Rayner tried working with the whitesmith from the caravan, but the whitesmith had plenty of assistants eager to learn the secrets of the trade by serving them.

Axel himself had little to no marketable skills to offer. Oh, he was vastly better educated than this world’s common citizens, but it wasn’t applicable or of little use.

That left the duo stuck with their cover job as bodyguards for the camp whores. There lack of use was sobering.

Even worse, the clients didn’t put up much trouble as none wanted to be banned from the comfort the whores provided. Also, if anyone was banned by the prostitutes, that individual would be kicked out of the camp.

If the whores don’t want a man’s coin, then there must be something deeply wrong.

And so, Axel sat on a chair outside of Mari’s tent, listening to her pleasure another man’s wife, desperately trying to keep himself under control.

He was a professional after all. Or at least, he was supposed to be.

Soon the cheating wife left the tent, hair and clothes madeup as if she wasn’t just being eaten out only seconds ago.

Mari came out soon after. She handed him some coin. "Your cut for today."

"For what?"

"My client likes the idea of being peeped on by a man. As you were part of the fantasy, you should get your share."

"Does this make me a whore now?"

"Yes!" she said cheerfully.

Mari’s face and body were plain. Nothing he’d seen of her since their first meeting a week ago changed that opinion of her.

Axel wondered how someone so plain could be a good whore. Her specialty for pleasuring woman with that extremely long tongue of hers explained some of it.

Squirming in his uncomfortable chair, Axel asked. "You have been pretty busy this past week. Are lesbian pleasures that hard to find?"

"What’s a lesbian?"

Interesting, that term didn’t exist here. "A word for girls who like girls. But that doesn’t matter. Look, this job kinda sucks."

"You mean it’s boring. That’s the best kind. It’s easy money."

"Yes, well, I’m still bored. There must be something else I can do. You’re supposed to provide information, but we have gotten little. What’s up?"

"You always speak so strangely. As to your information. I have plenty, just not of the sort you are looking for. The worshipers that have control of the entrance are tight-lipped. None of the prostitutes here can get close to them because they already have their own harems and entourages."

By entourages, Mari meant men and women outside the harem hoping to catch their eyes. They had enough importance and potential that the worshipers let them follow them around as hangers-on.

Axel brushed his hand through his hair and let out a sigh. "What about training? They must train somewhere in camp."

"Yes, but none of the worshipers who control the gate are doing so where we can meet them. It’s all the other level one worshipers or unconnected individuals."

"By unconnected you mean worshipers not here on behalf of the Coalition church."

Mari nodded. "Correct. The church is funding all of this. Hard to make it as a worshiper with no backing."

This he knew from experience. Their weapons had broken several times and became their biggest expense. Grace offered them support in exchange for their presence at the brothel. If not for her, they would be as poor as the refugees.

"Oh look, it’s Rayner!" She pointed to the blond teen with a hammer swinging by his side.

Rayner carried a red-bodied corpse slumped over his shoulder. He turned to let Axel see it. It was a kobold. "Found it outside the camp."

"They have been scouting the caravan since it entered Alta," Axel said.

"We should take this inside. I have no more clients for today. Come in," Mari said.

Her working tent was no different from the room she stayed in. Scented candles and oils filled the room with a pleasant aroma. They sat in a triangle, each facing one another.

Rayner threw down the corpse before speaking. "The worshipers are all so focused on the dungeon that they forget the outside is dangerous as well. I’ve been scouting with other less powerful worshipers for anything interesting while also defending the camp. My skills proved useful."

"I hope you didn’t go on a rampage." Axel thought of the condition the last use of Rayner’s skill put him in. They couldn’t afford to take turns falling into unconsciousness.

Rayner shook his head. "No, not in front of strangers. I might hurt them."

Mari raised her hand. "Rampage?"

"It’s a skill that forces me to keep killing until all my enemies are dead. It gives me a stamina boost and increases my strength. I can also use a more powerful version of my Force Hammer called Hammer Fall when it is active."

She nodded and Axel thought Rayner was giving too much information about his skills but if Mari was to prove useful, then like they had with Grace, they would need to fill her in.

"I understand the other worshipers aren’t as strong as the ones from the Coalition, but were you really that valuable?" Axel said.

"Turns out they can’t use their skills all that frequently. Their mana is low compared to mine. It’s around twenty-five or thirty at most. I took notes. You can see them later. My point is that this is something we can do to make a name for ourselves at camp."

"But I thought we were in agreement that bringing unwanted attention to ourselves is a bad idea."

"We are. This is attention we do want. Unless you want to fight our way into the dungeon or wait until the worshipers guarding the entrance lose control over it. Eventually the sheer number of worshipers looking to exploit it will get access."

"By then so many worshipers will be competing with you that finding the God Rock would be difficult and keeping it until you get back to Ridgehill would be even harder," Mari said. "I am no fighter but I have an idea how you two can catch the right attention."

"We’re listening," Axel said.

"Before you got here, Rayner, me and Axel were speaking of the weaker worshipers and how they support themselves. A big reason for why they aren’t rioting for a chance to get into the dungeon is because camps like this are a nexus for making connections."

"Networking." Axel compared it to using social media to build a group of friends that could help a job seeker or a business but Mari evidently understood the reference without understanding the source, for she nodded in agreement.

"I know what I’m going to do. I will explore the surrounding region. We know it well after having gotten lost here," Rayner said.

"Yes, Grace told me that you two are responsible for the half-formed dungeon. Can’t believe you just left it after that," Mari said.

"I fell ill from mana exhaustion after the fight and we had a quest to complete," Axel said.

"Oh, I see. Well, that plan will work for you, Rayner, but Axel, my idea is for you to go to the fighting ring and spar with other worshipers."

"By spar, you mean challenge them to a fight."

"I do. Eventually you will catch the attention of hangers-on to the church-sanctioned worshipers. Then those people will gossip about you. Then they will invite you to hang around with them. This will be your path to the inner circle of this camp."

"These hangers-on you two are talking about. Are you talking about those groupies that only ever talk about the worshipers?" Rayner said.

"Yes, them. Their desperation can be unsightly at times," Mari said.

"Why is that?"

Mari’s face turned sympathetic. "Look at what happened to my country, Alta. Being close to the powerful provides protection and opportunities. I suppose many of them are failed worshipers who at least tried to provide assistance to those more talented and having failed that, they grew to accept an even lower position than the one they dreamed of."

"So, rather than obsessive fans or thrill-seekers, they are those who have refused to accept reality. How sad."

"We won’t be like them," Axel said, determined.

They would not beg for acceptance. Axel would not look down on those people who did, he understood more than most the feeling of being powerless; so did Rayner. Rayner had lived his entire life trying to please his corporate masters.

"I’m all for this plan. We start tomorrow," Axel said.

"I will be with Axel at the camp fighting ring. It will look good if he has someone to cheer him on."

"What about your work?" Rayner said.

"Oh silly, this is a cover right now. Grace insisted this be my top priority. I’m all paid up, so to speak."

"Good. I want your full attention, but not on me or even who I’m fighting. Watch the crowd," Axel said.


With that, they headed back to their rooms and hit the sack early. Tomorrow would be a very busy day.

The fighting ring was much more elaborate than Axel expected. It bore the appearance of a condensed stadium or gladiator ring.

A patch of land had been smoothed out for the ring. Spectators seated on the stands watched the fights from their elevated positions.

Mari was right. This was his chance to get noticed. The idea of all those eyes on him gave Axel the goosebumps after so long trying to hide.

Axel waited in line to register for a sparring match. He paid attention to others signing up. He would use this as an information-gathering operation.

Axel already had fake credentials ready, again thanks to the ever-useful Grace. When it was his turn to sign up, he told them that he worshiped a petty god with no name and was a current resident of Ridgehill.

The lady who sat at a table set up at the entrance seemed to care little for the truth of his words. She had a long line of people to process.

Hurriedly jotting down his credentials, she waved him through after giving him a number. He was number forty-three. Only number ten had finished their fight.

He was in for a wait.

The wait gave him a chance to investigate how the worshipers fought and to his delight, none that he had seen thus far compared to Ava or even Kevia.

Oh, they had skill. Their movements were well-practiced, and all held confidence gained from years of fighting but they tired quickly and many of their skills held similar traits.

A result of living under the Coalition and their few powerful gods. It meant unless a worshiper was the top tier then all others were generic. Even Axel’s meager set of skills would suffice to catch them off guard.

"Number forty-three!" a woman announced.

Not wanting to miss his chance, Axel jumped from his seat and into the fighting ring. His knees barely ached at the landing, showing his change in strength since first coming to this world.

"Take your places," said the announcer.

A man only an inch or so shorter than himself with a long fencing blade faced him.

He wore an odd combination of armor, knee plates over his leather pants and a chainmail shirt over thick leather armor. A horned helmet gave him the look of a classic adventurer from video games.

Axel had seen enough of the worshipers around camp to figure out the reason for this. They wore special armor with special properties, most likely increased durability.

The places adventurers traveled had dangerous mana in the atmosphere. Their skills further degraded their armor and weapons, providing them with a need to buy expensive and outlandish equipment.

It explained the bikini armor he saw one woman wearing. Mari disagreed and believed some women wore it to get attention or take advantage of a special charisma effect.

Axel reoriented his focus on the upcoming fight. The announcer started a countdown. A hush fell over the crowd.

This was simply a fight between two small-time worshipers, yet it was still a sight many wanted to see.

Every man, woman, and child counted as a worshiper as they all prayed to the gods. But the term worshiper generally applied to those who actively sought out more strength or used their god-given skills for great purposes.

Any fight between combat worshipers was sure to entertain.

"Begin!" said the announcer.

The man, who the announcer introduced as Colin, attacked first. The tip of his blade sparked before he went into a thrusting stance and lunged at Axel from across the field.

It reminded Axel of Ava’s aggressive attacks. Instead of dodging, Axel waited until Colin got range then released his mana.

Colin was close enough that Axel had no need to direct the burst of mana. It radiated from him in a hazy blue burst and froze Colin.

But only for a moment. A moment was all Axel needed.

The sickly haze of Pain Knife covered Axel’s dagger and sliced at a gap of exposed skin on Colin’s shoulder.

The effects of Axel’s burst of mana gone, Colin retreated.

At first, Colin ignored the wound. Pain Knife hadn’t cut deep enough to cause significant irritation. But it would irritate.

A couple more cuts and the man would be driven mad with annoyance.

Undaunted by the early setback, Colin returned to his thrusting position. This time the spark went from the tip of his blade and snaked down to the hilt. His blade crackled and popped as the sparks traveled along the length of his weapon.

When Colin lunged at Axel from across the ring, a blinding light disrupted Axel’s vision and a pop of lightning rattled his eardrums.

Axel should have known. Colin’s fighting style was like Ava’s because his skills were as well. Both skills messed with his senses, but unlike Ava, Colin’s skill was no illusion. When Axel tried the same trick and attacked Colin with a mana blast, Colin hopped out of Axel’s range and waited, unflinching as Axel’s attack petered out.

Colin resumed his attack. He closed the distance in a heartbeat, not giving Axel time to dodge.

Axel suffered a wound in the same place he had cut Colin.

Axel doubted Colin had a similar skill to his Pain Knife, but it wasn’t needed. The sparking blade’s cut sizzled at contact with Axel’s skin. The wound throbbed. Axel resisted leaving himself open by clutching the wound for comfort.

He’d spent weeks using Pain Knife on himself to train the skill. Axel could tolerate the pain.

Colin continued his assault, giving Axel no chance to rest. Now instead of lunges from afar, Colin let loose a flurry of rapid thrusts aimed at Axel’s head.

This was no deathmatch. A team of worshipers serving the goddess of mercy sat ready by the stands.

What they would do about a rapier to the eyes, Axel had no clue.

Axel grimaced, remembering his first encounter with one of the goddess’ worshipers. They would be of no help to anyone not of the Coalition faith. They were here to take advantage of injured foreign worshipers.

This was just a chance to recruit, with life as a lure.

Indignation filled Axel with the fire to press forward. No longer would Axel be on the defensive.

Holding forth his hand as if trying to signal for Colin to stop, Axel shot a focused pulse of mana toward Colin as he was in mid-thrust. Colin’s position was such that he couldn’t dodge and took the blast in the stomach, doubling him over.

The crowd cheered for the first time since the fights started.

Most of the matches had been quick, decisive affairs. The two participants spent the first moments of the fight staring each other down looking for openings before one worshiper found one and won the contest. Their opponent never got a chance to use any flashy skills.

"Two points to Axel. One for Colin," the announcer said.

Colin recovered quickly, standing straight once again.

The blast had stunned but not hurt Colin. Axel knew few worshipers could resist his mana like Colin did. Most worshipers were at level one while Axel was level three.

With the higher level came the ability to manipulate his mana more freely than other worshipers.

Axel held his dagger close to his body. He’d learned to tell when a fighter had another trick up their sleeve. He proved himself accurate and Colin changed stance and oriented his long fencing blade downward.

Sparks started at the hilt and gathered there, roiling, and crackling until it erupted in a fire that enfolded the blade.

So, what if his blade was on fire? In Axel’s opinion, the blinding effect of his previous skill had greater use.

Instead of waiting for the attack, Axel struck first, dashing to Colin while bursting his mana out, using it as a shield to cover his advance.

Colin stood calm as Axel made his rapid approach.

That calm should have warned Axel of what would come.

As if cutting meat, Colin’s blade of fire sliced Axel’s makeshift barrier of mana and the scorching tip scraped the bridge of Axel’s nose and to his cheek.

To Axel’s great regret, the shock of Colin dismissing his mana shield and the burning coming from his face had caused him to pause, to hesitate.

He knew what that meant.

His enemy didn’t hesitate.

Dismissing his blade of fire with another casual flick of a hand, the sparks returned, and the point leveled toward Axel.

A burst of light came from the tip and once again Axel’s vision abandoned him. Soon after the flight of his sight, his thigh stung. The sparking blade had pierced him.

"Third point! Winner Colin!"

Axel lost. Just like that.

Later Axel sat in a tent not too far outside the fighting ring having his wounds cleaned by Mari. She gently dabbed at his face that still ached from Colin’s attack.

Axel brooded over his many mistakes during the fight. The more he went over the fight, the more he wanted to crack his skull against the floor.

Any fool knew not to underestimate their opponent, and he did right from the start. His head had grown big from being able to stand toe to toe with enemies stronger and more numerous that himself.

Because of that, he’d assumed Colin had only one skill. Maybe he had but used it in a unique way that made it look like he had more.

Compared to Colin, Axel looked like a one-trick pony. Once his skills were analyzed, they had been quickly dismantled and rendered ineffective.

Axel winced just thinking about.

"Oh, sorry," Mari said, misunderstanding his expression.

"It’s not you. I was thinking of the fight. That pathetic display killed my chances of being noticed. At least in the way I wanted."

Mari’s eyebrows rose. "What in god’s name gave you that idea?"

"I lost. I got my butt kicked. He had that fight in the palm of his hand from the start."

"Not exactly," said a voice from outside the tent. "May I come in?"

"Sure, why not, stranger. Come get a look at the loser."

Then Colin opened the flaps of the tent, armor gone. He had his helmet in his hand. He looked as plain as Mari. "No stranger."

Axel grimaced. "Come to gloat. What? You holding a grudge because of my Pain Knife? Its effects should have worn off by now."

Colin looked to Mari, confused. She shared the look. Axel was missing something obvious.

Colin’s eyes returned to Axel. "I came to thank you."

"I didn’t throw the fight. You whipped me good."

"The fight seemed close to me. Do you truly not understand what you did?"

"Are you secretly a top-ranked fighter? Am I going to rise in prestige just for holding out against you?"

"No, far from it. I am mid-tier at best. My stances are cleaner than most and you have seen how I use my skill."

Mari finished tightening a cloth around the wound on Axel’s thigh. "I should explain. Axel, you saw how most fights end quickly, it doesn’t give worshipers a lot of time to show off and the spectators can tell if worshipers are putting on a show for them. By pressuring Colin as you did it let him display his skills in an authentic way."

"Oh, good for him then."

"This is good for you as well." Colin took a chair in the corner and seated himself, getting cozy. "The first skill you used is nothing special but those mana attacks ... you have to be an acolyte to do that. The pressure I felt, could you be at the third level?"

As the worshipers were having difficulty entering deeper in the dungeon due to the strain the dungeon’s mana put on them, Axel knew his mana resistance would be a great negotiation tool to enter.

He opted to keep it secret in case they needed to sneak in. Now that everyone saw his skill, hiding it would be pointless. Best to just come out of it.

"Yes. I am level three." To Axel, the revelation felt like revealing his superhero identity.

Colin nodded to himself as if before he had not quite believed it until Axel said the words himself. "I want to—need to—enter the dungeon. It is the first I have seen that is still alive and I doubt I will ever have another opportunity like this. I have a contact, a church-sanctioned worshiper. If I refer you, will you guide me to a place in the dungeon where I can gain resources?"

"I am not looking for a party member." He was, but Colin was not who Axel and Rayner needed.

"Neither am I. Only a traveling partner to specific parts of the dungeon and if it pleases you, an agreement to aid each other if one of us falls into distress. My main purpose is research."

"Not leveling up or gaining EXP?"

"Since I was young, I have known my limits. I doubt I will reach the level you have and chasing experience for that purpose is a fool’s errand. I focus on what I can do. What I learn from this dungeon can be sold for a healthy profit. I saw you take note of my clothing during the fight."

"A bit flamboyant to me but a guess most worshipers are like that."

"Actually no. The rich ones like those sanctioned by the Coalition church can afford armor that looks quite normal. It is lower level and less connected worshipers who wear this mess of protections. To others, I dress as any other common worshiper but I chose my tools very carefully. A result of my research into dungeons. Look." Colin then took his helmet resting between his armpit and handed it to Axel.

Assuming Colin wanted Axel to touch it, he did. A shock ran through his hand. "What is this, a practical joke?"

"No joke. It shocked you because the helmet rejected the mana you give off, causing the shock. All of my clothes have this aspect."

"In order for you to better travel into dungeons."

How creative. Colin impressed Axel the more he spoke.

Then he realized that was the idea. Colin didn’t need to share any of this information.

Axel could guess why. "First come, first serve. There are others lining up to speak to me, that’s why you are here."

Mari sat patiently as they talked and chose then to express her opinion. "Thought so. I was waiting for you to figure it out, Axel. Now that you have, could you please leave the rest to me?"

"Sure, go ahead," Axel said.

"Colin, your use of armor is impressive and so is the way you expanded the use of your basic skill. None of that gives us a good reason to choose you now and not wait for better offers. Now that Axel’s skill is known, I am more than capable of getting him into the dungeon and in contact with the leading worshipers of the camp."

Colin placed his helmet on the ground with his foot resting on it. He folded his arms as he took in Mari’s points. "You are, of course, correct. You should wait for other offers. It is true, all of them will offer more than I do." Axel knew he was leading somewhere with this so he stayed silent and waited. "But they would betray you the first chance they got."

This confused Axel. They had little wealth on them and nobody knew of their quest for the God Rock other than Mari. "Why would they do this?"

"For the same reason I saw you glare at the worshipers of the goddess of mercy."

Axel grimaced at the mention of the worshipers of Hessa. Maybe not all the goddess’ worshipers would act like the man he met but somehow, he doubted others were of greater character.

Colin was right.

Colin continued, hammering home his point. "They have a detestable practice of rejecting aid to those not of their faith. They make an exception for those under the blessing of one of the Coalition gods, of course. The Coalition isn’t completely bigoted. I am of the Coalition too, but the closer they are to the church the more likely they are to see non-believers as bugs. They will use you as a tool to go deeper into the dungeon and leave you to fend for yourself with the hope that you never return."

"They would be jealous of his skill to move more freely in the dungeon," Mari said.

Axel needed time to think on all this. "I am not the only decider on this. I have a partner. Once he is back, I will give you an answer. That is if you can wait?"

"I’ve waited most of my life. I can continue for another day or two." After that, Colin took his leave.

Axel checked to make sure Colin or any other listeners weren’t around and looked to Mari. "What do you think?"

"I think he’s a good and honest man. Can he provide you with the best tools to explore the dungeon? No. Can you trust him not to kill you and steal the God Rock? Yes. He is simply a worshiper looking to find a niche that is profitable and fulfilling."

"A niche. Is that how the weaker worshipers make a living?"

"It’s a better pursuit than trying to raise their levels. The problem is finding a niche can be just as dangerous, too. Whatever niche worshipers choose has little information on the dangers involved."

"That’s what makes it a niche," Axel concluded.

What Mari described sounded like a job system in games. This world has classes that dictated the type of skills and distribution of attributes.

Titles determined the level of worship or relationship to the gods. But niches weren’t listed on the stat sheet that appeared on his tattoo.

Did his job as a bodyguard for a brothel count? What about the whitesmiths? His ignorance galled him and he couldn’t work up the nerve to ask Mari.

It wasn’t necessary, years of reading the client’s moods allowed Mari to read him too. "I don’t have one, and no, few do. Niches are just job specialties. Like a whitesmith who only works on prosthetic legs. It wouldn’t be seen on a tattoo as it’s a thing of human design and not of the world."

The world was how people described the greatest of gods. Basically, the planet itself.

"Things turned out well today but I’m beat. I’m heading to my tent. Wake me if anything interesting happens."

"I’ll do that."

Axel trudged back to his tent, his boots caked with mud. A downpour begun. He hoped Rayner had brought an umbrella on his outing.

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Pub: 05 Feb 2024 00:03 UTC
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