Faster than I had ever been and without a doubt faster than any normal human would ever be. Beyond peak human aptitudes with the healthy body of a teenager.
While running was probably one of the simplest things someone could do, that simplicity allowed me to take notice of the tiniest effects of my physical attributes and the ways in which they interacted with each other.
Agility was responsible for eliminating the imperfections in my running form. Strength gave my legs enough power to shatter stones as I propelled myself forward. Dexterity adjusted my balance when the ground would cave under my feet, and perception made it all look seamless.
I would have been slower if any of them was missing. But the most intimidating of all was Constitution.
Lungs taking in the fresh morning air. Heart pumping blood filled with oxygen. I was pushing my muscles at a hundred percents and still felt as full of energy as when I had started.
The Kinetic Charge started as soon as I willed it, and I watched it deplete my mana as I gained in speed. A blur I assumed to be my “shield” covered my body without impeding my vision, allowing me to see the green girl’s figure quickly get bigger in my field of view as I dashed from one border of the valley to the next.
Lima had reached the hill on which her “colleagues” were waiting. Unlike her, they had noticed me and were frantically making big gestures for her to look behind.
She jumped in surprise when she saw me and tried to make a run for it, but she soon gave up when she realized I would catch up anyway. Which solved one problem but left me with another one.
The skill didn’t just make me run faster, it was a spell that turned mana into speed and protection. Like when running downhill, simply keeping up with the speed was a problem in itself… And I had to test how close to an unstoppable rocket it turned me into.
Maintaining control was getting increasingly hard, so before I could fall and uselessly scrape the shield as I slid against the ground, I jumped.
… Ten meters? Fifteen?
In any case, much higher than I had anticipated. But I was airborne only a few seconds before I crashed into the hill’s flank, blasting enough dirt and sand into the air to cover my vision for a minute.
When the cloud of dust settled, I was standing in a crater, totally unharmed.
This must be what it feels like to have a beastkin’s aura, I thought with a smile.
As usual, I pictured the multiple scenarios in which this skill could be useful, even without taking into consideration how it would make escaping enemies a piece of cake.
Lima was a few meters below in her sleeveless leather armor, looking at me with what appeared to be a mix of shock, amusement, and anger.
“You’re insane!” she screamed.
I raised a brow.
“Maybe, but you really shouldn’t be the one saying that, seeing how you snuck out without breakfast and are acting weirdly suspicious.”
Her anger apparently won, as she let out a groan and hurried up the hill, making her frustration known to all by the way she stomped at each step.
I patiently waited until she walked past me, then followed without a word.
Needless to say, the people at the top were on their guard, but I wasn’t particularly worried seeing how they weren’t armed.
They were young beastkin adults, and while a few were dressed in a way that wouldn’t impede their mobility, most of them had on heavy armors made of stacked sheets of a crude rock-like material bound together.
Looks like they are made of scales, I noted with interest.
There was no reason to deny that their aura was the superior mean of defense, but anyone without the constitution attribute would have to manage their stamina and save their trait for crucial moments.
“What the fuck was that?” an armored fat Persian cat blurted out with a clear edge in his voice. He was talking to Lima, but his eyes were locked on me like those of the people standing behind him.
“Hi,” I said before she could speak. “I’m Lima’s friend, Edward. I’ll be going with you guys today, hope we can get along.”
“No you won’t!” she interrupted. “Edward, you don’t understand. Today is going to be very dangerous, you can’t just come along! It’s for your own good, and I told you yester-”
“Of course I don’t understand,” I interrupted. “But that’s because you didn’t explain anything. I want monster cores, are there any other options for me? Work with me here.”
She gave me a contrived smile.
“Of course!” she said. “In a week I’ll be free to-”
I waved a dismissive hand, “Can’t be twiddling my thumbs that long.”
She took a deep breath, turned on her heels and walked away, “Since when are you so stubborn? Uhg! I’ll just let Oju take care of this.” She glanced back and pointed a menacing finger at me, “And don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
I chuckled and looked at the silent group of people, “I hope she doesn’t give you guys a hard time, she’s a good kid.”
“She would have killed me if I ever made her that mad,” muttered a short half-panda guy in the back.
The fat cat stepped forward and looked me down with a frown.
“That is not something you have to worry about,” he said through his teeth. “You’re a warrior right? Lima is one of ours. You better stay in your lane.”
“Bardath, I think he’s the new delver people are talking about. The one who lives in the temple.”
The hunter’s eyes got wide with understanding, and he silently left after Lima followed by the rest of his group. I sighed and took in this side of the shard for the first time.
While the North was mountainous and the South filled with red canyons, the western side of the shard was a vast semi-desertic area with sinkholes and rock formations that looked like stalagmites and gave it the appearance of an open-air cavern. The ground level was low enough that the barely risen sun was already drowning everything in its golden rays, revealing several fortified camps spread down the hills and other more alien structures in the distance.
The wall of fog was much farther than on the temple’s side, far enough that it didn’t seem like a calamity threatening to engulf everyone and everything my eyes could see.
Funny that even this world has its own way to be beautiful, I mused.
My attention was soon captured by the sight of a pitch black rectangular monument by the northside. It seemed to be right by the fog, and the fact that I could even make out its shape hinted at a massive size… and unlike anything else, it looked like it didn’t belong to this place.
My need for answers reminded me of Lima, and I saw her taking long strides toward the camps bustling with activity, her friends not far behind.
Need to get there fast before she makes things complicated.
I hurried down the same path as them and soon caught up. Lima and the big guy ignored me while the others gave me nervous glances.
“Hey look, it’s the lil’ duds!”
I was witness to a few instances of the prejudice other warrior groups seemed to have against the hunters. Though it didn’t go past open disrespect, trash and insults were thrown at them without hesitation from the parties we would walk past.
“Out of the way! Real warriors have stuff to do!”
Forsaken mocked by people with classes. Supports mocked by warriors. Certain warring classes seen as inferior to others… Feels just like Earth.
Once again, the irony of beast people using the term “animal” to mock each other wasn’t lost on me. To their credit, the hunters managed to tune out the noise and get to their base without delays. Then again, it was entirely possible that Lima really hadn’t been paying attention to their slander.
The Hunters’ camp was understandably isolated, and had an easily recognizable appearance with an outer wall made with several rows of bones and claws bleached by the sun. Seeing their sizes, I was certain that even if the other warriors didn’t appreciate them, they would think twice before seriously provoking them.
The guards were familiar with the kids, and let us past the gate without anything more than a courtesy nod.
People inside either already had their scale armor on their back or were tightening the belts and straps that came with their equipment. One thing worth noting was that they were now holding weapons.
Heavy gauntlets were abundant, but so were swords, and spears. There even were a few bows, which I wouldn’t have thought would see much use in a land of literal super beings. But considering I had brought a universally mocked human rifles with me, that was a good thing.
We went directly to what seemed to be the headquarters, a small building that stood in the middle of the camp.
“Where’s Oju? I need to talk to her about something,” Lima said to the grim-faced beastkin blocking the entrance. He was a Rottweiler, and I couldn’t help but think that he had a dignified air around him. “It’s urgent.”
“I am aware,” he said without any care for how agitated she was, and I saw his eyes land on me. “She is waiting for you.”
I am expected?
The kids stayed behind as Lima and I entered the cabin, her boots audibly cracking the wood as she rushed to the living room.
“Hi Oju,” I heard her say with a lot more restrained tone than usual. “I know you are busy, but I have a friend here, he isn’t listening to what I am saying and I would like you to tell him that he can’t come with us.”
I heard a chuckle and entered the room. She was talking to a mature woman, tall, with long braided black hair and muscles that weren’t defined enough to be able to detract from her more… feminine charms. The characteristic spots on her tail and round ears informed me that she was half cheetah.
Like Lima she was equipped with agility in mind, but something told me that the dark leather and shining black scales protecting her vitals was of much higher quality.
There were scars on the right side of her face and, just like me, she wore a patch to cover her eye.
We silently stared at each other for a short moment, then she pointed a finger in my direction and said out of nowhere, “I like him.”
“You… You got to be kidding me,” Lima fumbled. “What in the fu-”
“Hey,” the woman interrupted, her finger now pointing at the young girl. “You better not be cussing in front of me lass. And it’s not every day that I get to meet one of your friends, so don’t blame me for being glad you didn’t bring me a worthless brat.”
“What are you talking about,” Lima said. “You don’t even know him!”
Oju looked at me.
“You’re Edward, right?”
“I am, and you must be the Oju I heard so much about,” I said as I shook her hand, amused by Lima’s bewilderment. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine that my description was common knowledge by now. “I apologize for barging in like that.”
“No need for flattery brat, you’re twenty years too young!” the woman laughed with a dismissive hand wave. “You want to take part in the expedition, correct?”
She narrowed her eyes.
“You think you can take it?”
“Probably,” I shrugged. “In any case, I can assure you that I won’t get in the way.”
“Oju,” Lima said with a pleading voice. “He doesn’t have enough experience for the Garden, you know that place-”
The huntress leader raised her hand.
“Sure, he’s a human, but it’s not going to be any more dangerous for him than it will be for you,” she said.
“I have been there already. I know what’s coming. I can defend myself and find the path with no help.”
“Which is why you shouldn’t be so worried. Come on now, it’s not like it’s going to be his first instant-dungeon. He went deeper in the Undermine than anyone else before. Nothing he will see today should be worse than what’s in there. With two delvers with you kids, I can have your group test a few things that weren’t possible before. It’s final.”
At those words, Lima slumped in a nearby chair, and stared at the roof with a defeated expression.
Seems like Oju doesn’t mess around.
While I now somehow felt bad for the girl, something her leader had said had made me frown.
“Two delvers?” I repeated. “I’m not sure I understand.”
She gave me a confused look.
“Of course,” she said. “Your guildmates have been waiting for you. They explained everything.”
I groaned and went to the room she indicated. It was apparently my turn to be annoyed.
I opened the door and it revealed an office containing two girls, one of which was Maru. The short-haired second delver of the shard was leisurely reading a book with her feet resting on the desk. Next to her was sleeping a pudgy girl with thick curved horns, and I could tell from her clothes that she was also a member of the Red Cross.
Maru lifted bored eyes from her book and I felt my own eye twitch.
“Finally,” she said. “Can we go?”