Surrounded by the towering mountain range was a green giant several times larger.
Just how enormous was it…? While the air here was certainly a lot cleaner than Earth’s, I still could not believe I was actually seeing the silhouette of a tree thousands of kilometers away.
The World Tree… together with the ninety-nine saplings, they served as the cornerstones of this world.
…wait, no, this wasn’t the time to be admiring scenery. That ‘thousands of kilometers’ was exactly what I must cross.
More explosive wind bullets appeared out of nowhere. I promptly dashed away.
The militarized monster avatars, driven by secret beta testers, showed themselves. Five black cricket-spiders galloped after me on their eight legs, shooting their spells all the while.
It had been twenty-four hours since my first encounter with the cricket-spiders. They never stopped attacking. Every time they ran out of magic and left, they would return a few hours after. Or just ten minutes, if luck was being particularly uncharitable.
They would just revive if I killed them. They weren’t getting the penalty to their magic like normal beta players, but they should still be losing the amount I drained from them. Yet to the contrary, it seemed their magic was even slightly increasing. Perhaps they were taking turns killing monsters or humans somewhere else.
Even when I was recovering thirty percent every hour, it still wasn’t enough. My current magic was already down to half capacity.
I really couldn’t afford to keep fighting them. I stayed as human and ran toward the sea.
I was ‘the demon of tempestuous mist that ravages the northern seas’, so I could cross the ocean just fine if I turned to mist here. But with the threat of wind bullets looming behind me, I didn’t dare.
Flight as a human was possible too, but keeping it up for long hours would be rough on me, plus I’d lose a lot of my maneuverability. So I decided to just run on the water.
The mist from my feet froze the waves with each step I took.
Not very stable footing, but it would suffice. I kept up my speed. Their attempts to follow me ended in shattered ice and drowning spiders.
Really… were they even using their eyes? Why did they think my ice could support their weight?
Six days of borrowed time left.
Considering I’d have to cross the ocean, the mountain range, then another strip of ocean to reach the Central Island where the World Tree was, I was cutting it really close.
I kept on running on the frozen path for a whole day and night. As I expected, the sea had stopped any further attacks. Still, I had to constantly create mist, so I didn’t recover all that much magic.
Perhaps I should just accept the loss of secrecy and go all-out as flying mist? I couldn’t decide. Especially when there were still drones watching me from beyond my attack range even now.
A giant shark attacked me on the way. I kept up my speed, leaving behind a sinking frozen fish.
Four days of borrowed time left.
I could finally see the shore. The regions around the World Tree and its Saplings generally had mild climate and an abundance of greenery, yet the mountains here had nothing but precipitous cliffs, its rock face permitting no life.
So this was why the secret beta testers didn’t attack me on the ocean. They were setting up an ambush here! Over forty cricket spiders were occupying the relatively more level areas of the shoreline, waiting for my arrival.
The ten foremost spiders fired their wind bullets in unison. I immediately stopped creating mist and dove into the ocean.
I supposed it wasn’t time to worry about keeping secrets, then…
With the full strength of my magic, I carved out an enormous chunk of frozen ocean to throw at them. They immediately blew it apart. I fully transformed into mist, blasting through the ice fragments and their ambush. I left behind several spider popsicles as I began climbing the mountain.
But there was a surprise waiting for me. A surprise that, I was convinced, was also unknown to the secret beta testers.
There was a reason why no one ever reached the World Tree without following the official path. The mountains itself rejected all intruders.
Of the secret alpha testers, the survivors with broken psyches were being kept and monitored in a separate facility. The comatose children were lying still within fifty-seven suspended animation capsules. Audrey was there in front of them, connected to her audio-visual VR set. She was in a call with Brian, who was still staying back at the 7th research center.
“Hahahhah, unbelievable! So she truly was connected to No. 13! I just saw our little bunny turn into the mist monster, hahahahaaah! Audrey, what about your side?!”
She coolly began her report.
“No. 13 still hasn’t shown any responses, and neither have the other subjects. Also, the supervisor of the orphanage that No. 13 used to stay in has arrived as per your invitation. How shall we proceed?”
“Oh, she’s there already? She should be quite familiar with No. 13, so I invited her for another point of view. Feel free to talk to her. Let’s see, so No. 13’s still unresponsive…”
“Then I will continue my observation.”
Audrey cut off the visual feed and returned her eyes to reality. Turning around, she saw a woman around fifty with heavy makeup slurping some coffee, while making herself very comfortable. She turned her smirk to Audrey.
“Done with the Deputy Director’s call? Yes, that’s right, no one in the world knows that girl more than me! The ‘demon child’ used to be such a brat when she first joined up. Nothing a few beatings couldn’t fix though, heheheh.” The supervisor woman said, sounding so very proud of her deeds.
“Yes! And if she hasn’t shown any responses, then we can take her out of the capsule and give her the full-body electroshock treatment just like I used to! Even the brat was scared of it back then, screaming and crying every time I did it, so it should work great here!”
Even among the research orphanages established all around the world, this woman was still one of the best in terms of getting results. The corporation rated her highly. And in similarly high-achieving orphanages, such cruelties were a daily occurrence.
“…We will need to request the Deputy Director’s permission.” Audrey replied.
Policy required the children who were forcefully logged-out due to mental collapses to be kept alive in the collection facility for exactly thirty days. Their plugs would be pulled in order.
The final processing would only begin once life support stopped for all the secret alpha testers. As of now, around seventy percent had reached the end of their lease on life. Their deaths were already confirmed. The very final tester, No. 13, had four days left.
Even if this observation truly revealed a link between No. 13 and the rabbit beastman girl, a live dissection was all that awaited her.
With how her life had been, it would have been much more merciful to just let her die in peace, Audrey thought.
Suddenly, Brian’s shout rang out from the VR device.
“What the hell are those monsters?!”
As mist, I was practically running up the mountain. Once I reached a fifth of the way, the cricket spiders finally realized the monster of mist was me. They opened fire.
I had a lot more surface area as mist, so dodging was difficult. Still, with the distance I gained, just a bit of token avoidance was enough to get me out of the way of most of the bullets. Only a few hit.
But the moment the projectiles smashed into the rock face, a vast number of magical signals appeared on my radar. Here and there, beasts made out of stone and boulders began to come into existence. They attacked both me and the cricket-spiders.
What in the world were they?!
[Rock Monster x Lots] [Magic Points: 500~700] [Total Combat Power: 530~780]
I didn’t see their hit points, so were they spiritual lifeforms? If they weren’t demons… then elementals?
Their magic power were about the same as me when I just became a lesser demon. Their numbers were worrying, however. Hundreds? No, perhaps even thousands.
The cricket-spiders had more combat power, yet it meant nothing in front of overwhelming quantity. They immediately gathered up and focused fire on the newcomers. It still could not stop the rock avalanche from swallowing them whole in a blink of an eye.
I didn’t have the leeway to worry about them here. If they really were elementals, then perhaps their purpose was to eliminate anyone trying to reach the World Tree without using the sanctioned path.
About a thousand of them began to move toward me. I wasn’t sure if it was because I was trying to cross the mountains, or because I was a demon, but they seemed extraordinarily hostile.
I couldn’t afford to oppose them head-on. With all my strength, I blasted freezing air at the elementals above me. The frozen boulders became obstacles for the ascending elementals chasing me, and I continued my way to the top.
Time after time, stony barrages assaulted me, and I would avoid them by condensing myself. My path twisted and turned. Sometimes I ignored the newly-formed elementals, and sometimes I would kill them. After what must have been a whole day, I finally crossed the mountaintop, battered and bruised.
[Shedy] [Race: Mistral Neige] [Greater Demon (High-Rank)] [Magic Points: 1370/5220] 600↑ [Total Combat Power: 1890/5740] 660↑
Having over 5000 magic still wasn’t enough for an evolution or rank-up.
Was there even anything above [Greater Demon] in the first place…? Well, stronger was stronger, especially since the elementals were still on my tail.
The World Tree was so close the trunk was clearly visible, but only the trunk. Its higher branches lay hidden behind fog.
Surrounded by an inland sea was the Central Island, which I thought was already quite large by itself. But with how much space the World Tree’s trunk was taking up, I could barely see any visible earth.
Three days of borrowed time left. More rock elementals were forming around me.
Any more damage and I would seriously risk death here. I flew off from the downward-sloping cliff, taking a few hits from the elementals below me while dodging the projectiles from behind. Finally, I managed to escape to the inland sea.
The rock elementals stopped chasing me at the shoreline. They weren’t even shooting, despite the straight flight path I was taking above the sea.
Were they not considering the waters to be their jurisdiction since they were earth-type? Then whose…
The waters erupted. From under the sea appeared aquatic serpents, with fins and everything. They looked like wingless dragons.
[Water Dragon?] [Magic Points: 465/480] [Hit Points: 1280/1280] [Total Combat Power: 4950]
Hold up, what the hell was with that power?! And there wasn’t just one of them; hundreds of water dragons were patrolling around the Central Island, as if guarding the World Tree.
Damn it, considering how much combat power I had currently, I could die in just one hit if I wasn’t careful. Hesitation almost made me freeze up for a moment, but I pushed myself forward.
A few of them noticed me. They opened their mouths, shooting out torrents of water.
[Shedy] [Race: Mistral Neige] [Greater Demon (High-Rank)] [Magic Points: 940/5220] [Total Combat Power: 1460/5740]
No no no, too much damage! And that was just a single hit!
I attempted to freeze the water to interrupt any further attacks, but with how low my power had become, I could only create a thin layer of surface ice.
I dodged, avoiding any direct hits, twisting and turning through the water beams. At least I had an advantage in my flight speed. The swimming water dragons were slightly slower than me.
I weaved back and forth to shake off the dragons, at times approaching, at times going away from the island. After a long while, I finally managed to land on the shore.
[Shedy] [Race: Mistral Neige] [Greater Demon (High-Rank)] [Magic Points: 330/5220] [Total Combat Power: 850/5740]
I could literally die from just a scratch. Thankfully, the water dragons no longer pursue me. Again, was land not their jurisdiction? I thought they would still continue attacking since they weren’t elementals. How bewildering. But once I attempted to go inland, I understood why.
An invisible wall was blocking my path.
Was this… a barrier? That can’t be right! Were monsters not allowed to approach? I came all the way here, what the hell do I do?!
In my stupor, I barely noticed something rolling out from my [Packer] inventory.
…Huh? Blobsy? She bounced ahead, going through the barrier as if nothing was there, then stopped. Then she stopped and began hopping in place, as if to say ‘hurry up!’
Why could she pass…? She’s a monster too, right?
[Blobsy] [Race: Jelly Slime] [Kin of Shedy, the Demon] [Magic Points: 10/10] [Hit Points: 10/10] [Total Combat Power: 10] [Special Skill: Laundry - Cleaning]
Oh, ‘Cleaning’, that was new… wait, no, not that. She hadn’t had any important change, that was the point.
Why could Blobsy go in? Such a harmless… ah!
An idea came to mind. I transformed into my [Human Form] and gingerly stepped forward.
Nothing stopped me.
So only harmless beasts and real humans could cross the barrier, then. If my skill was still at [Humanoid Form], I might have been stuck here forever. What a relief…
‘Thank you, Blobsy! I’ll treat you to tons of food later!’
Two days of borrowed time left.
I was still some distance away, yet the Tree was already dominating my view. I ran toward it, Blobsy on my shoulder.
Aside from the moss covering the area and the Tree itself, I detected no other signs of life. After a while, I reached one of the Tree’s roots, so enormous its thickness alone took up the space of a baseball field.
I was here. After so long, I was finally here. My salvation must be waiting for me. I had already gambled all my hope on this, after all.
I quietly, gently touched the Tree’s roots.
…nothing’s happening? Perhaps I needed to do something? Or perhaps the roots wouldn’t work, and I’d need to go further up? But back then-
A massive influx of information poured into my mind. I nearly blanked out.
This was… the will of the World Tree? It wasn’t a matter of language or intelligence; its thought processes were simply too alien for human understanding.
If I hadn’t had the experience of processing similarly insane amount of information ever since I began the ‘game’, the Tree really would have fried my brain there and then.
I processed the vast voice of the World Tree. Slowly but surely, we communicated.
I wasn’t sure how long it took, but it must have been quite a while. As I comprehended its words, the truth of this world was revealed to me.
“…yeah. It’s a [Contract], then. Between you and me. Between the World Tree and a demon…”
“…slight fluctuation in No. 13’s brain activity!” A staff member reported.
Audrey raised her head and let slip a whisper. “Could it be…?”
“See! This was all thanks to me! I knew unfreezing and shocking her would do the trick!” The orphanage supervisor proudly said.
Only No. 13 was the only one left. All the other secret alpha testers had already had their plugs pulled.
The white girl was lying there unconscious, outside of her suspended-animation capsule. Dozens of electrode rods were stabbing into her flesh. A horrific sight like no other.
“No. 13’s vitals are… huh?”
“Something’s not right…”
“What’s going on…?”
The slight tick in No. 13’s brain activity suddenly went off the charts in a blink of an eye.
Audrey and the supervisor woman looked to the white girl. As everyone in the room turned their attentions upon her, No. 13’s body rapidly began losing color.
And collapsed into a pile of salt.
The unthinkable sight shocked the staff members into stillness. Meanwhile, the other children’s corpses that were waiting for disposal followed suit, turning into piles of salt one after another. The fully-lit room darkened ever so slightly, as though simply a trick of the light. Within the skin-crawling chilly room, a faint voice reached their ears. The voice of a girl.