Moving in the perfect darkness wasn’t easy, particularly because of the strange texture of the ground. It was reminiscent of snow, but offering less resistance and dry.
“You are close enough,” the voice said, coming from a much lower position than my own. “ You could fall and I would prefer not to burn you.”
The voice was powerful, enough for me to feel the vibrations in my body when words were spoken. However, there was something better about hearing it with my ears, instead of directly in my head. I felt more in control, less violated.
“Burn?” I said. “There’s no fire here. We actually could use some because I can’t even see my own nose in here.”
“I cannot tell you my name, but you can call me Djin,” it said. “And I am the fire.”
As it spoke, flames rose up and at their center was a muscled male figure, bigger than any human could possibly be, looking in my direction. I could only discern that its skin was a dark blue, and both its arms were spread wide, chained to opposite side of the hole with several sets of chains per arm.
It all happened in a flash, before the flames disappeared, sucked into the dark metal and the darkness surrounded us once more.
I took a few breaths, and before I could say anything the captive spoke again.
“I have seen your memories Edward, I know what you are thinking. Please leave your preconceived notions about beings of fire in your past life. They do not apply here. ”
“Pretty hard to believe that, when I see the way you’re all chained up down there,” I said, not convinced. “You’ve seen my memories?”
“Not, everything, but what mattered. We all have, and by ’we’ I mean members of the “Court” of course. That’s how the others could tell that you were a good fit for the request.”
“About that, what the fu-”
“You have questions,” the prisoner said. “And it’s understandable. But I am limited in what I can tell you. Not just because of my situation, but also because you do not have much time. I am being pressured into making you leave this place as we speak, so I will tell you the essential and make you an offer that you can either accept or refuse. Understood?”
“I know this is all going fast, but the faster you are able to adapt, the better your chance of survival will be.”
I frowned in the darkness. Survival?
“You remember what happened right after you died, right?” he said. “Your soul was on its way to the afterlife when it started being pulled down. That was because of the karma you accumulated during your past life. You have lived a long life full of regrets and… Questionable choices, and there is a price to pay for that. Now, while you have escaped the absolute worst that could have happened to you, it doesn’t mean you get to freely restart with a clean slate.”
I bitterly smiled in the darkness. It made sense that my sins would gnaw at my heels even here, in this world beyond death. I had never been a lucky guy.
And it’s not like I didn’t deserve it either.
“The bow you used in the stone hall is an artifact that shaped your negative karma into seeking arrows. Once you leave this place, each one of them will search for you and you will have to literally face your past in a divine tribulation.”
I frowned. “What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said. It’s not going to be every little thing you have done, of course. We’re talking about the main actions that defined your past life. You never made peace with them, and now your current life will depend on you doing that. Because every time one of those shiny arrows comes down, it will be as an extremely violent trial.”
It paused, probably expecting me to interrupt him again. I didn’t.
“Patrons usually grant mortals parts of their strength, and in exchange gain rewards for every achievement they make during their lives. But it’s a risky bet to take since mortals can easily die before achieving anything, leaving us with a net loss. I’m sure you can deduce the main reason why no one else offered you their patronage.”
It surely made sense. They weren’t willing to take a chance since the deck was stacked against me from the start. But if that was true, then why…
“The reason I am willing to help you is simple,” he continued, anticipating my question. “I do not have much to lose, and everything to gain. I have the means to greatly improve your chances, and your success will also be mine. The better you do, the more power I will be able to gather and with some luck, I will eventually be able to free myself from this prison. Think of it as an… investment on your willingness to change your fate. And, I have to admit, some curiosity.”
“Curiosity?” I asked.
“You see, the ’request’ that caused your reincarnation was so specific that it took ages to be fulfilled, and it is the second part of a magically binding transaction made by the Court before any of its current members had joined yet. Except for the Master of Ceremony, of course, but he doesn’t count. The main reason why he is one of the last surviving old gods is that he doesn’t take part in anything, so no one is going to get any information from him, but I digress. The point is, no one knows the requester’s identity, his goal, and what is expected from you. And I find that very… interesting.”
After that we stood in silence, but I wondered if he was studying me in the darkness, trying to get clues about the nature of a grand scheme I couldn’t begin to comprehend. I dismissed that idea and focused on the situation at hand.
Soldiers aren’t particularly more religious than most people, but they are an incredibly superstitious bunch. And as a veteran, every fiber of mysticism in me was telling me that, maybe, making a deal in the dark with some chained up fire monster that was plotting his escape wasn’t a good idea.
But once again, did I really have a choice? Assuming what he said was true, refusing his help meant something worse than just having to face hardships alone in an unfamiliar world.
It meant inevitably dying once again, and be back to that slow descent into madness. I might as well have refused the offer to reincarnate in the first place.
“If I understand you correctly, if I manage to succeed in those trials I won’t have to worry about… Whatever I saw at the bottom back then?”
“You are correct,” he said. “You would have purified your karma enough to tip the scale back to a healthy equilibrium.”
There wasn’t really a reason to hesitate at this point.
“Let’s do this then,” I said. “I want you to be my patron.”
“A wise choice. Then, Edward Lee, to seal our accord I offer you my left eye and welcome you as one of my own. I welcome you as another host of the First Flame.”
My hand shot to my eye as an intense pain shot through it, so sharp and sudden it made me let out a loud groan. It was as if… well as if my eye socket had been filled with fire that spread through my whole body. I found myself curled up in agony on the soft ground before I could tell I was falling.
You have become the protege of the nameless djin.
You have received the “Left eye of the Nameless Djin”.
Left eye of the Nameless Djin.
Usage consumes stamina. When opened, effectively makes user a djin, makes user immune to any awareness-altering effects, convert ambient ether into mana.
When closed, awareness-altering effects are only half as effective.
You have received the racial trait “Keeper of the First flame”.
“You too are fire now,” I heard the djin say.
And just like that, the pain was gone.
“I must warn you to not use your eye in this place. The chains might react to it and make things a bit more complicated for us.”
“Fuck,” I spat, scrambling to my feet. I had gotten some of the stuff making the ground in my mouth and solved the mystery of its nature. It was cinder. Enough cinder to fill a whole room so vast I couldn’t approximate its dimensions. “You could have warned me for fuck’s sake.”
“Apologies, but you’re probably the first human to ever gain a djin’s trait. I didn’t know what to expect either.”
I sighed in exasperation, making a conscious effort to keep my left eye closed- which in retrospect didn’t really matter in the pitch black darkness I was in. With everything that had happened, I could feel my mind beg for a break.
I blinked at the thought, going through the recent past events as objectively as possible.
How come I have not lost my mind yet?
“We do not have much time left,” my patron said. “Let’s try to see how your past experiences can benefit you.”
An external force is causing a coalescing of your inner ether. Allow it? Y/N
Warning! Giving your permission will result in the creation of a class.
“There’s a- hum… I see floating words asking me a question?”
“They are notifications. No need to worry, just give me your permission.”
And how am I supposed to do that? I wondered.
However simply mentally giving my approval seemed to be enough, since the words disappeared from my vision and were soon replaced by others.
You have unlocked the class “Third generation Dreadnova Enforcer”.
Dreadnova Enforcer claimed the following attributes: Vitality, Strength, Constitution, Perception.
+3 points to claimed attributes per level.
Last ditch effort by the typically weak humans, Dreadnova enforcers are warriors created and conditioned to be able to make the most out of their exoskeleton armors.
“Hmm, not too bad,” the djin mused. “It’s a pre-cataclysm class, so I doubt the technology for those armors still exists, but the stat gains are decent.”
“Is there someone actually telling me these things?” I asked.
“No, and don’t give too much credit to the bits of descriptions that are added to some notifications because you never know from which point of view they are from. In any case, bring out your status. You just have to call for it.”
… Status? I thought to myself, unsure.
Stamina: 105/105 (regen: 1.1/minute)
Mana: 140/140 (regen: 0.8/minute)
Vitality 10 (hp amount and stamina)
Strength 7 (Physical strength)
Constitution 11 (Physical fitness and stamina)
Dexterity 10 (Accuracy of precise movements)
Agility 12 (Accuracy of general movements)
Perception 9 (Ability to receive external stimuli)
Intelligence 14 (Magic power and mana amount)
Wisdom 8 (Mana regeneration)
Keeper of the First flame 0/100
Left eye of the nameless Djin
Dreadnova Enforcer (3rd gen) level 1
Machine symbiosis 0/20
Unspent Ether: 100
“What in the world…” I muttered.
Curious, I willed ten ether to be added to “Technopath”. The 0/10 became 0/20 and a smaller notification appeared. The amount of unspent ether became 90.
You have unlocked the ability Summon: Drone.
Ability to materialize a personal aerial drone. Drone rank: common.
That simple uh? I thought.
“This, is now what you have to focus on,” my patron said, interrupting my musings. “These numbers, and the ways to increase them, form the path to your salvation. The path toward strength.”
“Some of these… Attributes weren’t mentioned earlier,” I noted. “Is that normal?”
“It is. Few classes one can unlock themselves cover that many attributes, so you will need another one for the rest. Thankfully I have one last gift waiting for you that should fix that issue, but you will have to pick it up yourself when you leave later. However, that’s when things will start getting serious and you will have to be equally serious about tempering yourself.”
The djin had dropped his casual tone and sounded much more serious. Almost solemn.
“One important thing making this world different from yours is the existence of ether,” he said. “Think of it as a type of energy present in everything, living or not, and operates under certain rules to make the impossible possible. People gather it by consuming special food, using certain items, even killing other creatures, sentient or not. As a warrior yourself, you will have to hunt increasingly strong opponents. Each defeated foe will grant you some ether that you can add to one of your class’ skill trees. Your class will gain a level and improve your attributes, allowing you to seek harder challenges. It is somewhere in that cycle that lies your only hope to face the ghost of your past.”
Wait. Doesn’t that mean that, by adding ether to a racial trait instead of my class, I wasted it? Did I manage to mess up before things even really started?
I looked at my status. Its words and numbers were currently all that was visible to me, and the djin’s speech echoed in my mind, ominous.
He had said that the road to my salvation was through gathering strength, which I could understand. But the meaning of his words was clear: I was meant to take lives to literally feed my own… and I already knew where that path led from experience. To destruction. I doubted one could truly grow stronger through killing. Only dead men stood atop mountains of bones.
“Isn’t being what you call a ’warrior’ the reason I am here in the first place?” I asked, sounding more accusing than I meant. For making a career out of being a mass murderer?
He let out a heavy sigh.
“I can sense your confusion, Edward. But the Lion has never been condemned for feeding on his prey. Much more than the nature of your action, your mindset and how you dealt with your guilt is the source of your bad karma. In my opinion, at least.”
For a reason I couldn’t identify at the time, those words caused a great amount of discomfort in me and my hands instinctively formed fists.
“What do you mean?” I asked through gritted teeth.
“That is something you will ultimately have to learn by yourself.” I sensed a hint of mockery in his tone. “And we do not have any more time anyway. Do not disappoint me, Edward.”
Surprised by the light, I cursed and covered my eye until it got used to it again.
I was back in the stone hall, except the walls were as naked as they had been when I first appeared there. No more hole or rows of beautiful doors.
“Thank you, djin,” I whispered.
It was also still dead silent. At least until the ageless voice of the Master of Ceremony spoke in my mind.
“Mortal Edward Lee, answer the Court. Are you ready?”
Was I? I didn’t feel ready at all. But that hadn’t ever stopped me before. Life doesn’t wait for you to be ready.
“I am,” I said.
“Then we allow you entry into the Shattered Realm.”
I felt myself being lifted off the ground as a blinding light surrounded me, then once again, I was whisked away.