Editors: Templar, Jack Vanatis
Author’s notes: Final chapter of the CotE release bonanza. I was supposed to do this a while ago, the explanation coming up in the next post (After I update the ToC of course)
Chapter 8 – Seed of Discord
After Regal left the house to begin his first day with the Community Defense Team, Piora went to see Aqua, who had run off nearly in tears.
“Aqua, there’s no need to feel bad,” Piora said awkwardly, a comforting tone not fitting her usual attitude, “Breakfast didn’t work out too well, but it can’t always be good.”
“I know… It’s not that, it’s just everything!”The corner of her eyes turning watery as she mumbles with her face in her hands.
“What do you mean, everything?”
“I feel like I am secondary, unimportant. Everyone else has things that they excel at, but I am only average in everything. Even when fighting, I’m more of a supportive role than anyone else. I became a part of this squad because I care for Regal. No, I love him! But he likes someone else and I have just become a bystander. Piora, it hurts!”
Piora doesn’t know how to console Aqua about most of her troubles, so she patiently pats Aqua on the back as the brown haired young woman begins to lightly sob. Piora has always been independent and her heart is her own, so she can’t fully relate with the pain Aqua is feeling at this moment.
“Piora, what should I do? I can’t bear to stand by him when he is with someone else.”
Piora, finally having some clear thoughts, tries suggesting to Aqua, “You are a part of our squad as much as anyone else. Perhaps you haven’t excelled in any areas right now, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t good at anything. Being good at everything is a strength in its own and not only that, there may be something you excel at more than others but just haven’t found it yet.”
“I don’t think so. My father helped me test my aptitudes to all kinds of skills, but everything was only good on average.”
“Being good at everything means you can fit all roles though. I’m sure Regal noticed this, which is why your role is to support everyone where they might be lacking. You are a supporter for the whole group.”
“…So that’s all I am? A supporter?” Aqua reveals her red eyes and stares at Piora in despair.
“No, no, that’s not what I meant! What I’m saying, is that you are someone who fills the key role of strengthening anywhere our party may be lacking at any time. It is just as important as anyone else.”
“…It doesn’t feel very important.”
“You need to get your mind off this. Come, lets all go to the dungeon. Fighting always helps clear my head, it will help you as well!”
Piora grabs Aqua’s hand and reverting back to her forceful personality, exerts her strength and drags Aqua off. Aqua tries to fight back, but her strength is lower that Piora’s so it is a futile struggle. She can only look at Piora in helplessness as she thinks, ‘Only you like fighting that much!”
Piora completely ignores Aqua’s struggles, informing everyone still in the kitchen to prepare for a long trip to the dungeon. Everyone holds a vote over who will be the temporary squad leader while Regal is gone, which Piora nominates herself and Aqua supports, while Astore, Kilde and Veronica all vote for Veronica, believing her to be equivalent to the vice squad leader under normal times and taking command in Regal’s absence is the natural conclusion.
Three to two, Veronica wins. Piora has little qualms with Veronica taking charge, but Aqua is sour about the result. Deep within the recesses of Aqua’s mind, subtle dark thoughts of disobeying her temporary leader’s commands and jeopardizing the squad sprout.
The squad of five members soon leave the house and head toward the Lost Water Caverns. On their way out of the town, they are intercepted by Jerule, along with two other guards with whom they are unacquainted.
“Veronica, Piora, Aqua, Kilde and Astore, a surprising pleasure to run into our new community members. How are all of you today?” Jerule says with a smile as he introduces the two guards accompanying him, a male and a female.
Piora, though secretly on alert, calmly yet without a friendly tone replies, “We are well. We are heading to the dungeon for a few days while Regal is working for the lord. We don’t have anything else to do during this time so we are being productive.”
“That sounds like a great idea, there are indeed many improvements each of you can make to strengthen your squad.”
“What do you mean?” Veronica asks, unaware of any faults with their fighting capabilities or tactics, especially with Regal’s most recent improvements.
“You are all very young still, so there is much for you to learn. Regal is a true leader, and can bring out the best of you, but that is not all. A squad is formed from a small group of individuals, and no matter how strong the leadership is, a squad can only be as strong as all its individuals together. Not just your level, equipment and skills determine how strong you are, but your individual tactics when fighting. A leader cannot control everyone and their movements, only give direction. If each of you improve in your coordination of skills, your strength could drastically rise. This is what I mean.”
Facing Jerule’s explanation, not a single member of the squad can find any errors in his judgement. All they can do is nod their heads with understanding. Piora originally only intended to go to the dungeon to clear their heads, hopefully gaining a level or two over the next few days, but now another goal has been added to her thoughts.
Jerule continues talking, “Actually, I am in command of the guards today, my position is quite important after all. I will relieve these two guards, Hopper and Serena, to join you and act as a tutor for the next couple of days. I believe with their experience, they can be of great help to you.”
“There’s no need, I don’t want you to reduce the guards just to help us,” Piora immediately says, stubbornly rejecting the offer.
“Don’t be concerned over such a small matter. Even if we do come under attack by mutant beasts, bandits, or a nearby community, the rest of us can easily handle it. If the situation is dire, we will know at least a day beforehand and can summon you all back here for protection.”
Piora still wants to refuse, as her instincts are telling her she can’t let Jerule or the guards get too close to them, but before she can do so, Veronica agrees to the help. Jerule seems to light up with pleasure and commands the guards to accompany the squad and provide them with instruction in tactics and optimal skill usage, at which they immediately nod their heads and greet the squad.
Just as everyone is about to leave, another person appears beside the guards. This person is the guard leader Bryn, the same person who had received them when they reached Greyhorn Townsend.
“Jerule, you can be relieved as well,” Bryn suddenly states, causing surprise to bloom on Jerule’s expression. “Your knowledge is one of the greatest amongst the guards, you will be able to help them more than anyone.”
“Leader, I need to man the walls and take command of the scouts. We can’t leave the community completely defenceless.”
“This is a command, not a request Jerule. They are our only new members so far this year, so I want to nurture them and hope to convince them to stay in our community for a while longer. Raising a group of excellent new community members will show others the benefits of joining our community, increasing our membership growth in the following years. I trust you have much you can teach them, so I want you to lead in this task.”
“Understood Leader,” Jerule bows his head politely before turning to the squad. “It appears I will also be able to help you all. With three days training, I am confident I can increase all your skills by a notch, let’s head out.”
Jerule doesn’t give Piora or the others any time to refuse, taking the lead with his two other guards and leaving the community with them. The group, now of seven, quickly proceed over the rough terrain leading to the Lost Water Caverns, Jerule taking the initiative to instantly wipe out any attacking mutant beasts along the way so as to not slow them down.
When the group reaches the dungeon, Jerule splits them up into smaller teams wherein one guard will act as the instructor. Astore and Kilde are paired with Hopper, a hunter who specializes in close combat. Veronica and Piora are together with Serena, a lightning alchemist, and Aqua will do one on one tutoring with Jerule. To optimize their training, each of the young hunters will change groups once per day over the three days so they can learn many different things.
Aqua is still in a poor mood when she enters the dungeon behind Jerule, but she is simultaneously relieved that she won’t be near Veronica.
“Aqua, I will teach you techniques on constantly altering your combat style when fighting mutant beasts. Many of these beasts are quite intelligent, especially at higher levels, and can learn how you fight. They alter their attacks to give them an advantage, or use basic strategies to catch you off guard. By constantly changing how you attack, it prevents them from learning your pattern and allows you to easily control their movements when attacking.”
“Yes,” Aqua says submissively as she begins to imprint Jerule’s every word in her memory.
Jerule leads Aqua deeper into the first floor of the Lost Water Caverns away from the other two small groups who each went in their own direction. He takes on the role of leader and main attacker as he brings over no more than two enemies for Aqua to face at a time. He already knows most of her skills from guiding Regal in their last expedition and efficiently instructs her on better ways to use her skills and shift her fighting style.
Aqua, whose desire to improve is greater than everyone else, follows Jerule’s commands to the letter and commits her entire concentration on adapting to the fights.
About a third of the way through the day Aqua finally levels up. This is a combined result of fighting under Jerule’s directions, and not having to split the experience she gained among a full squad.
“Jerule, where should I put the free stats?” Aqua asks Jerule with complete faith.
“You mainly use alchemy, and you need to move around a lot, so place two points in Intelligence and one in Agility.
Name: Aqua Theore Age: 18 Level: 13 Nxt Level: 0% Health: 211/245 Mana: 125/286 Stamina: 129/137 Class: Water Alchemist Str: 15 Dex: 20 Agi: 22 End: 21 Int: 33 Lck: 10 Martial Skills: Combat Knife Proficiency – Lv. 77 (Rapid Pierce, Disarm, Critical Hit, Disable) Revolver Proficiency – Lv. 82 (Curve, Target Lock, Tracing Bullet, Concussive Shot, Guided Rapid Fire) Alchemy Skills: Frozen Rain Alchemy – Lv. 81 (Hundred Needles, Frozen Needle Foot Trap, Frost Core, Thousand Needs, Frozen Tomb) Ice Heart Alchemy – Lv. 88 (Frozen Spear, Ice Pincer, Razor Petals, Frozen Flower Bloom, Glass Ice Explosion) Lunar Mist Alchemy – Lv. 94 (Frozen Dust Wind, Ice Moonblade, Glacial Impaler, Silent Frostbite, Sinking Moon Ice Crusher) Vigorous Earth Alchemy – Lv. 63 (Rock Cannon, Stun Stone, Biting Dust, Earthen Spear) Crafting Skills: Cartography – Lv. 37 (Mind Projection, Erase) Cooking: Beginner – Lv. 72 (Aroma Sense, Butchering, Beginner Recipe Arts) Misc Skills: None Passive Buffs: ~ +13% Attack Speed ~ +10% Evasion Rate ~ +15% resistance to ice and water element ~ +3% chance of double ice damage
Jerule nods to Aqua, giving her an amiable smile and saying, “You are really improving, Aqua. What’s most important now is to raise your level and get to the point where you can learn stronger skills. How are things in your squad? Knowing each other is an important part of teamwork too.”
“Hmm? What do you mean by reasonable?”
Aqua doesn’t pay attention to Jerule prying into the personal matters of their squad and begins to explain her current pains in the squad with a darkening expression. She talks slowly at first, but as if it becomes easier once opening up, begins talking about everything that has been on her mind. This includes her feelings for Regal and having to watch him be with Veronica.
“That doesn’t sound very good, but it can also be seen as a precursor of events to unfold. Squads where the bonds between the members are fragile are always doomed to split apart. Have you thought about what would happen if this takes place?”
“I… I haven’t. Is there any way to stop it from happening?”
“Of course, you just need to fix what is currently wrong with the squad.”
“What’s wrong with the squad?” Aqua repeats Jerule’s words back to him, unsure of what he means.
“Indeed. From what I can tell, the main issue is the current relationship between you, Regal and Veronica. This needs to be fixed in order to keep the squad together, which I’m sure is what you want.”
“Yes, I do! I don’t want our squad to fall apart!”
“Haha, then let me give you some advice from my perspective. The relationship between Regal and Veronica needs to end. First of all, Veronica is a Soulless, and as such, her feelings and emotions are slightly different than ours. They are the same in essence, but they are accustomed to pure rational thinking and not adept at handling the small amount of emotions they have.”
“You told me about how they originally met and their past relationship, which brings me to the next related point. I don’t believe Veronica truly loves Regal. She originally considered him as a brother, or as close to one as we can have. This sort of relationship can bring out a platonic love. It seems like she has confused this with the other sort of love, where two people form a mutual relationship of intimacy.”
“This relationship is unhealthy, and won’t help anyone. If Regal is to be with someone, it needs to be a person who loves him back in the same manner.”
Aqua listens intently and nods several times to Jerule’s explanation. Jerule doesn’t say it explicitly, but the carefully chosen words he uses also gives Aqua a potential hope that she can still make Regal hers, clouding her judgement as she takes in the words like an intoxicating spell.
“How can we make Veronica see this?” Aqua asks, not even mentioning whether it is for the good of the party or her own selfish desire.
Jerule eventually plans with Aqua to have some words with Veronica in private during their three day venture in the dungeon, sharing their concern with her and hopefully making her see reason about the situation.
Aqua’s ugly emotions fill her mind for the rest of the day, preventing her from making any more progress with her personal fighting tactics. Jerule doesn’t comment on this, and even the guidance he provides for her drops to a minimal level. He is currently extremely pleased that the start of his plan was a great success and only stays with her to fulfil his duty.
Jerule waits until Aqua reaches level 14 before finally calling her back and leading the way to the meeting point near the entrance of the dungeon.
Astore, Kilde, Piora and Veronica all reached level 14 as well, even making some progress toward level 15 and leaving Aqua to feel slightly dejected upon hearing it. This is because a good portion of Aqua’s time was conversing with Jerule and not completely focusing on hunting mutant beasts.
The group of five young hunters discuss with each other their experiences over the day, covering every little detail in case it might assist the others with ideas for personal battle tactics. Strangely, Aqua doesn’t mention anything to Veronica about the team’s fragility and her needing to split apart from Regal to preventing a falling out, but instead does everything she can to directly avoid talking to Veronica altogether.
What Aqua hadn’t realized was that if there was a falling out with the team as a result of the relationship between Regal and Veronica, it would actually only be her leaving. This misunderstanding is a combined result of Jerule’s careful manipulations and his inherant skill, ‘Mind Bewitchment’. This skill’s Tier 1 Divine Art ‘Vocal Enchant’ uses only a bare minimum of mana, yet allows him to confuse the mind of his targets with his voice, allowing him to hiddenly manipulate people.
Everyone camps in the dungeon that night, the guards forming one small group and Regal’s squad members another. The next day, Jerule, Hopper and Serena inform the group that they plan to not only change up the groups, but also bring them down to the second level as the experience they are receiving on the first level is already becoming insignificant in helping them level up.
The teams this time are Aqua and Piora with Serena, Veronica and Kilde with Hopper, and Astore training one on one with Jerule. Jerule originally wanted to single out Veronica today and use his coercion on her, but he fearfully remembers the threat of the guard leader and heeds his words to not rush.
The three small groups walk together as one toward the stone staircase dug out of a wall leading to the second floor. Piora and Aqua are also slightly surprised when they run into their first squad of hunters also hunting in the dungeon. The squad are a group of veterans returning from the lower layers of the dungeon, coincidentally crossing paths at the staircase between the first and second floors.
“You’ll meet more squads when you reach beyond the fifth floor,” Jerule says with a chuckle after seeing Regal’s squad members surprised at others being in the dungeon. “Most hunters and squads will camp in the dungeon for several days or more, meaning most hunters will remain down on the lower floors.”
Arriving at the second layer, Piora notes that it is very similar to the first. The only notable point of difference is that the tunnels and caverns are much larger than the first, and the enemies are more sinister.
Even from the entrance of the second floor, everyone can see the Stony Raptors, Nine-Inch Bee Kings, and the troublesome Hydra Spawn that are wandering around in small and large groups. Every single beast is between level 15 and 19, proving to be an extremely tough challenge for Regal’s squad members, as they have never fought them before.
Thankfully, they have the guidance of three high levelled guards who know these enemies like the back of their hands.
The three groups split up and carefully grow accustomed to the new enemies under the guidance of their escorts.
The second day in the dungeon progresses extremely well for Regal’s squad members. The higher levelled enemies give a lot more experience and allow everyone to nearly reach level 16. Regal is still level 12 due to not being able to go to the dungeon with them.
But even if Regal’s level is lower than the rest of the squads, being able to hunt stronger mutant beasts will allow him to quickly catch up to them. There are two restrictions with the experience sharing between squad members. One of which is that the level of the squad members cannot be more than ten levels apart. The other is that the strongest member cannot have a level twenty percent higher than the others. The experience sharing in the squad will not apply if both of these conditions are not met.
For Regal’s squad, as long as the members don’t reach level 23, their experience will still be shared. After reaching level 50, this ten level gap will then slowly expand, allowing for more flexibility. Of course, the experience they need to go from level 22 to level 23, would be equivalent for Regal going from level 12, to level 21, so a great difference in their levels is unlikely to happen.
On the third and final day, the individuals with the guards are changed again. This time, Jerule chooses to give Veronica some personal guidance while the other four are split between Serena and Hopper. Piora raises her objections toward Veronica being alone with Jerule based on her instincts, but Veronica resolutely tells Piora that it is fine and refuses to listen to her concerns.
Half way through the third day, deep in the second floor of Lost Water Caverns, Jerule finally breaches the subject he has been patiently waiting for.
“Veronica, I have heard about your relationship with Regal and have some concerns.”
Veronica calmly looks at Jerule and replies, “There are no problems with it. You need not be worried.”
“But I should be worried. You are all a part of our community, and as our only new members this year we want to do our best to help you,” Jerule slowly explains while employing ‘Vocal Enchant’ to influence her thoughts.
Taking Veronica’s silence as an intent to listen, Jerule continues, “Your relationship with Regal has been causing friction in your squad, regardless of whether you are aware of it or not. Tell me, how much do you love Regal?”
“Enough that I will protect him from everything.”
“So you don’t have much confidence in his strength?”
“He is strong, but from what he can’t fight, I will protect him from.”
“You realize your feelings are primarily that of protection, right?”
“I understand that. Is there are a problem with it?”
Jerule takes this opportunity to drop his gentle visage, his expression hardening and he stares Veronica directly in the eye and uses ‘Mental Interference’, the Tier 2 Divine Art of ‘Mind Bewitchment’. Veronica, with little to no resistance to Jerule’s skill, has her mind go blank as her pupils dilate and she becomes completely suggestable.
“Veronica, your feelings are that of a brotherly love for Regal, not the kind where you are in a relationship together. The longer you stay with him, the more you are hurting him in the end.”
“I understand,” Veronica replies almost robotically.
“Tonight, after we return, end this charade of a relationship.”
Jerule looks happy with himself and stops using his skill, his mana almost completely drained. Just before the effects wear off from Veronica, he chuckles to himself, “Ah, it truly is too easy with Soulless. As long as they believe in something, they will never even question it.”
Later that night, Regal returns to his squad’s residence with Lande and Lore in tow. Astore, Kilde, Piora, Aqua and Veronica are all inside deep in conversation about their experiences in the dungeon over the past several days. Regal was aware they would be camping in the dungeon so this is the first opportunity he got to see everyone since they left.
The five squad members in the house are having an in depth conversation, but still notice Regal’s return immediately. Regal has a strange feeling when he looks at them. He should normally be happy to see everyone getting along so well, but for some inexplicable reason, he can’t help but feel that what he is seeing is only a thin veneer covering an underlying problem.
Piora is the only one who takes note of Regal’s expression that seems to have a hint of gloom lurking in it. She nods in her mind and believes that if there are any problems with the squad and them staying in this town, Regal will resolve them, whatever they may be.