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Gamer's Manual: Maze of Choices (+5th chapter 2015.01.01, С новым годом!)

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  • Аннотация:
    Gods, demigods, spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, cyborgs, zombies, dragons and elves of all kinds. What do creatures like that have in common? They are all mythical creatures. Our would-be hero killed such creatures by dozens... In games. Now he finds himself in the world where everything feels real, but at the same time seems like a game. Even death just brings him back to the first day. Escaping this endless loop of massacre would seem like a matter of time, but with mind-readers and seers thrown in, things won't be so simple. Even a permanent death is not out of the question. Let us follow him as he is trying to navigate this deadly maze of choices!

     Tutorial / Maze of Choices

     Gods, demigods, spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, vampires, werewolves, cyborgs, zombies, dragons and elves of all kinds. What do creatures like that have in common? They are all mythical creatures. Our would-be hero killed such creatures by dozens... In games.
     Now he finds himself in the world where everything feels real, but at the same time seems like a game. Even death just brings him back to the first day. Escaping this endless loop of massacre would seem like a matter of time, but with mind-readers and seers thrown in, things won't be so simple. Even a permanent death is not out of the question.
     Let us follow him as he is trying to navigate this deadly maze of choices!

     Chapter 1. Intro / Prologue.

     Level: 0
     Profession: Gamer
     Relevant Skills: None
     Objective: Conquer the world

     - Ken, Sef, stop wandering around. Spawns have already flooded everything.
     - What do you want us to do? We don't have any MP left.
     - Try at least something! If you can't come up with anything, hit them with your sticks. They have only a mage and a necro left. Although the necro is empty, that mage will wipe the floor with us if I stop distracting him.
     - Wasn't Lin supposed to handle him?
     - Open your eyes! Lin is long gone, so Ken, you are our only hope.
     - I knew there was something wrong. Never again will I listen to your advice on character builds!
     - Less talking, more walking!
     - ... Finished. Are you going to stay for mental support?
     - Ha, ha. Very funny.
     I took paralyzed Sef with me and started running away as fast as I could. Ken on the other hand finished casting his spell. His figure blurred and in two seconds he killed all the zombie spawns. After that his attack reached the necromancer who summoned them. Unfortunately mage also succeeded in hitting him with his paralysis spell. Mage was smirking, anticipating his upcoming victory, but at this moment our last trump has activated. First Ken's skin started rapidly getting red. After that his clothes lit up in flames and then his whole body turned into big torch. Mage from opposing team erected a barrier around him, but that did not save him. All fire was absorbed by Ken's body and he exploded. Unfortunately, I couldn't get away far enough, so explosion reached me and I had to shield myself with paralyzed Sef. After a moment the smoke cleared, and...
     - Winners are team Recklus!
     VICTORY! We did it! We actually did it! I threw my VR helmet to the bed and started dancing around the room like a madman. I still can't believe we did it. Luckily that fact remained unchanged. Whether I believed it or not, we won! After running a few rounds around the room I told myself to stop. I need to calm myself. Any minute I should get the call about the prize money.
     - Did they call?
     It was Ken's voice coming from the speakers.
     - Not yet. - I responded. - I think they are checking whether we used any cheats. After such an ending, can't really blame them.
     - But what we really did...
     I quickly interrupted him.
     - NO! We did not use cheats. I've told you lots of times already. They just didn't balance this properly. Everybody was too focused on the new skills humans got, so they missed the interaction of 'soul flame' with 'essence channel' and 'concentration' that mages have. Because Barbarians have nothing to offer for mages, their new skill 'soul flame' was considered subpar by everybody. What they missed is that by channelling gained strength into intelligence the resulting power of spells would be significantly higher than any of the top mage builds have. I expect this kind of warrior-mage hybrid to be quite popular if they don't nerf it.
     - In that case how do you know about it.
     - Well, I have some acquaintances who are hardcore players.
     - Okay, okay. It's not a bug, but a feature. I get it. But why did we have to use it? We have a good team and according to our analysis, we could win even without relying on tricks like that. You promised to explain everything after the game. So now is as good time as any.
     At this point my teammates also cooled their heads and returned to their PCs. At least that was what their status was showing.
     - Yes, we would like to hear it as well. - Lin joined the conversation.
     - I hoped to avoid this topic, as I didn't have any proof, but it seems there is no other way.
     I paused to collect my thoughts. After a few seconds I began explaining:
     - Do you guys remember last year scandal about team Riven using cheats?
     - Yeah, but hasn't it been sorted out? - Replied Ken. - I think they proved that no cheats had been used, so it had been skill and luck.
     - That's right; as a part of preparing for finals I researched them and found out that such 'lucky' occurrences had happened more than once. Since it was just a hunch and I had no definite proof, I couldn't do anything about it.
     - What does this have to do with us using this gimmicky strategy that is on border of foul play instead of tried-and-true strategy that we used to get to the finals? - Asked Sef.
     - Let me clarify one thing. There isn't anything illegal in using mage-warrior hybrid. It was perfectly valid strategy and we weren't the only teams in the tournament using that.
     - Though none of them were self-destructing. - Rebutted Lin.
     - The reason for that was game mechanic called 'mana overload'. Originally it was done to cap strength of caster classes, but with later patches their strength was decreased quite a bit and thus mechanic became obsolete and got forgotten.
     - I still wonder where you are getting your info from. - Replied Ken.
     - I repeat my previous answer: I have some interesting acquaintances.
     - Have you ever considered getting a life? You know outside games? - Lin inquired jokingly.
     - Who needs reality? It's just a shitty sandbox game where you get arbitrary penalties whenever you do something or even if you don't! It doesn't have any goal and in the end everybody still loses! There is no manual and the only tutorial you get doesn't actually teach you anything! The only thing I can say about reality is whoever designed it had no idea what he was doing!
     Lin backed away, as she heard my tirade.
     - Okay, okay. Dude, chill down. - Said Ken. - We're all your friendly neighborhood nerds and know how you feel. But could you at least tune down the excitement. You are freaking us out.
     This brought me back to earth. For me the phrase 'get a life' is like a red flag to a bull. So I kind of flew off the handle.
     - I guess I did go overboard, huh? Sorry.
     - Yes you did. Though, to be fair, I've known you long enough not to bring this up. I'm sorry as well. - Replied Lin.
     - Stop being so grim guys. - Interjected Ken. - We did win, so we should be celebrating.
     - That is true, but I still want to hear the end of the story. - Responded Lin.
     After I'd completely calmed myself down I continued:
     - Okay. So I was planning to use this 'mana overload'-tech only as our last ace. In case they hadn't cheated there wouldn't have been any need to use it, so we would've been fine. On the other hand if they had used some undetectable cheat, we would've at least had some way to deal with it.
     At this point Sef interrupted me:
     - So you underestimated our opponent. And when we couldn't beat them, you ordered Ken to trigger 'mana overload'.
     - No. Everything went according to my expectations. Just not exactly the way I assumed it would.
     - Now you are contradicting yourself. You said you would use 'mana overload' only in case they cheated.
     - Oh, but they did cheat.
     Everybody had stunned expressions. The only reply I heard was:
     - Where?
     - Although this is again unprovable. Recall the last part where the mage paralyzed Ken. He only channeled strength to intelligence, but his evasion was still buffed. Mage wasn't supposed to hit him.
     - Now that you mention it...
     At this point everybody started discussing 'those cheating bastards'. In the meantime I started checking my mail, since there was still no call from the corporation regarding prize money. News feeds, random congratulations, some notifications... Oh here are some interesting advertising offers, but they are from yesterday. Even advancing to the finals of the world champs has quite a few benefits besides the prize money. Thanks to these, it seems I won't have to worry about real world problems in any foreseeable future.
     What is this? Seems like some kind of invitation. Let's see:
     Greetings, Champion.
     Congratulations on your latest achievement. As the strongest hero of your world we invite you to compete with the champions from other worlds for the title of the strongest hero in all the worlds. The winner will be granted with his hearts desire. Do you have what it takes to become the strongest?
     Prove your strength, obtain your dream.
     I'm confused. What is this? Spam? But it shouldn't have gotten through the spam filters. I have quite good ones, so random letters shouldn't get through. Is this some kind of beta test invite? It's impressive alright. I mean what's with this setting? It's such a cliché. Normally I wouldn't even give this type of game a second glance. The message itself is also kinda short. Aren't these types of messages supposed to be more refined and elaborate? But, what caught my attention was the fact that this message came too soon. I thought advertisement offers and beta invites would come a bit later. Plus there is no real information about the game or the developer. Only the email address of the sender. What are they expecting with this type of invitation? Well, I don't need to bother myself with earning money in any foreseeable future, so there isn't any problem with trying this out if it seems fun. I will reply with preliminary agreement and ask for more details.

     Who came up with the phrase "good morning"? He is delusional. There can be good dreams and bad dreams, but even in bad dreams the worst thing that might happen is that you wake up. Reality can hardly be described as good - it only alternates between bearable and horrible. Morning is a time when humans get thrown away from a marvellous world of dreams into a shitty place called reality, from where there is no way out. Thus I honestly don't understand people who describe morning as 'good'. Conversely I like evenings and nights, since they are quiet and there aren't many things that would bother you.
     Anyway, waking up this morning was as horrible as it used to be. There was a small exception today. The feelings I got from lying on this bed were unusual. When my consciousness was slowly waking up from slumber I noticed another thing. Light shining on my closed eyes was not something I was used to. That did not make me eager to wake up.
     You might often hear phrases along the lines of "do not fear changes" or "change is for the good". Those are lies. Whenever something changes you have to adapt to the new circumstances. Occasionally you might get some benefit out of these "changes", but oftentimes you get nothing or you are left with less than what you had before. So basically it just means more trouble for you. There are always people who aren't content with the way things are. These people aren't content with "good", and chase for the "best". Just idiots and dreamers who don't see the happiness they already possess. It is true that most successful people are those who chase for this mythical "best". You could call those people "winners" in this absurd game called life. But you are never told that there is only a handful of those people. Majority of dreamers who chase for the "best" lose what they have in the process and end up with nothing. In other words they become losers. So why are we being told that we should aim for the "best"? That's easy. Nobody listens to losers. Only winners' words are heard. Thus absurd and hypocritical opinions of 'winners' are regarded as the dogma, even if they would cause misery to majority of the people who follow them.
     Originally I wanted to explain why I disliked change, but it seems I got a bit off topic, huh? The point is that without opening my eyes I understood that this place wasn't my home. It felt somehow familiar, but it was not my own bed. This, in turn, means that when I open my eyes, troublesome things that will require to be handled will definitely appear. I really want to postpone this joyful moment. I will just pretend to be asleep. Unfortunately, as it turned out, I did not have a say in the matter.
     Right above my ear I heard emotionless female voice:
     - Morning has come, Master.
     You see? I was right. Waking up IS troublesome. This one phrase gave a rise to so many questions, that I had a trouble keeping track of all of them. I really don't want to open my eyes, since I am sure it will raise many more questions. Pity I don't really have a choice. I don't think that voice will let me stay blissfully ignorant. So I open my eyes.
     I hate being right. This is not my room. It is noticeably bigger. Approximately five meters wide, and seven meters long. The interior is uninspiring. Only white walls and the metallic bed, I am lying on. This minimalistic interior makes me think that I am in some kind barracks. The second thing I noticed is there are no windows or lamps. It feels like the ceiling itself is emitting light. On a second thought, this room feels more like a cell in a prison or a madhouse. I said 'second thing' because first thing was the bearer of the voice I had heard earlier. Right in front of my head there is a tiny creature hovering in the air. It is around twelve centimetres tall and probably has wings. The idea of wings was an educated guess based on the slight buzzing sound I heard and a flickering I saw behind her. Although I am not an expert on non-human anatomy, the shape of the body and those fine doll-like features are definitely female. She has short black hair, blue eyes and is dressed in violet Chinese one-piece dress. Before me was a creature that most people I know would call a faerie or a pixie. By the way, what's the difference between the two? Not like it matters though.
     The feeling I got when looking at her was quite a strange one. You could practically mistake her for a doll. Were she not floating in the mid-air, I would definitely think she was a doll. Let me stress this part so you would understand properly. Before me, floating in mid-air, was a humanoid shaped being. I don't know what your reaction would be, but mine is as normal as it gets:
     - AAAAA!
     I shouted in panic and tried to get farther away. The result was what you would expect. I got tangled in sheets and fell down from the bed. I tried to get out of sheets, but managed to tangle myself in them even more. The only thing I can say in my defence is that I haven't yet woken up properly. Meanwhile this creature was hovering around me.
     - While Master's current task is undeniably a very important one, I have to inform Master that all challengers are required to assemble in Main Hall in one hour's time.
     The voice was unemotional, but she was definitely making fun of me. I wasn't even able to retort. Getting defeated by bed sheets is really quite pathetic. After I have finally defeated this fearsome enemy, I notice that, to my dismay, all I am wearing is a birthday suit. Embarrassed, I wrap a bed sheet around myself. The first question I am about to ask the faerie is not the most important one. Considering my situation it would probably be closer to the bottom of the list. In the meek voice I ask:
     - Where could I get some clothes?
     She flew down a bit and was now hovering beside my bed. Under her was a rectangular panel that slid forward. In there was a box with clothing. I put on me the clothes that were in the box. While doing it, I calmed myself down a bit. When I was about to look myself over one more time, faerie flew up and the wall above the box turned into a mirror.
     I look in the mirror. In there I see a 184 centimetres tall, presumably 24 year old guy. His build is slightly on the skinny side. He has reddish-brown eyes, and his skin is pinkish-white from lack of exposure to the sun. You could even call his face aristocratic if not for his eyes which are darting around and can't fixate on one thing. He wears grey shorts and white T-shirt with the following text on it: 'I would love to change the world, but they won't give me the source code'. These are his favourite clothes. Or at least these are the clothes he wears most often.
     Okay, I have already made as big a fool of myself as I could. So there is nothing more to fear. Let's continue asking stupid and obvious questions:
     - Could you tell me where I am?
     - This station is a branch of Illari research institute. It is to serve as base of operations for region 4-3.
     Great, and what does this information give me? 'I'm not in Kansas anymore' am I? Or at least that is what she claims. Let us continue with questions.
     - Then tell me this: What exactly are you?
     - I am a personal assistant faerie, model U-4510471.
     At least I got an answer to the question whether she was a pixie or a faerie.
     - What do you mean by 'model'? Are you a living being or are you man made?
     - This depends on Master's definition of living being. Master's language does not have a proper term for me. An android might be the closest if not entirely a correct one.
     - Then what should I call you?
     - Master may call me whatever he wishes.
     - But do you have a real name or something like that?
     - No customizations, like giving a name, have been made.
     At this point some people would give up and stop pestering her for a name. They would continue calling her 'hey you', or just 'a faerie'. I dislike the latter two options, so this means I would have to name her myself. I don't know about other people, but for me naming anything is a big trouble. I have just a horrible naming sense. To strengthen my point I want to say that even a friend of mine who named his white cat Whitey said that I have a terrible naming sense. Normally it doesn't stop people from giving names, but if you know the name you have chosen is horrible, it practically prevents you from choosing anything. Which means that I would spend a lot of time thinking on it to no avail. For this reason my next question could even be mistaken for begging.
     - Is there at least a name you want or something you would even remotely want to be called?
     It seems she wanted to say something, but stopped midway. She looked at me and with uncertainty in his voice said:
     - Master may call me Rue if he so wishes.
     Yay! One problem handled - countless more to go.
     - Then, Rue it is.
     Suddenly, I realized one thing. I mean besides the fact that I was talking with a flying faerie which is disturbing by itself.
     - Rue, what language are we talking in? Is it English?
     - Master is speaking English, but I am using translation spell to translate everything Master is saying into Rivilirean.
     Convenient, huh? So this is a fantasy setting with magic involved. To everybody saying that it was already obvious, I want to note that faerie herself admitted that she was made artificially. This means there is some sci-fi involved as well.
     It really feels like I got stuck in some super realistic next generation virtual reality game. The existence of a faerie and a convenient translation spell seem to support this idea.
     At this point Rue interrupted my thoughts:
     - Master, I recommend moving out towards the Main Hall. Those, arriving late, will be penalized.
     I decided to follow her advice. Hopefully I shall get some answers there, but increase in the amount of questions is likelier.
     - So how can I get there?
     Under my feet a green line was lit. The line went to the door and went under it.
     - Master should just follow the line.
     I open the door and follow the line. The corridors are spacious and have grey walls. Light seems to come from the ceiling, but there aren't any light bulbs or anything light could come from. While I walking along the corridor I ponder about the situation I got in.
     The last thing I remember from yesterday is the world championship victory celebration. The problem is - I am sure I went to sleep in my own bed. So getting drunk and finding problems for myself was not the case. I think it is somehow related to the strange invitation I got in the mail. By 'somehow related' I mean that it is nearly certainly the cause for it. There is a small chance this situation was caused by something else, but that chance is a negligible one. In any case, right now it doesn't matter what was the cause, because I just need to figure out what the term 'this situation' entails.
     Let's start from the elephant in the room, or more accurately - a fairy. I touched Rue's hand. It is like a hand of a doll, not warm like a living hand, but it is definitely real. So it's not a hologram or an illusion... Well it might be delusion, but definitely not a projection. The bigger issue is that she is floating and able to converse with me. According to her, she is something close to an android. This is not something that the current level of technology could produce. So this leaves me with four explanations of what is going on.
     The first explanation, as I said earlier, is that this is a realistic virtual reality game. The faerie and the convenient translation spell point to this. If that is the case, then why I don't remember entering or even agreeing to participate in this game? Also, after a short interaction with her, it's really hard to believe she could be an NPC.
     The second explanation, and actually the likeliest one, is the fact that I flew off the handle and all I see here is a delusion. I really don't wish for this to be the case, so I will try persuading myself that this isn't what happened. Unfortunately I also can't really say it isn't the case, because if it had turned out that we had been denied the prize money, it would have been a pretty big shock.
     The third explanation would include me being abducted by some secret government organization or aliens that have a technology few generations above of what earth currently has. Sounds fantastic. Still, there aren't that many possible explanations and it's as likely as the last explanation.
     Lastly what might have happened is that the reality bugged out and the invitation was a real one. So it would mean I was whisked into another world for some kind of a tournament.
     Now don't get me wrong. I like games and fantasy books, but liking them and believing them to be real are two very different matters. Imagine yourself walking in a street where you see a robed man waving his hands. In front of him opens what appears to be a window in the thin air. What would be your first reaction? Practically everybody would think it were some kind of a filming scene or a trick. That is a normal reaction. And even though I can't exactly describe a nerd like me to be normal, this is the reaction I would have in such a situation. So I can't really believe my situation to be real.
     Because there isn't anything I can do about it, I can safely ignore the assumption about me being delusional. I can also ignore the assumption about this being a game, since in that situation my actions also wouldn't matter. So, it is easier and really tempting to treat this as a game, but I am forced to act as if everything happening here is real. This doesn't mean I believe this to be a reality, I but I have to act as if it were.
     Mulling over these thoughts I followed the line and finally entered what appeared to be the Main Hall.
     Well, at least I don't need to worry about aliens or government organizations anymore. The hall looks as tasteless as the rooms and the corridors. Grey with no decorations in sight it gives me the feeling of a military facility. A military facility that was just built and not yet used. As I came into the hall I noted that there are many corridors coming here, but the wall opposite to where I came from is solid. More important are the contents of the hall. It is filled with humanoids creatures.
     That's right. Not humans, but humanoids. There are other species in the hall besides humans. Everybody has two legs, two hands and one head, but other details vary quite a lot. I would estimate that less than half have an appearance of a human being. The rest of them are various humanoid shaped creatures that came straight from fantasy books. If I loosely go by appearance, then there are what you could call elves, angels, demons, satyrs, dryads, dwarves, beast men, treefolk (ents or whatever you call them), orcs, and trolls among others. In addition to that there are representatives of some races that I can't even categorize. More than a hundred of them in total. Most stay alone, but there are some groups that are talking among themselves.
     Notably, nearly everybody has a faerie accompanying them. I was contemplating on whether I should join one of those groups, when the light suddenly got dimmer. The empty wall starts to glow and the image becomes visible on the surface of the wall. The background resembles a throne room. A red carped starts on the lower part of the screen and goes through the hall to the podium. There is a row of hooded figures in dark blue robes on both sides of the carpet. On the podium stands a similar hooded figure, but his robe is greyish-white. None of the faces of these people are visible. At this point a loud booming voice echoes through the hall:
     - Champions! I welcome you!
     The gazes of all those in the hall concentrate on the screen and follow each word that is being said.
     - Since the beginning of time where there was life, there was a conflict. To survive in this struggle each species tried to get stronger. Each and every species seeks strength to survive. Some succeed, while others go extinct. But only few obtain sentience on this path. This lets them use strength other than brute force. Each of you has obtained the title of the strongest in your respective worlds. But the title of the strongest can belong to one only!
     The voice took a pause as if to let his statement sink in. Some start to murmur or speak among themselves, but the voice, that continued speaking, drowns all other sounds.
     - You were brought to represent yourself and your species in this tournament. To find out who is the strongest!
     What is this? A Mortal Combat rip-off? Couldn't they come up with a more original setting? Meanwhile the voice continued.
     - Everyone has their own reason to obtain strength and to exhibit that strength. So, let me provide you with a proper motivation: only death will await those who lose, while the winner will receive their heart's desire.
     This got more of a reaction:
     - Do you think I will let myself be killed just like that?
     - We weren't told anything about that!
     - Who do you think you are!?
     - Who do you think I am!?
     - I never agreed to any of this!
     There are many shouts like that. All of them got interrupted by the voice:
     - SILENCE! You have agreed to participate and are thus required to follow the rules. Breaking those rules will lead to the severe punishment.
     At this point, the speaker made a gesture with his right hand. In response to it a hooded figure closest to him on the right made a step forward and began speaking.
     - You may try breaking the rules right now. It will make the demonstration of the punishment much easier for us. Are there any volunteers?
     Surprisingly, there are quite a few such individuals. First there is a two and a half meter tall humanoid covered in a white fur. Calling him a yeti would probably be the best description of him I can give. He looks very aggressive and intimidating. I wouldn't want to be left with him alone. Contrasting with his size, there is a creature that looked like a rat walking on two legs. Do you call a creature like that a kobolt? After those two lumps of fut there are two human-looking individuals. They are both muscular and their faces do not betray any signs of intelligence. Then there is what could be best described as a humanoid shaped as a pile of rocks. If fantasy books are to be believed, then you could call him a troll. These five went forward.
     I do not know their intentions and it seems never will. Right at that moment a hooded figure on the screen that asked for volunteers made some gesture with his hand. This caused green vines to grow through the floor and entangle those five. However it did not stop them. All of them managed to tear the vines away. As soon as they threw the ripped vines away, the new vines grew to entangle them again. All five of them managed to tear these new vines away as well. It seems as if it were a child's play for them. The vines tried to entangle them three more times, after which they stopped growing. Everything seemed to calm down.
     Five of them were standing, surrounded by cut down vines. None of them seem out of breath. They seem to be waiting for what will happen next. After a few moments the yeti-like humanoid taunts:
     - Is this the best you have got?
     As if in response to this, all the remnants of the vines, grew spikes on them. In the blink of an eye those spikes extended from length of a few centimetres to two meters. In a flash, all five 'volunteers' were impaled with those spikes. There were so many spikes that five of them were bound in one place. They haven't yet understood what happened. One of them tried to speak, but only blood came from his mouth and light gradually disappeared from his eyes. Blood started dripping from spikes. In a few moments it became clear that all of them were dead.
     If this is a game, then it is too realistic. I still couldn't wrap my head around what had happened, so quick it was. As the blood continued dripping I felt more and more sick. I did play some war games in virtual reality, but this was different. This realism... It was sickening. I was about to vomit, when the voice starts speaking again:
     - I hope this demonstration was a sufficient one. We will give you three days for acclimatization after which the tournament will start. We will time the rounds in such a way, that, unless something unexpected occurs, each of you will have one day break after a fight. You will not be restricted in any way during your free time, but you are not to fight among yourselves outside the ring. You saw what happened for violating the rules. For any additional information inquire your assistant faerie. They have all the information you might need.
     After taking a small pause he continued.
     - I expect all of you to deliver a great performance. Prove your strength! Obtain your dream!
     Even though there are many things in his speech that I should think about, one thing bothered me more than the rest. Those words - 'Prove your strength, obtain your dream'. They were on the email I had received. Now I could be absolutely certain about one thing: I should not have replied to that mail!
     After the speech finished I look around. There are some faces that have a look of surprise on them, but it seems I am the only one who is shocked by what had happened. My eyes wander back to five dead bodies impaled with spikes. Reflexively I lower my gaze and notice a puddle of blood under them. Somewhere in the periphery of my consciousness I note that it isn't crimson. There are parts of it that are bright red, but some parts have colours closer to orange and some to green. Turns out not everybody here has red blood.
     Last thought triggered something in my head and I practically run out of the hall. I follow the green line, which I used to get here, and get into my room. As soon as I got in I wanted to ask Rue where a bathroom was, but I couldn't manage to form a coherent sentence.
     - ...Bathroom. - It is the only word I managed to utter.
     In response to this, a panel opposite to where I came from turned into a door. I ran into it and found myself in a normal bathroom.

     Ten minutes later, slightly refreshed, I left the bathroom. The main question is - can I abstain from participating in this tournament? If I take into account all that has happened, especially typical fantasy cliches, then the possibility of my not participating is close to zero. Nonetheless it would be stupid not to try, so I started questioning Rue once again.
     - Rue.
     - Yes, Master?
     - Is there any way of avoiding participation in this tournament?
     - Unfortunately, the only way to do that is being unable to.
     - Could you clarify what do you mean by that?
     - A critical injury or a situation that prevents you from participating in a match. On the condition it was not caused during a match.
     - So if I, for example, break my legs, I could avoid this tournament?
     - No, in that case you would just be patched up in the medical bay.
     - Eh? What would then fall under that category?
     - There are practically no examples of such cases. The only realistic one is being affected by a rank one curse.
     - How would I do that?
     - Master would have to anger some divinity to get cursed like that. But there aren't any divinities in this world, so you would have to make a connection with a divinity outside this world.
     How can that be considered realistic? There goes that option. Though, I am actually relieved. Traumatizing or cursing myself isn't something I would want to do, but I had to consider all options.
     - Why am I even forced to participate in this? I wasn't even supposed to be summoned here. It was clearly a mistake.
     - With all due respect Master, the system does not have any errors. Master has not been chosen accidentally.
     - Then why was I chosen? What were the criteria?
     - In each world there are different definitions of what you call 'strong'. Thus, in order to avoid confusion and summon only the ones truly qualified there is a fail-safe mechanism. From the list of the ones, whom people in Master's world consider the strongest in one way or another, the one with the strongest Ether Link is chosen.
     Hurray for fantasy gibberish. Here comes loads of new terminology and 'unscientific' explanations of how the world works. This is the part I would like to skip, but alas no such luck. I have to study it, because if there is a way for me to survive, then it includes studying local magic. Not like I am that unwilling, but to do it in three days' time, I practically have to be a genius. And no, practice in different fantasy related games does not count. That's just wistful thinking. I know that all these fantasy book heroes are always geniuses at magic, but it doesn't really fill me with confidence. Whatever the case might be, I don't really have a choice but to do it. So I surrendered to my 'destiny'.
     - What is this Ether Link?
     After a bit of thinking Rue answers.
     - Since Master's world is technologically oriented it doesn't really have the right vocabulary for explaining this. Basically Ether Link, or Link for short, is an ability to draw Ether from a world around. Every living being absorbs Ether from the world it belongs to. The more sentient the species is, the stronger the Link can become.
     If I translate this into understandable format then this Ether Link is basically the same as intelligence in games. The more intelligence you have, the more MP you possess and the stronger spells you can cast.
     - Then, if I have such a strong Link, why couldn't I use magic in my world?
     - Having a strong Link is like having a socket with a high voltage, but without anything connected to it. When practicing magic, one is accessing energy of his world by using Ether Link. If one doesn't know how to do magic, then he won't be able to use it. Also, the magic isn't the only thing that a strong Link provides.
     - What is the other one? Telepathy? Telekinesis?
     - Close, but not exactly. Magic is something that can be learned. Even individuals with weak Ether Link can learn some minor magic. What sets people with strong Link apart are the special abilities. Depending on your personality, special ability might manifest itself among possessors of a strong Link.
     - So you are saying that I possess some special ability I don't know about?
     - Yes, Master. Everyone summoned here possesses a special ability. That is a criterion which was used to choose them.
     Great! I see where this is going. Now I am just going to learn this special ability in three days and wipe the floor with everybody else.
     - Like that's going to happen! - I retorted to myself, though I can't deny that in the corner of my mind I wished that to be the case.
     - What is it, Master?
     - Sorry, just talking to myself. So how do I go about finding out what that ability is?
     - Meditative practices are the best ones for that. You can find all about them in the library.
     Off I go exploring.

     Chapter 2. Basic Controls / Moving around

     - How did you make that awesome attack?
     - I don't know, I just randomly mashed all the buttons

     Ater I had left my room, a brown light lit under my legs. I started walking along this line to the library. The halls were monotonously grey, and there wasn't anything to distract myself with. So I decided to chat a bit:
     - Why is everything here so grey and colourless?
     - These are default parameters for walls and interior. No customizations have been made.
     In a normal language her answer would sound like this: 'Nobody bothered to do anything about it'.
     Not like it really matters though, I don't exactly have time to enjoy scenery. The thought about saving time raises a question.
     - By the way, is it necessary to go to the library? I mean, can't you remotely access it and teach me what I need?
     - Master is correct, I could.
     - Then why didn't you say so?
     - Master did not ask me to do so...
     I don't know whether I should laugh or cry at this. The situation is so ridiculously cliche that it even brings me some comfort. But only a little. I was still angry with her. Even though I find it really hard to believe in the reality of this, it doesn't mean I have time to loiter around. The tournament will start in three days' time. At this rate my first fight will be the last one. I need to either find a way to avoid the fight or a way to win it. I was about to tell all that to Rue, but ignoring my internal struggle, she continued.
     - In addition to that, learning from the information crystal is considerably more efficient, so I decided not to bother Master with unnecessary trivialities. Was I mistaken, Master?
     - No, you were most likely correct. Don't worry.
     Okay, that puts a big dent in my theory about this being a game. Her speech is way too realistic. NPC shouldn't be able to hold a proper conversation. Of course, there is a possibility she is controlled by a human or by a genuine AI, that was developed in secret then used here. Whatever the case the fact that Rue can hold a sensible conversation is still an argument for this being a real world. This, in turn, makes my mood drop. Any proof of the fact that in three days' time I will probably be killed doesn't really make one cheerful. In any case, getting information is priority.
     - So, while we are walking, could you please explain to me how exactly is this tournament held. What is allowed and what isn't?
     - As Master desires. - Answered Rue. - Though I have to inform Master that information I can provide at this point in time is very limited.
     - It's still better than nothing. Tell me what you can.
     - As was explained earlier, the tournament will start in three days. For the preliminary round Master will be pitted against three or four other combatants. Only one survivor will advance.
     - Is that all?
     - Yes Master. That is all.
     That was too short! There was practically no information at all! Shouldn't this be the point where the tournament structure is explained to me? What is it with this crappy game design?
     - At least elaborate on what you meant by "pitted against". I want to hear more details on where and how we are supposed to be fighting.
     - On a randomly selected arena Master will fight against three or four other participants. No substitutions are allowed. Excluding that, anything goes. The fight will continue until only one is alive.
     Not much information to go on with. The first round seems to be closer in definition to a survival game than a brawl. Though the fact that instead of one opponent, I have to survive three, is still depressing.
     I wanted to ask more about the rules for the preliminaries, but at this point in time I left the building. It seems like I am in the middle of some kind of forest. I'm not knowledgeable about wildlife, so I couldn't really say much about the trees around me other than the fact that they are green.
     What captured my attention are three trails going into the forest. It appears that long ago they were proper roads, but left untended, plants grew over them. The road itself is intact, but only partially visible. Parts of roots and bushes, as well as vines and leaves covered these roads. Although roads aren't cleaned, they appear to be used. So, on each of the three roads there is a visible trail which is clear of any junk.
     I turned back to look at the building I came from. The doors were transparent when I was inside, but from the outside the wall appeared monolithic. The building itself appeared to be a grey cube with no visible windows or doors. At the very least there were trees around the building and green vines on the walls, so it wasn't as dull as corridors. Still, it was a pretty depressing sight: like those old abandoned ruins in games, but without cracks. They really should have given this place a bit more identity.
     As for the entrance - there wasn't anything in the wall to indicate that there was a door, but it was still obvious. Why do you ask? That's simple. The vines were really thick and there were a lot of them. The only place that seemed free of vines was the place I came out from. Why bother making the invisible entrance if its location is obvious?
     Whatever may be the case, enjoying scenery is not the reason I am here. The brown glowing line I followed to get here seemed to continue on the left road. Without further contemplations I start walking down that road. Looking at the scenery I suddenly realize that I haven't eaten anything since I woke up. It didn't bother me before, but as soon as I realized that, I became very hungry. I try to ignore it by concentrating on something else. Before I could come up with anything, my stomach disrupted my thoughts with a loud growl.
     - Is Master in need of sustenance?
     - Apparently, yes. You don't conveniently happen to have something to aid my predicament, do you?
     She raised her arms forward. A glowing bluish circle with symbols in it is appearing in front of her. The diameter of the circle is about five centimeters. The circle starts glowing stronger and stronger until it becomes a disk of light. At this point Rue pushes her hands in it. As she takes them out, there is a red pill in them. The sight was pretty amusing, since the pill was basically half Rue's size.
     Cool! Is that some kind of teleportation magic? Or is it a dimensional pocket? Either way, it's a really convenient ability. I want to have something like that myself. I would want to inquire Rue more about what she has just done, but hunger got better of me. I brought my hand up and Rue dropped the red pill in it. I examined the pill more closely. It seemed to have a powder inside.
     - I don't suppose you have a blue one, do you?
     - I am terribly sorry, Master. That was the only nutrition pill I had in my possession. Do you wish me to find you a blue coloured nutrition pill?
     Rue turned her head to the side showing her puzzlement with my statement. Ignoring her I just throw the pill into my mouth. Immediately afterwards I regretted not having asked her to bring another one.
     My vision went dark for a moment. Yuck! The taste of the powder is all sorts of horrible. It is tasteless but at the same time tastes like all the dishes I hate most: pickles, olives and all sorts of other less discernible but equally horrible tastes. I want to vomit, but there isn't anything beside the pill in my stomach. If this is what truth tastes like, I definitely prefer to live in the world of illusions.
     - What is this atrocious torture-pill?
     - An emergency nutrition pill.
     - But why was the taste so horrible?
     - The pill provides all the necessary nutrition for most known life forms. By itself it is pretty much tasteless. Thus they were quite unpopular and avoided. As an attempt to promote them an illusion magic was used during their production. The idea was that the pill should taste the same as your favourite food.
     - So how did it turn into this... I don't even have words to describe how disgusting it was.
     - According to the documentation left: the idea behind illusion spell was to draw out the strongest positive taste and use it. Unfortunately, for unknown reason, instead of drawing out the strongest positive taste it has just draws out the strongest tastes. The result is what you have experienced.
     I can somehow understand what she means. If you mix two dishes one of which is exceptionally good and the other is exceptionally bad, the result will almost always be exceptionally bad.
     - So what tragedy led you to possess one of these pills?
     - The defect was discovered too late, so a very large batch of them was produced. Since it was another branch of Illari research institute, to cut on the losses, the product was distributed among other branches as a part of emergency package. - Rue took a small pause, and continued. - Master, may I inquire why you characterized this story as a tragedy even before hearing it?
     - If these pills end up being consumed by a living being, then it cannot be described as anything but tragedy.
     - I see. Thank you for your response, Master.
     The conversation died out and I continued walking through this forest accompanied by the buzzing of Rue's wings. Some might wonder why I accepted existence of Rue so easily or why I wasn't commenting on how she addressed me as 'Master' Besides the fact that it felt oddly natural, there were two main reasons.
     The first is that I had plenty of other things to worry about, and having somebody help me deal with them was like a boon. So I adhered to the wisdom of my ancestors - 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it'. As for the second reason... Well, let me ask you this - 'What kind of an idiot would refuse help of a cute little faerie that does everything ask of her'?
     The walk through the forest was quite short, so I haven't met anybody. But I did hear sounds of leaves rustling, so I assumed there was somebody nearby. Anyway, the building I came to is huge. It is more than two hundred meters in width and is shaped like a pyramid. The pyramid is familiarly grey-coloured and covered with green vines.
     At the top of this pyramid is a blue transparent crystal in the shape of octahedron. The crystal is quite far away, so it is hard to tell its size, but I would assume it to be around one meter in height. What is interesting is that this crystal seems to be hovering with its tip barely touching the tip of the pyramid.
     After marvelling at the pyramid for a bit, I start walking to the entrance. By the way, the pyramid is monolithic so there aren't any doors or windows. Though it is still obvious where the entrance is. Like the building I came from, this one is also thickly covered with vines, except for one part that is slightly bigger than what a door should be.
     I walk close to that segment. When I was about to touch the wall, it split opened. Inside is a familiar dullish grey-coloured corridor. Like in the previous building, there don't appear to be any sources of light, but it is still bright. I am really starting to hate these monotonous designs. Why couldn't anybody add a bit more colour? Whatever the case, I start walking along the corridor.
     The walk was really short. Turns out, there is some kind of an optical illusion, and another door is less than ten meters from the entrance. This door opens as soon as I come near it. When I enter, I feel unusual heaviness and brightness, but it passes in an instant. The room I come in is quite peculiar and slightly scary. It is white and shaped as half of a sphere. The whole floor is filled with a writing in some unknown language. What is unusual about this writing is that the lines of text form different geometrical figures. There is so much of this writing that you couldn't step anywhere without stepping onto the text.
     The only space not filled with the writing, is a circle in the middle of the room. The lines of text form the edges of this circle, but the inside is a clean white floor. This circle in the middle catches my eye, since as soon as I enter, it is starting to glow. I turned around to make sure the escape route is still open, but behind me was just a white concave wall that forms a dome around this room.
     No escape? This makes me slightly scared. First I try touching the wall, but to no avail. Now I'm beginning to panic for real. I understand that this shouldn't be dangerous, but being locked in a room with magical writing all over it and glowing circle, that is starting to glow stronger and stronger, is still scary.
     To calm myself down I'm doing the only thing I can come up with - I'm trying to convince myself that all of this is just a cool CG.
     This is not real. Not real. Not real!
     This is just a light. Just a light!
     This is nothing to be afraid of!
     To my huge surprise, I actually succeed. It's as if something clicked in my head. The pressure of the upcoming survival game decreases. I somehow feel... No. I somehow know that I will survive it. I also know that I don't need to fear this situation. The strange glowing circle is still there, and I'm still wary of it, but I also know that whatever happens, I will be able to deal with it.
     In some respect this resembles what I felt when I played VR-games. In them I knew that nothing would happen to me. In the worst case I can start from the beginning. This new feeling I have is similar yet different. I'm trying to put that feeling into words, but can't come up with any words that will suit it.
     Still, this feeling gives me confidence. This new-found confidence eases the fear and panic, clearing my mind and enables me to think properly. Only now do I realize that Rue was beside me all this time. I can't understand why I didn't ask for her help or at least an explanation? I was about to voice my questions when it happens.
     The glowing disk suddenly bulges. It takes a shape of a drop of water that is dropping upwards. The bottom split into two halves forming legs. From the top emerges a sphere which takes a form of a head in a cape. Slowly the bluish glowing droplet starts resembling a shape of a humanoid in a robe. I would say a human, but in light of all that has happened I am slightly pickier on when to use that term.
     At first it is just a shape of a humanoid, but as the glow starts to get dimmer, it becomes clearer that it is a human. In some places, like for example legs, you can see through him. The only part not covered by robe, is his face. The beard and wrinkles start to become visible. It becomes clear that it was an elderly man in a robe.
     He is made of glowing bluish light. If I am to describe him, then telling that he is what you could call a ghost would explain his appearance best. Looking at his transparent blue eyes I got a sense of immeasurable age and wisdom.
     The elderly man starts to speak:
     - So... - He makes a dramatic pause. - Didn't wet your pants, did ya?
     The elderly ghost grins. This grin is so mismatched with that old face that it destroys all illusion of age and wisdom. Now he just seems like a childish old man. He is giving off a vibe of eccentricity.
     How should I explain this properly... Imagine the boss at your work ordering you to go to the neighbouring town to fetch him a brand of coffee he likes. And when you bring it he just says he changed his mind and doesn't want it anymore, throwing coffee into junk and grinning. Looking at the grin of this old geezer I feel the same indignation.
     - What? A cat got your tongue? - Continues this geezer. - Or are you still so afraid that you can't even move?
     For some reason his grin is making me really angry with him.
     - Rue, weren't we supposed to go into the library? Why did we end up in a home for elderly?
     - I apologize, Master. According to the database, this was the library, but it seems the building was remodelled into a nursing house.
     Wow! It took me a moment to realize that Rue was just following up my off-hand joke. She is definitely not an NPC.
     - Oi, oi. Why are you ganging up to me? I am the High and Mighty Keeper of Knowledge, one of the High Spirits overseeing this library.
     He straightens his shoulders and puffs his chest. If anything, it seems comical.
     - I see that you are high, or at the very least high maintenance. Then give me the book which would explain how to kill spirits. Or better yet a book that explains how to force spirits to do my bidding.
     - Now let's not be so hasty. Maybe you would like something more practical. Like for example: 'A complete manual on conjuring the philosopher's stone', 'Rituals for summoning. Volume IV: Djinns' or perhaps 'Inter-dimensional travel for dummies'.
     That made my heart skip a beat. Does this mean I can escape this place without attending the tournament? I know it couldn't be that easy and I shouldn't be getting my hopes up, but still... Still...
     - Rue.
     - Yes, Master?
     - You said that there was practically no way for me to avoid the tournament.
     - Yes, Master. That is the case.
     - Then what if I would escape this world.
     - In that case Master most likely would avoid participation. Though escaping from this world is not possible for Master right now.
     - Why is that?
     - There is a barrier around this complex. It prevents going in or out for anybody unauthorized. Currently Master is unauthorized to exit and only one person may give such an authorization.
     I asked gloomily:
     - The organizer of the tournament?
     - Master is correct.
     I see where this is going.
     - So, by the same logic a wish granted by a djinn and the immortality from a philosopher's stone wouldn't help me fight either?
     The ghost, who was silently listening to my conversation with Rue, suddenly grinned again.
     - Correct! Not a lost case, yet. Ha-ha-ha!
     His laughter is getting on my nerves.
     - Rue. Are you certain that this is more efficient than if you would teach me?
     - Yes, Master. Unfortunately spirits are best at teaching the skills from the books here.
     The old geezer started complaining:
     - What's with this 'unfortunately'? What do you mean by 'unfortunately'?
     Ignoring this outburst, I continued my conversation with Rue.
     - Are you sure? It certainly doesn't seem like it to me.
     As if to illustrate my point the geezer shrank, retreated to a corner and started pouting. Yes, you heard me right - he 'retreated to the corner'. Since the room is round, he made a corner from the bluish light that he was made of. What is it with this childish behaviour? Am I in a kindergarten? And why am I even going along with this?
     With a sigh Rue replied to me:
     - As teachers, spirits in this library are unrivalled.
     Well, it's not like I have any better plan of action. So even though Rue hasn't dispelled my doubts, I decided to heed her advice and ask for the help of the spirit.
     - So, what do I need to do for you to actually teach me?
     Suddenly, something changed. At first I coudn't understand what had happened. That is, until I looked at the old geezer. No, right now calling him old geezer would be inappropriate. He's standing in the middle of the room gazing at me. His eyes are sharp and serious. As if, the way he acted right before now was just a dream.
     Then he began speaking:
     - So you wish to develop your special ability and learn magic?
     I don't remember telling him the purpose of my visit, so how did he know about it? I wanted to ask that, but the spirit continued.
     - But you don't seem to know even the first thing about it. So before we start let me give you an interesting riddle: Ether Link is an ability to tap into the energy of the world - Ether. Every living being has an Ether Link, there are even some special animals and species that have special abilities thanks to that. Though at the same time, it is only sentient beings that are able to strengthen that Link. Using that information, what would you say is basis for Ether Link and what is needed to strengthen it?
     'That is what I came here to find out!!!', or so I would want to say. But his eyes are telling me that this time he is serious. Time for joking around has ended. If I want to survive I need to take this seriously. So I start thinking about it.
     He said that every living being has Ether Link. If you look at this from another angle then it means that beings who aren't alive probably can't have it. So, what is it that separates living beings from non-living? The first thing that comes to my mind, the most obvious one - the ability to reproduce. Though, it is certainly not the correct line of thought here. Suffice to say, that if it were, the library wouldn't be the place to which Rue would have sent me to learn the Ether Link, so let's just leave it at that.
     To approach it from another angle - he said that only sentient beings are able to get stronger. It means that non-sentient beings cannot strengthen Ether Link. To obtain it I need to have something any living being has, but to strengthen it I must have something only sentient ones have. Twisting and turning conditions of the riddle I thought back on the behaviour of this spirit. He was basically fooling around, wasn't he?
     Meditation... Fooling around... Doing what you want... Following your desires... Thinking about it, it finally hit me. If you think about it from a perspective of a fantasy story the answer should be an obvious one. Instincts. All living beings have instincts. What separates sentient beings from animals? An ability to go against your emotions. An ability to go against your instincts. This would mean...
     - Fear, panic, anger... Did you cast some spell on me earlier?
     - Ho-ho-ho. You seem to have found the answer. Care to tell me what it is?
     - Instincts, emotions... Those are the things that enable the Ether Link. Consequently ability to control emotions and instincts is something that only sentient beings able to do.
     - That is correct. The spell I cast on you was mental interference spell called Emotional Amplification. The spell causes beings under the radius of effect to have an amplified emotional reaction to anything that happens. As for your answer to my original question, it is also correct. To establish a proper Ether Link one needs strong emotions. Positive emotions work, but negative ones are easier to invoke.
     - Why are you telling me this? Wouldn't it be easier to get the desired reaction out of me without telling me this?
     - It doesn't matter.
     - But I can't use Ether Link.
     - Is that so?
     Suddenly from opposite wall an arrow flew straight at me. Instinctively I raised my hand to block it. To my surprise the impact didn't happen. The arrow disappeared.
     - What was the point of that illusion?
     - That was no illusion.
     - Eh?
     - That was a real arrow. And as for you not being able to use Ether Link... Well, when I appeared, you already succeeded in using it.
     So he means that strange knowledge and confidence I had were due to Ether Link? But...
     - Then why did you start that farce?
     - Can't an old man have some joy in his life?
     He was grinning again and all his seriousness disappeared.
     An arrow flew right through him and got stuck in the opposite wall.
     I am quite puzzled. Have I done that?
     - What just happened?
     - Ho-ho-ho. Quite an interesting ability you have there.
     I still have trouble accepting all this, but it's not like I have a luxury to brood on this. Right now I just need to do what I can.
     - So, what exactly is my ability?
     - Ho-ho-ho. That is for me to know and for you to find out.
     I really want to punch him. Though I know he isn't corporeal, so that won't succeed. I feel as if something snapped inside my mind. I hear a clap and feel a small breeze going towards the ghost. But nothing else happened.
     - Hm... I think this is enough. With that, stage one is over. - Declared the ghost.
     Suddenly my head cleared. As if fog over my thoughts has lifted. Seems that Emotional Amplification spell he had talked about earlier was still active. So that was what he meant when he said that it didn't matter whether I knew about it or not. Unless you continuously concentrate on your feelings, it doesn't really matter whether you know that you are under effects of this spell. You will still be less rational and behave more emotionally.
     - If that is the case, will you stop trying to annoy me now and start teaching properly?
     - Oh, but I was teaching you properly.
     Leaving aside whether that could be called properly, I did manage to do something. Though, he didn't answer my question. Seems this is going to be all kinds of difficult. I sighed with exasperation.
     - Oi, oi. Stop sighing all the time. Don't you know that with every sigh a bit of happiness escapes?
     - That is a line only a heroine of a love story is allowed to say! Most definitely not something I want to hear from an annoying old geezer!
     After a small pause I continue.
     - So, what now? Are you going to tell me what my ability is and how to use it?
     - I am sorry, but it would be better if I didn't.
     - Why is that?
     - Telling you that would effectively mean I am shackling your ability. As long as you don't discover what it is yourself, you won't be able to use it properly.
     And now we are back to classical cliche developments - AKA 'Find the power within yourself'.
     - So what is it that you are going to teach me? If there was a stage one, it means there is at least a stage two.
     - Right now you are able to use your special ability only when you are faced with extreme conditions. The next stage is to allow you to use that ability any time you want to. To do that you need to get yourself into meditative trance.
     - Do I need to sit in the lotus position or something like that?
     - Eh, why would you need that? Just sit down so you are comfortable.
     I sat right beside the wall, so that I would be leaning on it. Afterwards I start relaxing like I was instructed to. I thought that with all this stress it would be difficult, but that does not seem to be the case. Turns out I am so exhausted, that my body can't stay on edge any longer. As soon as I sat down I felt heaviness in my body and couldn't stand up even if I wanted to.
     A typical development for this kind of situation would be for me to fall asleep and have some kind of 'enlightening dream'. That is not what happened.
     Like I had been instructed, I was relaxing and trying to think back on that feeling I had when I just entered the room. At one point, when my mind was fuzzy and I was practically falling asleep, it finally happened. What I saw shocked me wide awake. I saw something that was totally inappropriate, though not entirely unexpected.
     Not believing what I saw and thinking that it was some kind of hallucination, I start relaxing again. This time it happens even faster than the previous time. I see exactly the same thing. This time it isn't so surprising, so I don't snap out of this state. Now that I am certain that it isn't a hallucination... Well, okay. What I see might be called a hallucination, it was a bad choice of words. Let me rephrase it. Now that I was certain that what I see isn't a dream... Bad choice of words again. Ah, whatever. It doesn't really even matter.
     I will just come out and say it, however lame it might sound. My whole vision is filled with a brown square. This square consists of two parts. The left part contains a human figure. It seems as if that figure is sitting and leaning on something. It took me a moment to realize that the figure is copying my posture. The right half of the square is filled with empty cells. There are thirty two rows of sixteen boxes each. In other words, before my eyes is a typical inventory screen of the kind you might find practically in any game.
     Basically in all RPG games you have an inventory where all items are stored. Depending on the game they might have limitations on size or amount of items stored. This is one of the things why these games are made fun of. Potions, armour, herbs, ores, a rocket engine, a legendary sword or two... Those are all the things that might find themselves in a player's inventory. By the end of the game players may have filled those inventories with so much stuff that wouldn't fit even into a warehouse. Before my eyes, was a box that looked exactly like a generic inventory screen from those games.
     What kind of game design is this? Are they telling me that my special ability is what every other game character has by default? This sucks. Throwing fireballs, calling windstorms, teleporting, or other similar power would be cool. Yet, what I get is a generic ability that is just a glorified backpack. Where do I get contact info to complain?
     I practically convinced myself in the reality of what was happening. Everything here is just way too realistic. Whenever I talked with somebody it felt as if I were talking to real people and not NPCs. Feelings and movements are like in a real life. Now this comes along. A magical power... A power of miracles... A special ability to call forth an inventory screen. Worthless... It's just too idiotic.
     - Is that it?
     - I do not know what you see. Ether Link manifests through subconsciousness in a form that is natural to you.
     So, what he meant to say was that this inventory-ability is natural to me? Stop joking around!
     Meanwhile the spirit continues:
     - What you see is how your subconsciousness perceives your ability. As you get yourself accustomed with this ability and as you develop it, subconscious perception of it might change and what you see might change along with it.
     Do I play so many games, that I subconsciously want to become a game character? I refuse to accept that. I am not that hopeless. I am not that hopeless. There, I even said it twice so it must be the truth. There is no way that I would get whisked to another world, have strong magic and have a special ability that is just a backpack. That would be way too sad. I will simply go with the explanation that developers of this game were striving for realism, so they turned all typical convenient player abilities, like for example an inventory, into a game mechanic and called them a special ability. That sounds way more realistic. That definitely has to be it. Yep, let's go with that.
     These thoughts calmed me down slightly. Though, my predicament remained unchanged. In three days there is going to be a fight, and I don't have any solid proof that dying there won't be final. Treating this as a simple game is just too dangerous. So I have to get most of this ability... No matter how crappy it is.
     - Is there any way to develop it, besides using it?
     - No. That is the only option available to you right now.
     So, no shortcuts.
     - In other words what you are saying is that there is no point in staying here and suf... I mean speaking with you?
     - That seems to be the case. Your little companion over there can provide you with most of the information that you might need. You can return here when you are ready for the next step.
     I really don't want to ask. Mainly because I know what he will answer, but I still have to. I have to continue asking stupid questions just to make sure I don't miss some crucial bit of information that could increase my chances of survival.
     - And when will that be?
     - You will know, you will know...
     Suddenly a weight dropped on my shoulders, a light got brighter, a room warmer and I noticed a half-transparent door. Meanwhile the spirit got more transparent. It ended just as suddenly as it started. Weight disappeared, light and temperature returned to normal, but the spirit disappeared and the door became completely visible.
     Since there wasn't anything to do here, I just went out.
     - Rue, is there a good place to train this ability?
     - Follow this line, Master.
     A white line appeared under my feet. Following the line I went along the middle path into the forest.
     Walking, I thought back on what had happened. I really behaved quite oddly. That Emotional Amplification spell is quite a nasty thing. It's like I couldn't think properly - turned off my head and reacted to everything with raw emotions. If you think about it, staying there and learning more would have probably been smarter course of action. I assume it was the spirit's way of saying that I had to go. Normally you would at least ask the name of a spirit, right?
     Still, thinking of what I can do with my ability right now is more appropriate. Most obvious thing would be to have a huge assortment of weapons stored there. In that case...
     - Rue, is the use of weapons allowed?
     - Yes, Master. Weapons are only as useful as user makes them. Thus, the ability to use weapons is considered to be a part of a person's strength, so everything you can get your hands on is allowed.
     - Great! That being the case, is there some armoury I could loot for weapons?
     - There is no such thing as armoury here. Although there are some outdated weapons stored in the Training complex.
     - Why such a peculiar state of affairs? You have weapons to train with and against, but not weapons that you are supposed to arm yourself with?
     - I am sorry, Master. I seem to not have made myself clear. It's not that there is no armoury, it's just that there is no need for one. There is only one weapon anybody associated with these facilities would use - Chlymea.
     - Now you lost me. What is Chlymea?
     - Chlymea is a scientifically developed crystalline substance that grows when you infuse it with Ether. As it can take basically any form the user imagines, there is no need for any other kind of weaponry.
     Right now I feel like crying. My ability wouldn't be completely useless if I could use it to arm myself with a large arsenal to handle any situation that would arise. And now it turns out even that is pointless, because whole arsenal can be fitted into a (presumably) small crystal anyway. That's just unfair!
     - What about high-tech weapons? What if I would like to create some sort of anti-matter gun?
     - You can use memory crystals to store blueprints of weapons you don't know the technology to produce. Then, when you are infusing Ether into Chlymea, you can tap into those crystals to produce a weapon you need.
     That's it. My ability is completely useless. Still, I have to admit that this Chlymea thing sounds interesting.
     - Is there a way for me to get my hands on one of those crystals?
     Like with the nutrition (torture) pill earlier, a glowing circle with writings on it appeared before Rue. Now that I looked closer, writings on that circle were forming geometrical shapes like the ones I saw in the room earlier. The circle turned into a glowing disk, and Rue took out a jet black crystal that was shaped like a triangular pyramid, a tetrahedron. The crystal wasn't too big, an edge had a length of around half a palms width - approximately four centimetres.
     - This is it?
     - Yes, Master. This is Chlymea.
     - So how do I use it?
     - Master should picture an item he wants, and infuse Ether into crystal.
     Leaving aside imagination, the part where I have to infuse might be a problem.
     - And how do I infuse it?
     - According to what is found in books, the fastest way to learn that is using Master's ability as much as possible. Eventually it will enable to feel a flow of Ether, which in turn will enable to influence it.
     This means my plan to see what I can do with this useless ability remains unchanged.
     - Ok, thanks for information Rue.
     At this point I saw something above the trees.
     - By the way, where are we going?
     - Master has requested a place to practice using a special ability. The best place to practice is the Training Complex, we have practically arrived.
     I have to note that while I was walking I came across other participants multiple times, but I was either ignored or met with a look of disdain. Thus, the first contact could be considered a failure. This bothered me, but there wasn't anything I could do about it.
     Shortly after I had finished my conversation with Rue, a building became visible. What is before my eyes is a large half-sphere shaped grey dome with a small sphere on top of it. The dome is around half as big as the library, the diameter is less than a hundred meters. And the diameter of the sphere on top is approximately a height of a child, around one meter. I start to see a pattern forming with the shape of these buildings. Wouldn't be surprised if the administrative building had five corners...
     As with previous buildings, all of it, except for the entrance, was covered with vines. When I got inside, I saw a round grey room that had three doorways in addition to entrance. A line continued to the doorway that was in the middle.
     - What are these doorways for?
     - The middle one is a portal hub for different practice areas. The left one is a hub for miscellaneous facilities like armoury and infirmary. The right one is for personnel only, it has mainly maintenance facilities.
     The room that was beyond the doorway was pretty much identical to what was in the library: white half-sphere shaped room with writing on the floor. As soon as I entered a voice in the room spoke:
     - What is the purpose of the visit?
     - I want to train my ability.
     - Would training ground number three be acceptable?
     How do I know whether it is acceptable or not? It's not like I was here before.
     - Rue, what can you say about that training ground?
     - Yes, it should be sufficient for Master's needs.
     - Then, it's okay.
     - Affirmative, transporting...
     The light got brighter, air warmer, and I felt pressure. Again it ended practically as soon as it started. When my vision adjusted I realized that I was standing right beside the forest. Trees, rocks, vines... This is basically same the type of forest that is outside. I am standing on the clearing with three wooden poles in the middle and a lake behind me.
     - Rue, I want to ask you one very simple thing.
     - What is it, Master?
     - What was the point of going from the forest to the Training Complex if it simulates a forest? I thought it would look more like some kind of a fitness centre.
     - Master won't be spied on, and, when needed, different training exercises for improving reaction and strength can be activated.
     She does have a point. Though, it still feels strange. My questions answered, I decide to start experimenting with my ability.
     First things first. I pick up a pebble from the ground. Then, as I close my eyes, I relax myself and try to recall a feeling I had in the library. The result wasn't immediate, but after a bit of trying I saw it before my mind's eye. On the right is a grid with cells and on the left a figure of a human standing up. This figure is mimicking my posture, but I still don't know what to do.
     This figure is undoubtedly linked to how I need to use this ability. This is supposed to be a product of my subconsciousness, so shouldn't this be intuitive? If this was a game, just picking up an item would allow me to put it into inventory. The pebble is in my hand, so I should be able to move it there somehow. Thinking on how to move the pebble into inventory, I realized that at some point the pebble I held in my hand appeared in the hand of the figure I saw in my mind's eye. So that's how it is...
     I'm trying to imagine the pebble on the picture moving into one of the cells in the grid. As soon as I do that, the weight in my hand disappears and the pebble appears in the top-left cell. I open my eyes to verify contents of my hand. The pebble has indeed vanished. I look around myself to make sure that it hasn't dropped, but it has indeed vanished. Closing my eyes I see the inventory with the pebble in it. As I picture moving the pebble into my hand, it disappears from the inventory and a weight appears in my hand.
     To continue experiments I pick up a twig. Trying to repeat a process I close my eyes, but surprisingly can't see the twig. That's strange. In my mind's eye I see the pebble that is in my right hand, but not the twig that is in my left hand. I concentrate on the sensations of the twig in my hand and suddenly it appears in my mind's eye. After this happened it was easy to move the twig in and out of the inventory. What's the cause for this delay?
     I pick up a leaf. The same as the previous time, it isn't immediately visible in my mind's eye, but upon slightly concentrating on the feeling of the leaf in my hand, I can immediately move it in and out of the inventory. Continuing with experimentation I try using my ability on whatever my sight falls upon.
     In ten minutes the inventory has been filled with an assortment of twigs, rocks and leaves. According to my feelings, the bigger the object was, the longer it took for it to appear in my mind's eye. As for the bigger objects, like for example trees, they just wouldn't appear in my mind's eye at all. It is of course possible I haven't been waiting for long enough. In any case, I can't think about it properly. I am exhausted. It feels like I can't move anything into or out of inventory. I just want to drop down and take a nap. Having no strength to resist it, I do just that.

     Quite a strange dream I had. I think I stayed up too late last night. The dream was interesting, but a little freaky. I don't want to wake up, but I feel quite weird. Why am I sleeping on the ground? I open my eyes, and immediately close them. No. I don't want this. Though, seems I can't escape from this. Opening my eyes again, I see a faerie sitting beside me.
     - It wasn't a dream, was it?
     - It appears Master has been sleeping for past forty two minutes. Could Master clarify as to what the term 'dream' is referring to?
     - No, I already got my answer. Don't bother.
     Seems I have overused my ability. Still, I wonder why I am not feeling hungry. Usually in these situations characters feel extreme hunger, while I only felt sleepiness. Of course as soon as I think about hunger, I become hungry. I still haven't eaten anything except that pill today.
     - Rue, could you explain to me why I felt so exhausted from using the ability, but no hunger?
     - Using Ether Link is taxing only the mind. It doesn't require any physical strength, so resting the mind is sufficient. It appears Master wasn't accustomed to it and overused his ability.
     Basically my ability uses only MP and no stamina. When it hit zero I couldn't think properly so my mind 'shut down' and after recovering I woke up.
     - Rue, are there any mana... I mean potions to recover myself, so that I am able to use my ability for longer periods of time?
     - There are. They are referred to as Link recovery items, but since using an ability taxes the mind, any medicine to allow yourself to tax your mind more wouldn't be healthy. So they are for emergency use only.
     My situation IS an emergency, but probably not critical enough to intake concoctions with unknown effect only for the purpose of training. Plus, I have pretty much recovered. I just need to make sure I don't use up all my strength, so I won't pass out.
     According to the earlier experiments, I need to be touching the object for it to appear in my mind's eye. Also, the bigger the object the longer it takes for it to appear. For ideas on what I could do with my ability I thought back on what had happened in library. There is one thing that puzzles me. First I managed to make an arrow disappear during a flight and then I managed to make it reappear with the same velocity it originally had. This implies that moving things with kinetic energy into the inventory doesn't remove that kinetic energy. And what's more, the arrow wasn't exactly small, so how did I manage to move it instantaneously into the inventory? Am I doing something wrong?
     Learning to move things in and out of inventory instantaneously would potentially allow me to use my ability as a shield for projectiles and weapons. There is also a possibility of absorbing projectiles beforehand, so I could use it instead of a gun. Though, I'm afraid there will probably be problems along the way. For example MP consumption might be a problem. Or would saying 'Ether Link consumption' be more appropriate here?
     Still: 'Yay, my ability can be useful and theoretically OP'. But that is only if I will have enough time to train it. In addition to that, I don't know what abilities my opponents might have. If even my crappy inventory-ability can be turned into something strong, then others might have abilities that are even more overpowered.
     This means the first thing to learn is to discover how to move objects without having a contact with them into inventory. To that end I sit down, place a twig in front of me and hold my hands towards the twig so that they aren't touching it. The distance is a couple centimeters. I close my eyes and call forth the inventory-view. This third person view is quite disorienting. Nothing except my sitting body is visible in it. I try picturing a twig in front of me. Nothing is happening. I try doing it for a bit longer, but without any result.
     Disappointed I lower my hands to the ground. As soon as I do that a few pebbles that my hand is touching appear in my mind's eye. After moving them into inventory, I'm trying to materialize them at a distance from me, but it doesn't succeed. Then as I try moving them from my inventory onto my right shoulder, it surprisingly succeeds. A few experiments later I'm sure that I can move only to and from a place in direct contact with me. Something isn't right. I should be able to affect things without direct contact. Raising my hands, I concentrate on a twig. I try picturing it in my mind's eye in a place where it is supposed to be.
     After a while of concentrating I feel slightly exhausted. I relax my concentration slightly. As soon as I do that, in my mind's eye I notice a small patch coming out of my hands. It is barely there, but since there isn't anything else, it is noticeable. As I concentrate on this fog I am able to move it slowly forwards, towards where the twig is supposed to be.
     After a few experiments with this fog, I discovered that I could see things that were inside it, as well as move them into the inventory. Moving things out of inventory was also possible only in places where I spread this fog. Basically this fog was the area my ability could affect.
     Feeling slightly exhausted I made a small pause. I don't want to pass out again. Now that I was able to move in and out of inventory objects I am not touching, I can try affecting objects that are moving. It is also interesting what would happen with hot objects if I moved them there. Would they cool down? Also, does the time pass for the objects that are in the inventory? With that thought in mind:
     - Rue, do you have some kind of device to measure time that I can use?
     - Yes, Master. I can summon it right away.
     - Then, please do so.
     - Right away, Master.
     In a familiar manner Rue summons a circle, from which she takes out a small grey coloured bracelet.
     - I am really annoyed with this grey colour everywhere. Is there anything that could be done about it?
     - Master can customize this however he likes.
     - How do I do that?
     - Activate customization mode, and picture how it is supposed to look.
     - Would that work for the buildings and other dull looking things around here?
     - That is correct Master. Though Master does not have authorization to do so anywhere except his own room.
     - That's already a big improvement. So, how do I turn customization mode on? For that matter how can I turn the watch on? I can't understand these symbols.
     - Localizing...
     The screen of the bracelet, that originally had unknown symbols on it, went blank.
     - Master, please imagine what you would want this to look like.
     I imagined a jet black bracelet that was slightly thinner than a phone.
     - Customizing...
     When Rue finished, there was before me what resembled a jet black armband. Finally! Something that isn't grey. Surface close to me lit up with a familiar penguin logo. Pretty thorough customization they have here...
     After this small distraction I finally managed to make this armband show time. If this breaks it will be pretty sad. I braced myself and moved the armband into the inventory. A few minutes later I took it out. To my relief the device seems to work. More than that, it has an error message on the screen: 'Time measurement desynchronized. Synchronize with the server? Yes / No'.
     This means that for objects that are in the inventory, no time passes. It's a dream of any food shop - no need to worry about expiration dates. It is bound to be very convenient... Probably... I just haven't come up with a way to use it yet.
     - What functions does this have beside measuring time?
     - Closest synonyms in Master's language seem to be 'smartphone' and 'smartwatch'.
     Chatting with friends, playing games and checking news... All of these 'important' functions of a smartphone are really relevant right now. Like a pile of gold to a man dying of thirst in a desert. Meanwhile Rue continued:
     - It's main purpose is communicating with an assistant faerie like myself in case it was sent on an errand. Communicating with other people is another common way to use it.
     With the way everybody acts here, communicating with somebody will more likely include bloodshed than words. Meaning, unless I send Rue away to do something, this will be a dead weight. Still, having an analogue to a smartphone is oddly comforting, so I just put it on my hand.
     In this manner, with breaks along the way, I continue experimenting with my ability.

     By the end of the day I have learned some interesting things about this ability and ways to use it. Since an object can be moved into inventory only when it is completely covered by the fog, I tried to extend this fog around myself. I had only a partial success. Currently the fog can't reach more than twenty centimetres away from me. Any further and it becomes too dispersed. This allowed me to absorb objects that flew towards me, but it requires good reaction and timing, so it fails more often than not. On a side note, throwing pebbles at me seemed to amuse Rue, even if she didn't admit it when I asked.
     Another discovery was that this 'fog' allowed me to see things that were behind me or otherwise out of my line of sight. As long as I was able to cover an area with the fog, I could see what was inside. For example I could see roots of plants that were underground. This had an obvious limitation though - currently I couldn't extend the fog farther than twenty centimetres, so I couldn't really 'see' with the help of it. Hopefully my range will improve.
     Interestingly enough, halfway during my experiments, in my inventory-view a blue bar appeared. It seems to indicate how much strength I have left for using my ability. Basically it is like an MP bar in games. What puzzles me is the absence of HP bar. Usually they go side by side. If you think about it, why didn't MP bar appear immediately? If I had to make a conjecture, it would be that I had to use an Ether Link to know how much I could use. After doing it a few times, my subconsciousness learned to measure it and gave me an output in a form of MP bar. If I go by that logic, the HP bar will appear when I take enough damage... I don't want the HP bar to appear!
     The experiments and training that I performed with my ability filled me with a hope that in three, or more accurately two, days, I will have a chance of survival. As a final thing to try today I want to get myself a weapon. To this end I take out the Chlymea crystal I received from Rue. I don't know how to 'infuse' it with the Ether, but I still want to try.
     First I want to try moving the crystal into inventory. I close my eyes. In my mind's eye I surrounded the crystal with the fog. Nothing unusual appears to happen, so I try moving it into inventory. I couldn't put my finger on it, but something felt strange. Still, the crystal properly went into my inventory. I immediately take it out. Nothing seemed to change, so I start inspecting the crystal more closely. In my mind's eye it is same jet black tetrahedron that I can see normally. The only difference is that it feels somehow different from how objects normally feel when I look at them in my mind's eye.
     After listening to my feelings for a bit I finally realize that the crystal feels hollow. I'm sure what to do, so as an experiment I'm trying to concentrate the fog in the crystal. Doing it, I feel a resistance. Thinking I am on the right path, I continue. It feels like I am pushing a wall. Nothing is happening, so I'm trying to push more, but nothing changed.
     What am I missing? To get a weapon I want, I need to infuse crystal with Ether. I think that is was what I was doing, but nothing happened. What did I do wrong? Why couldn't I get a weapon? Then I realize that I haven't pictured what kind of a weapon I wanted.
     Yeah, I seem to be exhausted. I should probably finish after this. I picture an image of a katana and try concentrating the fog once again. The feeling of pushing against a wall remains, but this time it feels like the wall is starting to succumb to the pressure. Realizing that, I try making an image of katana clearer and push more. In response to that I feel something snap.
     Upon opening my eyes I didn't see the Katana I wanted. What I saw was a black Chlymea crystal split into two.
     Huh? What just happened?

     Chapter 3. Save / Meddle

     If you see a save-point in an unexpected place, then be prepared for a boss-fight.
     Wisdom of the gamers

     Looking at two pieces of the crystal in my hand, I was quite puzzled.
     - What just happened?
     - Master seems to have broken the Chlymea.
     What kind of a development is this!? Who the heck ever heard of a weapon getting broken when you tried to activate it? I would understand if it refused to respond or the weapon I got would be crappy. This, on the other hand, I can't accept. I mean, what kind of advanced civilization makes a high-tech universal weapon that gets broken when a novice tries to activate it? Isn't there supposed to be some kind of a child-lock installed that prevents it from getting activated if the user doesn't do it properly? Also, for a bigger dramatic impact, isn't 'breaking a weapon'-event supposed to happen when user has become accustomed to it? What is the point of a weapon breaking right when you get it? It just complicates things pointlessly! And my situation is pointlessly complicated as it is, so I don't need more of these developments.
     All these thoughts I kept to myself. What was important right now, was how to fix it and avoid this happening again.
     - Why did it break and how to fix it?
     - I am searching the library, but there doesn't seem to be anything helpful in the public records as to why this could happen. The only useful reference I saw, was that in case of Chlymea breaking into two during activation process, user should go to the infirmary for help.
     - Why infirmary? Was there some dangerous radiation or something like that?
     - That does not seem to be the case. Though, there are practically no specifics.
     Well, there is no point in continuing with the training today. Also I planned on finishing after this anyways, so no harm in visiting infirmary. At least usually there is no harm, it depends on your luck with doctors. According to what Rue was saying in the morning, healthcare here is top notch, but that is beside the point right now. What is important, I need to figure out about what just happened.
     - How to get to the infirmary?
     - I can activate transportation there right now. Should I do that, Master?
     - Yes, please do.
     A familiar feeling of increased weight, warmth and light came and went. At least something here looks and feels how it is supposed to. The room is just a white room of four meters in width and six in length. To my right is a long shelf standing along the wall filled with different concoctions, packets and pills. To my left is a three meter long grey box covered with a cloth. Was this supposed to be a bed to lie on? Doesn't seem too comfortable. In front of me was a grey table with a chair behind it and a stool in front. After a while of standing, I was starting to wonder whether something was wrong. I was about to ask Rue about that, when a glow appeared behind the table. From this circle a figure of glowing light appears. It is exactly like how that library spirit emerged. So the doctor is a spirit as well? This is depressing. It just feels wrong when a doctor that is supposed to help you live isn't actually alive. Luckily it wasn't health issue, but it made me want to avoid having to get here. This spirit had appeared as a robed male in late thirties with no distinctive features. As soon as he forms, he asks:
     - Good evening. What is it that troubles you?
     I show him a broken Chlymea crystal.
     - My assistant faerie said that I should visit infirmary with this.
     The spirit seemed to become tense.
     - And how exactly did this crystal end up in such a state?
     - I tried infusing it with Ether.
     - Was this the first time you tried to infuse Ether into Chlymea?
     - Yes. Can you tell me what happened with it?
     Things are troublesome enough as it is. Please, just say that I have a defective crystal!
     - Under normal circumstances there is no way Chlymea would break. The only way for this to happen, would be if the user had two Ether Links.
     It seems, not with my luck.
     - I'm confused. What do you mean "two Ether Links"?
     - How much do you know about what Ether Link is?
     - Only what my assistant faerie told me: "Ether Link refers to the ability to tap into the energy of the world".
     - That is correct. To be more precise it refers to the ability to draw power from the world you are linked to, hence the name Ether Link. Unless exceptional circumstances were involved, that refers to the world you were born in.
     - Then how would one be able to get a second link? Some kind of reincarnation?
     - No, for those cases old Link would be erased.
     Eh? Did he just offhandedly confirm that reincarnation is possible? With this fantasy setting nothing should be too surprising, but getting told truth about life and death in such a generic manner seems too anticlimactic.
     Meanwhile the doctor continued:
     - Normally getting two Ether Links is impossible. The only known way is for two living beings to reside in the same body. Symbiots and spirit guardians fall into such category. You don't happen to have one of those?
     - Not that I know of.
     - Then it leaves only one possibility: Dissociative Personality Disorder.
     What is it with this turn of events? A split personality? That's too weird even with everything that has happened. Although.... With so much going on it wouldn't be strange for me to get a mental disorder. Or all this might just be a delusion and right now my subconsciousness is hinting at it.
     As a result of all my thoughts only one phrase came out of my lips:
     - You are joking, right?
     - I am serious.
     I just can't believe it. No matter whether this is a game or a reality, this is just too farfetched.
     - So just based on the fact that this crystal broke in my hands you are saying that I have a split personality?
     - While not wrong, that is not entirely correct. Dissociative personality disorder is just the most logical reason for what happened to you. Though we should do a scan to be sure. Do you mind?
     - What exactly is this "scan"?
     - A spell to check condition of your body, psyche, Ether Link and so on.
     Remembering an incident with food in the morning I wanted to make sure...
     - Does it have any side effects?
     - No, the spell just scans parameters.
     Then why would you need permission? Scratch that. It doesn't really matter, does it? I don't have a choice right now.
     - Then, please do.
     A glowing green circle appears above my head. As with previous circles it has a writing in some strange language inside. The lines of text form triangles and circles. The glow gets a bit stronger for a moment. As soon as it does, it feels as though light goes into me and through me. For a moment I thought as if something was missing, but that feeling quickly subsides. What follows it is a feeling of suffocation, as if I can't take a breath. That feeling subsides quickly as well. Whole process took a dozen seconds and the circle disappears.
     As doctor said, there weren't any side effects, but it certainly wasn't pleasant. For being an advanced civilization they certainly have quite a lot of issues. I am here only a day and already experienced results of a failed research and supposedly normal, but unpleasant scanning procedure.
     In front of a doctor emerges what appears to be a holographic screen with lines of text running on it. After he scanned through them, he furrowed his brows and began talking:
     - According to the results of a scan you certainly have two Ether Links, but at the same time it seems as if they are used simultaneously.
     - Meaning?
     - Honestly? I have no idea. Technically this is what how multilink would work, but...
     After mumbling something doctor trailed off in his thoughts.
     - Earth to doctor.
     - Oh yes, sorry. Anyways, there is nothing I seem to be able to do about it, but it doesn't seem like anything needs to be done. This isn't a split personality and your parameters seem to be fine, so there is no need to worry.
     - Ahem. I have to remind you of the reason I came here.
     I raise a hand with a broken Chlymea crystal.
     - Ah, that. There are two ways to deal with this situation. First is to get a Chlymea crystal made especially for you, so that two separate energies don't cause a dissonance within it. A second option would be to disable one of the Links you possess.
     - What do you mean disabling one of the Links? Doesn't sound too pleasant.... Especially considering how the scan worked.
     That last part was practically whispered, so spirit probably didn't hear it.
     - It would mean taking a medicine to inhibit one Link, or wearing a device that automatically absorbs all Ether that comes via one of the Links.
     - From the sounds of it getting custom made Chlymea sounds better. How do I get that?
     - It's easy. You just need to grow that crystal with the help of a harmonizer device by infusing small portions of ether into it for duration of at least three days.
     Oh come on! This is getting too obvious! The timing couldn't be more matched. This means there is definitely a way for me to get that crystal in time for the fight.
     - Is there any way to speed up the process?
     - Not that I know of.
     No surprise there. This means I need to grow my own crystal. Just in case, I probably should also get that device that absorbs Ether. I have no proof that I will be able to grow the crystal in time, so having it as a backup will be necessary.
     - Then can you please give me both devices you mentioned?
     - That is possible, but you will have to return them both in three days.
     First I have to survive three days!
     - No problem.
     And in case I won't survive - I don't think breaking this promise will be something that weights on my mind.
     After looking intently at me, spirit floats to the big shelf along the wall and starts searching. Done with his search, he returns. In hands he holds a small grey box, a green bracelet and a jet black crystal exactly like Chlymea. This shocked me slightly, since I thought he is ethereal and couldn't touch things. To understand what is going on, I try poking a finger into him. The finger goes through.
     This is strange. My hand passes through him and he seems ethereal, but at the same time he can hold physical objects. I continue poking my hand into him as if trying to understand what exactly was happening.
     - Ahem!
     I raised my eyes, to see the displeased face of a spirit. Suddenly, I realize what exactly I am doing and quickly retreat back.
     - Sorry.
     As if accepting my apology, he makes a face as if nothing happened. Placing items on the table, he starts explaining what they do.

     More than half an hour later and head full of instructions, I leave the infirmary. In short, as long as I wear the bracelet, it absorbs Ether from one of the Links I had. The purpose of the box is to grow me a crystal that I can use without wearing a bracelet. For the duration of three days I have to infuse the box with Ether until it is full each day. After the crystal is ready, the box will open. All those explanations took less than five minutes, rest of the time I was infusing the box with Ether according to the instructions of the spirit.
     By the time I got out of the infirmary, the night has come. It isn't too dark, saying murky would be more appropriate. Amid a forest, there are dark places you couldn't see, so I ask Rue to highlight the road to where my room is. The light not only shows direction, but also helps me avoid tripping on the vines.
     Walking towards my room I think about my progress today. I didn't get 'strong', but I certainly am quick with learning about using my ability. I can't say anything for others, but learning to use ability like mine in under a day is definitely not something that can be considered normal. The spirit in the library did say that learning to use one's ability is intuitive, but I still can't shake the feeling that my progress was unnaturally fast.
     A short walk later, I notice a humanoid figure some distance further. I slow down. Remembering the reactions people gave me earlier and the situation I am in, I do not want to come into contact with others needlessly. Of course organizers said that attacking other contestants was forbidden, but they did not say that I would be saved in case of such an attack. They were only talking about punishment of the attackers. I deliberate on returning or waiting for a bit, but decide against it. I still have to go this way and making detours would only increase chances for more troublesome encounters.
     It was interesting to note that the light from the road did not highlight the figure. Since the figure does not turn back or change its walking pace, I slowly follow it with a safe distance between us. Well, as safe as you can call the situation I was in. The odd feeling of unease makes me act as cautious as I possibly can.
     Suddenly a flash of light pierces my eyes and I hear a rustling sound. My eyesight returns just in time to see the trees falling down on the figure I followed. Only the figure is no longer there - it jumped back. The jump was so strong that the figure flew a dozen meters and with a loud thunk crashed into a tree. By a hair's breath, the head of the figure misses a branch of the tree. That branch tears the cape the figure wears and as the figure drops down the tree trunk, the cape that was covering the figure's head is ripped away. What is revealed are the delicate and feminine facial features, short golden hair and long pointy ears.
     So this is what is going on. The obligatory 'saving the damsel in distress'-event, and an elf at that. I bet she is some kind of a princess, because chances of encountering non-princess elf under such circumstances are vanishingly slim. Or at least that is what I am led to believe according to all the stories I have read. Still, what is it with all these events? The pacing of this story is just too messed up: concentration of cliches for the first day is way too big.
     My first impulse is to go check whether the figure was alive and if it needed help. Normally that is what I would do. The issue is that the current event is clearly artificial. It was arranged by somebody and the perpetrator is probably around here somewhere. Running away would definitely be smarter choice right now. A choice I am not allowed to make. The option of running away is tightly sealed by two pairs of red eyes approaching from the forest.
     "I should have made a detour". This is the thought I have when I see these red eyes. I dispose of that thought as quickly as it emerges. Not because it was incorrect, but because regretting that decision right now would be even worse.
     The two crawling creatures are some distance away, so I can only discern their general shape which resemble that of a wolf. I have a bit of time to prepare. Quickly I put on the bracelet, that I received in infirmary, on my right arm and took the Chlymea crystal. Concentrating on infusing the Ether into the crystal I just hope everything will work this time. Fighting two beasts barehanded is not something I want to do. Actually, if this fails, then I will definitely run away. With no weapons the fight will just be a suicide.
     As I am trying to infuse Ether into crystal, I do not get the feeling of a wall that was there previously. Ether appears to pour freely into the crystal. These are the good news. Unsurprisingly, there are also some bad news. Already tired from earlier today, I couldn't concentrate properly. The blue bar in my mind's eye starts rapidly dropping. At around one tenth it stops and a light comes from the hand in which I hold the crystal. With a flash a sword appears in my hand.
     At least you can technically call this a sword. It definitely has a shape of one, but the length is closer to that of a dagger. Barely thirty centimeters in length, it is uncomfortably short. I do not want to let the beasts this close to me. Making a spear would probably have been more adequate. Shaping it as a sword was probably due to my preconception that weapons with no definite shape are supposed to be shaped as swords, with pompous names and some kind of cool-looking overdrive to "unleash the true potential".
     And now I'm getting on some really weird tangents in my thought process. I need to stop trying to escape this reality and focus. I need to focus!
     Swinging the sword around a few times I try scaring the beasts away as well as get the feel of its weight. Only the latter succeeds. The beasts are now close enough for me to see them. Two meters in length and covered in black scales like a shark they seemed like some exotic breed of hounds. A really predatory and aggressive looking breed of hounds. Hellhound is the name that felt appropriate for these creatures. They are not afraid of the sword, but as I swung it around, they began walking slower and started circling around me from both sides.
     As hellhounds are getting closer I begin getting frantic. My mind gets blank and all I can do, is to continue swinging the sword around. Standing in stupor, I just can't bring myself to move from the spot. Not knowing what to do I start looking around in hopes of finding a way out of this mess. Fangs, trees, fangs, vines, fangs... Did I mention fangs? Those are really big and getting too close. Suddenly, my glance hits the supposedly unconscious elf. I notice that her green eyes are open, but she is still not moving. Even her pupils aren't moving. To my surprise this actually calms me down. It makes me feel calm and confident, like earlier in the library. Able to move and think again, I try analyzing my options.
     While leading hellhounds away from the elf sounds chivalrous, it is not the most reasonable course of action. First off, there is nothing to indicate that both hellhounds will follow me, should I try to escape. And secondly, if I manage to wake her up, odds of our survival would significantly rise. So I start moving towards her.
     As I move, one of the hellhounds finally gets close enough and pounces at me. The claws moving closer, I try blocking them by swinging the sword with all my might at the hellhound. Still in midair, the hellhound responds by swiping with its claw at the sword. With a loud metallic clank the claw hits the sword. The impact is so strong, that I can't hold the sword in my hands. Just as I lose the grip, intuitively, before the sword gets flung away, I manage to move it into my inventory.
     Thrown off-balance by the disappeared sword, the hellhound isn't able to continue it's attack, so it just drops to the ground. This is my only chance. Driven more by adrenaline than anything else, I throw my right hand forward towards the hellhound. The hellhound is about to bite my hand, when I retrieve the sword from inventory back into hand. Driven by inertia from the impact with the claw, the sword that emerges in my hand goes straight towards the throat of the hellhound. As if knife through the butter, the sword slashes through the neck of the hellhound and decapitates it.
     The blood from the neck splashes on me. Some of it hits my eyes, effectively blinding me. With no time to feel relieved I turn back to where the growl from the second hellhound is coming from. All I see is a blurry shadow rapidly getting closer. I have no time to block with a sword or even raise it. The shadow fills my eyesight. Pushing the sword down as strong as I can, I moved it to inventory. Only to summon it immediately afterwards.
     The sword materializes right between me and the hellhound. As the hellhound lands on me, it impales itself at the sword, dying in a way, that is similar to the first hellhound. That is the end of the good news. I am hit with a burning sensation from my right shoulder diagonally through the chest. I feel as if I was cut in half. Right after that the handle of the sword that is impaling the hellhound hits my stomach, knocking all the air out of my lungs. And finally, as if that is not enough, the body of the hellhound itself hits me and topples to the ground.
     With no clear eyesight, chest burning all over and mind fuzzy, I am lying on the ground with the hellhound on me. Suffocating under this weight, I muster last of my strength to push the hellhound off me. My eyesight got a bit better only for me to realize that I got from the frying pan into the fire. The two dogs I somehow managed to kill turned out to be scouts. Before me are at least eight more and I have no strength to stand, let alone fight them.
     I am afraid of the dogs and understand that there is nothing I can do about them, but I still have trouble taking everything here seriously. I try to act as if everything is real, but somewhere deep inside I have a feeling that this is a game, so I just didn't panic. Actually, even if I did, there was nothing I could do. Some mythical power boost would be really good right now, but hounds are getting closer and I don't feel anything besides exhaustion.
     One of the hellhounds gets close to me and is ready to attack when a beam of light hits it. On the forehead of the hellhound a black spot emerges. As it does, the hellhound dropped dead as if it is a doll whose strings are cut. Turning around to see my saviour, I am quite surprised. Standing behind me is the elven girl. That itself isn't too surprising, since I was half-expecting that. Now that I see her facial features properly, I notice that she is quite young. Based on her appearance I would estimate her to be less than 20 years of age. Although, if lore is to be believed, her appearance meant nothing, she can just as well be 200 years old. What really shocked me was the rifle she held in her hands. What kind of self-respecting elf uses rifles? Bows! Elves are only allowed to use bows! Everything else is hypocrisy! Have you ever heard of an elf using guns? That's just wrong.
     Meanwhile, oblivious of my thoughts, the girl is methodically sniping the hellhounds. It took her eight shots to kill all eight of them. With no visible injuries, the hellhounds just dropped dead after being hit by a beam from the rifle. Finished with the doggies, she talks to me in a language I don't know, but somehow understand:
     - Thanks for stalling them. You okay there?
     There goes my confidence. My best effort at fighting with all I had was reduced to stalling. While I did not feel too miserable at being saved by the girl I tried to save, my confidence took a hit at seeing her sniping hellhounds so effortlessly.
     - Let's just say that I would appreciate if you helped me get back to the infirmary.
     - "Back"? You were there already? You're quite an unlucky guy.
     Her voice was quite melodic and cheerful.
     - I am tempted to agree with that.
     The rifle in her hand shrunk in size and turned into a familiar shape of Chlymea crystal. She put it into her pocket, came closer to me and took my hand. On the periphery of my consciousness I notice that her hand is unexpectedly rough as she was helping me up.
     - Thanks. Any ideas on who and why organized that?
     - I don't know much about other contestants, so even though I got some leads, there is not much I can do with them.
     Even though she tries to sound cheerful, her voice is a bit strained.
     - I see. Are you okay yourself?
     - No need to worry. I'm fine. Probably broke a bone from the impact with that tree, so I should get checked up at the infirmary.
     We start walking back towards the infirmary.
     - This is the first time I hear somebody saying they have broken bones in such a cheerful manner.
     - What is there to be sad about? Both of us survived and with a rather minor injuries. Why wouldn't you be cheerful?
     Looking at that smile my mood gets up a bit. In a sense she is right, surviving is a good thing. Sometimes it's these little things that make difficult situations bearable.
     - I won't deny that, but you do realize that it is likely we will get forced to try and kill each other in the near future?
     - But you don't have any intention of killing me right now.
     - Well... No, but...
     - Then there is nothing to worry about. I will worry about it when that time will come.
     Again, I can't deny her point of view. What she is saying is essentially correct, but you don't normally meet people like that.
     - You seem to be quite carefree.
     - Is that so?
     - Yes, I just don't understand how can a person be this cheerful when just this morning he was told that he has to have multiple death-matches if he wants to survive.
     - I do dislike killing, but if there is nothing I can do about it, then there is no point worrying about it.
     - So, from your reaction I take that life and death situations aren't something too new to you?
     - Well, no. I would assume such situations aren't anything new to anyone who got here.
     I understand what she means. Only the strongest people were called here, and becoming a strong fighter implies killing somebody along the way. Hence I was puzzled myself why I was summoned here. I am a good gamer, but being strong at games doesn't really translate well to combat expertise. If I assume this to be a game, and that assumption seems more and more appealing with every single event that has happened thus far, these things would make sense. On the other hand, should I assume this to be real, I just can't find the reason for me being chosen. The explanation "I have a strong Ether Link", that Rue gave me, just doesn't add up.
     I thought about hiding the fact that I am a total novice, but decided against it. First of all, from the fight with hellhounds she did see my skill, or more accurately the lack of thereof. In addition to that, right now I have no chances if I were to fight her. Worst case scenario is that she will know that I suck. There are good and bad points about this, but I'm just too exhausted and don't have strength to come up with any lies.
     - That's not exactly the case for me.
     - You want to say you haven't actually been in life-threatening situations?
     - I want to say that I haven't been in something you could call a fight since high-school ended.
     - Then why are you here?
     - Seems I got caught up in a loophole of the selection process.
     - Nedix loves you, huh?
     Thanks to the translation spell, I understood that by Nedix she meant some kind of goddess of misfortune.
     - While I appreciate the concern, could we please move to the topics that do not include rubbing salt on my wounds.
     - Afraid not... That paralysis spell was really strong, so I don't think I have much strength to talk at all.
     Then why was she keeping up with the small talk? Though to be honest I am on the verge of collapsing myself, so rest of the way we walk in silence. Arriving back at the infirmary I am greeted by a cheerful voice of the spirit:
     - If you wanted to spend a night here, you didn't have to beat yourself up so much.
     Neither I nor... Come to think of it, I haven't asked for her name. Anyways neither of us have strength to complain. The spirit presses something on the table and a shelf with medicine to the right opens like a door. A row of four metallic coloured pods gets revealed. These pods have transparent lids, some unknown writing on the sides and are a bit less than three meters in length.
     - Please get undressed and lie down in one of the pods.
     I am so tired that I just do what I am being told. This is the moment about today that I will come to regret the most. You see, elven girl is undressing close to me, but I am so tired that the idea to look in her direction hasn't even occurred to me. Oh, the missed opportunity! I fall asleep as soon as I lie down in the capsule.

     The wake up is really strange. First I notice that there isn't pillow or anything to put my head on. Then I notice that I was in some liquid. As soon as that happens I try breathing in, only to realize that I am fully submerged.
     I try going up, but collide with something metallic. Opening the eyes doesn't produce any results: I see only darkness. Hitting all the walls around me doesn't produce any effect either. The air in my lungs ends and I try taking a breath. What is strange is that I feek no sensation of liquid pouring through my throat. In a moment, I realize that it was because my throat and lungs are already filled with this same liquid. It is unusual, but I am actually able to breathe somehow.
     A few minutes later soft light starts coming from the walls and liquid drains away. The feeling of liquid coming out from my lungs was pretty disgusting, as if I am vomiting. Why are these high-technologies so unpleasant? When liquid drains away completely, I am left with a gross feeling of some gel on my skin. As if my complaints are heard, cold water washes over me. Okay, traditional methods aren't something I am particularly fond of either.
     The lid opens and, shivering, I exit the pod. First thing I see is Rue hovering next to the pod with my clothes and a towel below her.
     - Morning has come, Master.
     - Yeah, morning... Approximately what time is it?
     Half expecting to be told time down to nanoseconds, I was pleasantly surprised with the answer:
     - A few minutes over ten AM, Master.
     The doctor-spirit entered the room.
     - How are you feeling?
     - All things considered, pretty fine. Am I free to go?
     - Yeah, I patched you up pretty well, so there won't be any major aftereffects. Though, I would recommend you abstain from eating anything for next four hours or so.
     - Why is that? I would assume that after intense medical care body is weak and replenishing energy would be needed.
     - That is so, but during your stay in med-capsule all necessary nutrients were already injected, so eating more wouldn't be healthy.
     An all-purpose med-capsule. Interesting, do they use similar capsules for pilots in their combat vehicles?
     No point in staying here any longer I think.
     - Well, bye then.
     - See you.
     I hope that for at least two more days we don't.
     As I emerge in the main hall of training complex I am pondering on what to do next. I need more time for training. Any way you look at it, three days is certainly not enough. I need to either speed up my training or slow down the time.
     - Rue, is there something like time-compression chamber to use for training?
     - If Master is referring to space where time goes faster than in the outside world, then yes there places like that here. But access to those is heavily restricted.
     Cheaty shortcuts - denied.
     - Then the next thing. Yesterday you that I could make Chlymea into any weapon I wanted as long as I knew how it was made or had a blueprint. How do I get those blueprints?
     - You just go to the library and upload desired blueprints to the memory crystal. It is advised to use only one memory crystal for each weapon you want, since having multiple blueprints in one crystal will confuse you and might get in the way when accessing them.
     - Can you access the library to get the of the blueprints I have access to? Or do I have to walk there?
     - I can access them from here.
     - Then please transport me to some suitable training area before we continue.
     The area I appear in is the same one I used in yesterday. There is one thing that bothers me about those memory crystals:
     - Do I need to have this memory crystal all the time? It's slightly inconvenient to have one hand occupied by Chlymea and another by memory crystal during combat.
     - It is advised to carry blueprints for the weapons you might need, but not necessary. Chlymea remembers last weapon it transformed into and you don't need high amounts of Ether or a blueprint for subsequent transformations.
     Basically what this means is that during first activation I build a weapon I need and in subsequent activations I just resummon it somehow. To test this I took Chlymea from my pocket and concentrated on it. When I started infusing it with Ether, the shape of yesterday's short sword appeared in my mind's eye. I infused a bit more and this sword emerged into my hand. Definitely easier than yesterday.
     - Did this turn out so small because I don't have enough Ether?
     - That is slightly incorrect. Master has access to unlimited supply of Ether, but due to physical and psychological constraints only a limited amount can be drawn. What probably happened was that Master was mentally too exhausted to draw more and Chlymea used all the Ether it got to morph into a shape closest to what was pictured.
     What I understood from her explanation is that the blue bar in my mind's eye is not the amount of Ether I have at my disposal but more like my mental endurance. It shows for how long I can concentrate on drawing out Ether.
     - With small details out of the way, could you please search for weapons that would be easy for me to use.
     - I would recommend narrowing the search down to the swords or javelins, since they are easier to use and Master's special ability seems to work well with close combat weapons.
     Yeah, with my power I can basically get through any defenses and hit my opponent from any angle. Very convenient. As long as it would actually work. I am surprised at how fast I could move the sword in and out of inventory. Hopefully I will be able to replicate that success.
     - Let's go with the sword. Also, it would be good if I could use that weapon to deflect as many types of attacks as possible.
     - Searching... Suggested model: A-47. Nicknamed "spell-breaker". This versatile and reliable model gained popularity thanks to the ease of use for novices. In addition to that a high number of different customizations to increase its effectiveness can be made, which appeals to veterans.
     - Pretty impressive sales pitch. It might have mattered, if I actually had another models to compare with. Please, just give me the crystal with the blueprint of it and explain how to use it.
     In her usual manner Rue took out a transparent octahedron shaped like a crystal. She keeps it in her hands a bit and gives it to me.
     I will skip the part where I tried to access the crystal, because it mainly consisted of me getting a headache. When I finally succeeded, I used the information from it to shape the Chlymea into the desired form. It took quite a while and I actually had to take a break multiple times to rest a bit. In total it took more than three hours until Chlymea took the shape that I wanted.
     The sword is black with the exception of the cutting edge of the blade that is silver. The handle is around fifteen centimetres in length and can be grasped with two hands if the need arises. The guard is shaped as a semi-circle with cutting edge that faced outward. Finally there is the blade itself that is around eighty centimetres long and ten centimetres wide - slightly wider than a human palm. As I take it up, I notice that it is surprisingly heavy. Swinging it around I finally understand what a phrase "well balanced sword" means: even though the sword definitely has weight in it, it is easy to swing around.
     First test I did was to move it into inventory. No complications arose. The sword moves in and out of inventory just as easily as it did yesterday. What changed? Yesterday I had to surround objects with that blue fog to move them into inventory, but there was no need to do that with the sword
     Doing some tests with the rocks and twigs, I didn't notice any changes compared to yesterday. It actually seems slightly harder to do than yesterday. It's probably just my imagination. But this means that it is only the sword from Chlymea that I can move effortlessly in and out of inventory. Interesting, why is that? Only explanation I can come up with is that it is because I infused it with Ether. This is easy to check.
     I concentrate on the rock and tried to infuse it with ether. It was a bit harder than with Chlymea, but succeeds nonetheless. Moving this rock in and out of inventory became as easy as the sword. Bad news is that this rock leaks blue fog in my mind's eye. I assume this means rocks don't hold Ether for that long. Still, it's good to know that I can temporarily make items easy to affect with my power.
     Rest of the day is largely a repeat of what I did yesterday. I try to increasing the radius of my ability as well as the speed with which I can affect things. In addition to that I ask Rue to throw rocks at me again. I am still not able to move them into inventory on time, but I don't waste too much time on that. What I am trying to do this time, is to use sword and other rocks that were already in inventory as a shield to block the incoming rocks.
     During one of the breaks, and I have to take quite a lot of them, I ask if Rue could conjure up some food. Apparently she can't, but she can fetch some from the synthesizer in my room (which I never used by the way). Considering my earlier encounters with local food and local high technologies I am quite suspicious concerning the results, but still ask Rue to bring something edible. Luckily, this time there aren't any problems. The food tastes like chicken and is actually quite good - my first positive experience with local high-tech. Afterwards I continue on with my training.

     By the end of the day I had a small progress. My precision isn't good enough which means I am only able to deflect rocks with objects big enough. Unfortunately it is quite time-consuming to move big objects into inventory, so Chlymea-sword was the only thing that was feasible to use for these purposes.
     Compared to the first day, my progress is smaller, but not ending up in infirmary is a good news. In addition to that I got to train with a sword a bit. With no real combat experience or master to learn from, I couldn't learn much, but it wasn't totally pointless. With my ability I can make the sword disappear and reappear anytime I want. Doing that I could easily lose my balance if unaccustomed, so I tried to get a handle of that.
     Before returning to my room I infuse Ether into the box that had Chlymea growing in it. I hope it will grow in time. This time the walk to the room is uneventful, which is much appreciated. As soon as I returned to the room I drop on the bed and immediately fell asleep.
     During the last day I try performing some ranged attacks. According to Rue, to produce an energy-based attack, I should concentrate Ether into the sword and then release it as I strike. First try doesn't produce any results, I didn't use enough Ether. My second try is a bit more successful: as I swing the blade, it produces a shock-wave that travelled in the direction of the swing. As this shock-wave hits the tree it leaves a cut-mark. It seems like the amount of Ether required to produce these wind-blades is quite sizable for me.
     I spend the rest of the day improving this technique. By the end of the day I am able to make a wind-blade that can cut a tree, but charging it takes too long. On the other hand, I can also produce around fifty normal sized wind-blades that can cut branches three centimeters thick. Not sure if there was any point, but I don't really know what else to do either. Other than trying to get better with my ability, I have no idea what I can do to increase my chances of survival. By the evening I am so exhausted from the exercises and mental pressure that I am a nervous wreck. I decide to return early, so that I could get a proper rest before the fateful day.

     On the morning of the fourth day Rue cheerfully tells me that my match was to be held at 10.04 in the morning. This is coincidentally less than an hour away. I quickly put the clothes on and eat some synthesized food.
     I am to arrive at the training complex by ten. Not wanting to be late, but at the same time not wanting to be too early, I leave with twenty minutes left on the clock. With less than ten minute walk, I should have plenty of time.
     When I exit the room I walk as quickly as I can, so as to not get involved in anything. At one point somebody tries to talk to me, but I don't want to get delayed, so I act as if I don't hear anything. When I arrive at the training complex, my opponents seemed to be already there. In the main hall, there are two humanoids standing opposite of me.
     One is silver haired human-looking man, seemingly in his mid-thirties, wearing a black trench coat with silver linings along the sews. Arms crossed and relaxed, he is leaning onto the wall. The second opponent is what you could normally call an angel. A young woman dressed in white tunic, she has white wings and slightly mismatched red hair. While her figure is not something to grab your attention, her face is pretty cute. She is standing with her hands crossed and in those hands she holds an ugly black-red doll. From where I am standing the doll seemed to look like some kind of a demon. It is quite strange.
     For the next ten minutes we just stand there, tension rising higher and higher. By the time we are told to enter the teleportation room, I am already exhausted from the pressure. As I enter the teleportation room, I am immediately transported to place. I am the only one in that room.
     - Round starts in three minutes. At that time you will be transported to the arena. Please make your preparations.
     A big screen appeared before me and it was showing some ruins in the desert. Walls of varying height, broken pillars and some stairs here and there. The closer to the center, the higher the buildings are. On the upper right part of the map there is a small building without a roof that had a green circle on it. I suppose this is the place I am going to be transported into.
     All my preparations consisted of activating Chlymea crystal to get myself a sword and moving it into inventory. Unfortunately the crystal I got from the infirmary hasn't grown enough. Though I didn't notice any visible limitations from the bracelet I am using, so maybe it's fine. Rest of the time I try calming myself down.
     I know nothing about my opponents, but same can be said about them. Though, I should look up quite often, since those wings probably aren't only for show.
     - Three... Two... One...
     A heavy weight presses on my shoulders and I feel hot and dry air of the desert in my lungs. I need to keep a low profile. In case the other two fight among themselves, one of them might get injured and I can try finishing him or her off.
     As I go out of the building I slowly walk alongside walls, making sure that I won't be an easy target to notice. Since higher buildings give a better view, I start slowly advancing towards the center of the ruins. As I am walking through some back-alleys I hear a sound of an explosion followed by a shacking of earth. And then it is quiet again. Does this mean that one contestant was eliminated?
     I get my answer in form of a shadow that appears ahead of me on the walkway. Looking up I see the angel floating there. She talks in a soft, beautiful and mesmerizing voice that you want to listen to forever:
     - So you are here. Not even making an effort to hide? Well, then it's easier for me.
     The words on the other hand are something you want to run away from as far as you could.
     She takes the doll she is holding and throws it at me. As it is flying, it is growing in size. The doll grows into a three meter tall demon with wings, fangs, claws and horns. I jump back as the demon lands close to where I was standing. It is standing in a slightly crouching position and its movements are jittery.
     Before it could get closer I try attacking him with wind-blades from a distance. As I swing the sword, three blades speed towards the demon. He didn't even try to dodge them. Without any resistance wind-blades hit him. The result? Just three small cuts across his body. I could be attacking him with those blades whole day and he would barely even notice it.
     My attack failed. I need to get some time, so I can form a plan. Let's go with the usual tactic - trash-talking:
     - Aren't you an angel? I thought angels were supposed to be benevolent creatures. Isn't killing a taboo for you?
     - Yes, angels aren't supposed to kill lesser beings.
     - Doesn't killing me go against that?
     - Oh, but it's not an angel that is killing you, is it?
     Her cold smile sent shivers down my spine. What is it with this messed up logic?
     As soon as she finished the demon jumps at me. Taking a sword out, I triy blocking the impact, but even though I succeed in blocking it, the force was so strong that I was blown back. Luckily, part of the impact was absorbed by the sword and by moving it into inventory I was able to avoid the worst of it.
     The demon approaches me again and swipes. In response to that I raised my hand and take the sword out. With the force of previous impact it swings towards the neck of the demon. Like the hellhound from before, the sword cut the neck of the demon. Though, the demon's swipe continues and he cuts straight through my arm. I am left without my right arm and he is left without his head.
     There was one thing I didn't take into account. This demon doesn't need its head to continue attacking me. I don't have time to regret my shortsightedness. As the next swipe comes, I try blocking it by materializing the sword in the swipe's path and taking it away after it absorbed the impact. This doesn't succeed completely. The sword does absorb the impact, but the demon just continues pressing his claw. What it meets is my neck. Last things I hear are angel's words:
     - Oh you poor thing. I will need to sew you back together properly....
     And then I die.

     Chapter 4. Load / Retry

     I don't need to 'get a life',
     I'm a gamer, I have lots of lives.

     Waking up was... surprising. I thought I died, so I didn't really know what to expect from the afterlife. Feeling a bed under me is certainly welcome. It means I can feel and hopefully even think. 'I think, therefore I exist'. Now I just need to understand where I am and what happened.
     A familiar noise interrupted my thoughts:
     - Morning has come, Master.
     Opening my eyes, I see a faerie dressed in a violet Chinese one-piece dress.
     - What happened to me, didn't I die?
     - Insufficient information. I have no information about Master prior to him arriving here.
     I can only say that I haven't woken up properly. That is why Rue's statement hasn't alarmed me in any way and I continued pressing with my questions.
     - What do you mean insufficient information? Weren't you with me for the past three days before that hellish tournament began?
     - Statement does not align with the data in the database. This is our first meeting.
     So is this not Rue? But every assistant faerie I saw was different in both clothing and appearance, while this was identical to how Rue appeared. Though, that is not really important. What is important is to understand what is going on.
     - Could you tell me where am I?
     - This station is a branch of Illari research institute. It is to serve as the base of operations for the region 4-3.
     Same place as before, should have expected that. Though, it doesn't answer the question of 'what is going on?'. As I was thinking on what to do next the faerie spoke:
     - I have to inform Master that all challengers are required to assemble in the Main Hall in one hour's time.
     Don't tell me...
     - Has the tournament started yet?
     - No, Master. The tournament will start in three days' time.
     A time leap? Have I just jumped back in time to the beginning of this? Although a logical, but still a weird development. If a player dies, he can restart from the last save-point. In games, that is. But this is not a game... Or is it? Jumping back in time is a pretty strong evidence for this being a game and it will make taking this seriously that much harder.
     I am really confused. Everything here seems real, but at the same time there are so many little things indicating this to be a game that I can't ignore them. If this is a game, I can't really enjoy it due to the feeling of impending doom. On the other hand everything here is too bizarre to be a reality. It's really hard to act properly under such circumstances.
     Right now I still can't be sure that in case of my death I will be thrown back in time again. This means that I have three days to find a way to survive the fight with that sadistic angel. First I probably should check that things will go the same way they went last time. Two milestones I remember are the demonstrative execution of five guys and the attack on the elvish sharpshooter. Now that I think about it, we never met again since that encounter. This time around, I should fix that. Saving her would allow me to ask her for help in preparation for the fight. I can't allow myself to lose that opportunity again. Though, for that to happen I can't be half-dead after the fight...
     - Master, I recommend moving out towards Main Hall, otherwise you may be late.
     As I woke up from my thoughts, I put the clothes on and go to the hall where the announcement was to be made. As I arrive to the hall, the situation is exactly like the last time - a lot of humanoids with some forming groups and talking among themselves. First thing I did was to try and find the only two individuals I had a connection to: the elvish sharpshooter and the sadistic angel with the demon-doll.
     The angel is standing close to the center of the hall alone. She is quite an easy one to notice, since quite a few others are also looking in her direction. She is radiating aura of superiority and nobody dared or bothered to approach her. She isn't the only one doing the 'All of you are bugs under my feet'-act. There is a dragon-faced humanoid with folded wings dressed in a black suit and an aristocratic-looking white skinned middle aged man with a white mantle. I am not saying others are humble, just that those three are the only ones trying to show that they are above others.
     As for the elf - she is quite inconspicuous and I would have probably missed her, were I not intentionally looking for her. Standing in the shadow near the wall, she is quietly observing others. I do not intend to talk with her right now. If things repeat themselves, then helping her deal with the hellhounds will make for a much better first impression than if I would start the conversation right now. It would increase my chances of getting her help with my training. Plus this way I will be able to check whether things are really same as last time.
     In short, I am just standing and looking around until the speech starts. There are some glances towards me, but nobody tries coming closer to chat. In fact, I would estimate that majority are like me. Now that I look more closely, there are only a handful of people that are talking in groups. Majority are standing alone and waiting for the announcement. I'm not really complaining. I intend to abstain from any contacts until the event with the elvish sharpshooter and hellhounds.
     As we were standing, the speech finally started. It was basically a repeat of what happened last time. Or at least it didn't differ from what I remember. After the figure on the podium declared that we were to fight to death, there was some unrest. Exactly the way it was last time.
     - SILENCE! You have agreed to participate and are thus required to follow the rules. Breaking those rules will lead to the severe punishment.
     Like the last time, the hooded figure closest to the right of the one on podium stepped forward and spoke:
     - You may try breaking the rules right now. It will make the demonstration of the punishment much easier for us. Are there any volunteers?
     Exactly as I remember, the five humanoids stepped forward. I couldn't bring myself to do anything. I couldn't really do anything even if I tried. That is what I am telling myself. As if watching a performance, I oversee their fruitless struggle. Looking at them tearing the vines away I hope that this time things will happen differently.
     No such luck.
     Trying to comfort myself with the thought that 'everything was going according to the plan', I watch as they get impaled by the vines. The picture of five humanoids standing there impaled with blood dripping along the vines is as disgusting as I remember it to be. This time it felt even more surreal. Five bodies impaled by the vines. Fixed in one position, they can't even fall down. Those lifeless eyes and blood dripping along the vines onto the floor... Looking at them, the memories of this event from the last time surfaced. As previous memories overlapped with what I am seeing right now, my sense of reality got confused. I am not sure anymore whether this is reality or a dream. My vision is getting foggy.
     Can't escape! I need to focus!
     As my sight lost focus, my hearing intensified and I heard a few gasps. At the same time I notice my quickened heartbeat and the feel of clothing over my body. For a moment I was concentrating on those feelings, until familiar smell of iron reaches my consciousness. This brought me back to reality. As my vision came back to focus, I was able to think properly again. There is still the feeling of memories overlapping with reality. It feels as if I am a video recording. I was still in daze, but at least now I can act if needed.
     As I am watching the five dead bodies, the man on the podium continues his speech.
     - I expect a great performance out of all of you. Prove your strength! Obtain your dream!
     His last words woke me up from the daze. I got angry. Angry at this hooded man who forced me to participate in this pointless tournament. Angry at these five dead brutes for dying without accomplishing anything here. Angry at that unreasonable sadistic angel with her demon-doll. And most of all I was angry at myself. For hoping those five would die, because that meant I knew who was my first opponent and could prepare. For not taking this seriously, because that would mean I would have to accept this as reality. For being powerless and not able to do anything, because this meant I had to follow the rules forced upon me.
     As my anger rose, I notice that some humanoids are studying me. At least ten pairs of eyes were following my every move. This realization makes me feel like cold water is poured onto me. With anger disappeared, I am now able to analyze situation calmly.
     If I stay here, there is a chance that somebody could start a conversation with me. I need to ensure that 'saving the damsel in distress'-event will happen. Any conversation might change that, so I need to avoid them. As this thought finished forming, I practically ran outside.
     As I got out of the building, I was about to dash to the library. I need to get as much information about that angel as possible. This was when I remembered similar episode from the last time.
     - Rue.
     - Yes, Master?
     - I need information about the angel with the demon-doll that was in that hall. Does the library have the information on her and her race?
     - Accessing... Processing... Information processed. Where should I start, Master?
     - First, please highlight the road to the training complex. Then you can start with the short overview of the race.
     As I started walking, Rue began her explanation:
     - En'gi'al, or as they are called in Master's world - angels, are a humanoid race living in the world named He'en. That world partially overlaps with another world - He'el. He'el is inhabited by the race called el'dae. In Master's language that race is described as demons. The records do not hold information as to how these worlds got overlapped. To be precise, the overall history of these two races is quite foggy. What is known, is that three millenia ago there was a war between those two. Thanks to strong Ether in those worlds, both el'dae and en'gi'al are strong mages capable of inter-dimensional travel. The war raged in multiple worlds and some civilizations were even wiped during that war. In the end the el'dae lost and became slaves to en'gi'al. According to the latest received reports en'gi'al control directly around twenty worlds closest to them and about fifty are under their influence. Master's world is one of those fifty.
     Mentally exhausted from this morning, I am just not in the mood of poking fun at this story. What Rue described is a 'typical' war between heaven and hell, where some worlds just got destroyed as a collateral damage.The history lesson was interesting, but for me it is more important to know the weaknesses of these angels. Or at least of one particular angel.
     - I'm more interested in how to defeat that angel we saw in the hall.
     - All female en'gi'al are weak at close quarter combat, but at the same time really strong at spell-casting. This means that females, such as the one Master referred to, are strictly long-range fighters. Due to the nature of the Ether Link, only holy magic is available to en'gi'al. That being the case, they have perfected it to such an extent, that is beyond what we can understand. Main strategy suggested for duels with them is getting close and attacking with weapons capable of piercing holy shields.
     I am quite puzzled. While this certainly explains why the angel hasn't attacked me directly, there is one thing that bothers me. The demon that was helping her. If I understood correctly, he is the el'dae that are slaves to angels. In addition to fighting the angel, that is strong at long-rage and probably support-type magic, I also have to fight demon that seems to be strictly close-range fighter. The question is, what is that demon? Could the angel summon the demon to her aid during the combat? Or is the demon just some kind of a puppet?
     - Rue, is summoning other living beings to fight for you allowed?
     - The answer to Master's question is 'no', but the definition Master has for 'living being' is quite vague. The limitation is that participants are not allowed to summon beings that have their own Ether Links.
     - Just to make sure, do demons have their own Ether Links?
     - Yes, Maser.
     So the demon was not alive. Then let me put it this way:
     - If in this tournament such a thing happened that a demon was fighting for the angel, what could be the cause of it?
     - Illusion magic and puppetry are the most obvious explanations I can think of.
     Those claws were definitely not an illusion.
     - Can you please elaborate on what this 'puppetry' is.
     - There are multiple different branches of magic that fall under the category called puppetry. It is, as can be understood from the name, category of magic that focuses on manipulating other objects. To be more precise it is category of magic that forces objects to exhibit behaviour normally associated with the behaviour of living beings.
     Quite a confusing explanation.
     - So what you are saying is that the angel just remotely controls the demon?
     - Yes, Master. That would be the most logical assumption, given the situation you described.
     Hm... At least this version explains why the demon ignored me cutting his hand off.
     - Is it possible to break this puppetry spell?
     - Yes, Master.
     - So, suppose I had this sword you call 'spell-breaker', what should I do with it to dispel this spell?
     - It depends on the nature of the puppetry spell. There are three kinds: autonomous, semi-autonomous and manual puppetry spells. Autonomous spells manipulate the object by themselves and don't require any input from the caster. To disrupt them you just need to find the place where the spell is concentrated and slash it. Even just cutting the manipulated object might disrupt portions of the spell.
     - Cutting and stabbing the demon didn't seem to stop it. Am I to assume it was not autonomous type of spell? Or did I just miss the spell?
     - Manual puppetry spells require caster to continuously send signals to the manipulated object. Using strings of Ether is quite common for this, but alternatives exist. Cutting these strings or otherwise interrupting the signals will stop the puppet from moving.
     If this is the case, then I have a chance of getting close to the angel while she is concentrated on manipulating the puppet.
     - And finally the semi-autonomous puppetry spells. These combine the features of the previous two types. The spell lets the puppet move autonomously, but at the same time, with the help of strings of Ether or other such means, caster can give commands to the puppet. These are the hardest to cast and require large amounts of Ether. Destroying the spell on the puppet will usually drastically decrease the puppet's combat effectiveness, while preventing it from getting messages from caster will make it's behaviour more automatic and predictable.
     With my luck, I'm pretty sure this is the case. Well, to be precise it's not about luck. The condition to get summoned here was to be the strongest one in your world, so the fact that she is capable of some absurd things is a given. With no need to control every single thing the demon does, she can concentrate on attacking me from the long range or on support spells. Never mind winning, just getting close to her will be insanely difficult.
     - You mentioned that interrupting signals is an option. How could I do that?
     - Well... There are spells to disrupt the flow of ether or for sealing things away. Using those would probably be the best.
     - And how long does it take to learn any of those spells?
     - How much experience does Master have with spells and spell-casting?
     Oh yeah, she forgot the last three days.
     - Three days. I just learned to use my ability and to make Chlymea into weapon.
     - It is a bit hard to estimate, but since those types of spells are somewhat hard I would estimate the time required to be somewhere between a month and half a year.
     That's... quite long. Not really something I can do right now. What other options do I have?
     - Is there some weapon I can make from Chlymea that is capable of disrupting Ether or sealing.
     - There are blueprints for 'noise generators' that disrupt the flow of Ether. But there is a problem with them: They use Ether to function. The amount of Ether absorbed can be adjusted, but with less Ether used, the effectiveness is decreased.
     In other words I will have to continuously concentrate on the device to prevent my opponents from using spells. I probably won't be able to do that for long, so this option is not really viable at this point.
     - What about weapons to seal things?
     - I could not find any weapons with characteristics of spatial manipulation from the ones available for the Master. In case Master desires a weapon with such functionality, he would have to enchant it himself.
     Doesn't really help, since it means I would have to learn the spell anyway. So that option is out as well, huh? It seems there isn't any easy way out of this.
     Talking like this, we finally arrived at the Training complex. My first agenda here is to get the bracelet that would enable me to use the Chlymea. If information I got from last time is true, then trying to use Chlymea normally will cause it to break.
     The infirmary is exactly same as how I remember it to be. It was originally empty, but as soon as I got inside the familiar semi-transparent robed figure appeared. When the spirit finished forming he begins to speak:
     - Good morning. What is it that troubles you?
     Oh yeah. This is supposed to be my first time here. How do I explain what I need to him? I don't really remember what he said to me, so I'm not sure I can describe properly what exactly I need. Also, the scanning was quite unpleasant, so I would like to avoid it if possible.
     - Hm... How should I explain this? - I took a small pause to collect my thoughts for a bit. - It seems I have two Ether Links or something like that... Could you please give me the device that would allow me to use the Chlymea?
     The spirit appeared to be quite troubled.
     - Is that so? Quite a fascinating condition. Would you mind if I scanned you?
     - Is there any way to avoid it?
     - You don't expect me to believe you based on words alone, do you? - The spirit grinned. - I can't really give out this company property based only on some flimsy excuses.
     Pity that I can't seem to avoid it right now. Why can't they do anything about unpleasantness of these procedures? Still, I have to admit that it's a cheap price to pay for being able to use a weapon.

     Fifteen minutes later I am at the training arena with the green bracelet on my hand.
     - Rue, could you please get me the schema for the sword named 'spell-breaker'.
     Rue raises her hands, and a glowing circle appears in front of her. In a familiar manner she took a crystal from that circle and passed it to me. Accessing that crystal was much easier than the last time. This time it took me only one hour to properly form the sword. This is a noticeable improvement compared to the last time.
     The next event is going to happen in the evening, when the hellhounds should be attacking the elf-sharpshooter. The problem is that I don't know what to do until then. I don't really know how to train properly. Last time I was only training the basics. I can continue that, but I don't feel that I will be able to significantly improve in the three days that I have. I need some kind of a training program.
     - Rue, I need to improve my abilities before the first round of the tournament starts. Do you have any suggestions for training?
     - I do not know Master's current level, but using Adaptive Training Program is recommended.
     - Can you please give me more details?
     After my experiences with medical equipment and the Chlymea getting broken, I was slightly cautious about anything new here.
     - AI overseeing this complex will generate training exercises and partners for you. The difficulty will be changed based on Master's performance and the goal that Master has set.
     - With no better options present, let's try this Adaptive Training Program.
     - Initiating... Master, please provide a goal.
     A goal, huh? In other words, what I want to accomplish by doing this exercise. Right now my goal is to survive the preliminary round. This means that I need to survive the battle against that angel with her pet-demon.
     - My goal is to defeat an angel that is using puppetry to control a demon in a fight.
     - Confirming... Goal: defeating long-range puppet master that is controlling a close-range fighter. Calculating training regime... Calculated. Generating first exercise...
     As soon as Rue says that, the environment starts changing. The clearing in the woods, that I am standing in, starts getting bigger. The trees do not disappear or fall down, they are just getting farther. The feeling of watching this is surreal - as if a camera is zooming out. The changes finallt stop and I am standing in the middle of the meadow with a forest at some distance.
     - Arena generated. Generating opponent...
     After that, at a distance of about twenty meters in front of me a blue glowing sphere appears. That sphere starts growing and deforming. The sphere takes a shape of a human and immediately after that starts changing it's colour. The entire process takes less than half a minute. When it is finished, before me a priestess is standing. A delicate female figure clad in blue dress and white shirt. In her hands is a staff with a golden ring on top of it. Inside this ring is a design of three droplets with tips pointing forward. These tips go through the boundary of the ring, making the staff slightly resemble the shape of a trident.
     The priestess raises her staff and a glowing magical circle appears between us. From that circle a demon jumps out and stands between us, blocking my view of the priestess. This demon has brown skin, huge claws and horns, as well as red fur around it's head. Although the demon clearly has hands, he is standing on all fours. His body seems disproportional. Compared to the huge muscular hands and claws, the legs seem comically small, so I am not sure if he can actually stand on the legs.
     - Generated. The purpose of this exercise is to cut down the summoner while avoiding attacks. Awaiting the command to start the exercise.
     Summoner? I thought I was supposed to train against a puppeteer. Oh well, close enough. This situation is really similar to what happened during the first round. Except, at that time my target was flying. Though, I probably shouldn't get ahead of myself. I have a hunch that I will have my hands full with just trying to reach the opponent that is not resisting.
     I check that I am firmly holding the sword in my right hand and speak to Rue:
     - All right, begin.
     I half-expected the demon to charge at me, but instead it is just standing there. Without doing anything the demon is simply looking at me. Being more than three meters high, he looks very imposing. What should I do? First, let's try ranged attack. I concentrate on the tip of my blade and with a few slashes I produce three wind-blades that fly towards the demon. Unfortunately they were deflected with a swipe of his claw. Totally useless. Is there anything else I can try?
     With no better idea, I just try circling around the demon with the sword at the ready. As I take a few steps to the right, the demon turned his head in my direction. His eyes seemed to be following my every movement. This made me feel really uncomfortable, but I still continued moving around him.
     Few steps later the figure of the summoner became visible from behind the demon. She was holding the staff in front of her as if to protect herself from possible attacks. As soon as I saw this, the demon moved to stand between me and the summoner. This startled me so I just stopped in my tracks.
     I don't want to get close to that. Even with my inventory-ability and the sword, it would take only one hit for me to die. Pretty harsh for training. What should I do? What can I do? The only thing I can think of is some kind of a suicide attack, where I just try decapitating the demon. With my ability I should manage to get through his defence but, as was the case in my previous fight with the angel's puppet, that would likely get me killed.
     I don't have a shield or any ability that would let me defend against a simple swipe of those claws. This means that if I am attacking then I am not using the sword to deflect attacks. To be precise: even if I am using the sword to deflect attacks, there is a high chance that I fail and get hit. It's already a miracle that I was able to defend against those hellhounds last time and at least do something against the angel's demon. Actually, looking back at it, those were practically suicide attacks.
     Wait a minute... Cold sweat ran through my back as the realization hit me. I have a potentially powerful ability that, with some training, can protect me from projectile attacks and to get through opponents defences. I also learned to make a weakish ranged attack - wind-blade. Other than that I have no real abilities. Am I retarded? Why did I learn that stupid wind-blade? The skill is practically useless. Any way you look at it I should have learned some defensive skill. The way things are now, even if I am able to defeat somebody, then I will likely be killed by their counterattack. Defensive skill is a must-have in such a situation.
     Now that I think about it, the spirit from the library did say to come to him 'when I was ready'. Did he actually mean that I should have come as soon as I got the hang of the way my ability worked? Doesn't this mean I should have went there on the second day already? I really am an idiot.
     Then, I should stop this pointless exercise and go... No. Going to the library right now would be too wasteful. I absolutely must help that elf today. Getting allies in this situation should be the top priority. Hellhounds seem to be really weak, so even with my lackluster skills I can somehow cope with them. I don't remember the exact time, but it was in the evening, so I have around eight hours left. Going to the library will take at least one hour and probably more.
     Learning basics is of course important, but if Rue can teach me a simple defensive skill, then my time will be much better spent learning and polishing that skill. If, like the last time, I will be half-dead after the fight with the hellhounds, I won't have the chance to get the help with the training from the elf. So even one hour would be better spent on increasing my defence than upgrading my skills. I will just go to the library tomorrow.
     - Rue, can you teach me some kind of defensive magic?
     - I could do that, but using the library would be much more efficient.
     - Can you at least teach the basics? I don't want to spend time traveling to the library and back.
     And I want to avoid that annoying spirit if there is a possibility to do so - I thought to myself at the same time.
     - If Master wishes so, I can do my best.
     - Then please interrupt this exercise and teach me.
     - Interrupting...
     The demon and the summoner start rapidly losing colour. Eventually they were bluish white and start becoming transparent. In a few moments they disappeared as if they were never there.
     - Interrupted. Accessing database... Searching... Organizing... Done.
     After a small pause Rue started explaining.
     - The first defensive skill mages usually learn is Ether Barrier. This is not exactly a spell. In essence it is just concentrating Ether outside ones own body. This will usually enable the user to defend against most attacks. Thanks to it's simplicity it is easy to learn, but the downside is that Ether consumption is really inefficient.
     The consumption of Ether is important, but one other thing caught my attention in Rue's statement.
     -You said that it would 'usually' enable me to defend against attacks. Can you clarify what you meant by that?
     - The effect of the concentrated Ether will depend on the nature of the user's Ether Link. For example if the user has Ether Link that lets him control ice, an ice wall might be produced. On the other hand, if it is Ether Link that lets one control wind, then wind will be produced. So, while ice would work as a proper wall, wind would only change the vector of the attack.
     So the skill produces the type of a wall that corresponds to the type of the ability one has. This is easy to understand, but I'm confused as to what will happen in my case.
     - Then what if the wall that is produced doesn't actually protect from attacks?
     - As I said earlier, this is not a magic spell, it is just one of the basic skills. In case a mage needs additional protection, there is an array of defensive spells at his disposal. Though, they are harder to learn and are more specialized.
     So I should start with this, and if it doesn't work out, then try something more advanced.
     - Ok, do you have any tips besides 'concentrating the Ether outside the body'?
     - It is written in the records that this skill is just an extension of one's Ether Link ability, so Master should try doing it in the same way he uses his ability.
     Easier said than done. If I understood everything correctly, then the blue fog I see in my mind's eye is my Ether. The problem is that currently the effective radius of my ability is twenty centimeters at most. And that is only if I sit and concentrate. In addition to that, if I extend the fog it becomes thinner. Making a shield out of it is not something I can do.
     - Rue, is it normal that I can't 'reach' with my Ether farther than twenty centimeters.
     - There is nothing normal or usual when the talk is about possessors of a strong Ether Link. Having low range is not something that is unique. There are quite a lot of such individuals. For cases like that, creating an armor of Ether is recommended. In other words Master should try wrapping himself with ether.
     - Thanks for the advice.
     I sat down and concentrate attention around my left hand. Then, as I imagine it, the blue fog starts enveloping it and in a couple of minutes my whole hand is enveloped in it. This is actually much easier than extending the Ether. The feeling of Ether wrapping my hand is quite peculiar. It feels as if there is something there, but nothing that I can touch. As if my hand is submerged in water which is neither cold nor warm.
     Whatever the case, I am really glad that I succeeded. Ecstatic from my success, I try covering my whole body with Ether. The process is slightly annoying, but ten minutes later in my mind's eye there is thin layer of blue fog covering my whole body. It isn't effortless to keep it up, but I don't have to concentrate all my attention on it either.
     Now for the live tests.
     - Rue can you throw a few pebbles at me. I need to see if this actually works.
     - With pleasure, Master.
     'With pleasure'? Why is it that this is the first order that you are glad to follow? If I think about it, the last time Rue was throwing pebbles at me, she was also oddly enthusiastic... I probably shouldn't think too much about it. Some things are better left untouched.
     As Rue throws some pebbles at me, I concentrate on the feelings. Unfortunately the shield doesn't seem to work. I still feel the pebbles hitting me. Disappointed, I concentrate on the Ether armor and try making it bigger. It took only an instant to realize that I shouldn't have done that. During this experimentation I forgot to keep track of the blue MP bar in my mind. Turns out this is what the phrase 'inefficient Ether consumption meant'. In fifteen minutes my MP bar was nearly depleted. And when I tried making the armour stronger, it started consuming even more. Luckily, I noticed that the bar was about to get depleted, so was able to cancel the armour before so I was able to cancel it in time and didn't faint. It's interesting to note that I don't actually feel any mental exhaustion as long as I am using a skill that consumes Ether. So even though I will faint from mental exhaustion should this MP bar get depleted, I don't actually feel it until I either stop using the skill or I faint.
     Sitting in the shadow of the tree I was resting and thinking about this skill to make armour. If I cover my whole body in Ether, I can barely keep it up for fifteen minutes. It might sound sufficient, since the real combat is unlikely to last that long. Leaving aside whether that is sufficient or not, the real issue is that with my current strength the armour won't actually protect me. Making it stronger isn't actually an option, since it would mean I will run out of MP much faster. The only thing I can come up with is to focus it on one place. In other words to use this ability not as a shield or armour, but closer to how a buckler is used. This way the area is smaller, so consumption is smaller. It also means that I can concentrate more Ether there, so the protection is stronger. Yeah, I'll try doing that as soon as I recover.
     Main concern is that my ability can't function as a defence. what did Rue say about it? 'The effect will depend on the nature of the Ether Link'? So, if the nature of my Ether Link is unsuitable, then concentrating it in one point won't help me defend against an attack. Worst case scenario is that I will have to learn a specialized spell for defence. It would be bad, since I am unlikely to succeed in the time I have left, which is less than seven hours by the way. No sense in being pessimistic. Even if I won't be able to learn a proper defensive skill in time, it should still go much better than the last time. I just have to do what I can.

     Long story short, the idea of concentrating Ether around my left arm worked somehow. After seven hours of training I got at least somewhat satisfactory results. The attacks aren't getting stopped or deflected, but the strength of the impact gets greatly reduced. Depending on the amount of Ether I concentrate the reduction is somewhere between ten and fifty percent. Though the part that is getting reduced does not exactly disappear. From what Rue observed it seems that the impact is getting stretched in time. So for example if I make the shield as strong as I can, then when the impact comes, half of it hits me, but the other half changes it's nature from hitting to pushing. In other words instead of getting hit for the full force of the oncoming attack, I get hit for half of it and then get pushed back. This may not sound impressive, since I am still getting hit, but being able to half the strength of an oncoming attack should be more than sufficient at this point. After all, my opponents are only hellhounds.
     After some rest, I decided to finish my training for the day. It's already evening and since I don't remember exact time things happened last time, I should just wait until the elf exits this building. Before leaving I form the sword from Chlymea in my hand and move it into the inventory. This way I can get it immediately when something happens.
     I exit the training complex. Good, it's still light outside. I don't remember what time I exited last time, but it was definitely dark, so it means that I have some time left. I sit down leaning on the wall of the training complex and start waiting. I could try pestering Rue to get more information, but this is a good opportunity to recover a bit more. Even though I took breaks to regenerate MP, the fatigue still accumulated. Getting into the fight exhausted and unable to use my meager abilities to the fullest is not a good idea.
     So, I am just sitting along the wall, looking at the trail and waiting for the elf. During the time I was sitting there were multiple individuals coming out of the training complex. They eyed me suspiciously, but did not approach me. For my part: I eyed them curiously and ignored. This let me rest and I even nearly dozed off. Whatever the case, it took more than an hour for the elf to come out. As she went out of the building, she didn't seem to notice me. Fine by me.
     As the elf disappeared from my sight in the forest, I wait a bit and stand up. I probably should reproduce the conditions as accurately as possible, so I ask Rue to light me the way to my room. I start walking quickly along this way. A minute later I see the hooded figure, so I slow my pace. I start getting nervous and my heart starts beating faster.
     Why am I even doing this? Why put myself in danger for a ghostly chance of getting an ally? Am I going to revive if I die again? What if the retry was a one-time deal and I won't revive in case I die here? No! There is no point in second guessing myself now. I need to do this and if I can't survive the attack of a few hellhounds then I definitely won't be able to survive the first round. I am stronger than last time. That time I was able to survive, so there shouldn't be anything to worry about this time. Still... Even if you know that opponent is somebody you can deal with, waiting for the attack to begin is nerve-wrecking. Even though I manage to calm myself down, I am still nervous. It actually relieved me when the flash signifying the beginning of the attack came.
     The elf jumps back and crashes into the tree. At that time two hellhounds appear in the forest. Immediately after that I take the sword out of the inventory. Let's try something I couldn't do last time. Focusing on the tip of my sword I pour Ether into it and slash two times. Two wind-blades speed towards one of the hellhounds. In the nick of time a hellhound jumps away and both blades miss it, leaving an 'X' mark on the tree behind the hellhound.
     The hellhound dodged. Does this mean that hitting it the wind-blade might actually damage it? As I realized that, I throw five more wind-blades at the hellhound. This time it couldn't dodge all of them and one blade left a long red gash on the side of it. It started moving slower. At the same time, the second hellhound finally got close enough and jumped on me. I jumped back dodging the attack. As I did that, I slashed with the sword producing the wind-blade.
     Well, what do you know... This skill is not so useless after all. The wind-blade hit the hellhound from the point-blank so the hellhound didn't have the chance to dodge it. The blade hit it's face, cutting the hellhound in half. While I am distracted, the wounded hellhound attacks me from behind by swiping with it's claw. In the nick of time I manage to raise my left hand covered in Ether to block the impact. Ouch! Even weakened, this still hurts.
     As I get thrown back by the impact, I perform a slash making the wind-blade. Being in midair, I couldn't aim properly. The blade goes slightly off the mark, but luckily the hellhound is still close enough so that my attack hits it's leg. At least it's something. Even though the hellhound isn't not dead, it's not a threat anymore.
     As I stand up, I check myself over. Compared to the last time, my condition is much better. Even with excessive use of wind-blades, my blue MP bar is only half-empty. My left hand has three gashes from the last swipe, but they aren't too deep. I should visit the infirmary, but there is no immediate need. So all in all it is a nice improvement. I kill the wounded hellhound that couldn't stand properly anymore and start moving towards the elf.
     Success! Even though there are at least eight more hellhounds, I can leave them to the elf. She should be regaining her consciousness right about now. Oh, great timing! The elf stands up and takes something from her pocket. I don't even have time to look at it. With a small flash, the rifle appears in her hands.
     Actually, calling her weapon a rifle might give a wrong picture, so let me elaborate on that a little. A black, around one and a half meter long rifle gives off a sci-fi feel. Clipped under the barrel is a blade that is as black as the rest of the rifle. I heard about gun-blades, but rifle-blade is something new to me. The scope on top of the rifle caught my attention. It was just a black cylinder without glass. How does she even aim with it?
     As soon as the gun emerged, from the stock of it dropped two cylinders. At first I thought that something broke, but those cylinders didn't hit the ground. They hovered for a moment and flew off into the woods to where rest of the hellhounds were supposed to come from. I was about to sigh with relief, but the elf raised her gun. It wouldn't be a problem were it not pointing at me. As I noticed flashes and howls coming from the forest, the elvish sharpshooter spoke:
     - Slowly raise your hands.
     What's wrong with her? Didn't I help her just now?
     I have a feeling that something is wrong. Something is just not right here. Let me reassess the current situation I am in.
     As far as this elvish sharpshooter knows, this is the first time we meet. The event leading to our meeting was me saving her from the hellhounds. She could deal with hellhounds herself, but was temporarily incapacitated, so this definitely counts as 'saving'. So why? Why is she pointing a gun at me?
     - I...
     - Silence! Slowly raise your hands. No sudden movements.
     With no better alternative I raise my hands up.
     - Good. Now, confess. What were you trying to do?
     Huh? What is she talking about?
     - What do you mean 'what'? Isn't it obvious?
     - Answering question with question is bad manners. But you are correct. This truly is obvious.
     With a sigh, she shook her head a bit.
     - Well, then it can't be helped.
     With that, a light fills my vision.

     - Morning has come, Master.
     What's wrong with this buggy game?

     Chapter 5. Skills and Abilities / Potential

     Blowing up a city or two - Easy
     Opening a locked chest or a door without a key - Impossible
     Game conventions

     That elf is crazy. She didn't even try to listen to me. She just shot me! Is that all the thanks I get for helping her? Getting shot? There is definitely something wrong with her head. I mean, during the first time she helped me get to the infirmary. She was actually friendly, but now she didn't even listen to me. She just shot me! If that's what I get for helping, then I am certainly not helping her again. Let her deal with those hellhounds by herself for all I care.
     Huuh-haah. Inhale, exhale. Calm down...
     At least it's not only bad news. It seems I returned to the beginning again. This means that it was not a one-time occurrence. This also means that it is not a vision of some kind. Either I return to the save point, in case this is a game, or I get transported back in time, in case this is a reality. The question is how many more retries do I have? It's not uncommon for players to have limited amount of lives (retries) in the game. I don't really feel any different from the last two times. If anything, I actually feel better than the first time I woke up. I don't really know what it means, but probably nothing bad.
     I would want to assume that the amount of retries is unlimited, or at the very least this is not the last one, but I can't do that. There is no guarantee I will get thrown back again in case of my demise. If at all possible, I want to avoid dying. It's really unhealthy to assume oneself to be invincible.
     - I have to inform Master that all challengers are required to assemble in the Main Hall in one hour's time.
     Whoops! It seems that I was raging at that elf for too long. I need to hurry up if I don't want to be late.
     I quickly put on my clothes go to the hall where the announcement is made. Same as the last time, it is filled with different humanoids. This time I don't bother listening to the announcement. I already heard the announcement twice, so thinking about what to do next is more reasonable.
     Although there is something seriously wrong with that elf, she isn't my main problem. I still need to find a way to survive the fight with the angel. My hope was for the elf to help me train and get stronger. With that plan going down the drain, I need to find some other way to get stronger.
     Training by myself is always an option, but not a very good one. Even if I do get stronger, I don't think it will be enough to survive this tournament or even beat that angel. To illustrate my point: I have troubles dealing with a few hellhounds, while at the same time the elf can kill a dozen of them without even looking at them. Even if I manage to defeat the angel, eventually I will either have to fight the elf or somebody who is stronger than her. The idea that a normal guy with no skills or combat experience, such as myself, can defeat those guys with only a few days of training is absurd.
     What are my options? Is there any fast and reasonable way to get stronger? For example isn't there some kind of time compression capsule? Normally such an unrealistic idea wouldn't visit my mind, but since either this is a game or I'm stuck in a time loop, it's not unreasonable to assume that there is a way to slow the time down. Actually, if I remember correctly, Rue even confirmed that something like that exists here. She did say that it won't be easy to get access to that, but if it's not impossible, it's worth to try getting an access to it at some point.
     Is there anything else that can be done? If I can't get the elf to help me, is there anybody else that can teach me? Other competitors are unlikely to be cooperative. With no persuasive arguments to make them help me, there is no point in approaching them. It would be just a waste of time.
     Is there anybody else, besides the other competitors, who could help me get stronger? Rue is the first one that comes to mind, but she is closer to the encyclopedia than a teacher. She can give me some advice, but it's not what I need. I need somebody to show me how it's done and coach me. I need somebody like that....
     Seems that there is no choice. I really didn't want for it to come to that, but the only one who fits that role is the spirit in the library. I foresee a lot of my nerve-cells dying, but unfortunately he is the only one I can think of. He said that I should come to him when I "know that I'm ready". Well, I don't know whether or not I'm ready, but I did develop my ability like he told me to, so there shouldn't be any issues. Plus, he won't remember about our last talk, so for him it would be our first meeting. That, indeed, seems to be the most reasonable course of action I can take. I will just ask him for advice and hope that he won't be as annoying as the last time.
     For now I have to witness the nauseating finale of this bloody spectacle.

     - Oh! Visiting me so soon? You living beings are so impatient. Now... What should I make you do? - Grinned the spirit in the library.
     The way the spirit in the library greeted me, left me speechless. Without giving me the opportunity to recover from his shocking statement, the spirit continues:
     - What? A cat got your tongue?
     - Forget about cats for a minute! More importantly, what do you mean by "so soon"!?
     - I mean what I said. Didn't you visit me a few days ago?
     - Then, can you explain what is happening to me?
     - Huh? What do you mean?
     - You said that I visited you a few days ago. How can you remember that? I died two times after that. Did I get transported back in time? If so, why do you remember it?
     - Not a very bright one are you? - The spirit spirit sighs and shakes his head. - To die twice in a span of a four days.
     - Can you stop it with your mockery and properly explain what is happening to me and why do you remember my last visit?
     - Is that the reason for your visit? Is that the question you want me to answer.
     I wanted to say yes, but some feeling inside told me that I shouldn't do that. I really want to know what is happening here, but getting this spirit to coach me is more important. The weird timeloop-phenomena is strange, but not lethal. The knowledge of what is happening to me is important, but won't help me survive the fight in three days is.
     - ... No. I do want to know the answer to that question, but it is not the reason I came here.
     - Oh? Is that so? Very well then... - The spirit holds a small pause. - Am I correct to assume that you want me to coach you? You want to learn new skills, so that you can survive the upcoming fight?
     - How do you even know that?
     - Is that the question you want answered? - Came spirits's immediate reply.
     A not so subtle hint to shut up and be patient. Why does he not want to answer my questions? Why does he want to avoid them so much? A mystery that I will have to leave for a later time.
     - No. Your previous assessment was correct. I want to get strong enough to survive the fight in three days.
     - Hm. So, you have learned how to use your ability a bit and know the basics on how to make an Ether barrier?
     Exasperated sigh is my only answer. How does he know all that? If I am in the time loop, then there shouldn't be any way for him to know that. Does this mean that this is a game after all? Oh, how tempted I am to believe it to be so.
     - Yes, that is so. Though, I still don't really understand how my Ether barrier works.
     - That is of no concern to me. I can show you how the techniques are done or what you are doing wrong, but learning how your ability works is for you to discover. Got that?
     - Yeah.
     - Good. In that case, let's move on. Before I teach you anything, let me explain a bit more of what the Ether is. As you previously know, each living being possesses the Ether Link which is the connection this being has with the world he was born in. Energy can be drawn through that link and used. The issue is that this energy is too pure for living beings to handle. As such living beings have to convert it to something they can use. As this happens the energy takes the form that the body requires. This requirement depends on physiological factor as much psychological. To provide you with an understandable example, let's take the En'gi'al you are familiar with. Because the males of those species are nearly always front-line close-quarter combatants, the ability that is most often encountered in them is "regeneration" and variations of that. Are you with me so far?
     - Just barely.
     - Well, what I want to explain to you is that the ability you get from Ether Link is either something you consciously or subconsciously crave for. The only thing that limits that ability is your imagination. You have only trained with it for three days. That's not even scraping the surface! I am not saying you shouldn't learn other techniques, I am just reminding you that you shouldn't forget that your ability is much more than what it appears to be.
     - I will keep that in mind, but what I need right now is a way to get stronger really fast. If I don't do that, I won't have the chance to "explore my ability".
     - Oh youth, you are always hurrying somewhere. If you just tried to stand still and listen you would learn so much.
     - That advice sounds really unconvincing from somebody who is dead.
     - Ha-ha-ha! - The spirit started to laugh suddenly. - You got me there. But if you want to be able to cast spells, your control over Ether needs to be much better than it is right now. This will take you noticeably more than two or three days.
     - So, what you are saying is that you won't teach me anything useful?
     - I didn't say that. There are a few simple Ether manipulation techniques that are useful on their own and help to train one's control over Ether. In fact you already know one such technique.
     The only skills that I know are Wind-blade and Ether Barrier. If I take into consideration the fact that Wind-blade is generated from my sword...
     - Are you talking about Ether Barrier?
     - Yes. Not only is it a useful skill in it's own right, it is also a good way to train the control over Ether. It is one of the basic skills that beginner mages learn: focusing Ether at one point. Barrier is not the only thing that can be result of this. For example: by focusing Ether inside your body you can endure damage easier and heal faster.
     Huh? I thought that by adding mana to attacks it makes them stronger. That's how it usually works in games. Why does it only increase endurance and recovery here?
     - Wait a minute. What about making me punches stronger? Can't I do that with Ether.
     - If you wouldn't have interrupted me, I was about to move on to that. There are two basic techniques to Ether manipulation: Focus and Burst. The one I described earlier is Focus. What you are talking about is Burst. Releasing the Ether focused at one point to gain a stronger immediate effect. An example would be, as you previously described, strengthening punches or a technique called Flash Step. Though, it's slightly harder to do and is more dangerous. That's why we will start with Focus.
     I spent a few hours in the library, where the spirit taught me how to properly focus Ether. It wasn't really hard. I just had to focus Ether in different parts of my body and take care that it didn't spread or dissipate. Kinda like it was with the infusion of Ether, but now there was more things to keep track of.
     The spirit also corrected a few mistakes I was making with Ether Barrier. Nothing serious, but having a proper teacher really helps. If nothing else it saves some time on finding the mistakes you make.
     Surprisingly, Ether manipulation was much easier than the previous times I tried it. Though now I had the tendency to focus too much Ether, so I had to restrain the amount. Is this thanks to the training and due to the fact that I am getting accustomed to Ether manipulation, or is there something else to it?
     - So with basics about focusing out of the way, can you teach me how to strengthen the punches and move faster?
     - Well, there is nothing much to teach and I don't really want you to practice it here. You see, I'm quite fond of this place and don't want you to destroy it.
     - What do you mean?
     - You will see. Go practice somewhere else. I already explained how it's done, so you now know what you have to do. Just practice on your own, and come to me again when you can control your power properly.
     This sounds really similar to how he said goodbye last time. Well, fine by me. I already learned quite a bit, so it's really down to practicing it. And, like the spirit said, having a proper training arena is better than this place. Though I'm slightly puzzled as to why there is such a separation. Additionally, why isn't there a coach in the training facility? I think I'm missing something... Oh well. As long as I have somebody to coach me and a place to train, it's enough for me. At least for now.
     - Thank you and goodbye.
     - See ya later, kiddo.

     As I was walking towards the training complex, I asked Rue the question that bothered me since the beginning of my conversation with the spirit:
     - Rue, I want to ask you something.
     - Yes Master?
     - When was the first time we met?
     - This morning, Master.
     Hm. What if I try a different approach.
     - And for how long do you serve me?
     - Since this morning, so it makes approximately four hours.
     - What did you do before that?
     - I was being kept in the storage. This is my first activation.
     Okay. So, if Rue doesn't lie, then I she really doesn't remember the previous iterations of this loop. Still, this doesn't bring me any closer to discovering the truth behind these retries. What causes them? How many do I have left? How do they work? I still don't know anything about them. The people around don't seem to be experiencing the same phenomena, but at the same time the spirit from the library seems to remember my visits from previous retries. Is this a game after all? If so, then what is the point in erasing my memories of getting into the game?
     My concern is that only proofs I have of this being a game are existence of magic and this time loop I'm stuck in. Considering the realism of the situation and the fact that time loop can be exaplained by magic, this being a game is less plausible.
     Anyways, with the talk out of the way, I safely arrived at the training complex, where I entered the training arena in the shape of the forest. Let's start training.
     Firstly I need to test whether I can really increase my strength and speed. Focus the Ether in my fist. Swing and release.
     Wow! I just swung my fist in the air, and it actually produced a shockwave. This is cool! It's one thing when you are told that you can perform some abstract magic, but it's different when you feel that you actually possess the power. Even though there is a slight recoil, it still feels really good.
     Let's continue with the experiments. The Flash Step, as the spirit called it, is a technique where I need to focus the Ether into my feet and then as I jump, I need to release it. So, I focus Ether into my feet, start the jump forward, release Ether and... Whoa!

     - Morning has come, Master.
     You've gotta be kidding me!
     Let me review my memories. I tried to focusing Ether into my fists and releasing it. That went well. Next I tried doing the same thing with my feet. The next thing I remember is a trunk of a tree filling my whole field of vision.
     Seems I got too careless. I really need to be more careful with all this. The fact that I could do things, doesn't mean I should do them. The spirit even warned me that it could be dangerous and that I should be careful, but I ignored him. He was correct to call me an idiot. To die not twice, but thrice in the span of four days is stupid. I need to snap out of it and start taking things more seriously.
     With this renewed resolution I leave the bed, put the clothes on and go to the usual assembly. Ignoring everybody else, I just listen to the mandatory part and leave for training complex immediately after that.
     Firstly I visit the infirmary to get myself a weapon:
     - Good morning. What is it that troubles you?
     - It seems I have two Ether Links or something like that... Could you please give me the device that would allow me to use the Chlymea?
     Like the last time, the spirit appeared to be quite troubled.
     - Is that so? Quite a fascinating condition. Would you mind if I scanned you?
     Well, I already know I can't avoid this, so in resignation I replied:
     - Go ahead.
     After getting the Chlymea, I went to the familiar training arena and started practising.

     For the course of three days I practically secluded myself in the training complex. For three days straight I trained focusing Ether and releasing it, as well as practiced with my special ability. The results of these three days weren't phenomenal, but they weren't insignificant either. Unfortunately, there are some bad news as well.
     With my inventory-ability I can finally move objects like daggers and knives into my inventory mid-flight. It still takes too long to move bigger objects like swords and staffs, so I can't leave my opponent weaponless. Though, I can defend myself from projectiles if they aren't too big. Another slight improvement is with the Flash Step. I don't die from using it. It's not hard to perform it, what comes after that is the problem. I just can't handle this speed properly. It's basically like jumping out of the moving car. Even with minimal Ether, the best I can do is just land on all fours and roll around for a bit. So right now it's not at the stage where I can use it in actual combat, but it might come in handy for escaping.
     Lastly there is the issue with the Chlymea. It turns out that the bracelet that I got in the infirmary drains around half of my Ether. I haven't noticed it in the beginning, but yesterday, when I decided to do a bit of training with a weapon, I noticed that I need to concentrate harder on the techniques. After a bit of testing I realized that the issue is in the bracelet. Initially, when I couldn't properly do anything, half of the Ether didn't really mean much, but now it's really inconvenient. It's really unpleasant, but there is no time to do anything about it this retry. I should grow the crystal like the doctor originally suggested. Though, in my situation, the weapon is more important than doubled Ether consumption.
     This is the result of secluding myself to train for the time I was given. Now is the time to see the results of my preparation. Motivating myself with these thoughts I wake up to Rue's reminder that my match is to be held at 9.30. As I quickly dress up and eat my breakfast I try to calm myself down before the big event. I start moving towards the training complex, but before I am even able to leave the living complex, I am interrupted by a cute fox-eared girl with nine tails.
     - Excuse me, do you have a moment to spare? - She asks me.
     - I am in a real hurry right now. My match is about to start.
     - Don't worry, I know. I won't take much of your time.
     'I know'? Does that mean that she was waiting for me?
     - Alright, you have piqued my interest. What is your business?
     - Let me ask you one question first. Are you confident in your ability to win this tournament?
     - No, I don't. But it's not like I have any choice in the matter, do I?
     - What if I presented with the alternative?
     Oh, that sounds interesting.
     - Please do tell.
     - There is one person here, let's call him Mr.D, who has quite a peculiar ability: Soul Transfer.
     The name of the ability sounds quite ominous. I can vaguely guess what she wants to suggest, but I better confirm this.
     - Unfortunately the name doesn't tell me much.
     - As the name implies it is ability to move souls. What I am proposing is that you take this gem with you.
     She takes out the pendant with a red emerald.
     - In the event that you die, the emerald will catch your soul and will automatically get transported to Mr.D.
     - And why would I want that?
     - Mr.D will then plant this soul into another body. This will give you a second chance at life if you die here.
     Pretty close to what I had imagined.
     - Why would he do that? What's in it for him?
     - There are two conditions. You will have to absorb souls of the enemies you defeat into this crystal and if you end up fighting Mr.D, you would have to give up. Of course you will get additional compensation if either of that happens.
     For a weakling like me, this would normally sound really tempting.
     - Rue can you confirm for me. What does this crystal do. - I point to the medallion in the girl's hand.
     - It has the teleportation function and another one which I can't discern. It is quite possible that it is meant to store souls.
     - Are there any guarantees?
     - If you so desire, we can sign a magically binding contract.
     Hm. I am pretty sure that I would have definitely agreed to this proposal if this were my first time through. Though, with this being the fourth time through, I am cautious about this. There is a chance that this might interfere with the time-looping I am experiencing. I don't want to risk that. Additional insurance is good, but there is currently no point in that if it breaks the one I already have. It's not reliable, since I don't know how it works, but it has nonetheless saved me three times already. There is no point in trading it for something else.
     - I am sorry, but even though your proposal sounds tempting, I cannot accept it.
     - I see. Quite a pity. - She sighs resignedly. - You can talk to me if you change your mind.
     She seems to be disappointed, but still acts friendly.
     - I will, but now I have to go. Bye.
     Without waiting for the reply, I dash towards the training complex. I'm not yet being late, but it's getting close. Luckily, there are no more obstructions and I am able to arrive at the training complex before the round is scheduled to start.
     Actually, it's pretty sad to realize that I survived until the actual match only once. This is my fourth loop, but only second time getting to the third day. This is only my second time participating in the actual fight at the tournament. I feel myself really stupid. These are my thoughts as I stare at the humanoids I am meant to fight.
     A confident looking young man with purple cape, short brown hair and a staff in his left hand. A big humanoid-looking grey haired wolf with a scar over his, he wears blue jeans and a black jacket. And last, but not least, there is a black haired woman in maid's clothes with expressionless look on her face.
     In other I don't know any of them. These guys are completely different from the ones I fought during my first time. No murderous angel or mystery-swordsman. Just a mage, a werewolf and a maid. What's wrong with you people? Do you know of the term 'consistency'? I am supposed to be in some kind of the time loop, and yet you keep throwing at me these random new situations that are completely different from the ones that originally occurred. I would understand if I did something, but I haven't done anything! I just secluded myself at the training arena for three days. Why is there such a difference compared to the first time? This is just too irritating, and the worst part is that I can't do anything about it.
     The voice from the ceiling interrupts my train of thought.
     - Participants. Please enter the preparation rooms.
     As I enter the room, I notice that none of the participants seem worried at all. The mage exhibits self-confidence, the werewolf bloodlust and the maid just doesn't care. Great, this promises to be more fun than the last time.
     Like the last time, as soon as I enter the teleportation chamber, I get transported into another room.
     - Round starts in three minutes. At that time you will be transported to the arena. Please make your preparations.
     Like the last time, I am alone in this room and there is a big square screen that is in front of me. The difference is that instead of the ruins in the desert, there is a small tropical island on the screen. The middle of the island seems to resemble volcano crater with a small lake. From this lake four rivers flow down into the ocean. These lakes effectively split the island into four sectors and the green dot that signifies my position is in the middle of the right segment.
     Well, it's not like I have much to prepare. I turn the Chlymea into the sword. And wait for the countdown.
     - Three... Two... One...
     With a flash of light and I get transported into the forest. The choice I have now basically comes down to choosing between two options: avoid others or seek others out. Best course of action is to hide myself until only one other participant remains and strike him down. Unfortunately this did not work last time and I have no reason to assume it should work this time either. And that is not even the biggest of my troubles.
     The problem right now is not with my ability to kill. There is a more fundamental issue. I just do not possess any stealth skills. In this world of magic and supernatural abilities, I am bound to be found out and killed immediately. Any plan that relies on my ability to hide is bound to fail. I need to come up with something else. Though, there is a chance that I won't get noticed if other participants concentrate on fighting among themselves, so there is no point in loudly announcing my whereabouts either.
     The option of avoiding the others has many flaws, but even so, it still is tempting because it would enable me to survive longer. If my goal were to survive for a few minutes longer, I would have done that, but my goal, in the end, is to win this round. For that to happen, one way or another, I need to deal with other participants. To do that I need to know what they are capable of. So, I need to seek others out and see how they fight. Even in the worst case scenario, I will be able to utilise that information in the future retries. Of course that is only in case I have retries left, but given the fact that it happened four times already I feel it's not about 'there is no reason for it to happen again' and more about 'there is no reason for this not to happen again'. In other words 'if this happened four times without visible differences, then why wouldn't it happen again'?
     If my goal is to actually meet with other participants, then there is only one place for that on this island. I got to go to that lake. It's the only noticeable place here, so others will probably gather there. With the destination decided, I start walking there... Is what I would want to say, but since I'm in the middle of the forest, I have no idea what direction will take me to the lake. Seems I just have to pick randomly...
     Hiding is definitely out of the question. After ten minutes of walking I feel myself as a bull in a china shop. It feels as if my every movement produces so much sound that whole island should know where I am. In addition to that the forest isn't exactly dry, so my boots are soaked.
     I think I came upon a third option regarding my course of action: I can just get lost in the forest. No responsibility and no ability to affect the course of the battle in any meaningful way. Just great. What do I do now? Wait...
     What is that light between the trees? I quickly sprint to where the light is and arrive at the riverbank. Finally. Before me is a river of about thirty meters in width, surrounded by trees and bushes. At least now I have a definite direction to follow. As long as I go upstream, I can arrive at my destination. I wasted enough time, so I have no time to loiter around, but I am thirsty. I want to drink a bit before I leave. I squat down to bring my face closer to water.
     As I squat, I feel something familiar. I can't put my finger on this feeling. It's as if 'something that should be here isn't', but not exactly. I turn around to survey my surroundings. Nope. There is nobody else here. I turn back to the river.
     I'm about to drink, when this strange feeling engulfs me again. Suddenly, the right side of my neck starts itching and I get nervous. I can't calm myself down and turn around again. Still nobody there. I should probably leave this place. As I turn back to stand up, I see a sudden movement in the periphery of my vision. Spurned by my paranoia, I jump forward with Flash Step.
     Flying through the air I see that on the place I was before, a werewolf is now standing. He is not standing there alone. Running at him from behind is a maid. On the periphery of my consciousness I note that even after running through this forest the apron maid is wearing is clean and doesn't have any cuts. All these thoughts fade into background as I focus on my own predicament.
     As I said earlier, invoking Flash Step is easy, but landing is a problem. Since I was scared, I put more force than I should have. As a result, I am now speeding through the air above the river, towards trees on the opposite beach. Luckily I seem to be flying more towards the branches than the trunks, so I will probably survive this, but landing in water would have been much less painful.
     I focus Ether in my whole body in preparation for the impact. There is no reason to conserve it, since if I get seriously wounded then I won't stand a chance in the battle to come.
     Ouch! The branches hit me all over and I land in some kind of a bush. As I try standing up I look myself over. The clothes are cut here and there, but nothing serious. Well, that went as well as it could. I don't seem to have any injuries and am able to return to the battle. I turn around and run to back to the river.
     I arrive on the riverbank and see that the battle between maid and the werewolf hasn't finished. At least I assume that to be the case, since the maid is standing there and swinging some kind of short sword around. The sword seems to resemble japanese katana-swords, but smaller in size. I think those were called wakizashi. I don't see what she is defending from, but from time to time she swings her sword at something and sparks fly from that spot.
     I watch this spectacle and realize that I was just a bait. The maid used me as a bait to lure the werewolf out. She concluded that I was an easy prey and waited for somebody to attack me, so that she could counter attack him when he revealed himself. This feeling is pretty unpleasant.
     The maid turns around, but doesn't move around much. Is she on the defensive? I don't see the werewolf anywhere. Is he invisible? As if the maid had heard my thoughts, she stops and grabs the sword with her both hands. The blade starts to glow with red light. She starts spinning the sword around her head and the glowing red light starts getting longer. Circling around her a red spiral starts to appear. This spiral gets bigger and bigger, until it reaches trees. As it does, the part of the tree the spiral touches, just vanishes. The spiral still grows, and eventually enough of the tree is gone, so that it starts falling. The tree falls on the red spiral that the maid produced, but it doesn't reach the ground. Only some kind of powder or dust is left when it passes the spiral. Scary. When the radius of the spiral is around ten meters, the maid suddenly stops spinning the sword and the spiral vanishes.
     Immediately after that she slashes the sword at the point directly behind her and sparks fly again. The werewolf is still there. With the previous tactic unsuccessful, maid decided to try something else. She stomps on the ground and a bluish bubble appears around her. This defence isn't left untouched. The scratches start immediately appearing on the bubble. The bubble breaks, only to be immediately replaced by a new one.
     As I follow this process of bubble breaking from scratches and reappearing again, I start noticing the slight blur that emerges every time before the scratch appears. The speed of werewolf's attacks is increasing all the time and in a few seconds, there are multiple scratches appearing each moment. The maid stretches her hands forward to touch the bubble. The next moment, when the blur of a werewolf appears and he performs a slash with his claws, the spikes grow out of the bubble. With spikes pointing in all directions, this picture reminds me of a porcupine or a hedgehog.
     The spikes disappear as suddenly as they appeared and the only thing left is the maid surrounded by a bubble. The werewolf is nowhere in sight. Did she miss? No. The attacks stopped. Her attack probably connected, but it wasn't lethal. Did the werewolf escape or is he still here?
     The next moment I get an answer to my question. The bubble breaks and the werewolf is right in front of the maid, swinging his claw at her. Luckily she manages to dodge the swipe and jump back... Wait, wait, wait! Did I just say luckily? Am I rooting for her? What is wrong with me? She is the enemy. If she doesn't die, then I will. I can't root for her...
     While I was getting worked up in my head, the situation on the opposite side of the river changed radically. The werewolf isn't invisible anymore. He is standing opposite of the maid with his hand covering a bloody waist. They weren't the only ones there. Diagonally across the maid and the werewolf was standing a mage in the purple mantle. They formed a triangle. Is this some kind of a staring contest?
     Suddenly, as if by command, all three of them start acting. The maid takes out four daggers and throws two of them at mage and other two at the werewolf. The mage throws two pulsating purple balls: one at the werewolf and the other at the maid. At this time the werewolf simply vanishes. In reaction to this, the maid dashes at the mage circling around the purple ball. The mage jumps back, to avoid the daggers, but that did not help him. The daggers change their trajectory mid-flight and curve at him. Exactly at this moment, the second pair of daggers meets the purple ball at the place where werewolf was standing.
     The resounding explosion blinds me and I miss the moment that the mage and the maid clash. As my vision returns, I see the maid with two daggers in her hands attacking the mage who is holding some kind of energy-shield up and backing down, but not letting any attacks through. He creates the spear out of some energy. Waiting for an opportunity to strike back, he continues backing down.
     The maid continues slashing at the mage's defence. Seeing as this produces no result, I get the feeling that the maid is planning something. Whatever the plan is, the mage doesn't seem to care. Right after another slash with the dagger, he thrusts the spear forward, only to find that the maid has crouched down. With his defence down, the maid slashes at the mage. The attack goes through, but the result is not what one would expect. The mage, that was supposed to die, disappeared. Instead of that, behind the maid is standing a werewolf that is impaling her with his claw, who is in turn impaled by the maid's dagger. A surprising finale to this battle. As if to signal the ending of this fight, a purple pulsating ball drops on the two of them, engulfing them with the explosion. When the smoke clears, only the mage in the purple mantle is standing above the bodies of the maid and the werewolf.
     He looks down to ascertain that the two are not a threat anymore and then he turns his gaze at me. He waves his hand and three purple balls emerge in front of him to start flying at me. Damn! I can't reach him from here. I missed my chance to attack and now my only option is to defend. Concentrate!
     I close my eyes. Surprisingly, in my mind's eye I see the spheres, that are speeding at me. Wait! Does this mean... I try moving the spheres into the inventory and it succeeds. The mage seems to be puzzled. He creates five blue lances and sends them at me. Without any effort I move them into inventory. What is going on here?
     The mage starts getting visibly nervous. He creates a whole array of different geometrical figures of different colours around himself. Spheres, squares, pyramids, lances, tridents, cones... All of them started flying at me. In my mind's eye all of them start glowing when they get closer to me. I don't know what is happening, but I'm glad it is. This way, there is actually a possibility of my victory.
     I release on of the spears in my inventory towards the mage. Effortlessly it pierces him and he disappears. An illusion? Then where is the real one? In an answer to my question, a spear is speeding at me from behind. I move it into inventory and turn around. There are three mages standing there. More illusions. The real one is probably not there. How do I find the real one?
     The mages start throwing spells at me and I start walking towards them, filling my inventory with projectiles at the same time. As I get closer to them, they appear in my mind's eye as well. The glow gets stronger and I begin to see a thread that goes from these illusions to the beach behind me. Is that where the mage actually is? I release two of the spears I stole at that location. The spears meet the glass-like barrier, but now I know where the mage actually is.
     I run towards his location. Visually I don't see anything, but in my mind's eye I see a hollow sphere. Like before, I move this sphere into inventory. At the place that was empty a moment ago, a mage is now standing. There is no confidence in his eyes anymore, only surprise and fear. Fear? Is he afraid of me? That is a new feeling. Noticing my distraction he tries to attack me. While distracted, as if on autopilot, I move everything around him into inventory and send a spear back in retaliation.
     The mage doesn't seem to believe what is happening. Face filled with surprise, impaled by his own spear, he drops on the ground. Still not properly understanding what has happened I move towards the fallen mage. Did I kill him? Is this round finally over? Did I finally do it?
     In daze I walk towards the body of a mage that is in the pool oh his own blood.
     - Wh... Ghe-ghe... - He coughs blood. - What are you?
     - I don't gh-...
     Dumbfounded I stare at the claw protruding from my chest.
     - You got careless kid. - I hear a gnarling voice behind me. - Too bad, you were really close.
     Turning my head I see a werewolf's face behind me. No! I came too far. It cannot end like this! There must be something that can be done! There must be something that I can do! Looking at the things I stored in the inventory, I take all the spears and tridents. All at once, I release them in every direction around me.
     With my consciousness fading and vision getting dimmer, I survey the surroundings one last time. Spears, lances and tridens sticking in all directions. A mage lying on the ground in the pool of blood impaled by five spears. Lastly there is a werewolf. With so many spears and lances sticking out of him, the word pincushion comes to my mind.
     - The victor has been decided. Round is over. Administering first aid for the victor...
     Through the haze I feel something happening in my chest.
     - Moving to regeneration chamber...
     The last thing on my mind before my consciousness fades is that I actually won... I actually won. It's over, right? Right!?

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