Sorry about the delay, xnxx wouldn't publish my chapters so I had to wait until they fixed the glitch.
A feminine whimper.
Beth collapsed, fighting for every breath with Noah standing over her, the two of them drenched in sweat.
“Come on, get up,” he said.
“I can’t do anymore!”
“You know what comes next.”
She looked at him with eyes full of hate. “You’re a monster,” she hissed.
A clear, steady stream was produced, arching onto the ground with a splash.
“Oh, she broke her record!” said Oath.
“I wish my mana would grow that fast!” Mira complained.
The water spurting from Beth’s fingertip trickled to a halt. She rolled onto her back, feeling like the hard road underneath her was now as soft as the king’s mattress. It was the second day of Noah’s training, midmorning, and he was running laps with Oath and his friends around the Fault estate. Since yesterday, this what they had been doing with most of their time, running almost nonstop. It was Noah’s rule that they had to run until they collapsed or nearly threw up, and then immediately cast magic until their mana was completely depleted. Oath was exempt, but only because he had no aptitude for magic.
Noah crouched down and fed Beth a watered-down healing potion, just something to restore her stamina a bit. While she recovered, Oath, Mira, and Trevor sucked in air. This was the only break they got, when someone collapsed.
“I’m starving, can we eat lunch now?” Trevor asked.
“I can’t even think of food,” Oath groaned.
They all complained throughout the whole ordeal, but in truth, no one had yet given up and refused to go any further. Despite their anguish, they didn’t give in. It wasn’t to prove their determination, rather it was the simple fact that Noah’s methods were producing results. Just the day before, at the same time, if Beth cast her spell, it would have just been a few drops falling from her finger, less of a fountain and more of a leaky faucet. Also, everyone’s stamina was increasing noticeably. Thanks to the health potions, they could perform weeks of daily exercise and recovery in a number of hours, compressing the rate of improvement so it was much more obvious.
“Yeah, I’d say so. I’m on my last legs too.”
Oath and the others groaned in relief and began throwing down everything they carried, as well as stripping off any armor. Noah was making them run in all of their adventuring gear with their weapons in hand, and in time, he’d incorporate weights to prepare them for carrying the dungeon crab’s treasure. There was a field nearby, but they didn’t care and squatted down right in the middle of the road to eat. It was on the baron’s estate, so there wasn’t the worry of traffic.
They each carried lunches made by the maids and were chowing down like ravenous animals. Even Noah was giving in to his hunger and stuffing his face. But as he ate, his eyes swept over everyone in the group. This workout was definitely intense, shredding muscles and then immediately repairing them. In this case, the antidote was worse than the poison, according to the town apothecary. He had spoken to her the morning after he returned to Clive while on his way to pick up his ring.
“Using potions for exercise? It would be a good idea if it wasn’t such a bad idea,” the old woman said. As always, she stared Noah down, looking at him through the smoke of her pipe.
“I can’t imagine I’m the first person to think of using them this way. What I want to know is if there are any dangerous effects. You always have them in stock, so getting the ingredients isn’t an issue.”
She took a deep inhale and released a large smoke cloud. “There is a downside.”
“Am I going to have to pay you to find out what it is?”
“In a rush, are you? Yes, it’s always people like you using this method. Mana and health potions, as well as all other concoctions used by adventurers, may seem like bottled miracles, but they are a double-edged sword. If overexposed, the body can forget how to repair and restore itself. If a wound is repeatedly inflicted on one spot and healed with potions, eventually the body will lose the ability to mend that spot on its own. Cuts will bleed ceaselessly, broken bones will become like rock, and organs will eventually shut down. The effects are even worse if the potion is consumed, rather than poured, as it spreads throughout the body.”
“How long before major damage is inflicted?”
“If used for daily exercise, potions will lead to death within two weeks. Lesser damage depends on the user.”
“And what about mana potions?”
“Mana potions stunt the development of magic. The more often they are used, the harder it will be to create and learn new spells.”
Noah thought back to his “training days” with Tin. He had performed them every other day and with watered-down potions, multiplying his reserves countless times and giving him an edge, but there was no telling how much it had hindered him in the long run.
“And of course you decided to wait until now to tell me, despite all of the potions I’ve been buying for the last month.”
“Are you expecting an apology?”
“No, I just have something I want you to look at and I would prefer some honesty.”
Three days, that’s how long Noah was willing to use the potion method. That would hopefully leave them with enough time for the side-effects to wear off before they entered a dungeon. So far, everyone’s physical stamina was continuing to rise, but if he saw them plateau or even reverse, he’d cut them off, cold turkey. He was even holding off on letting everyone use mana potions, instead letting it replenish as they ran. He didn’t want to push back the date of their departure if he could avoid it. If anyone got a wound, he made sure to watch closely, to make sure their blood was clotting.
“All right, let’s head back. We’re doing the same routine as yesterday.” Everyone groaned and cleaned up their mess, but before they could return to the manor, Noah stopped them. “Hold on, we’re doing lunges.”
“Please, not again!” Mira complained.
“You’ll thank me later.”
With their weapons in hand, everyone began doing long steps, stretching out one leg and leaning down with their other knee almost touching the ground, and they had to keep a fast pace. It was sweaty, painful work.
“This is so embarrassing, we look ridiculous,” Trevor muttered. He seemed to love complaining, but since Noah beat him in a fight, he was keeping his word about following directions. “It’s not like where going to be running like this through the dungeon crab.”
“No, but it’ll build up your strength and stamina. The most important factor in physical combat is leg strength.”
“Wait, really? Even for sword fighting?” Oath asked.
“Really. If you support your body with a solid foundation, you can fight while staying on your feet longer. It doesn’t matter how hard you can throw a punch or swing a sword if your legs just buckle as soon as you meet resistance. Think of it as like trying to fight while standing on slippery ice vs solid ground.”
Just like before, Noah pushed them to the point of collapse. Normally, this kind of reckless training would be frowned upon, but they needed to stress and tear their muscles to the absolute limit, mend them with potions to make them even stronger, and repeat, with mana depletions after every collapse.
There was no rest for them when they returned to the manor. Under Noah’s instruction, Oath and the others began stretching and lifting varying weights in various ways. To the slaves working the field, it looked like a basic workout, but Noah scrutinized every movement, from the form their arm took when lifting a heavy stone, to the precise angle of their hips when they twisted their bodies. Every movement had to be perfect, so that all the stress went to specific muscles. Had he the means, he would go even further, focusing on individual muscle threads.
In a way, Noah was grateful that this opportunity came along. Being an adventurer kept him active and fit, but it didn’t build strength in the same way as this workout, and coming to this world had scrambled his routine. He had to use this chance to properly polish his physique. He had planned on teaching this workout to Tin to make her stronger and capable of defending herself, but that opportunity was gone.
Once they reached the middle of the afternoon, Noah had them move on to the next stage of their training. Oath, Trevor, and Mira stood side by side, all of them gasping for air and cursing in anguish as sweat poured down their faces. For Oath and Trevor, the workout was simple, though far from easy. They held out their weapons as far as they could and kept their arms raised for as long as possible. They had to keep doing it until they collapsed and they couldn’t feel their arms, at which point, they’d take a health potion and start again.
“Ah, dammit!” Oath cursed as he dropped to his knees.
“Fuck, you’re weak,” said Trevor.
“For once in your life, just shut up!” Mira hissed, unable to maintain her usual polite personality.
Her training was similar to theirs, only using magic. Before her floated a lump of earth as large as a beer keg. Dirt from a bald patch underneath continuously floated up and added itself to the mass. For her training, she had to maximize the amount of earth she could lift, as well as the duration, and level of compression. She’d rotate it in the air to keep it from becoming lopsided, but every time it moved, she struggled to retain control.
Noah told her she had to be able to turn dirt into solid rock in seconds, as well as train her body to produce mana faster.
Nearby, Beth was sparring with Noah. She held a sheathed knife in her hand and was swinging and stabbing at him with reckless fury. Despite her efforts, he’d block and deflect her attacks away from his body, using various fighting styles he had learned across the multiverse. As soon as she paused her onslaught, he’d attack, forcing her to heighten her reflexes for dodging.
Finally, when the sun set, Noah said the magic words. “Let’s call it a day.”
On cue, everyone collapsed. Even Trevor abandoned his tough guy bravado and simply went limp.
“I think I might be dying,” Mira moaned, spread eagle on the ground and staring up at the sky.
“I’m too tired to eat and too hungry to sleep,” Beth added.
“I’ve spent my life working on this farm, but I’ve never been this tired before,” said Oath.
It seemed that their stamina had been pushed to its limit, beyond the point that potions could replenish. Now they needed food and sleep.
“I should probably head back to the inn while they’re still serving dinner,” said Noah.
“You guys can have dinner here,” Oath said.
“Why didn’t you say that yesterday?”
“Sorry, but after a day like that, I couldn’t spend another minute thinking about training and the dungeon crab.”
The table was old and unvarnished, hand-carved with roughly sanded planks, and lark knobby tails, though time had helped to soften its edges, and the low-quality table cloth hid its surface. On it, candles burned to illuminate the room, which smelled like the baked fish Noah and the others were eating, along with bread and some vegetables. In the modern world, not even soup kitchens would serve food of this destitute level, but after a month in these new lands, Noah had managed to calibrate his taste buds.
It was only the five youths present. The baron was not taking part. As with lunch, everyone ate voraciously, their bodies begging for sustenance to try and make up for the sudden loss in fat to burn. It was surprising that Mira actually noticed Oath had stopped eating, staring had his half-finished dinner.
“Oath? Is something wrong?”
“No, I’m just trying to remember the last time I sat at this table with this many people.”
‘Oh my god, that is so corny,’ Noah thought, drinking from his glass so as to not break his straight face.
“You’re going to make me sick,” Trevor muttered. Noah resisted the desire to thank him.
“What were your brothers like?” Beth asked.
“My oldest, Colt, was a soldier, serving under General Tarnas against the barbarians in Handent.”
“He really served under Tarnas?!” Beth exclaimed, bolting to her feet.
“Is that a good or bad thing?” Noah asked.
“Adwith Tarnas is one of the nation’s greatest heroes, and easily the strongest paladin,” said Mira, trying to hide her embarrassment with a smile. “Most children are raised on his stories, and for as long as I’ve known Beth, she’s been a huge fan.”
Beth sat back down, a drunk smile on her face. “When I was young, he and some of his forces passed through my town. Watching him ride down the street, wearing golden armor… I was no longer an innocent child. I had awakened my womanly desires.”
“You never heard of him? What rock have you been living under?” Trevor asked.
“A large one. Tell me about the war, I’m curious.”
“Oh, well, according to my brother, it started when the barbarians began ransacking villages along the border, eventually leading to the famous slaying of High Priest Grybaen by Chief Waer. After that…”
The conversation had taken a strange turn, but Noah absorbed every detail while making his plans for the future.
That night, at the inn, Beth didn’t go with Mira into their shared room, but followed Noah into his. She had been too tired the previous night, but tonight, she had just enough strength to indulge her curiosity.
The third day of training was just like the two before, including the same routine, but now with weights added. However, the consumption of potions had dropped in every activity. The growth they had gone through over just a few days would have normally taken weeks or even months. In the late afternoon, their training was changed. Now instead of simply holding out his sword, Oath was practicing his slashes like he was studying kendo. He needed to make both his attacks and his recovery faster.
Next to him, Trevor was improving his thrusts, using what Noah had taught him and incorporating his legs so he could increase the strength with less effort. He had also given Trevor the challenge of writing out the letters of the alphabet in the air with the spear tip, to heighten his accuracy.
Beth and Mira had switched places, now with Beth straining her magic and Mira staff-fighting with Noah. Unlike Mira and Trevor, Beth’s spell couldn’t be used for fighting and she appeared to be reaching the limit of her magical aptitude, but creating fresh water was something they’d need if they spent more than a day in the dungeon.
On the fourth day, Noah met everyone at the baron’s estate as he normally would. He held out a backpack full of potions. “Today, I want you all to see if you can follow the routine on your own. Until we enter the dungeon crab, I am completely banning the use of all potions.”
“That’s crazy!” Beth exclaimed, with the others similarly nervous.
“If you can’t do the day’s workout without potions, then you simply aren’t ready for the dungeon crab, and the longer we wait, the more competition will have. I don’t want to reach the bottom of the shell and find all of the avenium already taken.” He put the backpack down and put on a jacket with all of its pockets filled with rocks. “Come on, time to start running.”
The workout proceeded as planned, but with no less complaining. Now without potions, they could only gather their strength during breaks, but the number of times they had to stop and rest was as Noah predicted.
On the fifth day, Noah faced them with the morning sun burning away the mists clinging to the baron’s estate. For Oath and his friends, this was the last day of training and they all felt confident. They weren’t blind to their own growth. They now stood with bodies covered in weights, ready for Noah to give the signal to start their morning run.
“Since today is the last day, we’re going to do something different. Trevor, I want you to hit the ground with a downward strike and your strongest spell.”
“Just trust me. Pour as much mana as you can into the axeblade and give it a shot.”
Trevor grunted and held out his halberd, and from the moment he began channeling his mana, everyone noticed the difference. These past several days, whenever he, Beth, and Mira practiced with their magic, it was always in a state of exhaustion, forcing their bodies to squeeze out every last drop of power. This was the first time in days that Trevor was using a spell while at full strength. What would have a shimmering aura around the blade was now like a great colorless flame, causing his friends to instinctively step back.
“Whoa,” Trevor said, unable to pick any other words. He held his halberd with trembling handles, feeling like something bad was about to happen. He raised it above his head like a blinding torch. “Execute!” Apparently, saying the name of the spell helped focus the mind and increase the potency of the spell. To Noah, it seemed a bit ridiculous, but it did make things a bit more entertaining.
As per the name, he swung down with the halberd like he was performing a beheading, and the moment the blade touched the ground, it was like a mortar round had gone off. A chest-thumping explosion was heard and dirt and rock were sent flying in all directions. Originally, what would have simply buried his weapon in the dirt, had now opened up a crater the size of a bathtub. Just as incredible, the intensity of the mana flowing from the halberd had not lessened in the slightest, nor did Trevor appear fatigued.
Everyone was stunned, with Noah flashing a rare smile. “Mira, your results would probably be similar if I asked to use your strongest spell. Now that you have all this mana to work with, think of it as a resource for experimentation. I don’t know how the two of you develop magic, whether you just create new spells yourselves or learn by watching others, but I want you to devote yourselves to improving your skills. Show me something new. Today, we’re forgetting about strength and stamina and focusing entirely on technique.
Beth, I want you to practice your archery until your fingers bleed and you can shoot the wings of a fly. As for Oath…” Noah drew his longsword. “You’re going to be fighting me.”
Beth’s chest heaved with each movement, and her nipples, chilled by the evening, pointed out and drew arcs in the air. Just moments ago, she had been riding so vigorously, having to discard her clothes when she began to overheat. It had been a struggle for her to keep her moans contained, especially with her hips refusing to obey her commands and slow her bouncing.
She now took a gentle pace, rolling her hips from side to side while she regained her strength. Her pretty face was one of intoxication, her mind overtaken by lust and endorphins. Her smile was lewd, her face flushed, her lips wet, her pupils dilated. Noah could see the fresh sweat on her body with the light of the night sky. What was just supposed to be a quick tryst to scratch the ol’ itch had turned into something a little more intense.
Sitting up, Noah kissed her breasts and grabbed her ass, kneading it like dough. Beth had a nice athletic figure, not much fat on her, but the ass of a volleyball player. Noah’s lips on her nipples, his manhood stirring her up, and his hands massaging deep into her muscles, these stimuli combined into a force that Beth was struggling to withstand. They were out in the woods, so Beth’s moans could attract monsters, or even worse, the ears of her friends.
Mira knew about them, so Oath and Trevor were probably aware as well, but still, it would be a bit rude make them hear the sounds of moans and flesh against flesh. That was Beth’s thinking, but Noah didn’t care either way. His only fear was getting stuck in an awkward conversation with everyone because of this. That, and the fact that he and Beth were breaking the rules of every horror movie and having sex in the woods. The flag they were raising could have been visible from space.
Beth’s strength gave out, a final climax draining her and leaving her body limp. Noah was forced to lower to her to the ground, but she didn’t object to him continuing to thrust until he had a climax of his own.
“Come on, we should get back to the camp,” he said.
“What a romantic thing to say after filling me up.”
“You know what this is.”
She giggled. “Relax, I’m kidding.”
They got dressed and returned to the camp, where their fellow adventurers were awake and waiting for them.
“What are you all doing awake?” Noah asked.
“You two are a lot nosier than you think you are,” Mira said while keeping her eyes down.
“You do make it awfully hard to sleep. I thought some wolves were tearing apart a goblin out there,” said Trevor. In retaliation, Beth kicked him while circling the campfire to reach her spot.
“Watch it!” he shot back.
Noah took his own spot and stoked the fire. “Enough. Everyone, get some rest. We’re going to need our strength for tomorrow.” They were less than half a day’s hike to the dungeon crab.
“None of us can sleep. We’re too nervous about tomorrow,” Oath said.
“It’ll be fine. In twenty years, you’ll ask your children ‘did I ever tell you about the time I conquered a dungeon crab?’ And they’ll groan and say, ‘yes, father, a hundred times. We’re sick of hearing about it.’”
“Are you going to do anything with the territory?” Beth asked. “Change any laws?”
“No. Clive is perfect the way it is, and I don’t want to change anything.”
“You’re letting a golden opportunity slip by,” said Noah.
“What do you mean?”
“I assume that as long as the kingdom gets its taxes, it won’t care about how things change, so you might as well try some things. Think of the town as the place to perform social experiments.”
“What’s a social experiment?” Trevor asked.
“It’s when you put people in a certain location with certain conditions and see how they react. You can see how human nature plays out. Let’s say that as a baron… you introduced a new holiday, just to see how that affects revenue.”
“That sounds really wrong,” Mira muttered.
“It’s a way to learn about people. In the center of town, put up a statue with a sign saying not to touch, that the paint is wet. Then you can see how many people are actually going to touch it.”
“What is that supposed to do?” Oath asked.
“How many people are in Clive, a hundred? If half of them touch the statue, then you could say that half of the human race is dumb enough to touch paint even when they know it’s wet. Or perhaps it’s simply that half the town can’t read.
If you repeated the experiment in another town, maybe a big city in another country, you’ll probably find that different numbers of people will touch the statue. Then you can get down to figuring out why. Why do different areas have different results? Are the people simply dumber? Is it a literacy problem? Is there a culture of rebellion to authority?
There was once an ancient city named Rome, which had a massive stone battle arena called the Coliseum. It was so massive, that the emperor put the minds of his best architects into figuring out how to design it so that the spectators could easily get in and out, otherwise, they’d start a riot.
You get a bunch of people together in close proximity, one of two different things may happen, sometimes even both at the same time. The first is that people will want to withdraw into themselves. They’ll want to create personal space, establish a perimeter, draw that line in the sand that no one can cross. If someone crosses that line, they may get fearful, they may get violent; no matter how small it is, it produces a negative reaction.
The other is to surrender to the will of the group. If everyone around you is saying something, you’ll assume it’s right and repeat it, because you want to believe in the group, you want to believe you’re right. You want to believe that you’re in the presence of people who know what they are doing. If you’re in a mob where someone is shouting for the death of the king and everyone cheers, part of you will naturally agree.
Someone losing their temper will start a fight, that fight will spread and trigger more fights, and suddenly the orderly masses that were simply trying to leave the Coliseum are sweeping through Rome, having abandoned all thought of civility and now simply destroying everything in their way.”
“That could never happen,” said Beth, as if Noah had just uttered a child’s nonsense.
“I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. Once you establish the rule that escape is not available, that candle starts burning, and it burns quick.”
“I don’t know. I think people are good at heart,” said Mira. “They don’t just go crazy like that.”
“Then you could prove it. Let’s say you could create any kind of social experiment, completely free repercussions, like a dream. What would you do?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“The rest of you? Just think ‘I wonder how many people would (blank) if I (blank)?’ Or ‘what would happen if I put (blank) and (blank) together?’ Literally whatever you wanted to know, or simply just see.” Everyone looked up into the distance, trying to process the challenge. “Think about it. It’ll help you fall asleep.”
A solid thump woke Oath up, a sword striking the ground just inches from his face. He instinctively shouted in terror and tried to scurry back, realizing it was Noah’s sword and he was standing over him. His friends, light sleepers in an area this dangerous, woke up in a flash and got to their feet with their weapons raised, confused and alarmed by the sight of Noah in the predawn light. Was this an assassination attempt? However, they looked down and spotted Noah’s real target. It was some kind of insectoid creature, a stubby centipede with a bulbous shell. It was the size of a squirrel, with frightening pincers.
“What the hell is that thing?!” Mira exclaimed.
“It’s one of the parasites from inside the dungeon crab. I did as much research as I could on the dungeon crab whenever I had the time.”
Looking at Mira and Beth, he could see them shuddering in revulsion.
“You mean to tell me that there are more of those things in that crab?”
“Almost certainly, but they’re flooding out into the woods, so just means that the more we find out here, the fewer we’ll have to fight in the crab. Now let’s eat some breakfast and get a move on.”
It was a literal mountain of upturned earth and shattered bedrock, the result of the dungeon crab rising up from the planet’s crust and jutting out the tip of its shell. At the very summit was the entrance, but the mountain was no indication of just how large the actual crab was. Before they could go down, they’d have to climb up.
“Look up there, I think I see a tent.”
Noah scanned where Beth was pointing and confirmed. “Someone must have set up camp there before heading in.”
“There are camps all over the mountain. There must be a lot of people in there,” said Mira.
“Most of them have probably been killed by now. Those camps are abandoned,” said Trevor.
Despite Mira’s anger, Noah agreed with Trevor. The closer he looked, the more tents he saw, and the majority of them probably belonged to the dead, but he didn’t want Oath and the others chewing on that. “Relax. Everyone going in just packed light because they want to carry as much treasure as they can, and probably couldn’t carry anything extra when they came out. We’ll be in the same situation when we come back.”
“Wait, I see people too,” said Beth.
She was right, there were plenty of adventurers roaming the mountain.
“They must be scavenging for gems and precious metals. When the crab appears, it probably pushes up more than just stone and dirt.”
“If you can get gold from sifting through the dirt, then why bother going into the dungeon?” Mira asked.
“They’re after whatever they can get their hands on, unlike us. We’re after avenium, and it can only be found inside.”
They put their fears aside and began climbing up the side of the mountain. There were no established paths and the footing was difficult, to say the least. The dirt had settled since it was first moved by the arrival of the crab, but there were no plants to hold it all together, so it was like hiking up the side of a sand dune in many areas. They also had to be wary of the big stone chunks mixed in. They were freshly broken and hadn’t been weathered by the wind and the rain, so they could easily cut through skin. While climbing, Noah grabbed a stone handhold and his palm was skinned by the crystal-like sharpness.
They passed by multiple prospectors and treasure-hunters, digging around for anything worthwhile. No one paid them any attention, and they offered none in return. However, that changed when they heard the sounds of fighting. Nearby, they saw a bearded man fighting off one of the dungeon parasites that had wandered outside. It was a four-legged crustacean, the size of a wolf. It swung its heavy forelimbs like clubs and tried to force the man onto his back.
“Noah, we need to help him,” said Mira.
“Keeping him alive isn’t my job. Besides, any strength you use against that one monster will be strength you can’t use in the shell.”
“Then consider this a field test!” Mira held out her staff. “Shatter Mace!”
Pieces of stone and packed dirt flowed to the end of her staff, joining together into a hardened sphere, the size of a basketball and covered in sharp protrusions. She left the group and ran over to where the man was fighting, with her weapon not hindering her movement at all. Rather than physical strength, she was holding the sphere together and lifting it with mana.
The beast had the man pinned on his back and he was fending off its snapping pincers with his pickaxe. Sneaking up behind it, Mira raised her staff and brought it down onto the monster’s back, unleashing the full weight of the stone and breaking through its shell. The monster hissed in pain and fell over, and she dispatched it with another swing, this one crushing its exposed head. A week ago, such a task would have been impossible for her, but under Noah’s tutelage, both her skills in magic and physical combat had been multiplied several times over.
“Thanks,” the man grumbled before dusting himself off and walking away.
She returned to the group, where Beth was clapping for her. “Well done!”
Noah, however, clasped his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t do that again.” There was very little anger in his voice, but still, she shrunk away. “The same goes for the rest of you. We’re not here to play hero, we’re not here to save lives. We’re here to make money and conquer the dungeon. Our strength, our attention, our weapons, our potions, they are reserved only for our own use and our own benefit. If you save someone, it had better be to use them as a pack mule or a meat shield. Understood?” Everyone nodded. “Good, then let’s move on.”
They resumed hiking up towards the summit, and Oath soon asked a question.
“Noah, you researched dungeon crabs, right? Did you recognize that monster?”
“Yes, it was one of the parasites mentioned in the books your father had.”
“Do you know what else we’ll find?”
“Unfortunately, no, there was actually very little written information about the dungeon crabs and what exists within their shells. Those who remain in the upper portions and survive share their information, but those who delve deep enough to reach the avenium either die or keep it a secret.”
“Wait, why is it a secret?” Trevor asked.
“If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because the nation’s nobility doesn’t want people knowing how to join their ranks. In this crab are the keys to the kingdom, after all. Too many young upstarts could break the balance of power between the rich and the poor, or they could form factions that get in the way of the higher-ranked nobles. Some information gets out, of course, from those who manage to escape with their lives but don’t conquer the dungeon, or from other countries, but I imagine that the only adventurers who are really informed are those already working for high-level nobles.”
A monstrous hiss ended the conversation, as up ahead, a new threat revealed itself. It stood on a pair of muscular legs, like a predatory bird, but it had a small body and no neck, only a forward-placed skull that resembled an alligator. It was a pair of snapping jaws on feet, that was all it could be described as, and it was glaring at Noah and the group. It had the high ground, and after emitting another hiss, several more appeared, from both above and the sides.
“A pack-type parasite, interesting,” Noah said as he drew his sword. “Get ready, everyone, the fighting starts early.”
They took formation, with Oath in front and Noah and Trevor guarding the flanks, while Beth and Mira attacked from a distance. The monsters closed in all at once, leaping through the air while flashing the talons on their feet and spreading their jaws.
“Trevor!” Noah shouted.
“Phalanx Spears!” he cast while swinging his halberd like a flag.
A trail of mana was left behind with each movement, and the mana solidified into floating blades like mist condensing into ice. The floating blades pierced three of the beasts before they could land, two more were wounded, and the rest had their concentration broken and failed to pounce properly. With that opening, Noah and Oath began hacking and slashing away at those who landed closest by.
Mira stabbed the ground, and beneath the wounded beasts, pits opened up to swallow them whole, then were closed with earthen spikes like cage bars. It wouldn’t hold them long, but it kept them out of the fight. Not only could Mira now manifest the spell multiple times from one casting, but the ground proved perfect for its use. Those who had avoided Trevor’s spell and Noah and Oath’s swords tried circling around, but Beth dispatched them with her bow, and any she missed ended up getting cleaved by Trevor. Once all of the mobile ones were slain, the wounded were put out of their misery.
“Good, well done,” said Noah.
Normally they would then harvest the monsters for valuable pieces, but the market for dungeon crab parasites was too niche to be worth the effort. Besides, they wanted to save as much room for treasure as they could.
They continued their climb, and after a couple more monster battles, they reached the summit at midday. There, sticking out of the ground was the tip of the crab’s shell, like a light house on a rocky cliff. Noah could see the curl of the shell, and before them, the opening, a doorway large enough for an elephant to walk through. Noah reached out and touched the shell, made of substance somehow strong enough to withstand the heat and pressure of the earth’s interior.
In the month since Noah’s arrival to this world, he had seen plenty of things that shocked and baffled him, from magic to monsters, but just the sight of the entrance blew him away. To think that such a creature like this could exist, that something so massive occupied this world. It blew away the common sense accumulated from more than a hundred lifetimes. Where did these things come from? Were they made by magic? Perhaps by some kind of god? How old was this one? Was it intelligent? What was its life cycle?
“I never thought I’d ever see something like this,” said Oath, similarly amazed.
Everyone in the group was staring at the white tower in awe and accomplishment. True, the real struggle had only just begun, but compared to what they were doing not too long ago, just reaching this place was a huge accomplishment.
“Look at this view,” said Beth.
Without any trees to block their sight, the mountain summit let them see for miles in all directions.
“I think I can see the village!” said Trevor.
“Let’s break here for lunch, gather some of our strength, and then head inside.”
They all sat down and Noah pulled food and water skins out of his ring. Noah had enough food and water to feed them all for several days, and thanks to Beth’s magic, they could refill their canteens whenever needed. However, everyone carried two days of rations, just in case they got separated. Their lunch consisted of dried fish and fruits, as well as some bread, something light to keep them moving. Up atop the mountain, there was a nice breeze, and the view was spectacular.
“Noah, remember what you were saying last night about social experiments?” Beth asked. “If I could try one, I’d want to see what happens when you put only women together and task them with building a society. What would Clive look like if it had only women?”
“A female-only society? Yeah, that would certainly be interesting. Ok, paint a picture for me. What do you expect would happen?”
“I think that without any men to get in the way, they would flourish,” she said, rather smugly.
“Until there is a spider that needs to be killed,” said Trevor.
“Come on, I want details. For instance, there are roles in society that are typically considered manly, and others that are considered womanly. If only women perform the manly tasks, then what will change? Will the nature of the task change, or will the women change? Will the women who spend all day hunting, blacksmithing, and all those other jobs start acting rough and crass like men?
You’re an adventurer. You spend your days hunting, fighting, scavenging, getting down and dirty. But you also consider yourself quite girlish, right? But how do you think a girl who spends her days weaving and taking care of children sees you? Will a divide form? The Type A personalities arguing with the Type B?”
“Type A personalities?”
“Never mind. Oath, you got an idea for an experiment?”
Oath took a deep breath. “Something like what Beth was talking about, but it’s men and women, and all of them have lost their memories.”
“Oh, that’s the good one. The total erasure of culture and starting from scratch. If you completely remove nurture from the equation, then you can truly see how nature manifests. Will men and women follow paths considered normal by society? Will they adopt the same roles that their ancestors have? Or will they do everything new?”
Everyone watched as he started putting things away. He didn’t need to say anything, they knew it was time to take the plunge.