Interlude One – Better to run

“It may seem that the Transcension Device gives Abilities at random, but that is not exactly the case. Even though it’s not predetermined what you will get, the truth is that you can and you should influence the outcome. If you know which factors contribute to the decision-making, you can trick the system to give you something that is closer to what you really wish for.

If you are doing a quest which rewards you with an Ability, the golden rule is that you will get what you need at the moment of the quest’s completion. For instance, statistically there is a really high chance that after your group’s very first confrontation (which always has a relating quest that gives you an Ability), one of you will get a fire-based Ability. From all the surveys I made, I found only two instances when this wasn’t true: in both cases someone from the group had already told the others that they knew how to light a fire.

The example above also explains why fire type Abilities are quite common in Niaz. However, the system isn’t that free-handed with every type of Ability. For instance, actual healing Abilities are quite rare. This isn’t because no one is injured when they complete their Quests, but rather because the Device often decides that the Player deserves something else. If the wounds aren’t life-threatening, other types of Abilities might be given. If the Player is about to die, they sometimes receive Abilities like Final Stand, Last Breath or Glorious Discharge, all of them helping only to delay the inevitable.”

– excerpt from the first chapter of “Guide for the Niazian Empire’s new Players”



It’s a normal Saturday night, her favorite part of the week. This is the time when it’s always just she and Mike, and nothing else matters. Her baby girl is the best thing that has happened in her life, but she still needs these little breaks from time to time.

After they finish the movie, she isn’t in the mood to head straight home. They decide to take a stroll in the park, so Mike makes a phone call and asks Izzy’s caretaker to stay one more hour. That done, she takes Mike’s hand and pulls him after her. She knows a place in the park where roses began blooming last week. It would be so idyllic, just like in the movie.

It’s a beautiful, starry night. The air is cool against her skin, which makes Mike’s familiar warmth at her side all the better. She intertwines her fingers with his, and rests her head on his shoulder. She is about to sigh happily, when she realizes something: this is just a dream.

Just a dream about a memory.

Just a memory.

Just… not a happy memory.

This isn’t just a dream.

This is a nightmare.

Suddenly, as if waiting for this cue, two shady figures step out of the shadows in front of the her. One of them brandishes a knife, the other orders them drunkenly to hand over their valuables. Mike tenses and looks around futilely. She trembles and doesn’t bother to look anywhere. She knows, knows that no one would come and save them. She wants to wake up. She needs to wake up. But she cannot avert her gaze from the two figures. But she wants to wake up.

Mike throws their wallets and phones to the muggers. They don’t catch one of the phones, and it shatters on the pavement. The figures aren’t happy. They tell Mike that there is one more valuable that he needs to hand over. They look at her with flashing eyes, with evil eyes full of cruelty and lust. They look at her and all she sees is two predators about to jump on their prey.

Then Mike yanks her arm and they run. They run, but she is terribly out of shape. She kicks off her high heels and runs as fast as she can, but she knows it is not enough. Someone is screaming. No, she is screaming. She screams as loud as she can, and she runs as fast as she can. But she is overweight, and she knows she is being chased by the two men, but she is already tired and cannot run faster. And then she stumbles and she knows what’s going to happen.

Mike steadies her, then tells her to keep running. He tells her to keep running, then turns back to face the two muggers. The two would-be rapists. The two murderers.

And she continues running, and she doesn’t want to, and she wants to wake up, but she continues running because she is so, so afraid. She runs and runs, her feet are aching, her vision is blurry from the tears, and she runs and the scene suddenly turns into a hospital.

Her eyes are still full of tears.

Mike lies on a bed in front of her, unmoving.

She holds Mike’s hand.

Their fingers are intertwined.

But she doesn’t feel his familiar warmth anymore.


Dana doesn’t wake up from her nightmare with a sudden jolt. No, this time it’s the slow-and-sobbing type of awakening. She is drenched in sweat and her blanket is crumpled in one corner of the tent. She takes her time to calm herself, consciously trying to block any unpleasant memories.

She opens her eyes and pushes away Filip’s groping hands disgustedly. He doesn’t even stir from his sleep. He never does: he is a deep sleeper. The wizard has been harassing her more and more by each passing day, but so far his attempts to lure her into his bed fell short… but only figuratively. They actually have to share one of the tents because Lukas and Filip only have two, and of course they aren’t gentleman enough to let her sleep alone in one of them. Dana’s repeated tossing and turning during sleeping didn’t even scare Filip away. If anything, it made him insist even more that she shouldn’t sleep alone until she is over her nightmares.

As if she could ever be over her nightmares.

It has been four years already, but from time to time she still relives the day when her husband died. Nowadays, her bad dreams are mostly about the moment when she impaled Vilem, the nervous archer boy in the fight against the giants. It was about two weeks ago, but if she closes her eyes she can still see the look on Vilem’s face as the spears rip into his flesh. She has told herself a thousand times that it wasn’t her fault, but it didn’t make the images go away.

Dana opens up the tent quietly, and crawls outside. The sun has barely began to rise: it is still quite early in the morning. The forest is silent, only Lukas’s snoring can be heard. The blue dome shimmers around their camp. Having an artifact which creates a protective barrier is a useful thing for not needing to keep watch, but it’s not so good in times like this. Of course, Dana could wake Lukas up and ask him to dismiss the barrier, but that would mean talking to him. His idiotic voice is the last thing she wants to hear.

Well, second last thing, because Filip is even more annoying.

Still, Dana would very much like to do her usual morning run. Ever since arriving to this world, she hasn’t had many opportunities to do so. Having no better options, she stretches and decides to do her kata. The problem with it is that she has started practicing martial arts only a couple of years ago, and she isn’t too good yet. It would be nice if she could find someone to teach her. Currently, she doesn’t know whether she is doing anything wrong because there’s no one to correct her.

At home, she couldn’t dedicate as much time as she wanted for learning, because she had to work. Being a single mom made her already so busy that even she herself was wondering how she could find the time to be with Isabelle.

Izzy.

Her daughter celebrated her fifth birthday about a few days ago. At least, Dana hopes that Izzy celebrated it. She must believe that things didn’t went terribly wrong when she was kidnapped. She must believe that the babysitter on the next morning found little Izzy alright, and she called the grandparents. Mike’s mother hates Dana to the bone, but surely she wouldn’t refuse to take care of her son’s only daughter.

The thought of her little Isabelle fills Dana with determination. If it’s for her, she would put up with that dimwit Filip and fatass Lukas for a little longer. As long as there are enough benefits to stay with them, she can play nice. She will learn everything about this world, get stronger, get more capable. That is all everything boils down to: she has to become competent. Never again will she be impotent and weak.

If it’s for getting back to her Izzy, it doesn’t matter how many people she will have to use, how many of them she will have to trample on. She is going to get stronger, strong enough that no one could get the better of her. It isn’t enough just to collect Abilites and attribute points. Dana must train and shape her body to be physically as fit as possible. She will find a way to take off her collar and kick those scientists’ asses for kidnapping her from her world.

“Mornin’, Dana.”

Lukas hovers around as Dana continues on with her kata silently. Can’t that damned man see that she is busy? No, she can do this. She will ignore Lukas, she won’t be unnecessarily rude, and he will leave her alone.

“Dana, do you h-”

“Fuck off.”

Well, she tried, she really did. It’s not her fault that Lukas couldn’t get the first hint.

“Listen,” Lukas says with a sigh, “I think I hear something. You haven’t heard anything while you were up?”

“No.”

It is true. The forest was silent, is still silent. But one of Lukas’s Abilities is enhanced senses, and apparently something is going on farther away. Dana stops her exercise, and looks at Lukas.

“What is it?”

“Well,” he says, scratching his beard, “I’m not sure but it sounds like a girl’s crying. From that direction.”

He points north. That’s the direction they are heading anyways. Phalak, the next city after Bildy, is supposed to be two days from here. But it is not Phalak that they are seeking first. It is the blood wolf that they came to hunt. It’s terrorizing the forest between Phalak and Bildy, it’s easy to locate with Lukas’s Ability, and it has 5 gold bounty on its head, plus another 5 gold given by the collar upon killing it.

“I’m ready to head out,” Dana says. “We could see what’s going on, we are going in that direction anyways.”

“That’s what I’ve been thinkin’! I go wake up Filip quickly.”

He doesn’t enter the tent properly, just sticks his leg inside and nudges the wizard with his foot. Filip crawls outside soon enough, and glares at Lukas with sleepy eyes.

“I’d prefer waking up by a good morning kiss from our Dana,” he says to him.

“Y’know, I have a suspicion she would never do that.”

“Nonsense! I think she is already warming up to me.” He then looks behind Lukas and notices the woman in question. “Oh, hi there, babe! Did you sleep well?”

Dana decides that the question was surely rhetorical, so she doesn’t answer. By this point, she has already got used to the way Filip is talking to her, so this doesn’t even get her get angry. As long as the harassment doesn’t get any worse, she can tolerate it. She must tolerate it.

Even so, as she gathers all her stuff – just her spear and a bag filled with necessities – and waits patiently for the guys to fold up their tents, she is already thinking about ways to leave this idiotic duo behind. When the time came, she would have to get the most out of the situation.


They find the source of the noise curled up in the base of a large tree, hidden in the underbrush. The slim, petite girl is sporting red hair that is messy and full of dirt, and familiar-looking shorts and shirt, just as dirty. Where it isn’t covered by her hair, the black metal of her collar can be seen around her neck. When she notices Dana and the guys, she shuts her eyes tightly and turns her head away. She tries to make herself as small as possible, and Dana sees that she is trembling with fear.

“Interesting that we find so many new Players nowadays,” Lukas says conversationally as they take a few step backwards to avoid agitating the girl further. “Dana, you know her?”

“No,” Dana shakes her head, “I haven’t seen her before. She isn’t from my starter group.”

“Strange that there are two groups starting so close to each other. I dunno ’bout the statistics, but it always takes some time ‘fore the next group of Players appears.”

Dana just shrugs. She doesn’t care whether this is strange or not. This girl has obviously seen something traumatizing, and she is curious what that was. If her group has met the blood wolf it would explain her behavior, and it would also give them a lead.

They notice that the girl finally abandoned her ostrich policy and is giving them wary looks.

“What’s your name, honey?” Filip asks. Dana immediately elbows him in the stomach.

“I’ll do the talking,” she says, then steps forward. “Hi. My name is Dana, and these are Lukas and Filip. Can I ask your name?”

“K-Kelli,” she says, and starts crying again. Dana smothers her frustration and asks her with as much sympathy as she can muster.

“Can you tell us what happened?”

It was apparently the wrong thing to ask, because Kelli begins sobbing even harder. Filip congratulates Dana sarcastically, and for once Dana has to admit that she screwed this up. Patience isn’t her virtue. After a few more minutes of crying while the others didn’t do anything but awkwardly stand around, Kelli finally stops the tears and calms herself.

“M-murder,” she mumbles. “He s-started mu-murdering everyone. And… And I couldn’t- I have- I just ran away. H-he killed them all and I didn’t do anything. Just ran. I- And now I’m the only one left. All alone.”

Tears are still flowing silently from Kelli’s eyes. Her gaze is unfocused, but she isn’t in a daze anymore. She has her fists clenched in anger – anger towards the murderer, or towards her impotence – as she describes the man who killed everyone in her starter-group.

Dana doesn’t know what to say. The story is disappointingly devoid of blood wolves… but that’s not why she feels bad. To her dismay, she can relate to Kelli’s story. She doesn’t like the soul-gripping feeling in her chest at all.

“Okay,” Lukas says after Kelli stops speaking. “I have another question for you. What kind of Ability do you have?”

“Eh?” she asks, confused for a moment. “Oh, it’s… a strange thing…”

“Can you show us, honey?” Filip asks.

Kelli just points her finger a little bit left of Filip, and in the next moment, a pitch-black orb appears in the air at about waist-height. The air around the orb then shimmers, and sticks and dry leaves instantly spring towards the black orb. Even Filip stumbles a step or two towards it.

“Woah, hey, careful!” Filip says with a tinge of panic in his voice. However, by the time he finishes his sentence the phenomenon has already disappeared. The sticks and leaves fall to the ground, and Filip straightens himself.

“Oh! Sorry,” Kelli apologizes. “I-It’s actually harmless. I think it’s called Gravity Well, and it doesn’t make anything disappear like a black hole. It just makes everything fly towards itself.”

“Hmm, not bad,” Filip says, trying to get back his composure. He turns to Lukas. “What do you think?”

“I dunno how useful it would be,” the Paladin says. “Kelli, do you have any weapon skills?”

“W-Weapon skills? No… no, I don’t have any weapon.”

“She would still be a useful addition to our group,” Filip insists. “She just needs more time.”

“I think we should just escort her to Phalak. I don’t see why we would need this Gravity Well.”

“Are you kidding me, Lukas? If she could pull all the enemies to one place, it would be that much easier for me to hit them with one big spell!”

As they continue to argue – completely ignoring the girls – Dana moves closer to Kelli.

“Have you seen any wolf nearby?”

“W-wol- I mean, yes I- I think I saw,” Kelly says on a thin voice.

Dana takes a quick look back at the boys behind her, then whispers eagerly to Kelli.

“Did it have red eyes? With black fur?”

“Y-yes. I t-think so… But it’s- it’s dead. I…” Kelli trails off, trying to stop herself before she begins to cry again. “It- It attacked me after I escaped. I k-k-killed it.”

Dana’s eyes become wide with surprise. Looking at the unarmed, crying girl in front of her, it is quite difficult to believe that she could harm anything larger than a bug. But if it’s true, it means that the bonus gold reward of the collar is gone. However, they could still collect the bounty. They just need a piece of that wolf, a fang or something. Quality doesn’t even matter. That guy in the Bountyhouse was able to identify the severed tentacle of the squid giant, even when it was terribly charred and half-rotten.

Dana is about to suggest Kelli to keep silent about the wolf for now, but Lukas suddenly speaks up.

“Alright, Kelli, welcome to the team! We are-” he starts to speak, but Filip interrupts.

“Kelli you are bleeding!”

It’s true. Her legs have been obscured while she was sitting, but now that she stood up, the red streaks on inner thigh are visible. It isn’t a lot of blood, but her shorts are soaked through nevertheless.

“N-no, it’s not…” she trails off, blushing furiously.

“Does it hurt?” Filip asks and steps forward. “Let me see-”

That’s all he manages to get out before Dana slaps him. Her palm stings, but it feels so, so good. Before either Filip or Lukas could react, Dana grabs Kelli’s arm with her other hand, and begins to pull her away.

“I’ll take care of this,” Dana says over her shoulder. “In private!”

It’s really lucky that Kelli has already provided a distraction for her. She wouldn’t need to worry about when to part with Lukas and Filip: the time has come. She activates her second Ability, the one she got when she was thinking about escaping from the octopus giants. Lose Trail. It is a completely useless Ability, or at least it has been up till now.

Next, Dana rummages in her pack and pulls out a soft, white fabric.

“Here, take this,” she hands it to Kelli. “It’s not the same as a tampon, but that’s the best I could find when we were in the town. It sucks. You’ll have to wash and reuse them.”

“Th-thanks. I’ll just step behind that tree…”

“Not here,” Dana says, and continues to pull Kelli forward. Dana knows she has to put more distance between herself and Lukas so that he doesn’t overhear anything. Kelli is bewildered and is getting more and more panicked, but Dana is walking on without a word.

“Alright, we can talk here,” Dana says, “But only whispers. Lukas has a really keen hearing.”

“Umm… what are you doing?”

“We leave them behind. Trust me, you don’t want to team up with those two imbeciles. Every day I had to keep repeating myself that I needed them. That’s the only reason I managed to stay in their company.”

“S-So…” Kelli whispers hesitantly, “Are we forming a new group, then?”

“If you stop acting like an annoying crybaby, we can. Or I can escort you to the nearest city, where we part ways.”

“Ok. I… I have so many questions.”

“And I’ll answer them,” Dana replies, “But first, tell me about the wolf. Could you find its corpse?”

“I… maybe? I don’t know. We should turn to the right here. That’s… that’s the direction I came from, I think.”

Dana nods, then changes direction. After a few minutes of walking in silence, they stop so that Kelli can take care of herself. When they continue their hurried march towards the wolf’s corpse, Kelli speaks up.

“S-slower please… I can’t…”

They have barely began walking, but Kelli is already panting for breath. Dana frowns, but slows down. By this time Lukas must know that something is amiss. Dana doesn’t know what his reaction would be, but she suspects he would guess pretty soon that she is legging it. Hopefully, Lose Trail can counter Lukas’s senses. But now that she thinks about it, even if Lukas cannot track Dana, he would still be able to track Kelli. Dana sighs in frustration, then stops Kelli.

“Get on my back. I’ll carry you.”

“W-What? No need, no need, I can still walk!”

“No, you are slow as fuck,” Dana snaps at her. “You better not waste my time and hop on!”

Kelli reluctantly gives in, steps forward to Dana’s crouching form, and Dana picks her up. Luckily, the girl has a small build and she is quite light. Dana can easily give her a piggyback ride, and this way Lose Trail should affect Kelli too. In fact, Kelli is light enough that Dana could even run, though she decides to conserve her energy.

“How did you kill that wolf anyways?” Dana asks after a few minutes of awkward silence.

“W-well I didn’t want to,” Kelli murmurs into Dana’s shoulder. “But I was really scared. When it was about to jump on me, I placed a Gravity Well above it.”

“So?” Dana asks. She doesn’t understand how that could help her. Kelli doesn’t even seem to be injured, and she doesn’t have any weapon. How did she kill the wolf all by herself?

“So… my Ability lasts only for a second. And I was panicked that the wolf would fall down and jump on me. I… I cannot create that black thing right on top of someone. So by instinct, I created another, above the wolf once again. The wolf flew higher, and then I created another one. Then another. By the time I realized what I was doing, the wolf was higher than the trees. I ran out of mana, and it… fell.”

Dana doesn’t say anything for a while, but inwardly she is amazed. She has already thought that this Gravity Well would be really effective paired with her Spear Wall. Those spears emerge from the ground a bit too slow to be a serious threat. But if they could keep the enemy in one place…

And now it turns out that with it, Kelli could break bones or even outright kill anyone who opposes them.

“It’s awesome,” Dana finally admits.

“I-I don’t know. It’s scary. Freaky.”

Dana is about to retort, but suddenly they hear Filip shouting their names. He is quite far away, but it’s still closer than Dana wishes him to be.

So Dana does what she has always done the best: she runs.

She runs, but this time she is not running away from something. Not exactly. Not like the night when Mike was killed, and not like the battle when she left Tobias and the others to their death. This time – she tells herself – she isn’t running away from Filip. This time, she is running towards her goals. She will show this world that once she gets going, no one can stop her.

She will always keep running towards her purpose.

Her only purpose.

Izzy.

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