Inside a rain-drenched clearing, beside a gaunt tree that clung to its last sliver of life, stood a statue, made of flesh and bone, with veins of solid rock.
The mist that had shrouded the center of the forest was nearly spent—along with the tree that sustained it. Even the rain was slowly dying, falling in sporadic bursts. But, from the statue, life was making a reemergence.
The stone morphed back into slime, releasing blood bound within it back into the body. The venom that had once rampaged through vulnerable veins had long ago found itself spent against stone that proved too tenacious, unyielding, and unliving for it to penetrate.
And the body, released from the stricture of stone that wove through every vein, artery, and capillary, collapsed bonelessly to the ground. Pale, Constitution-empowered tissues, starved of oxygen reinvigorated themselves as the human's drive to breathe asserted itself.
And, as the rain dwindled and the mist thinned, Chris woke to the serpent lying dead beside him, and the perimeter of the clearing filled with the corpses of boars—poisoned when the snake lost control of its venom.
The last pale leaf of the blackened and skeletal tree fluttered weakly above, like a white flag flown from the tallest turret of a ruined castle.
In front of him, a screen flared to life.
Defeat Xys of Smoke (1/1)
Reward: 8,000 System Coins, Dao Solidification, Area Threat Rank Upgrade (F-2)
In a daze, he read through the screen eyes widening as he realized what had just happened. The System Tutorial Station had warned him about it. With the strongest monster in the area dead, the area would get more dangerous and random treasures would be seeded throughout it.
He was about to check what Dao Solidification was, when another set of screens appeared.
Congratulations! The former Area Guardian has been defeated, as the victorious monster you have been selected as the current Area Guardian.
Area Threat Rank Upgrade (F-2) has been automatically applied.
Increased spawning of all monsters of your Race in the Area.
Area will begin alteration upon your indication, or within the next 12 hours. Treasures will spawn according to Luck.
Area Upgrade Quests unlocked
(Optional – Monster – Area Guardian) Increase your Racial Rank to F-3 (0/1)
(Optional – Monster – Area Guardian) Conquer a Settlement (1/1)
Chris groaned as he looked the screens over. He was not yet fully recovered from being petrified. His stats were high enough to prevent him from dying, but they were too low to prevent him from feeling as if his brain and body had been tenderized by a black-belt German masseur.
The screens looked like bad news, but that had to wait for later. The brush with death had shaken him more than he wanted to admit. What's more, this wasn't how he would normally act. He saw that now. Running into the jaws of death and hoping to come out alive on the other side.
He thought back to the people he'd met in the forest—Steve, Philip, Cecilia, Percy, Bruce. What would drive someone to just snatch up a weapon and go out and fight like that? He was guilty of that too. They were all doing stupid things. That didn't mean they weren't going about doing those stupid things intelligently. Taking weapons to fight monsters wasn't a bad idea; though fighting them in the first place was.
What was happening? Ever since… since… since he'd taken that Pill of Pure Body, he'd felt different. No, even before that. The pill had just exacerbated it when it brought him up to a rank F-2 Human. The sense of gung-ho invulnerability, the sense of untouchability, the false knowledge that everything would work out fine.
He felt something flare within him, trying to soothe him, reassure him that he was dwelling on inconsequential worries, that… that…
He had almost sent Bruce and Steve to their deaths.
Chris dragged himself along the ground like a slug, slumping up against the skeletal tree. The calming nonchalance tried to reassert itself, but he was aware of it now. It was a foreign feeling and he quashed it.
What had changed? He delved inward, searching for the wild ball of mana at his center. It had grown considerably. He already knew that of course. It had grown when he'd bought [Mana Spring]. But had it? Had it actually?
He thought back. Brim had never told him it increased his mana pool. It just replenished it faster, allowing for the usage of more skills. The issues had really begun manifesting after the Pill of Pure Body. Before that it was just generally assholery and foolhardiness. But after that…
Massacring a town filled with demons and Undead. Pitting himself against a herd of wild boars. Facing down a snake with mind-controlling venom. That wasn't… him.
Sure, he could be an idiot, in the way that only a smart person who overestimates their intelligence could be… but that… challenging an unknown creature at the center of the forest… that wasn't idiocy. That was monster-assisted suicide.
And somehow, somehow, he was certain the wild ball of mana at his center was at the heart of it. The Mana Manual—his reward for reaching Level 10—had said nothing of it. The troll Cultivation Technique provided no insights—it focused on absorbing mana and using the throughflow to strengthen the effect of Stone Form. It did nothing to the chaotic swirl of inner power that was going to get him killed.
He grimaced as the sense of impunity washed over him again, he looked closer at his center.
The mana was like a star hanging in a void within him—simultaneously inside him and not. Long filamentous strands of mana extended to crystalline structures within him that hinted at greater truths, but revealed nothing—his skills. Another thread extended out from that place that was everywhere and nowhere to the Beast Soul Weapon in his regrown arm. Now he saw it, the tattoo was placed both on his physical body and his soul, acting as a conduit between—requiring damage to both in order to be removed. At least that explained why he'd been able to summon the weapon when he lost the limb that held the weapon.
Was he getting off track? He was, wasn't he.
He reined his thoughts back in and refocused on the stellar ball of mana within him. It churned loosely within him, a corona of energy emitting out from it in all directions.
Chris frowned, he had thought that was just the void, but now he realized that his soul was filled with a thin film of the radiative energy. And, at certain points, holes in the seemingly limitless space drunk in that film like a dam's spillway swallowed overflow. There were seven of those holes and each of them consumed the energy, channeling it to somewhere he could not reach. They seemed somewhat permeable to mana, but his consciousness was blocked from passing through them. However, the barriers to them did not feel utterly immovable, just resistant to his current level of strength.
Those must be the meridians the Mana Manual talked of. He didn't want to touch those until he knew what he was doing.
He did the next best thing, and cleared mana away from the meridians like a bulldozer might clear snow. The mana trickled back toward the meridians, but the process was slow and would take a while before it reached them again. Still, it would require continuous upkeep to ensure he didn't go all Leeroy Jenkins again.
No sooner had Chris finished clearing the last meridian than his eyes snapped open, feeling a sense of measured calm that he hadn't even realized he'd lost.
The rain had ended and the field was now a drying quagmire mixed with snake blood. He'd been lost in his internal examination for a while and now the sun was setting. Ahead of him rested the corpse of the serpent, above the lone leaf of a dying tree still fluttered like a pennant of surrender, as the last of the golden sap drawn by the snake's fangs dried against its blackened bark.