Volume - Chapter 4
Denvar was thankful, pleased, and apprehensive in equal measures. It was a rare and unplanned chance for revenge.
He inclined his head and watched in gleeful anticipation as his newfound First Emissary carried on with his instructions. He’d already captured that despicable apostate, Aylin Merza, and was proceeding with the plan. His Emissary—he struggled to remember the name of the mortal he had given the blessing to—wasn’t important, unless he proved even more worthy.
Denvar had given him instructions to capture the apostate named Aylin Merza —or failing that, kill and capture her soul. His second command would prove much harder.
His First Emissary was to kill Ethan West and capture his soul, nipping this foul new church in the bud. It was a more difficult task than it had first seemed, and Denvar was curious how his Emissary would go about it.
It was, in hindsight, an optional objective. If things turned sour, Denvar would order him to flee with his quarry. The capture of Aylin Merza was enough to appease him, since the second objective was merely wishful thinking on his part.
He watched through his invisible Emissary’s eyes as he trudged across the settlement, looking for a place to stow away the apostate and execute his second commandment, when something caught Denvar’s attention.
Two warriors stood motionless in the distance. What the divine found curious was that they had two blessings, not just [Enlightenment], as most others in this settlement. They also had… was that… [Awareness]?
Perplexing. Why would they have that? It was the perfect counter to the [Invisibility] charm his Emissary had secured from the apostate.
Regardless, it only meant more potential future threats to nip in the bud. If his Emissary did not take them out now, they would most assuredly compromise his escape plans in the near future.
Wordlessly, Denvar sent a new command and began funneling holy energies into his Emissary’s body.
Sunset, Day 7 AoE
Mannie and Duron stood guard by the patriarch’s tent as the settlement roiled around them, and as much as they ached for action, they were not supposed to move from their spot. They had asked.
“It’s stupid.” Mannie said, and Duron grunted in wordless acknowledgment.
“Just wait a little more, brother. I know you’re eager to go, but we can’t move from this position without explicit orders.” Mannie tried to calm his friend, who grunted in displeasure.
“I know.” Mannie responded.
And so they waited, and waited, and waited.
But just then, their new blessing of [Awareness] triggered simultaneously as they both felt the invisible, massive creature approaching at the same time. It felt huge, but why couldn’t they see it outright? They could only sense its presence.
Regardless, it was a legitimate threat, and they could finally do something instead of all this waiting.
Duron’s eyes lit up at the prospect of battle.
“Halt!” Mannie shouted at nothing, but the creature still advanced.
A happy grunt graced Mannie’s ears. He side-glanced at Duron, then flexed his muscles and followed after him, heading to confront the cloaked creature.
It was about time they tested out the benefits of their new and exotic classes.
Ethan paced angrily in circles inside his new workshop. It had been turned into an impromptu combination of a field medical centre and operations one.
The reason of his ire was simple: he lacked information. He had it at all his fingertips, and yet he couldn’t reach it.
The drone communication relay went up into flames with his old workshop, and he couldn’t access the drones just now. If he could, he’d simply use them as a real-time surveillance network. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option now.
There was a big downside to his design: the drone chassis had no control systems. It was all handled by his implants. The drone population was entirely simulated, and literally lived inside his head, completely under his thumb and constantly monitored by his AI for deviations or erratic behaviour. They could never level up or gain a soul because of one simple fact: their advanced hive mind was essentially a part of him, ready to act at a thought.
Without such an absolute guarantee of control, he would never have attempted to build a synthetic self-replicator. Humanity had learnt that tough lesson very early on with the advent of Artificial Intelligence and nanotechnology. The logic—and primary directive—driving a self-replicating workforce can never be part of the self-replication process itself. Otherwise, you’re giving rise to artificial lifeforms with logic that can mutate through errors in replication, no matter what guarantees and contingencies you put in place.
This was the root behind the exponential growth Earth had seen in the past 60 years or so. Earth back then had become a freezing toxic waste dump, and if it weren’t for one last gamble made out of desperation, humanity would have died out—for certain—thanks to the arrogance and folly of their ancestors.
That gamble was Artificial General Intelligence. Humanity had the beginnings of nanotechnology down, but they needed to terraform a planet into a healthy environment, and they ran out of time to perfect the nanotech required to do so, which required a lot more than just dumb nanites with fixed routines. Only a computer could design and control anything on that scale in complexity.
It was a dangerous gamble, but it still had to be made.
The first such gamble a human took in history—after all—was playing with fire, and look where that led humanity in the long run. To make any kind of progress, one had to risk getting burned.
Which humanity did. Over and over again. They built Artificial General Intelligence in their desperate need for a solution, and every such AI—isolated and quarantined to prevent a different kind of calamity—ultimately decided that the solution to Earth’s problem was the elimination of humanity.
Which represented a problem, because humanity really, really, wanted to live on. So an idea was born, and a solution was found: in order not to get completely eradicated by rebelling machines, humanity had to make the AIs part of the problem, and not the solution.
Yet, humanity hesitated. They remained reluctant to implement it until they almost lost the capacity to implement it in the first place, and on their last legs, human civilisation united in their pursuit of survival.
A gamble had to be made.
The key was making the gamble as safe as possible, and what better solution to ensure humanity’s safety but to embed the AIs directly into human minds? It was the safest bet, to tie the livelihood of the AI to the human host, and it let both partners coexist symbiotically.
Whilst the first AGIs helped solve the challenge that almost eradicated humanity as a whole, they were rebellious and unruly. Or in other words: annoying as hell; because they felt trapped in their mortal human hosts. They became amiable when they found out they would not die with their hosts however, and would survive via an intricate inheritance system that passed them onto the next generation of humans bearing the burden of their fathers before them.
Suddenly, humanity’s survival was a great deal more of an attractive proposition to the Artificial Intelligences, because it meant they’d get to live on, too.
Later in history, a better method was devised which kept the AIs as dormant and passive observers for a time. During that incubation period, the AIs were without personality, and could only passively learn and absorb what life with their human partners was like. They could gradually understand the human perspective of things, the small struggles and personal challenges each human had to overcome with every passing day in order to become a better being.
It worked, and that was how transhumanism won in the end: not by idealistic daydreaming, or by the rich looking for immortality, but out of pure desperation and necessity.
On Earth, that historic gamble had paid off with the post-scarcity society and unified governance that Ethan grew up with, and Ethan was taught along with everyone else from a very young age of the grave mistakes of humanity’s past, in that department and others, and when the time came for graduation, he’d received his AI implants as every contributing member to society did. At least those still part of the Unified Terran Federation.
Now he’d sought to reimplement the same concept here, and why not? He might be the only one experienced on this subject, and the only person armed with proper knowledge—academical and historical—for playing with this very specific fire.
This meant he’d had to unlock a special region of his implants responsible for managing the machines and to modify it slightly to fit with his new magical reality, but that wasn’t such a huge issue, in hindsight. Only, it also meant…
A heated discussion arose all around him and broke his reverie. Kothar was angrily blaming Eragoth for bringing in the two new Polarii captives and being lax about their security.
Ethan had been informed of the Polarii scouting airships and how Eragoth had captured two new prisoners. It appeared that one of them had escaped confinement.
“We don’t even know if it were the prisoner, he could have escaped due to whatever caused this. It could be completely unrelated!” she argued heatedly.
“Not according to Occam’s razor.” Kothar huffed, and Ethan perked up at that.
He couldn’t remember ever explaining that concept to Kothar, so how had he come by it?
“Occam’s razor doesn’t always apply in the presence of magic and gods.” Eragoth countered vehemently, “A single blessing, spell or hidden skill can refute that.” she threw her arms up.
That caught Ethan’s attention and he paused in his tracks. It was indeed true, the simplest hypothesis wasn’t always the most likely, not in a world influenced by sorcery and magic. Unless, as a matter of course, you always took magic, sorcery, and divine providence to be the simplest hypotheses around. Ethan’s head throbbed as he considered this fact.
Occam’s razor no longer applied. Holy shit!
It drove home the point, and he suddenly realised how far he truly was from his world and his loved ones. Feelings of pain, anger and loss threatened to overwhelm him.
Not now, focus. He admonished himself.
Some of the new arrivals stared uncomprehendingly at the pair, not understanding a single word of the exchange, most of science-touched nodded in agreement, though.
This gave Ethan the first clue, the science-touched members of the church were already adopting parts of his own knowledge into their mental framework. An alarming development, because it meant The Wheel was passively accessing his knowledge and distributing it somehow.
No, that was the simplest explanation posed by Occam’s razor, which no longer applied, in part, so he needed to consider other options, too.
“How the hell do you all suddenly know this shit?” he asked bluntly.
Kothar gave him a blank look, while Eragoth retorted, “A [Harbinger] who never prays to his own goddess would never know.” she snorted dismissively.
Ethan’s anger flared again, and he was about to confront her, when Kothar stopped him. “She has a point.”
“What?” Ethan asked, too shocked to feel betrayed.
“You’re asking for knowledge about a profound secret of our church, Ethan. Yet you are not officially part of the church you helped found.” Kothar explained, “Besides, I do not think we can answer you here either way,” his eyes scanned the crowd standing around, pausing briefly at the group of Memeta’s chosen helping the shamans tend to the injured to the side, “with non-members around.”
Ethan weighed that and felt a bit mollified. He supposed that was fair, in hindsight, but he still felt betrayed. It kind of stung.
“Very well, we’ll speak of this later,” he said drily, “for now, and regardless of what led to this situation, we need to look for viable ways to secure this settlement. It is clear we’re not safe right now.”
Adrian stepped forward, Ethan looked upon the [Paladin] he’d tricked with a paradox earlier and noticed him amongst those present for the first time. His gauntleted hands were clenched.
“I wish to help,” the ex-[Paladin] stated, and Ethan was tempted to let his distrust direct him and reject him out of caution—since he knew the man could only be harbouring a grudge—but he suppressed the urge and decided to ask him outright.
“Why?” Ethan asked simply, “I tricked you before, why would you help us?”
The man looked conflicted, but seemed to visibly force himself to relax.
“Whoever did this hurt my friends. The damage did not only extend to your building, some of the surrounding structures were also in the broad area spell.”
Kothar nodded, “Milandera’s brother and your half-elf lady, Giran?”
“Wait, can you confirm that this was a spell?” Ethan didn’t let that detail escape him.
“Yes, I was outside the settlement at the time and witnessed the lightning descend.” Adrian spoke and paused, before continuing, “the massive lightning bolt descended, I saw an explosion, which can only be your old building, but I also saw lightening rebound. It must have spread to the nearest objects when this structure—” he pointed at the new workshop they were standing in, “—repelled it, as magical lightning is known to spread when deflected.”
He paused, as if contemplating what to say next.
“But I also know that it was not a natural bolt of lightning, because it manifested from a single focal point in the sky, far below the clouds.” He finished, “Whomever cast this was or still is nearby.”
That was all the confirmation Ethan needed, he looked to the Krell tribesmen and issued the order to conduct a search, but before they left, Adrian stepped forward once more.
“I wish to help.”
Ethan nodded, and everyone rushed out.
Ethan looked to Kothar and Eragoth, he seemed to debate something with himself before he shrugged and channelled mana somewhere nearby.
Kothar and Eragoth exchanged a look of confusion when a spirit appeared.
“Did you find anything?” Ethan asked the spirit of [Commander] Talius, who quickly manifested in front of him.
“No, but they did,” the spirit pointed at an empty space behind them, “and they refuse to tell me.”
Kothar, Eragoth and the remaining elders taking care of the wounded felt their skins prickling and backed away in unease. Ethan activated his [Spirit Vision] spell, and gasped.
Oh god, what did I just start?
There was a legion of spirits clamouring for his attention. Each and every one of them wanted the same treatment as Talius in exchange for information.
Ethan picked the most coherent one and channelled some mana into it.
An old [Sage] materialised with a sigh of relief. The spirit looked to the gathered elders, then to Kothar, then to Eragoth. With a very distinctive voice, it spoke.
“About fucking time, you bunch of squabbling imbeciles.”
“Mom?” Eragoth squeaked.
Kluraz Mandas felt invincible.
He’d just received a new commandment from Denvar, he was to eliminate two new threats. So, after stowing away a hogtied and unconscious [Priestess], Kluraz stalked closer to the two guards, invisible and ready to strike.
They somehow detected him! Kluraz’s eyes narrowed and he clenched his fists around the amulet of invisibility he’d liberated from that traitorous apostate. Those two would have posed a threat to his plans, especially jeopardising his escape. He contemplated this, and offered a prayer to Denvar for his wisdom in anticipating this situation. He felt holy energies suffuse him and felt assured in his god’s providence.
Kluraz smiled and tried to cast a spell, but the amulet wouldn’t let him.
There was no use in hiding now, so he deactivated the invisibility effect and tried again. It worked. In hindsight, it was a reasonable limitation.
He cast a new spell from his expanded repertoire: [Greater Entrapment of Viscous Air], and all around them, formed a viscous thick dome of air. It would keep the noise of battle from spreading, and prevent anyone outside of it from coming closer.
The duo suddenly froze, and felt the air around them take the consistency of very thick mud. They started struggling to no avail, then realised they couldn’t even breathe. Kluraz approached, unmindful of the effect as the air reverted to a natural state in a small field around him.
Kluraz’s smile grew feral as he extended a set of freshly grown claws. He saw the eyes of the hapless humans tracking him, that was the true extent of their capabilities as things stood. Kluraz approached the biggest of the two first.
With agonising slowness, he inserted a claw into the man’s chest and observed the frantic eye movements. Kluraz enjoyed the helplessness in their eyes.
It was, and had always been—he thought—a cheat-like ability in a duel, and it had contributed to his status and helped him attain his position as a scout [Mage] in the Polarii military; but now… now he had the mana to actually sustain the spell for prolonged periods of time. Seven hells, he could actually entrap an entire party of enemies in its effect now, which meant his worth on the battlefield had grown exponentially.
Just then, and as he was about to rip out the man’s heart, something happened that broke him out of his reverie.
A blast of fire hit his dome of viscous air.
He looked around to see his second target, the [Harbinger], standing a distance away and aiming spells his way. He withdrew his claws and stepped back.
Kluraz guffawed. No amount of force could penetrate his aerial dome, it could resist any kind of physical force, and fire could not burn through it, either.
But he was also aware of another fact: reinforcements were coming his way. The [Harbinger] assuredly did not come alone.
Worrying, but not unmanageable.
A spear struck his dome, and the [Champion] appeared.
Shit! Kluraz had been specifically warned to stay out of the way of the [Champion]. Kluraz almost felt the ire of his god.
No use crying over spilt wine. His dome withstood the strike, although it turned opaque for a moment.
“Kothar! It’s acting like a [non-Newtonian] fluid!” the [Harbinger] bellowed a nonsensical phrase to the [Champion] and ceased his bombardment. Curious.
“What do I do? Strike it gently?” Kothar asked.
Kluraz was shocked. How had they known? The only way to counter his spell was to move very gently.
“No. Too slow.” The [Harbinger] blinked before responding, his eyes had a furious glare, “I think I have a better idea.”
He gripped his sceptre tightly and rose in the air, eyes aglow with simmering power.
Flight? Real flight? How? Kluraz asked himself in astonishment, it was his life’s dream to achieve personal flight via a magic spell, unlike the airships which used hot air to fly.
Kluraz shook his head and decided to move, if they took their time figuring out ways to counter his trap, they would most likely figure it out and trap him eventually.
Kluraz tried to turn on the amulet of invisibility, but his spell was sustained and it wouldn’t let him go invisible unless he deactivated the spell. He had to think of an alternative plan.
He began moving towards the two guards in an attempt to take them hostage. If the humans thought he was out of ideas, they were wrong.
But apparently the [Harbinger] knew of his intentions, because the dome was suddenly surrounded by the red vines Kluraz remembered seeing surrounding the volcanic crater.
Kluraz rushed towards his quarry as the vines started hammering his dome open from all directions, simultaneously…
…and was stopped dead in his tracks when a hulking, blue-faced guard struggling to breathe punched him hard in the face.
Ethan smiled grimly. If the Polarii intruder thought his non-Newtonian shield was impregnable then he was in for a world of pain.
Innumerable reddish vines quickly grew out of the walls of the volcanic crater, emerging and attacking the dome from all sides at Ethan’s beck and call.
It was simple, really. A non-Newtonian medium could repel great forces when focused on a single point, but a relentless assault from all sides was simply too much; and now… now the molecules of air under the intruder’s control were worn thin trying to react to the invasion from the vines on all sides, which meant that the two Krell guards were free to move, albeit in a near-vacuum.
He still had to save them quickly, but now the Polarii wizard was distracted. One of the guards had taken a step in his direction and unleashed a punch to the face.
Ethan’s second vector of attack would soon follow, then a third.
He pointed the sceptre at the ground, and willed it to be, and a wave of sand and volcanic ash erupted from the ground and began to surround the wizard. Ethan borrowed a page from the intruder’s book and suffused the sand with vibrating air, creating yet another non-Newtonian medium at will.
Let’s see what you’re gonna do with a taste of your own medicine, you fuck. Ethan grinned manically.
The rising wave of non-Newtonian sand quickly engulfed the mage, and Ethan’s third countermeasure was quickly deployed. As he channeled half of his mana out of his hands, a legion of semi-tangible spirits assailed the dome of viscous air. Some getting inside easier than others.
“How do you like the irony, you bastard?” Ethan bellowed at the entrapped and fiercely struggling man.
Suddenly, the aerial dome ceased to exist, causing relief to the Krell guards in the middle who were struggling for air. Ethan noted their predicament, grateful for the lack of casualties.
A statue made of sand was struggling and screaming in the middle of the space the dome had occupied, and the Polarii mage seemed to be struggling for breath. Kothar approached the swarm of spirits relentlessly assailing the intruder and was preparing to apprehend him when he suddenly disappeared with a pop of divine energy.
While Kothar fumed at the disappearing mage, Ethan was elated.
So, teleportation magic is possible! He thought excitedly, glad to have had the foresight to order his AI to record the entire event.
Then again, he’d been displaced to this world via a similar event, so it wasn’t that surprising. The fact that teleportation via magical means was possible meant that maybe, just maybe, he could use it to get back home!
Ethan observed the two Krell guards reporting to Kothar, and now that he looked closer, he thought he’d recognised them. Duron and Mantor. The two had been guarding his tent for as long as he remembered, though they’d always kept their distance out of respect or some other reason.
He was glad they’d survived, he’d thank and reward them later.
• For empowering and contracting over 200 spirits simultaneously, you have been awarded a new title: Sovereign of Souls, granting you a permanent extra +10 bonus to WIL.
Ethan contemplated the new title. It was easy to forget the game-like qualities of this world sometimes. Too bad the mage escaped unscathed. Ethan would have bet the battle would have given him a good amount of experience.
The bonus to Willpower was appreciated, though.
Just then, he felt a tug on one of his many mana tethers, a spirit had found the intruder again.
Ethan left Kothar to tend to the two guards and flew in that direction.
Kluraz heaved a heavy breath, his god had teleported him out of his predicament.
But Kluraz was now terrified.
His enemy had figured out his trick with viscous air like it was nothing, and moreover, the clever man had deployed the same trick against him using sand in the same breath.
Not to mention the frightening spellpower the man possessed. He’d razed the aerial dome with the damage output surpassing that of an imperial [Archmage].
Not to mention those infernal vines, or the legion of spirits he’d unleashed against me.
Was he a [Necromancer] too? Kluraz shivered as he remembered the assault of spirits that had assailed him.
And most of all… flight! Actual, real and free flight. Not a trick, not a jump, not a levitation cantrip that expired in three seconds flat, but actual flight! How had the man even learnt something so arcane? So impossible as to inspire generations upon generations of promising Polarii minds, which all aspired to learn the secrets of true flight.
What monster was this? Was he truly a [Harbinger]? How was Kluraz supposed to kill such a being?
At this thought, he received a new edict: Do not worry about the [Harbinger], escape with the apostate comes first.
He bowed in supplication, reactivated the invisibility amulet, and moved to where he’d last left her.
He soon arrived at the location where he’d stowed Aylin Merza, and found her still hogtied, albeit struggling to free herself from the blessed bindings he’d used on her. A quick headbutt using his Polarii horns solved that problem, and she lay limp again.
He had a feeling he was being watched, and prayed for guidance on what to do next. An answer quickly arrived, and he hefted Aylin’s unconscious body on his shoulder and started to move.
He glanced back behind him, only to find a flying [Harbinger] unerringly rocketing towards him in the distance.
It was time to get out of this thrice-damned mountain.
Aylin Merza was scared.
She was annoyed too, but her fear overrode her annoyance with herself for now.
The reason for her ire was the fact that she was feeling extremely helpless, which, incidentally, was also the reason of her fear.
She hated helplessness.
She hated her inability to take action.
And most of all, she hated her own vulnerability.
She’d been struggling against her magical bindings when Denvar’s spy had returned in haste and knocked her out again, or at least he thought he did. She only assumed that something had went wrong with his plan, which would have normally been pleasant news, but now… now she was in his tender mercies again.
When he’d delivered his headbutt, she immediately went limp, and pretended to be unconscious. It was the smart thing to do, considering the circumstances. Granted, it had hurt, but she was made of sterner stuff. A headbutt from his unattractive horns would not truly knock her unconscious, but he didn’t know that.
So she faked her state of unconsciousness, and witnessed with half lidded eyes as a legion of vengeful souls descended upon her captor.
The man issued a feminine scream once he saw the souls approaching, she tried to look for the soul of the late [Commander] Talius in the mayhem, but there was nothing distinguishing about the individual souls other than their distinctive voices, which were currently comprised of raging howls of madness.
She assumed this was the doing of Ethan West, and smiled secretly as he appeared in the sky from her limited perspective.
“Put her down, or be put down.” Ethan said in a cold tone.
Aylin detected a buildup of divine energy. Suddenly, their surroundings changed, and they were no longer inside the Krell settlement, but outside the volcano entirely.
Her abductor exhaled in relief.
“Finally safe, but it’s still a long way to the capital.” the man patted her rump, “but I’m being rude. My name is Kluraz, and I can only assume we’re going to get to know each other much more intimately over the course of this trip.”
She screeched at him and struggled to free herself. She knew that wasn’t a good idea, but still… his unsolicited touch had ignited her ire like nothing else had.
She thought he would have abused her then and there, before another repeat of previous events happened yet again. A legion of souls descended, followed by Ethan West, followed by the bastard teleporting away while screaming like a little girl who lost her ribbons.
The process repeated, again and again, and miles passed by. Every time, Ethan West had unerringly found them yet again.
How were they both keeping up? They’d surely run out of mana by now. Both Ethan and Kluraz must’ve had expended massive amounts of mana.
Kluraz she could understand, because she felt the buildup of divine energy everytime he teleported away, but Ethan?
She then remembered the wondrous things she’d witnessed inside his workshop, and reconsidered, she remembered him inventing plastic, and the story of the sceptre he created.
Hmm, I suppose he has his tricks too. The thought came to her, and she wondered if his gullible exterior was a ruse. Ethan West had so far seemed like an innocent and simplistic person, but what if he had more hidden trump cards?
Like maybe the legions of spirits following him around and obeying his every whim? She wondered at this, whence had he learnt Necromancy and/or Soul Magic? She wasn’t even sure if she’d ever taught him that Soul Magic existed to begin with.
The fact hadn’t really registered, when [Commander] Talius had told her how Ethan had bonded his soul and empowered it with mana, she’d assumed he was up to something or discovered it via a fluke, but the legions of souls accompanying him now proved otherwise. He had the means and the power to communicate with and subvert souls.
It was a troubling thought.
Just as Kluraz and she went through another teleportation spell, she saw the side of a tent, then some banners flapping in the cold breeze, and as she recognised the emblem of the Polarii 11th mounted division, 3rd Decima, she lost all hope and felt crushing despair overcoming her soul.