe someday he would confirm for sure, but for now the lucu was a victim in Adrian’s head.

Success of trialled strategies is established after the new alpha physics planet has fully stabilised, at which point portals can be created to and from the planet to assess how well the sentient species survived the transition.

Adrian stopped reading again to think about what was being said for a moment. The aliens were valuing survival of initial culture, then some culture, and then species, trying to avoid extinction. At a high level, the approach seemed reasonable. And then, if they survived, the aliens could visit. Would that cause further upheaval?

He started the next chapter.

Alpha Physics Events

There are three types of alpha physics events, the differences between event types allows a continual assessment of the effectiveness of our strategies in preserving sapient species.

Fortunately, the most common alpha physics event type, “ALPHA PRIMARY CATALYST“ event is one where all the aids successfully transferred into the new world of alpha physics.

Information withheld per challenger strategy 51234.

The next seven pages were almost identical.

Information withheld per challenger strategy 51234.

Information withheld per challenger strategy 51234.

Information withheld per challenger strategy 18234.

Information withheld per challenger strategy 51234.

The chapter confused him. For a moment, he drew upon the brain dump that the interface had given him when he had boosted Intelligence.

In a dusty theatre hall, a human lecturer presented behind a quaint wooden podium. The seats were like an old-style movie theatre, cushioned rows where the bottom would fold up when not in use. On the tattered, carpentered stage above him, the lecturer, an old weedy guy with a grey moustache, droned on. It had just started, but it felt like it had been going for hours already. The dry, precise way he spoke seemed tailored to push everyone listening to sleep. In fact, the man was so bad at his job that Adrian was the only one listening despite the hundreds of seats.

The fact that it was usually humans doing the teaching had never twinged as unusual till now. Yet it was in this contrived space that truth was driven home. The man delivering the speech did not exist; he was advanced CGI or the alpha physics equivalent: computer graphics tailored to impart specific information to Adrian.

“Higher intelligence is not learning lots and having facts available to pluck out at a cocktail party to wow an audience. That is just increased storage. Being able to memorise interesting tidbits is meaningless for intelligence. No! What is important is the ability to make connections between disparate facts and form opinions that are as good as facts.”

The memory faded like pathway knowledge often did, becoming wisps of recollection that would never again solidify into a discrete moment.

Intelligence was drawing reliable inferences, understanding concepts. Some part of him had been hoping the pathway was just about reading the books and memorising them. Time-consuming, but easy. But that was not how the bloody thing was going to end up working. His job was not to read; it was to understand.

Flicking back to the start of the chapter, Adrian stared at the title “Alpha Physics Events,” running a finger across the words, thinking What is the point? Why mention so little? There were clearly multiple grades of events. Maybe different particles, creating varying conditions and alternative outcomes.

The fact it was even in the book told him that the different flavours of events mattered. Three of them were normal, then . . . everything was blanked out. It could be anything.

What specifically was special about the blanked-out information? Knowing the types of events changed outcomes. How could that possibly work? He imagined for a moment that the book told him that humanity’s future was doomed. Would that change things for him? Absolutely, getting home would be more important than ever. Would he have challenged the Bird to buy only ten years of peaceful existence? No, he needed every iota of courage to start that battle. That had included the knowledge that he had been saving kids and their kids, gambling his life to provide them a future. If they did not have hope, then his choice would have been different.

Was that why it was excluded? Were these other events so catastrophic that they would destroy all hope, or did it go the other way? The normal event was painful while the other versions were not. Was the knowledge that some races got an easy path to existence sufficient to make people give up when they got on the hard road?

It was like a rocket being lit on his backside. He needed to know. Why was the information blanked out? Was there the potential for something even more terrible than their reality, or was what he was seeing the worst that the alpha particle ever created? What was challenger strategy 51234? Who thought of it? Why did they test it in the first place and then abandon it based on the results of 51234?

What was next? Adrian flicked open the chapter to check: Balancing Experience Gains.

That sounded fun.





Chapter 6


The book lay in front of him, ready and begging to be read. The next chapter:

Balancing Experience Gains

The key challenge faced is maximising Civilised Society Continuance versus the creation of a Strangled Society or Extinction. If we aim for a high proportion of Civilised Society, then extinction rates skyrocket. If we accept a Strangled Society, then we have the tools to reduce annihilation; however, a lot of the strangled societies that emerge are so dark and distorted and such a perversion from the pre-alpha society norms that extermination might have been a better outcome. Significant evidence (See Outcome Studies 14312, 12493) supports that hypothesis that the average sapient would have welcomed extinction versus the strangled society generated.

Data from millions of events statistically prove that Strangled Societies occur when too many resources and knowledge are released too quickly into a post alpha physics society. Specifically . . .

Information redacted per challenger strategy 37851.

There were three paragraphs blanked out. How did it work? Why would granting more information create a strangled society? He wanted to throttle someone.

The following table represents: Zero knowledge, the current optimised knowledge level, and doubling of knowledge transfer.

Information redacted per challenger strategy 37858.

This time it was just a single line removed.

Looking over the next table, most of it was redacted with only the information for Zero Knowledge at stabilisation included.

Zero Knowledge

Civilised Society - 0.001%

Strangled Society - 0.001%

Individual Higher Function Survival - 0.01%

Regressed Survival - 0.5%

Extinction - 99.4%

The only other populated information was for the champion strategy, which showed a five percent extinction rate.

Information redacted per challenger strategy 21156.

It was all redacted. The numbers that could have explained so much were gone. There were some inferences to be made. Without help, civilised society only survived 0.001 percent of that time. That meant that only one in one hundred thousand civilisations pulled through prior to interfaces and traders being added to aid them. Even with the help, there was a five percent chance of extinction occurring anyway and a sixteen percent probability within two generations. He just wished that they supplied the information for the other categories.

A shiver went through Adrian’s chest. Only one in one hundred thousand survived prior to the interfaces! How many races must have died before the infrastructure was in place? How many other civilisations got to the level of technology where they had automobiles, health care, phone networks, and enlightenment before the desire to learn more put them on the path for their civilisation to be torn asunder? The very physics that had helped pull them out of caves was being destroyed and replaced. Alien monsters were taking over their civilised world and lives were transforming from easy to a bitter struggle.

Adrian forced himself to breathe calmly. It was ancient history. Humans had interfaces to help them. They did not face those odds. They had traders; they even had loot chests. Humans were smart and resourceful; they would not fall into the five percent extinction cohort.

Calming himself once more through an effort of will, Adrian looked down and unclenched his fists. His nails had dug scratch marks into the palms of his hands. Next chapter.

Challenger versus Champion Strategies

We have proven the outcomes of six functional aids acting in concert. The elder races continue to focus on optimising conditions to enable as many races possible to survive with a Non-Strangled Civilization. Challenger strategies continue to be tried; however, the existing champion strategy has remained unchanged for over 100 million years.

One hundred million years. Adrian could not even imagine the time scales that were being talked about. They had used the existing champion strategy in the time of the dinosaurs!

Recent challenger strategies tested include starting everyone off with regional knowledge. This increased the survival of the species, but like most other early informational boosts created a spike in the number of Strangled Civilisations. Another attempt was the provision of the specific skill of environmental fire. Basically, providing you were not fighting an enemy, everyone could use mana to create flames. It would let everyone cook meat and light campfires to ward off monsters. This strategy was effective, and while ultimately deemed to be inferior to the champion strategy, the results were close enough that further investigations in this space will be needed.

The following table shows the outcomes factoring in the collective impact of all six aids.

Information redacted per challenger strategy 48112.

Damn it.

Adrian slammed his fist into the table. Did six aids reduce extinction to zero percent? What were the aids? Interfaces, traders, loot chests, and what else? Looking around, there was no one in the room; all the breakfast foods had been cleaned away, and they were about to start lunch service.

Turning to the new chapter, expecting and dreading additional redactions, Adrian was not at all surprised to find out that he was right. Still, between the sensitive stuff, there was lots of information available, pages of technical detail on the mechanics around: transferring aids to the new alpha physics planets, using unstable high energy states to insert aids into the new world, setting up the interface to map into the nervous system of sapient creatures, replacing cores that you would find in animals, preventing the impact of random core mutations tearing the delicate neural system of the sapient to pieces.

Another chapter talked about the limits and strengths of interfaces and traders. On one side of the coin, he could consider them to be the same collective entity. On the other, they were individual, almost sapient, constructs with deliberate differences in personality and programming.

There was, however, a diffuse knowledge base that was shared between all interfaces and traders. It was just concepts. If the new planet had a nasty predator, interfaces and traders would make information available to all of them to allow them to counter the threat. Quiet often, it seemed, a domestic animal would get dangerously mutated, and they needed to know that to avoid it. Imagine your friendly house dog becoming a schizophrenic monster, most of the time looking normal, turning into a mass of teeth and madness when they are alone with you.

Has that happened?

The interface answered with silence. Maybe they had been lucky so far with domestic animals.

There was a fascinating chapter discussing the ethics of sapient versus non sapient interfaces. Intelligence in the interfaces vastly improved survival outcomes, particularly driving an improvement in Civilised Society versus Strangled Society. There was a downside or, more precisely, a fear that the civilised societies generated by smart interfaces did not reflect the culture of the underlying sapient race. The culture/soul of the species might have been lost due to interface interference.

It was a tricky debate with no actual solution presented. Reading between the lines, that seemed to be a wink-wink, nod-nod acknowledgement that having a percentage of interfaces that approached the line of sapience and potentially crossing it was a net benefit. Like everything, it was a balancing act.

Adrian put the book down.

His intention had been to only skim the book, but so much had been redacted that he had read it cover to cover. The lunch crowd was filtering in; he had been reading for over two hours. Susie, Jules, and Kozzie were sitting at a nearby table, and, now that his attention had left his book, they were enthusiastically waving him over. He winced in embarrassment, wondering just how rude he had been.

The interface and traders book got dropped into the bag of holding. It felt done, and he might never look at it again. Rubbing his hands, it was time to check whether progress had been noted.





Chapter 7


Adrian clicked through the interface.

Pathway of Intelligence - 21% (+ 21%)

It was better than expected and probably reflected him having completed one of the assigned texts. What to read next? The answer was obvious: Magic Flavours and Application. It was a book that could really open up his knowledge and propel his magical understanding even further. The others waited, but he could take a quick peek. It would be rude, though. Socially, he should get up and see them. But the book sat there, and it would just take a moment to check and confirm what it was going to teach him.

There was a flash of light. His fingers spasmed, making him drop the book. For an instant, disorientation hit him as he struggled to understand the abrupt sensations. Was he under attack?

Flee.

The area was supposed to be safe. What was happening? He pushed up from his chair and shadow stepping over to the side of the room. It was almost instinctive now. His head was ringing like a bell from the assault. No one was looking at him. There was nobody behind the seat that he had been reading at. No magician in the line of sight attacking him from a hidden location. Magic focus flaring, but that revealed nothing either.

What happened?

It was a question he did not expect an answer to. The interface was silent. Not even a peep of emotion. People near where he had been sitting were reacting to his abrupt movements. There was confusion in their faces, instant transport skills were not common, but they were not so scarce that they were a complete surprise. There was no obvious danger. What had caused the painful light? Why was his head hurting? Adrian reached out for help from the interface to provide clarity.

Am I under attack?

An image. This time it was a thin black dude with a goatee, the type of smarmy guy any normal person would want to hit. The man was looking at him like he was an idiot. Then he gave a dismissive gesture, as if Adrian was the greatest waste of space in the universe before sauntering away.

Not an assault, then. Trying to understand. The book he had tried to open was still lying where he had left it. The light and pain had felt real. Maybe it was warded with a spell. Walking back, he felt embarrassed, like everyone was watching him. Casually looking up. Searching for a reaction, but no eyes darted away. Possibly no one had noticed anything more than a flash of movement out of the corner of their eyes, or maybe they had seen and just could not care because they were so wrapped up in their own more pressing concerns.

The volume tingled when he touched it.

Trying to open it would be worse than last time. There was no quarter given in the knowledge. It was a fact. If he was stupid enough to ignore the warning, the backlash would leave him quivering on the floor! At best! He stared hard at the tome with Magic Focus, flipping it over and around to check it carefully. There was no warding visible or even magic associated with the book. It was not a spell that had stopped him.

While holding it, Adrian marvelled at the tingling sensation it was generating, a feeling that a non-magical object should be incapable of producing.

What is this?

A memory—or possibly a fresh experience, it was hard to tell—beamed within him, a fragment of one lecture that had come with the pathway of Intelligence.

Moustache dude paused his machine gun monotone lecture to look Adrian straight in the eye. “Taking shortcuts in acquiring knowledge is a terrible choice.” The man emphasised the words he was rattling off for the first time. “An awful decision and” —he winked before continuing— “if it is within your power, you should always aim to form an opinion before consulting expert knowledge lest the ‘supposed’ expert opinion forever blinker you.”

Ouch.

The tingling lessened. The pathway had stopped him with far more force than was warranted. The intention was clear: Adrian needed to understand magic flavours himself before checking the answers in the book.

It was like they transported him back to university and that shitty philosophy course he had stupidly taken, a place where they talked a bunch of tripe that never helped him in real life. It created the sensation of being out of your depth and completely lost for session after session. Pseudo-intellectuals unleashed their supposed wit as kings of the Earth before they ended up as baristas or dish hands for their rest of their lives.

Adrian considered magic flavours as he knew them, letting it all swarm through his mind, knowledge-filled complexity that threatened to overwhelm him. But he persevered, as there had to be a science behind it. At the core, all this was built off scientific principles. The first survivors of the alpha event had mastered new complicated rules of physics, and now he had an incentive to do the same. Break it down into bite-sized pieces. What were magic flavours?

Of the ones he could cast, there was ice, fire, dark, wind, earth. Plus, nature or healing was definitely a thing. Mental note: he needed to see if healers differed from druids. Then there was also water magic; he had seen it used. Mind magic was a thing, both from his bow and his ambusher skills. There could be some form of movement magic in his ambusher steps, or maybe that was more like time magic. He had played with dimensional magic in the imp portals.

What else? It was a lot to take in. The Intelligence pathway expected him to unravel the mysteries of magic all by himself. . . . It was a steep ask.

Too much?

An emptiness of emotion greeted him. Not impossible, it would just take time and probably closer to weeks than days.

Adrian looked up again. Susie was still waving him over. Sheepishly, he shelved his thoughts and packed the books away.

“You were in a trance,” Susie told him. “I thought it was best not to interrupt. Were they spell books?” she asked, nodding towards his bag of holding.

“No,” he answered, pulling out the interface and traders book and handing it over to her. “It is just a textbook that tries to explain what is happening.”

“The whole alpha physics Armageddon stuff?” Jules asked questioningly.

“No!” Adrian shook his head. “Explaining why there are interfaces, experience points, traders. The choices that the aliens have made. Alluding to why we receive a skill after a hundred kills and how powerful that gained ability is. Mind you, they redacted most of it like the government does when it tries to hide stuff.”

“Why are you making time for that?” Kozzie asked, genuinely confused. “That won’t help you survive the next fight.”

“Part of my level up. I am on a pathway to increase my Intelligence. This book is one of six books I need to study. Plus, I enjoyed it.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Not sure there was anything interesting for you dummies,” Adrian said, sticking out his tongue.

Jules looked annoyed. Kozzie burst into laughter.

“Who is a dummy?” he asked. “You’re the dummy.”

“We are all dummies,” Adrian protested back.

“Nah, I’m not the one who didn’t know the difference between sentient and sapient.”

“Not that again,” Adrian interrupted hurriedly. Kozzie just gave a shit-eating grin back.

“You are the dummy,” Susie said authoritatively. “Everyone knows how badly you went in the trivia. He was the worst,” she whispered to Jules in a loud conspiratorial way. “Dead last.”

“Well, anything interesting?” Kozzie repeated.

“Traders and interfaces talk to themselves. Traders are all fundamentally the same, with slight tweaks to physical appearance and personality. They are all linked and a sort of part of one entity. They also have portals built into their wagons that transfer stuff globally, so there are rarely any supply and demand issues when they are interacting with customers. Everything they buy gets deposited in some huge spatial warehouse. Any other trader can then extract it, like a bag of holding with multiple exit points. They have restrictions, one of which is preventing them using it as a postal service, for example.” Adrian grimaced at that thought. “I can’t get them to check whether Emily is okay. . . . Um, the only relevant thing is they communicate threat assessments local, regional, and global with each other.”

“What do you mean?”

“They cannot tell us that London survived untouched, but New York was destroyed, or vice versa, but if” —Adrian paused, considering things— “if sparrows became immensely dangerous, they could share that information with everyone or, more locally, if there is a plague of emperor locusts taking over Australia that would kill everything, they might provide a warning.”

“Weird rule choices.”

“You know aliens.” He shrugged. No one went with his joke. “Great job leaving me hanging, guys.” They continued to leave him hanging, all three of them enjoying his discomfort. “On a serious note, the aliens have their reasons for things. They seemed to have been running studies over billions of years to gather supporting evidence.”

“Anything else?” Susie questioned.

“Nothing else interesting,” Adrian told them, deciding not to elaborate on survival odds or his thoughts regarding why so much had been removed. “Just that this is all an experiment that has spanned billions of years.”

It failed to make any of them even blink.

“On a fresh note, what are our plans?” Susie asked. Adrian had just dropped a bombshell, and they had continued on like it was irrelevant. A billion years of studies, and they were all business instead. The three of them focused on the here and now, and, when he thought about it, they were the sensible ones. Ancient history meant nothing.

“Our plans are to follow the master plan from last night,” Adrian answered. The decision to stay till he had Flame Sprout mastered still made him uncomfortable, but logic needed to rule over emotions sometimes or else he was no better than an animal.

Susie looked at him blankly.

“I am sure we wrote it out on a napkin,” Adrian offered.

Susie glanced pleadingly towards Jules for help. Her daughter had a look that said “Like I ever know what he is prattling on about.”

“I have two things I need to do before we leave here.” He jumped in before more comments came his way. “One, learn the flame spout ability. I think that will probably involve a few days hunting salamanders. Second, I want to complete as many of these books as possible.”

Saying the words made him feel sick. Just like that, he had committed to staying in town until he had the skill. Power versus speed. The two concepts thundered in his head and would continue to do so. But if he was going to break away, now was the time to do it. Once he had gone after the Flame Sprout for a while, he would not get up and leave given the sunk cost.

It is an advanced skill!

The thought echoed in his head, settling down and suppressing the need to leave. Extra power might mean more speed when he got on the road. Going slow now might mean getting to Melbourne faster. Plus, Flame Sprout. The idea of him getting that skill excited even the interface. Its emotions were bubbling, but they faded away to nothing once more the moment he fixated upon them.

“So you want to get your Intelligence increased before we move,” Susie said knowledgeably, “and then be almost as smart as the rest of us.”

The three of them giggled.

“Some of it,” he said, deciding not to respond to the bait. “The rest I can work on while moving. Reading the books in the evening.”

“So you’re still going to go?” Kozzie asked.

“Yes, you guys are welcome to come or to stay.” Adrian placed his hands on the table, taking up the managerial stance he used when he wanted to get the point across. “There is no need for you to come,” he told them. “Wagga Wagga is safe. It has good people. The sensible thing is for the three of you to put down roots here. There is no need to risk your lives going back to Melbourne.” He stopped speaking for a moment, wondering whether he should talk about his stealth ability. In the end, he went for it. “With my Shadow Step, I will probably be safer on my own anyway, and if you are not coming, I can enhance that skill.”

Kozzie turned to face Jules. “I have friends and family in Melbourne, but there’s no guarantee that they have survived this long.” He hesitated, swallowed nervously, and looked into her eyes. “I am happy to do what you want.”

Her mouth formed a little O, and her hand dropped to Kozzie’s. She smiled.

“I want to go to Melbourne,” Susie said, ignoring the poignant moment between Jules and Kozzie. “Outside the three of you, all my ties are in Melbourne. Plus” —Susie’s cheeks reddened— “it will be fun,” she said hurriedly in a much quieter tone.

Jules heard and gave a little squeal. “My mum’s an adrenaline junkie!”

Susie rolled her eyes, but her face went redder. “I’m not totally boring.”

Jules laughed. “We will go to,” she declared pointedly, continuing to hold Kozzie’s hand. “I think it will be exciting, and Kozzie loves throwing sharp objects at things.”

The group was coming with him, so shadow fighters would not help him. Could they act as sentries at night?

Can shadow fighters guard us at night?

The image was dismissive, a young puppy running around and doing stupid things, lots of exhausting training till it became an old dog that could guard appropriately, no longer barking at everything moving nearby, instead only