主页 Alpha Physics! Book 1: Wagga: A LITrpg Apocalypse, changed earth progression fantasy
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ALPHA PHYSICS Book 1. Wagga Author: Alex Kozlowski Copyright Copyright © 2020 Author Name All rights reserved. Contents Copyright Contents Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapter 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Chapter 50 Chapter 51 Chapter 52 Chapter 53 Chapter 54 Chapter 55 Chapter 56 Chapter 57 Chapter 58 Chapter 59 Chapter 60 Chapter 61 Chapter 62 Chapter 63 Chapter 64 Chapter 65 Chapter 66 Chapter 67 Chapter 68 Chapter 69 Chapter 70 Chapter 71 Chapter 72 Chapter 73 Authors Note Bibliography LitRPG Guide Other Groups Chapter 1 Adrian paced out the width of the excavation. Today was a good day. Going home to the family after two weeks on site made it a good day. There was nothing better. Two hours to go, and he would be flying. The rock on the cliff face was dusty as his fingers glided across the grain. It was nothing special, just standard sandstone, the same as all the roads he had driven along. Cut as it was through the different layers of the rock that had solidified millions of years ago, multiple twists of colours were visible. The last check completed. Preparations for stage two were humming. Within a month, stage one would go live, and the solar plant would light up half the state. There would be parties and bonuses. Smiling, he flicked to the call function on the phone in order to summon a taxi. There was a sharp explosion of light, or feeling, or change, or sudden shocking energy. Everything became weird and strange. It was like exis; tence was being reformed. Air was expelled from his lungs as he felt suspended in the middle of a mosh pit with the loudest speakers thumping, the bass taking over his body. His eyes squeezed shut to minimise the attack of the strobing lights. His ears were screaming, and it felt like the ground itself was wriggling. What felt like rods of steel were spreading through him, robbing him of all movement. Yelling was no option; lungs were completely unresponsive. Not even his fingertips were taking orders. And then it got worse. Something collided with him. It felt alive: It was heavy, affecting all parts of his body. Eyes flushed with a strange light and a humming sound penetrated through everything, drowning out the noise and the flashes of light and the screaming of rocks and the moving of earth that seemed to happen all around. Green text flashed in front of his sight, hovering just in view. Adrian Fitzgerald. Don’t Panic. What the hell?! Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? A thrum of agreement and a bit of sheepishness, like the joke was a bit juvenile and maybe it had not been the best introduction. Don’t Panic is very useful advice. WHAT IS HAPPENING? Noise, lights, vibrations; all the senses were going haywire. He was feeling everything but no actions, no blinking, no toe wiggles, and definitely no moving. There was a pause, like something was thinking or pondering how best to explain to an ant what hydrogen fusion was and how it related to the magnifying glass that was being held above it. Then it was reconsidering the explanation, deciding it was all too complicated, and maybe a lecture on refraction was more appropriate. Sunlight comes in, and the shape of the crystal focuses light into one point, creating heat. The ant smolders under the magnifying glass. Reassess. Optics is also too tricky. A simpler explanation was required. The magnifying glass is responsible. Ok standard text it is. There was a pause, like it expected a response. Sure Adrian Fitzgerald. I am an interface. Somewhere on your planet an Armageddon event has occurred. What the...? An Armageddon event? What happened? The scrolling text did not slow down. We know that most sentient species, when attempting to unravel and understand the science behind the beginning of the universe, will trigger this Armageddon event. This has happened to millions of species before your own and will continue to happen. Many attempts to warn species have been tried. However, the physics of the base universe has thwarted these attempts. So, an advanced help system was created to reduce the likelihood of extinction. A sense of sadness and helplessness accompanied the dry text. However, the text kept rolling so fast that he could barely follow it. Armageddon, extinction, the words rolled around in his head. How was a project manager supposed to follow, and how did this relate to him? Within a particle accelerator somewhere on this planet, an “Alpha Particle” was just created. This Alpha Particle has divergent properties and physical rules relative to the base rules of physics your race has been aware of to this point. The alpha particle, once created, acts as a catalyst to duplicate itself and establish new rules of physics. These new properties spread at the speed of light throughout the physical planet and atmosphere. The emergence of new rules of physics almost always creates an extinction Level event. We design our help system to prevent extinction from occurring. The new rules of physics are substantially different from the physical rules that previously existed. The scrolling text stopped, and Adrian froze in shock. His mind was racing, trying to understand what was happening. New rules of physics would change everything. Technology, life, it could all change. He was being regarded with impatience. Anxiety built up in his stomach and wanted to burst. There was no way to hold it down or suppress it. Butterflies erupted and blood flowed from his limbs. A bed. To crawl into a bed and pull the covers over his head. There was a feeling just at the edge of consciousness. A man with a dodgy mustache throwing his hands up and saying, “I knew the Don’t Panic warning was important.” The words of the text just hung there as his brain shut down. More information. I need to know more. Desperately grasping for knowledge to cling to. The alpha particle has altered various material properties. 1) Conductivity of metals has changed, rendering useless most electrical devices. 2) Some exothermic reactions occur differently and will no longer produce the same level of force. This will affect firearms, combustion engines, chemical processing plants. 3) High energy waves or particles have reduced ability to impact the world. What was dangerous radioactive material will now be safe to handle. 4) The event has altered quantum physics, rendering nanotechnology useless. Conductivity modifications also contributed to this. 5) Various chemical bonds have reduced strength which disproportionately impacts advanced ceramics, significantly curtailing their effectiveness and strength. All life forms remain viable along with structures which are not dependent upon nanotechnology or advanced ceramics. Civilization was dead. Cars would no longer work, phones would stop. How could life go on? Everything was going to crumble. Too much. Too much. Skipping the important but boring bits… Wait, what important bits? A couple of paragraphs of text flushed their way past his eyes before stabilizing. What did I just miss? There was no response. Adrian Fitzgerald, I am one of those non-sentient interfaces, and my purpose is to help you navigate the alternative world that you exist in. I will help you gain skills. I will help you understand magic. I will help you survive. Sentient hosts must indicate acceptance for help to be provided. Do you accept an interface? Adrian gulped. He was struggling to get his head around this. Apparently some stupid scientist somewhere had destroyed the world, or at least changed it beyond recognition. Evidently lots of races did this, and some ancient benevolent race had created an interface to help sentient creatures survive the alpha physics conversion. Was it plausible? Adrian would have said no, but the floating text told him differently. There was no further information available to aid the decision. It required a decision. Could he trust the interface? Could he afford not to trust the interface? Do you accept an interface? The text flashed, and it added a new bit (Please note: While relative time has slowed, it has not stopped. Indecision may cause unwanted fatality.) The additional note was ominous. Was the interface rushing him to trick him, or was it telling the truth? There was no way to tell. However, the interface was asking permission, and Adrian suspected that if it had tried to merge without consent there would have been no way to stop it. Instead, there had been an explanation and a request for acceptance. His best bet was to just go with the flow and make choices based on the information on hand. Selecting. Yes. Chapter 2 New words flashed once more in front of his face. Starting full meld... There was little pain associated with the merge, but he could feel it. He could feel the interface crowding into his skull; he could feel it sinking thirstily into his skin, running down his fingertips, jerking into his bones but with no pain. It was almost soothing. Everything hummed in a satisfied fashion. There was a feeling that the interface was approving of him, a general sense of encouragement and hope. Probably his imagination, Adrian thought, after a moment of consideration. The interface had specified that it was non-sentient. The humming stopped. The crashing, bashing world with an explosion of lights returned in full force. Interface merge complete. You are in an active mana storm. You need to focus on improving aspects of yourself. The world crashed and hummed, and Adrian felt the surrounding energy: alien and strong and impossibly full of potential. Eye performance is not optimal. Physical state is underdeveloped. Joints have wear and tear. Reaction speed is slowed. A focus on getting younger will improve the chances of survival. Could the interface really make him younger? Could the clock be turned back? Would this nightmare end with him being a fit twenty-five year old? There was no harm in trying. Get younger. Imagine self-getting physically younger. There was no sign of progress, but he focused anyway. Get younger, denser muscles, extra flexibility. Lose wrinkle lines around the eyes. Improvement to additional skills is also optimal. Suddenly there was a wrenching sensation. It threw him into memories, but they were not his memories. They were memories of something else and somewhere else. The body was different, more gangly, stronger, and vicious. Tucked up against a cliff. Focusing on hiding himself. Watching the world go by. Observing everything that moved past the hiding spot. As strong as he was, he would die if noticed. Focusing on hiding. Hiding was imperative. A big black panther. It was the size of a bus. It was sneaking around, sniffing. Focus on blending into the background. The panther had previously demonstrated its keen sight; it had spotted a deer hiding in the bush, ten and twenty days ago. A deer that had somehow avoided his notice. Needing to blend into the background. Focusing also on hiding his smell. Focus on hiding his heat. Focus on suppressing his magical aura. The panther was a predator that used all those senses to find its prey hiding in the forests and grasslands. The panther was looking around. Holding dead still. Hoping that the panther would not notice. Praying that his craft was sufficient. Forcing the world to ignore this little section of cliff face. His magic was hanging out, creating a weave to hide behind. Manipulating it to be stronger. Anything in order to vanish. To be noticed was to die. Hazing the lines, camouflaging against the cliff face. If the panther got into the right position, he would attack and kill it, and then break the fast. There had been no food for days, but he held his position knowing unintended movement was death. Keeping muscles primed and ready to act while slowing the metabolism. It was the way of an ambusher. Two more steps, and then it would be at the right spot. Saliva flooded his mouth in anticipation. The cat must have sensed something because it spun away before its feet touched the mark. The opportunity passed. That did not matter, he was alive. He had hidden successfully and avoided the gaze of something stronger. There would be other chances to hunt. There was another wrenching sensation, and he found himself back in the present. The world was roaring again, and his bones were shaking. The text was still hovering, encouraging him to improve aspects of himself. Eye performance is not optimal. Physical state is underdeveloped. Joints have wear and tear. Reaction speed is slowed. A focus on getting younger will improve the chances of survival. Younger, younger, younger, Adrian thought, remembering the years that had gone by: getting slower, suffering sport injuries, his stomach and weight increasing. Get younger, fitter and stronger. Replace fat with muscle, replace slow with quick. Younger, younger. He repeated the same words endlessly while wondering whether it was working. There was a feeling that it was working, but accepting the thought would just be faith. There was no feedback to confirm progress. The text was the same, and the noise, light and vibrations had not changed. Another wrenching moment. Crouching against the cliff wall. Another memory that came from something else. The feel of skin, bones, posture was like before. It was a memory from the same creature as earlier. Watching the world staring at it, being invisible, fading into the background. Watching a massive bird circling above him. The sky was more purple than blue. Observing its deadly talons and the dense energy that flowed through every movement. Even with the element of surprise, it would be too strong to ambush. The Adrian part admired the bird’s beauty. It had flames dancing over its feathers. Is that a phoenix? Do phoenixes even exist? He focused exclusively on hiding. This bird was the ultimate predator. It saw everything. Movement, static images, magic, tracks that animals left, the Bird would see it all. There were different methods of fading. Depending on how the light hit you, you could use it to fade differently. In the dark it was easier. But even when lit by the sun, as he was, there were tricks for those clever enough to utilise them. Not too much magic. The bird in the sky could observe it after all. Keep it all natural, just fade into the background. Keep absolutely still. Movement was death. When lit by the sun, you had to force your skin to match the surrounding colours, be a chameleon and blend into the background. Don't use magic. If he did, the magic bird would see and catch him. Huddle against the cliff face. Be nothing to see. The cursed bird kept circling above for hours. Focus switched to his body. Who knew how long the bird would keep hunting in the sky above? Getting muscles to conserve energy. Also, being ready to move at a moment's notice in case the bird left an opportunity to hunt. Continually flexing energy from toes to knees to hips and then in a line all the way to the fingertips. Keeping muscles warm and ready to go. Subconsciously lowering metabolism because life never guaranteed successful hunting. Once, it had taken over a week for the gods of the hunt to deliver a successful ambush. So many creatures large and small slipped away through damnable luck and amateur mistakes. Then there was a miserable rat. Even raw, it was delicious. Adrian’s conscious mind recoiled at the memory. Sweet, bloody, like biting into a tender steak. Then the bones got stuck in his teeth. They were so crunchy. The Bird suddenly spied something. It plunged to the ground and swept upwards, holding a large lizard in its claws. It crawled in triumph as it winged east whence it came. Relaxing now, only slightly, though. The danger had passed, but there was still the hunt. Time ticking by, holding himself still. Patience was rewarded when a deer emerged from the bushes in front of him. The deer was cautious. Just like him, it had hidden from the deadly predator. But now, it thought it could emerge safely to feed. It took a couple of steps. Its ear’s twitched. It lowered its head to take a bite of grass before quickly flicking its head up to watch for predators. Another step. This time, when it put its head down, its body blocked its vision of the spot where he hid. Instantly power flowed through his legs, and he leapt with explosive silent force towards the deer. Over ten meters separated them, but that was not far enough to save the deer. Its head came up just as his claws descended. Panic flashed in its eyes, but it was too late. With a massive blow from each arm, he tore through the neck. He was not going hungry today. Another wrenching moment. Adrian struggled to work out what had happened. The memories were very specific, and they felt purposeful. What was the purpose? A mental shrug. Maybe they were random memories from a previous user of the interface. Maybe all that was happening were reflections of the past, memories of another world where everything was more powerful than he was. Maybe it was a warning of what earth was going to be like with new monsters everywhere, a subtle reminder to get stronger and more powerful. Get younger. Push the disturbing flashbacks to the back of his mind. Get younger, get stronger. Survive and win. Discipline. Focusing on getting younger. Senses were all still screaming in protest. Sight was strobing lights ranging from painful white to sickening green, yellow, and then a random pale pink. Hearing was an assault from a Boeing 747 on the left and an annoying gym coach armed with an air horn on the right. Touch was crushing pressure combined with worms under the skin. Taste and smell, not so much from them. Still no way to measure progress. Was this going anywhere? A huge mental effort seized back control. Get younger. Younger still. Was this working? There was a dim sense of approval. His surroundings shuddered. Pressure gripped both shoulders and pulled in opposite directions. Skin, bone, and muscles held, but all it would take was one little failure point for him to be a bloody mess. Fear started rising. The pressure was not relenting: It was intensifying. The prompt flashed again. Mana storm is still active. Focus on getting younger. The prompt surprisingly calmed Adrian and helped manage the fear. The only valid path was to do exactly what it suggested and try to get younger. If he died because of what was happening around him, then trying to get younger now will hardly make it worse. After all, dead was dead. I will survive this. Best play was to let the interface guide him. Get younger. Was he really going to end up as a 20-year-old? Did that mean that immortality was a thing now? Excitement flooded through and concentrated the mind. Let the age drop away. The joy of running around like an idiot kicking soccer balls, the freedom of youth. There was another wrenching sensation. Hiding next to a tree this time. Things were searching, looking everywhere, and he was their target. It was hard to hide when something was actively seeking. Ambusher’s Fade only did so much. The tree was young, still tall, but insubstantial. Age thickened their trunks. The diffuse moss light exposed his silhouette from multiple angles. It was a dangerous position. In a moment of desperation, he abandoned stillness to pull himself up into the tree. His Audiogos were humming! The reflexive stress response was like a beacon and robbed him of hearing at the same time. The organs quietened as his hands clutched them. Professors had hypothesized Audiogos humming under stress was a genetic adaptation that enabled their distant ancestors to survive when hunted by the deadly Voquana Bats. The humming would simultaneously protect against acoustic shock and disrupt the sonar vision of the Voquana Bats. Before alpha physics had crashed through Ambusher society, the Audiogos had been no more useful than a crude social cue for thousands of years. Now they were the worst. Now it was a flashing red flag in front of the Alpha monsters. How many people had died because of their stress letting their Audiogos hum and give away their position? Betrayed by something that once had been a benefit. The humming quietened. They had not seen him. There were no loud Coo Ko, Coo Ko calls, which meant it had not revealed him. As tenuous as the position in the tree was, it seemed to work. One creature searching for him passed directly underneath, completely unaware that what they searched for watched from just meters above its head. It was bright orange and small. One on one, he knew that he could destroy this creature, but the creature had friends. Attacking it would make noise, and then he would be discovered. Instead of attacking, Ambusher’s Fade got a workout. Keep still, hunched over in the tree and focusing on physically fading away. His psychic magic also worked overtime, encouraging the things to stay away. To be seen was to die. The orange thing and others of its kind passed on beneath him. They were methodically searching and were taking over the area. He would have to move soon and escape, but it was a matter of hiding for now. They could think for themselves and would know if one went missing. His fading skills were highly effective against near mindless beasts like the noble bird of fire, but that benefit plummeted against thinking creatures. There was another wrenching sensation, and he was back in his body again Adrian panted in fear from the intense feeling of being hunted. However, logic took hold, and he put it out of his mind and focused once more on getting younger. Optimal physical self achieved. Mana storm is still active. Focus on alternative improvement paths. Calculating optimal path to pursue….. Adrian wondered what alternative improvement path would be best. Maybe strength leaving muscles bulging like a weightlifter or agility to skip along tree branches or magic or hiding skills like in the flashbacks. Suggest a focus on understanding magic. Confirmation. There was magic now. Of course there was magic now. Adrian remembered the firebird. It had been the apex predator, but beautiful, like he used to find tigers, which after seeing the firebird, tigers were now a weak kitty. Focus on understanding magic. It felt like a superb choice. If he could understand magic better, then maybe he could become a powerful wizard, just like he liked to be in computer games. There was still a part of him that wanted to develop his brawn. Maybe strength was more important than magic. Was he going to trust the interface or not? The fact was that the interface knew what was happening, and he did not. Take the recommendations of experts seriously. Okay, he thought to himself. How to understand magic better? What is magic? What is my point of reference? There was another wrenching sensation. Chapter 3 Once more on a cliff. This time he stood in a shallow depression outside the home he had acquired from a pack of wolverines. The entrance was now heavily camouflaged: There was no way he would make the same mistake as the wolverines. He was proud of his cave. A narrow passage eventually widened into living quarters. Home. Sleep here and hunt elsewhere. No blood or gore allowed nearby to risk a predator's attention. Touch the stomach. Being satiated was a good feeling. There was no need to hunt. Instead, it was time to observe and learn. Focus carefully on the surrounding life. He zoomed his vision in on a simple fluttering bug. A Qacost. When both he and his siblings had graduated from juvenile to adult, the nine of them had gone to Heartwood Eatery. Six part-time jobs had let them afford a single plate of the restaurant's special between them. Sauteed Qacost, a delicacy. The memory of when the spicy flavour hit his throat for the first time. Jeniexc over the top with excitement. The memory of the past made him immeasurably sad. So much was lost in the upheaval's chaos. All of his clan was gone and all their achievements destroyed in the unleashed apocalypse. The qacost survived and prospered. They never used to have magic. Previously, they were rare, basic, and harmless. Now, they were no longer simple: They hummed with energy. Clinically, he examined how the energy played across the wings and how it gathered together in a point just near the bug’s antenna—and then with a flash—the bug moved ten meters in an instant. Attention switched to a different bug. As from previous observations, the bugs could only use their powers occasionally and never within a couple of minutes. Another of the insects had a bird chasing it. As always, there was a buildup of energy. This time, he noticed another buildup of energy ten meters in front of the insect. There was a link between the two energies: the one on the antenna and the other in front. Just as the bird was about to catch the bug, there was a familiar flash. The insect disappeared and popped into place at that new point. That was how they did it. That was how the magic worked to build up energy. Then you brought the energies together before the entire body moved. That was a specific memory; it was almost perfect to understand magic. The interface was guiding him with these memories and its prompts. He was not sure if that was normal or whether the interface was helping more than it should. There was a feeling of approval, a human patting their small puppy when it peed outside for the first time. There was also a feeling that the interface thought it was being both immensely clever and a little naughty. The text had claimed non-sentience, but if that had not been stated so explicitly, Adrian would have thought otherwise. The interface was sentient, you could bet the house on it. The human suddenly started yelling in anger at the puppy which had peed on the special rug in the front room. Non-Sentient The puppy was getting patted for being a good little puppy, having done a wee outside. Fuck you. The byplay vanished with no more images emerging. Apparently, swearing was where the line was drawn. Focus on understanding the magic. Whether it was sentient or non-sentient did not matter. Whether it was on his side definitely mattered. And if it wanted him dead, there was nothing he could do. A trick he had learnt in childhood. The distinct memory of hiding in the covers with a storm raging outside. The fragment of nightmares of the book he had read earlier in the evening playing through him. There was a gigantic wolf outside his room in the dark, prowling and sniffing and staring at his window. Its jaws were larger than his head, and at any moment it would get bored and leap through the window. After that, his parents could not save him. A big gust of wind. Was that it? Was that a snort? A growl? Pillow over the head, but what would that do against teeth that were longer than his finger? If it is going to kill me, then I’m already dead. So why worry? Put the pillow under his head instead of over. There might be a wolf. If there was, then he was dead. There was no point in being scared and worrying. It was one of the pearls of wisdom from his childhood. The same logic applied to the interface. If it wanted to harm him, it would. So, he might as well assume the best and move on. For now, that meant focusing on understanding magic flows and then hopefully duplicating them while becoming a mighty wizard. Understand magic. He repeated it over and over. Understand magic flows, understand magic flows. There was another wrenching sensation. Once more he was standing outside his home watching qacost bugs playing in their meadow. Every now and again, one of them would charge up and zip to a new location. The movement of the magic was clearer now. Every time the bugs performed their magical miracle, the knowledge crystallised. Pretty soon he could duplicate it. Watching, absolutely enthralled. Trying to capture the moment one of the closer bugs was going to use its magic. The magic spread in a diffuse cloud over the entire bug’s body. Then there was an additional focus area where a slightly different flavour of magic concentrated onto the antennae. Finally, there was a third dense point of magic, of the same type as that in the antennae, ten meters in front of the bug. The diffuse magic throughout the body activated and pooled towards the antennae. When it reached the antennae, it merged, and both the diffuse magic and the concentrated antenna magic instantly transposed to the other dense point of magic. Then the diffuse magic flowed away and the bug’s body reappeared in the new position. Time to test the magic? Lick of the lips. It felt like a lucky day. Definitely time to test. Practice generating the diffuse magic flow and then release it. Separately create a concentrated point on his nose, then a concentrated point another meter in front of him. Ten meters was too far. Every now and again, watch a bug in action. Align what the bugs were doing to his experiments. Duplicate exactly what the bugs were doing, watch the bugs as they played, learn their patterns and calibrate his own. A mistake. It was a simple missed texture change. Practise again from the start. His forms mimicked the bugs’ subconscious control as they charged up and instantly teleported from spot to spot. Finally, he was ready With a rush of excitement, he brought the magic together, letting the diffuse energy flow out through his body from his Audiogos to his claws to his taloned feet, concentrating the slightly different energy on his nose and another point just twenty centimetres in front of him. Then he clicked it all together. Perspective changed. He had done it!!! The insect teleport was his. His entire body screamed in excitement. Do it again. Do it again. Prudence won out, eyes flicking around to make sure that there were no monsters nearby, that it was safe. Satisfied, he retreated to his cave silently, promising himself to only experiment in its safe confines in the future. His reality wrenched. Mana storm is still active The prompt hung there, providing structure upon the random strobing lights. Adrian nodded. Focus on understanding how magic works. Focus just like the ambusher whose memories were being shared. Watch others use magic, learn the exact details, and then duplicate their magic. Repeat the same phrase endlessly in his head with intent. Focus on learning magic, remembering the zooming in to see the details of the magic being utilised around him. Focus on understanding magic and being able to zoom in to see more. His reality wrenched once more. Back outside his home with the entrance at his back. It was a different time of the year, the dark period. There were no bugs dancing in the idyllic meadow. Instead, the previously vibrant plantlife had rotted away, and what it left looked diseased. It had always been like this during the dark months. This cycle at least was natural, unlike everything else that had happened since the event. Winter toads played in muddy water ponds. They were not playful like the insects, instead they moved ponderously. A small cat, though small was relative as this beast was larger than a horse, stalked among a group of toads. They used their magic, and he focused on zooming in. The toads gathered their magic like they moved. It was vastly different to the delicate, ethereal nature of the bugs. Solid lines spread through defined channels. Everything was concentrated and controlled. Drawn up from the earth, the magic spread from the toes up to the legs, focusing up and into the mouth. A toad flicked its tongue and a wad of earth energy launched itself at the cat. The cat did not react in time to the magic, and so the power struck a hind leg. Immediately, the magic flowed over the cat and then down to each of the four feet. It interacted with the ground, multiplying and creating a bubbling energy field. The cat roared in clear, surprised distress and splashed down into the earth like it had stepped on water. It plunged into the earthy liquid till submerged to its chest, and then the earth became solid, holding the trapped cat in place. The cat was struggling, but the earth was unyielding. It tossed its head violently, but it was clear there would be no escape. The other toads summoned similar but different energy. Like before, it came up from the feet and into their mouths, but this energy soaked through different channels on the way to the mouth. Their mouths gaped, and their tongues flicked out, sending a hard pulse of energy at the cat. When the energy hit, it ripped out a small chunk of flesh and returned the mouthful to the toads. They gobbled it with big meaty thumps. The toads kept flicking their tongue and snacking on the returned flesh and blood. Round after round, each expenditure of the energy scouring into the cat till even the pained cries of the cat went limp. Blood stopped pumping, and the cat died, having been literally eaten alive. The toads kept flicking their tongues, spending their magic till most of the visible proportions of the cat vanished. Then, appetiser over, the toads hopped over and started eating their main course. He was back in the present once more. The memories were illuminating: They perfectly matched his desire to understand magic. Maybe this was one thing interfaces allowed. Maybe they let people borrow memories from the past to help in the present. Understand magic, zoom in on magic. See and then differentiate between the different flavours of magic. See the flows and gain the skills to learn how to duplicate them. Mana storm shows signs of abating. Adrian's reality wrenched once more. This was not home. The smell was wrong. The horizons were different. The branches of the tree he perched in prevented the extraction of more information about where. Then again, the Where hardly mattered. There was no hunger. There was no need to hunt. Curiously, he watched the creatures going past. This time, he was not focusing on magic. Instead, the focus was on the creatures themselves. Sensing their strengths and weaknesses, he tried to understand what would happen in a fight. He was all alone, safe in his invisibility, trying to see where and how to damage everything that passed by the tree. It was on a beast path that linked the only water around with the fertile hill slopes. Almost everything needed to drink. As they slunk, ran, hopped, or glided, he was assessing their strengths and weaknesses and what tricks their magic allowed them to utilise. Most yielded a wealth of fascinating information. The bear had thick skin, and its fur was like armour. Even with his claws, he could not pierce that armour. Maybe attacking the eye would work, but, realistically, fleeing was the best option. The cat, which looked more powerful, would not be such a challenge. While it was faster and could do more damage than the bear, it was vulnerable. With his battle movement skills, he could exploit that weakness. A quick surprise attack would sever the backbone and would win the battle. Adrian was once more back outside the memory. The world was not crashing as much as it was. There was no longer any risk of being torn apart, and the previously strobing light storm had abated. The text promptly flashed once more. Mana storm is abating. From the mana surge, you have gained the following abilities. Ambusher’s Fade Ambusher’s Fade enables the user to disappear, providing they stand still. It is very strong against non-sentient life forms through far weaker versus sentient life forms. The ability uses physical camouflage, magical camouflage, and psychic abilities in order to draw the eye away from the subject. Ambusher’s Stasis Ambusher’s Stasis enables the user to hold still for an extended period, having none of the usual drawbacks associated with a lack of movement. While holding stasis, the user needs half the food of normal and no sleep. Stasis greatly reduces damage from environmental effects such as cold and heat. Identification (Rank 3) Standard skill to understand the strengths and weaknesses of enemies. Rank 3 provides an understanding of latent magic abilities in addition to the standard relative strength and movement metrics. Magic Focus Magic Focus enables the user to slow time when looking at a magic weave and identify its underlying components. Adrian was unsure of how to think about these new skills. Did everyone get starting skills? If not, then it was an amazing set of skills. However, if the answer was yes, then the lack of choice was frustrating. God, his family! They were in Melbourne, and he was in Wagga Wagga. What was happening to them? He wanted to be the one out there protecting. In gaming speak, he wanted to be their tank or, better still, a holy paladin able to heal and tank. He’d be the one who would stand in front of enemies and stop the rest of his team from getting hurt, yet the skills it had given him were for skulking in the background. While they felt powerful, he was not sure they were things that he wanted to use. He would have preferred being able to pick the skills himself. It was like being in an RPG / MMORPG game that, instead of letting him choose his class, forced him to be a magic thief while everyone else got whatever they wanted. We have assessed your biological age at 22 years. That was good. Maybe the whole getting younger thing had worked, though he would wait till he had access to a mirror to confirm. Calculating personal statistics and expected planetary norms immediately following alpha particle physics conversion. Calculating… Inherent Healing - Capacity to heal wounds using energy reserves… 1.2 Vitality - Measurement of physical prowess, damage absorption, criticality of enemy attacks, strength, speed, poison resist...1.1 Physical Resistance - The resistance provided by hardness of skin and bones… 0.5 Magical Resistance - Damage mitigation your aura provides on magical attacks… 0.0 Strength - Amount of force muscles can apply to attack, defence, jumping, speed… 0.8 Agility - Balance, fine motor control, dodge, stealth, speed, accuracy of weapon attacks… 0.82 Perception - Observation strength, reaction speed, spotting hidden details, weakness and strength analysis, improved crafting… 0.94 Intelligence - General cognitive capacity and ability to absorb extra information… 1.3 Mana Control - Capacity to learn and control magic… 1.5 Mana Pool - The amount of magic power you have available to cast spells… 1.3 The descriptions were interesting to Adrian. So, he had a natural healing called inherent healing and then a lot of broad categories that, apart from mana pool, affected lots of distinct elements. From reading the descriptions, how much damage he would do when hitting someone with a club would depend on Vitality, Strength, Agility and potentially even Perception. It was a lot to take in. Summarising in Comparison to world norms Inherent Healing --- 1.2 ---Population - 1 Vitality --- now 1.1 --- Changed by 0.15 ---Population - 0.98 Physical Resistance --- 0.5 ---Population - 0.5 Magical Resistance --- 0 ---Population - 0.05 Strength --- now 0.8 --- Changed by 0.08 ---Population - 0.85 Agility --- now 0.82 --- Changed by 0.07 ---Population - 1 Perception --- now 0.94 --- Changed by 0.02 ---Population - 1 Intelligence --- now 1.32 --- Changed by 0.07 ---Population - 1 Mana Control --- now 1.5 --- Changed by 0.4 ---Population - 1 Mana Pool --- now 1.3 --- Changed by 0.2 ---Population - 0.8 The summarised statistics were very interesting. The first thing he noticed was that he was way above the normal, mainly because in magic categories he was significantly stronger than average. The base statistics sort of matched him pretty well. He was a large guy, hence the good vitality, but his strength had always been lower than his size would suggest. Everyone had always benched-pressed more than him. The low Agility score also made sense. At school, they rarely picked him early in sport. “Awkward Adrian” were the continual jeers whenever he failed to catch the ball. Intelligence… well, when he was not being modest, he always knew he was smarter than most other people. Quickly Adrian’s attention turned to the statistics from mana surge. Did everyone benefit from a mana surge? Logically, they must not have. If they had gotten a similar boost, then population statistics would be higher. At least some of his attribute increase must have been driven by getting younger. The physical stats, at least. The magic stat boost must have resulted from those memories. An image of an awkward teen with bottle glasses giving a massive thumbs up. That took Adrian back for a moment, causing him to lose his train of thought. Where had that come from? An image of a stick figure surrounded by sparkling lights. A brilliant three-dimensional diamond coming through the sparkles to join with the stick figure. The interface could communicate with him through images. An image of an awkward teen with bottle glasses giving a massive thumbs up. This time it was a girl with pigtails. Focusing on statistics. All the small increases in all of his base metrics were driven by getting younger. While the increases in mana control and mana pool were probably part of the magic focus training. In terms of magic, he was over fifty percent higher than average in all categories. That was outstanding. Mana Storm is finishing. Adrian felt alarmed and panicked at the message. Expect an overwhelming number of hostile enemies. Engaging Ambusher’s Fade and Ambusher’s Stasis The world stopped ringing and flashing, and Adrian felt his muscles lock. He felt the desperate focus on hiding, blending into the background, hiding magic glow, and the press of his thoughts going outwards, pushing for everything around him not to notice. Opening his eyes, the world had changed. Chapter 4 The entire landscape had changed, destroying the almost complete solar energy plant. Two years of work wrecked. Miles of panels ruined. Adrian’s lack of emotion around the destruction of the solar farm was puzzling. Do I care? He did not. Its destruction did not matter. Survival and family. Emily and the kids. The ground was ripped up as if a giant had been snatching handfuls of dirt and throwing it randomly to create little hills and pits all over the previously smooth levelled area. The cliff beside him was similar but different. It was like there had been a thousand years of weathering applied along with biological growth. Thick moss and fungus had sprung up. The beautiful solar plant, to which he dedicated the last two years of his life, and its soothingly regular rows of solar arrays were trashed. Most of the nice neat panels had been bent and twisted and often forcefully detached from the ground. Out of the hundreds of rows, there were only two that were partially intact. There was even a section of smooth grass that just moments before had been covered with orderly rows of electronic panels. Where the panels had disappeared to was a complete mystery. Those were first impressions, but then everything about his surroundings rushed from his mind. There were monsters! Imps! Next to the cliff, with ambusher skills forcing invisibility, there was an unobstructed view of hundreds of imps. They were real life monsters: small, barely a meter high with tiny wings on their backs and thin gangly arms and legs on a shrunken torso. Their skin looked like tough, wet leather. Watching them, they were moving mindlessly. Stumbling and disjointed, it was a random walk forward for 5 to 20 meters then an abrupt change of direction, sometimes just 10 or 20 degrees, other times almost a full 180. Endlessly repeating. It was eerie behaviour, their intelligence had to be below animal level maybe they were at the level of some insects. Whenever they would run into a different coloured imp, they would attack mercilessly. An imp was hopping right at him, each hop bringing it closer. It was suddenly so close that, with a small stick, he could have reached forward and poked it. With a successful suppression of the desire to jump, the new skills proved their worth. With their help, the instinctual response to scream and flee had been mastered. Up close, the imp skin was in accordance with first impressions. It was wet, wet leather. The eyes were yellow, contrasting with the reddish skin. The imp’s arm ended in two sharp claws, each about three inches long. They were how he imagined bear's claws would look, dark and impossible to see through. The imp’s claws were longer than a bear’s, which was ridiculous as the imps were so much smaller. The claws in front of his eyes twitched, and a fireball floated between them like movement in a lava lamp. Slow and tranquil, but chaotic. The fire itself crackled, and the ball went from a smooth sphere to leaking spikes of plasma. Slowly it drifted to one hand and then to another. A slow juggling. Despite the situation, Adrian’s magic focus zoomed into the magic the imp was using. There was so much detail available, much more than the ambusher had ever achieved. Then again, the ambusher had never been this close to any of the creatures it was observing. The imp used two types of mana: a red mana that meshed together with a silvery mana to create the flames. Time slowed; the interplay of colours was intense. When the imp tossed the fireball from one hand to the other, the silvery mana led the red mana fractionally. There was a lot of energy in the ball: Adrian could hear the sizzling of flames and feel the heat. The imp’s eyes flicked straight towards him, and it took another small hop in his direction. Try not to be noticed. Thinking hard about blending into the rock. Thinking about sending prying eyes away from him and staying stock-still. Motion attracts the eye. The interface was facilitating the Ambusher Fade ability, taking his intense thoughts and applying calculation power to achieve the required results: psychic ward, physical camouflage, suppressing heat and smell, billions of calculations and actions carried out on his behalf. Stay frozen. Do nothing that might draw the eye. The imp was within arm’s reach. Beady yellow eyes looked right at his crotch. Theoretically, he could leap out and attack and catch the imp by surprise. He imagined getting his hands around the neck and squeezing. Then, the crackle of fire reminded him of the fireball in the imp’s hand. There was a smell of soot and sulfur. If he possessed the ambusher’s claws, he would have attacked. It would have been so easy. Quick sidestep and slash. A one hit kill while avoiding the fireball. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. His soft human hands meant cowardice was the better part of valour. It was not the official saying, but it was appropriate. He was just a human being with below average strength. Staying still, frozen by abilities. Very still, silent, not even blinking. Then the imp spun around almost a full 180 degrees and started hopping the other way. Adrian almost expelled his breath in relief, but the ambusher skill enforced his silence. Monsters? It was all mentioned in the important boring bits. What? Absolute indignation filled him. How could the interface choose to skip such important information? Can I read them now? There was no response. I need to know what is happening! CAN I READ THE IMPORTANT BITS? There was nothing for a moment. Please. A sense of slight guilt came to him, and then he got the distinct impression that there was an imp problem that probably should be dealt with before lazing around reading. Trying to growl, the ambusher skill stopped him. The instructions from mind to throat failed. Probe the skill for a moment to understand the strengths and limitations. When Ambusher Fade was on, it was on absolutely. For now, at least. The imp was hopping away. An opportunity to learn more. Information was power… ambusher claws were… a virtual headshake. Need to focus on now. The imp was weaker than him, physically. It was difficult to interpret the information, but Adrian felt he was at least twice as strong. In a fight, with a firm grip, he could tear the little thing apart. Wringing the neck would take just seconds. An extended grapple would be a win despite the imps’ long claws and teeth. Wrestling, of course, was a bad idea. It would fight back and use its claws, and Adrian knew those claws and teeth would cut deeply into his flesh. However, once the distance was closed, hands on the imp would allow his overpowering relative strength to carry the fight. Grab the neck and twist, and it would be game over. The problem was, it was not just a physical fight. The fireball tossed back and forth in the imp’s hands. The fireball would do damage. Looking at it closely, it would hurt him, probably not enough to kill outright, but a direct hit would get awfully close even with inherent healing. The imp also had another ability that would allow it to pump flames to its skin. That might make hand to hand fighting more than a little uncomfortable. Treacherous imagination was happy to supply images of blackened scorched hands. He needed a weapon to allow him to avoid the fire aura. If it used it. They are stupid. He had to keep reminding himself of that: stupid, mindless animals. Adrian tried to rise above the fear that was gripping him, the fear of the pain, the fear of death. Concentrate. Survive. Get stronger and get home, even if it was a thousand kilometre hike. He would endeavour to think rationally. Organise everything into a logical framework. Applying logic always helped him to function through stressful situations. End of the world, Armageddon, counted as a stressful situation. So apply a logical framework. The interface had called it alpha physics. Physics was logical, right? The Ambusher's Fade was working. That meant that there was time to think things through. Space to plan and try to work out what to do. The imp was ambling away. Every meter of distance increased his safety. The ability to fade into the background would keep him safe. That imp had been right in his face, so close that its personal scent had saturated his nose. He noted the small blood vessel lines against the yellow colour in its eyes and the lack of intelligent spark. The flare of its nostril slits had been near enough to pat, yet fade had worked. It had more than worked: it had been almost like an invisibility cloak. Absolutely awesome. Identification skill rank three was functioning as well. Being able to assess the imps’ strength and the magic it could use was a literal lifesaver. He needed more tests before trusting absolutely, but the assumption would be that everything worked as advertised, for now. Trust but verify. Identification plus fade would let him plan when to attack and when to retreat. Continually analysing imps. Their neck was a weak point and vulnerable to blunt force trauma. The ugly things had delicate bones. With the immediate danger having passed, Adrian looked around more carefully. There were lots and lots of imps. Looking across the solar site, there was an unobstructed view of around six football fields before buildings, hill ridges, or trees limited vision. In that relatively small area, there were over one hundred imps. The imps were everywhere. Some were like the fire imp that had been next to him; others appeared to be ice imps. And, right over near the oven were some air imps. The oven, which had been a key part of his power plant, looked broken. It was a building where the sunlight would be focused in order to heat steam. Now, the glass panels were shattered, and the heavy concrete walls were chipped and cracked down towards rubble. Even if it was intact, it was useless anyway. Electricity no longer worked. Further up the slope near the treeline, there appeared to be imps with dark magic flavour. Without fail, every imp was tossing around a ball of energy as they meandered around in their weird jerky way. A pair of dark imps ran into a single fire imp. The moment they got within ten meters of each other, they all reacted. The fire imp squealed and rushed towards the leftmost dark imp. Its fireball split in two, with half on each clawed hand, and they intensified towards their normal strength. A detached part of Adrian watched the magic play out. The silvery magic mostly disappeared while the red magic expanded and was concentrated in the two new spots. Adrian switched focus to the wider fight rather than just the fireballs. The dark imps had split up instinctively. The one on the left, which the fire imp was targeting, hopped away from its companion. The fire imp stayed focused on the original dark imp, ignoring the second dark imp. A fireball launched from its hands. The dark imp, using its own missile to stop the fireball, counteracted it. The two forces crashed together and cancelled out. They were too far away for sound, but, based on recent closer fights, the clash would not have been quiet. Imps did not appreciate the quiet sounds of nature. The second dark imp stopped moving and, safe from attack, focused on the dark ball in its claws. There was a slight intensifying of dark energy. A diffuse tendril of energy no thicker than a hand length drew a smooth arc from the ball in the imp’s hands to the enemy imp’s leg. The instant it made the connection, the ball of energy turned into a missile. It shot along the painted line and struck the imp’s leg. The fire imp, busily focused on its target, did not see the second attack. The result was devastating. The entire side of the imp from knee to waist seemed to shrivel. The fire that had been in its claws splashed away with the red mana, dragging the fireball down to coat the ground at the imp’s feet. The energy contained dissipated: Some became heat, but most of it just faded into the ground. The imp, meanwhile, screamed in agony. It tried to hop forward, anyway. Its leg buckled, and it fell. Its short arms could not break the fall, and its head smacked into the loose dirt in front of it. If it had landed on a rock, the fight would have ended then, but it was a moot point. The dark imp that had initially been running stopped moving. It drew a line of energy between it and the downed fire imp. The second dark missile targeted the fire imp’s head. The missile shot away, hitting exactly where the dark imp had aimed. The dark imp did not even bother to wait for the flight time. The moment it fired, the imp started a jiggling dance. Adrian had seen the performance before and labelled it the victory jig. All the different colours did it after winning a fight. As before, the dark energy was concentrated and then sped along the created pathway. The fire imp died instantly. Life just left it, and its entire body became a husk. The skin on its skull desiccated, and then the effect washed across the entire body. Nothing left but a husk. The two dark imps rushed the body and scooped something out of the chest cavity. Even from seventy meters away, what they had grabbed glowed with energy. With normal vision, he could barely see the small stone the imp held, but with magic focus the thing sparkled. Adrian's attention snapped back to his immediate area by an explosion of force. Chapter 5 An ice imp and fire imp were fighting in front of him. They were not charging each other. Instead, they were throwing magic balls of energy. Each attack collided at the midpoint point between them and negated each other in an explosion of noise. He had missed all but the noise of the first volley. The second was in his face, just twenty meters away. See, hear, and feel. The explosion of energy made the wind stir against his face, a noise like throwing water into an oil pot and a wave of heat followed by cold. Just three seconds later, the third set of magic attacks launched. This collision seemed smaller. The sound was as intense, the light-show just as impressive, but there was no buffeting wind. Less power. He looked closely at the two imps, and there was a thinness to the magic in their bodies. The imps were out of magic. They had no magic left. The two imps looked stupidly at each other for a moment, and then they both charged. It was a slow, comical charge. The imps, even while rushing, only reached a fast walking pace. They hopped till they were right in each other's face and then stopped at a distance where either could have leant forward to kiss the other one. There was no kissing involved. Instead, they both snarled, revealing small thin teeth. The mirrored actions made the encounter feel ritualistic. Then their stubby arms and claws flashed at each other. The claws were doing minor damage with each swing, but they fought ferociously. Black ink-like blood oozed out of the scratches that formed from each slash. While the progress in the fight was slow, Adrian could see the damage building up. The ice imp had the advantage. It would be a Pyrrhic victory because when it won it would be near death itself. With a start Adrian looked around more carefully. There were no other monsters near him. The fire imp visibly died with its body shriveling up slightly as life left it. An image from the interface. It was a wimpy cartoon stick figure leaping forward and using a rock to bash the head in of a cartoon imp, a cartoon imp that was far cuter than the one in front of him. The imp died and the stick figure grew muscles. Next it fought a giant snake and afterwards the cartoon man could cast magic. A kaleidoscope of similar images followed, ending in a knight in shining armour who had lasers coming from its eyes. There was a pause, and then he got the impression of a lengthy legal disclaimer. Images not created to scale. Lasers coming from the eyes was creative license and probably not workable in the actual world. The images had only taken fractions of a second. The ice imp looked dazed, standing over its defeated opponents. Thick black blood was leaking from the dozens of slashes criss-crossing its arms and chest. It was clear what the interface was telling him. Fighting equaled power growth. Maybe this was some of the important but boring bits the interface had skipped. The interface was telling him that, in some ways, life was like a game. Killing monsters would cause increased power, maybe levels, maybe something else, but it would definitely result in power. He needed power if he was ever going to get to Melbourne to save his kids. Approval washed over him. The fire imp’s body completed its collapse to the ground. The ice imp was weak and devoid of magic, and no other imps were near it. At some point, he would need to gain the courage to fight against the monsters. Time to man up. You have to start fighting sometime. Heart beating a million miles per minute. Pep talks, even internalised, where just that. Cold logic. There must be millions of humans being forced to make this same choice. Yet it was not an actual choice. Cowardice in the new world was not viable. The hundreds of imps in front of him reminded him of that. It was survival of the fittest. Life had always been survival of the fittest, at least outside of civilised cities and social welfare. Now, the world was back to a more primal state. Survival meant striking back at the invaders. These imps did not belong to Earth. Killing the imps was not murder. It was not animal cruelty. It was humans against the aliens. Killing the invaders was the righteous choice and, logically, the only choice. Hear still thumping. Peaceful upbringing made him shy away from blatant violence. The imp looked like it was about to get the shiny thing from the downed foe. Not today, you alien monster. Yet… I am not a killer. How can I…? The imp started its obnoxious victory jig. The thump of every heartbeat. He couldn’t… The imp dancing, alien, ugly, horrible. It was out of ice magic and hurt. He charged. There was a desire to scream while charging Braveheart-style, but he worried about attracting unwanted attention. So, instead of shouting, he resorted to his fiercest scowl. The imp turned, alerted by the noise of each step. It was near dead, though inherent healing was at work. And, without intervention, it would survive and be at full health within an hour. It still tried to gather some of its magic. It was slow going for the imp, and Adrian could see with his magic focus that it was going to fail. Adrian clenched his fist and threw a wild swing, aiming to hit the side of its cheek as hard as possible. The imp was already close to death, but even if the imp had been healthy, the punch might have been enough. Adrian felt the bones of the cheek crumble under his strike and the head snap back with a loud crack as the imp's neck broke. With his magic focus, it was easy to see life flee its body. It died far easier than he expected. First blood Humans! Chapter 6 Adrian wanted to get back to the safety of the cliff face. Indecision warred within him as all of his real life instincts said hide. But his gaming ones said loot. Not a game...but there are imps. It is actual life...but I have a statistics page. They can kill you... but I have an interface. Looking around. There was a sizable safe zone. He could take his time. Kneeling next to the imps, his knees sunk into soft dirt. It was like it had been recently ploughed. Shake the head. Examine the bodies. Now that they were dead, they were pathetic, all skin and bones. From observation, the dark imps had grabbed something magical from the chest area. With magic focus, it was easy to locate the glowing point under the skin. I need something to cut the skin. Looking around, trying to work out what to do. Would his superior strength let him just tear open the chest? If he tapped the chest, would the loot just appear like in a game? Tapping the chest experimentally. An impression of hysterical laughter while a pig flew from one side of a yard to the other. Flapping wings that were mysteriously similar to the imps wings. No loot system then. The bloody interface could have just said it. Shear strength would have to do. Placing his hands on the chest of the imp, the skin was wet and felt tough. Just need to dig in a little. The skin around the chest was smooth and taunt. Pulling it apart was going to be challenging. Another impression of laughter. The image of a knife. Did he have a pocketknife? He patted himself down, then stopped. Eyes flicking up to ensure that there were no imps approaching. There was nothing near him yet. No knife. Why did I even look? I have never carried a pocketknife. The impression changed. The knife changed, curving like a scimitar. The image hung there, puzzling him for a moment. So, so stupid. You are supposed to be smart. Uni degree and a white-collar job. And still so dumb. The imp's claws. Quickly, he grabbed the nearest arm. It was like holding a bamboo stick wrapped in a thin layer of foam, a chicken wing without feathers that would shatter with a hard squeeze. There were already several cuts from the fight in the tougher skin around the shoulder, so it was a simple matter to tear off the entire arm. There was little blood, just some black oozing substance that, with a squint, looked like oil. The arm dangled in his hands. Its robust strong claws linked to delicate skeletal structure that was no longer than a foot. A quick rotation and an adjusted grip later, the base of the claw was in the palm of his hand with the useless arm component sticking out the back but not interfering. Time to work. Ignoring the gory nature of the tool's origins, he admired the new device. He cut along the chest just off center. The claw cut smoothly. It even went through two rib bones: Each time there was a slight resistance before the bone gave way. Oil welled up. Making another cut at right angles and then using the claw, it was a simple matter to peel back the flap of skin. The skin was thick, but right under where he cut was the shiny object that the imps coveted. Bones did not even protect it. The cut through the rib cage had been unnecessary. After collecting the object from the second imp, he examined them. They were no bigger than a one dollar coin. The fire imps had a dull red colour and the ice imp’s a slightly blue tinge. What were they? Some inherent power of the imps. Remembering the cultivation books that he used to read in his spare time. Are these magic power cores? A mental shrug in response. It’s complicated. A pause associated with an annoying professor about to launch into an incomprehensible, boring tangent. Alpha physics enables the creation of computational biological engines, lots of complicated equations flashed by. What the hell do four concentric circles with writing between each layer mean? Droning voice. Parallels to interfaces, computing power, but not really. A pause in the lecture. Yep, describing them as cores is good enough. Adrian quickly moved back to the cliff face before resuming his skill assisted stillness. He was pumped. It was exhilarating: a one punch victory. So what did he know? Hiding from the imps was easy, they would never notice him. Attacks of opportunity were a thing. Wait for the imps to fight, and then finish the survivors after they had exhausted their magic. Unfortunately, it was not enough information. There was so much about the world that was a mystery. He needed to know more. Interface. Help me? Nothing happened. Experience. Instantly text came up. It was his statistics from earlier, with an experience line added to the bottom of the table. Experience earned 10 / 5000 required to reach level 1. Current level is level 0. That simple piece of information generated mixed emotions. It would take five hundred imp deaths to progress up one level. From gaming days, that was an absurdly high number. Usually, level one would have taken under ten kills. On the other hand, level ups were possible. What skills could he get? And what about physical attributes, would a level boost his body? Where could he find more information? There were tabs under the floating text. He was on the statistics tab. Alpha Event Interface Traders Experience Levels Skills And then dots showing more options. Adrian made himself look away from his interface screen. He was in an active war zone and needed to focus on what was around. After careful study, there were no nearby threats. First things first. Was there any more information about interfaces? The interface tab clicked on in front of him. Interfaces are always NON SENTIENT. There are thousands, potentially millions, of different versions of interfaces. Multiple species have designed, created, and changed existing interfaces to help future species. The interfaces primary purposes are: Processing power to facilitate the acquisition and use of skills and magic Physical and mental augmentation of personal attributes Conduit for boosting Boosting applies to both to skill acquisition and personal attributes whereby experience is exchanged for knowledge and/or personal attributes. The exchange rate applied for the use of knowledge is heavily regulated and all interfaces must conform. Bulk purchase discounts apply. For dumb humans, this means the amount of experience per level varies between interfaces. Experience is granted for defeating both sentient and non-sentient creatures. Adrian stopped reading for a moment as some imps were approaching. There was a balance to strike. Immediate survival versus long-term survival: a need to stay alive and a requirement to learn more about the game metrics. Ambusher skills were up. With identification, he could now observe the aggro range of the creatures. The skill was growing with usage, granting more and more information every time he used it. It was a weird feeling. At a glance, the knowledge now came to him that, providing it was over 20 meters away, an imps would not see or react, no matter how much he moved, because their eyesight was that bad. He could do a full-on Irish jig and they would remain oblivious. That 20 meters extended out at a 45-degree angle in the direction that they were looking. If you were outside that arc, you were safe. However, the imps' heads swayed as they moved, giving them a wider practical field of view. But if you approached from the side or behind them, they would never see you. Of course, Ambusher's Fade meant they would never see him even if they physically ran into him. Likewise, their hearing was poor, so even with his city skills he could probably sneak up to within a couple of meters of them with a bit of effort providing no annoying leaves or sticks crunched under his feet. With stealth skills, or even soft slippers, he was confident he could sneak up and tap an imp on the shoulder before they even noticed him. Imps were like ants, unaware of their wider surroundings. For example, they would not react suspiciously if they came across a recently killed imp or wonder what caused a shout if, after they investigated the exact spot, they could see nothing. They were really dumb, instinct-driven monsters with very little awareness of the surrounding world. The only caveat was that ranged weapons would aggro them. If you shot an arrow 50 meters, everything within 100 meters would react, no matter how silent the arrow was. Likewise, if you shot magic from 50 meters away, everything within 100 meters would aggro. However, if you did the same thing within 20 meters, only those that heard the arrow / or saw the arrow would respond. It was some sort of weird spider sense combined with group telepathy. The arrow needed to get within a few meters of at least one imp, and that would be enough for all of them to know. An imp just three meters away stared straight at him. His heart flipped, but then its gaze flickered elsewhere. He was safe. The ambusher's skills were amazing. Adrian's attention turned away from the close group, which was now walking away from him, and focused instead on a group further away. Now that he understood how the aggro radius worked, it was easy to see the full pattern. They seemed to hop randomly around. But then some random groups of the same type would run into each other every now and again and more often than not that would join. Occasionally, the larger groups would fragment, but then again it would look random. What excited Adrian the most was when groups of different types would interact. When this occurred, they would immediately attack each other aggressively. That behaviour was exploitable. The results were always the same. If the numbers were even, the group that attacked first would always win. If the numbers were not even, the group with the larger number would always win and usually with no losses. In even battles, the imps would expend all of their mana reserves and become helpless if an enemy imp came close upon them before they recovered. It seemed to take about two minutes for an imp to recover sufficiently for a single use of magic and seven to eight minutes for full magic recovery. Physical recovery took far longer. Seeing this behaviour and the imps’ aggro distances, Adrian realised that he could probably sneak away safely. He would sneak out of here, get back safely to the hotel, and see if any of the people he knew had survived. Just at that moment, a lot of human shouting erupted from the opposite side of the oven. Chapter 7 With a suppressed curse, Adrian’s attention focused on the noise. A young man dressed in modern clothes was running from the oven. He had an Arab’s olive skin tones and facial features but no beard. He was a fellow worker, and Adrian had dim memories of meeting him last week but could remember nothing about him apart from his being shy and reserved. The young man tossed a rock at a group of imps. His throw was a good one and went about forty meters. Instantly, most of the imps nearby aggroed on him. The man ran hard for about twenty meters before veering away and throwing a stone at another group of imps. Another forty imps were turning to follow him. Then the man blurred forward, crossing ten meters in an instant. What the hell, Adrian thought, before realising that the man had probably gained skills like he had gained the ambusher’s skills. Adrian focused his identification skill on the man. Level 8 Courier. The rest of the impression was just a feel of the relative attributes of the man in front of him. The man was faster, stronger, and quicker than Adrian, though not by a huge degree. He also had access to three unique skills; the first was the rush skill that he had just witnessed, the second was a dodge that would allow him to evade an attack every couple of seconds and the last skill was to create a very brief field that would effectively block a blow (magical or physical). As he watched in amazement, the man was doing a zig zag run. Just Run Straight! He felt like screaming the words. The imps were not human. They guided their magic. The zig zag run would be effective against bullets or thrown objects, but against the imps it was pointless and just slowed everyone down. Just run. Adrian tried to project his thoughts, but it was useless: the man kept up his zig zagging. He threw another stone, aggroing another chunk of imps, before utilising the rush skill once more to keep the imps in front from hemming him in. The long throws were aggroing imps behind, beside, and in front of the man. The man escaped the gathering imps. Maybe the mad rush would be successful. For the life of him, Adrian could not work out what the man was trying to do. A big train of imps followed the man. Luckily for him, imps were slow, so, if he stopped zig zagging, he would escape. Over seventy imps were following the man, so Adrian kept his Ambusher Fade in place. There was nothing he could do against that many imps apart from run. The man used his rush ability again. This time Magic Focus caught the action. The rush ability was unique in his experiences. The imps’ powers were completely different, and even the ambusher had observed nothing like this. The power started early in the man's muscles. Every single muscle in the man vibrated with extra internal energy. The muscles were jumping with the energy, then all together they moved faster and sped the man forward. The ability was based on his internal strength and agility, as opposed to any mana expenditure. As the magic worked, the courier’s mana levels held dead steady. here was sudden movement back at the oven, and a crowd of about fifteen men and a couple of women emerged. Adrian finally understood what the crazy man was doing. He was drawing the imps away to allow the rest of his co-workers to escape. Adrian felt humbled by the man’s courage and reassessed to see if he could help. The train of imps was catching up to the man, and there were so many of them. If Adrian got near them, they would just blast him to bits. At the oven, Graham, the site supervisor, was leading and directing the group. He was talking quickly with firm commands. The old man looked bigger and stronger than he had previously. But when Adrian tried his identification, it failed as the target was too far away. Quickly, Graham’s men ran out of the oven through the area the courier had cleared. The entire group clutched improvised weapons. For most, it was a tool like a large metal wrench, but some had resorted to broomsticks. A couple just clutched rocks. They were clearly expecting to fight their way out. Adrian would have loved to join them, but he knew at a glance they were too far away for him to navigate through the imps. It was a moot point, anyway. The courier with the crowd of imps following him had curved around and was now between Adrian and Graham. The courier’s battle had descended to a struggle for every breath. He was using all three abilities, one after another. Magic focus highlighted the strain the effort was inflicting. The internal vibrations were becoming erratic. Worse for the man, he kept throwing rocks. More and more imps were aggroing on him. The vibrating energy was responding slower. When the man rushed forward, he only covered seven or eight meters as opposed to the previous ten. The man threw another rock, this time aiming for a group in front of him. The rock travelled over thirty meters and aggroed all the imps he was heading towards. They started hopping towards him. He saw two of the closer imps launch fireballs at him, so he activated dodge. The two fireballs flashed through the space the courier had been standing in. His previously composed face became panic-stricken. There were more imps in front of him and heaps behind. He looked left and then right, but there were imps approaching him from all directions. So, the courier did the only thing he could. He lowered his head and charged along the previous route. As Adrian watched, he prayed to a god that he had never believed in. Please make it. Adrian was a helpless spectator to the events unfolding. Like a ghoul, magic focus was actively extracting everything possible from the encounter. The familiar muscle vibration of the rush kicked in. Multiple imps were preparing attacks. The muscles vibrated, but there was not enough left in the tank. The skill failed. Time had been dragging and seemed to speed up to normal. Air caught in Adrian’s throat. The brave man stumbled slightly, almost falling to his knees. He caught himself and kept going, but a thread of dark energy reached between the man's knees and a nearby imp. The missile spun through the air, and time slowed. The dark missile was slow, but the courier had nothing left to stop it. Someone, something, please help him. Another step forward. The tendril of energy stretched without breaking. The missile adjusted to follow. It had already left the imp’s claws. Another step. Once more the tendril stretched, following the running man. It hit just below the knee. Vitality drained from the leg, and the courier stumbled. He fell hard. The third skill which used magic activated, and a shield snapped into place over him. The man was trying to pull himself to his feet. Only one leg worked and his efforts were futile. Another dark bolt hit and sizzled into nothing against the shield. The shield fell away in a scattering of energy. Three fireballs and one ice bolt rushed through the space, smashing into the man: two firebolts in the head, one ice bolt in the shoulder, and the last firebolt into the already dead leg. The courier died instantly; his face charred away to leave it unrecognisable. Chapter 8 The crowd of imps were just thirty meters away from Adrian’s standing spot. Fury bubbled within him, yet Ambusher’s Fade stopped even clenched fists from expressing the anger. Revenge now, safety be damned! There were over 80 imps in the crowd around the courier. They were going to fight each other. Another 30 to 40 were heading towards the courier. But the instant the courier died, the rage in each of the faces receded, and the imps turned around to return to where they had come from. No better, perhaps worse, than dumb stupid insects. Just a basic set of instructions. The enormous group of 80 were a mixture of different types. They did not instantly disperse; instead, they saw each other and exploded into a frenzy of chaotic violence. Adrian watched the fight in amazement as magic exploded everywhere in the group. They were so packed that, at one point, a chain of four imps in a row died simultaneously. The first one shot the imp in front while the one behind it killed it by point blank shooting the imp with its dark missile. The one behind that dark imp did not even attack deliberately; instead, the fire imp died a victim of an ice bolt from behind. With nothing constraining the fireball, it shot forward the thirty centimetres and hit the dark imp in the back of the head. The fifth imp got off scot free and had the perfect view to watch the other four keel over almost as one and collapse to the ground. Ice bolts flew as dark missiles launched and fire balls splashed into unexpected backsides, killing their target and singeing the other imps around it. It was chaotic and devastating, and imps were dying everywhere. Revenge for the courier was occurring without him lifting a hand. They were destroying each other. The numbers of the gathered imp types were surprisingly balanced. Smiling a manic grimace, Adrian knew what he was going to do. Let them spend their mana and then start clawing each other, then storm in and finish them while they were weakened. Claim the day for humans! Violently avenge the brave courier’s death or die trying. Safe from any imps nearby, he bent down and picked up two fist-sized rocks. They would be his weapons. Further away, the group that Graham was leading were escaping. Hurrying across the emptied space, they moved like skittish antelopes. A group of imps they were sneaking past randomly changed directions and looked straight at them. Fear gripped him. The three imps immediately reacted, hopping forward and summoning their magic. The humans saw and went from deer to tigers. One of them launched a rock that flew like a missile and slammed into one imp, killing it instantly. Other rocks went flying, but most missed. Though one clipped an imp, doing minor damage. The rock counterattack was too late, too amateur, and too inept. The two remaining imps launched their fireballs unimpeded. One fireball swung wide as some sort of magic shield deflected it, but the other one kept going unaltered and slammed into a man’s leg. He went down screaming. Graham was suddenly next to him, swinging the man over his shoulder, and they kept running, not pausing for even a moment to finish the two imps which were still standing. Adrian stopped tracking the men, conscious of the coming fight. Magic focus tracked the energy levels of the imp battle royale. Over half were already dead, and the ones that survived had their mana levels plummeting to zero. The aggro range of the imps at the edge of the battle ended ten meters away. Two large rocks, one in each hand, ready for anything, he started sneaking forward. Like an angel of death, descending with exaggerated stealth. Surprise counted as a critical strategy. Invisible movement was effortless. They were so focused on each other, they were not looking around. Instead of the normal 20 meters of eyesight, they had barely a five meter range. Better still, with their squealing and magic attack, sound was a nonfactor. Hell, a bull walking through a china picnic would have remained unheard. More magic flashed as they kept fighting, and fresh imps died. 15 meters away, and they still had not noticed. Then, only ten meters away, Adrian broke into a run; none of the imps he looked at had any mana left. His eyes kept flicking over every imp. Depleted. Depleted, dying and, depleted. There were thirty imps and one human left standing. At the end of this fight, there would be zero imps. Reaching the first imp, genuine joy filled his face. Releasing tension, getting revenge, swinging, and pushing all his weight through his right arm. One big rock, one delicate imp head. There was a thud and a satisfying sound of cracking bones. The imp dropped instantly: There was no time to think as he was amongst them. Swing the two rocks as hard as possible while actively targeting the imps that were still on their feet. Keep moving, don’t pause, watch foot placements to ensure he did not slip on mangled imp. Ice! Step around that. Eyes flicked from imp to imp. Depleted, depleted, half charge. He immediately bumped that imp up the kill order list. An imp charged in from his side, and then pain seared as a claw dug into his bum. Basking in anger, fear, embarrassment. How was he so clumsy? He spun on the imp that had got him. Its other clawed arm was swinging into attack. Parry that claw with his right-hand rock while bringing his left arm down hard on the exposed head. They were the size of little children. Even using rocks as the principal weapon, he had a massive height and reach advantage. The imp that had clawed him could only watch the approaching rock. As far as Adrian could tell, it did not even register that the descending weapon was a problem. Instead, it focused on offense, its ugly mouth gaping wide as it maneuvered to bite. The rock ripped half the imp’s head off, and it might have lost some of its moss covering. There was no time to gloat. There was no time to do anything but swing the rocks against the next imp. Adrian wondered whether he had been stupid to think one person could take on 30 imps. Even with their magic depleted, it was a monumental task. Imps died broken, but multiple claws were getting through. It was going to a Pyrrhic victory, with all the various cuts and gashes, if he survived. With these wounds, he would be out of action for weeks while they healed if he did not bleed to death first. Forcefully putting future consequences to the side to focus on now. A review was for post battle consideration. Keep moving, keep killing. Swing hard, cringe, and celebrate in even measure with each crack as arms, chests, and skulls shattered. Adrenaline kept him going, but there was red everywhere. It was not from the imps as their blood was black. The red running down his leg only had one source. Most of the imps were dead. Bump, thump, whack. Keep going. Don’t pause. Ouch Fuck. An imp’s claw plunged through his thigh. He could feel it grinding on the bone. Back hand the imp and feel and hear the familiar crunch as the rock connected with the delicate skull. His overwhelming relative strength turned an inefficient fighting move into something you would see in a cartoon movie. He took a step forward, and then his leg collapsed under his weight. Not good. He landed heavily. Inherent healing was working overdrive, but it was like a single window cleaner working on a skyscraper. Roll to the side just in case another imp was attacking, but nothing was in his face. He pushed himself to his feet. Testing the damaged leg, it was sore but would support his weight. No jumping. Look around for enemies. There was an imp on the other side of the battlefield. It was sitting up and Adrian could see a dark bolt forming between its claws. NO! The dark missile was still forming. I was so close. Flashbacks of gym class, playing dodgeball. The team relied on him. Throw after throw going wide. The next day, being picked last after even snotty Terry. The rock was like a ball. There was no time. Baseball pitch? He’d only ever tried it in practice, and, after that, the coach had assigned him to the outfield for the rest of the season. Softball? An underarm throw? It would be more accurate, and the rock was heavy enough. Accuracy over speed. A slow arc. The imp was less than five meters away. It sailed true. The imp saw it coming and concluded that it was life threatening. Throwing itself to the side, the mass of dark energy fizzled away. Unable to help himself from screaming at the top of his voice, Adrian launched towards the imp, desperate to land a blow before it could regather and use its magic. Stumbling and sliding, he pitched forward, losing balance when his foot lost purchase on a mangled imp carcass still adorned with ice. Trying to keep his feet, trying to keep going. He was partially successful. The impact with the ground hurt as much as the claw through his thigh. It rattled his teeth, but all he could think about was the last imp. The last threat. On the ground. Keep moving. The imp was lying on its back, summoning its magic. feet towards him, too far away for a killing blow. But the feet. . . Like a snake lunging forward, instead of fangs, there was a rock covered with slimy black substances. It was effective. The dark missile mostly reformed by the imp failed when he flattened the imp’s leg just above the knee. Pushing, slithering, dragging himself forward; it had been only a foot. It was enough. The spell the imp was creating fizzled into failure. The next blow left no room for interpretation. Grunting in pain, he lumbered to his feet. His entire body hurt. Looking down, he was drenched in red and black blood. But, he was alive, and the battle was almost over. There were no immediate threats. Don’t stop. Look around calmly. The field was his. Gingerly, he took two steps to bash in the head of the half dead imp that was closest to gathering enough magic to be a threat. Then, there was the looting. There was no hiding from magic focus. It was clear which imps were dead vs. half-dead and of the half-dead which ones were closest to gathering enough mana to be a threat. The half-dead ones got their head stamped on. It was easier than bending down to use his trusty stone. Heavy work boots helped along with the one good leg. It was like breaking Easter eggs. Six imps died quick, merciful deaths. The battle was over. He had won. Humans had won. He had avenged the brave courier. Hurting and in pain, he looked around himself, but there was no danger nearby. All the imps nearby were dead. There were sore spots all over. Touching the gash on his leg, it was still tender but clotting. The cut was only a couple of centimetres wide and would not break open further, providing he made no jerky, sudden movements. Instinctively, he understood that, with the new alpha physics, everything would heal within hours. And while rest would help, most of the cuts were superficial. There were dim sounds of fighting. It was Graham’s group; they were out of sight. He listened. The sounds stopped. No screaming. It sounded like they had won the battle. Please let them be ok. There was no point focusing on them. They might as well have been on the other side of the country for all the help they could give him. Or vice versa. I need to loot. Despite the pain, he bent down to look at the courier. The face was gone, but the clothes were familiar. He had been an apprentice sparky, a man hired to wire every solar panel. Who would have thought that the shy man who had not even joked with his mates around the boss was the hero? The man probably had a family, or at least a mum and dad back in Wagga. His sacrifice needed honouring. Chapter 9 Quickly, Adrian checked the pockets and found a wallet. Perfect, identification. I will find the family and tell them what a hero their son or husband was. The man was wearing a backpack. Adrian felt no remorse in stripping it away from the dead man. Every resource was valuable. He needed everything he could salvage to get out of this alive. Inventorying the backpack there were a couple of stones and what looked like a lunch box that would hopefully have food. The rocks were what the courier had used to gather the imps. Keep the lunchbox and throw the stones. Decision made. The useless pebbles were tossed away onto some nearby dirt. Then he let his ambusher skills kick in. Glancing around cautiously, Adrian towered over the tangled imp bodies and stood guard over the human one. There were no imps sneaking up on him. There was a hundred meters of safe zone; the massive fight had cleared out all the nearby wandering imps. Every movement still hurt, but he got to work. Crawling from one imp corpse to another and cutting quickly through the chest cavity and taking the little shiny stone. He did not know what it was, but the core glowed with magic, so it was valuable. After the third imp, the cutting process became substantially easier. It was like he had been processing imps for years. He held a detailed understanding of the imp's anatomy. It was not natural. Is this your doing? The interface flashed. Adrian Fitzgerald, I am one of those non-sentient interfaces, and my purpose is to help you navigate the new world you exist in. I will help you gain skills. I will help you understand magic. I will help you survive. It was almost the first thing he had read. When it said, “I will help you gain skills,” not even a bloody oracle would have predicted the first skill learned was one to butcher imps. Not something to complain, though, because cutting the imps had become almost soothing, like doing washing sorting. Six of the imp corpses did not have stones. All the empty ones had been hit in the chest with some form of energy, whether fireball, dark missile, or ice bolt, it did not seem to matter. All three magic types destroyed the cores. Simple routine. Grab five stones. Freeze, then engage Ambusher Fade. Search the surroundings, paying careful attention to trajectories. Confirm a period of safety and rinse and repeat. By the time the last of the dead imps were processed, the live ones were circling closer. They were still over twenty meters away, so he had plenty of time to retreat. However, they were encroaching, and the space would not last. A group was coming towards him no faster than a walk. That was all the imps could manage, but it was eating quickly into his buffer. They would probably turn before they got to close. Time to get to safety and heal. He was done with the dead imps, anyway. It still hurt to move, but he made the cliff face with a quick hobble. The rush was unnecessary as the imps turned aside, doing a 120-degree turn and heading back the way they came. Ambusher Fade and Stasis worked in tandem with the latter making standing still for long periods of time comfortable. Apart from the immediate space in front of him, there appeared to be more imps than ever. Briefly, he toyed with counting the imps, but then decided they were too much like sheep and sleep now would be a bad idea. No need to count them. He could see that there were lots. There was no doubt they were coming from somewhere. Where are they coming from? Was there some form of demon actively summoning them? Or was the entire country inundated with so many imps that they were everywhere? Or were there female imps laying eggs and hatching them by the dozens? No point going to Wagga till he solved the mystery. Alternative plan. Delay going home, find out where the imps were coming from, and then stop them. Demon summoner, imp queen, or something else, he would find out and destroy it. An interface icon button flashed. Curious, Adrian clicked on it, and the interface flicked up. His statistics page was almost unchanged, with the only alteration being the experience. It had risen to 390 points. Apparently, he had killed 38 imps when he attacked the group. He looked closer and noticed that a new tab labelled “Identification” was flashing slightly. Still curious, Adrian clicked on it, and it suspended a chunk of text in front of him for him to read. Identification skill is a vital skill for people to pick up. It enables accurate assessment of enemies and your surroundings. For example, it can determine whether a herb might have specific useful properties or, at the very least, a sign of whether it will have any value in alchemy. If a sentient creature with a nominal high intelligence was smart enough to acquire such a useful skill. Well, you would expect they would use it religiously to understand the world around them. That was oddly specific and biting. You might even expect them to use it sufficiently to avoid making potentially fatal mistakes. You know mistakes like throwing a lot of random things into a bag and then draping said bag over their shoulders. At the very least confirming that said random things are not explosive! Realisation flooded through Adrian. What did the rocks do? Did the different types react to each other? Fuck. Ambusher Fade only barely prevented the backpack from being thrown away. The stones had not blown up yet. Time! There was still time. No imps were in aggro range. With a shrug and a twist, the backpack slid off his shoulders. Cautiously he opened the zipper and looked inside at the rocks utilising identification on the first visible stone. Common Zipper, This device is machine created and enables the easy opening closing of bags. Cursing, he focused more carefully on the little pebbles he had extracted from the imps. Imp Monster Core (Fire) Monster cores often contain a part of the monster's memories and can occasionally be utilised to learn skills and abilities that the monster possessed. Alternatively, they can be sold to merchants for profit. He checked a dozen other cores, and they all had the same message. His blood pressure dropped, and he sighed in relief. What was the warning for? The image he received was crystal clear. It was a single enormous banner. Don’t Panic! Anger flushed through him. A little girl with pig tales hysterical giggling. His interface was still flashing, so he switched through to the text. Luckily for any silly sentient that might show such a lack of prudence, most items are not explosive, corrosive or deadly, and Monster Cores are definitely inert. The giggling had not stopped. Non-,sentient, my arse, Adrian thought dismissively. His interface flashed. He opened it and the interface tab flashed. Adrian was interested in where it was going. The text had not changed in the slightest, though. The first line that said All Interfaces are NON - SENTIENT seemed to glow a bit. Adrian snorted, amused despite himself. Putting aside the question around what the interface really was, he thought furiously on what he had just learned. Imp Monster Core (Fire) Monster cores often contain a part of the monster's memories and can occasionally be utilised to learn skills and abilities that the monster possessed. There were over seventy monster cores in the backpack. If the description was correct, then maybe it was possible to gain some of their magic skills. Combining this with Magic Focus skill, it felt like he could get magic spells and become strong. Adrian refined his plan. Use cores, magic focus and rinse and repeat till he could practise the magic he had learned. Then keep going, use cores, watch imps, practice magic and repeat till he gained the skill. With magic under his control, slaughtering imps would become even easier. Kill imps, find the source, kill the source, and then the courier and anyone else that Graham had lost would be revenged. Chapter 10 The plan was set. Get strong! Abuse magic focus like the ambusher had, use the cores, and then kill. The Ambusher had not used a single core in gaining the insects' ability. In theory, observation alone was sufficient. However, how many observations would it take? His family was out there. It was not like he could spend weeks learning a single spell if that was what it took. A metaphorical snap of the fingers. He would have done it physically, but the Ambusher skills had locked his muscles. The last couple of hours of observation should be quantified, that might inform him of how many hours it would take to learn spells purely from observation. Summoning the interface screen, he flicked through the tabs. Eager to see the quantification of progress. Hours of studying the imps’ magic had hopefully unlocked some skills. Navigating to the skills page, his heart fluttered with hope. Disappointment. The only skills listed were the four gained from the mana storm. Ambusher’s Fade, Ambusher’s Stasis, Identification, and Magic Focus. Where were the others? Were there others? A scene from his childhood. Kung Fu. Patience, young grasshopper. Another little titter He ground his teeth. The screen in front of him shimmered, and suddenly there was another tab called “Partial Skills” next to the original Skill tab. Excited once more, he clicked through. Fireball The ability to create a fireball and launch it at an enemy. Underneath the description was a progress bar that looked like it was sitting stubbornly at 0%. As he watched, the scale changed from the initial 0 to 100%percent bar down to 0 to 50%. There was no sign of progress. Then the scale changed further reducing the scale to 0 to 10%. This time he could see a tiny bar indicating progress. Then the scale zoomed in further to show 0 to 1% and he could see a small bit of progress. 0.2% progress made in acquisition of the Fireball skill. Crushing disappointment hit him. Magic focus was not the cheat code to master all the magic in the world. It had been a couple of hours, but, despite that, magic focus had effectively delivered nothing. At this rate, it would take him a year to gain a single ability. His inquisitive mind turned back to the monster cores. Imp Monster Core (Fire) Monster cores often contain a part of the monster's memories and can occasionally be utilised to learn skills and abilities that the monster possessed. The description suggested they could be used to acquire monsters’ skills. For imps, that would mean fireball, ice bolts, and dark missiles. With seventy cores… he mentally rubbed his hands. With seventy, maybe it was not all hopeless. Safety first. A quick glance around confirmed the lack of imps in aggro range. There would be no stupid mistakes through inattention. Grabbing three fire imp cores from the backpack, he rechecked the surroundings. No imps were nearby. Now all he had to do was to work out how to use the cores. How do I do this? He waited a moment, but there was no answer. Trying to form a query in his brain and put it through to the interface. Activate Monster Cores. Once more, there was no response. The interface that had seemed willing to mock him mercilessly was completely silent.