Re:The Worst System Leveling Turned Me Into A Zombie (Ch.15)

It's like Re:zero crossed with SAO, Solo Leveling, and Tokyo Ghoul

The world's strongest Hunter, Death God Hei, was the first to hit Lvl. 100. However, when he broke the System limit, he mysteriously turned into a zombie. Hei was forced to watch himself attack and consume the party he had fought alongside since the beginning of the apocalypse.

After being killed, Hei woke up as a Lvl. 0 again. It seems dying only brings him back to a save point now. Sick, right? There’s just one problem. The clock doesn’t reset until he dies twice. Once as a human, and once as a zombie. And when Hei dies, he’s still there. Still watching as someone…something else takes over his cold body and hunts down those he hoped to protect. Every time he levels up...he only makes his zombie stronger.

Thus begins the first save of the world's greatest fallen angel and worst undead evil.

Vol.1 First Save: Re:Live Breath Die
Hei does his best to protect the beautiful girl who saves him from the abyss, without leveling. Until a Secret Dungeon opens, trapping him and his girlfriend inside along with 1,500,000 Hunters. What's the problem? It's a one of a kind Secret Dungeon filled with rare skills and items right? Well, according to the memories of his past life...everyone in this Secret Dungeon died.

“This time I won't obey the System. I'll take a different path!”

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  • Prologue: A Taste of Her

    This isn’t happening.

    I don’t want to do this.

    There is a terrible feeling when you bite into human flesh for the first time. It has this salty taste, like undercooked pork. Disgusting. You imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes. Especially if they are still alive.

    I wish it wasn’t her.

    You wonder what it is like to be them right now. To be suffering. To know pain. My muscles are not my own. The Gray has me tight. My brain no longer listens to my commands. But it still reports back to me with every sin I commit. Every scream she can’t hold back as the Gray uses my body to hold her down and tear her apart strip by strip.

    I am so sorry.

    *Crunch*

    Disgusting.

    Why…why must it be like this?

    I don’t want to die.

    I try to force myself to end it even though I am not in control. But then there is a voice inside my head. One which sounds an awful lot like me.

    Neither do I…

    #

    The truth is that in this world, power is an illusion. You think you have power over your life. You think going to school and studying hard will make you successful. You think afterwards you will go to work in an office to make lots of money and that will make you happy. You think one day you will have enough and that will let you die. All of this is untrue. The truth is that things happen.

    People die.

    For most that is the end. For those taken by the virus, it is unfortunately not. That is what makes the virus so scary. It takes away the one thing we all thought we would have.

    It takes away death.

    Our world was not always like this. Before the pandemic, I was a world class athlete. People thought I had it all. I disagreed, I was never more lonely. Every day at the gym, working the bag, grappling with trainers, teaching myself to master my body. It made me hard, and it made me physically strong. I was born and bred for a war. But it wasn’t the war I wanted to fight.

    I couldn’t relate to people. Had so few friends I might as well not have had a phone. It looked like I was winning, but inside, I was slowly dying. I wanted things to change.

    Over a black star, I wished for the world to change during the new year.

    It was a mistake.

    I should have wished for the world to change for the better. Instead…it became like this after New Years Eve, 2021. Now in this world of endless violence, I am truly alone. I tried so hard to save everyone. I thought I had this power. The truth is I can’t save anyone. I can die over and over but one day, just like everyone else, I will die no more. For I will become one with the Gray. And then…perhaps I will no longer be alone.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be running from death.

     

    #

    “Hey, you alive?”

    “Hah!” I surge up from my terrible dreams like I can escape the future they hold for me if I just open my eyes. That’s impossible though. Whatever twisted nightmares await me are unavoidable. That is the only thing I know for sure.

    Despite all my power, you cannot escape the inevitable.

    Eventually, you…will…break.

    My eyelids shoot open like hummingbird wings, fluttering with supersonic speed. Something is staring into my eyes. Wide eyes, pale skin, black hair, I know what this is. A person?

    “Oh my god!” The girl in front of me backs away. She’s really cute. Fancy that, there are still cute girls in this world? Now that she’s moved out of the way, I can see three guys and two more girls behind her. This time it’s my turn to widen my eyes. “I didn’t expect you to actually be alive!” Her voice is breathy. Under her long black hair, I can see a juicy pulse jumping in her neck. Don’t think about it, Hei. You’re alive right now. The Gray thinks like that. You’re human. You don’t eat humans.

    “…” I don’t say anything, just push my palms against the dusty ground. It’s cold, but then I’m on my feet and I can rise slowly. The other humans stare at me with fear in their eyes. They are afraid because I am not one of them. They should be. If only they knew what I am. What I have done. But no one knows.

    Just me.

    “It’s okay! We have food! Don’t be scared!” The girl gets off the ground as well. “I’m Yin. We’re trying to get out! You want to come with?” She straightens, offering her hand. There aren’t many people who would trust their hand to a stranger these days. I’m not one of them. The girl named Yin, tightens her face ever so slightly, and her companion’s distrust turns to tension. Despite my wariness, I’m not afraid of them. Nothing can be as bad as bad as that time. I shudder remembering what I did, what I had to do.

    If that guy hadn’t stopped me, would I still be out there? Walking endlessly alone? Hunting forever?

    “He’s useless. Leave him.” One of the guys, a taller man who looks like a college student shrugs. He comes up behind Yin and tugs on her shoulder. She brushes off his hand, trying to look in my eyes. I turn my head down, staring at the ground. What do you think you’ll find in my eyes?

    You can’t see it. Even if I let you look, you wouldn’t see the things I saw. The things I did.

    The man smirks, tossing his blonde ponytail sideways. “See, he’s wasted. Probably insane.”

    “Maybe…” Yin finally gives up when I refuse to look at her. She stands up and goes back to her friends. They start to walk away, occasionally shooting glances back my way. I watch them go. I’m so lonely. But it’s better this way. I can’t be in a party again. Not after last time. The girl calls out to me one last time. “If you change your mind, we’ll be going North. Just follow the star.”

    She points up at the sky, worriedly. Though I look away, I can still see her sadness as her friends pull her along. They don’t look strong. I don’t think any of them are Hunters. All they can do is run and run. But the dead never get tired. And there will always be more.

    When I move, my back cracks from sleeping on the hard ground. I’m almost out of supplies. Looking around, I sigh. Wastelands all around. Dry, dirty, cold and barren. How did it all go to hell so fast? I had forgotten what it was like in the beginning.

    Why was I sent back here?

    Checking my canteen, it sloshes quietly. A little too quietly.

    Running low.

    I force myself to start walking.

    They went this way. I don’t want to run into them again. But I need water.

    The sky changes, growing darker. The warm sun is drifting away and cold night draws near. After the world changed, the silver moon grew larger, brighter in the sky. It gives frail humans more-light to see them coming. Now I sleep during the day and awake at night. Just like the dead. In order to beat them, I must think like they do.

    Well, I probably shouldn’t act like I wasn’t nocturnal before.

    The ruined buildings have crumbled quickly outside the major city zones. Whatever unnatural force has pulled us into this terrible game has changed the rules. The topography of the land, all the maps we had before, the satellites and GPS which could tell you to turn left and walk here, none of them make sense anymore. A few places are still where they used to be, but if you trust anything from before you’ll regret it.

    If you kill enough zombies, you’ll get a HUD, a sort of user interface which tells you your level. A map can be unlocked which records all the places you’ve been at level 5. But I am no longer a Hunter. So, I have to rely on memory. If I go the other way, the direction I went in my last life, I think I’ll find Sasha, James, and the others again. That is, if this world is really the same as my previous life.

    “Have I really come back to the beginning, just like that? Why did that happen after hitting Lvl. 100?” My words fall on a cold, empty audience. The silent buildings laugh at me, mocking my helplessness. “The System…did it curse me? Was it because I was the first to break the Lvl. 100 limit?”

    My heart thumps just thinking about it. I don’t know what caused me to turn into…that…thing. For a brief moment after it happened, it was like I could hear it speaking to me. The Gray was in control, not me. That’s what I’ll call it. I should have a name for evil. Damnit, is it even safe to think about it? What the hell happened?

    “Sasha…I’m sorry…I can’t face you.” I turn away from the West. The party was all I knew. We grew up fighting the Calamity together until we earned the title, Five Death Gods. But now that’s not going to happen. My skin isn’t thick enough to pretend I don’t remember her taste. It’s all wrong.

    So, so wrong…

    I want to…

    See her again.

    But I can’t face her after…what I did. Even if she doesn’t know, I’ll know. If that Hunter hadn’t come along, would I still be out there, eating…NO

    I DON’T WANT TO REMEMBER THIS!

    Closing my eyes, I just listen to the Wasteland for a while. If I think too hard, I’ll remember what happened again. And what the Gray said.

    It wasn’t real. Don’t think about it. It was just the virus. Not you…Ahhh!

    Putting my hands over my ears, I shudder, rocking back and forth on my feet. It’s too soon. Just a few days ago I was hunting zombs with them. I was one of the top Hunters. Now…I’m nobody and I can never party again. If I grew too strong…and I died again, would another Hunter be able to stop me? This is the beginning of the Calamity, right? Everyone’s still figuring out the System. I need to avoid leveling. If that thing gets control of my body it’ll be unstoppable.

    “Ahhhh!” Suddenly the scream of a girl crashes through my musing. Instantly, my thoughts go back to the newbies from earlier. It has to be them.

    At this point, I doubt anyone has even figured out how to level yet.

    I don’t want to get involved. I don’t know them. But I can’t just let them get eaten. Breaking into a jog, I follow the path between two rotting houses and come out of the gap to see the undead. Six zombies, a family by the look of it, shamble towards the river. Trapped against the water is the student party from earlier. Yin is shrieking, her long black hair dripping water as the blonde dude waves a tree branch at the undead. “Help! Donovan do something!”

    “What the hell do you think I’m doing?” The blonde man takes a step forward and attempts to smash the foremost zombie, a pudgy man, in the head.

    *Swish*

    The muddy riverbank and a loose rock cause him to slip. He overswings and hits the zombie’s shoulder. His tree branch snaps in half, splinters flying everywhere, as the undead growls in response. The girls hiding behind him lose their nerve and back away into deeper water.

    Don’t do that. You can’t fight them effectively like that.

    I step out further from the houses. The zombies are focused on the party and have their backs turned to me. Yin sees me and an expression of panic takes over.

    “Run away!” She screams. “Leave us or they’ll come after you too!” It’s obvious that she has no idea how to hunt even the most basic undead. Right now, the only zombies around here are probably Fresh Undead. That’s the way the Calamity starts.

    Since I am not a hunter anymore, I can’t see their levels, but most non-Hunters can take Fresh Undead on with some planning. In my last life, since I didn’t come this way, did these people die? Despite Yin’s warning, I stay where I am, thinking. Even at Lvl 0, after my last life, I’m not afraid of these things. One of the other girls, a short redhead can’t take it anymore. She turns and wades out into the river.

    “Stop!” Another guy calls out. “Crassia don’t!” However, it is too late. The girl’s short legs kick against the current, but it is not long before panic takes over for she has met one of the few things as implacable as the undead.

    “Help!” She screams as the river claims her. Swept away by the rushing water, it only takes seconds before her cries are too far to hear. Unfortunately, as I am now, I can’t save her. She can only hope that the gods are kind and do not decide to let her drown. Shaking my head, I see one of the boys from earlier pointing at me. The blonde guy has dropped his broken branch and retreated to the others into waist deep water. Any further and the shorter girls will be washed away.

    They’re going to drown.

    “Bro! Do something! Save us!” The dark-skinned boy with dreadlocks is desperate. Cold water has no doubt soaked all of his clothes and if it weren’t for that, he would be covered in sweat. “Distract them for us!” He stumbles on something in the river and goes under for a second. When he comes, up, the zombies have entered the water. Their rotting flesh causes a black stain to form in front of them as their essence is away by the current.

    Fresh Undead are so weak.

    If only they knew the first thing about fighting.

    “Shut up, Sean!” Yin yells at her friend, tugging him back with her. She looks at me with sad eyes. “Just go! It’s too late!” The blonde man has his hands out as if to box with the undead. It could work, in theory. If you can avoid the bite of Fresh Undead, they won’t be able to infect you. A few freaks who liked boxing and learned some special skills even leveled bare-handed techniques. This guy, however is not a fighter. He’ll probably be bitten after one or two punches and then he’ll die. Afterwards, he’ll be reanimated as a new Fresh Undead.

    “Oi! Don’t you have any shame!” He calls out to me. “We offered you food and you’re just going to watch us die?” I feel nothing at his words. After my last life, I’ve seen too much to care about his taunt. The girl named Yin stares daggers into Donovan’s back.

    “Stop dragging him down with us!” She cries out. However, I’ve already taken a step towards the zombies. Reaching into my coat, I take out my butcher’s cleaver. Breathing deep, I remember the feeling of my first blade.

    It’s been a long time.

    Though I’m far more accustomed to a true sword by now, this will do. The cute girl tries one last time in vain to stop me as she sees me draw my weapon.

    “No! Go back!”

    “Help dude!” Her friends are not as shy as she is. The light of hope rekindles in their eyes though they do not really believe I can change their fate. I break into a run, scooping up a rock in my fist as I go. As the first zombie enters knee deep water and Donovan engages it in combat, I throw.

    *Smack*

    My missile catches the back of the Fresh Undead’s head right as the blonde boy’s punch hits its temple. No one can believe it when the fat corpse crumples, coagulated blood spilling into the water. However, the other five zombies are almost at the party. Donovan’s fist is shaking.

    He’s not used to punching.

    *Splash!*

    Fresh Undead are stupid. They struggle to understand who is the greater danger. Strategy is not part of their limited skillset and though I just downed one of them, they only see the people they have been hunting. When my boots enter the water, the slowest one starts to turn towards me.

    Too slow!

    I draw my butcher’s knife across the back of its neck in a single practiced motion. Its spinal cord is severed and it drops instantly. The soft meat of a Fresh Undead is weaker than a normal human.

    *Splash*

    Another body hitting the water attracts the attention of the others. One zombie, a thin older man, turns back just in time for me to smash my cleaver into its collarbone. He shrieks as his vocal cords are torn out. Kicking the zombie back to die in the river, I dash to the next one.

    This one has actually managed to face me. A woman, her face twisted in undeath reaches for me with black fingernails and scarred wrists. Ducking underneath her cold grasp, I slit her throat. All of these Fresh Undead were created from normal people who are not hunters. They can kill with a single bite. But to someone who has fought a hundred battles, they are nothing.

    Four down.

    The last two haven’t realized that I am behind them. But the girls have backed up into chest-deep water. Their clothes cling to their bodies as they try to stay upright. Any deeper and they’ll be swept away like their friend was.

    “AHHH!” The blonde, Donovan, has been attacked. He grabs the puffy forearms coming towards him, trying to keep the zombie from reaching him. The rotting man surges forwards, knocking Donovan underwater. Splashes echo as the other two boys watch him fall, unsure of how to help.

    I’ve gotten close.

    *Splash*

    My cleaver dispatches the fifth zombie summarily as Yin’s wide eyes watch.

    “HELP HIM!” She cries at the drowning boy. I’m annoyed.

    These idiots went too deep.

    It’s hard to fight in such deep water. I’m not that tall, my arms only reach halfway out of the river. Striding past the other zombies, I approach the frothing melee. I can see Donovan’s face underwater. Air bubbles stream from his ice-cold lips as he tries to keep the zombie from biting him. Their arms tangle and unwind, a bizarre dance between living and dead.

    *Splash*

    Raising my blade up high, I jump out of the water to get more leverage. Then swing straight down onto the zombie’s neck like I’m chopping vegetables. A black cloud billows and a rotting head falls down as if to kiss Donovan in death. Reaching underwater, I grab the severed skull by the hair on the back of the scalp and throw it aside so the drowning boy doesn’t accidentally shove his hand inside its mouth or something.

    “Oh my god he’s not coming up!” The other girl has pink hair with the dye fading. She points at Donovan as if we don’t all know he’s drowning. Now that the zombie has died, the rest of them finally come close. I plunge my arm down into the water, closing my eyes to avoid getting zombie blood inside.

    *Muurmph*

    Donovan is lifted up by the hair, kicking and spluttering. One of his wild punches catches me in the ribs and I grunt, letting go. He falls back into the river. This time, his friends decide not to be useless and go to help him up. Rubbing my rib, I immediately head back to shore. It’s probably too early for undead to spawn in the river.

    Probably.

    “You killed all of them.” Yin’s confused voice is a little awestruck, a little scared. If only she knew what I was really capable of. The girl really is beyond cute, beautiful might be a word with that long black hair. After the swim, her wet white t-shirt sticks to her pale skin under the jacket like a makeshift wedding gown. Hugging her hands to hard-to-ignore breasts, she shivers.

    “Who…how did you do that?” Her question goes unanswered. Not one to waste time, I drag my feet to shore, swishing my cleaver in the water a few times to get the blood off. Once on the riverbank, I’m a little tired. But something familiar has appeared in the corner of my vision. I know what it is.

    “Congratulations, you are now a Hunter!”

    Damnit. I’m level one.

    #

    “Level one?” Yin asks. I didn’t even realize I was thinking out loud until she came up behind me. My clothes are all wet. At Lvl 1, that’s a problem. We need a fire.

    “Kill zombies and you’ll get to become a Hunter.” I don’t hide my knowledge. Though it’s probably invaluable right now, in a few days, more and more people are going to discover that life is a game now. “The more you kill, the stronger you get.”

    “I…” Yin doesn’t know what to make of my statements. I shrug.

    She’ll figure it out it out soon anyway.

    “What’s your name? Why did you help us?” She watches as her friends start to take off their wet clothes. One of the girls is hesitant to remove her shirt in front of so many males, even with a bra underneath. The guys see me looking and give me dark looks even though I just saved their lives. Whatever. Not like I care. I turn my gaze downriver.

    “Your friend might still be alive.” My voice is neutral. “There’s a chance she drowned. Or got picked up by something once she landed.” Now that the moon has risen, the world is cast in a strange silver glow. After so much time fighting in my other life, it’s hard to remember everything about the world before the Calamity. But I do remember how dark it was at night if you didn’t live in the city. If only I could go back to that darkness. It was creepy, but at least it was safe. Now you can see so much more, but all you’ll find is monsters. This is a world of monsters.

    “You’re right.” Yin peers into the dark river. At night, it’s like a sapphire ribbon winding out of the crumbling buildings and into the woods. In those trees, anything could be lurking, and probably is. “We should go look for her!” She wants to go to her friends. However, I grab her wet sleeve.

    “Not a good idea.” I say curtly. “You guys are too weak. It’s going to get cold soon, you need to build a fire.” The cute girl stops with a worried expression. She’s loyal. But still a newbie.

    “We can’t just leave Crassia…” She murmurs, “Besides, if we started a fire, wouldn’t that just attract more of those things?” Most of the bodies in the river have been carried off by the current. But two of them still linger at the water’s edge, stark reminders of the future awaiting all of us. I shake my head, watching her friends shiver.

    “Go inside one of the buildings so nothing sees the light. Also, you guys made too much noise already. If anything was here it would have came earlier. You should never scream unless you’re trying to fight more undead.” I raise my voice so the others can hear. Under the heavy moonlight, I can see them blush. The girl with pink hair catches my eye.

    “Do you…do you think you could look for Crassia for us?” She does her best to put on a winning expression. “Please? You’re so strong!” Her compliment sounds good, but it’s just a cover for her own weakness. The males stare at me as if they can’t do the task themselves.

    So useless. Even when we were newbies, Sasha and James were never this afraid. I guess that’s the difference between regular people and the strong.

    Without answering, I walk away. She becomes afraid as I start to leave. “Wait! Where are you going?”

    “You wanted me to find her.” I shrug, gazing up at the gleaming moon. Under tonight’s sky it seems almost covered in blood. My fist goes up as if to hold it in my hand. I can’t believe I’m back here again. At the beginning.

    “Rui, stop it!” Yin hushes her friend before calling out to my back, “You don’t have to do this!” However, I am already entering the thicket of trees. Following the river, I’m not sure why I’m bothering to help these people. I’m not a hero anymore. These people are strangers. I don’t have to do this. But some part of me can’t let it go. Even if I do this, it won’t make up for what I did. Nothing can make up for that. As I trudge into the woods, I hear footsteps behind me. “I’m coming with you.”

    “…” I keep walking further. The dark shroud of the treetops shuts out the iridescent moonlight and turns the forest into true night. A gentle burble comes from the winding river which twists left and right trying to find its way to the ocean. I’m reminded of people. We’re just like the river. Always following the path of least resistance. The girl behind me however defies the norm. I can hear her teeth chattering as the world grows cold. Now it belongs to the dead, not us.

    “Why are you helping us?” She huffs through cold lips. I do not answer. To be honest, I don’t know myself so I can’t say even if I wanted to.

    *Crack*

    Twigs break underneath her clumsy steps. I shake my head irritably.

    Newbie. She’s just a newbie.

    As we walk, occasionally glimpses of moonlight break through the dense foliage and illuminate the trail. Though I keep my eyes on the riverbank, looking for footsteps in the mud or any signs of her friend, I see nothing. Something moves in the endless shadows. I pause, raising my nose, trying to smell the familiar stink of undead. There’s something out there. Wait…

    “Crassia!” Yin dashes forward before I can warn her. A familiar red head with sopping wet hair emerges from the tangled trees. Dragging her feet over the gnarled roots, she’s covered in mud and pale as a bleached sheet. Crassia walks out of the bushes. The barbed hooks from their grasp leave bloody smears on her white skin. “You’re okay!”

    She got out of the river? Without leaving footsteps?

    I look back at the shoreline. Indeed, the riverbank is clean and clear despite being extremely muddy. It’s like she just…floated out the river. Instantly, the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect. I know what monster stands before us now, and it’s no human. Running forwards, I yank Yin back by her hair. It’s the only thing I can reach. Her still-wet ponytail is cold in my grasp, but doesn’t break. She stumbles as her head snaps back. Hurt eyes gaze at me in bewildered anger.

    “What the hell!” She yelps. However, I have no time for this girl’s useless rage. What lies ahead is far more dangerous.

    I thought that only Fresh Undead would spawn in the first few days. But I guess depending on where you started, you might not be so lucky.

    The redhead ghosts over the tree branches, leaving no footprints. River-water oozes from her clothes and spills to the ground, but when it lands, it disappears. Crassia opens her mouth, a faint keen coming as she gasps.

    “Help-me. I’m-so-cold.” She chokes, spluttering words having a hard time leaving her waterlogged lungs. There’s no smell. Her corpse died in the water only recently and hasn’t begun to rot yet. Yin still tries to break free of my grasp and get herself killed. She pushes against my arms which form a cage around her.

    “Oh my god, you’re alive!” Yin cries out, turning back to yell at me, “Let me go! What are you doing?”

    I do the opposite of what she asks, tightening my arms around her soft body and holding her back. The girl is cold, freezing, her body unused to the wild at night. Gradually, as Crassia stumbles closer, and her swaying mop of soaked hair drifts back in the wind, Yin stills.

    “Crassia? Are you okay?”

    “She’s already dead.” I announce grimly. Yin doesn’t believe me. She twists around in my hold, unable to see that her friend is gone. I have my gaze fixed above the enemy’s head. A number floats there, and I curse.

    A Drowned Soul. Lvl 5.

    If I kill her, I’ll hit Lvl 2 instantly. I can’t keep leveling like this or no one will be able to stop me if I die and the Gray takes over. But we can’t run. Something this strong, it will keep following us until it dies or eats us. The ruckus it makes will attract other things in the woods. I heard noises on the way here. We’re not alone.

    “Crassia?” Finally, Yin has realized that I am not holding her back for nothing. “Are you…okay? You’re so pale!” In response to her question, the Drowned Soul that wears her friend’s form as skin laughs. It is a bone-chilling noise, one which contains all the despair of someone who has lost everything. Air, warmth, life, everything was taken from Crassia when the river pulled her under. Now she hungers to regain the impossible by taking it from others. “What’s wrong? Are you hurt?”

    “So-cold…” Crassia moans again. I back away, dragging Yin with me as the creature takes a shambling step forwards. Her limbs are jerky, the joints locked up by water. It gives her a stuttering stride which makes it look like she’s going to fall at any time. However, her feet do not catch on anything on the ground. I point at the glaring giveaway.

    “Don’t you see it? Drowned Souls leave no footprints. Her true self is at the bottom of the river. But this thing in front of you which wears her skin doesn’t know that. It hungers to replace what was lost. It hungers for all that makes you living.” My explanation is dispassionate. I realize I’m talking like I’m explaining this all to a new Hunter. Suddenly, the solution is clear.

    “What…what do we do? How can we help her?” Yin shudders. Perhaps she believes my words, perhaps not. She stills in my arms and I stop pulling her back. Instead, I let her go. She turns back to look at me as I reach into my coat and withdraw my cleaver. “What are you doing? Are you going to kill her?!” I shake my head slowly. Turning the blade around, I offer her the handle. There’s only one way to help these newbies.

    “I can’t kill her. If you want to live, you’re going to do it.”

    #

    “What? Me!” Yin stares at my cleaver over her shoulder as the red-haired wraith of her friend creeps closer. Even from this close, it’s hard to tell that Crassia is undead now. The telltale giveaway of her invisible footsteps and drowned appearance are slight enough to be ignored by most. If it wasn’t for the fact that my companion, James, once almost died to a Drowned Soul himself when we first started adventuring, I wouldn’t know this crucial detail. “What’s wrong with her?”

    “I told you. She died in that river. What you’re seeing is no longer human. Just a corpse reanimated by the virus. If you kill her, you can become a Hunter, like I was. Like I am.” I correct myself as I remember that I accidentally hit Lvl 1 saving their party. “Either you kill her, or she kills you.” I push the cleaver closer to her hand. When the wooden handle bumps her hand she pushes back abruptly.

    “There’s no way…look she’s…she’s fine…” Yin stares at her friend as the shambling Drowned Soul comes into the open. A ray of moonlight illuminates Crassia’s face and reveals the true extent of the damage. Her skin is utterly white, all traces of color lost to the river bottom. Only the mud caking her ragged clothes is dark brown under the moonlight. An expression of intense longing fills her forlorn face. When she opens her mouth to gasp for air, it sounds like she’s speaking from underwater. Yin gasps as she sees what has become of her friend. “N-No! You were fine! How did this happen?”

    “I-so-so…cold…can’t…breath.” Crassia hisses, her bloated fingers reaching out as if to grab onto the shore. She plods towards us in a way that’s almost dreamlike. I shake my head, bonking Yin on the back of her head with my cleaver.

    “HEY!” She swings around. “What was that for?” Sighing, I just drop the cleaver into her hand, forcing her to hold onto it or risk dropping it. “I told you, I’m not going to-“

    “Your choice. In five seconds, she’s going to try to kill you. Either you listen to my instructions and learn how to kill her, or I’m going to leave. Then she’ll kill you and after she’s done with you, she’ll go after the rest of your friends.” My dark words cause Yin’s face to tighten. She glances at me, trying to confirm if I’m serious or not. Something in my face must tell her the truth because her knuckles tighten on the cleaver this time. “You’re running out of time. Decide. Now!”

    “You…look…warm…” Crassia fixes her undead gaze at Yin. From this close it’s like being stared at by a deadly predator. Any second, it might attack. That is all she is now. Just one the undead, even if she possesses the same face and voice. Yin needs to realize the truth of this cruel world. Or perish along with her friend. “Can I…touch you…I just want…to be warm…again.”

    “Please. I can’t do this. Help me!” Yin’s voice grows panicked as she realizes I really will walk away. She turns rapidly from me back to her friend over and over. I shake my head as Crassia takes one more step.

    “Too late. She’s coming.” I whisper, before falling away from her. Yin stares at me with wide eyes. No doubt in the reflection she can see what is coming for her.

    “GIVE IT TO ME! YOUR WARMTH!”

    Crassia surges forward, her red hair flowing backwards in one smooth motion as the undead virus in her compels her to attack her friend.

    Yin stumbles back, holding my cleaver out as if it will ward off evil. Unfortunately, it is not very long, and while I keep it sharp, it’s hardly going to impale a Drowned Soul without any force behind it. The cute girl shrieks, helpless as she realizes her mistake.

    “Heeeelp!” She screams. The Drowned Soul’s arms have an unnatural speed to them. Now that she has cast aside her disguise as a person, she is unveiled for what she truly is. Just a predator controlled by the virus. Lunging forwards, she grasps for Yin’s throat, desperate to drain her lifeblood. Yin lands on her butt, and I hear a gasp as the hard ground knocks the wind out of her.

    “G-I-V-E M-E!”

    Crassia’s short legs are empowered by death. Her bloated fingers reach for Yin’s throat and the beautiful girl desperately rolls sideways to get out of the way. Okay…that was a little impressive. Maybe you do have some promise after all. However, a Lvl 5 Drowned Soul is much faster to recover than the clumsy Fresh Undead. Though Crassia misses, she lands on her hands and knees and is back on her feet in a flash long before Yin can regain her own footing. Staring at the cute girl’s terrified face, I feel a tinge of pity.

    I remember my first fight against the undead. My heart pounding in my chest. I had the same weapon.

    Looking down, I see Yin has had the sense to keep holding onto my cleaver. Lucky for her, it’s her only chance.

    “I can hold it down for you. But only for a second. After that, I will let go and I won’t interfere again.” I step forwards towards the undead. Crassia hisses like a feral cat. Black river-water seeps out along with coagulated blood and bits of her torn lungs as she breathes heavily. I never understood why the undead still do that sometimes. Breath that is. They don’t need to. The Drowned Ghoul turns to me. I ask Yin one last time, “Do you understand?”

    “Just…get it away!” Yin tries to get to her feet while holding my cleaver. I snap out a punch at the undead girl’s forehead, careful to avoid striking anywhere near the mouth. The bite of the undead is a death sentence. As a Lvl 5 undead, Crassia senses my punch and immediately lunges towards me. But I expected that. Retracting my punch before it hits, I follow her center of gravity, moving sideways and ducking underneath the Drowned Ghoul. A moment later I’m behind her. My hands come up like steel traps, curling underneath her neck and locking together.

    Gotcha

    It’s a disgusting feeling, her bloated body is too soft, yet oddly swollen in the wrong places. I can feel cold river water leaking onto my arms, my chest. It’s like clutching a frozen, rotting, fruit. The smell of an undead invades my nostrils as Crassia flails in my grasp trying to turn around and bite me. Her nails scrabble against my coatsleeves, failing to tear the fabric. I steer the undead around, so she faces Yin, who stands there with my cleaver in hand, at a loss for what to do. Yanking up against the undead’s chin, I force Crassia’s snarling mouth up towards the sky, baring her neck. Yin’s eyes widen as she realizes she can finish this.

    “You can’t be serious!”

    “Last chance.”

    #

    “You’re going to die then.”

    I don’t know why I’m trying so hard to save this stupid girl. Maybe it’s because she reminds me of Sasha. Of how we all were when we first started hunting the dead. That naïve innocence, the thought that maybe our loved ones could still be saved. I thought I had forgotten the feeling. But right now, I’m starting to remember. Maybe it’s just how damp the Drowned Ghoul between my arms is, but my eyes are a little moist. I blink to clear them. My breath grows heavy. Without any stat increases holding a Lvl 5 is taking every bit out of me.

    “I’m going to let go now.”

    “You…you really would.” Yin walks closer, my cleaver held tightly in front of her. She stares at her friend with horror as I hold the thing back. Eventually, her expression turns to pity. My arms are burning, and finally, I have to let go. So be it.

    *Shing*

    Yin swings my cleaver. Her blow cuts into Crassia’s throat with a wet thump. But she’s inexperienced and the cleaver is hardly a perfect blade for the job. The shallow cut she inflicts only makes Crassia wail loudly.

    “I-hate-you! You-hurt-me! DIE-DIE-DIE!” The Drowned Ghoul rages, her hands scrabbling on my forearms. Instantly, I let go. The zombie falls forward as I unexpectedly kick her in the back of the knee. Then I shove forwards with my own knee, bringing her down with me on top. “HUURRGH!”

    “Finish her. Become a Hunter.” I say, keeping my knee in the middle of Crassia’s back so she can’t move. “Humans are weak in the back of the neck. Right here.” I touch the spot with a finger. It squishes inwards disgustingly. Yin looks like she’s going to puke. She leans in, my cleaver held high. The cute girl from before is unrecognizable, mud all over her hands and legs and undisguised fear on her face.

    “I thought you weren’t going to help me anymore.” She whispers.

    “I won’t kill her. But if you are willing to learn how to survive, I can teach you the basics.” I shrug. “Now kill it, I’m getting tired.”

    “She’s a person.” Yin retorts, her face a mask of agony. I just lift my knee slightly. When Crassia is able to get her face out of the mud she immediately begins to howl once more.

    “Give-me-your-warmth!” Her rage is enough to make Yin shiver in fear. I push myself off of the Drowned Soul entirely. The zombie begins to rise onto all fours, her hands scrabbling in the dirt. With a tortured grimace, Yin makes her choice. Metal shines in the moonlight. A swish comes. My cleaver swings down on the weakpoint at the back of the neck. This time it connects cleanly. Crassia’s howl is choked off. River water mixes with blood as her body tilts forward. First her head thuds to the ground and then the rest of her follows soon after. Silence is everywhere, broken only by Yin’s sobs.

    “I’m so sorry…” She whispers to the corpse. However, in a moment, it is replaced by confusion. “W-What is this? Why can I see this writing in the air? Congratulations on becoming a Hunter? Is this what you meant?” She whirls, her fingers seemingly waving in the air. In time, she will learn to adjust her HUD with her mind. But for now, the most intuitive way is to reach for it with her hands.

    “Do you see it now? You’ve just hit Lvl 1.” I look at her, remembering my first time seeing the HUD. She fidgets, her face scrunching up. “The higher your level becomes the stronger you will get. The only way to become safe in this world is to level up.”

    “This…this is ridiculous! You can’t seriously expect me to believe that this is all some sort of game?” She whispers, but it doesn’t matter what I say because she has already begun to believe. “If this is real, and I’m not saying it is, how do you level up?”

    I point at the dead Drowned Soul at her feet.

    “There are two ways to level up. The most common way for most people is to kill zombies, the more you kill, the stronger you get.” My explanation is easy enough to follow. She looks at the dead zombie and then at me.

    “What is the second way then?” She asks hesitantly when I don’t continue. Turning my gaze around the thicket, I shrug, pointing at her forehead.

    “The second way is to kill other Hunters. For every Hunter you kill, half their accumulated experience will become yours. But I don’t recommend it.” Glancing her over, I smile coldly. “You’re too weak, and since you only gain half of their experience, it’s not worth the risk. Eventually, if you go down that path, the price will be more than you can handle.”

    “I see.” Yin shivers, realizing that she’s still holding my cleaver in her hand. “What level are you then?”

    “I’m a newbie, like you. Lvl 1.” I take back my cleaver and clean it in the grass. While I wipe away the blood of her friend, she looks grossed out.

    “How do you know so much then?” She asks. This time, I don’t respond. When my knife is clean, I stand. Suddenly, the bushes nearby shiver. I knew I heard something else in these woods. Yin startles, despite becoming a Hunter she still thinks like prey and immediately tries to hide behind me. However, when the bushes part, she gives a cry of relief.

    “Donovan!” Yin leaves my shadow as the blonde-haired boy comes out of the shadows. He has a wary gaze as he sees my cleaver in hand. From the brush, the rest of Yin’s party appears. The girl with pink hair, Rui, who begged me to save Crassia rushes in and gasps as she sees Crassia’s body. Yin embraces her as the other boys come awkwardly into the clearing. Their clothing is still wet, obviously they did not manage to get a fire going. So, they’re the ones who have been making so much noise.

    “We couldn’t let you go alone.” Donovan explains nervously. He’s afraid of me. In his hand is another tree branch, a thicker one this time. “Thank you for…trying. I’m sorry I was rude to you before.” The college aged boy lowers his branch and extends his hand. “What’s your name?” Standing there, I shake his hand, if nothing else, then for Yin’s sake. As she learns more about becoming a Hunter, she’ll need people she can trust to party with. Huh…why do I care so much about this girl? Is it just because she has a pretty face?

    “I’m Hei.” I say simply. “Bring me some wood and I’ll make a fire so we can dry off.” The three males go to gather wood while Yin stares at Crassia for the longest time. The pink haired girl comes over to me while we wait.

    “Hi, Hei. I’m Rui! It’s nice to meet you!” She says warmly. It’s a stark contrast to how she treated me last time. “You saved our lives. Even if you couldn’t help Crassia, I’m glad we met you!” The girl gets a little too close for my comfort. “How’d you become so strong? Do you want to protect me?”

    “…” I shy away uncomfortably as she presses her body uncomfortably close to my elbow. Undeterred, she sidles closer again. Through my wet coat-sleeve, I can feel her cold body pushing against my arm. She intentionally brushes against me and the wet skin feels much like Crassia’s body did, too soft.

    Get off of me hoe. I’m not your white knight.

    I’m saved when the others return with wood. As I walk away to start the fire, I see a glint of annoyance in Rui’s eyes.

    “Here.” I take out a piece of flint and strike it a few times with my cleaver. Sparks fly and catch on some of the tinder the boys have prepared. Bending down, I blow on the embers until they ignite. A roaring fire soon comes, spreading welcome warmth and chasing away the shadows. This deep in the forest, I’m not too worried about anything coming for us because the trees should block the light. “The sun will be coming up soon. I recommend sleeping in the morning while the undead are also asleep. That way, at night, you’ll be awake when they come out.”

    “That’s smart.” The darker skinned boy with dreadlocks smiles as he comes by the fire to warm up. “You know so much man. If we were as strong as you are, it’d be so much easier to survive.” To this, I can only sigh. I’m not strong anymore. You guys are just too weak. The fire burns and my clothes begin to dry. At some point, the others move away, clustering together to sleep. I don’t go towards them. Instead, I go and find a slanted tree trunk to put my back against. It’s still nighttime, and though I don’t think there’s any evil nearby, it doesn’t hurt to be careful. To my surprise, Yin walks over after a while. She stands shyly next to me before sitting.

    “Do you need something?” I ask. However, she just shakes her head. Together we watch the fire burn down to empty cinders. When the last log crumbles to ash, she suddenly leans against me. Her long black hair tickles my forearm as her body comes to rest against my shoulder. I stiffen, but I sense no malice from her. She’s not trying to use me.

    This is someone worth protecting.

    “Thank you.” She whispers to me, her head snuggled onto my chest. I hear a sniff and a warm tear lands on my dry shirt. “You came from nowhere. You saved me. I’m just…without you…we all would have…” Sobs break out and I feel her hands searching for mine. Though I know I shouldn’t allow myself to get close to her, I can’t resist. In this world, without Sasha, or James, or the others, I’ve been all alone. I shouldn’t let myself hope, but in this moment, I really want to believe that the world will be a better place. I wrap her up in my arms, and rock her to sleep as the moon begins to set. Without realizing it, once she has begun to snore gently, like a purring cat, I begin to nod off myself.

    Yin, your name might mean cold, but right now you’re the only warm thing I have!

    #

    I’m awoken to voices in the darkness. A twig snaps in the distance. I struggle to get up, but there’s something on me. Yin mumbles in her sleep as I try to get out from under her. Then something smashes into my head.

    *Crack*

    I’m just a Lvl. 1 Hunter. A rock to the skull is still very much lethal. My world explodes. Yin awakens and shrieks as she sees my blood in the moonlight.

    “What are you doing!” She screams as Donovan raises the rock again. The other girl with the pink hair…what was her name again…Rui. She kicks my hand, knocking away the butcher’s knife. The dark-skinned boy and the other one whose name I don’t know, drags Yin off of me. The warmth of her body leaves me and I’m empty.

    Cold.

    The only heat I can feel comes from my head and the rapidly cooling liquid flowing from my skull. I let my guard down.

    Damn.

    “He saved us! Why are you…MMMF?!” The dark-skinned boy stuffs a piece of cloth into Yin’s mouth and she can do nothing but stare me with terrified regret in her eyes. Her fingers dig into the dirt as Rui leers down at me.

    “Donovan, wait.” She leans down, my butcher’s knife in hand. The pink haired girl crouches by my head, placing my own weapon on my neck. The blade feels ice cold. She grins, a sick, lecherous smile. “I heard you back there. These Hunters, I’ve always wondered how to become strong like them. Like you…”

    “Is that so?” I say angrily. However, with the boys stepping on my hands and legs, I can’t move. Red is covering the edges of my vision and my blood pounds painfully, growing worse with every second. My brain is filling with blood. “You’re going to regret this. Just walk away. You still have time.” The little pink haired pixie girl only grins wider. She leans in, her breath sickly sweat over my face. Her hair forms a curtain over me and I feel my own knife pressing deeper into my throat.

    “Hahaha, as if I would be that stupid! I know you lied!” Rui laughs as she begins to draw the blade across my jugular. “You told Yin you were a Lvl 1 Hunter. But that’s impossible, you know so much. You must be a higher level, and when I kill you, I’ll take it all!” Over by the side, I can hear the Yin’s panicked struggles, her attempts to shout through her gag. Somehow, she must have gotten it off.

    “Please don’t hurt him!” She cries. However, when her pleas don’t change anyone’s mind, she apologizes to me over and over, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know! You have to believe me, I didn’t…!”

    *Splurt*

    The knife goes across my throat. Searing pain, like a bolt of lightning runs through me, and my body jerks involuntarily. Suddenly I can’t breathe. Choking on my own blood. Rui’s expression is funny, she laughs in ecstasy as she watches me flop around helplessly.

    “I’m going to become a Hunter!” She yells victoriously, closing her eyes. My vision turns completely crimson as my blood pressure drops. Everything is heavy, breathing is impossible. There’s so much pressure in my head, this endless ringing fills my ears. My fingers push against the bottoms of the boy’s boots. They escape only to get stomped on. The pain barely registers as I recoil in agony. Yin is sobbing somewhere, but I cannot go to her. I should, but I can’t focus on anything. The red layer over my sight turns to gray and my head goes limp. Everything is gray. All gray. I thought it would be black when I die. Any moment I expect the world to disappear. My breathing stops. The blood leaking from my neck dries. I’m so cold.

    Dead.

    I can’t move my eyes. They just stare up into the night sky, at the fading stars. I’ve had this feeling once before. Everything’s gone staticky, gray. Like I’m watching the world through an old black and white television set. I’m terrified, so incredibly terrified because I am no longer in control. Through the gray, I can see Rui’s face turn from happiness to confusion.

    “I…I should have become a Hunter! There’s no way he was actually Lvl 1!” She yells in anger. I can see her staring down at me, though now she does not treat me like a living thing. Stomping on my face, she turns away to the others. “He was actually telling the truth? Impossible!”

    “You dumb whore!” Yin screams in frustration. However, the boys have moved over to her. Rui’s face lights up into a devilish smile as she sees her “friend”.

    “Yin dear, you’re a Hunter now. I killed him, but since he was actually only Lvl 1, I gained half a level’s worth of experience. That’s not enough to make me a Hunter.” She steps out of my field of view. “Now if I were to kill another Hunter…that would be enough wouldn’t it?”

    “Y-you’re evil! I can’t believe I trusted you!” Yin screams as the boys hold her down. “Donovan? Jumoke? Why are you doing this? Are you really going to listen to this crazy bi-OW!”

    I can’t see what they’re doing to her. All I know is that she screams in pain. I can’t move. Everything’s so gray, I’m just lost in this haze. My body is not under my control. I want to move so bad. To help save her, though I know it’s hopeless.

    Please…please move!

    Suddenly, my body turns its head. My vision tilts, the gray sky spilling over so I can see gray unnatural faces, the boys standing cruelly on Yin’s slender hands, the disgusting pink-haired girl raising my knife over her face. Right now her dyed hair makes her look like a witch. Though I do not will it to happen, my lips curl into a smile.

    My hands go onto the ground.

    I get to my knees.

    Raise my arms forward.

    And charge!

    “What the hell! You’re supposed to be dead-!” Donovan’s eager face turns into true fear as my cold body lunges towards Rui. I barrel into the girl, my nails gouging into her shoulders. She screams as I tear out chunks of her skin and latch my jaws onto the back of her neck. She shudders in my grasp. The other boys hammer at me, but though I feel the pain, the virus does not care. My teeth crush down harder.

    “AHHHHHH! How can you be!” Rui screams and screams. Her cries turn to pleading. “Stop! Stop! Oh my god it hurts! PLEASE DON’T KILL-!” Then she cuts off, and her body dangles limply. When I let go of her savaged neck, she drops to the ground. A cold smile twists my lips apart. The horrible taste of fresh blood is the only warmth in my world.

    No no no…this isn’t happening again!

    I rush the boy whose name I don’t know. The other boys don’t understand that they need to kill me again or it will be them I turn to next. By the time they understand the evil they have unleashed, it is too late.

    Another of their number lies dead.

    Yin screams at me, trying to call out my name.

    But I am no longer in control.

    The air is cold, ever so cold on my dead skin. I stumble, falling into the dark-skinned boy. He gasps and flops about sweetly in my mouth as I tear him apart too. Donovan tries to use the time to run. But the Gray is too fast. It finishes with Jumoke and then my body runs down the blonde boy as well. He tries to throw a rock at me. It smashes my jaw, dislocating it. The pain is so bad, if I was in control I would be puking, rolling on the ground. But the Gray feels nothing, cares for no such thing as pain. It runs him down like an animal. And devours him.

    Then all that is left is…

    “W-Why. How did it turn into this?” Yin has run over to Rui’s body while I chased down each and every member of her party. The traitors are all dead now. The world is just gray. I am the Gray.

    No…I don’t want this. Not her. Not Yin.

    I try to say something, anything. Though I cannot move, perhaps some small part of me is still living. I manage to whisper through my broken jaw. A horrible garbled hiss.

    “Yiiin…kill me. Dooo it.” I say with the last bit of me left. Shuddering, I try to hold my body still, to give her a chance. She has my cleaver. Must have picked it up while I killed her friends. Even still, she hesitates, and I know that in a moment my body will break free and pounce on her!

    “DOOO IT!”

    *Puchi*

    I hear a sobbing voice as the world tilts.

    “I’m so…so sorry!”

    Then the gray becomes black and I am gone.

  • Chapter 2: Revenge

    We were fighting so well in that moment. The first ones in the world to get to Lvl 99 together. The famous party composed of the strongest! But more importantly, we were friends, lovers. All of us had fought in a hundred battles, killed thousands of zombies. We were the top party and we were family. Then one of us went too far. And everything came crumbling down. Blood everywhere…that’s all remained of us…

    #

    “Hey, you alive?”

    “Hah!” I sit up so fast that I knock into the girl in front of me. My forehead explodes into pain but I’m just relieved that I can move. Just a dream…no…wait, please no! The black-haired girl in my face is too familiar, too real. She still looks cute, not covered in mud and blood. Completely different than a moment ago when her cleaver cut down on my neck, just the way I taught her to kill.

    It’s Yin.

    “Oww!” The cute girl stumbles as our foreheads clash and her companions stare at me with wide eyes. This time, I am not impassive, for I remember what they did to me…what they will do to me! Jumping up, I reach into my coat and pull out my cleaver. What happened? I came back again! Yin must have succeeded in killing me. But then these bastards…

    “Yin, give it up!” Donovan yells, his blonde hair and mistrustful eyes hiding the bastard inside. The pink-haired girl watches him protect Yin with jealousy. I can see that now. “This guy is wasted, look at him, he looks like he’s seen a ghost!” At that moment, I almost consider stepping forward and cutting him down here and now. Rage fills me, the moment Yin’s warmth was torn away from me.

    I was at peace in her arms for the first time since…ARGH!

    “Y-yea…” Yin grows afraid when she sees my terrifying expression. Backing away, she retreats to the safety of the group and that poisonous hoe, Rui. The pink-haired pixie wraps her traitorous arms around Yin as if she’s just an innocent girl protecting a friend from a homeless person. But I know her true form underneath the pretty face and bubbly pink-hair.

    She’s a witch! A goddamn disgusting witch! No one like her should be classified as part of the human species!

    My hand stays white-knuckled on my cleaver. I watch them leave, trying to control my rage. Right now, I’m practically a zombie myself. Except I don’t want to eat them. I just want to kill each and every last one of the people who betrayed me. Before she goes, Yin calls over her shoulder, “We’re going to the city! If you need help, you should go too!”

    “Shush Yin, he’s not welcome. He could be dangerous. Don’t tell him where we’re going!” Rui whispers insidiously and then they disappear. My blood boils. Acid presses against my throat and the wretched taste of bile fills my mouth.

    Maybe I’ll turn with green if this keeps up.

    Staggering to the crumbling building next to me, I put a hand on the rough-worn wall and lean against it. The shock of dying, the terror of being taken over the Gray, it’s all still so fresh in my mind. I can remember the taste, every touch, all the blood. Even the pain of having my fingers trampled and my neck severed. A sobbing girl forced to chop off my head. It is these memories which convinces me of what I need to do.

    “I won’t save them.” I whisper to the empty sky. As the sun sinks once more, I set my path towards the river once more. My parched lips feel so much drier than they should be when I drink from my canteen, long and slow. I let it fall back into my coat pocket and swish my cleaver, listening to it part the air.

    Every time I die…am I going to keep coming back to this moment? Yin doesn’t remember anything that happened. None of them recognized me. This time was different, I hit her accidentally when I woke up and that changed her behavior. That means I was right. This world is the same as last time, but I can do things differently.

    A little while later, I hear what I expect to hear. A scream from up ahead between the gap in the two crumbling buildings.

    “It’s time.”

    I pass through the gap, but this time, I just let my head peek through. I don’t show myself. The scene before me is familiar, almost exactly the same as my memories. Six zombies run down Yin’s party which is backing into the river. Donovan swings his branch while his cowardly friends watch. The wet river and slick stones cause the blonde bastard to miss. He stumbles and hastily retreats as the lead zombie snarls and reaches for him.

    “Help! Is anyone out there?” Rui screams in sheer panic. However, her cries fall on deaf ears. I remain hidden in-between two crumbling buildings, watching impassively. Donovan is the only one of these idiots who has any spine whatsoever and he has no skill to back it up. The pudgy zombie loses its footing several times in the river, but soon corners the blonde boy. I remember what happens next. Crassia jumps into the river, and tries to swim for the other side. Instantly, she is swept away, crying for help.

    This time, no help is coming.

    The zombies press forwards and it’s like watching the tide come in. Donovan is overwhelmed first. When he is pulled under, I can only imagine his screams as the water turns red. Next is the boy with dreadlocks, Jumoke. A woman reaches for him, her undead nails clawing at his throat. The ear-splitting shrieks are like music to my ears. I remember him standing over me, holding him down. I wonder how it feels to be held under and torn apart. The last boy stands with Rui and Yin. Even still I don’t know his name. As the two zombies finish with Donovan and Jumoke, they rejoin the others.

    “Do something, Jason!” Rui clutches Jason’s arm in terror. She looks wildly from him to the zombies and the other shore. Stuck in chest deep water, they cannot go anywhere. The last boy hesitates. He suddenly turns around, considering swimming for it. Perhaps he can make it, he’s taller than the girls. However, when Rui sees this, she snarls desperately. Jason’s eyes widen as Rui shoves him in the chest and he falls back into the waiting arms of a zombie lady.

    “W-Why!” He splutters as the zombie gnaws through his neck. His arms jerk and in seconds he too goes under the waves. Now it is just Rui and Yin. I leave the shadow of the buildings as the zombies come in close. Yin stares at her false friend in horror.

    “You pushed him!” She cries out. Rui attempts to back up. She’s shorter than Yin though, and the river threatens to wash her away.

    “Please! It was the only way to save us! He was going to abandon me!” Rui pleads, trying to reach the other girl. However, Yin has already seen the devil inside. She maintains her distance in the deeper water, just barely holding on against the current. The pink haired girl panics as the zombies get close. “Yin, don’t leave me!”

    “I…I…” Yin’s good nature makes it hard for her to let go of a friend. I dash into the river as she starts to waver. Just as she reaches forward to take Rui’s hand, I yell with all my might,

    “Don’t touch her!”

    The shock of my appearance is enough to cause Yin to hesitate for a moment. The pudgy zombie surges up from the water behind and grabs Rui, dragging her back. She shudders, screaming all the while it feeds on her.

    “N-No! AHHHH! PLEASE HELP ME! SOMEONE!” Her cries continue on and on as the other zombies catch up and begin to bite her entire body, tearing bits off here and there. Moments later, the undead turn to Yin who is still frozen in place, unable to move as she watches the last of her friends die.

    It must be an awful sight. However, it had to be done.

    The girl I’m trying to save looks almost like a dead person herself as the zombies advance on her. They are going to claim her next if she doesn’t move. But then I am there. My cleaver is the Reaper’s scythe.

    *Thunk*

    *Splash*

    *Thunk*

    I hew down the enemy like wheat from behind. By the end, the river turns a dark shade of brown as rotting zombie blood mixes with the fresh blood from Yin’s dead friends. All the while, she stands there, frozen in despair. When I approach her, she’s shaking like a leaf despite looking like a statue. Even when I grab her hand, she doesn’t resist. Just keeps groaning with chattering teeth.

    “W-Why…why!”

    However, though I know why her friends must die, I can’t tell the truth.

    What am I supposed to say, that they were poisonous vultures who would have turned on you eventually?

    This time, I am not her savior. Though I have come to save her this once, it is not for free. Her salvation will come at a price. I drag her to shore, her fingers limply held in my tight grip. The congratulations message for becoming a Hunter is already in my sight. It disappears slowly, the letters fading into the wind as I get my feet on the river bank. Once Yin is safely out of the water, I go around and collect dead wood. The dry branches and twigs crackle as I start a fresh fire beside her. All the while, she watches me with an eerie unseeing stare. I know what it is.

    Shock.

    She’ll need to warm up to get over it.

    Gently, I put my hands on her shoulders and push her down. It doesn’t take much. She soon collapses by the warm fire. The girl shakes and shudders, her body trying to escape the stress her mind cannot. I hold her and stroke her hair, whispering that it will be okay. It hurts me, to see her like this even if I’m the cause. Worse…I know what I will have to make her do next.

    But it’s inevitable.

    My eyes linger on the river’s edge as the moon shines down.

    How many of them will come back?

    It doesn’t take long for the answer to rise out of the burbling river. Little splashes drip down on the mud. They are not Drowned Dead, so I can hear their footsteps coming. Yin notices them too, shifting in my arms. She raises her head tiredly, futile hope in her eyes. Perhaps she believes that some of her friends survived. That they are going to come back and be a party again. Unfortunately, only one of those things is true.

    Donovan, Jumoke, and Rui rise again from the water. Ragged wounds cover their bodies, and Yin gasps as she realizes these are no longer her friends. The Fresh Undead stalk towards us, hungry for warm flesh.

    “No…Donovan? Jumoke? R-Rui?” She whispers through chattering teeth. “P-Please, say something! This can’t be happening! This can’t be real!” Her hot tears dribble down and I get my legs under me and drag her up with me. Yin doesn’t want to rise. The cute girl’s mind is almost broken. If it isn’t yet, it might be after what I make her do next. Grabbing her right arm, I put the handle of my cleaver in her hand. She whirls back to me. “W-Why are you giving me this?”

    “Your friends are gone. If you want to help them, if you want to live, you will put them out of their misery.” I point at each of the three coming undead. “Choose, let them suffer eternally, or help them!”

    “No…NO NO NO!” She cries as she realizes what I want to do. But I back away. I leave her no choice. From my past life, I already know that she is stronger than she knows. It takes an eon. She doesn’t decide until her friends are almost upon her. “Why, why won’t you help me? Why do I have to do this?” Her sobs tear at me inside, but I don’t look away.

    “Because you have to choose to survive in this world. Do you want to live? Or do you want to become one of them?” I whisper back gently. The first of the undead, Donovan roars as it gets close to her. His blonde hair is tattered and brown with blood. Mud drips from his fingers and feet as he rushes for Yin. At first, I’m afraid I’ve misjudged her. Maybe she wasn’t as strong as I thought. But then she raises my cleaver and swings for his neck. Her wild blow misses, but I’m already moving. I pivot on one foot and kick her undead friend in the head, knocking him to his knees. “DO IT!”

    “AHHHHH!” Yin screams into the night as she lets my cleaver fall onto the back of Donovan’s head. His hands seize, the nerves forcing his body to dance as they fire one last time.

    “AGAIN! HERE!” I point at the weak point, the base of his neck. Yin’s tears fall endlessly as she raises the butcher’s blade and drops it onto the spot. This time, she doesn’t miss.

    Thud.

    Donovan’s head goes down. I stand and duck under Jumoke’s undead hands. The zombie stumbles, unable to understand where I went. Then I kick it in the butt and it goes sprawling. From the ground, Jumoke’s head turns and he looks up at Yin with a disgusting, bloated grin. River water dribbles from his mouth as he roars. Before he can get to his feet, Yin hits him. Her aim is off, it takes two blows to sever his neck.

    *Smack*

    *Smack*

    *Thud*

    But then Jumoke is no more. His body drops to the ground lifelessly for the last time. Finally, all that is left is the one I saved for last. Rui comes at us with a stuttering step, her limbs filled with holes.

    “P-Please…I’m so…hungry…so cold…” She moans, though in her dull eyes, a wicked hunger gleams. Even dead, the girl is a devil, luring others into her grasp. I help Yin get up. She stares at her old friend with undisguised fear. Perhaps this one is harder because it’s a girl.

    “I-I can’t. Help me!” She shakes, trying to shove the knife back into my hand. “I’ll do anything you want, just don’t make me do this!” At this, I cock my head. Somewhere out the woods, I can hear leaves rustling.

    So, the other one does come back to this town eventually. I suspected as much.

    Shrugging, I accept my butcher’s blade back this one time.

    “For her…I’ll make an exception. But you’ll have to honor your promise anyways in a moment.” I tell her, as I run forwards. Rui shrieks, her high-pitched cries trying to wake all the dead under the starry sky. I might be smiling. It’s hard to tell because the wind on my face is so cold.

    “You dumb hoe! Never thought I’d come back for you again, did you?”

    I don’t bother getting behind her. I want to see her expression when my blade severs her head from her spine.

    *Shing*

    A flash of silver metal, the dull rasp of sharp steel running across a torn throat. Then her head tumbles off her short body, the undead virus losing control as the Reaper takes away Rui’s soul. Yin gasps quietly behind me, but I stay silent, savoring the moment. My breath is heavy though I haven’t exerted myself much. A small part of the weight on my shoulders lifts as I realize she’s dead. Now all that’s left is…

    “So-cold. Help-me-get warm!” Crassia appears out of the woods and I’m already returning to Yin’s side. She shivers, watching her friend come near. This Yin has already slain two zombies. She knows that something is wrong.

    “Crassia? You’re so wet…” Yin whispers, looking at me as if hoping I’m going to tell her that her friend will be okay. Slowly, ever so slowly, I just shake my head, holding out my knife. “No…you can’t make me…look, she might be okay!”

    “You promised. That isn’t your friend anymore.” I reply, pushing my cleaver at her. With reluctant eyes, she grasps the blade and turns back to the Drowned Soul. The closer she wanders under the light, the more obvious it becomes. Pale skin under soggy red hair, white dull eyes, river water seeping from her mouth. Yin can ignore the signs no longer. I whisper once more, “Now it’s time.”

    “I…I’m so sorry!”

    *Thud*

  • Chapter 3: The First Time

    The night ends with the last of Yin’s friends. Bodies litter the river, the shore, and the town, but for now, it is over. Yin collapses after that last kill. I catch her as she goes down and gently take back my cleaver.

    Finally, it should be over.

    Even though in this timeline she barely knows me, Yin risks it all by falling asleep in my arms.

    She’s still too trusting. It’s unfortunate that she couldn’t learn the truth about her friends, but perhaps it’s better that she didn’t have to experience the pain of betrayal.

    Feeling a little lonely, I feed wood into the fire, watching it crackle and spark as the moon sets and the sun begins to rise. As the first rays tickle my face, I let myself drift off a bit, dozing lightly. During the day it is safe, at least from undead that is. Eventually, I am awoken to something shifting in my arms.

    “Who are you?” Yin struggles to wakefulness. When she sees the bodies of her friends she gasps and breaks free from my hold. Tripping on the ground, she falls to her hands and knees. “Oh my god, oh my god! What’s happening? It wasn’t a dream?!” The sight of my cleaver on the ground next to me frightens her. She scoots away, her oval face tightening with terror. “Y-You made me kill them!”

    “Would you preferred I do everything for you?” I say wryly, still somewhat tired. Fortunately, as a Lvl. 1 Hunter again, my stamina is a little better than the average human’s. Pushing to my hands and feet, I stretch. Yin stares at me, watching closely as I put my cleaver into my coat. “I helped you become a Hunter. They were already dead. Come, there should be a settlement not too far from here.”

    “I…you…what’s a Hunter?” Yin’s expression reminds me very much of the last time I explained the rules to her. Despite the differences in how things turned out, she’s still the same person inside. It’s too bad she doesn’t remember who I am. I suspect the knowledge of what happened might break her though. “I’m…Lvl. 2. What does that mean?”

    “Think of life as a game now. One where dying means you’ll become one of them.” I turn to the headless corpses on the ground. “Succeeding in killing zombies or other Hunters will help you become stronger.” Cracking my back, I walk over to her. She flinches, but when I offer her my hand, she accepts it. “My name is Hei. I’ll help you become strong enough to survive. But I won’t hunt myself.”

    “I…let’s say I believe you. Why didn’t you just kill my friends…the zombies yourself if that’s how this works?” Yin catches on quickly now that the situation isn’t so stressful. It’s not surprising. It might seem ridiculous to those before the Calamity, but after seeing so much of the world fallen to undead, your sense of reality starts to get…loose. I shrug, starting to search the bodies of her friends for anything that isn’t spoiled by the water. A couple energy bars, some cooking utensils, I grab a still damp backpack from Donovan’s back. The food inside is dry, some instant noodles and spare water bottles.

    “I don’t want to become a Hunter.” I answer her question as I rummage through her friend’s things. She looks away as I go through each corpse. “Listen, either accept my help or don’t. I don’t care, there’s a settlement coming up and I can drop you off there if you want. Just remember, a lot of people are going to become Hunters soon. This world is going to change, and in the beginning, everyone is going to be searching for weak zombies to kill. Some people will grow desperate and try to hunt other Hunters when they can’t find enough prey. If you’re weak…then this will be your fate.”

    “I…” Yin’s beautiful face grows cold as she realizes what I’m trying to tell her.

    The savagery of human nature will only grow worse from here on out. Until people get high enough level that killing others stops being worth it, this world is going to become a battlefield.

    “You were trying to get me to kill them so I would level up?”

    “Yes.” I straighten from the last body and wash my hands in the cold river water. She looks at me suspiciously.

    “How do I know this isn’t a trick? What if you’re just going to kill me one day? Like fattening a pig before you slaughter it.” Yin eyes the spot in my coat where she knows my cleaver is hidden. Once again, I can only shrug.

    “Like I said, believe what you want. But I could have just killed those zombies. And if you kill another Hunter, you’ll only gain half their experience. So, it would be pretty stupid of me to let you kill them. Especially, her.” I point at the corpse of Crassia. “She was Lvl. 5. Killing her actually leveled you directly to Lvl. 2. If I kill you right now, I’ll only be halfway to Lvl. 2.”

    “Oh…” Yin frowns, scratching her head. She thinks it over for a while, her wariness slowly easing. “I guess I really have to trust you then. And it’s not like you did anything to me while I was sleeping…right?” She suddenly looks herself over as if scared she’s missed something and I have to hide the beginnings of a real smile. Not the fake, vengeful kind. An honest to god, genuine one. Wow, I can still smile? In a slightly better mood, I walk past her and begin to leave town.

    “We’re going?”

    “Yup. You coming?” I call over my shoulder. She hesitates a moment, but then quickly follows. Listening to her timid footsteps behind me, I take advantage of the noonday sun to lead us to a settlement that I remember being nearby in the early stages of the Calamity. The trees have a different atmosphere during the day, less sinister. Bright light streams down in-between the leaves and paints everything a beautiful golden color. The yellows and greens are a stark contrast with the terrifying, blank gray which covered my vision last night.

    Back…I came back. I’m here now. Yin killed me before I could get too strong. It’s okay.

    I have to shake my head to clear away the dark thoughts. Though my body comes back when it dies, the memories remain. I can still taste the foul blood in my mouth, a sweet sickly flavor like rusted metal. My hands tremble imperceptibly and I shove them into my coat pockets.

    “Are you okay?” Yin walks beside me with concern. Somehow, despite the fact that we barely know each other, she’s managed to pick up on my discomfort. I straighten my features, doing my best to put on an impenetrable mask to hide the feelings. “I uhh, never got the chance to thank you.”

    “You’re welcome.”

    “Hey, let me finish! I meant to say I never got the chance to say thank you for saving me. And teaching me to fight. It’s weird, I don’t know why, but it feels like we’ve met before.” She says earnestly and bows her head. I look away with a nervous cough.

    There’s no way she remembers the past? That timeline never happened in this world! It must just be a coincidence.

    “Anyways, even though I don’t know why you chose to save me, I’ll always be grateful! Thank you!”

    “…” I don’t how to answer that. Even if we have met, to her, nothing I say will make sense. We walk on in silence for a time, passing by the endless trees and following the river. Out here in the country, it’s too early for many monsters to appear.

    Good. It’s going to take some time to train Yin to fight on her own. If anything were to come now, I’d probably end up having to deal with it myself.

    “So, we’ll be at an actual town soon. Like I said, eventually everything will be consumed by the virus and Hunters will start to turn on each other. But for now, if you want to stay there, it will be safe for a long time. Have you made your choice?” I ask her.

    “I…I don’t know anyone else now that Rui and Donovan are…” The cute girl trails off, her voice going quiet behind me. “Let’s get there first and then I’ll be able to give you a satisfactory answer.”

    “Suit yourself.” I lead us onwards. The air has a sweet scent. Nature has recovered quickly while humanity has been busy trying to stop the Calamity. Flowers line the road, and while I know one day, they too will be tainted by the virus, right now, they are beautiful. What day is it? Right…it shouldn’t have been long since New Years right? Shrugging, I pull out my phone. It has already stopped working, but it feels good to hold it again after so long. When the power button doesn’t work, I toss it into the river.

    *Plonk*

    “Why’d you do that!” Yin panics as she sees what I did. “Even if there’s no signal, you shouldn’t go throwing it away!” She stares at the river sadly, but the ripples have already faded in the rapid current. Her hands pull out her own phone. “I’m almost out of battery. But there hasn’t been a signal in so long. And none of the buildings have electricity anymore. What’s happening to the world?”

    Gently, I approach her, gazing out over the rushing river. I remember what it was like to discover the first time. The crushing isolation of being completely separated from the ever-present connection of WIFI and text messages. Of course, I was pretty isolated before any of this started, but even for me it was a shock. I can’t begin to imagine how a pretty girl like Yin must feel.

    “Do you have any family? Anyone who might still be alive?” I ask quietly, listening to the river pass by. She is quiet for a long time.

    “My parents might be alive out there. But to be honest, I tried to call them for days after this started. Back when there was still a signal. They…they never picked up.” Her brown eyes glisten, like they’re filled with morning dew. “My parents never missed a phone call from me before in their lives. If they were still there…they would have found a way to contact me. I have some cousins, but I’m not close to them. They live in Tiendas.”

    “I…I see.” Once again, I have no words to comfort her. Other guys were smoother talkers before all of this went down. Maybe they would know what to say now, but even with another lifetime’s worth of experience, I don’t know how to help. “I have no one either. Well, except…”

    “Who?” She turns to me curiously. “Your siblings?”

    “No…not by blood anyway.” My thoughts go to Sasha, James, and the rest of the gang. They must be out there by now. I hope they are able to level up without me. But Sasha is tough. They all are. They’ll make it! “It doesn’t matter. Let’s keep going. Things are going to get ugly soon. We shouldn’t waste time.”

    “Ugly?”

    “You’ll see.” I start walking again and leave the picturesque river behind. The sun has begun to set once more. Soon it will be the domain of the dead once more. We need to make it to that settlement soon. I hope my memory is right. Green trees and vibrant flowers fade into duller colors as the light leaves us. Yin grows afraid, drawing nearer to me. However, I leave my cleaver inside my coat. Perhaps I am overconfident but the knowledge of two lifetimes grants me a sense of security even it shouldn’t. When the sun truly dips down beneath the horizon, I notice lights in the distance. A clearing in the trees signals what we’ve been looking. “We’re close, look.”

    “Oh!” Yin skips happily as she sees where my finger is pointing. “You were right!”

    “Did you doubt me?” I say wryly. Ignoring the look, she sends my way, I quicken my pace. The forest has begun to sound eerie. Creaking overstrained boughs, swaying leaves, and swishing water mix together to give the whole place a spooky atmosphere. However, I’m at home in the darkness.

    Too at home.

    Though I spent most of my time with the other Death Gods in my past life, we always hunted in the dark. As a matter of fact, in the early days, this would have been the perfect time to gain some levels. Before the System Monsters come over. Right now it’s just weak undead. I stop, thinking it over. “Yin, do you want to be strong? Answer me honestly.”

    “Be strong?” She stops while thinking over my words seriously. “Well, in the past, I never cared about staying fit. But after what happened to the others…yea, I want to become strong. As strong as I can! I don’t want to be eaten!” Her conviction might be new, but it is firm. I nod in approval.

    I can work with this. She really does remind of Sasha in a way.

    “That’s a good answer.” I reply. Though I’m supposed to be experienced, it’s hard to maintain the role of a teacher. In my past life we spent all our days leveling together as a party. I’ve never taught anyone before, unless you count a few newbies at the gym before the Calamity. Shaking my head, I sigh. This is going to be hard. “It’s about time to start your first lesson then.” Taking out my cleaver, I hold it out to her. “We’ll have to get you a real weapon soon, but for now you can use this.” When she gingerly takes it from me, her face wrinkles up.

    “Why do you even have this?” She asks. I shrug, digging around the shore.

    “It was the first thing I had on hand when the apocalypse started. And it works. You saw how effective it is.” I find what I’m looking for in the mud. A solid-sized stone bigger than my fist. “This will do.”

    “Huh…I see.” Yin shakes her long black hair. It’s pretty snarled with all the things that have happened. The pretty girl looks more like she’s going to chop vegetables than zombies with my cleaver in hand. “What now?”

    “We’re going to get you to level up, quickly. Right now, there are probably several people who have figured out that killing lower-level zombies can make you stronger. But they don’t know how much bonus experience from higher-level monsters matters. If you’re willing to risk your life, the world will reward you!” I wind up with the stone, aiming towards the center of the river. Comeon, there should be at least one, this close to a human settlement!

    *Ping*

    My throw sends the stone skittering over the surface of the water. I’m not a pro but in my spare time I liked to skip stones. The flat rock bounces over a dozen times before beginning to lose momentum. I’m rusty. However, it falls perfectly in the center of the river, leaving behind plenty of splashes.

    “Woah!” Yin claps in amazement and I lift an eyebrow at her reaction.

    “You ready to fight?”

    “What?” She stops clapping slowly, my cleaver hanging limply by her side. “Fight what?”

    Then the river begins to ripple as the things underneath take the bait. Two pairs of rotten arms rise up from the waterbed, clawing their way to the surface. These are not like Crassia. They are true Drowned Souls, hardly fresh. Their flesh is rotting, and their smiles disfigured. White bone shows through their pale flesh as they snarl and climb onto land to seek the one who disturbed their rest. Backing away, I leave Yin to fight them alone.

    “Wha-where are you going?!” She yelps as they find their footing. The limbs of these undead are unnaturally long and when they squat on the shore they seem almost like human frogs, staring grotesquely at Yin. “Hei!”

    “Relax, they’re just Drowned Souls. And they’re a higher level than Crassia was, probably Lvl. 7.” I grin. This is better than I expected. Whatever is happening in that settlement, it probably isn’t peaceful to have birthed such strong undead nearby. Evidently some people have been busy doing what people do best. Murdering each other and hiding the bodies. Good thing, I decided to help Yin grow stronger before entering town. “I’m here, but it’s your responsibility to fight.”

    “You want me to fight two?! Look at me! How can you make a girl fight!” Yin howls in disgust at me. However, the Drowned Souls are already advancing on her. “Is this even normal?”

    “Not really, most people would form a group or party and fight weak zombies together. But I told you, this is a shortcut. You won’t even need to split the experience with me. Isn’t that great?” A ruthless smile crosses my lips. Though it wasn’t Yin’s fault, technically she is a little bit responsible for getting me killed in my past life. Time a little payback. Besides, it’s good for her…

    “I…HEI HELP!” She scrambles backwards as one of the Drowned Souls steps forward. Due to the length of its limbs, when it pounces it covers an extraordinary amount of distance. The long-limbed white ghoul drips water which evaporates without leaving a mark on the ground as it reaches for Yin. I call out instructions from behind.

    “No! Listen to me, low level zombies can only infect you with their bites! Getting hit by their claws is not as dangerous!” Perhaps trying to teach in the middle of live combat was not the best idea, but like I said, I’m not the best teacher. My grin stretches wider. Also, ever since dying horrifically twice, I feel like I’ve changed. My emotions are hollow, I care less about what people think, even cute girls like Yin. “Remember, you must sever the head to completely disable them, but you can also remove limbs to cripple them first!”

    “Easy for you to say!” Yin dodges a swipe as the second Drowned Soul jumps up onto the river shore with her as well. “I’m going to die if you don’t do anything! There’s two of them for crying out loud!”

    “You’re not going to die with me here. I promise you.” Something about my words causes Yin to look back at me. When she sees my smile, her face stills and she grows quiet. Unfortunately, she also stops moving. I swear and dash forwards. With my speed as a Lvl. 1 Hunter, I’m not much faster than an ordinary human. My leg comes back and I spin around to deliver a vicious roundhouse to the Drowned Soul about to rip her head off. “Pay attention!”

    “I am! You just…weren’t teaching me well!” Yin growls. I pin the downed zombie down with my foot on its head. Pointing at it while watching the other one limp towards us, I sigh.

    “Kill it!”

    “Fine!” The cute girl runs up and lifts my cleaver up on high. This time, she does not miss, and though the Drowned Soul is freakishly large, its body is completely waterlogged. Dirty river water and zombie blood spurt out as Yin hacks its head off with one blow. Spinning off the corpse, I dance in front of the other one and sway under its claws. The Drowned Soul hisses and I wince as its spit lands on my face. “Hei!”

    “Never get distracted by a teammate!” I leap straight up to get my foot level with the thing’s head. Then I twist around and smash my kick into its face. Even a zombie will temporarily lose focus if you rock its brain hard enough. The thing totters backwards and I hold out my arms. “There, now it’s all yours. You can get scratched but if you get bitten you’re dead, understand?” My protégé doesn’t respond as she quickly walks up to the Drowned Soul. I nod approvingly. She’s not hesitating anymore. Perhaps it took a bit to make her understand, but now that she gets that this is life or death, she’s just as good as any of the others in our party.

    “Hah!” Yin let’s out a cute grunt as she swings for the Drowned Soul’s face. With its limited intelligence, it doesn’t know how to block and simply attempts to tackle her. I’m a little afraid that Yin won’t expect it, but she already knows to dodge backwards and try again. This would be impossible if the Drowned Soul was in perfect health, but it’s already been disoriented from my perfectly placed kick. When it misses, it overbalances and then the cleaver is there to meet its neck.

    *Thunk*

    For a while, we don’t speak. The decapitated bodies dribble blood gently onto the shoreline as the lonely wind blows. This time, it is better for Yin. Her hands are shaking, that won’t change. But she’s still standing. Still ready to fight if more enemies come. That’s what I want to see. Someone ready to take on the world. In a few days, the real Calamity will begin. I need to get her strong enough with this time. Watching her chest heave and the little jumping vein on her neck, I wait for her to regain her senses.

    “Did you level up?” I ask. She nods, holding my cleaver as if it’s dirty. Gently, I go over and take it from her and wash it in the river. “Don’t worry, their blood is not infectious, it’s only the bites, for now.”

    “I see. You know so much.” Her gaze turns suspicious briefly, but I avoid it, pretending that I’m still washing the cleaver. “How did you know they would be in there?” She nudges the dead bodies with a toe. Her disgust and fear of the undead has begun to go away with experience. It’s impressive really. Not too many people would be capable of adapting this quickly.

    “Drowned Souls are simply those with heavy resentments that die in the water.” I look out at the lights of the settlement. “We’re close-by to a town, so I suspected someone might have died in this river. Remember, if you’re ever planning on swimming somewhere from now on, it’s a good idea to check if there’s anything inside first. They’re easily aggravated so throwing a stone should be enough usually.” My explanation is detailed. Drowned Souls are not something most newbies fought too much, but I learned early on that they were excellent experience.

    “Ah, thank you…teacher.” She replies, clasping her hands. This time, it’s my turn to feel weird. Teacher? I’m not old enough for that!

    “Just call me Hei.” I say, trying to hide my embarrassment. Even in two lifetimes I’ve never been called teacher before. “Now that you’re Lvl. 3, you’re probably the highest-level person alive right now. Well, except for some freaks maybe.”

    “Really?” Her brown eyes are confused. “What does it mean though? Does my level really matter that much?”

    “To a Hunter, your level is the most important thing besides your combat skill and knowledge.” I explain. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed it yet, but don’t you feel better already? Your endurance has improved, your eyesight, even your physical strength. But these are all just basic enhancements. Once you hit Lvl. 5, you’ll be able to truly choose what you want to make stronger.” My words gradually penetrate and she begins to grow excited. The cute girl throws out a few punches, her ripped jeans stretching in a rather nice way as she tests her body.

    Lol…this girl, am I really going to be able to keep her alive?

    “I do feel different!” Yin gasps as she discovers the difference. “I can even jump higher!” Watching her jump up and down like a little kid, I have to look away. Everyone reacts that way the first time. Becoming a Hunter is great. Well, it’s great until you realize your power comes from killing others, but even then it’s amazing nevertheless. “This is amazing!”

    “Isn’t it?” I smile at her excitement. We’re surrounded by the corpses of two Drowned Souls, but she’s grinning from ear to ear. This picture is a little wrong. That’s just how life is during the Calamity though. As a Hunter you need to get used to such things. “Now you see why I want you to level up as much as possible.”

    “Yes! But wait…” She frowns, her oriental face scrunching up as she glances at me. “What about you? You’re helping me so much, even holding them down for me, but you never take the kill. Isn’t that bad?”

    “Don’t worry about it.” I hold my clean cleaver and let the river water run off of it. “Even after you gain a few more levels I still know more than you. Levels are important but they aren’t everything. If you get cocky and think you can take on everything just because you’ve killed a lot of zombies, you’ll regret it one day. There are worse things than the dead coming.”

    “Huh, if you say so, I guess.” Yin raises her hands in defeat. Unexpectedly, she darts in with the speed of a Hunter and grabs my sleeve. “Well, I’ve decided! You’ve helped me so much. If you don’t want to hunt that’s okay! When I’m stronger I’ll protect you instead!”

    “Haha…” I chuckle dryly, letting myself get tugged along. “I’ll be happy to see that day come.”

    “Wait for me then!” The cute girl is suddenly leading me along and once again I have to hide my smile.

    Maybe…just maybe…this girl will be able to survive this messed up world.

    #

    I consider training Yin outside some more before we go into town, but right now we only have one weapon between the two of us. Plus, as a Lvl. 3, she’s already too high level to get a ton of experience from Fresh Undead. We need to pass through and find a better place to train. The town up ahead has a wooden fence all around it. It’s still new. The planks are haphazard and roughly shoved in the ground, but it will serve its purpose well in the beginning of the Calamity. Guards man their posts, holding weapons made from just about anything they could find. There are a lot of poorly constructed spears and clubs. I don’t see anyone with a sword. Disappointing, but it makes sense. There weren’t a lot of blacksmiths left in the modern world. The age of swords didn’t really start until stronger zombies began to show up from other places.

    “Why don’t we get a gun?” Yin points at some of the people watching us approach. “See, they have rifles!”

    “Guns are no good. In a few days gunpowder will stop working. There’s a corrosion in the air from the virus which eats away at most technology. Plus, you’ll barely gain any experience killing zombies with a gun. It’s considered cheating.” My detailed explanation causes her to look at me once again with wonder. “You’re better off learning how to use a weapon now, while the undead are still weak. Like I said, thing’s are going to get a lot worse in a few days.”

    “Then that’s it? I have to fight them head on like a caveman?” Yin sounds rather put out. The cute girl pouts and her silly expression is totally unfitting of someone who decapitated multiple zombies last night. I shake my head.

    “The system is not so unfair!”

    I yawn, covering my mouth as we get near the fence. The townspeople look at us suspiciously, but since we’re obviously human, they don’t raise their weapons.

    “Bows and arrows, even crossbows will eventually become popular. But to really hurt the undead with a ranged weapon you’ll need higher stats and special skills. Most people aren’t good enough and just use a sword or other close-range weapon. Once you unlock skills and learn Basic Prescience, melee combat will seem less dangerous.”

    “Prescience?” She glances at me with curiosity.

    “Prescience is one of the first skills you’ll need to train. Didn’t you notice when you fought the Drowned Souls, they seemed to move a bit slower than they should be? Almost like you could predict their movements? That’s the System trying to help your perception.” I warily keep an eye on the townspeople as they get closer. “Listen, I’ll explain it all to you later, this knowledge is valuable. I don’t want anyone else to hear it, people will be suspicious how I know what I do. Right now, the important thing is finding a place to stay the night and getting you a weapon.”

    “Ah, okay.” Yin falls silent. I greet the guards at the gate, exchanging small talk. The town is large enough that strangers are not unwelcome, though I don’t like the way some of the people stare at us. They’re not afraid we might be infected. If we were bitten, there would be marks, and we probably wouldn’t have lasted long enough to reach town. The thing with the early zombies is that there’s so much virus in their saliva that one bite can turn anyone. However, so much virus makes them weak, the human body struggles to function with so much contamination. Later on, other creatures will only have trace amounts of the virus and Hunters will be a higher level. Thus, it will be increasingly less likely to be infected by a single bite. However, the creatures will also be much stronger. The Calamity is a curious thing. Ever changing. This knowledge can only be obtained with countless lives. However, I am an exception to the rule.

    I know it all.

    “Okay, we’re in.” I stride quickly past the guards as Yin struggles catch up. A couple of the men fix hungry stares on her, but she doesn’t notice. “You got any money?”

    “Some cash, but not much.” The girl reaches into her pocket and pulls up a sadly beaten wallet. “Why?”

    “We’re spending it all. The only currency that will matter soon is hard goods and System Coins.” I take her wallet and the people nearby give me dirty looks.

    “Hey that’s mine!” She yelps but I hold it up out of her reach, checking how much is inside. Taking out my own wallet, I check to make sure my memories are correct. Yin’s indignant face changes as she sees how much cash is in my hand. “Holy crap, what did you do, rob a bank or something?”

    “Nah, I was a fighter.” I combine the wad of bills and start checking out what people are selling. Several people are pawning things on the side of the road or outside their porches. “Most important thing is that we get a second weapon for you. I might take a gun if I see one, but honestly it would just be robbing you of experience if I had to use it. I doubt anyone would sell a firearm anyways.”

    “Huh.” Yin browses the meager items on display. There are various articles of second-hand clothing, things raided from shops, and the occasional weapon here and there. Lots of baseball bats. For some reason people really liked those. They’re worthless though. Too easy to break. It’s like everyone’s running a flea market now. After several stalls, I find what I’m looking for.

    “How much for this?” I hold up a long replica katana. It’s clearly not weapons-grade steel. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a reproduction prop for shooting movies. But it should hold up.

    “It’s not real.” The owner of the stall, a thin tall woman with her auburn hair in a bun, has the decency to warn us. I shrug, pulling it out of its sheath. The thing is pretty untouched, and unfortunately, unsharpened. But I can work with this. “Fifty and it’s yours.”

    “Done.” I count out the bills and walk away with the sword under my arm. Yin taps on my back.

    “You know that’s my money you’re holding there.” She says plaintively, clearly a little afraid. I shrug, giving her back her wallet.

    “Not much in there anyway.” I smirk and she smacks my shoulder. It stings a little bit more than it should since she’s Lvl. 3.

    *Pah!*

    The loud noise her hand makes on my flesh causes several people nearby to turn towards us and Yin goes red with embarrassment.

    “Oops!” She cries as she takes the sword from me. “My bad! I didn’t think…anyways, why’d you buy this thing? It’s fake.”

    “It’s a replica, not fake. If you were fighting other people with armor, it’d break. But the zombies right now are different. Their flesh is soft and easy to break, even for a low-quality sword. I just need to find something to sharpen it with and you’ll be fine.” My words don’t inspire confidence. To be honest it’s a good thing the sword is a replica and not real. The maker wasn’t true to traditional standards and made it short enough for Yin to use.

    “Right…is this really okay?” I hear her whisper to herself, but she doesn’t argue further. Going around, I spend the rest of my cash to buy any food that will last. We don’t even need to rent a room which is nice. Due to the Calamity, there are a lot of unoccupied houses now…

    #

    “Alright, we’ll spend the night here. I’ll be in this room.” I go to one corner of the house and find a dusty bed to sleep in. “We’ll leave early in the morning, so don’t stay up late.”

    “Umm, Hei, do we really have to leave so soon?” Yin calls out to me. I stop at the door to my room. “I mean, this place is pretty safe. They have a fence and everything. Getting to the city would be nice but why can’t we just stay here for a while?”

    “You’re welcome to stay if you want.” I shrug, gnawing on a sandwich. One of the villagers baked their own bread and was willing to sell it to us. The “fresh” food tastes amazing even if it’s only prepackaged meat and a little cheese. “But like I said, the zombies will grow stronger soon. Eventually, the only way to keep large settlements alive will be to use a sort of virtual currency you get from killing undead. They’re called System Coins.”

    “System coins?” Yin takes off her jacket and I feel my breath catch a little bit. She really is far prettier than she should be. There’s a bathtub upstairs and this place even still has a little running water so we took showers and it felt amazing to wash the river gunk off of me. Her wet hair glistens in the residual steam from the wash. Swallowing, I almost choke as she unbuttons the top part of her blouse. Unfortunately, she’s wearing a t-shirt underneath.

    “System Coins are automatically accredited to the Hunters responsible for killing undead. They can be used to purchase a sort of undead repellant for towns. It’s not infallible, the higher level undead can ignore it, but if you buy enough of it, you can keep a settlement from being overrun by wandering zombies. Basically, even if a town has a lot of fortifications, people will still need to leave and hunt zombies or else a horde will come.”

    “Jeez, that’s kind of unbelievable…” Yin trails off as she goes to wash her clothes upstairs. I’ve already done mine. They’re draped over the side of the couch and I have a spare shirt and jeans on from my bag. “But since you’re telling me, I guess I’ll have to accept it. Hei, will you ever tell me how you learned all this?” She looks at me and I just focus on chewing my sandwich.

    “Eh, alright, I won’t press you since you saved me. Listen, I don’t need you to tell me all your secrets, but I hope you’ll grow to trust me one day.” Her worried face leaves mine to attend to her laundry.

    “So, you’re saying that we’ll always have to hunt the undead no matter how safe the town looks? And if you’re right, and the zombies are going to get stronger…it’s better to train now.”

    “Bingo.” I move to close the door slowly. “Also, the undead are easy to see, but they are not the real threat. Some people have probably already discovered that you can gain levels by killing. Be careful…these towns may be safe from the undead but they won’t protect you from the worst killer of all.” My mind unconsciously recalls a heavy weight falling on my head, the pain of having my hands and feet stomped down. For a second, I almost ask Yin if she remembers but then I catch myself. She doesn’t know anything about that. As far as she’s concerned, her friends were heroes who died protecting her. Perhaps it’s better that way.

    “Goodnight.” She murmurs after hearing my warning. I slide the door closed and lock it from the inside. The deadbolt outside is thick, and all of the windows are locked, I checked. We should be safe until the sun rises. Staring the giant moon, I sigh.

    How did I go from being a member of the strongest party to taking in a girl? I can’t do this for long, I’ve already accidentally had to level up because of her. Who knows what will happen if I become too strong. But maybe if I can get her to level faster than me, she can stop me if I die. It’s brutal, but I should tell her a bit about what to expect. Others might only become zombies, but that thing is inside me. The Gray…it almost felt like it talked to me before I died last time. And it happened after I hit Lvl. 100. Is this world really just a trap?

    #

    Scritch…

    The noise outside my window immediately causes me to wake up. Even though this body hasn’t experienced the life my mind has, it still understands that the world is dangerous. Raising my head slowly, I peer over the edge of the windowsill. My eyes have adjusted well to the darkness and I can clearly see two people trying to find a way to get the door open.

    “Shh…they’ll hear you!” One of them whispers as another man fumbles a lockpick inside the keyhole.

    “Whatever, just keep a lookout, they’re definitely sleeping by now. Did you see that babe?” The lockpicker sounds like he’s sneering. I can imagine the smug smile on his face as he jiggles the lock. “Why she’s staying with such a chimp? Dude’s not even tall!”

    “Probably took advantage of the circumstances. Besides, did you see that wad of cash he had? Dude’s loaded! We’re gonna strike it rich!” The man, in charge of keeping a lookout, crows as his friend unlocks the door with a click. “Nice one bro!”

    “It’s deadbolted. That’s a problem. These guys sure are cautious!” The lockpicker sighs, reaching into his pocket. “I have a credit card here, maybe I can get it open. Give me a minute.” Listening to the two go on, I have to resist the urge to roll my eyes. I can’t tell if they have more sinister motives or if they’re just thieves. Idiots, cash won’t even be worth anything next week. And I spent it all. I go to my door, grabbing my cleaver from under my pillow on the way out. Guess it’s time to get up!

    Opening the door quietly, I pad outside into the living room in my spare clothes. I can see a thin card poking up at the thick metal deadbolt. A muffled curse comes from outside as the man drops it and the credit card slides to the ground.

    “Damnit!”

    This time I can’t resist and roll my eyes.

    These guys suck!

    To be honest, I’m not above just killing them. Later on, in the apocalypse, this kind of behavior would mean they’re coming in to murder me. But after overhearing their conversation I’m kinda tempted to see where this goes and what they plan on doing when they get in.

    Smirking, I silently walk next to the door and stand behind the hinges. Just in case I keep my cleaver down at my waist. A few seconds later, I hear the idiots finally get the deadbolt free. The door clicks and someone pushes it open just far enough to peek inside. When they see the living room empty, I hear a quiet fist-bump. Then they try to sneak in, right in front of me. I hold out a hand, pressed between the wall and the door. There’s a fifty percent change they try to close the door in which case I’m going to be found. But if they’re amateurs like I suspect, then they might leave it open. And then I can have some fun!

    “Which room do you think he took?” One of them hisses to the other as the come inside. Unlike my bare feet, they’re wearing heavy boots and their footsteps are so obvious I wouldn’t be surprised if Yin woke up. It’s at that moment that a noise echoes from the room to the side. There’s a slight creak of the floorboards and a disgruntled moan which could probably make god’s cry. Holy crap it’s Yin! For a second I’m tempted to just take these guys out right here and now, but her door is already creeping open.

    DAMNIT!

    “Oh crap!” One of them shouts and the door opens all the way. A black-haired sleepy beauty pokes her head outside, squinting in the darkness!

    “Hei? You up?” She murmurs as she stares right at the intruders! Behind them, I sweat bullets holding my cleaver. Comeon Yin! Read the atmosphere here!

    “Um we were just…” The smaller thief holds up a hand in surrender. Unfortunately…that hand also has a knife.

    “KYAAA!”

    #

    Yin’s high-pitched scream rings through the house with the force of a banshee. It’s kind of cute, if you ignore the fact that the sun hasn’t even risen. The two would-be thieves raise their heads to see her and panic.

    “Why are you awake!”

    “Crap! Run!”

    They turn around and blindly turn around to leave. However, as they get to the exit, I shove the door as hard as I can and it smashes into their faces. Both of them go tumbling down to the floor. Pulling the door off one of their heads, I raise my cleaver on high, prepared to do some early morning chopping!

    “Wait Hei!” Yin cries out, seeing me prepared to commit murder. She exits her room completely and holds her hands up. “Don’t kill them!”

    “You sure? I heard these guys outside talking about robbing us…and other things…” I let my cleaver slam down viciously into the floorboard next to one of their heads. The man whose neck has narrowly avoided being chopped gulps nervously. They begin to beg piteously.

    “Don’t kill us! We were just hoping for some money! We definitely had no ulterior motive!”

    “Yup yup! What he said! We definitely had no thoughts about doing anything else!”

    “Uhuh…” I murmur quietly while yanking my cleaver out of the floorboards. These guys are fast, and immediately get to their feet when I don’t finish them off. Before I can get another shot off, they disappear into the night. All I catch is a fading glimpse of bright yellow hair before they go. Shaking my head, I slam the door, making sure the deadbolt is secure and turn back to Yin. Surprisingly, she’s not petrified with fear and has come out to meet me.

    “Thanks for letting them go.” She whispers to me.

    “If that’s what you want…” I start to say, but then gulp as I realize she’s just wearing an extremely thin and small t-shirt. It barely manages to go past her waist to cover the top of her thighs. Seeing where my gaze is going, her face goes scarlet, and even without a Hunter’s nightvision skill I can still see how red she is. Fortunately, I have the willpower of the lost god and manage to look away.

    “Eke!” She squeaks a bit and pulls the t-shirt down. However, instead of running back to her room, she stays in front of me. After a moment, I realize she’s not going to leave. “Uhm, I mean it. Even though you’re the kind of person to just cut off trouble before it comes, I don’t want to hurt people. This world has enough dead already.” Her face grows downcast, and she trembles slightly. Suddenly, I can think about more than just her scantily clad body. Well, just a little bit more, but it’s something. “To be honest, I couldn’t sleep. I haven’t been alone since this all started. Rui and I would always stay together and keep each other company in the night. My room feels so dark and big, even though I know it’s perfectly safe, I don’t want to close my eyes. Silly right?”

    “N-No, not at all.” I cough. If I show how much effect seeing just a little bit of her skin has on me, it’ll ruin her image of me! Resolving myself to play it cool, I force myself to stop looking away and stare into her eyes. Damn this is hard! “I’m sorry, I didn’t think of that. Maybe I can sleep in the living room, you could keep the door open so you know I’m nearby?”

    What are doing Hei! This is a perfect chance to get closer to her. Ugh, damnit, grow a pair, even with two lifetimes you can’t make a move!

    “Oh! Well that’s very nice of you to offer. But to be honest, that couch looks really uncomfortable.” Yin nods at the dusty thing which has mothballs and holes everywhere. “I mean, didn’t we technically already sleep together for warmth after…after you saved me? I know I’m a stranger, and maybe not your type, but since we’re spending so much time together and it’s the end of the world and all…” She trails off awkwardly, staring into my eyes nervously. My heart is beating fast. Way faster than when I killed those zombies. Hell, it feels like someone has lit a fire in my stomach. I’m hungrier than the Gray right now. Damnit, why does it feel like we’re arguing the wrong sides? Why is being a man so hard?

    “If you put it that way…I guess we’ll be spending a lot of time sleeping together to conserve warmth while hunting. So I mean, uh yea.” I’m having trouble saying the words without sounding lecherous. Yin looks at me strangely as I try to get my head together. “Uhm yea, YEA! I’ll just uhm…” Unsure of how to precede because I’ve never gone in a girl’s room before, I lose all momentum. My ears burn, but fortunately the supposedly shy girl in front of me takes action.

    “Cool! Yup, thanks. Uhm, okay that sounds weird, but uhm yea I know I can trust you, Hei. You did save me after all!” A glorious smile stretches her rosy lips as she grabs my forearm and pulls me to her room. I’m not sure if it would feel creepy if I shut the door, but she slams it for me. Looking me over, her smile grows a bit confused. “You go to sleep with all your clothes on? I won’t mind if you want to take them off.”

    “I just…learned to be prepared in case I need to leave quickly at night. I’m used to sleeping with them on.” Shivering at the thought of stripping in front of her in the same room, I just stand there stupidly. The unabashed girl finally turns a bit shy and hops under the blankets, patting the bedside next to her.

    “Oh, okay! If that makes you comfortable. But I’m not going to get dressed, it’s okay in the wild, but I’d prefer to be comfortable while we have the chance. Besides, I have Mr. Thiefcatcher here to protect me!” Her smile lets me get on top of the blankets with her. Suddenly I’m intensely aware that her bare legs are underneath the blanket, and it didn’t seem like she was wearing shorts underneath that t-shirt. Trying to avoid looking directly at the girl’s face, I just stare up at the ceiling. Oh my god. This girl…is a natural born killer! In the wild, she acted so helpless, but now I’m getting led along like a puppy on a chain! Can I even call myself a man after this? Wait, don’t think about manhood. This is just two friends sleeping together to keep each other company. A sleepover, right? Totally normal…

    “Huh?” This time it’s my turn to let out a little squeak as Yin rolls over under the blankets. Her leg goes over the top of mine as she puts her arm over me. I freeze, completely still. The blanket is in-between our bodies, but I can feel…everything through it. She’s so soft! Trying desperately to keep my mind clear of any deviant thoughts, I start thinking of Buddhist scriptures. Let go of your earthly tether…

    “Did you say something Hei? I just thought you might be cold since you’re not taking any of the blankets. Am I too hot?” Her sleepy voice whispers in my ear. This is the moment where if I was an experienced man, I’d say something witty and seal the deal, I think. But all my confidence fades away in the sheets. The devilish girl beside me almost seems to be waiting for me to make a move. But I have no idea what to do. After a moment, her breath begins to slow and I realize she’s falling asleep. This woman! Are you serious? Can she really just climb on top of me and fall asleep like this?

  • Chapter 4: Mistakes

    “…”

    Raging, I can feel each of her breaths tickling my ear, and to be honest, I am getting way too hot underneath the blanket and her body, but I’m not going to say anything and wake her up.

    Comeon, Hei! You’ve lived life and death situations! We can survive this night! We will not fall here and do something that might ruin our image!

    For the rest of the night, I chant motivational speeches to myself while staring at the ceiling. It’s pretty much impossible to sleep, though somehow Yin seems to be completely at peace against me. As the sun begins to come up, at least there’s one good side.

    She’s…so soft.

    #

    By the time the birds have finished chirping their morning love songs, I’m exhausted. At some point, I managed to doze off and sleep lightly, but every time Yin breathed loudly or snored gently in my ear, I was soon fully awake again. Eventually, despite the fact that I was getting to sleep with her, even if it was through a blanket, I was getting annoyed enough to fantasize about waking her. If only to get some peace.

    However, then she began to whimper quietly. And I don’t mean in a sexy way, though I’ll admit I might have had some thoughts in that direction the first time. But it soon became apparent that she was remembering the sad fate of her teammates. The bed shook sometimes as she panicked until eventually, I turned around and wrapped my arms around her. Whenever she’d cry out their names, or flail about as if trying to escape evil, I’d just hold her tightly and press her head into my chest. Though it meant I got little sleep, I couldn’t find it in myself to let her go.

    Every time I tried, she’d grow afraid again and reach out with her small hands, desperately hoping for someone to find her. I could feel tears leaking from her eyes onto my shirt and not for the first time, I wondered if I had made a mistake. Perhaps I should have saved them. I know they were trash, but even still, I wish she didn’t have to go through this.

    “Mmm?” Yin’s soft voice wakes me from my stupor. It’s fortunate that I’ve at least become a Lvl. 1 hunter or else I probably would be barely able to keep my eyes open. Soft hands move on the other side of the sheets and I feel her pull away slightly. When she realizes how we’re holding each other, she gasps. “OH!”

    “It’s not what you think!” I scramble to get back before she gets the wrong idea. Her surprised face has a tiny bit of drool on it, as well as dried tears, but it’s still insanely cute.

    “What…what am I thinking?” She asks. At first, she merely seems confused. But then her voice grows coy and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise as if I’ve just encountered a dangerous enemy. “Tell me, what were you thinking, last night while I was sleeping? Are you okay, Hei? Your eyes are really red. It doesn’t look like you slept very well…”

    “Nothing! I’m just a light sleeper! And you looked like you needed someone to hold you…” I break off gently and she raises an eyebrow. After several seconds of staring at my earnest expression, she smiles gently. Her eyes are a little wet and she wipes them with the blanket.

    “Relax, I’m just messing with you.” Her smile turns into a devilish grin. “Didn’t think you were such a virgin!”

    “What did you say!” I react instantly, reaching over to grab her, but she’s already sprinting out of bed.

    “I’m going to shower first! Gotta leave early to hunt some zombies, right?” She shouts back before I can catch her. Damnit! If she wasn’t two levels higher than me! Before the door slams shut beside her, I swear I catch sight of something different. A hint of color under her t-shirt.

    Pink? She’s that kind of girl? Or am I just imagining it?

    All the fight goes out of me as I work to control a different kind of fight downstairs. Shaking my head, I get out of bed and stretch, looking at the sky. Sometime past noon, I guess? It really is time to leave.

    As we exit the house, I’m feeling slightly better despite the rough night. Yin seems to walk unusually close to me now and I decide that I like this new development. Strutting down the street, we vacate the town on the opposite side of where we came. Following the path along the winding river, I work to find a stone that’s been well rounded and flattened by the water. Eventually, a few that look suitable come along and I pull them out of the mud.

    *Schlurp*

    When we break for a little bit, I unsheathe the unsharpened replica sword and get to work grinding an edge onto the blade. Though it definitely would not hold up to the rigour of armored combat against humans, it’s beginning to look like something you could at least chop a few zombies with. The wonderful thing about low level undead is that the high concentration of virus in their bodies rapidly ages the flesh. As such, defensively, their muscle structure and bone is much weaker than regular humans. They’re essentially a completely different organism.

    Still, the fact that they appear to growl and moan things that the living person would have said before turning undead tends to creep people out. As the only person in the world who has turned into a zombie and come back, I suppose I have the unfortunate and unique perspective to realize that at least in my special case…the previous owner of the body can experience the pain inflicted on it after turning. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true for most zombies. There’s something strange about when I died that first time after hitting Lvl. 100. I can’t put my finger on it, but the voice of the Gray speaking in my head just doesn’t seem normal at all.

    If I die, even I wasn’t bitten, I still turn into one of them. It doesn’t make any sense. How did I become infected? And when I turned, I wasn’t a mindless automaton seeking flesh, I was…something, thinking, calculating. I could sense it. The Gray wasn’t just trying to eat…it was trying to grow. Damn, gives me the creeps just remembering it.

    After a while, I’m satisfied with the new edge on the blade. Now it is no longer a fake, but an actually deadly weapon. Beckoning Yin over who has been looking out at the river with a wistful expression, I begin to school her on anti-zombie swordsmanship 101. She listens attentively, though I can tell she wants to ask how I know all of this.

    “Okay, first, hold it like this, with both hands. When you cut, remember that you need to draw the blade along the surface, just like working with a big knife. This isn’t an axe, you’re not trying to hack through anything, you’re pulling the blade and cutting!” By the time the light begins to fade, she understands the basic tenets of fighting to a degree, though obviously it will be years until she truly masters them. Regardless, as the sun goes down…it’s time to be on our way and hunt.

    “Am I really ready?” Yin grumbles slightly at my instruction. While I did my best, as a veteran I’m not the most patient teacher in the world. “Well, at least you’re not making me use that butcher’s knife of yours anymore.” She says with a disdainful sniff.

    “Apologize to the butchers in the world! And to this cleaver!” I wave the item in question around. “It’s saved both our lives more times than you know!” To which she laughs and gives me a quick hug.

    “Okay, okay! It just…doesn’t feel like a real, weapon you know? More like something for chopping vegetables in a restaurant.” Her innocent smile is definitely hiding a smirk, but I let it go. Ruffling her hair in revenge, I glance at the horizon. Seeing where I’m looking, Yin grows still. “What are we hunting tonight?”

    “The dead…always the dead in the beginning.” I murmur back, trying to remember what phase of the Calamity we’re in. If I’m not mistaken, there is a higher-level creature which should begin to appear. “Actually I just remember something. Not everything afflicted by the virus truly dies. Some stronger creatures can resist the spread. Ironically…the less virus is present in their tissues, the more deadly they become. You could say…they’re carriers in a way. We’ll be looking for them now.”

    #

    *Tap Tap Tap*

    *Rustle*

    Our footsteps in the falling leaves are too loud. Or rather, should I say, Yin’s footsteps are a little loud. While I don’t have access to various stealth skills, I have plenty of experience avoiding making noise in the wild. For a long time, before I gained the title of one of the Five Death Gods, I leveled in the shadows only striking once the enemy was distracted. It happened so much that my debut name at the beginning of the Calamity was…Black Butcher Hei. It was a bit of a joke since my name means black anyways in Chinese.

    To be honest though, this time around, I don’t plan on using my butcher’s knife for much. I’ve already resolved to go to a certain place where I know a special zombie will appear with a powerful blade. All that matters right now is getting Yin to a high enough level that she’ll be able to slay that zombie.

    "Shh…we’re close.” I press a finger to my lips while holding the slim girl back. She has her newly sharpened katana out. “Look at the ground.”

    “Eww!” Yin recoils as she sees the droppings left behind by a wild animal. Many people don’t know this, but the strongest enemies right now are not Fresh Undead, which have a high concentration of the virus, but instead, strong animals in the wild which have been corrupted. Provided they are strong enough to resist total infection, these monsters will actually give a high amount of experience and eating their meat is said to strengthen their hunters.

    Though the virus is responsible for great death and misery, it is also the bringer of great change. Many babies born after the Calamity were exposed to trace amounts of the virus in the environment and actually turned out stronger than people from before. As a result, the world became a much tougher place in general.

    “Bear.” My explanation causes Yin to grow afraid. “Based on the time…it’s probably not that infected. The meat might still be good.” A hungry expression appears on my face which makes her shudder. I take out my cleaver. “Depending on the concentration of virus, it might be a little tough for your sword right now. And you’re only Lvl. 3, so a bear is a bit tough for your first time.” Frowning, I think it over. It’s true that a wild bear is an extremely tough animal. But it’s worth a ton of experience. Probably enough to get Yin straight to Lvl. 5 which would unlock the true power of Hunters. “Okay, I have an idea! It’s risky, but I think it should work!”

    “Tough for my sword?” Yin whimpers a little as she hears my words. However, she does not run away. After slaying several zombies, she’s already begun to change. The mindset of a Hunter is taking over. While I don’t expect her to become as ruthless as me, that would be too much, I think she will soon learn to be a decisive warrior. Ignoring her, I go over to a sapling nearby and test it with my hands. The trunk is about the right length for me to grasp. Drawing back my cleaver, I start hacking it down. “W-What are you doing, Hei?”

    “Making a spear. It’s a shame because I’ll take some of your experience which I don’t want to do, but it shouldn’t be too much. At worst, I’ll hit Lvl. 2. But you’ll definitely get to Lvl. 5 which will be huge.” Stripping the side branches and leaves off the tree bough, I work on fashioning it into a working spear for large game. I’m not a spear user so I prefer not to use them, but I’ll make an exception this one time. Once the trunk of the tree has been prepared, I work on whittling the top into shape. Cutting notches into the branch, I pull the end apart into three thick prongs which I then work on sharpening. Once it’s complete, I have a rudimentary trident. While I work, I mention a few things to Yin. “So, there’s something you should know about me.”

    “Ohh are you finally going to tell me your secrets?” Yin grows excited for some reason as I put in the finishing touches. “Did you make a deal with the devil for incredible knowledge?”

    *Pah!*

    Smacking the top of her head, I shake my head. This girl…

    “Obviously not. Well at least I don’t think so.” My rebuttal only causes Yin to become more suspicious, but I keep going. “Listen up! Normally, most people won’t turn undead when they die unless they were bitten and injected with a sufficient amount of virus to trigger an infection. Understand? The bite introduces the virus into the bloodstream and if it’s a high concentration, the sudden increase in viral load causes people to rapidly die after being bitten. However, this does not usually apply to wounds that aren’t bites, and in higher level undead, their infectivity is actually reduced because they have less virus in their system!”

    “I think I’m with you…but why are you telling me this now?” Yin narrows her beautiful brown eyes at me. “Hei?”

    “Well, I’m telling you because you should know. My situation is a bit different than other people. If I die…even if it isn’t from a zombie, you must immediately sever my spinal cord. Or failing that, you can destroy my skull.” I point ominously at the skull in question. “Otherwise, you’ll regret it. I don’t know how or why, perhaps it’s best just to call it a curse, but you can think of me as someone who has already been bitten. If I should fall, it is your responsibility to kill me twice!”

    “HAH?” Yin gasps as she understands what I’m asking of her. “But Hei…you’re perfectly normal. I’ve never seen you get bitten. And we’ve even slept together, you’re definitely not infected!” To this I can only sigh. Even I don’t know how I became this way, or why the Gray was formed. The best way I can describe it really is like a curse. I suppose this might be the price of being the first to hit Lvl. 100 in my previous life. There’s really no way to know.

    “Look, I may look okay, but this will happen, I assure you.” Staring into her eyes with a steely resolve, I make sure to hold her gaze until she is forced to blink and look away. “This is serious and it’s why I refuse to level. There’s something…something evil inside me. You can’t see it, but you have to believe it is there. If I can’t trust you to finish me off, then maybe it’d be better if I left now and found someone who can.” At this, Yin’s surprise fades from her face. She stiffens and I see her hands clutching the handle of the replica sword tightly.

    “I…I don’t know how you know this. But you’ve never been wrong before. I’ll believe you. Just don’t…don’t go, okay?” She steps in closer with a troubled expression. Seeing the way her lips pout ever so slightly, I can’t bear to hurt her feelings much more.

    “I need your promise, Yin. Swear it to me. That if I should die, you will ensure my corpse does not rise again. Do I have your word?” I say solemnly. Only when she nods do I let the serious expression slip off my face. “Okay, this spear is ready. Here, take my cleaver. I think the enemy might be too fresh to use your sword on. I’ll hold it down. Then you finish it off. Got it?”

    “Got it!” Yin accepts my cleaver and sheathes her sword. For now, she still hasn’t memorized the motion and still has to look as she puts the blade into the scabbard, but already, she has the look of a swordswoman. One day, I hope to see her decimating the battlefield as one of a new generation of DeathGods in this world. Maybe she will take my place in this timeline. Heh, that’s funny. Who would have thought Black Butcher Hei would be training a woman to take his place?

    “Okay, follow me.” I spend the rest of the afternoon tracking down the location of the bear. We encounter more droppings from time to time, as well as scratched up trees that the beast has rubbed itself against and sharpened its claws on. By the time the sun is setting, I’m sure we’ve gotten close. It’s actually Yin who spots the cave in the side of a small hill. Huge claw marks are carved into the stone around a deep, dark hole.

    There’s no mistake.

    This bear is definitely big and recently corrupted.

    Looking at the entrance, I get a creepy feeling. To be honest, by the time I fought a Corrupted Bear, I was already Lvl. 7, in my last life. And I had a party at my back.

    “Is it in there?” Yin hangs back, unwilling to go near the dark cave. I examine the outside for clues. There’s plenty of fresh bear tracks and droppings so I know we’re in the right place. “Do we have to go inside?”

    “No…it’ll be too dangerous to enter its den. Instead, let’s smoke it out.” I fumble around in my coat and find my flint. Looking around, I start gathering dead wood to make a fire. Once I have a good blaze going, the sun is already almost over the horizon and nightfall has begun to set. The forest has become a dark place full of terrors. Our fire is now the strongest warmth in this place. Grabbing a dead branch full of leaves, I place it in the flames until it begins to smoke and char. “Okay, I’ll smoke it out of the den. With any luck, it’ll run itself onto my spear. Then you finish it yea?”

    “H-Hei!” Suddenly as I’m about to toss my burning branch into the bear’s lair, I hear a scream from behind. Fear blossoms inside me as I realize I’ve miscalculated. A prickling feeling takes over my stomach as my heartbeat pounds and adrenaline spikes through me. A second later, the terrifying roar of a Corrupted Bear tells me everything I need to know.

    Crap. It was behind us.

    *GRAWWWRR!*

    #

    Black fur, four legs, and a snout right out of a horror movie. The Corrupted Bear has small veins of sickly dark pus dripping out of it’s flank. It snarls so loud it feels like it’s right in front of me. The beast paws at the ground, angrily rearing onto its back legs and then returning to all fours. The virus has just barely reached the brain and the resulting creature is a confused mess. However, as a beast exceeding Lvl. 7, it is exceedingly deadly and aggressive.

    *Tsss*

    Little tufts of dirt rise from the ground as it carves bloody furrows into the dirt with overly long claws. After infection, its deadliest traits have been enhanced and now the already massive claws of a normal bear have become dagger-like instruments. The beast has trouble even walking for its claws are so long they stick in the forest floor, but when it’s this close, that’s small consolation.

    “Hei! What do we do?” Yin clutches my cleaver with a desperate panic. Standing by the fire, I stab the already smoldering branch inside until it ignites into a blazing torch! I toss it on the ground in front of us for light and then step between the terrified girl and the beast. It snuffles at the edge of the darkness, testing the light. The eyes are a clouded black. On a living creature it would probably be blind. But this is normal for the Corrupted. Before I have time to think, it charges!

    *GRAAAAWR!*

    “CRAP!” I shout, no longer able to keep my cool as a mountain of muscled infected flesh crashes across the path towards me. It’s huge, and as a Lvl. 1 Hunter, far stronger than I am. Fortunately, the intelligence of bears is not terribly high to begin with. Placing the butt of my makeshift spear against the ground, I wrap both hands around the shaft and hold it steady, meeting the beasts charge! Foul wind washes over me as the terrifying snuffling grows closer and the distinct whoof of a bear’s angered breathing.

    *Thud!*

    It rams into the spear and the thick wood bends back until I’m scared its going to break. My hands tremble. A mound of dirt rises as the base of the spear pushes against the ground. I use all my weight to push down on the shaft and keep it from turning as the bear rams into it. In the flickering light of the rapidly dying torch beside us, I see the beast’s disfigured skull.

    *GRAWWWR*

    My spear has penetrated the rotting fur on its chest with three prongs. It presses onwards, trying to pull itself onto the spear and reach me. Each of its paws is as thick as I am and they bat at the shaft of the spear, causing loud thumps every time they hit the sturdy wood. However, the beast’s own giant weight and momentum are keeping the spear steady.

    “Yin! Get the neck!” I scream. Even though the trunk of the tree I cut is thick, I doubt it can hold much longer. If this thing wasn’t undead it would have just backed up and doubtless ripped the spear out of my hands. But fortunately, its inability to cherish its own life is causing it to continuously impale itself. “I don’t know how long I can hold it!”

    “On it!”

    I see a slim figure dart past the bear and I. Praying that she can reach the neck of the tall creature, I do my best to keep it steady. She’s fast. The stats of a Lvl. 3 Hunter have boosted all of her normal capabilities. In an instant she’s beside the bear, just behind the paws.

    *Shing*

    The butcher’s knife flashes in the dying light as she brings it up and down on the Corrupted Bear’s neck. However, it’d be more accurate to say that she swings it forwards, because the bear is so tall that she can’t properly swing down. Without gravity on her side, her strike fails to sever its head.

    *GRAAAAWWRR!*

    The cleaver stops, buried a quarter of the way into its neck. A hideous roar echoes and the bear pushes sideways with a massive paw, sending Yin sprawling. When I see her go down, my vision turns red. Instantly, I lean into the spear with everything I have, trying to drive it into the bear’s heart! Though it is infected, it is still a living being and suffers damage from having a wooden stake rammed into its chest!

    “You piece of-!” I let go of the shaft and roll sideways, going to Yin. She held onto my cleaver as she fell away. It’s on the ground beside her trembling form, black blood staining the dull steel. Going to her, I examine her for injuries. There’s a long bloody scrape on her arm but otherwise I think she’s okay, just dazed. Ducking down, I take the cleaver from her. “You okay?”

    “Ow…” She moans gently, but nods. I turn back to the creature which has managed to break the thick spear in half during its thrashing. Blood is spurting out of its chest and neck, but it is very much still alive. I help Yin to her feet, and grimace. This is going to be hard to do. The Corrupted Bear whines in pain, its breath sounding demonic as it rolls about. Finally, as the last of the spear is crushed under its massive weight, it also faces us. Yin reaches for the cleaver in my hand.

    “Relax. It’s not a bite wound. I’ll protect you.” I don’t let go, shaking my head. “This is too dangerous. I didn’t think it would be behind us. Just this one time, I’m going to make an exception and level up for you.”

    “Didn’t you say that last time?” Yin’s face looks a little less frightened as I stand tall. She draws the replica katana. “You’re not very good at following your own rules.”

    “Heh.” I grunt and rush forwards. There’s no time to exchange more words.

    I can’t let the bear recover.

    It watches me approach and lashes out blindly with a giant paw. Diving underneath, I roll to the right and try to get to the wound Yin made in its neck. My cleaver finds its way into the cut and I feel the hard boney plate of its last vertebra disk just above the spine.

    Damnit!

    Though I’m a finger’s breadth from cutting into its spinal cord, the bone stops my blade just short. Then the bear swipes at me and I have to let go of the cleaver.

    Too fast!

    Putting both hands in front of my face and crouching down, I take the impact of the blow head on, unable to dodge with only the stats of a Lvl. 1.Hunter. Instantly burning pain overtakes my forearms, I can feel the insanely long and sharp claws digging into my flesh and catching on the bone. It’s like being struck and stabbed at the same time and suddenly I’m in the air, flying backwards. When the ground hits my back, I see stars and every bit of air in my lungs whooshes out.

    “Hei!”

    “Ugh.” I cough out as Yin rushes over. The bear’s claws have carved deep chunks of flesh from my arms and I can barely feel them anymore. Just this deep, dull, ache. Holding up a hand before her worried face, I struggle to my feet. She only looks more concerned as she sees the damage done to my arms. “I’m okay…just didn’t expect it to be so fast. Crap, I lost my cleaver.”

    Squinting through the darkness because the torch has gone out, I can see the Corrupted Bear swaying. Unlike a Fresh Undead, it is a living creature and having a knife driven almost all the way through its spinal cord will cause it to slow down. Yin takes a defensive stance in front of me, ready to protect me with her life, but I pat her on the back and push her out of the way.

    “I got this. Let me protect you one more time before you become stronger than me.”

    “Are you sure?” Yin hesitates, holding her replica katana out with concern. “It looks like you really hurt it. Maybe I can finish it with this now?”

    I shake my head.

    “You’re not ready yet. Just let me be cool this one time, okay?” Regaining my breath, I put my hands over hers and she lets go of the katana. It feels good to be holding a sword again, even if I can barely feel my hands. Yin calls out to me as I turn to go.

    “Pfft, just this once. Next time, I’ll protect you!” She shouts and I smile.

    This one really has the heart of a true warrior.

    Dashing forwards, I pick up speed. The bear does the same, meeting me with a thunderous charge!

    *GRAAAAWWWR!*

    A feint. That’s all I use the katana for. I swing left and the metallic reflection of the blade causes the bear to shift slightly. Then I spin around its paw and leap into the air. Still spinning, I look over my shoulder behind me in midair to see the cleaver still buried in its neck.

    Just a little bit more!

    “HAH!” I breath out and kick backwards right onto the handle, shoving my cleaver deep into the cervical disk and breaking through! The bear topples instantly and I land beside its fallen body, crouching to absorb the impact. Under the moonlight, I listen closely, making sure its dead. Any second, I expect Yin to come by to congratulate me. I can already see the system message which is happily informing me that I have reached Lvl. 4. Despite the horrible injuries to my arms, strength floods my body. My stats have risen a lot. Perhaps too much.

    I didn’t want to be the one to deal the last blow.

    “Hey, Yin, you have to admit, I looked pretty cool there, right?”

    Tap

    Tap.

    Tap!

    Footsteps from behind.

    It’s Yin.

    But she isn’t saying anything.

    Not screaming congratulations or calling my name.

    “Is something-?“

    I turn in time to see her ferocious face as she crashes into me. I just barely manage to hold onto the katana and keep it from cutting either of us as I tumble around in her embrace. Something jagged nips the numb fingers in my left hand. It’s a sharp pain, but then I’m on the ground.

    “Yin?” I mumble, still trying to get my head together. “Why did you do that?” However, she’s already rising. Ignoring my questions, she stands over me and I see a dark shadow where I was just standing by the bear. It has four limbs, about the size of a man, and the tell-tale signs of corruption. Dark spots of infected pus coat its fur. An infected wolf. Instantly, I understand. It was an ambush. I try to sit up, wondering why my left-hand hurts so much. Yin gasps as another wolf comes from nowhere.

    “NO!”

    She dives down to the ground and the wolf sores overhead. I can see the gleam in its cloudy eyes as it stares down at me before it passes. The spittle on its fangs is murky black with taint. Suddenly, I look down at my hand.

    No…no…no!

    “Yin! Get back!” I stare down at my left hand with rising horror. A familiar burning sensation, cold and hot at the same time is spreading up my numb arms. Small jagged cuts from a canine-like mouth are carved into my palm and fingers. “It bit me.”

  • Chapter 5: The Black Butcher

    “What! No!” Yin breathes as she scrambles to her knees and rushes back to me. When she sees the bite on my hand she gasps. “I…there’s no way! It must be from when you got hit by the bear! You can’t be bitten…!”

    “It’s a bite mark, Yin. I’m sorry.” I take the katana in my good hand and rise to my feet. “Your promise...I’m going to have to ask you to fulfill it a little early.” She stares at me like I’ve become an alien. The wolves all around us are howling, baying wildly as they circle for the kill. They smell fresh blood. But Yin only has eyes for me.

    “I won’t. I can’t.”

    I don’t answer at first. Instead, I rush forwards, cutting down an infested wolf. Another comes from behind, the classic attack pattern of canines. But I’m ready. This time I won’t be taken by surprise. The katana whistles back, aimed directly for the neck.

    I am the Black Butcher, Hei. This is the only gift I can give Yin before I ask for death.

    Even now, I can feel the virus racing through my arm, into my shoulder. It’s like novocaine, a gentle numbing fire which makes it hard to think. But I keep on swinging, keep on killing. My level rises wildly and I realize this could be a mistake.

    Congratulations!

    Congratulations!

    Congratulations!

    Yin must kill me before I rise. Else, I will be unstoppable at this rate!

    Panic fills my heart, but to be honest, I can’t stop killing these things. I’m so tired, but all that matters to me is that Yin survives. I’ll clear each and every last one of these bastards and at the very least, she will be able to move on after slaying me and taking my experience. That is my plan. I don’t look back at her until the last wolf hits the ground. I have no clue how many I have killed. All I can see is my level. It flashes dimly in the corner of my vision.

    Lvl. 14.

    I’m strong.

    Way too strong.

    And fading fast.

    Moving so much has spread the disease through my body even faster. When I turn around, Yin’s crying. Her beautiful eyes are open wide, as she takes in the slaughter I have unleashed on the ones trying to take me from her. I’ve guaranteed her survival. But our time together will end here no matter what I do. My vision is blurry. I’d like to say its from blood loss but I think the stinging in my eyes would give away the lie. I’m crying too.

    I don’t want our time to end.

    I don’t want to die, to go into that endless blackness, and experience that horrible thing taking me over once again.

    The virus cannot be reasoned with. I can’t bargain for more time. Only Yin can save me from becoming the Gray again.

    “Do it.” I walk over, turn the bloody katana down to face the dirt and wait for her to take it. Even my uninfected hand has begun to shake as the virus overrides my motor neurons. It’s almost there, almost in my spine and my brain. Running around so much means I have little time left. “Kill me. Cut off my head right now. You can’t hesitate.”

    “I…don’t want to.” Yin’s hand reaches out for the handle but she doesn’t take it. Just watches me with the saddest expression. “Do I really have to?”

    “Yes. If I come back as one of them, I’ll be the worst plague this world has ever seen. First, I’ll rip you apart. Then I’ll move on to the town back there. And then no one will be safe. Do you understand? Now it is the time to honor your promise!” I shove the katana at her. Still, she won’t take it, so I let it drop, the tip stabbing into the dirt. The blade stands there, quivering, ready for her to take. I’m starting to see it now. The red on the edges of my vision is being replaced with gray. It’s like the world is fading from me. My strength leaving.

    I just want to give in and lie down.

    But still, Yin won’t take the sword. Won’t end it.

    “You don’t deserve this. After all you’ve done to help me.” She whispers quietly. I shake my head. Already, I can feel how stiff my neck has become.

    My muscles are locking up. I’m losing control.

    I go down to one knee, unable to stand straight. The blade lies between us like a wall I can never cross. Soon it will be the knife which separates us forever.

    “I…I let your friends die. So, I could be closer to you. They were trash.” My lips say something awful. But I’m desperate to convince her. Desperate to save her. I’ll say anything if it means she can survive. Yin’s face is filled with doubt. She’s hurt. Doesn’t understand why I’m telling her this.

    “You’re lying!” She cries. But I hold her gaze, show her that I’m not.

    “It’s the truth. I watched from between the buildings until they died. Then I went and saved you.” I thought the weight of my sin would lessen when I told her this. I’ve felt guilty about it, but since I knew what they were really like, I did my best to ignore it. Now it’s all coming out. But it doesn’t feel good. I don’t feel any release. Just more and more tension as my muscles clench. The virus is no longer like novocaine. It isn’t numbing, it burns like fire! Tearing away my control one bit of me at a time.

    “Why are you telling me this?” Yin breaths, the tears falling freely from her eyes. I want to say I’m sorry, but to be honest, my jaw has locked up completely. I can’t move it anymore. Only gaze at her stupidly while pointing to the blade and my neck. “I won’t believe it. You’ve taken care of me! You must have had some reason!”

    I shake my head sadly, unable to speak. Her sad face leans in, stopping just short of the katana. I can see it there, her hesitation, her fear, her confusion. My heart feels like it’s breaking except so does the rest of me. Then…

    *CRUNCH!*

    Yin is sent tumbling back. On top of her, an infected wolf leans down and bites deep with a vicious savagery. Her surprised face is filled with real pain along with the sadness as it tears her apart. I can’t move.

    I know this creature.

    I thought I killed it a minute ago.

    I wasn’t careful enough.

    My hands were too numb to notice I failed to completely sever its spine.

    “Ahhh! Hei! HELP-!”

    *Puchi*

    Her scream is cut off as it finds her throat. Everything is going gray. I manage to put my hands on the hilt of the blade, and pull it out of the dirt, but I can’t stand up. I’m just stuck there on one knee, watching as the bastard wolf destroys all my plans and devours the one person I wanted to save. Yin’s head falls to the side. Blood drips from her lips as her blank stare finds me. It accuses me of not saving her. I can hear her last scream echoing still, though all I’m really hearing is the sounds of the wolf feasting.

    *Crunch*

    *Crunch*

    It almost looks like Yin’s lips are still moving, like she’s trying to say something to me but I can’t hear anything over the horrible, horrible chewing. I want so bad to stand up and cut that thing’s head off. If I had just been more careful, more decisive, Yin wouldn’t have had to suffer so…so horribly. As the Gray almost completely covers my vision, I decide what I must do.

    I turn the sword so the blade is up. Put it under my chin. I’ve sharpened it well. The tip cuts into the underside of my throat without trouble. My left hand is useless, the Gray has it now. But my right is still under my control.

    Yin. I’m so sorry. I’ll fix this. I won’t mess up next time!

    I wrap my fingers around the blade, feeling the steel bite into my fingers. It’s secure. It won’t move. Then I look up at the sky as I line the tip up. When it is centered directly under the center of my mouth, I close my eyes. And push myself down as hard as I can.

    Puchi!

    Somewhere between the time it takes for the blade to penetrate my skull and for me to lose unconsciousness, I hear a voice which is not mine scream. It grasps for control, but it is too late. I’ve already destroyed the brain.

    NO!

    #

    It is unpleasant. Dying is. Some may say it is peaceful. Others that it is like nothing. They are wrong. There is nothing peaceful about this pain. I don’t ever want to experience it again. I don’t ever want to die again. In the moments before the end, the brain remembers all the horrible things that have happened to you. It’s like a dark dream. A nightmare which you cannot wake from. I can see it, feel it. My past deaths, the burning pain of dying. Being torn apart. Tearing others apart. Yin’s broken face shuddering as the wolf reaches inside for another bite. Over and over, it’s amazing how much you can remember in that one little god-awful moment.

    “Hey, you alive?”

    “HAHHH!” I wake up, crashing into a girl’s face. It’s the same one from my dream. The same one which was lying there, just like that, but this one isn’t screaming for me to help her. “No! No! NO!” My despairing cries cause everyone around to back away as if I’m infected. It’s…she’s…not the same…it’s…all reset. Why…when we were so close to winning? Is there no justice?

    Is justice what you want?

    It’s all in my head. The Gray isn’t in control. Stop…stop…just relax…we’re alive again.

    “OWWW!” Yin clutches her head, rubbing the spot we clashed. She’s the only one who isn’t worried just about herself. Her kind eyes are the same as I remember. Not like the dead, empty ones from my dream. I try to convince myself it was all a dream. Yes, just a dream. None of that was real. This is the only real reality. Let it go, calm down.

    “This guy is wasted, look at him, he looks like he’s seen a ghost!” Donovan’s familiar voice doesn’t piss me off anymore. I look at him like what he is.

    A dead man walking.

    “This time. I won’t make any mistakes.” My cold, unfeeling voice causes even Yin to back away in fear. The other traitors quickly take her from me and make to leave. I watch them as they go into the afternoon sunset. As she’s pulled away, Yin calls back.

    “I’m sorry if I scared you! We’ll be going North! Just follow the star if you need help!” Her hopeful voice is quickly hushed by the traitors, but it still brings a dull smile to my lips.

    “Yes…I think I will.” I mutter under my breath as I get to my feet. Everything is the same. The same scenario, the same variables. My cleaver is in my coat, I’m not a Hunter anymore. The only thing that’s different is me. I’ve found my resolve, no…my conviction! “This time, I’ll save you. No mistakes”

    When they are gone, I take a moment to gather myself. My heart is still pounding. While everyone has forgotten the future, I remember. The previous times I died; the Gray was in control. Everything had a somewhat surreal feeling, even if I still experienced it all. This time, the sword driving into my skull was so real. It sticks with me differently. For a while, the world spins, I’m lost in the sickening sensation of oncoming death.

    “Hurrk…” I almost puke.

    Before the Calamity, I used to imagine what it was like to die. I’d always wrinkle my face when I thought of the loneliness and utter isolation. Now that I know what it’s really like, I think I’d rather go back to my imagination. Even though I’m alive and breathing now, I feel different. Every time I come back it’s like a little bit less of me makes the trip back.

    “Eurgh!” Bile coats my throat, but I force it back down. There’s work to be done. It’s about time.

    “HELP!” As expected, there’s a cry as Yin’s party meets the zombies. After experiencing this twice, the situation fails to excite me like before. I’ve…lost the sense of urgency I had before. Leisurely, I take my time walking to the gap between the two buildings. I know that it will be a while until Yin’s companions are dead. Should I let them die again? But what’s the alternative? If I let them live, they’ll just betray me and Yin again at the worst time. No, better that I should take care of any problems before they start. That’s what got my in trouble last time. I wasn’t decisive enough! Who knows how many times I can come back? This could be the last time. I need to be better than this!

    From in-between the buildings, I watch impassively, just out of sight as Yin’s companions are wiped out. Even last time, I felt something, rage at least, when they died. But this time, watching them, it’s like there’s a screen between us. I just…don’t care whatsoever.

    Like Yin said, I have a good reason to let them die. Saving them would harm her in the long run. I can do more good by taking my time.

    When the last one has been dragged under by the Fresh Undead, I rush out to play hero once more. To be honest, I might not have done a very good job of keeping up the façade. Yin stays perfectly safe of course. But she flashes me an odd look in-between the terrified screams. Perhaps it’s something to do with my impassive face which is probably closer to that of a Death God than a human. It’s just I know exactly how this will play out already. I feel like an actor just rehearsing my lines.

    “Donovan, Rui, and the others are going to reanimate in a second.” I whisper into her ears as I pull her to shore. She looks at me with wide eyes.

    “H-How do you know our names?” She asks and I curse myself for being a little careless.

    “I heard them when you guys passed by. Now stop asking questions and listen to me. You need to help your friends. Or else they’re going to eat you.” My instructions are predictably followed by refusal, denial, and the other useless emotions holding Yin back. I should persuade her like last time. It’s important for her to understand that her friends are no longer her friends anymore. Though I’m sorely tempted to just do her friends in myself, eventually I get through to her. “KILL THEM!”

    “HAH!” The poor girl wanders through the reanimated bodies of her friends and I help her finish off each and every one. This time I don’t listen to her when she gets to Rui, no matter how she begs.

    “No more exceptions, Yin. You have to grow strong. You have to learn to be ruthless.” I whisper while holding the pink-haired zombie down for her. When the cleaver slides in, tears fall along with blood. But she does it all on her own. Her friends are at rest.

    *Thud!*

    I have her take out Crassia as well. Yin cries all the while, but I harden my heart. This time, I will turn her into someone who can survive on her own without fail. The worst case almost happened when she refused to kill me last time. If my zombie self had been allowed to truly resurrect, with so many levels after killing that many infected wolves, who knows what would have happened. I might never have been able to come back.

    “You need to be tougher.” I say and she gives me an angry glare. It hurts to have her looking at me like that but it’s for the best.

    If things go wrong, she’ll be less likely to hesitate.

    Walking by the river the next day, I toss my phone inside again, hoping that I’ll never have to see it again. Then I grab a stone and summon the two Drowned Souls inside. I don’t have to help as much this time. I guess my tough love approach is showing results. Though Yin’s expression is hard to look at. She seems so sad standing with my cleaver by the two frog-like corpses.

    “Crassia would have turned into things like these if you hadn’t helped her.”

    “Shut up. You didn’t know her. Don’t talk about my friends like you knew them.” Yin’s bitter voice echoes across the burbling cold river and I have no reply. It’s true. While I knew most of her party, I never had a chance to interact with Crassia before she died. Though judging from how she came as a resentful Drowned Soul, she might not have been a nice person regardless. Shrugging it off, I take my cleaver back from her and wash it off before heading to town. Along the way, I explain the things Yin needs to know as a Hunter again. Unlike before when she asked a lot of questions, this time she just listens in silence. I’m a little worried that she isn’t understanding what I’m saying, but when I ask if she needs me to clarify anything she just shakes her head with a dark look.

    Damn, it’s like she hates me now.

    Unable to reconcile this Yin with the one from my last life, I give it up. After she fell asleep from slaying the rest of her reanimated friends, I held her once again. When she woke up, she scrambled out of my reach and seemed more terrified of me than the undead. Either way, my efforts to be more decisive have saved time. We make it into town earlier in the night. There are more shops open, but nothing really interesting. I don’t bother asking for Yin’s money. I already know how little is inside. Without wasting a moment, I grab the supplies we need as well the replica sword from the stalls and old lady. Then I head to the unoccupied house. Yin stares at me suspiciously as I walk inside.

    “Aren’t you going to ask if anyone’s home? Or is this your house?” She wonders. It’s the first thing she’s said in a while and I’m kind of glad she’s talking.

    “I already asked one of the vendors. This one’s unoccupied, the owners are dead, so we can spend the night here.” I lie. Well, it’s not technically a lie, I really did ask one of the vendors in my past life. “I’m going to shower first. You can take the room on the right.”

    “Right…” Yin shrugs and enters beside me.

    After my shower, I go to my room. Yin stands outside the bathroom on the second floor and gazes down at me as I finish eating a sandwich.

    “Um, I guess I should say thank you.” She says uncomfortably. I don’t even look up from my sandwich. Yep, that’s Yin for you. Even when she’s angry, she’s still nice. “You know, for saving me and all. Even though you’re kind of a prick, I’m grateful. And I know you’re trying to help me for some reason. Hey, are you listening?” She huffs a little and I finally look up from my meal.

    “Yes, and you’re welcome. Look, I don’t know how to say this.” I stretch, getting ready for bed. But I feel a little bad for how I’ve forced her to suffer all day. “But you’ve gone through a lot. And the Calamity is only going to get worse from here. Please, bear with it. And understand, that if I ask a lot of you, it’s only so that you can learn to become a better Hunter. I’m going to help you survive this world, whatever it takes.” Though my words are awkward and probably very strange sounding, Yin is Yin. She seems to pick up on my sincerity and gives me a little wave as I head to bed.

    “Goodnight, Hei. Thank you for protecting me.”

    #

    When I get to bed however, I only let myself doze lightly. As expected, the sound of footsteps outside and whispered voices comes as the night progresses. I don’t bother looking out the window, instead just going straight to the living room and hiding myself behind the door.

    “Probably took advantage of the circumstances. Besides, did you see that wad of cash he had? Dude’s loaded! We’re gonna strike it rich!” A familiar voice comes before long.

    “It’s deadbolted. That’s a problem. These guys sure are cautious!” The voice of the lockpicker sounds annoyed as he fumbles getting the credit card into the lock. A vast amount of annoyance hits me as well in that moment. When the two of them manage to get the door open, I watch them enter while rolling my eyes.

    “Which room do you think he took?” One of them says something strange. I wonder why exactly these two were looking for me. But then his heavy boot catches on the floorboard again.

    “Oh crap!”

    The upstairs door opens much more quickly than last time. Yin pokes her head out into the dark living room and sees the robbers.

    “Who’s there?!” She barks with the replica katana in hand already.

    Huh, that’s not what happened last time.

    “Hold on, is that a sword?!” One of the robbers immediately homes in on the weapon and they turn to run.

    “KYAA!” Yin screams as they stagger for the door. Though I know I could let them get away, I promised myself that this time I wouldn’t leave any loose ends. Raising my cleaver before Yin can say anything, I drive it into the chest of one of the thieves as he walks by!

    “OOMPH!” He collapses instantly, his ribs crushed by the thick butcher’s knife. Yin watches in horror from her room, her replica katana forgotten by her side.

    “W-Wait! Don’t kill them-!” She cries but it’s too late. Before she can say anything else, I yank my cleaver out of the first man’s chest and leap forwards to hack the other man in the back. He goes down a few steps out the door, scrabbling in the dirt as if he can hold onto life. But I drag him back inside.

    “Please! Please don’t kill me!” He tries to beg with me. The blood from his back is staining the carpet red. Yin has her hand outstretched, but she’s too shocked to say anything more when I raise the knife on high and end this trouble before it can begin.

    *Shing*

    His head rolls off and I shut the door.

    “These two broke into our house. I was watching.” I say calmly. Yin trembles outside her room, holding on the doorknob for support. She looks like she’s going to faint.

    “Oh…I heard someone moving around in the living room. I thought it might be…might be you, you know? I didn’t think that they would…did you really need to kill them?” She shivers, the shock making it hard for her to speak. I shrug, going to the sink to wash my cleaver off. Then I go back and drag the bodies behind the couch so they’re not blocking the door. When I slam the deadbolt back down Yin flinches.

    “Who knows what they were planning on doing. You’re a pretty girl, Yin.” I look at her and she puts her arms around her chest defensively. As if I’m the threat. “It’s best to take them out. Otherwise by the time we found out what they were doing here, it might have been too late.”

    “I-I guess…” Yin clutches herself and still shivering, retreats into her room. “I’m g-gunna try to get some sleep, Hei. Have a…a good night!”

    “Goodnight.” I look at her oddly and she shakily slams the door. Taking my time, I go back in the shower to clean the blood off. When I get back downstairs, I stare at Yin’s bedroom.

    Huh, so she’s not going to invite me in this time. Well, I was probably a bit hasty to kill those two. Still, I don’t think I did anything wrong. Yes, I let them go last time, and yes it didn’t seem to hurt us. But things can change between my lives obviously and I still have no idea what exactly they wanted. It was safer to kill them.

    I’m not going to lose sleep over my decision. I already wasted a lot of time staying up waiting for them. As someone who has had to defend my party from Hunter Slayers before, I’m no stranger to killing. Even before dying, the world had already taught me that sometimes it was necessary. Though perhaps this time I reached for my blade a little too easily…

    “Whatever.”

    #

    When I get up in the morning, I halfway expect Yin to not answer my knock on her door. But it’s only a suspicion. Unfortunately, when I knock…

    *Knock. Knock.*

    No one answers.

    “Yin? You okay?” I pause for a moment, waiting. However, it soon becomes apparent that something is wrong. “I’m coming in!”

    *Thud!*

    Rearing back, I smash into the door with a roundhouse kick. Instantly the strength of a Lvl. 1 Hunter punches the doorknob out and my foot goes through. Pulling it out and ignoring the splinters which catch on my jeans, I push my way inside Yin’s room!

    “Crap.” I whisper as I see the empty bed and note. She’s left a piece of paper with some words scribbled in the middle of the undone bed. Looking at window, I see it’s open, and the room is chilly. Clearly, she’s been gone for some time. Rushing over to the note, I scan it quickly. This is bad!

  • Chapter 6: Stuck

    Hei,

    I’m sorry, for leaving without saying goodbye, but I can’t stay with you. Thank you for doing all that you have and trying to teach me how to survive in this world. I hope you find happiness and stay safe forever!

    -Yin

    That’s it.

    All she wrote.

    Shaking my head, I go to the window and stare out into the town. I can see some footprints, but it hasn’t rained recently and they’re too faint.

    Should I try to track her?

    “She’s too low level…” I murmur to myself. It’s true. Yin might have some knowledge, and I even forced to her finish just about every zombie I could, so she’s pretty close to Lvl. 4 at this point, but there’s no way the shy girl will be able to survive on her own. Even if she unlocked the major stat boost at Lvl. 5, without my knowledge or a party to support her this world is too deadly for a solo Hunter.

    Stepping out the window, I stay low to the ground, and stride through the town, following the tracks. The townspeople give me odd looks, but seeing as I’m leaving them alone, they don’t bother me. Hopefully they don’t make any bad assumptions about the two bodies in the abandoned house, but it should be a while before anyone goes to check. I’m able to accurately track Yin’s trail all the way to the edge of town. It seems like she’s still following the original plan and heading for the city. However, as I’m bending over to check the dirt, the worst-case scenario happens.

    *Tap Tap Tap*

    *Shua! *

    Little raindrops land on my head and quickly blossom into a fine downpour. Depending on how long Yin waited for me to fall asleep before leaving, it could have been several hours since she left. In a few minutes, all but the most obvious tracks will be erased in the rain. After spending so long as a top Hunter, I’m no slouch when it comes to finding people, but it’d be risky with just my base skills.

    “DAMNIT!” I curse to myself and hustle into the woods. “That girl doesn’t even know that sword’s a replica. If she tries to fight without sharpening it…!”

    How am I going to find her if the rain washes away her footprints?

    I wrack my brain. Suddenly, an idea comes to me. There is a way to find Yin, even if the rain washes away her footprints!

    Running full throttle through the path, I temporarily give up on following Yin’s path and start searching for undead. See the thing is, once you hit Lvl. 5, you get a massive stat increase to all your base attributes and can choose where to allocate points afterwards. However, there’s something else. You’ll unlock the ability to learn System Skills. In my past life people were throwing anything from fireballs to straight up blasting enemies with lightning. Those overpowered skills were something you had to gain through hard battles with zombie bosses.

    At Lvl. 5, I won’t have access to anything like that. But there’s one thing I will be able to gain. If you’re sufficiently proficient at a real-life skill, there are many Passive System Skills which can activate to boost your natural abilities to superhuman levels. In this case, I should be able to immediately gain the Advanced Tracking System Skill Passive. Rain or not, I should be able to easily track someone like Yin who has no idea how to hide her trail then.

    “Wait…” As I’m running, looking for things to kill, a thought occurs to me. It didn’t rain last time. I’m out a little bit earlier, maybe I just slept through it? But I don’t remember it being wet when we went out. Is it possible that somehow this world is different than the last? This doesn’t make sense. “Ugh, I don’t have time to worry about this. Yin comes first!”

    Suddenly I remember a way to instantly hit Lvl 5.

    What if I challenge the Corrupted Bear? But I’m early, if it isn’t back at its cave yet, I’ll just waste time. Though with this rain, I bet it is. Even still, it’s tough, and then there’s that wolfpack which might ambush me again. No…it’s too dangerous. There’s a lot of them, and even if I win, I’ll be practically Lvl. 14. That’s way too high! Ugh, I guess I have no choice!

    Springing to the riverside, I grab the first decent stone I can find and send it spinning down the river with a throw that would make Hercules proud.

    One.

    Two.

    ...

    Thirty.

    Forty skips later, the stone drops a good way down the surging river.

    *Plunk!*

    When it drops in the dark waters, the raindrops tumbling all around make the splash seem like just one of many.

    “Please…please let there be someone in there!” I wish for another Drowned Soul with a fervency that no one in history has probably shared. For a minute, the rain pours down on my head and I stand there dumbly, slowly losing hope. Cold drops splatter into my eyes and make my eyelids heavy. When I wipe them with the back of my hand, that’s when they appear. I don’t know if it’s the sound a skipping stone makes, some special frequency, or just my luck, but even in the pouring rain they have noticed my throw.

    A dozen Drowned Souls rise out of the river like mishappen fish with legs. Their mouths gape with bloated purple lips, sucking greedily at the rain even as bits of their rotting flesh flutter in the rapid river. They stare at me with a horrid greed. These frog-like undead are hungry. I stare back with an equal hunger, impatient for them to land.

    “COME!”

    “GIVE US WAAARRRRMMTTTH!” They scream as they leap straight out of the water. Black ribbons of brackish gunk fall from their bodies and I dodge out of the way as my cleaver comes out. Though they are Lvl. 6 or 7, I don’t care. All of them must die here for Yin’s sake. The first one lands on the shore-

    “Die!” My cleaver flashes forward. I meet the undead even before it can regain its balance on the sand. There is a very good reason I was called the Black Butcher. Unlike the other four Death Gods of the strongest party, I often hunted alone. And my specialty was mass slaughter. I ground out every bit of my experience from the blood of a hundred-thousand monsters. Now, though there is no one to see, I intend to take that title back, if only for a day!

    *Shing*

    My blood boils as a second Drowned Soul loses its head. The disgusting frog-like body slips back into the water and washes away as my level increases to three.

    Just two more to go!

    I whirl.

    Slash behind me.

    My cleaver sings

    “Warm-“

    Another head falls.

    It is an endless dance, a gruesome battle beneath the cloudy sky and rainy river. At some point, I hit Lvl 4. But there is no time to celebrate. I’ve done my best to keep them from getting on the beach, but still six of them have survived the ascent and now lumber towards me. Eyeing their feet which leave no footprints, I back away and try to think of how to deal with so many. My muscles are sore, leveling gives you more stamina, but the true benefits won’t be seen instantly. Without a period of rest, I’m growing weaker in the cold rain. Even still, I find myself licking my lips in anticipation of the fight.

    “That’s it! This feeling, it’s been a long time! Come on! COME ON!” A familiar bloodthirst, one which frightened both friend and foe in the past takes over my body. I’ve been holding back for the sake of the world. Always thinking of Yin, and making sure I don’t level too hard.

    But now I can finally let loose!

    *Crack!*

    I smash my cleaver down on the next one’s head. The shock of hitting its hard skull ripples through my white-knuckled grip but it feels good, solid, REAL!

    *Splash*

    My roundhouse kick catches another in the side of the head, and I spin, using my momentum to force its face into the river water. As it splutters, shouting and kicking its unnaturally long white legs, I stomp down on its neck.

    *Snap*

    Two down.

    The third is already behind me. I spring forwards to avoid its hands and feel the wind of its claws passing over my neck. Swinging around, I don’t have time to deal with this one as a fourth approaches from the right.

    “Nice.” I compliment them for surrounding me successfully. However, I’m not a Lvl. 1 Hunter anymore. All of my stats have been boosted massively by hitting Lvl 4. Crouching down, I unleash a roar as lightning surges in the dark skies and leap up.

    *Kaboom*

    I can just briefly see my shadow slipping over the disturbingly white Drowned Souls as they turn their heads and see me fly several body-lengths into the air. Sticking out my hand in midair, I give them the finger, enjoying taunting the undead. When I land outside their encirclement, instantly I slash backwards.

    *Gurgle*

    “War-!” The Drowned Soul’s last breath sounds surprised before I cut off its head. Thunder rumbles overhead as if to punctuate my landing and I let the deep vibrations roll through me. Clenching my fist, I grin at the last three Drowned Souls.

    “You sure you still want to fight?” I call out though I know they will not understand. My confidence is not unfounded. In the corner of my vision, a special message from the system flashes gently.

    Congratulations, you are now Lvl. 5.

    All Stats Up!

    Prior to Lvl.30, receive one stat point per level to be allocated as you wish!

    Passive Skill-Basic Tracking Unlocked

    Passive Skill-Basic Combat Unlocked

    Passive Skill-Basic Prescience Unlocked

    Accept?

    I frown because I was expecting to unlock Advanced Tracking but instead, I got Basic Tracking. However, it doesn’t matter. For this fight I’m more interested in another message.

    All Stats Up!

    I mentally accept the level up. This is where being a Hunter truly begins. Last time, things happened too fast and by the time I gained my skills it was too late. This time it’s different. Clenching my fist, I step into the three remaining Drowned Souls.

    I no longer need a strategy to deal with them.

    As they attack, I see the muscles rippling beneath their bloated skin, watching the little bumps of flesh stretch and contract. It’s like I can predict where they’re going to swing before it happens. With such a head start, as well as my already strong knowledge of their combat patterns, it’s a simply thing to sway back under all three of their attacks.

    *Swish*

    *Swish*

    *Swish*

    After they pass overhead, I straighten and retaliate. The system has unlocked Basic Combat. My cleaver is now more than just a short butcher’s knife. It sweeps around like the Reaper’s scythe and takes the throats of each and every Drowned Soul in one blow. I can’t get their heads off, even with Basic Combat unlocked, that’s impossible with such a short blade. But I can bite into their spinal cords and sever them.

    *Shing*

    *Thump*

    *Thump*

    *Thump*

    One slash. Three bodies fall, one after another. The black blood remaining in their rotten corpses spills out into the sand as rain trickles down and falls off my face like regretful tears. However, only a cold smile awaits on my face.

    “God…it feels good to blow off some steam!” I cackle into the storm. Suddenly I hear something behind me from the forest. A branch breaks. Instantly, my Basic Prescience kicks in and time seems to slow slightly as I whip my head around. My gaze catches a flash of black in the trees. Rapid footsteps run away before I can react.

    Wait that’s…

    “YIN!” I cry out and give chase. She must have heard the battle and came to see what was happening. “Wait! It’s dangerous! Stop!” However, the damn girl isn’t listening. Perhaps she witnessed my laughter and thought I’d gone insane. Maybe she thinks I’m a deranged killer who wantonly commits slaughter. To be honest, if she knew exactly what it took to earn the title of Death God and Black Butcher, she might be right. But I’ve never had anything but good intentions for her. Even now, as she runs from me and I hurtle through branches and bramble, I still remember what it felt like hold her in my arms. To wake up next to her smiling face.

    If I can just catch up and explain…

    *Puchi*

    A nettle vine comes out of nowhere and the thorns latch onto my cheek, drawing blood. Even with Basic Prescience, it’s impossible to traverse the forest without hitting something. I’m closing in on Yin, she must be struggling in the rain with her lower level. Every now and again I can see branches springing into position.

    Traces of her passage. She’s close!

    “Wait!” My shout pierces the rain. “Just wait!” I crash through the undergrowth without a care, just wanting to reach her side. Somewhere inside, a terrible feeling of danger is welling. Perhaps it's a side-effect of Basic Prescience, but I know if I don’t get to her now, something awful is going to happen. “Damnit, stupid girl! Why won’t you just let me explain!”

    “AHHHHH!” Her scream is cut off by a peal of thunder and I stumble as I hear it.

    No!

    I dart forwards, using my palm and the handle of my cleaver to push aside branches. They hold me back as if trying to prevent me from seeing what’s happening.

    “Yin! I’m coming!” However, I don’t hear an answer. A cold hand grasps my heart as I think about what that might mean. She probably just fell. That’s it. She just tripped. And I need to help her up. That’s it. Just a fall. “Yin? You okay?”

    Still nothing. She wasn’t that far ahead. Where is she? Suddenly, I hear a snarl. It sounds oh so familiar. Then the baying of wolves sounds rips through my calm and I see red.

    “You pieces of trash!” I rush through into the clearing to see the infected pack crowded around a prone figure on the ground. “No! GODDAMIT WHY COULDN’T YOU JUST WAIT FOR ME! WHY ARE ALL YOU BASTARDS HERE ALREADY?!”

    This time I scream alone.

    For Yin is no longer here with me.

    She has her replica katana out.

    As if that would have done something.

    It’s not sharpened.

    A wolf lies beside her, gasping its last breath. Its windpipe has been crushed. Even without me, she took one down with her. But the others…oh god the others…I want to look away. I…I don’t want to see what they’re doing to her. I can’t stand it, the blood, the torn flesh, they’re almost like zombies the way they tear away pieces of her and smack their lips as they swallow.

    “NOOOOOOO!” I’m not sure who I’m talking to anymore. All I know is that there are two living things still left in the clearing. One of them is me, the other is these wolves. “I’ll be damned if I let you live…over my dead body!”

    I don’t think, I just charge in and start swinging. There is no strategy. I don’t intend to survive this. I have nothing to protect. I just need to satisfy my rage, my frustration.

    “I HATE YOU!”

    “AWOOO-“ A wolf is cut off mid-howl. Another yips as I kick it in the ribs with the strength of Lvl. 5 hunter. It stumbles back painfully sprawling in the mud. More surround me, always more, an entire pack. That’s how many were feasting on Yin.

    Just seconds, mere seconds and they had already…done…done…THAT to her!

    “GODDAMIT I LEVELED ALL THIS WAY FOR NOTHING! I KILLED THEM FOR NOTHING!” My screams terrify even the infected and the wolves try to back away. But I am the Black Butcher right now. No one is leaving here alive. Not them, not me. When it is over, I’m covered in scratches, but not a single one bit me. I’m not infected. Blood leaks out of my hand. It’s their blood, not mine. I chuckle emptily at the sky, a bleak smile on my face. “I didn’t make any mistakes. But she wouldn’t listen to me. Goddammit, why didn’t she just wait?”

    I stumble over to her broken body and my smile turns ugly. She has her mouth open, like she’s trying to say something to me. But I know she’s already dead and gone. For a few minutes, I just stand there, staring at the blood and wasted beauty. Wondering where I went wrong.

    How could I have prevented this?

    *Shua*

    The rain falls even heavier, washing away her blood until all that remains is her pale skin and blank eyes. In death, she is still beautiful. Just…I don’t want to see it. The way she is right now, all twisted, all wrong.

    It makes my insides twist.

    It makes me feel all wrong.

    I’m losing it.

    Then the worst thing happens.

    “Huuurk!” At first, I think she’s still alive. Maybe she’s going to wake up and I can help her or something. Then I realize what’s really happening.

    “You bastards. You goddamn bastards!” I sweep my gaze over the dead wolves. Their severed heads gaze back at me with tongues wagging, as if mocking me for not seeing this coming. The final gift of the pack. Yin’s sightless eyes swivel, snapping onto me as she begins to crawl to her elbows and knees.

    “M-Moooonster…” She croons. The virus from their bites has infected her. Though she is so torn and ragged, her brain is still intact. She’s reanimating before my eyes.

    “I…I don’t want to do this, Yin.” I remember how she begged not to have to kill me in the past. Oh, how the tables have turned. “Really, I don’t!”

    “Come here…!” The beautiful, broken body lunges at me and I reach out and grab her neck. Feel her slim fingers, still warm with fresh blood, scrabble to reach me. She snarls like a wolf, angrily lusting after my flesh and I cry tears as my trembling hand holds her away. Muddy fingernails scrape at the skin on my arms. I don’t want to do this. But I can’t leave her like this. It’d be wrong.

    “I’m sorry.” I say. Then I fling her back to the ground and bury my cleaver into her throat. It’s fast. She barely has time to react. Her fingers reflexively grab at her throat for just an instant before the neurons stop firing. Then she’s gone. And I’m alone.

    Again.

    “Screw this.” I whisper to the sky. Thunder explodes overhead, shaking the clearing. I can’t tell whether my eyes are blurry from real tears or rain. Does it matter? “This wasn’t how it was supposed to end.”

    Scrubbing my eyes with the back of my wet hand, I lay down beside Yin’s corpse. I stare her in the eyes, her beautiful eyes as I raise my cleaver up high, just above my neck. It’s an awkward shot. One I can’t afford to miss. But with Basic Combat unlocked I don’t think I will.

    “I’m done playing this game.”

    Then I let the cleaver fall.

    *Shing!*

    The voice is always there at the end. It seems to understand when I’m going to die. It doesn’t want to go.

    Hahaha…you messed up!

    #

    Hah…

    The world is tilted. I thought it would be darker, black. Dying should be like that. Instead, everything is…gray. So very gray.

    No…no…this isn’t right!

    I try to move my limbs. Shouldn’t I be waking up right now? There was someone I was supposed to meet. Why am I like…this, instead?

    “Grrrrrrr…” A hideous growl erupts from my throat. There’s a burning sensation in my throat, and when I stumble to my feet, my head dangles limply. Like it’s not attached properly to my neck. It’s only when I see my reflection in Yin’s sightless eyes that I realize what’s happened.

    NOOO!

    I missed.

    My spinal cord is still intact, though the cleaver in my neck is almost halfway through. All my thoughts are jello-like. The virus has taken over and now I wander according to its whims.

    This is bad. Really bad.

    But I can’t do anything to stop it. The world is just a gray-lit movie now, and I am a spectator. We stumble together, this thing and I, away from Yin’s body. Searching for fresh prey. Desperately, I try with all my might to reach up. If I could just control one hand for an instant! Maybe I can push the cleaver through. Get it the rest of the way until my neck is severed.

    Nothing moves.

    It’s hopeless.

    I’m stuck.

  • Chapter 7: Broken

    Imagine drowning in an ocean of gray bubbles. Each bubble is a part of your body, a little bit of control which you can no longer command. They just stream past as you reach for them, tantalizingly out of reach. Even breathing is no longer up to you. The disgusting stench of blood fills your mouth but you can’t spit. All you have left is pain, pain, and more pain. A thought occurs to me in the haze as we walk back along the trail.

    I leveled to Lvl. 5.

    That’s important.

    It means something…

    Trying to keep my thoughts together is too hard. I soon lose my sense of here or there and just settle into the tortured, laborious walk of the dead. Me and this body of mine which no longer listens. We are going hunting. Some time later, a strange thing happens. The shaking gray screen that is my world starts to change color. This…red mist forms, everywhere, it looks almost coppery. A light burning sensation comes from behind. Like someone’s put a burner to my back.

    “Grrrrr?”

    The one in charge of my body turns around at that. My tilted vision swings like a lamp dangling from the ceiling as my head listlessly goes with it. There’s a dark cloud behind us. Fog envelopes everything, turning gray into endless red. The pain increases until I want to scream.

    Please please please! STOP! IT HURTS!

    Even though my thoughts are scattered, I can feel it burning me so intensely. Even the one in charge is roaring, flailing my body about. My vision bounces as my head snaps around, the cleaver still lodged in it.

    What is happening?

    I don’t know.

    I just want it to stop.

    Suddenly, we are running forwards, panicking. The bodies of the wolves pass by and they are boiling. I can see it now. Their flesh is bubbling up and exploding into little chunks. For a split second, I see what’s become of Yin and I want to retch. I would if I could. Then my own body begins to fall apart. The world tilts even more, the thin sinew holding my neck together beginning to bubble away. It hurts like fire, worse than being burned alive. I’m being turned into liquid and then-

    *POP*

    *POP*

    *POP*

    Bits of me go, leaving only pain.

    “GRAAAWWRR!” The one in charge of my body screams as a figure appears in the red mist. It looks…almost like a woman in a dress. She takes a step towards us as we burn. I think I hear something as the one in charge rushes at her, trying to find something to latch onto even as we are boiled by the red mist.

    “Oh? You’re quite strong for someone this early. How sad…you’re hurt! Let me help you…” Suddenly a hand comes out, it feels almost like someone is caressing our forehead. The one in charge moans and attempts to bite her, but now no one is in charge. Our body is boiling away faster, the pain growing until it’s like walking in the sun. I want to scream, the other person is screaming, we’re screaming, then just like that, there’s a snap in my neck, and the familiar black I long for finally comes to save me.

    “There…better?”

    #

    “AHHHHHHHHHHHH! IT BURNS IT BURNS!” My scream causes me to bolt upright as I smash into something hard. Holding my head, I open my eyes. “GET IT OFF ME!”

    “OWWW!” Yin is knocked backwards by the impact as we clash heads once more. Her beautiful brown eyes scrunch up in pain and I can see the shining life in them. So different from the last visage I had of her. “Umm…are you okay? I’m sorry for scaring-“

    “I can’t do this anymore.” Seeing her triggers something in me. The pain, it’s still so fresh, I couldn’t make it stop. My hands shaking so badly I can barely bring them to my eyes, I stare at Yin’s innocent expression and try to clear my head. Even though it’s over, the memory is so intense just thinking about it makes me feel like I’m on fire, being rotted through from the inside out. “I’m done.”

    “W-What?” Yin reaches out to me, but Donovan yanks her back. “Hey! Look, he’s clearly hurt!”

    “He’s wasted! Leave him!” The blonde bastard yells as he watches me with slitted eyes. I don’t care. I finally understand that it doesn’t matter what I do. I’m just going to get hurt again and again. My power is a lie. It doesn’t let me change things. That’s impossible. All it does is bring me back to suffer over and over. “See? Look at him, let’s go!”

    I let them go. I don’t stop them. My resolve wavers slightly when Yin calls back to me, as always.

    “Um, sorry about that! If you need help, just follow the stars! We’re going North!” This time, I won’t save them. But I’ll give her one last thing in this world before she goes. Raising my voice, I call out.

    “If you go that way, there are several undead which will kill you. Go around or you’ll regret it.” My shout causes them to stop and turn around in confusion. They try to get my attention, learn more from me, but I don’t care. I’m washing my hands of this matter. Whenever I try to help, Yin just suffers. Maybe it’s my fault for trying to change fate. Either way, I’m done. Turning on my heel, I ignore their shouts and stride off into the woods.

    “Thank you!” Yin’s voice fades away behind me. For a while, I just walk, listening to nothing, thinking about nothing. Images of red mist, boiling flesh, and the world tilting as my head snapped off continue to haunt my every step. It’s my worst death. By far. I’d rather be torn apart by zombies or eaten by wolves. The pain was unreal, and the whole time I couldn’t even scream. I just had to stand there and watch…hold it in.

    I was so…so powerless.

    “GODDAMIT!” I roar into the woods. Some small birds flutter away, startled by my cry. But no undead come. This part of the forest must be empty. I’m walking away from the river, towards nothing in particular. Eventually, I begin to wonder what Yin is doing now. I’ve changed the pattern. Altered fate. Whatever happens to her isn’t my problem anymore. Hopefully her teammates aren’t as scummy as I think. “It’s done. I’m done.”

    However long it is I walk, I’m not really sure, I end up going far and deep into the woods. Away from the main path, the branches and trees grow thicker, snagging on my clothing but I push onwards. I tire more easily, I’m not even Lvl. 1 since I didn’t kill those zombies, but at the end of the day, humans were built for walking. Eventually, the ground begins to slope upwards. It’s like I’m climbing up a hill, but I don’t really want to go around, there are too many bushes over there. So, I keep going.

    Up.

    Up.

    And up.

    Until I’m breathing heavy and sweating. The air is growing hot, and humid, as if I’m entering some sort of tropical rainforest. Suddenly, my foot presses on something funny underfoot.

    *Crunch*

    I look down.

    It’s a skull. An old one, there’s no flesh on it. My boot has landed directly on its nose and caved in the fragile bone. Retrieving my foot, I see that there’s more bones around me. Bits of white stick out of the dirt and leaves, seemingly growing out of the ground. As I take a few more steps, it becomes apparent. This place is like a graveyard. And I’ve walked right into it.

    *Clack*

    Something grabs onto my ankle. When I look back, a bony skeletal hand grasps my foot and I hurriedly kick it away. The fingers rattle as the whole thing shatters. However, all around me, I can hear them rising now. The dead have stopped slumbering. And they’re hungry. Everywhere, bones are shifting, rattling around of their own accord as some strange force causes them to pull together and rebuild their fallen forms.

    “What is this place?” I whisper to myself. I turn around to go back the way I came but it is too late. Two fully formed skeletons have already reanimated themselves. One of them is even holding a black, rusted sword. I know not what strange species they belong to, but I know any undead with a weapon is either a boss or beyond Lvl. 20. Which means that as a non-Hunter I could try my entire life to kill it and not succeed.

    This must be some sort of forbidden danger zone. What the hell? I can’t believe there’s something like that here already!

    Instantly, I seize the only course of option left to me. To run deeper into this strange graveyard. As my thunderous footsteps shake the earth, I hear hordes of bones shivering. They’re all awakening. It doesn’t matter.

    I can’t turn back.

    It’s not even worth looking to see what horrors are following me. I ignore the endless clacking, the thuds of bony feet on the loamy earth. My only hope is to get to the other side and escape there. Finally, I can’t resist the urge any longer. I look back. There’s an ocean of white bones surging towards me. Humanoid, non-humanoid, canine, feline, all manner of undead life, all polished clean and shining rush across the ground like an unholy tide. I’m being chased by what feels like every single thing that could have ever died in this forest.

    *Thud*

    *Thud*

    The noises are getting closer. Skeletal dogs bay with a strange hissing noise that those without lungs use to convey their frustrations. I’m not going to make it. They’re too fast. My hand slips into my coat, searching for my cleaver. If I’m going to be run down, I’d like to put up a fight at least. However, without the skill of a Hunter, I’m just not as graceful. My balance is thrown off by the motion and a passing root snags my foot.

    *Whump*

    My face goes into the ground, sending leaves flying everywhere. I skid a good body-length across the forest floor, eating dirt all the while. Before I even stop, I’m already getting my hands under me, trying to get around to meet my pursuers. I scrub at my eyes, trying to clear the crap out of them. When I open them, I fully expect to be set upon by a horde of undead. However…

    *Clack Clack Clack*

    The forest has a new kind of tree. Bleached bone, twisted skeletons, fingered leaves, the horde has stopped just shy of me. They stand there, their arms waving eerily like mock branches in an invisible wind as they reach out to grab me. But some strange barrier prevents them from coming even a step closer. Squinting, I can almost see it. This faint red mist in the air surrounds me. The undead refuse to come any closer. It looks strangely familiar.

    “Ow.” My eyes are beginning to sting. It’s like someone is spraying pepper spray. Slowly, I get up onto my hands and knees, keeping my eyes on the skeletons. They just watch, occasionally pressing their hands into the fine red mist curtain, but as soon as their fingertips touch it, they jerk back. I shake my head, standing up all the way. Still a little scared, I look around. The sun is being filtered by whatever’s in the air. Even the light has this strange coppery tinge to it. Looking behind me, there are no more undead. It seems this is a forbidden zone to them. I’m safe in here. But it reminds me of that strange acid cloud I encountered in my last life.

    “Straight out of the frying pan and right into the fire…” I mutter uneasily. Taking one last look over my shoulder at the undead, I shrug. There’s no going back through them. “Guess we’ll have to see if it burns.” Striding slowly into the mist, I head deeper into the forbidden zone. For a long time, I’m afraid that it will be like last time and I’m about to be boiled alive. However, except for a mild irritation on the surface of my skin and eyes, it doesn’t get worse. Then the trees begin to thin out. There’s a clearing up ahead. Someone’s sitting on a chair.

    “Huh?” I pull up short. To be honest, calling it a chair is an understatement. A throne more likely. Someone has built a throne of gleaming white bone. “Who are you?”

  • Chapter 8: The Loneliest Girl In The World

    “…” The figure on the throne doesn’t respond, as if sleeping. I take a step closer, keeping my hand on the cleaver in my coat. As I get closer, the thin red mist parts and I get a better look.

    It’s a…girl?

    I pad closer, quietly.

    She remains there, for all the world seeming to be asleep. Though how one can sleep on a throne of bone surrounded by hordes of undead is beyond me. The memory of a woman in the mist returns to me.

    “Could you be her?” I wonder. Everything was too red, my eyes were burning back then, but this certainly seems like it could be the figure in the mist. I died soon after meeting her, so I’m on full alert. Looking closely, her red dress also seems familiar. It really is her. But who is she? Why was it that while everything boiled away in the acid mist, she was fine?

    “Mmm?” Suddenly the sleeping figure stirs, her dress fluttering ever so lightly. She lifts her head and I see that she’s gorgeous, a more developed beauty than Yin. However, unlike the girl I left behind, this strange woman’s eyes are not filled with the curiosity and fire of life. Instead, a great sadness draws at their corners and she looks like she’s about to cry. Even haggard and worn down by sorrow, she’s still easily one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. When she sees me, those sad eyes blink wide in disbelief. Her small mouth opens and perfectly even little white teeth gleam at me as she gasps. “How did you…you’re not dead!”

    Oh my god. She knows! She remembers me!

    At first these kinds of silly thoughts float through my head. I almost believe that she knows my secret, that she might understand the power of reincarnation I have been cursed with.

    “You remember?” I’m shocked. However, her head tilts curiously. She brings a slender finger to her lips and taps on them curiously.

    “Remember what? Have we met before? It’s been so long since I’ve seen another person. Well…another living person that is.” She smiles sadly and stretches a pale hand out into the mist. I see tattoos running all along her skin, intricate and mesmerizing patterns that are not from any earthly design. Now I’m beginning to understand. I misunderstood. She doesn’t know my secret. But it seems I’ve stumbled onto one of hers.

    “How long have you been alone?” I whisper to her. Maybe it’s because of the sadness in her eyes, or maybe I remember the way she comforted me in my last life as I laid there dying, but I feel like I’ve known her for a long time already. She’s younger than I thought. Just weighed down by pain. “What’s wrong with this place?”

    “My barrier.” Her expression is so wistful it’s like she’ll never see the sun again. “I’m cursed. They call me the Poison Empress. All who come near me will perish beneath the blood mist. It consumes all and follows me wherever I go. To be honest I had given up on ever seeing another living soul. I planned on just staying here rather than furthering someone else’s goals. It’d be better then killing more people. My blood mist can dissolve the flesh of the undead. Not even skeletons can survive being this close to me. And yet…somehow, you’re not dead yet. Who are you?”

    “Blood Mist Barrier…” I repeat the words. A memory tickles the back of my head, just out of reach. Old rumours from the beginning of the calamity, strange happenings. But I can’t quite recall what I’m thinking of. “They call me Black Butcher Hei. Well, they will at least. A barrier large enough to cover this whole area, and it can’t be turned off. That would imply it’s as strong as a Domain, but Domains can’t be unlocked until Lvl. 80. The better question would be, who are you?”

    “You know about Domains?” Her eyes grow wide like a surprised cat. “That’s impossible! The Calamity has only just begun, I can see you’re not even a Hunter yet! How can you know about Domains already!” Suddenly, the atmosphere turns hostile. “If you’re one of them, I won’t forgive you! This world is off limits!”

    “You’re related to the System aren’t you.” I sigh as I look more deeply at her. To the naked eye, she seems just like a gorgeous girl with crimson hair in a red dress. But there’s no way she’s so simple. “Let’s just say I heard about such things from a friend. Someone who is no longer with us. He’s dead.”

    “A friend…?” She squints at me dangerously. It’s kind of unnerving to be stared at so intensely by a beautiful woman. However, after a moment, she shrugs. “Whatever you know, it seems you really are just a native. Honestly, I’m just happy to see someone else. Since you’re here, why don’t we talk a little? I’m so lonely!” The Poison Empress stretches in her throne lithely and sits upright. While she still looks suspicious, she doesn’t seem to think of me as a threat.

    “A Domain this strong that’s been forcibly activated by the System.” I’m still musing on her unique circumstances. “I suppose, not even a Lvl. 99 could solve that problem. Hence if this barrier of yours really kills anyone else who enters, you won’t have any company until someone breaks the limit.” She’s so friendly and so powerful I don’t mind talking about secrets I shouldn’t know. Anyone that possesses a Domain at this point in the Calamity might as well be a Goddess.

    Now I understand why the undead outside wouldn’t enter. They simply can’t. The connection binding their bones would fall apart.

    “Yep. I’m stuck here, all alone. At this rate, it’ll be impossible. The people in this place are too weak. All I can do is watch them struggle with my mirror.” She sighs deeply, as if unburdening her troubles on me. Except her troubles sound like something out of a fairy tale. A small hand-mirror glints on the side of her throne and I see figures of people running in it. I suppose that must be how she sees the outside world. Shifting on her throne of bone, the girl glances at me out of the corner of her eye. I can tell she’s pretending to not be interested.

    She definitely wants me to talk to her!

    “So um, Poison Empress isn’t really your name, right?” I cast my mind about for any sort of small talk. “I gave you my name, so you should really give me yours as well, right?”

    “Pfft…” A girlish giggle escapes her lips at that one. “I suppose you’re right. My real name is Suzy. Okay, my turn to ask a question. Why are you traveling by yourself? Aren’t you lonely? As someone who can’t have friends, I feel like you’re wasting your privilege!” She glares at me sternly, like a schoolteacher. Looking up at her on her throne, I can only bow my head.

    “To be honest, I had friends once. But I can’t see them anymore. They don’t know, but I…I did something horrible. I can’t face them after that.” I sigh, walking closer to her throne. Suzy watches me eagerly, sitting up straight against a human spine which makes up the back of her “chair”.

    “Hah! That’s it?” She grins at me, and for a second the world-ending beauty is just another girl, clapping eagerly in joy. “If it was me, I’d definitely apologize! I mean how bad could it be. Imagine you were in my situation; how lonely it would be. Yet you have the ability to make up for it and you’re squandering it moping around! Just be a man and apologize!”

    “…” At this, I have to give her an evil look. She puts both her hands to her mouth and covers it as if she’s said too much. I can’t stay mad at someone like her. Though her words bite, she reminds me a little of Yin in that she seems innocent. Terribly sad, but innocent out here in her empty sepulchre. “It’s not so easy. There’s more to the story.”

    “It’s that thing…isn’t it?” She says grimly. For the first time, she seems serious. Pointing at me, she stands up and walks off her throne, staring deep into my eyes as if she can see what’s inside. “You know it’s there, don’t you? I can see it gnawing at your fate. It’s just waiting for a chance to take over.”

    “You know what it is?” This time it’s my turn to be shocked. Suzy shakes her head sadly. I sit down in the leaves by her throne and she sits beside me. Now that she’s down here, she doesn’t seem as imposing.

    “No.” She says after a while. “I don’t know what it is. But I know when you die, it will consume you.” Her gaze has changed. Now when she looks at me there’s something else in it. Pity.

    “What should I do?” I ask. Suzy sighs, her eyes going somewhere far away as she thinks. Absentmindedly, her head drifts closer and closer to my shoulder. The majestic and inhumanely sleek crimson hair floats in the mist as she opens her eyes and looks at me as if seeking permission. When I nod, slowly, she leans her head against my shoulder.

    “If I wander the world and go near people, they’ll die.” She breathes heavily, and I feel the weight on my shoulder increase. “But I take back what I said. You’re not wasting your privilege. It is very honorable to suffer so that others may be protected. You’ve been honest with me, so I suppose it’s time to be honest with you. You can’t leave this place. Keep in mind…I’m not just saying this to keep you here with me. There are undead all around the sepulchre. And as a Lvl. 0, you won’t stand a chance.”

    “I know.” I sigh as well. Suzy looks surprised to see how calm I am. “I suspected as much when I entered. It’s okay. I don’t mind. I’ve already given up on this world. Perhaps it would be nice to just stay here with you.”

    “You’re a strange person, Hei.” Suzy glances up at me from my shoulder. Her eyes are a vibrant shade of emerald. “Though I am sad. You can’t keep me company forever. Eventually you’ll starve since you’re not a high-level Hunter. Then I’ll be alone again. And you won’t have gotten a chance to make up with your friends. If I had friends, I would never let go. Or better yet, a lover. Someone to hold hands with and share stories. I’m sorry, it’s my fault you won’t get to experience that. If I wasn’t here, there wouldn’t be so many undead around my domain.”

    “No, it’s not your fault.” I gaze into Suzy’s bright eyes. The sadness in her as she imagines what it will be like when I’m dead and gone is heartbreaking. “You’re right, I have been selfish. So many things have gone wrong, but if I have the chance to make them right, I should. That’s my privilege. A second chance.” My words confuse her. Her cute mouth gapes slightly as she sees my conviction.

    “Hei, I’m sorry, but I meant it when I said you shouldn’t leave. You’ll just die. And then that thing inside you will have a chance to take over. It’d be irresponsible to let it out. At least if you stay here with me, when you’re ready to go, I can help you cross over and destroy your body.” She says it kindly, as if afraid I will think she’s threatening me. If it was anyone else, the thought of spending the rest of my days here until I starved would probably make me go mad. But to me, it sounds almost peaceful.

    Still, I know what I need to do now. My old companions are strong enough to find their own way, but Yin? How could I leave her in the hands of those bastards pretending to be her friends? I was really going to run away for a minute. All because I couldn’t handle dying and messing up a few times. How sad is that?

    “Thank you.” I whisper to her. “I’m glad I found you here.”

    “What? I’m glad you came too, but I wish you didn’t have to die for it!” Suzy’s head nearly pops off her shoulder as she stares at me. “Um, are you okay? You’re awfully calm.”

    “Hehehe…HAHAHA!” I start laughing at her bewildered expression. It’s too funny really. This random stranger, stuck all alone in the woods has somehow taught me more about myself than I could ever find out on my own. All in a few minutes of talking. I really do feel like I’ve known her for a long time.

    “Hey, cut it out! What’s so funny?” She pushes at my shoulder gently, probably afraid to hurt me. I don’t know what level she is but it’s definitely high. Even still, her touch feels just like an actual girl’s would. “Just cuz I’m lonely doesn’t mean I won’t get angry if you tease me you know!”

    “Haha…I’m sorry.” Finally, I stop. Putting my hands up in surrender, I look around at Suzy’s sepulchre. There’s nothing here, just an empty throne of bone and red mist all around. Not even some toys. I can only imagine what it must be like for her, stuck here, afraid to go near anyone else because she’ll kill them. I thought I had it bad, but compared to her, I’m living the dream. “Listen, want to be friends?”

    “Friends?” She asks me as if she doesn’t know the meaning of the word. Her tongue comes out as she licks her lips. “I…we just met!”

    “Yea, so?” I grin, patting her on top of the head. “Who cares? I feel like I’ve known you my whole life!” At first, her face goes red, so red it almost rivals her hair. The mist grows a bit thicker before she realizes what she’s doing and hastily closes her eyes. After a second, the air becomes clear again.

    “I mean…I suppose…yea. YEA!” Wild joy lights up her eyes at the thought. It seems almost out of place as her face changes 180 degrees. Suddenly, the sadness and gloom goes away and there’s a brilliant, vibrant, girl in front of me. “Friends! FRIENDS! We’re friends, Hei!”

    “Awesome.” I tussle her hair up. It’s sleeker and smoother than any normal humans. Almost like she’s a different species. Suddenly, the excitement drains away.

    “But…you can’t stay here forever. You’re too low level. You’ll die in a few days.” All the happiness leaves her as she becomes despondent again. Even when I try to catch her eye, she just stares down at the ground. “I hate being me.”

    “Who? You hate being my friend?” I get right up in her face. When she finally can’t help but look up, I flick her good in the forehead.

    “OW!” She screeches, hopping backwards. “What was that for?”

    “To remind you. That we have a responsibility. Even when things are bad, we need to keep it together. Or else others will be hurt. You taught me that. Keep your barrier under control for a second. I’m trying to savor this moment.” At this, I fix the image in my mind. This lonely sepulchre, the dark red mist, and the sad girl in front of me. She forgives me quickly, perhaps scared that I will be mad at her.

    “Savor the moment?” She asks. I sigh, holding out my arms.

    “Can I be honest with you one more time?” My voice trembles slightly. I’ve never told anyone my secret before. It’s so new to me, and I’m not sure what will happen if I do. Not to mention no one would believe me. But for this lonely girl stuck here by the gods, I’ll make an exception. “When I die…I come back-”

    “Hei?” Suddenly Suzy’s face becomes worried. I’m not sure why, but it feels like my words aren’t coming out of my mouth anymore. The red mist looks different…almost gray

    Then the voice comes. The one I dread. The other me.

    Hahaha! You let me out! You actually let me out!

    “HEI, WHAT’S WRONG!”

  • Chapter 9: Every Single Time I'll Come Back

    Hahaha! You let me out! You actually let me out!

    “HEI, WHAT’S WRONG!”

    I can’t react to Suzy’s scream. Only backpedal as I feel my heart seize. Once, twice, it beats, and then stops as I crumple. I have seconds, mere seconds before the Gray is in control. All the blood in my body is freezing to ice.

    I’m losing control!

    “Suzy! Listen to me, I will come back! One day, I’ll break the limit and find a way to free you!” I gasp out as my arms begin to reach forward. Already, black veins twist and bulge from my skin as the Gray takes over and tries to drag me over to consume the confused girl. Suzy’s dress gets caught in twigs as she tries to rush over to me, but I force my arms back, away from her. “Don’t come close! Kill me! It’s breaking free!”

    “Hei…? What’s happening? We just met. We still have time…” Suzy whispers as she tries to understand why I’ve suddenly begun to jerk around like a fish out of water. I gasp for breath on the ground, desperate to finish this.

    “No…time…! Kill…me!” I beg her to help me die before it’s too late. Her face twists as she realizes the truth. That the thing she predicted has come early.

    “But, you’re my friend! I’ll…” Her sad eyes shed red tears as she cries. “I’ll be alone again! I don’t want to be alone! Please stay! Please don’t make me do this!”

    “I’ll…” My choking breaths are my last. “Come…back…for you! BE-LIEVE!”

    “N-No…” She says but her hand comes up. When it closes into a fist, the air grows heavy. “I don’t want to do this! Damnit why, after I finally found a friend!”

    I can’t breathe anymore. My lungs are no longer under my control. All I can do is nod dumbly, and force one of my wildly spasming hands to curl. As she summons the power of the red mist, I give her a thumbs up with a stupid grin on my face. When my skin boils, it’s a lot faster this time. She isn’t playing around. If she applies herself, whatever power is saving me from her Domain is no match. My body begins to melt away just as the Gray tries to get up. I can hear a fiendish voice in my head screaming in frustration. I’m glad that our vocal cords are gone so Suzy doesn’t have to hear me howl. Then there’s a pop as my eardrums explode.

    “Please…don’t go. I don’t want to be alone.”

    The last thing I see is Suzy’s lonely face before the merciful darkness washes away my pain.

    I promise…I’ll come back for you!

    #

    “Hey, you alive?” Yin’s voice never sounded so sweet. This time, I pull back at the last second before our heads clash. We don’t collide quite as hard. Though Suzy’s poison mist was excruciating, I expected it.

    “Mind over matter!” I mutter before the bewildered party in front of me. Looking up, I see Yin’s beautiful brown eyes, and grin. “I’m back.”

    “Back?” She stumbles back in confusion, holding her forehead where a small red bruise is forming. Donovan comes behind her and glares at me suspiciously.

    “He’s wasted! Look at him! Don’t waste your time with this one.” Sternly, he pulls Yin back with him. I already know what comes next. I suppose I have something of a choice now. If I warn them about the zombies, Yin’s party members might survive. But then I’ll have to deal with their betrayal later on. Honestly, it’s starting to make me uncomfortable knowing so much about the future. Like I’m playing God or something. However, as Suzy told me, I have a privilege. And I need to take responsibility.

    In the span of a few seconds, I think it over, all the possibilities, to tell or not to tell, to save or not to save. The answer becomes clear. These bastards, even if it hurts her, Yin is too nice to ever let them go. I feel like scum, or maybe a villain, sentencing them to death, but it has to be done for her sake.

    I don’t say anything as they go.

    “If you need help, just follow the stars! We’re going North!” Yin calls back to me and I shake my head.

    This girl…always the same, always too nice.

    When I save her, I make sure to hide between the buildings until the last possible second. That way there’s no way she can know that I let her friends die. It might sound cruel but it’s necessary. Otherwise, she won’t trust me and she’ll run away again. Everything I do, I do it perfectly, playing the perfect hero, the world’s greatest knight. From how I hold her, the loving way I stroke her hair as she rests, to the care I put in teaching her things which I’ve told her many times already, I make sure it’s all flawless. An act, I’m playing out a script, but I can’t afford to mess up. I already knows what happens if I just try to save her without earning her trust.

    “This time…it’ll be the last time.” I mutter as I cut off Rui’s head so Yin doesn’t have to. Even though this isn’t the first time, I still kind of enjoy it. This hoe has it coming, every time. Hiding my vicious smirk, I guide Yin through everything, putting Crassia to rest, leveling off the Drowned Ghouls, all the way into the town where I make sure not to seem too familiar with the place. Pretending to look for a weapon for Yin, I pick up the replica sword and ask for directions to an abandoned house. When we arrive, I make a big show of looking around. Despite my diligence, Yin seems to sense something is off. As she walks upstairs to take a shower and I eat my sandwich before bed, she stops at the top of the stairs.

    “Hei…are you…okay?” She looks down at me worriedly. Forcing a relaxed smile onto my face, I grin back at her while taking a casual bite out of my sandwich. I’ve had this sandwich so many goddamn times, it’s stopped tasting good. But my smile barely wavers. Everything has to be perfect. Or else she won’t trust me.

    “Yea, everything’s great!” I pretend to yawn, and put a hand over my mouth. “Why wouldn’t I be?” To this, Yin seems to grow a bit suspicious. She squints at me but after a while, gives up.

    “Okay, I just wanted to check. You seemed…stressed is all.” The innocent girl has no idea how hard I’m working to keep this smile on full brightness. Behind my hand, my expression twitches a bit. I remind myself that this part is almost over. Just a little bit more and we can move on. “Well, I’m going to take a shower. If you need anything…I’ll be in my room, so just let me know.”

    “Sure sure.” I wave her off, stuffing the rest of the sandwich in my mouth and closing the door gently behind me. It’s all I can do to keep from slamming it. The goddamn lunch meat has begun to taste rotten and the bread feels like plain cornstarch between my teeth. I spit it out into the trashcan once I hear the shower go on. “Damn…she’s more perceptive than I thought. It’s hard to act like I haven’t done this all before.”

    I flop onto the bed without taking my clothes off and try to relax. The thieves are coming tonight, and as long as I don’t kill them, everything should be alright. I just need to think of what to do after that. Unfortunately, my brain is all jumbled. I’ve been wired all day, just running around and nervously acting like this is all new. A couple times, I almost messed up and did something differently, but it seems like thing’s are mostly okay, even if Yin didn’t say the same thing as the timeline I’m trying to emulate. Though I try to brainstorm possibilities for tomorrow, I can’t think straight right now. When I try to sleep, I can’t do that either. I end up just lying there, tensed up with my hand on my blade, waiting for our visitors.

    *Scritch*

    “Shh…they’ll hear you!” The whisper I’ve been expecting finally comes as the moon rises on high.

    “Whatever, just keep a lookout, they’re definitely sleeping by now. Did you see that babe?” The lockpicker jiggles the lock. “Why she’s staying with such a chimp? Dude’s not even tall!”

    Listening to their voices, I shake my head, rising silently out of bed. The living room is dark and quiet, broken only by the two intruder’s incompetence as they struggle to get the deadbolt open. I take my spot by the door, waiting for them to enter.

    “It’s deadbolted. That’s a problem. These guys sure are cautious!” The lockpicker sighs, reaching into his pocket. “I have a credit card here, maybe I can get it open. Give me a minute.” I remember that’s the cue. A few seconds later, they get the door open. Tensing, I ready my hand on my cleaver. However, much I trust my memories, that surprise rainstorm last time makes me suspect that my previous experiences are not always representative of current timelines. Things can change unexpectedly.

    Yin’s door pops open as they fist-bump.

    “Hei? Is something wrong?” Her cute head peeks out from the door. “KYAA!”

    “Damnit they’re on to us!” The robbers turn around and I smile amusedly from my hiding spot behind the door as I jump out with my butcher in hand. Raising it like I really intend to take their heads off, I wait for Yin to tell me off.

    “Don’t kill them!” She shrieks just on time and I pretend to hesitate as the thieves quickly scurry off. After the last of their footsteps fade into the night, I slam the door and lock the deadbolt. To my surprise, Yin has come downstairs already. I had forgotten how bold she can be when she wants to be. The innocent girl peers at me and the butcher’s knife held in my hand.

    “Are you okay? Thank you for letting them go.” She subconsciously has the unsharpened katana in her hand. A little bit worried that despite my perfect acting, she might run off again, I point at it.

    “Don’t even think about leaving until I sharpen that!” I sternly command. She turns her eyes from me to the sword in confusion for a moment.

    “Leave? Who said anything about leaving?”

    Crap.

    I said something shouldn’t. I forgot that in this timeline she trusts me. Doing my best to cover up my mistake, I just nod.

    “Yup, I mean, if you were thinking of going anywhere, at least let me sharpen the sword first. It’s dangerous out there. Without me, you’d be really screwed, you know?” I say more than is necessary and even in the dark, I can see how suspicious she becomes. Looking down to avoid her eyes, I realize that she’s once again only wearing a skimpy t-shirt which barely covers the top of her thighs. Catching the direction of my gaze, she blushes, but isn’t distracted.

    “Hei, is something wrong? You’re always so…tense.” She breaths heavily, stepping closer. From this close, I can smell her natural scent. After showering a few hours ago, it stirs up my head and makes it hard to concentrate. “Listen, I don’t know who hurt you in the past, or why you feel the need to protect me, but you’re doing a good job! Honest! I really appreciate everything you’ve done. And I’m definitely not leaving anytime soon!”

    “Huh?” I look back into her eyes as she scores a critical hit with her words. “I’m doing a good job?”

    “Of course…what did you think saving me was a bad thing?”

    The damn girl acts shy all the time when I try to get her to kill zombies but right now, she’s playing with my feelings in the palm of her hand.

    “Definitely not!” I blurt out reflexively. She stares hard at me, trying to see into my soul. For a moment, I want to tell her my secret, the reason why I can’t relax around her, all the reasons. But then I remember that horrible pain. I instantly died and worse, that thing took over. If Suzy hadn’t been there to destroy my body I think the world would have had a terrible enemy. “Listen, there are some things I can’t tell you. Some things I’ll never be able to tell you. But can you…just trust me? I’ll always protect you, even if it means I have to die. So just don’t ask too many questions, okay?”

    “Hmm…” Yin stares at me suspiciously for a long time. Then suddenly she grins, “Sure, not a problem. Just don’t go around making that stupid face like you’re thinking of something horrible all the time. Besides, didn’t you say that I’m the one who’s going to be doing all the leveling? Pretty soon, I’ll be protecting you!”

    “Heh, I can’t wait.” I finally smile genuinely, and some of the stress in my heart disappears as Yin laughs. When she does, her t-shirt hugs her chest and rides up a little bit. My heart shivers as I do my best not to look.

    “Well, I’m not a high-level Hunter yet. And there’s perverts trying to break into our house. Plus, this place is creepy, it’s hard to sleep. Why don’t you protect me by keeping watch outside my room? Or maybe…you want to sleep with me tonight?” Yin sticks out her tongue as she teases me. I don’t know what to say. We’ve somehow completely changed the dialogue from last time. Seeing how tongue-tied I am, she laughs, and grabs my elbow. “I’m just kidding! I wouldn’t make you sleep on the couch. Come on, you were so bold, hugging me after you saved me from those zombies. What happened to your confidence?”

    “Uhm…” I can’t do anything but stow my cleaver and let Yin drag me to her room. While I try to maintain my cool on the outside, inside fireworks are going off. It’s finally happening again! She doesn’t hate me anymore! After I close the door, Yin hops into bed under the blankets before I can react. This part, I remember.

    “Aren’t you going to come to bed?” She pats the spot next to her coyly, and I gulp. If anything, this Yin is even more dangerous than the last time I was in her room. However, if she wants to play games with me, who has traveled through time and all manner of hell to get here, she’s in for a rude surprise. I won’t be taken advantage of this time!

    “I’ll just sleep on the floor.” I say smoothly. “We’re in the same room, so I can protect you right?” Then I bend down as if I’m really planning on just spending the night on the ground. Yin tries to hide it but I can see her eyes popping out.

    Gotcha!

    “Y-You’re seriously?” The incredibly beautiful girl is at a loss for words and I smirk as I take off my shoes. There shouldn’t be any threats so I should be okay undressing. “Hey you know the ground is pretty hard, right? I won’t think you’re a weirdo or anything so just sleep here with-“

    “Sure.” I hop onto the bed and into the blankets without giving her a chance to react. Turning away from her, I stare at the wall and try to keep a straight face. For a second, there’s just silence, and all I can hear is Yin’s heavy breathing. Then I can’t hold it anymore and I let out a snicker. Instantly, a cold foot kicks me in the butt.

    “You bastard! You were messing with me!” Yin growls as she tries to knock me off. “Get out of my bed! Scumbag! Lecher!”

    “What? The ground’s too hard! You said it not me!” I give up trying to keep the act up and just laugh. Eventually Yin starts to laugh too-

    “Okay, okay, you win. Here’s your prize.” She whispers. There’s a rustle in the blankets and then a cold arm goes around me. A chilly leg slips in-between mine. I shiver uncontrollable as she wraps herself around me tightly. But in a moment, our bodies begin to warm up together. Her hair tickles the back of my neck as she holds me from behind. “You get to be little spoon tonight. But don’t get used to it! Hopefully you can get some rest tonight. You always shift around at night. Do you have bad dreams?”

    I don’t answer, remembering all the nightmares I’ve begun to have recently. The strain of holding it together, it was really getting to me. Though during the day I’m distracted, when we sleep, my brain can’t stop thinking about it. I guess dying isn’t healthy for your mind. Feeling me tense, Yin harrumphs.

    “Hey! No thinking bad thoughts!” Suddenly a pair of small teeth nibbles at the back of my neck. I squirm uncontrollably. “There, see? Now you’re not thinking about things you shouldn’t. Not that you should be thinking about me either! T-This is a special event, got it? SPECIAL!”

    “Okay…okay!” I give up. She has my back and she’s a high level than me since I had her kill most of the zombies. “No bad dreams tonight. Thank you. I tried to hide it from you, but you’re too good.”

    “That’s right! You can’t hide anything from me, so don’t even try in the future. If you need to talk, I’m right here. Just don’t…go leaving me behind without saying goodbye, either. At least leave a note, okay?” Yin’s voice trembles. At her mention of leaving a note, I stiffen slightly. But then I force myself to relax before she bites me again. I sigh, closing my eyes. Settling into her soft embrace, I let myself relax. Little shivers rock through me and the back of my head tingles as her chest presses against my naked back. “Hei? You wouldn’t go if I was too weak? You’re not that kind of person, right? Even if I’m not the person you think I am, you’d still stay here with me, right?”

    Like an idiot, I don’t think about her words. All I hear is her need. I think I know everything about her already. I don’t even consider what Yin’s really saying.

    “I’ll never leave. Even if it looks like I’m gone, I’ll come back. Every single time, I’ll come back.”

  • Chapter 10: Taking A Girl To Dinner

    When I wake up, my body is so sore it feels like I’ve turned to stone. But every part of me is thrumming with new energy. I guess I’ve been so tense that I haven’t been sleeping properly. But last night I finally relaxed enough to rest. My ears turn red as I remember how Yin held me yesterday.

    “After all that time I spent to make sure my image was perfect!” I sigh, realizing that whatever cool image of me I had managed to create is definitely ruined now. Panic runs through me.

    Don’t tell me this girl ran off again!

    Oh…wait. The shower is running. She’s still here. Come to think of it, this girl definitely showered last night as well. I guess it’s not a bad idea to take advantage of the running water while we have it. Although it’s going to rain later anyways…or is it?

    “Wait, is it going to rain or is it not going to rain? Actually, what time is it?”

    I stick my head out the window and realize that it’s much later than I expected. I slept in all the way until late afternoon. I guess I was more tired than I thought. And yet, there definitely isn’t any sign that it’s rained. Shaking my head, I shrug. There’s no sense worrying about something I can’t change. Getting out of bed, I put on my boots and wait for Yin to finish showering. She blushes when she opens the shower door and sees me outside.

    “H-Hei! I thought you were sleeping!”

    This girl…wasn’t she acting super coy last night? We spent it cuddling like two pretzels in a box and now she’s shy again?

    Looking away, I wave her away with an amused expression.

    “Come on! We’re late, there’s hunting to be done.”

    “We’re only late because you wouldn’t wake up, sleepyhead!” She complains but quickly goes into the room to change. By the time she comes out, I’ve thought up of a plan. Everything in my head is a lot clearer now that I’m rested. I think I know what we need to do. Yin comes out fully dressed, knotting her hair into a ponytail. “What’s the plan?”

    “Follow me.”

    Outside of town, I glance at the sky once more. Yup, there’s no sign of rainclouds. Whatever happened last time was a freak occurrence. That means this time should follow the original timeline. At least, I think it will.

    Frowning, I beckon Yin onto the path.

    Assuming nothing’s changed, I’m aware that going directly to the Corrupted Bear’s den will probably trigger an attack by the infected wolves which we can’t survive yet. In that case, I should go and find those Drowned Ghouls again. I’ll level myself to Lvl. 5 first to ensure that I’m strong enough to protect Yin. Then we’ll show those damn things who’s boss.

    Nodding to myself, I sharpen Yin’s blade with a rock from the river.

    “Okay, listen to me, if I’m ever bitten, you have to promise me that you’ll finish me off. No hesitation, no buts, just do it. Or else I’ll come after you when I turn.” I say solemnly to Yin before beginning. “You won’t want to do it, but it’s life or death. Once bitten, we are just dead men walking. Trust me, it would be a mercy to kill us before the virus takes over. Understand?”

    “Got it.” Yin bites her lips at my words. I know she probably will hesitate just like the last couple times, if it comes down to it, but that’s okay. That’s part of who she is and I need to accept that until she grows more experienced. It was unfair of me to expect someone as innocent as her to match up to my ruthless experience from two lives. Well, more than two lives now.

    “I’m going. Hold onto this and watch carefully. Also, if you hear anything behind you, run to me.” I toss my cleaver to her and she hurriedly reaches out to catch it. As she juggles the thick blade awkwardly between her hands, I smile, flourishing her katana a few times. “Let me show you what real zombie-killing is like!”

    Just like that, I run down to the river shore and chuck the rock I was using to sharpen her sword. It’s not a great stone, but I’m confident in my arm.

    *Plonk*

    *Plonk*

    I don’t count how many skips it is this time, but it’s enough.

    Can’t remember how many Drowned Souls came out before. Surely it was about this many?

    Dancing down to the water’s edge, I wait for the bloated things to swim close and jump out. With a sword, I truly become more than just a butcher. The extra reach makes me a Death God. Swinging wildly, I take my time, accentuating some movements unnecessarily just so Yin can get a good look. It’s not long before all but three of the undead lie dead on the shore.

    Congratulations, you are now Lvl. 5.

    Once I see the system message I immediately stop and leap backwards, flipping through the air. Yin gasps excitedly as I land beside her like some sort of insane circus acrobat. Extending the sword, I swish the blood off and turn the blade around, presenting the handle to her.

    “Your turn.” I say. Yin looks between me and the remaining three Drowned Souls. However, she’s already taken out two of them with my help before. Something about my performance has excited her. The pale cheeks are flushed, and her hands shake slightly but not from fear, nervousness perhaps.

    “I’ll be able to do that too when I hit Lvl. 5?” She asks breathlessly. I nod, though I can’t resist adding.

    “Well, you’ll be much stronger physically. And the System Skills will assist you, but you’ll still need to train to get to where I’m at…” I start to explain but she’s already taken the sword and started running towards the undead. “Wait hold on, let me help!”

    “Hurry up!” She calls back and I can only shake my head while chasing her heels. Damn, I really can’t read this girl. One second, she’s afraid, the next, she’s running into danger. A few minutes later, with the help of a few of my carefully placed kicks, Yin has dispatched the Drowned Souls. Their blood soaks into the ground and makes the river water turn murky. She seems almost disappointed. “Only Lvl. 4. Darn!”

    “Relax. It takes a lot more experience to hit each successive level. But I already told you, I know how to get you a lot of it. Once you hit a higher level and we have the correct equipment I’ll show you a way to level no one else knows about.” I grin, thinking back to a conversation we had while I was sharpening the sword. After we clear out the Corrupted Bear and deal with the infected wolves it will be time to leave this area. But I intend to go and say goodbye to Suzy before we go. I wonder if she’s watching us with that mirror of hers. I hope she’s not feeling too lonely. Under my breath, I whisper even though I know it’s ridiculous to imagine the lonely girl can hear me. “Just hold on a little longer…”

    “What? Did you say something?” Yin ask me suspiciously. I wave her off.

    “Nothing, nothing! Okay, now that I’m Lvl. 5, I’m confident we can do this if you follow my instructions. But remember, you have to listen! One mistake will cost you your life!” Squinting dangerously at the beautiful girl, I make sure Yin is taking me seriously. It’s hard to believe that the same girl who was afraid to take on a single zombie is now looking forward to hunting. When I first discovered the power of Hunters, I remember experiencing a similar feeling. It’s too bad I’ve already found out the true price of growing strong. Still, it’s nice to show off now and then.

    I take Yin and begin to hack off numerous small trees.

    This time, I’m not just going to fashion one spear. I’m going to make an arsenal.

    Once I’ve created about a dozen of them, and even hardened their tips in fire, I grin devilishly. Looking at the sky, it’s already dark.

    The bear should be done returning to its den. If my timing isn’t off this should work…

    “Okay, let’s go!” Heaping the spears into Yin’s arms, I set a course for the bear’s den. Yin looks disgruntled and a little embarrassed to be walking around with a bunch of wooden spears, but I only take three of them, leaving the rest to her. After all, I need to keep my hands free in case the wolves don’t take the route I expect. Ignoring her annoyed cries, I get us nice and close to our target, making sure we’re downwind. While I might have the passive skill, Basic Scent Reduction, Yin most certainly does not. She smells amazing to me so I assume to the beasts we’re hunting she probably smells like a three-course gourmet meal and I’m not eager for them to find out we’re here yet. Suddenly, the sounds of snarling and baying wolves comes from ahead of us. “Perfect. We’re right on time!”

    “What is that?” Yin asks confusedly. I put a finger to my lips and wave her forwards with me. As we peer around a thick tree, the den comes into view.

    “Dinner.” I chuckle. The Corrupted Bear is fighting the infected wolves. Already, there are several chunks torn in its flanks and one of the bear’s massive paws is dragging limply. Three of the pack’s number lay still on the ground, whining for help. The battle is fierce and exactly what I hoped for. I stab the three spears I’m carrying butt-first into the dirt with my Lvl. 5 strength. That way Yin has something to retreat behind if the wolves target her. “Bring a couple of those with you, it’s a buffet tonight!”

    “Oh…” Yin catches on quickly to my plan. We watch as the Corrupted Bear and the wolfpack clash over and over. Gradually, even the titan-like beast begins to tire. However, many wolves have fallen as well.

    Now is the time.

    “KILL!” I whisper to her and charge down to the den quietly. Yin follows behind awkwardly carrying a spear in each hand. We reach the first of the downed wolves. It’s just barely alive, a trickle of red blood dripping down its quivering jaws. Pointing at it, with the katana, I mime stabbing it. Yin looks somewhat appalled to kill it, but quickly takes a spear and rams it into the dying wolf’s eye!

    “AWOOOO!” It howls before jerking still as she penetrates its brain. Instantly, the other members of the pack perk up when they realize someone else has joined the fight. However, the Corrupted Bear is too enraged to care and occupies their entire attention. Just like that, we make our first kill uncontested. Then I drag Yin over to the next fallen wolf.

    *Puchi*

    And the next-

    *Puchi*

    *Puchi*

    We finish off every one still alive. Although a few are already dead, I have Yin stab them anyways to make sure they don’t reanimate since they’re infected. Though it’s grim work, the rewards are also great. The beautiful girl pumps her spear in the air as she hits Lvl. 5!

    “Wooow!” Yin’s eyes go crazy as she no doubt is trying to read all the status changes and system explanations for what’s happening. However, I’m not done here. I intend to get her as strong as possible before we have to leave this forest!

    “Come on! This isn’t over!” I pull her to another dying wolf which yips in alarm but cannot escape because two of its legs have been crushed. Seeing its fear, a deep sense of satisfaction spreads through me. “Yea…that’s right. You screwed me so many times…how does it feel to become someone’s xp!”

  • Chapter 11: I Will Break The Limit

    “Hei?” Yin is confused by my sudden hatred but finishes it off regardless. Now there are no more dead wolves. Just living ones which have begun to circle the Corrupted Bear while eyeing us warily. They’re too scared to attack anymore. I pull Yin back to the fence of spears I planted up on the hill as the wolves abandon their prey and turn on us.

    “AWWOOOO!!” The lead wolf howls and the last five beasts charge us. Hiding behind our spear wall, I grab the prepared weapons on the ground and begin lobbing them at the enemy! My strength as a Lvl. 5 Hunter cannot be compared to before. The Basic Combat System Skill means that my aim is inhuman and I make sure not to target their skulls…I want them alive for Yin to finish!

    “Take that!” I yell out, enjoying each painful whine as they fall. “Eat this!”

    “Hei? You’re scaring me…” Yin surveys the damage while blushing. “I-Is this really okay?” Despite all that these things have done to her, she remembers nothing. Only I can remember the pain on her face, the way her body broke under their teeth. My revenge is for both of us but only I get to enjoy it. Even still, I intend to make sure they pay a bitter price!

    “Hahaha!” I laugh as the last wolf falls just beyond the edge of our spears. Five wolves, including the pack leader lie pinned to the ground by my accurate throws. Ripping the last spears from the dirt, I hand one to Yin. “Finish them off. They’re worth a lot of xp.”

    “What about that thing?” Yin stares with undisguised fear towards the massive Corrupted Bear. Despite the terrible wounds inflicted on it, it’s managed to drag its broken body towards us and is struggling to climb up the slope towards us. I heft a spear in each hand. “Heavens…it’s huge!”

    “Don’t worry, it’s all yours too.” I toss the spears one after another, aiming for the bear’s shoulders. Even with the system’s aim assist, the thing manages to lunge forwards and I fail to incapacitate it. Squinting, I remember how deadly it was in the past and how hard it was to kill. I take out my cleaver. “Actually, hold on. This one’s mine!”

    Dashing forwards, I see Yin sprinting to finish off the wolves in the corner of my eye. The wild thrill of battle hums in my veins. It all went perfectly. For once, no one’s hurt. I barely have a scratch on me, and Yin’s safe. She’s finally hit Lvl. 5. All that’s left is to put this stupid bear down!

    *GRAWWWRRR!!*

    It roars at me, and tries to swipe when I come into range. But I’m Lvl. 5 now, it isn’t so easy to catch me! Whirling to my right because its left paw has been impaled by a spear, I duck around it and then vault up into the sky!

    “This time.” I growl back at it, swinging my cleaver as I spin around in the air, “No one can save you!”

    *Thunk*

    My cleaver buries into the meaty neck of the bear with a squishing noise. Instantly the hulking beast drops into the dirt. But I’m not taking any chances. I know how tough this thing is from experience. Letting go of my cleaver, I jump up again and send a spinning axe kick onto the handle. On the way down, I see my reflection in the beast’s milky white eyes. A black blur crashes down towards its neck.

    *Squelch*

    The whole, giant, head of the bear falls to the ground. Corrupted black blood spews from the hole and I hastily grab my cleaver before it falls into the puddle. Jumping off, I brush my hands off. In the corner of my eye, I see that I’m most of the ways to Lvl. 7 now. Behind me, Yin is standing by the corpse of the wolfpack leader. There’s a spear in its eye. Her mouth is open.

    “Hei…you’re a beast. Have I ever told you that?” She says with a slightly nervous smile as I stride over. Looking at the corpses of the infected wolves, I try to decide if they’re edible. However, it’s still early in the Calamity. I’m not a hundred percent sure the levels of virus on them are low enough yet. “If only Donovan hadn’t been such a prick, he probably would still be alive right now…”

    “Sorry.” I mutter reflexively. Yin gives me a strange look but doesn’t suspect anything.

    “Not your fault. Those guys just weren’t lucky enough I suppose.” She quickly reins in her sadness after a moment. “Thank you, Hei. This is a lot to take in, and I don’t know why you’re so nice to me, but thank you so much. I hope to repay you one day.”

    “You already did…” I mutter under my breath quietly, thinking back to all the times Yin’s tried to save me despite facing terrifying enemies. “Alright, let’s not worry about butchering the meat yet. What level are you?”

    “The m-meat?” Yin looks at me confusedly for a second. “Um, Lvl. 9.”

    “Not bad. The system probably awarded less experience since the bear wounded all those wolves first, but you’re a lot higher level than me now. I’ll tell you what to do with those stat points later. Come on, there’s somewhere I want to go tonight.”

    I lead Yin away from the Corrupted Bear’s den.

    It’s been a successful mission for sure.

    My blood is still pounding from finally beating those bastards.

    At this point in the Calamity, there shouldn’t be anything stronger in this area, so we should be safe for tonight if we don’t actively go out of our way to find undead.

    Basically, it’s like we’ve beaten the local bully and now we control his territory. That’ll change soon as new undead are reanimated and stronger things mutate but I’m satisfied.

    It’s time to move on. There’s just one place I want to go first.

    #

    Outside Suzy’s sepulchre, I stare at the endless fields of white bones lying in the leaves. Yin gazes out at the skeletons with her mouth open in a soundless gasp. Seeing her shock, I just nod at her and close my eyes, remembering the person inside who convinced me what it meant to be alive. To fight for Yin regardless of the pain. A tear comes to my eyes and I’m about to wipe it away when another blossoms.

    She must be so lonely in there…

    “I’m sorry I can’t come and talk to you now.” I call out into the woods. Somewhere inside, Suzy is in there. I wonder if she’s sleeping, or if she’s awake and she’s heard my voice.

    Naturally, she doesn’t know who I am, but I like to think she’ll understand that I’m a friend. Yin looks away, giving me some privacy. The perceptive girl seems to have picked up on something even if I don’t tell her why I’m here.

    “Listen, it may be a little bit, but hang on. I’ve decided…I’m going to break the limit! I’ll find out how to get someone to Lvl. 100, and when I do, I’ll bring them here…and help you destroy this cage! So, don’t be sad! You won’t be alone forever! Just hold on a little bit longer and watch me and Yin through that mirror of yours! I promise you, one day soon, I will come back for you!”

    *Shuuuaaaaa*

    The wind blows suddenly, and the bones rattle peacefully on the ground as my words echo into the sepulchre. I add one last thing under my breath so Yin can't hear.

    "I know you can see it. The thing inside of me. I'm counting on you, Suzy. If I die and it comes out, you have to help stop it. No matter the cost, trust me..."

    Having said my piece, I wipe the tears from my cheeks and turn to go. Yin walks beside me, leaning her head onto my shoulder and holding my arm, offering her silent support. All the way back until we make it to the river, she lets me think. By the time I see the gently burbling water, and the clear sky, I’ve calmed down. Grabbing Yin’s hand, I prepare to finally leave this forest behind.

    “You sure you’re ready to go?” Yin asks with concern in her eyes. I nod quietly, swallowing as she squeezes my hand in hers. Taking the first step, I smile, feeling like a great weight has left my shoulders.

    “I’ll be back.”

  • Chapter 12: Now You Want My Woman?

    We leave behind the first town and Suzy’s sepulchre to wander to the next area. Our goal is the city which is not too far away.

    “Teindas City…it’s in the North, I remember that much.” I recount what little I remember of the city we’re traveling towards. However, my knowledge is limited because I never visited in person. I feel like there was some reason for that, but it’s been so long that I can’t remember. Yin taps me on the shoulder, and pretends she didn’t do it when I turn to look. “I wonder if it had a Heavenly Mandate?”

    “What’s wrong?” The pretty girl hides her hands behind her back as I give her a look.

    “Nothing. Just can’t shake a bad feeling. Like there’s something I should remember about Tiendas.” I say quietly, while still thinking. Yin seems disappointed that I don’t want to play more. Dashing ahead, she skips along the path, inspecting the flowers every now and then.

    “You’ve never been there before? I still remember the skyscrapers. My cousins live in Tiendas. Or…at least, they did. Before all this happened. I hope they’re alright.” She stops talking as she thinks about the odds. It’s a grim realization every time and it never gets better. Things are never going back to the way they were and the people who are gone are never coming back. “Anyways, maybe we can find them if we get the chance.”

    “Maybe…Tiendas is big enough to get a Heavenly Mandate so it should be able to avoid being completely overrun by the undead.” I’m on autopilot, saying more than I should. Still can’t figure out why the name seems so familiar though. I went West, instead of North and never looked back. There was definitely something about Tiendas…

    “Heavenly Mandate?” Yin seizes onto my mistake immediately. The bored girl looks back and for a moment her oval tilted face by the blooming violets is almost enough to stop my heart. It’s like a painting!

    Oh…my…god.

    Shaking off the critical hit she just inflicted, I resume walking.

    “You see how the flowers are slightly off?” I ask. At my words, Yin leans down and sniffs at the pretty flowers.

    “What do you mean…AH!” She quickly ducks away from the petals which have begun to drift against the wind, as if the flower has a mind of its own. Regaining her calm, she throws me a dirty look as I begin to snicker.

    “That’s payback.” I mutter, feeling satisfied.

    “What?”

    “Nothing. Anyways, pretty much all the wildlife is starting to be exposed to the virus at a microscopic level. Our world is transforming. I don’t know how much you remember, but these flowers are a perfect example. They’re changing, mutating. Soon there will be a lot of dangerous creatures everywhere, though some places will be far more dangerous than others. A Heavenly Mandate is something you can purchase with System Coins. It allows you to permanently designate a large area as a no-go zone for most things afflicted by the virus. Including undead.” I explain. “Towns use a smaller scale version, but that isn’t efficient on a city. The only problem is, Heavenly Mandates are extremely expensive. And they require constant maintenance or else the system will take them back. It usually takes a coordinated effort from multiple parties to even consider buying one.”

    “Huh, so it’s like we have to…pay rent?” Yin grimaces unhappily. I wonder what exactly her background was before the Calamity. An unemployed NEET? Or maybe she worked some sort of part time job? She never talks about it. “God sure is stingy! I thought at least now that the world has gone to hell we might not have to deal with this kind of crap.”

    “Yep. Definitely a NEET.” I mutter under my breath. When I see the way her eyes narrow I quickly hurry to correct myself. “Um, I wouldn’t say God, though maybe that’s who is responsible. All I know is that the System has rules and that’s how it is.”

    “Uhuh.” The irritated girl unsheathes her katana and draws a cool pose before slicing a violet in half. As the brightly colored flower stalk falls to the ground, I see little tendrils of fluid quivering inside the severed stem, as if trying to pull itself back together. “Eke! This is s-o-o-o creepy! I guess no one’s going to be buying flowers anymore!”

    “Wait till you see the dragons…” I say while walking past her. She abandons the flower with a squeal and runs alongside me.

    “W-Wait? Did you just say dragons? I definitely misheard! No way they’re real!” Yin nervously glances at the sky as if the shadow of a flying reptile might cross over at any time. “Hei? Comeon, Hei! You were joking right?”

    “S-u-r-e.”

    “I hate you.”

    We continue along like this for some time. Gradually, the trees begin to thin out, and we come to more open grassy hills which roll along for many meters. Green grass has turned somewhat violet due to streaks of blue and purple corruption running through some patches. Yin is a bit hesitant to step on it, but I don’t mind.

    Everything is weird at the beginning of the Calamity.

    “Better get used to it.” I survey the vast swathes of land with a sense of familiarity. The girl at my side quickly grabs my forearms and clenches her jaw.

    “I’m not scared.” She says resolutely. Walking out, we enter the grasslands. The verdant stalks part before our feet, revealing the corruption beneath. It feels almost like it’s dyed because it’s such an unnatural color. To be honest, I get the feeling I’m walking on a strangely filtered version of a certain famous screensaver. Up above, the sky at least remains steadily blue. Not a trace of a cloud in sight. It really makes me wonder why it rained in that one timeline.

    Suddenly, I spot something in the distance. A faint blur of color on the top of one of the hills. There’s an unbelievable sight going on before our eyes.

    “Is that…?” I can’t help saying it. Yin spots it a moment later and lets out a little gasp of confusion as well.

    “No…no way!” She refutes my statement though the truth is before both our eyes. Watching her cute face furrow, I have to admit, unless we’re both caught in some sort of hallucination, there’s only one explanation for this.

    It’s real.

    “Want to help?” I ask, but Yin is already running. I curse because her speed in a straight line is faster than mine. Hurrying to catch up, I watch as she quickly draws the katana and runs straight in at the long congo line of Fresh Undead chasing a sleek orange cat across the hilltop. “Hold up!” I call, but the darn girl has become exceedingly willful. It would seem that seeing a cute creature such as a cat in danger has triggered her maternal instincts. Unable to reach in time, I can only hold up my hands and watch as she dashes towards the “enemy”.

    To be fair, I’m not really worried.

    There are about eight Fresh Undead, all stumbling in a bizarre line after the cat which has an aggrieved expression on its face, as if bemoaning its luck. Yin hurries to intercept the undead, and I trust her to handle it on her own. After all, she’s Lvl. 9 now. With the stat increase, Fresh Undead in a wide-open hill like this should be no problem.

    “Mmm…let’s do this then!” I dash off at an angle, ignoring the undead. Instead, my target is…the path of the ginger cat! Knowing what felines are like when scared, I expect it to run away, but instead, it seems to sense me coming. Glancing over its furry shoulder, the cute triangular face meows plaintively for help and it quickly turns to run towards me. “Huh, you’re awfully smart. That’s right, daddy will protect you. Come on, this way!”

    I click my tongue as the cat practically bounces on the grass. It’s exceedingly fast, and extremely cute, a big bundle of fur. Within seconds, it reaches me while Yin has just managed to intercept the undead. I bend down to greet the cat only to fall backwards as it unexpectedly leaps into my arms.

    *Whump*

    “Jeez, you’re heavy!” I feel all the breath in my lungs whoosh out from me. The cat doesn’t seem that overweight but it hits me with the force of a brick. Instantly, a thick, deep purring vibrates through my ribs into my whole body. “No offense but are cats supposed to be this heavy?”

    “Hei!” Over at the side I see Yin prancing about dealing with the Fresh Undead. Her movements are too overexaggerated and there’s still a lot of wasted movement, but the fundamentals of footwork and weight transfer are…technically present. It’ll get better when she unlocks Basic Combat. Unfortunately, without my prior lifetime’s worth of experience that’s taking a lot longer than I expected. I suppose I was spoiled with all the combat training I received as a fighter growing up. “Aww! It’s so cute, let me hold it too!”

    “Finish the undead first!” I say, while grabbing the cat on my chest in both hands. Holding it up under its arms, I examine it closely. It really is unusually heavy, if I wasn’t a Hunter, I would struggle to lift it easily. “Now where’d you come from? How’d you manage to piss off so many undead huh?”

    “Mrow!”

    The cat opens its mouth, irritated at my actions. Putting it on the ground beside me, I stand up and start brushing grass off me. As I do, I notice that the cat has left dirty pawprints on my coat.

    “Hey! Didn’t your owner teach you not to make a mess?” I reprimand it fiercely while slapping at the marks it left. The cat just licks its paw as if to say, whatever. Then I see something strange. There’s a message in the corner of my vision. It’s from the System.

    This cat is tameable. Would you like to make it your familiar?

    “What? I just met this furball!” I’m shocked. Generally, it takes a large amount of time to get close enough to an animal to tame it. Additionally, they usually have to have exceptional intelligence and have traces of the virus in their system. Picking up the cat, I ignore its protests while flipping it over and checking every spot of its fur. Despite its brilliant different colored eyes, one blue and one emerald green, it doesn’t seem unusual whatsoever. Just a normal, sleek, ginger cat that’s oddly heavy for its size. “You’re not even corrupted in the slightest! How are you available for taming?”

    “Mrow…?”

    The cat tilts its head happily, batting at my coat lapels. Shaking my head, I move to put it down. It lays in the grass, rolling around like a child. Examining the taming message some more, I remember what little I know about familiars. Unless you have the special skill of tamer, you can only have one of them as I recall. Additionally, if they die, you can’t replace them unless you’re a tamer, so it’s a pretty big decision.

    “Heh…as if I’d pick an ordinary cat.” My finger hovers over the decline taming button as a sneer goes on my face.

    “What’s going on?”

    I jump as Yin appears behind me. She swishes her bloody blade and wipes it in the grass, evidently done killing undead. Concealing my annoyance, I sigh in relief as I see the window still open.

    “Whew, for a second there I almost accepted by accident.” Turning back to face Yin over my shoulder, I don’t notice the cat has stopped rolling in the grass. “This furball here is weird. Go ahead, pick it up, it’s like a brick!”

    *Chomp*

    Suddenly something bites my hand while I’m looking away and then I feel a pressure pushing my finger down. Whipping around, I see the ginger cat shoving my finger into the ground.

    “Wait! What are you doing?” I yell in frustration, right as a brand-new message appears.

    Congratulations! You have tamed…a Lvl. 3 cat! Number of familiar spots remaining is now 0.

    “Hei?” Yin asks confused as I rip my finger out of the cat’s mouth and howl in frustration.

    “I-It actually did it! It freaking made me tame it!” I dance around, sticking my finger in my mouth and sucking on it while staring daggers at the cat. “Don’t think I’m going to feed you because you forced me into this!”

    “Forced? What?” Yin asks confused as I chase the damn thing around. “Stop chasing it! You’re scaring it!”

    “This thing just took my only familiar spot!” I growl. “I wasn’t planning on getting a pet until Lvl. 60! I knew the perfect goddamn one too, the exotic Azure Dragon in Lushlake! GODDAMNIT CMERE YOU LITTLE!” Infuriatingly, the cat suddenly remembers how to run away and springs around just out of reach. It might be my imagination but it almost seems a bit smug as it avoids my grasp. “How are you even Lvl. 3! You’re a regular cat, how did you manage to level up!”

    “Pfft…” Watching me fail to catch it, Yin can’t resist laughing. She opens her arms and the cat quickly changes directions, sensing a safe refuge. It leaps inside, snuggling against her bosom before my eyes.

    Oh no you don’t! First you steal my familiar slot and now you want my woman?!

  • Chapter 13: Death Trap

    “Over my dead body!” I growl, but now Yin’s running with it in her arms and she’s three levels higher than me so I have no chance of catching up. We make an odd picture, a laughing girl holding a ginger cat and an angry boy waving a meat cleaver dashing across the violet-streaked hilltops. No one would suspect that we were Hunters in that moment. Gradually, the sky begins to darken and I calm down a bit. “Okay! Okay! Truce, the sun’s going down!”

    “No tricks! Or I’ll chop your head off!” Yin wheels around, brandishing her katana threateningly. I raise an eyebrow, feeling like my pride as a man is being challenged. This girl…thinks she can take me on already? However, the night is coming, and now that we’re outside the forest in the open, it really will be getting more dangerous.

    “Fine!” I put my cleaver away. Yin allows me to catch up, we’re both breathing heavy, our faces flushed. “You know, it’s my familiar. I’m technically it’s owner according to the System, so you shouldn’t interfere in our relationship. Regardless, on account of the time, I’ll let you off this one time.” I reach out to pat the cat on its forehead. It observes me warily, tucked under one of Yin’s arms. Surprisingly, it doesn’t attack.

    “If you’re the owner, then you shouldn’t abuse it or get angry. Now explain this familiar business!” Yin says and I walk with her quietly, seeking some shelter while night falls. Unbeknownst to her, when she looks away, the cat and I lock eyes. Silently, I communicate to it and I like to think it understands.

    This isn’t over…furball.

    However, it ignores me completely, licking its paw again. Ugh, I really thought this thing was cute earlier? It’s the goddamn devil. And now I don’t have a familiar slot anymore. Although I suppose I can always give Yin the Azure Drake in a few years. Damnit though, really, what am I supposed to do with this useless cat in the middle of the Calamity? Shaking my head, I sigh.

    “Maybe it’ll run off on its own…”

    “What did you just say!”

    #

    The night is eerie silent in the grassy hills. Occasionally the wind blows and the whole place rustles quietly. Yin rests in my arms, snoozing gently, the cat cradled in hers. I look at them fondly, wondering how I ended up here. One moment I was undergoing grueling training with the strongest party, the next I was taking care of this little girl. I don’t have many complaints, despite the change. Though I’ve been driven to the brink of insanity many times, watching Yin sleep right now, feeling her in-between my arms, it almost seems like it was worth it. No one knows my name in this world except her.

    But that’s all I need.

    *Shua*

    A shrill howl sweeps through the place and Yin snuggles deeper into me as the cold wind reaches her face. She sniffs, and I stare out into the darkness, keeping watch.

    Who knows how many nights I spent looking out into the cold like this in my past life?

    Yin doesn’t know it yet, because she doesn’t have to, but while a Hunter needs to rest his muscles, sleep is not strictly necessary, except every once in a while. Obviously, performance will begin to degrade, and before a dangerous hunt, it’s always best to get as much as you can, but the higher level you become, the longer you can go without properly resting.

    Let's let her enjoy sleeping peacefully a little longer.

    In the forest, I wasn’t too worried about sleeping. With the trees hiding us, nothing was likely to come upon us. But now, out in the open hills, I’m a little worried. It’s worth it to keep watch, if only for beginning of the night when the undead are most active.

    “Mmm…wuv…” Yin squeezes the ginger cat harder in her arms and I hear it chuff quietly. Overlooking the darkness, I wonder what exactly the end of this adventure will look like. Everything seems to be going well, finally. She’s growing stronger, I’m keeping my level below hers. If things get out of hand, she’ll be able to keep my zombie from ravaging the world at least. Of course, I’ve seen in the past how much trouble she has actually stopping me. Hopefully she won’t need to test her resolve again anytime soon, but the possibility is always there.

    *Swish*

    The moon shines down brightly. As the Calamity continues to come, it will only grow larger. Already, it seems almost bigger than the sun, this great, shining thing in the darkness. It gives us light, but also let’s us know the true terror we face in this world of sin. I shudder to think of the Hunter Killers which will appear in the coming months. Already, the secret is beginning to spread as more and more people understand the true nature of the game. I’ve protected Yin from it so far, but I doubt I can keep it from her much longer. This world…one might think it is humanity’s last stand against the undead. They’d be right, in a way. But also, dead wrong. In truth, the worst enemy of people has always been other people. Such is the nature of our darkness.

    *Flicker*

    Something dances along the edges of my peripheral vision. Little splashes of light which illuminate the rolling hilltops. My heart grows cold, and I sit up. Pushing away Yin’s hand, and ignoring her sleepy protests, I stand up, keeping my head low as I survey the adjacent hilltop. Something’s out there, just beyond the top of the grass.

    *Flash*

    *Whoosh*

    Another small burst of light followed by a spreading wind which goes against the breeze. Now I’m certain. Someone is fighting over there. And either they’re using explosives which are in limited supply, or they’re using a System Skill. I draw my cleaver, while peering into the darkness.

    “Who are you…” I whisper, wondering who has managed to acquire a System Skill like that so early in the Calamity. Honestly, with my knowledge I’d expect Yin at Lvl. 9 to be one of the highest-level people in the country right now. But even she hasn’t managed to find a System Skill yet. Whoever is out there isn’t ordinary. Worse, I don’t know what they’re fighting. I’ve never been through this area before in my past lives, but by my calculations it should be reasonably safe. Yet something out there has forced a powerful Hunter to resort to their System Skill tonight. “Should I investigate?”

    Briefly, I consider going over and seeing who it is. However, one look at the sleeping Yin and cat beneath my feet and I discard the idea. I’m only Lvl. 7. I can no longer blithely wander into forbidden zones and expect to survive. This is not Hei the Black Butcher, but Hei the teacher. Shaking my head, I sit back down, though I continue to watch into the distance as the flashing lights grow fainter. After some time, they completely wink out and I put my head down uneasily.

    “Tiendas City…why do I remember so little about such a place? I went West early on, but why does it feel like it doesn’t even exist in my memories.”

    The strange light show finishes and the grassy hills are dark again. But I have a bad feeling this won’t end so easily. Who could it have been? There was honestly too much going on for me to believe one low level Hunter caused it all. Does that mean two Hunters with System Skills were fighting? If there was, I should know of them, they would have become famous in my last life. And yet somehow I’m sure I never heard of anyone with System Skills until probably a week or two later than this.

    *BOOM*

    “W-What was that? Hei?” Yin wakes up abruptly. She slept through the small explosions earlier, but this one is on a different scale. It feels like an earthquake is shaking the entire world. Zombies, Corrupted Bears, other Hunters? Right now, none of that compares to what is happening before us. The sun hasn’t even risen yet but somehow the world has already lit up. “Oh…my…god…!”

    “Damn. The System actually…?” My voice drops as I realize vaguely what I’m seeing. “This is impossible. Or rather…extremely unlikely. I should have heard about it before if this is the case. How can this be?”

    “You know what this is?” The poor girl is terrified. Out over the grassy plains, in the direction we are traveling, somewhere in the distance, a vast pillar of blinding light has shot down from the sky. It is like the heavens themselves have opened up to unleash an unholy reckoning on the mortal earth. A great churning beam, pure light with shivering magical circles surrounding it, drills into the ground for a solid ten minutes. Every single thing around for over a hundred kilometers must be able to see it. Hell, people across the ocean are probably wondering what god has descended to earth. Finally, after what seems an eternity, our poor strained eyes are given a rest as the light wanes and the beam cuts off, fading into the night. All that’s left once its gone is a faint burned image in our retinas…a reminder of the greater powers above. “Hei, that…that can’t be…God?”

    “Check your notifications.” I murmur, already knowing that the message will be in our inboxes. A few seconds later, Yin gasps and reads it out loud.

    “Mandatory System Event! Citywide Secret Dungeon Has Been Discovered! No Level Restriction, All Hunters Must Participate!” She frowns, a hint of fear entering her face. “Mandatory System Event? Hei, is this dangerous?”

    “Extremely.” I say quietly. “Damn. DAMN! Not good! Not good at all!” I look into the horizon, towards Tiendas City. A red number appears, with our current distance and a timer. “CRAP! I should have known!”

    Mandatory System Event In 23:58:34.

    Please Arrive At The Designated Starting Point Or Suffer System Punishment.

  • Chapter 14: System Announcement

    “W-What? Known what? Hei, I don’t understand! You’re not making any sense!” Yin seems to pick up on my rising panic. “What’s happening?!”

    “Mandatory System Events will brutally punish those who don’t participate. However, this is a Citywide Secret Dungeon. At our level, it shouldn’t appear. Ugh…it all makes sense now why I don’t remember this city. Listen...” Suddenly, I stop talking. Wait, I have a way out of this. What if I just killed myself right here and now? I’d have to go back…do everything over again. It would be awful after coming so far. But I don’t know if I even have a choice. I mean, we’ve essentially entered a dead end!

    Seeing her scared eyes, it’s obvious I can’t tell Yin what I know. It’d only freak her out.

    “Hello? Hei?” Yin asks, darting in front of my face while holding the ginger cat in her arms. It hisses, still staring at the place where the pillar of light disappeared. Thinking it over, I make my choice. I’ll go inside and check it out. Maybe it won’t be as bad as I think. It’s better than just giving up and resetting. Who knows if I’d even come back? Or if I’d make another mistake when falling on my blade and accidentally set my zombie on the world? No, it’s safer to keep living until the end.

    “System Punishments are basically death traps. The survival rate is so low it’s usually not measured in whole percentages. We’ll need to participate in the dungeon to avoid the punishment. There’s no knowing the difficulty of this System Event unless we check it out.” I explain robotically, trying to keep Yin from hearing my inner turmoil. She can’t know the truth. There’s no way anyone could think straight if they knew.

    “I…see. And the odds of surviving are greater for System Events than System Punishments, usually?” She asks, some of the fear leaving her face. I gulp, hiding my expression behind a hand as I nod.

    “Y-Yea. Usually…the System wants you to participate.” I say, and then start walking. “Come on, we need to get there before the timer runs out. Every Hunter in the area is going to be heading to Tiendas City. As a matter of fact, if I’m not mistaken, even regular people who enter the area of a Mandatory System Event will be automatically promoted to a Lvl. 1 Hunter. So it’s going to be crowded. We better hurry!”

    “Ah! Wow, that’s crazy.” Yin bites her lip, struggling to keep up with me as I take big steps to hide the indecision in my heart. Did I make the right call? Do I even want to know what this Mandatory System Event will do to us? Can I bear to let go of this future we’ve finally made together? “Hei, are you…okay? Your shoulders are rolled up and you look so tense again, you’re not hiding something from me, are you?”

    “My secrets are mine, Yin.” The words I say to cover up my indecision are harsh. I can hear Yin’s breath catch and while I’m pretty sure there might be tears in her eyes right now, I don’t dare look back to see. This Yin is starting to know me too well.

    She might figure out the truth from my face.

    The thing is…Tiendas City, now I remember it slightly. In my memories, it’s nothing. A ruined place full of the dead and not much else. There’s no mention of a Mandatory System Event, or a Citywide Secret Dungeon. As a matter of fact, according to the official records, the first Citywide Secret Dungeon didn’t appear until someone hit Lvl. 35. Which can only mean one of two things.

    One, if we’re lucky, my memories are wrong. This timeline is different, and the Calamity is just behaving differently than in my past life. That’s a possibility. But I doubt it. The other option is probably far more likely.

    Two, if my memories are correct, and Tiendas City really was just a smoking crater, and there was no record of a Citywide Secret Dungeon spawning until Lvl. 35, then every single Hunter who entered this place died. Whatever the Mandatory System Event was, it was so difficult and so brutal that no one survived either the System Punishment, or the Mandatory System Event. Out of the countless people in the entire region who saw the pillar of light…no one managed to escape to tell the world.

    Damn. What kind of sick person designed this?

  • Chapter 15: Over A Million Participants

    My trepidation grows stronger the closer we get to Tiendas City. It’s on the horizon now. The violet-streaked grassy hills are rippling with a strong wind, the aftermath of the dungeon pillar. Even Yin is starting to notice my unease. It’s not unusual for me to be quiet, but right now, I don’t have the energy to spare to even make basic small talk.

    Tiendas City…think, Hei! Think! There must be some hints, some record you forgot in the early days. Maybe Sasha said something? Or Jerold, wasn’t he always up to date with the gossip? Damnit, if only I hadn’t been so focused on leveling instead of socializing, I might know more about what happened. Is the only explanation really that everyone died?

    “Hei…” Yin puts a hand on the back of my shoulder worriedly. I want to shrug it off, but she just squeezes tighter and I give in. She feels the rock-hard tension in my muscles. “You’re shaking.”

    “It’s okay. About this event…there’s something I have to say.” I want to confess, to tell her the truth. But I don’t even know how to explain how I know, let alone the implications. “Up until now, you’ve only experienced the horrors of the dead. But I’ve always warned you, that’s only half the Calamity. The real game begins now. I don’t know how many people live in Tiendas City. But it has to be a lot, and all of them are going to get the chance to become Hunters now. Amongst people, no…that’s not right. Amongst all living beings, there are some who you might call strong and some who you call weak, right?”

    “Uhm, yea?” Yin says shakily, her eyes meeting mine in the dim beginnings of daylight. “Sure. I’m with you.”

    “Well, make sure you stay with me. I had hoped to get you stronger, at least Lvl. 30 before we truly interacted with other Hunters, but that’s going to prove impossible now.” I sigh. “The truth is, wherever many Hunters gather, even new ones like these, inevitably, the second way to gain experience will spread. You think the System’s virus is bad, but that’s just a disease. The dead must bite you to infect you. Knowledge is different. All it takes is one wrong word and suddenly everyone will turn on you. A true plague, or worse, it’s like standing in the midst of a wildfire. You might see the blaze starting but by the time you realize you need to run, it’s already all around you. Yin, you’re not ready or this. It’s a fact. Don’t look at me like that, it’s true.”

    “I get it, Hei.” Yin’s eyes water, but she holds my gaze and I nod approvingly. “I know I’m still relying on you. But I’m trying to get stronger. It’s just…hard.”

    “It is. The point is not to get you down, but the opposite. I’m trying to show you that in the face of what’s coming, you need to become stronger! Much stronger, and not just physically, but mentally. In a dungeon, there is the potential to encounter great rewards, unique System Skills, high experience creatures. Hunters all thirst for such things, but you must remember, no matter what, no matter how much you believe in your fellow human. They are not one of us. From their perspective, WE are also high value targets, full of experience and equipment. Dungeons have a low survival rate not just because of the horrors they contain…but the horrors they unleash inside us. If you look at another person and don’t see the evil inside them until they reanimate as an undead, then maybe you’ll be the one coming back as a zombie.”

    “…” Yin doesn’t reply.

    As I finish my speech, I lick my lips. My throat suddenly feels a bit dry. Yin narrows her eyes at me and I can’t tell what she’s thinking. Hopefully I didn’t scare her too much. The things I said are not something an average youth should be saying. Even as a former fighter, had someone repeated these things to me at the beginning of the Calamity in my first life, I probably would not have taken them too seriously. Gradually, after several hours of walking, the sun fully comes up and I’m getting more and more tired. However, Yin got some sleep in, last night and we’re too wired from the system notification to stop now. When we get to the top of a particularly tall hill, she calls out.

    “Look at that!” Her finger leads directly to the gates of the city. It used to be a metropolitan hub not too long ago. However, the corrupting power of the System has already changed it. The skyscrapers have aged greatly, many windows have been shattered from the light of the pillar. Most of the electric streetlamps have gone dark, instead oil lamps and torches hang from the sides of buildings. A great concrete wall has been hastily constructed in the last few days when electricity still worked. The dead bulldozers and excavators which gave their all to create such a defense have already begun to fall apart. Pieces of their scattered frames lie like broken skeletons. Technology no longer has any place in this world. Now there is only the System.

    “I see them.” My voice grows grim. It’s impossible not to see all of them. Shadows lingering outside the city wall. Countless thousands of them. “Wait. They’re not zombies.”

    “Huh…you’re right. Th-They’re people! My god, how many are there?” Yin stutters as we climb up higher and the full scale of what we’re seeing is revealed. I start to employ some basic counting tactics we used to use to ascertain the size of larger zombie hordes.

    “500,000…600,000! No, it might be higher, maybe a million!” Even I’m shocked. “The entire population of Tiendas City must be outside the walls. Did the System kick them out?” I look around the grassy hills. From our high vantage point, I can see streams of people pouring in from all sides. The city is vast, big enough that it stretches out farther than the eye can see. From our angle, I can only see a portion of the wall. A faint green translucent barrier surrounds everything. Inside Yin’s arm, the ginger cat meows, its blue and emerald eyes gleaming. Absentmindedly, she pats it, though whether to calm the cat or herself is hard to say.

    “It’s crazy. We’ve been all alone. At most, the town from before had a few hundred people. But now…this. I can’t believe it! We’re not alone!” Yin bursts out in happy laughter. She jumps up and down. The cat howls in protest, but stays with her. It seems to have a developed a strange attachment to the girl, even though I’m technically it’s master. “Hei?”

    “Yea, it’s great.” I squint, trying to get an accurate count, but it’s impossible. People are coming from everywhere. Were there really this many people in Tiendas City in the beginning? What the hell could have happened to turn this place into a wasteland? “Just don’t forget about what I said. As a Lvl. 9, you could be considered one of the strongest Hunters here. If people find out, you’ll regret it.”

    “Of c-course! Aren’t you happy though?” She stops jumping with a quizzical look in her eye. “Surely there must be good people mixed with the bad. There’s so many!”

    “Good and evil are just mere figments of human imagination. The System will decide everything. You’ll see. If we live that long.” I say grimly. Yin shuts up, finally realizing just how on edge I am. Up on the hill, a gentle roar has begun to reach us. It is the sound of hundreds of thousands of people living, breathing, laughing. Everyone here is waiting for the timer to countdown. They may be excited now, but if they knew what I did they would be terrified. This dungeon…is not an opportunity. Not at our level.

    It’s a goddamn deathtrap.

    #

    As we walk closer to the city walls, the following message appears.

    System Call: Tiendas City Main Quest –

    There Can Only Be One…Is A Multitiered Event.

    Complete The 1st Objective To Unlock The Next.

    Citywide Dungeon Will Load In 16:32:16

    All Hunters Must Enter Within One Hour Of Dungeon Opening Or Accept System Punishment

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