The Exogenous God

Chapter 1

Ren Sato woke up to find that he was standing somewhere unexpected, and he wasn’t dead. The second was the most surprising to him, because he died drowning in a frozen river after his snow machine broke through the ice. There was no way he was this alive, and more to the point, this warm.

Groggily as if waking up from a long sleep he looked around the room to find it unexpectedly alien. There was lots of wood, finished wood, textiles, something that looked like animal bone, exotic looking furs. However none of it gave a look of anything primitive, it looked like somebody had seen a stone room with columns and vaulted ceilings and all that and had spent a truly massive amount of time polishing and finishing those primitive materials until they got roughly the same effect.

There truly was a disturbing amount of bone on display and Ren didn’t recognize even so much as one of the furs. Not an ounce of metal nor even so much as a pebble was on display. There was a blood red resin or crystal, but the way it was inlaid made him doubt it was a crystal, however it didn’t look like a traditional resin.

And finally there was the occupant of the room standing in front of him. There was what Ren could only call a priest wearing leather winter coats with fur ruffs, very clearly the outfit was designed as a compromise between looking like a high ranking priest and staying warm. She had jewelry in bone and that resin/jewel material and their headdress screamed priest even though the religious iconography was foreign to Ren.

There were two possibilities here, and just looking at the massive decorated vaulted ceiling made the first seem like a vanishingly small possibility. The first is that somebody was playing the most elaborate and expensive prank ever pulled on him, not likely for the son of a cannery manager living in rural Alaska. The second is that Ren had died and been summoned to another world.

Ren’s scrambled brain finally picked up on something that was screaming in the back of his mind up until now. The priest was a reindeer, an anthropomorphic reindeer with small antlers and everything. She had a snow white coat and was a reindeer person, Ren’s mind could not get over that fact at all, he was looking at her but the idea could not process in his brain.

She was holding a parchment framed in wood and held it up in front of him there was a tingle and words formed onto the parchment in a deep blood red. It was a stat sheet, but it was vague, no numbers only letter grades, and Ren could read them. He got a glance at his name and a couple of the column of letters boxed in like a spreadsheet and was pleased to see that there was at least one S. But it was taken away too fast for him to fully process this in the state he was in.

The priest put the parchment down on a cart with an approving grunt and moved on, she was clearly of a very high status but she wasn’t acting like it. However looking at her face she looked tired, like she was responsible for the bulk of the summoning magic that brought Ren here.

Ren expected her to say something to ask what the heck was going on and why he was summoned after death, but she just shoved a water skin into his hands and moved around him. Ren tried to speak up but his mouth and throat were bone dry and only let out a zombie-like croak, without even thinking Ren drank greedily from the water skin, but that only made his limbs feel heavier, colder, like he was coming back to reality from some sort of dream. He turned his head to follow the priest around the room to another summon.

But Ren noticed something as he turned his head, some sort of big fuzzy thing that moved out of the way as he turned. Trying to get a closer look at it the thing moved back into his field of vision. It was a squirrel tail, huge, bushy, grey. It took him far longer than it should have to figure out that it was HIS squirrel tail. Looking down he could see that he had squirrel paws and very clearly squirrel legs, implying that he was in fact now an anthro squirrel. His clothes, which were baggy before hung off of him even more.

This other figure, she, Ren thought but wasn’t sure, looked like an anthro wild dog person that looked like somebody was trying to make a gnoll and just had only heard of gnolls from sixth hand sources. She looked even more confused than he had been, but not so much at any of the surroundings, she kept looking down and poking at her left side. She looked like she would be at home carrying home and skinning some sort of boar in a jungle Ren thought.

The priest took another parchment picture and gave out another water skin with another grunt of approval and the gnoll woman greedily drank from the water skin. The gnoll didn’t quite seem all there yet and seemed to be acting more on instinct.

It turned out there was a third member of their group, this one was a lot shorter and a lot harder for Ren to read. It was a feathered rabbit humanoid, it had a bow and seemed to take the summoning even worse, wavering back and forth hands on their head. It was a cute enough little critter Ren supposed, looked like it could run fast and would be tricksy and was equipped with a lot of modern stuff.

The fourth and final summon was… a jellyfish, it took a bit for Ren to parse that. The creature looked agitated to Ren, and it moved around, well like a jellyfish, the movement kept Ren’s attention onto it for longer than the other summons.

Gradually little worm-like things started to peek their way out of the jellyfish bell, focusing onto them Ren realized they looked a lot like “garden eels” something he’d seen in one of the VHS documentaries he had around. The garden eels were made of the same jellyfish material and had the same coloring, but they were unmistakably garden eels poking their heads out from inbetween the tentacles, bobbing around and occasionally shooting back into the safety of the jellyfish bell.

The jellyfish bell itself had a fuzzy look as well as a calico pattern on it of blue, purple and red, but in those translucent looking jellyfish colors.

The priest didn’t even look at the parchment slate before dumping them onto the cart she’d been pushing around and retiring to a bench on the side of the room. This was apparently a very common occurrence as there were a number of primitive looking books sitting there as well as a few scrolls. The books despite the primitive binding looked decently professional like somebody had fed bad quality paper into an expensive printer, but the glance Ren got at the scroll gave him the impression it was some kind of vertical comic book printed on both sides.

Ren’s eyes were drawn back towards the jellyfish as a rodent-like head with big expressive eyes poked it’s way out from underneath the bell like it was a turtle shell. The garden eels were attached to it’s head as hair, like a… like… Ren couldn’t remember what it was. The garden eels scrunched up instead of simply retracting. Oddly enough looking at the thing it seemed to be the most… awake? Aware? Out of all the summons.

Perhaps he’s just too dumb to be effected by the summon.Was Ren’s first thought.

Ren may have wanted to walk over and ask the lady some questions but there was a fog in his mind, like he hadn’t quite woken up, or had woken up far too early. He was distracted by things far too easily and his legs wouldn’t answer his call to move, he would find himself alternating between looking around the room and trying to get a good look at the comic scroll thing. Like he could be distracted while turning his head.

He re-discovered that he was a squirrel now at least twice, but it could have been three times, like the idea was having trouble pushing it’s way through not only shock but the molasses in his brain. There was something else there too but he couldn’t grasp onto the idea.

What struck him again about the room was that there wasn’t an ounce of metal or stone anywhere. The doorway was a flap of fur, the columns were obviously bone inlaid upon logs and cut to look like stone, even the sheets of finished plywood at his feet used that strange red gemstone material as nails. Even the chandelier showed the same symptoms of a total lack of metals. The whole room gave Ren the impression that this wasn’t a temple, but some sort of fancy, but abandoned inn room. Especially with how the tables and chairs were pushed up against the wall.

That was when the rodent jellyfish thing got up and walked over to the priest, the jellyfish bell was really like a turtle shell for it, and it confirmed without a shadow of a doubt that it was an animal. It sniffed at a scroll, nosing it around and then rubbed it’s head up against the female priests leg and made a deep chittery squeak. It was hard to tell what she thought of the creature, but she did pick up the Rodent’s tablet and her expression turned grave.

It was about that time when Ren really woke up, and collapsed directly to the floor. His lungs burned with the need to breathe, he could feel the cold creeping into his fingers as every movement left nothing but numb pain. There was no doubt in his mind that he had died back there in that river. He instinctively tried to pull his tail around himself desperately trying to feel any kind of warmth again. Just like that though, the sensations began to fade like a bad dream as if they had never even been there.

It was the rat thing, Aishi, nuzzling him that got him at least trying to sit up, a very trusting animal for a rodent, especially considering how it had acted when summoned. He had a remarkably soft... tentacle? fur, a calico cat like coat that begged for him to at least try and pet it even when his unfamiliar arms that felt like limp noodles.

Looking around the priest seemed surprised that he could do even so much as this, and apart from the garden medusa the other two summons looked to be in worse shape than him. As abruptly as he could manage Ren turned his head back to the garden medusa and frowned.

What was a garden medusa? How did he know the garden medusa was a he? Where had that name come from?

Ren was interrupted in these thoughts by the priest.

“Awake already? That’s an impressive awakening speed. Especially considering,” She looked down at Ren’s tablet. “You have very high stats and good growth for them, normally higher stats mean you’ll have to spend longer waking up.”

“So…” Ren croaked, “Whats up with this rat thing then?”

Her expression crinkled up.

“We’ll get to that.”

It was a good thing that could wait because Ren couldn’t keep himself awake.

----------------

Ren woke up on a stretcher as he was brought room and rolled onto a cot. The garden medusa followed along like a well heeled dog.

“Good you’re awake.” The priest said. “That was your ‘after-death shock’ it’s never pleasant, but you only have to deal with it once.”

“Rat?” Ren asked again managing to push through the muck in his head.

The priestess’s hands came to rest on a wooden club that came to a single point at her waist.

“We’ll get to that, I’ll explain your stats once everybody has recovered from the summoning.”

The two other summons were brought in shortly thereafter, the wild dog still clutched at her side and the rabbit clutched at her head, as if the pain was much worse than before.

“First of all, I would like to congratulate you all on reincarnating to the world of Karg.” The priestess said. “Unfortunately due to circumstances outside my control I need to accelerate your education a bit and explain some things out of order.”

She brought out something that looked like a projector made out of wood and that red metal and slotted in the stat sheet parchments to the side of it.

“My name is Maja, and right now I need to teach you about your stats. The spell we used on you was an assessment spell that gives us an idea of how your stats shake out and the potential for growth in them.”

The slide projector, and it was a projector, turned on for the first slide revealing Ren’s statsheet.

“As you can see Ren here has fantastic stats, and his growth is good as well.”

The stats on the screen were all letters and the top was obviously S, evidenced by Ren’s magic growth stat, as well as his endurance growth stat. Ren noted that all of the stats were… physical in nature, none of them resembled things like intellect or charisma, but there were things like reflexes. He noticed that his race was “elf”.

The other two summoned people’s stats were shown, the wild dog was named Mirabella and was some kind of nature mage her race red as “gnoll”, and the rabbit Elizabeth was some kind of hunter she was a “kobold”. Their stats were high but less balanced than Ren’s.

“These stats represent your connection to this world, you need to grow by killing monsters to a minimum of level 10ish to solidify that connection or you just fade away and die again.”

The fourth statsheet slide was projected up and Ren frowned. This animal, Aishi, had G- stats across the board.

“These are the lowest stat totals I’ve ever heard of. And that’s why I’m talking to you about this first instead of giving you proper introductions.” Maja looked sad. “Like I said you need to be able to reach a minimum of level 10 in order to not fade away, and you can do that technically even with F stats. But G- is the fallback for the status parchment.”

Maja shuffled her feet and muttered to herself:

“Explaining this never gets any easier.

“Basically with those stats we would be lucky if he was smart enough that we could get this little guy house broken, he can’t fight monsters, he can’t cast spells, he can’t lift anything, and that means we can’t feed him enough energy from kills to keep him alive… So we have to put him down.”

Maja pulled out the wooden club from her belt, it was astonishingly well adorned with that red gemstone, giving it the appearance of already having been bloodied in this dim light, and brought it down on Aishi’s head.




Chapter 2

The single-spiked wooden mace passed through the rat too fast to see, and something happened that was also too fast to see, it was as if the mace passed through only air leaving the rat entirely unharmed. The priest backed away seemingly frightened by this holding up the club as if the weapon that had done nothing before could do something to stave off the jellyfish rat. Who in turn stared at Maja as it slowly pulled it’s head back underneath the jellyfish bell, keeping a couple of it’s garden eel hairs poked out to watch Maja.

“Wraith!” Maja shouted in terror. “SUMMONED WRAITH!”

Instantly a guard burst in through the other door holding a wooden sword that glowed with red light, it was one of the people who had carried Ren and the others here. They stopped confused at the apparent lack of a wraith anywhere in sight, only a woman cowering before a calico patterned jellyfish.

Ren mad a decision then, he felt well enough to get up, and assuming he was summoned into another world and with his stats he needed to step up. He couldn’t just let these people kill some random and friendly animal with only a minute’s explanation when something was clearly different than expected. So he got up, walked over to the giant rat and patted it on the back, er jellyfish bell thing, his hand didn’t go through the rat and came to rest on the soft fur-ish substance as one would expect.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, he seems corporeal enough to me.”

“But, it, my club, went right through!” Maja said.

“It was all too fast to see, maybe your stat sheet is wrong and it just dodged.” Ren really was not sure what had just happened despite what he said. “I mean see, he’s obviously not a wraith, give him a poke, I’m assuming wraiths are incorporeal right?”

Maja nodded as Ren poked the jellyfish bell, it was a rather comfy feeling thing.

Ren had to admit, this must have been a very domesticated animal considering what had transpired around it in such short order. Even with the attack it seemed to utterly defer to Ren as to what to do, poking it’s head out to look up at him.

The guard sheathed their sword and Ren took a good look at them, everything they had was some kind of monster material, scales, bones, leather, even the sword was clearly wood inlaid with monster bone and that same red gemstone. None of their kit looked at all like it wasn’t effective, even their hide shields looked like they could take a beating.

What concerned Ren about the bone swords is how they would replace the blade, or grind it down. You obviously couldn’t just melt them down again and make new ingots for forging. Perhaps some sort of magical protection? Obviously magic existed or else he would be a frozen body in a lake with a snowmobile right now. He wanted to learn how they made those blades so he could compare and contrast, but that was a secondary consideration for now.

“Now.” Ren said offering his hand to help up Maja. “Could you explain why we were summoned here in the first place?”

“Well, uhh.”

Maja still looked shaken as she stood up, which gave Ren time to go sit down, the rat followed him. They waited for Maja to collect herself again, Maja bustled around flicking off the little projector and shuffling around papers in an unconvincing attempt to look busy.

“You’ve been summoned here to be adventurers and fight monsters. Your summoning has granted you the ability to in theory.” Maja looked at the rat Aishi pointedly, she seemed to have gained her composure back. “absorb magic from slain monsters more efficiently than we can.”

“But why do we need to fight monsters in the first place?” The wild dog summon Mirabella asked.

“As you have no doubt noticed we almost completely lack metals or stone or anything of the kind here on Karg, I’m certain you’re familiar with silver and gold, here on Karg our equivalents are iron and copper.”

“How can your planet not even have stone?” The feathered rabbit creature Liz asked.

“Like this.”

Maja pulled a string that rolled up the projector screen revealing a window behind it, there was no glass in the window only some kind of magic field with another red stone set in the base of the window. Everybody gasped.

You could see for miles out there, everything was clear albeit dimly lit. The first thing your eyes came across was the city they were in, it looked like a typical medieval town made out of wood, with significantly more thatching than you would expect. Then your eyes came upon the barrier, like the window barrier this seemed to be a magical field of some kind but huge, covering the entire city.

And then there was ice.

Miles and miles of ice, mountains of ice, different kinds of ice, crags and canyons, all of ice and nothing else. A world frozen over, so far from it’s sun that this city was an impossibility, there could be no place to grow a tree, no place to even grow an algae. The “sunlight” was clearly artificial, no doubt some kind of other magical trick.

“That’s why.” Maja said. “The wind magic dome gives us air and keeps the heat in, but as best we’ve been able to tell that ice is too thick to mine through, it goes down for hundreds of miles, there might not even be a bottom, it could be ice all the way down.”

“But how is adventuring going to help… that?” Ren pointed out the window. “What will we be adventuring for? Is there something worthwhile out there other than ice?”

“There are monsters.” Maja said. “Dungeons show up out there, portals to little pocket worlds. The theory is that they’re magical habitation pockets, so that means while they have things like dirt and salt they don’t have rocks or even sand. If you find any in there it’s something else.”

“What does that even mean?” Mirabella asked. “Something else like what?”

“Some sort of construct, possibly even an illusion, things in there that are alive are really there, things in there that aren’t alive only exist in there.” Maja explained. “Another theory is that these are just artificial zoo’s that we’re stumbling into.

“Anyway, your goal as adventurers will be to collect wood, salt, monster materials, and most importantly of all, monster blood. But all of that is entirely secondary to leveling up, like I said you have to kill monsters up until a certain point or else you’ll just fade back into death.”

“But I don’t know how to kill monsters.” Ren spoke up.

“I’m more used to scouting, I couldn’t kill a monster without a gun.” Liz spoke up.

Mirabella did not speak up, she looked familiar enough with this sort of thing in the first place.

“We’re going to give you guys a crash course in fighting so you can start killing wolves out there in the wastes, simple combat.” Maja looked over at Aishi, the rat. “I have no idea what to do with the rat, you’ll have to figure something out or share some of your monster kills with him.

“Be extremely careful with him, G- stats are an extremely bad indication as to how useful he’ll be in combat. A single wolf could likely put him down for good.”

----------------

They fed them next, it was an… interesting meal. They were eating inside of the projector room.

Despite what one might think of where he lived Ren had never had wolf meat before, moose? sure enough, salmon? More than he ever wanted to see in his entire life. But wolf was something new to him, and the stew the wolf meat was in was… different as well, stinging nettle shoots and other various still very green plants. They called it “spring wolf stew” and it was served in a wooden bowl with a horn spoon.

The more interesting question than how one would know it’s spring on an ice ball like this was how they made a cooking pot out of wood as well. There was that same red gemstone on it so perhaps it was some kind of fire magic? Ren had heard you could boil water in a paper cup provided the water never ran out but he didn’t know if that applied to stew or not.

Ren turned to Mirabella and decided to strike up a conversation.

“So… what do you think about all this?” Ren asked.

“I was stabbed and then clubbed in the head.” Mirabella said bitterly. “Now I’m in the coldest place I’ve ever even heard of. Assuming I can get over that, fighting monsters means I’m back to the old routine. Hopefully it pays better here.”

That was all Mira seemed to want to say on the subject so Ren turned to Liz.

“I’m from Mars, I’m used to the cold and navigating around places like this, but I don’t know about fighting. I’m a surveyor kobold for NASA.” Liz explained. “We’re hoping to recolonize the earth one day.”

“NASA?”

“Yeah I survey for water ice and stuff like that, do you have some kind of space agency where you come from?”

“Well yeah, it’s even called NASA, but we don’t have Kobolds, it’s only humans were I come from.”

“Huh.” The other two sitting at the table said.

“Where do you come from then?”

“Technically Japan, but I moved way out in the bush with my mom for the cannery. At the moment I work, er worked, on a fishing boat.”

“So no combat experience then?” Mira said, “For either of you?”

“I’m only experienced in fighting the weather.” Liz said.

“Combating what? There isn’t anything worth combating where I live except maybe bears and angry moose. I mean I’ve practiced with a sword I guess, but I don’t know if I’d call that combat.”

“Then why aren’t you too more worried about this?” Mira asked. “They said we only have so much time to learn to kill monsters before we just fade away and die again, I was looking at those skill sheets and they didn’t come with any combat skills.”

“Oh.” Ren and Liz said in unison.

That was all that was really said for a while until the silence was interrupted by the garden medusa rat noisily slurping at it’s bowl of wolf stew.

“So what do you think the story is with this rat?” Ren poked it with his foot, it didn’t react much to that while it was slurping the bottom of it’s bowl.

“I think it’s probably some kind of beast of burden, it has the attitude of something used to pull a cart, like an ox.” Mira said. “And ox are expensive animals let me tell you.”

“What did you do back in your world Mira?” Liz asked.

“Me? I was a nature mage adventurer, killed monsters using healing and enhancement magic. You get more for them that way.”

“How could you kill something with healing magic?” Ren asked. “Isn’t it supposed to… heal?”

“It’s easy to kill something with healing magic if you do a bad job, it eats up too much of their energy and they die. Same with enhancement magic.”

“That’s…” Ren was uncomfortable with that idea.

Mira read the attitude around the table.

“And you guys shouldn’t worry, because I used those same spells on my party members as I used to wear the monsters down, so I know how to use them.”

“How much do you think that’s going to improve our chances?” Liz asked.

“I have no idea, at home it was a service I offered to newbies, but at home was a sane place where the world wasn’t made entirely of ice.” Mira was starting to get a puffed up opinion of herself being the most experienced here.

That was when Ren decided to take a slightly better stock of his companions that he’d been summoned in with.

Mira was some sort of anthro wild dog person wearing a naturey leather getup that exposed her abs and she had a runner’s build and digitigrade legs. She didn’t have an apparent weapon on her and it didn’t look like her fingernails were the obvious choice for that. Presumably she used some kind of magic as a weapon. She had a selection of pouches around her waist of various sizes that Ren thought probably contained some kind of casting equipment or something. Her fur was spotted brown, white and black like a wild dog with a blonde-ish head of hair that was tied into a ponytail with various things like feathers and what looked like an animal bone braided into it. Her bust was probably about average.

Liz was a feathered rabbit humanoid, or possibly a hare, Ren didn’t quite know the difference, but she had feathers instead of fur even though she was a typical rabbit orange coat color. She also had digitigrade legs but her build was shorter and more filled out than Mira’s, a shortstack in other words. The rabbit features came through a lot more clearly in her face with the exception of the rodent teeth which were understated. Her outfit was decidedly contemporary being a pair of shorts, a tank top and a vest with a pair of rabbit adapted sandals, and a red bow in her hair. Her bust was probably above average.

That was around the time Maja came back around and noticed they were done eating.

“So!” Maja said clapping her paws together. “Who’s ready to learn how to kill a wolf?”

----------------

The room they were lead to had three tracks in it all pointing towards a single point on the floor. There were wooden training weapon racks and similarly wooden training wolves sitting on the wooden tracks with obvious seams for some reason. The wooden wolves were dented and beaten up, overall very crude.

“This is the wolf training setup we rented.” Maja said. “You will be training to fight wolves here, once you level up to the point where we aren’t under time pressure then you’ll be able to move on to something else. Pick a weapon from the rack and decide which of you will be going first.”

It took basically no discussion to decide that Mira would go first, Maja ticked something off on a clipboard.

Mira’s choice of weapon was a spear. She walked up to the training area with a confidence of somebody who had fought wolves before. The purpose of the wooden track was obvious to Ren, the wolves would lunge at you and you had to stab them, presumably your instructor would judge based on where you hit.

“All right, we’re going to start out a little slower because I don’t want you to get hurt and gradually speed things up.” Maja said. “Three, two,”

She did not wait for one and the middle wolf rolled down it’s track at a pretty good speed front half in the air to simulate it leaping and when it reached the middle of the track something pulled it’s body back down to the ground like it had reached the end of a rope.

Mira stabbed it in the side like it was a real wolf having no trouble getting out of the way, and was surprised when a burst of steam erupted from the seams around where she hit.

“Good, that was a killing blow with killing intent, just by that I don’t think you exactly need this sort of training but if you’re feeling rusty we can continue or let one of the other two try.” Maja said.

“I feel very confident I can kill wolves.” Mira said with a smile.

“Yes, it’s always nice to have somebody who has dealt with monstrous wolves before in a party.”

Ren was up next, he had picked a sword, while he had never been in a fight, his father back in Japan was a swordsmith. Practicing with a wooden sword was something he had retained after he moved, so he knew how to swing a sword but never in a fight. He gripped the training weapon with two hands and prepared himself.

“Ready?” Maja asked. “Then on three, Three!”

The wooden wolf barreled down the middle track and Ren just barely managed to get out of the way in time. But he stumbled and fell over.

“This is why we have this training area set up.” Maja said. “You may have good stats and great growth for them Ren, but that doesn’t convey any kind of fighting experience or skill.”

The first thing Ren wanted to say was “but you surprised me.” but he held his tongue. That was the point of this training.

The next attempt Ren managed to not fall over, but was too slow at attacking the wolf. Again the words “I wasn’t ready.” hovered on his tongue but he refused to make an excuse.

The next attempt he managed to hit the wolf in time, but the pathetic wisp of steam told him he didn’t do good enough.

“Good, now hit it harder next time.” Maja said.

The wooden wolf clipped his foot this time but there was at least twice as much steam because he landed a solid hit right at the base of it’s neck.

"If that is as hard as you can hit it, attack it twice" Maja admonished.

That did finally get a rise out of Ren.

“I’m trying the best I can, I’ve never had to fight a monster before.”

“Yes, but I have an extremely limited amount of time to train you, your party will be armored up and leaving out into the wastes with a guide tomorrow to fight wolves.”

“That is way too soon!” Both Liz and Ren said together.

“We’re in agreement about that, but the spell that summoned you is strict on time limits and the best way to figure out if you’re going to live long enough is just to push you out against the wolves.” Maja explained. “We could train you for longer but then missing a hunt would mean you’d die. With this you can get mauled by a wolf without it being a slow spiral death sentence.”

With that on his mind Ren’s next attempt was up to snuff, one bash against the wolf’s neck and then another reverse swing pushed out enough steam for Maja to finally approve.

He had to do it four more times before it was finally Liz’s turn and Ren got a break.

It was pretty clear Liz was more suited to ranged combat, or some sort of spear setup and was going to take more time than Ren did before she would be able to dodge the wolf effectively. That was when Ren remembered the fourth member of their party, the rat thing, so he walked up to Mira to talk to her about it.

“So what do you think is the deal with the rat thing dodging that mace?” Ren asked her.

“I don’t know. My impression is that these people’s stat parchments don’t tell the whole story and likely they won’t see beyond that.” Mira said gesturing at Maja who was giving tips to Liz. “I doubt we’ll be able to investigate until we actually secure our survival here though.

“So we should keep an eye out for them trying to put him down again?”

“Possibly, or they could be right and we’ll have to wait and see. I’m pretty confident that it’s some kind of beast of burden and that’s where it’s going to come in handy for us most of all, plus it can eat meat. If those wastes out there are as we’ve been told an omnivore pack animal is going to give us an edge.”

Ren decided to ask the other question that was on his mind.

“What do you think our chances are out there?”

“If it was just me and they were wolves from back home, I would already be out there hunting.”

“But…?”

“We have Liz, you and the rat, and we don’t know how far out from the city these wolves will be. If you or Liz get too confident in the value of the ‘skills’ you’ve learned today I would say not good.” Mira said bluntly. “On top of that this place is an ice ball, you get stuck out there there is no foraging, no firewood, no nothing, this isn’t a survialist’s place, go out well supplied enough or you’re dead.”

----------------

Eventually Liz did get the hang of things enough to be passable, after a couple swaps out with Ren, and they moved back to the dining/waiting room with the projector device. This time Maja was accompanied by a grizzled adventurer who introduced himself as Isak.

Isak was a weathered, older, but still handsome Lynx-man who looked like he was probably in his late 50’s. It was hard for Ren to tell if that was his actual hair color or if that was grey creeping in, still he pulled off the look rather well. Ren chuckled internally at the thought of a cat-man aging into a silver fox like that. There was a sort of dignified gravity to his features with the pointed ears, lynx beard, cat face. Even now in his older age Ren could tell that he was still holding onto his well toned musculature and strong figure through his leather and bone brigandine armor.

The audible clunk of wood when he walked meant that Ren didn’t even need to look to understand why he’d retired into the job of training newbies.

“The first thing to understand about the wastes is that we aren’t alone out there, there is nothing more critical than knowing what you’re fighting, and what you shouldn't fight.”

The projector clicked to an image showing a bunch of rodents, next to outlines of the same rodent.

“These are the behemoths of the wastes, you’re going to memorize what they look like so you don’t make the mistake of provoking one of them into attacking.” Isak said in a very firm and commanding voice. “Unlike the training with the wolves this is something you’re learning for life.”

“Why? Won’t there be some point where we could just kill one?”

Isak pulled out a tome from behind the countertop, it was enormous, and he dropped it on the table they were sitting at, it slammed down with a bang. Ren could have sworn that he felt it all the way where he was at.

“That’s a list of the known, notable, attempts we have of people going up against a behemoth, check the bookmark and you’ll understand. Be careful with the book though, it’s a library copy.”

Ren flipped open the page to the bookmark and began to read aloud. There was likely some kind of translation magic in play here but he didn’t have time to think about that too much, because of how absurd the thing he was reading sounded.

"The Demon King of Instant Death, notable for being able to ignore immunity to instant death spells, was killed by a Behemoth instantly. The behemoth wandered onto the battlefield that he attempted a reported 40 instant death spells on. The Behemoth known as Betsy has been tracked to this day." Ren read aloud for the rest of his group.

“Oh.” Mira said. “Why is this city even still standing if you have rats out here that are THAT strong?”

“They breed much slower than rats do and they don’t attack unless provoked, if you leave them alone they’ll just wander around out there doing… whatever they do.” Isak said. “So you need to know their silhouettes out there so you don’t attack them on accident.”

Ren and the group studied the slide full of rodents, all of them were strange variations on rodents, bright red squirrels with flowery tails, a weasel rat sorta thing carrying around some sort of hive on it’s belly with an extra set of arms, a combo of a mouse a flying squirrel and some kind of other rat. The behemoths also had a human size reference which put them by Ren’s estimation to be somewhere between the size of a sedan and one of those truck based motor homes, if you didn’t include their tail.

All of them were very strange to Ren, wondering why there would be this many variations of what were clearly rats, mice and other rodents. It was like different kinds of dragons, but most dragons weren’t this different from one another, at least not in one place.

After they had gotten the hang of things Maja made them swear an oath that sounded like a terms and conditions.

“Now I need you to place a hand on your chest and repeat after me.” Maja said. “I will not attack the behemoths of the wastes.”

They did so.

“And I am responsible for what happens if I do attack them.”

Again, she let them all repeat this for emphasis.

“And if I do attack one and somehow survive I will be responsible for the fallout caused by the behemoth.” Maja finished.

Then they had to sign a legal document saying they understood this as adventurers and also acknowledging that they may be waiving all sorts of rights if they provoke a behemoth.

Liz meanwhile was looking at the board and back at the rat Aishi.

“Doesn’t this rat, Aishi, look a bit like Model: F The Garden Gorgon?” Liz asked.

Now that Ren looked at it, all the features were the same, jellyfish and everything, just not the calico-coat color Aishi had. It had a jellyfish-bell-like tail instead of a kinda turtle shell bell, but other than that it just seemed to be a jellyfish rat with extra bits tacked on and garden eel hair, both of them.

“No, it’s possible they’re related in some way and I think it’s worth it to investigate that.” Isak said. “You see, you get a... feeling, from behemoths, even their pups, that trying anything would be the last thing you’ll ever do.”

“Also Aishi has G- stats.”Maja chimed in.

“And you want to keep him around?” Isak asked incredulously. “How bad are we talking here with the stats?”

“G- everything.”

Isak’s jaw flapped open and hung there as he tried to process that information. Then he suddenly laughed a deep hearty laugh.

“All right then, it’s the legendary lowest stat summon in all of history, we might as well try and figure out a way to keep ‘em alive.” Isak spoke to Ren and the rest of the group. “Do you think you’re ready for this? Do you have some kind of plan to keep something as dumb as a rock, tough as tissue paper and as strong as a dead slime, together and alive?”

They all shook their heads.

“Well, you’d better get on that then.” Isak said.

Isak finished up his lesson about the wastes talking about the only other thing they’d be running into out there that wasn’t other people.

“These are the brokers in rags, nobody knows what they look like under those rags, nobody is in a hurry to find out.” Isak said. “They come into town and trade stuff and they are the only other thing a behemoth will get angry at you for other than attacking the behemoth itself.”

The broker in rags on the screen was some kind of pile of rags on some sort of wooden disk that looked like it floated along. It looked like it maybe, could have been humanoid under those rags, but there were inconsistencies that might say otherwise.

“They’re related somehow but we don’t know how.” Maja said.

“Yep, and they come into town and trade strange things for even stranger things, the don’t talk so you just have to offer something to them and see if they accept.” Isak said. “I’ve heard of everything coming from them to magical artifacts nobody has even seen nor heard of before, that run out of charge after a while, to potatoes, just potatoes.”

“Don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with you, we’ll teach you how to trade with them later. Also don’t expect any help from them either, we have theories that they might be some kind of vending machine row-bot,” Isak said the word strangely. “that’s a word we’ve heard from summons like you guys.”

After that they had to get onto planning out how to keep this rat thing alive long enough to see if it was related to behemoths at all. It was already clear to everybody a domesticated behemoth would be more valuable here than anything else. Even if it was strange they were all rodents, and probably even if it was really weak. Isak left somewhere because he said he had business, but fortunately Maja was there to help them get used to the world a little more, and shoot down any ideas that involved something like, say, metal armor, or a metal sword, or in Liz’s case a gun.

The nice thing about all this was that Maja actually agreed to help them get what they needed for their little plan, she even said if they pulled it off it would be pretty smart.



Chapter 3


Ren woke up to find that it was all a dream.

Going snow machining on the frozen lake, coming home to smoked salmon, his mom telling him they were taking a big trip into the city. All a dream.

He was lying in a lumpy straw bed in-between two wolf pelts in a drafty room in a world frozen over with ice, and there was no way back. Because he had died in that frozen water.

There was one thing though, a bright spot that he could immediately think of, something that made things less painful and made him smile. There would be no more mosquitoes here, none, almost no bugs of any kind. They would not be able to survive in a world like this. It made him think “you know what, this might not be so bad.”

It was the kind of thing where he wondered if he had wandered into some kind of afterlife. Like there was some sort of points based system and while he hadn’t managed to make it into some kind of paradise, instead he made it somewhere where mosquitoes didn’t exist, which for him personally would be very high up on the list of requirements for a paradise. Assuming that he could deal with all of this cold. But cold was something he was used to dealing with, and while he wasn’t used to dealing with this much cold, the city he was in looked to be dealing with it fine.

Then there were his stats, they were great! His growth in relevant areas was S tier, and his stats “for a level 1” they told him, were also good. The letter grades were more an approximation rather than an exact science, something to give people an idea of where to start, and not a rock solid classification. That’s why they were grades and not numbers, downside was that “for level 1” which meant that he was only starting ahead, not starting out at the end. Still that meant there was room for growth.

The last thing was his body. Maja had called him an elf, but he was clearly a squirrel with tufted ears. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, it just felt a bit… basic. There were squirrels where he lived after all. He tried not to think too much about how Mira and Liz hadn’t changed on their way over. It wasn’t bad, it would clearly help him out in the cold, he enjoyed having a big bushy tail. Ren just wished he was something other than a squirrel. Then there was his actual bodyshape, he wasn’t actually sure if his companions knew he was a guy or not.

But then a thought entered into his mind Squirrels were c-

Ren instantly cut that thought off and started thinking about something else.

Ren started looking around at the room he was in, that he was also assured was just temporary, was basically a shed attached to the side of the summoning building. It wasn’t as bad as one would expect from that word, the walls had bales of straw up against them giving the place strong insulation, and they had given him a heating lamp, a nice magical unit that strangely enough had a cord going through the hide flap door. If it wasn’t for the draft specifically between two hay bales going right into his bed things would have been fine.

He was also in here with the giant rat thing, for some reason it was hard to forget his name was Aishi. Aishi was a pretty good shed?-mate and it was pretty clear the rat was domesticated, he had placed himself at the side of the bed positioned for easy pets and didn’t snore. He also didn’t poop anywhere inside, didn’t smell, and Aishi’s fur-stuff was very soft and extremely tempting to just go on petting, which Ren had done until he fell asleep. It was very easy to forget he was petting some strange jellyfish bell.

Over in the corner next to the door was hanging Ren’s equipment, an indication of the... “out of the garage” nature of this adventurer’s “guild” of which there were only two members. If you didn’t include the three people and rat summoned in. There was a bone edged wooden shortsword, a single scroll for him to practice “boiling liquid” with, which as an extremely basic water spell, and a set of wooden brigandine armor with a frankly ugly padded leather helmet with hastily cut out holes for his fuzzy squirrel ears, and a hide shield. It had been decided that Ren was the best candidate for a frontline fighter while Liz would be a better ranged support and Mira would make a better rogue.

Mira had said she could do healing spells, but neither Ren nor Liz had wanted to try those out. Maja had also advised that since their party was smaller than normal, it would be better for them to take on multiple roles to some extent, just because they had one less party member to rely on. To that end Ren was learning spells, Liz was learning healing magic, and Mira was learning camp support spells, with her healing spells… on the back burner.

Ren decided it was probably time to get up, it was difficult to tell if it was actually day or night outside because of all the artificial lights. The lights were technically done with magic, but they were actually gas lights augmented with magic, and that seemed to indicate to Ren that these people to some extent were trying to emulate the modern day with magic. Relatively modern day, if you considered the late 1800’s early 1900’s modern day.

Ren got up and walked out of the shed and into the backyard of the summoning building they had stayed at. Which also doubled as a guild hall, mess hall, house, and training hall.

There was a lack of rooms available at the moment, something about “great if you had a hard time waking up or wanted to wake up on a different floor” so he had opted to sleep with the rat in the shed, rather than figure out a way to crowd a third person into a room meant for 1. Ren smirked to himself, apart from the draft he was pretty sure he had the better bed than whoever had been forced to sleep on a mat on the floor, even if it was a bit lumpy.

Ren noted that the utter lack of metal and stone permeated every facet of this society on every level, even the roofs were either thatched or shingled with something Ren thought was bug chitin of some sort shined up. There were even some houses made of mud bricks. There were no glass windows, only wooden shutters, magic wind barriers and fur flaps. And the architecture overall was as if somebody had tried to emulate early 1900’s as well with an admirable ingenuity, wood inlaid with bone and chitin to create the look of stone arches and carved reliefs.

They weren’t stupid, that was clear, this wasn’t a society that was backwards. This was a society that was hobbled, and that had to do the best with what they had. That was evidenced by how the gas lamps had wind magic stones put into them, that fed them air directly to increase their brightness by producing oxygen to precisely improve the mixture. Or how they used light magic powered by the heat of the flame to make mirrors which reflected the light from the flames and put them down and out of the wind in the absence of glass. Or the simple fact that they managed to live on this utterly desolate rock at all in the first place.

Or how the only rodent he’d seen or heard the entire night was the slightly larger than man sized one that sat next to his bed. That was something that had really impressed him, after all where he’d come from there were still rats living in peoples houses, out in the world somewhere. They only had voles locally where he lived though.

When he did get up Ren met the rest of his group in the projector room for breakfast and the rat followed along behind him. The rat had seemed to take a liking? Interest? In him, it was hard to tell because it seemed like a very dull creature. Liz and Mira were poking at a plain looking wolf meat porridge without enthusiasm.

The other thing on the table was water, not watered down ale, not milk, water. They could get astonishingly pure water by using water magic on it, as that would leave contaminants behind, which even those were recycled as best they could. Frankly it was better than the tapwater he had back home, but that was out in the bush, so Ren wasn’t sure if that counted.

“Mornin’.” Ren said as he sat down to scoop out some meat porridge for him and the rat.

Liz and Mira looked up only just noticing he came in.

“Good morning.” Mira said clearly not quite awake.

There was an awkward silence where Liz clearly had something to say, and just as Ren finished putting down a bowl of porridge and water for the rat she let it out.

“You know you didn’t have to sleep in the shed right? You could have slept wi-, er, slept in the room with us.”

“Nah, that just wouldn’t feel right.” Ren said. “Besides it’s only temporary.”

“Liz is right, it would have been fine. I mean we’re all-” Mira said.

“I wouldn’t want to bother you guys.” Ren made another excuse.

Before the conversation could continue Maja barged into the room with Isak following close behind, with a sour expression. Maja was carrying some kind of salt shaker and Isak was carrying a sack.

“Here you go, garlic salt, I’m so sorry we ran out, it came in yesterday but I hadn’t moved it out of the store-room yet.” Maja handed the salt shaker to Mira. “That should make the wolf porridge a lot more palatable.”

Isak however came over to Ren and apologized to him.

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?” Ren was getting worried.

“I had to make a bit of choice for you, and I had to choose between getting you another room fixed up for you and the rat and a decent set of winter gear.” Isak looked mournful.

“So I’m sleeping in the shed for a while longer then?”

“No, I got you out of there and got you a decent set of winter gear.”

Ren could smell the “but” in that statement a mile off.

“But?”

“It’s recovered gear, the woman who was wearing it before you died.”

Ren felt that was already bad enough but Isak clearly was not done, Ren could feel dread creeping up his spine as to what could possibly be worse than that.

“It’s been cleaned up damn well, very high quality gear, authentic Demon Bear pelt and everything. Enchanted with the latest wind magic breathing, heating, and barrier spells. It’s even got a set of crystals you can refill on the fly, not disposable ones.” Isak said clearly trying his best to sell the gear while dancing around the problem.

“What is really wrong with it Isak?” Ren pressed.

“The woman who had it before you provoked a Behemoth, that’s why she died,” Isak pulled out a set of fur winter gear with a large, obviously patched hole, directly over the heart. “We just need to do a few successful hunts and we can replace it for you.”

“How does that make it worse?”

“It’s possible the garment is cursed by the Behemoths, not in a ‘your strength will wither away’ sorta way, more in a ‘if they see you with it they might attack’ sorta way.” Isak said nervously. “That’s why it’s a good deal for us, it cost basically nothing and hunting wolves is out of the behemoth’s general range.”

Ren looked at the fur armor, if you squinted it didn’t quite look like it was made for women, just a feminine coat. Really feminine, as in, Ren was already looking for ways to dampen that effect.

“I really want you to wear that because you’re going to be the frontline and it’s going to increase your chances of survival dramatically, by the time we can replace it you won’t need this to survive as the frontline out there.”

“But, it’s clearly made for women.” Ren protested just once.

Isak blinked at him, so did the rest of the room, taking a moment to re-order their thinking. Isak made a stunning recovery, the girls in the room did not.

“When it’s your first piece of gear from the bargin bin, and it’s this good, that’s tertiary at best.” Isak said.

Ren stopped trying to fool himself, it was clearly a dress and the only question was if he should try and hide that or just own it. He looked down at his new body, hearing his own voice, and the reactions of the group in the room, it was clearly a better decision to just own it. If he just owned the look anybody who didn’t mistake him for a woman could just bounce off.

I mean it couldn’t be too bad. Look at my stats, I could keep this up forever if I wanted to.

The spells around it made it sound more like a spacesuit than a coat. Looking at it there turned out to be a matching patch for the hole in the front around on the back.

Actually looking more closely at it there were dozens of less obvious patches all over with matching holes all the way through to the back. Most of these looked to be in very bad places, like where your neck would be, or, Ren experimented by touching his shoulder, where a bone would be.

“Are you sure this is good enough? It’s got a lot of holes in it that go right through.”

“There is nothing that would protect you from a behemoth, literally nothing, wouldn’t have mattered if this was made of six inches of steel or one sheet of toilet paper. This was all from one attack.” Seeing Ren’s expression Isak tried to reassure him again. “Besides we’re going to be well out of their range in wolf territory. They don’t like being there because the wolves are too stupid to not attack a behemoth, so they get annoyed and leave.”

“You’re certain we’re staying out of the behemoth’s range? Absolutely 100% certain?”

“Absolutely, I’ve been an adventurer for years and I know the area, should be just wolves and rabbit spirits for miles. Perfect place for this group to get some experience, and put that plan of yours to work.”

Ren still didn’t look convinced.

“Your choice is to be put more at risk of dying from wolves, which we are planning to be running into constantly for the foreseeable future and fighting to the death, or from dying to a behemoth which we’re out of their range and it’s not guaranteed they’ll attack even if we do meet one.”

“And we’re going to replace this pretty soon right?”

“Yes, I would say 3 runs and you’ll have a new set of armor, and be strong enough that you won’t need this armor anymore. At least not against wolves.”

“All right.” Ren reluctantly agreed.

----------------

Ren’s group departed from what he now knew was the “guild hall” which was a fancy name for a converted, run down, inn Isak and Maja bought for their adventurers guild startup. It was in a horrible place for an inn, but a perfect place for what they had in mind for it.

That was the best way Ren could think of putting “this neighborhood is a dump, deep in the city with okay access to carts to the barrier.” The public carts were again something anachronistic, they had pneumatic springs instead of metal ones again inlaid with that red crystal.

“What is that red crystal Isak?” Ren decided to ask.

“That’s enchanting crystal, you make it by curing monster blood.”

“It’s for enchanting? But I’ve seen it used for nails in the inn- er guild hall.”

“Well your choices for that are either monster bone or red crystal, low quality red crystal is cheap enough to be used for that or even disposable scrolls. Just so you know though, that scroll I gave you is not disposable, don’t lose it.” Isak clarified.

Ren checked for that scroll, he had gotten in some practice with it, but Isak told him they would be getting most of their practice done on the road. Safe practice in that Ren would be using to help set up camp. Ren also checked for the rest of his gear and found that the rest of it was still there.

That prompted Liz and Mira to do the same. Not counting her camping gear Liz was equipped with a bone crossbow, which was crude like Ren’s sword because it was cheap and her cold weather equipment wasn’t as strong as Ren’s but lacked the important “cursed” element. She also had a wooden buckler held on her belt and a knife.

Mira on the other hand opted for lighter gear, had taken two knives, but was confident her magic would pull her through without them. Lighter protective gear, however she was wearing more gear to protect her from the cold as the hot climate she was used to didn’t help against the cold.

That was one place where Mira had the undeniable edge though, magic from her previous life, Ren had none before coming here, Liz was from mars and thus had no magic either, and who knew with the rat.

Ren was wearing the coat, and on him it could only be called a dress. It dropped down to his knees, and he’d occasionally look down and there it was. It was a strange feeling for him, especially since his new biology meant that he didn’t currently have a pair of pants that fit, just shorts. It wasn’t... unwelcome, and the enchantments in the coat meant that he didn’t have to worry too much that he couldn’t see the shorts underneath the… skirt.

The whole thing in his opinion was ruined by the ugly stitched together leather leg armor he had to wear.

The rat had a loaned “heating harness” jury rigged rat boots and a tarp. The similarities between Aishi(Ren had trouble forgetting the rat’s name for whatever reason) and the behemoths, had afforded him a higher class environmental protection than the rest of the group. Mira was the first one to speak up about this.

“Why does the rat get better cold gear than us?” Mira asked.

“G- stats, you cannot imagine how weak he is. We’re keeping him out of combat, but he could keel over from frostbite and that would be that.” Isak replied in a placating tone.“Also those are all loaned out for him, but I’ve been told if we can level him up with your plan they’ll give us similar gear for the entire party.”

“Oh.”

Mira filled the silence(the cart was remarkably quiet) by discussing battle strategy for the four of them. Isak warned them not to include him to integrally into battle plans, at least not for the long term.

“Why shouldn’t we include you in the plans Isak?” Ren was the first to ask.

In answer Isak clonked his wooden leg onto the floor.

“I’m starting to push 160 now kid, I’m here on the first missions with the wolves to make sure you don’t die until you can stand on your own, but after that I’m retiring from adventuring for good and I’m going to be the person who gets you connections to say weaponsmiths and such.” Isak explained. “The best I might be able to do for you, outside of wolves, would be to drive a cart or something if we REALLY need to, but frankly I should have retired from adventuring out into the cold five years ago and kept my leg.”

That was around the time when the comfortable cart ride ended at the edge of the wind magic dome. Strangely enough the houses out here had no city wall around them, and there wasn’t one further on back, instead these houses looked designed to kill.

Chokepoints, boarded up arrow slits, roof gardens gave way to archery scaffolding, some of the boards that made up the road looked like they could be flipped up somehow. There were even slots Ren expected would probably fit boards of some kind across the chokepoints as well. This was the kind of place where somebody lived with a weapon at their belt at all times.

The other thing Ren noticed was that the maximum amount of space was being taken up by plants of any kind, the artificial light from the tower made this area feel hot. People were so desperate for more growing land that blanketing every archery scaffolding were vines to catch light from the arc of the two artificial suns that ran up different sides of the dome.

All of this was in contrast to the endless expanse of ice outside the dome. Nearly featureless if it wasn’t for the roads and markers, it stood looking almost pristine like snow had never fallen there, a dead world, one so long dead that nothing moved on it’s surface, not snow, not ice, not even tectonic plates would disturb what was placed down out there.

And that is where Ren and his party were going now.






Chapter 4


The camp as it turned out was fine, the area inside the little dome of air magic looked untouched except for the peg they used to tie down Aishi. The wards had held, and nothing was able to get in.

If one wanted to look on the upside, that’s what you’d say.

Aishi ambled over to them, like it was nothing, his paws were stained red with the pools of icy blood that littered the clearing.

What scared Ren was that there wasn’t any other evidence of a fight on Aishi himself, not a speck of blood apart from his paws. Which was strange because of the horrible carnage spread throughout the clearing.

It looked like there had been a whole pack of wolves here at one point, maybe two. As Liz and Mira examined the scene they both came to the same conclusion.

“None of these wolves escaped from here. There are tracks in but I don’t see any out except for one thing that looks a lot bigger.”

Mira nodded her head in agreement with Liz. Isak came over to look at the prints.

“Those are behemoth tracks all right, nothing else out here is that big.” Isak put his hands on his hips. “Welp that’s two things answered, the behemoths aren’t hostile to Aishi here, and we also know what wiped out these wolves.”

Looking at the giant rat-prints himself Ren noticed something about the pawprints.

“Are we sure Aishi didn’t do this?” Ren asked, “These behemoth prints could have been from before and there isn’t any evidence of a struggle.”

“Pretty sure, there wouldn’t be a struggle of a behemoth was involved. It’s entirely likely our behemoth came over to visit Aishi here, and killed all of the wolves while just walking over to say hello.”

The entire party stared at Isak.

“I told you that story didn’t I? That wasn’t just a tall tale, you listen to stories like that on Karg or you die.”

“But how could something possibly be THAT strong?!” Mira asked flabbergasted. “There are wolves here that were cut in half, just a complete perfectly straight line.”

“Like I said they were created by the Exogenous Gods as the supreme weapons of war, from a society that devoted most of it’s time to war. If even a single one of those monsters got onto Karg the surface would be scoured of life and they would destroy the entire planet after that.”

It was during that stunned silence that Ren noticed that Aishi wasn’t wearing his environmental harness.

It was an adrenaline fueled few seconds between him exclaiming “SHIT!” and picking up the rat to rush him into the camping dome.

Everybody was crowding around Ren trying to figure out what was wrong with Aishi.

“Is he hurt?”

“Move aside, I think I have a spell for wounds.”

“Potion here, we use that first!”

The strange thing was Aishi seemed to be fine.

“Ren, what’s up? Why’d you panic like that?”

“No environmental harness.” Ren explained simply, now sitting down panting from having to manhandle a man sized rat in a hurry. Aishi was heavy for his size.

Everybody picked up something different from this interaction.

Liz picked up that the Rat was extremely calm even when they weren’t, which was unusual for a domesticated animal.

Mira thought that it must have some kind of magic or skill for surviving.

Isak said:

“I would say that about confirms it for me, it’s related to those behemoths out there.” He looked at the rat wistfully. “To think, a behemoth that is this domesticated, we’re holding onto this guy for sure.”

“Won’t…” Ren panted. “The people who loaned us all this stuff, want to take him away?”

“That’s where I was smart, all this gear was a loan from the university,” Isak said in a smug voice. “They wouldn’t want to take care of him directly, they want to study him. And they can do that while he’s in our care.”

“Are you sure that Aishi here didn’t kill all those wolves?” Ren asked.

“G- stats, evidence of a behemoth nearby, I’d say that Aishi isn’t ever going to be useful in combat but he is going to be useful as a connection to the behemoths.”

“But he can survive out there, unaided.”

“So can behemoths, we don’t know how they do that,” Isak said. “You made the right call putting him back in here, even if he can survive out there without the harness doesn’t mean we’re going to let him, he’s too important to risk anything happening.”

They started looking through the carnage around the camp for usable wolf parts, Liz looked very much green around the gills but still managed to help them out. This was the kind of thing Ren had seen a lot of at the cannery, it didn’t make it any better for him.

Then Ren remembered something important.

“Hey, we need to test out the experience theory, somebody get the board, I’ll grab the wolf!”

“Good thinking, I was so excited I forgot.” Isak said.

Ren would have felt bad about doing this, if these wolves had felt at all like animals to him. They really didn’t, animals from his experience were afraid of humans and you could intimidate them, they would have run away if you shot one of them. They wouldn’t just jump in all at once, they would circle around, wait for some other wolf to go first. Only monsters attacked like these did.

They got the board set up, a simple decently long board with a wooden peg connecting it to two other boards to act as a hinge. They placed the tied up wolf close to the fulcrum, the wolf was unconscious still, and now was the moment of truth, get the rat to walk the plank.

Ren looked away as it was happening. If it made a sound, he didn’t want to hear it.

It did work though, Ren knew it worked because Isak let out a whoop of pure joy.

They celebrated by eating some of that Nival Wolf, which was notably higher quality than what they had been eating. Ren noticed that Isak was collecting most of the monster blood as he taught Mira how to clean and dress them. The blood sponge had to be drained into wax lined jars several times in a row.

The jovial attitude around the camp was almost enough to make Ren forget about the carnage outside, or it would have been if he didn’t have the job of picking through it to find still usable wolf parts and chunks of frozen blood. Isak seemed intent on cleaning out every iota he could from this windfall as the behemoths didn’t eat any animals they killed.

Ren noticed something else about the clearing as it was cleared up. There weren’t any other signs of a fight. If somebody had gone in with a grenade or a gun you would expect bullet holes or shrapnel or something. The only evidence that there was a fight here at all was the blood and the corpses. Not even an extraneous scratch mark was left. It was like the wolves simply… fell apart where they stood.

After all the work around the camp was done Ren found himself sitting around the campfire, which was some kind of gas or flamethrower spell turned waaaay down. One of the things that disappointed Ren was how it never really seemed to be night here, it was always this dim daylight out. Sitting there was when he thought to ask a couple questions of Isak.

“Isak, why aren’t there any signs of the fight on the ice?”

“Oh noticed that did you?” Isak said impressed. “That’s how behemoths fight, they kill people and leave buildings untouched. They don’t hit anything they don’t intend to, ever.”

“That’s impossible.” Ren protested.

“That’s why we’re going to get rich with our little friend here, people want to know how ‘impossible’ is done.”

Ren stared into the fire some more, it wasn’t a campfire but he had to admit it had it’s own appeal.

“Why were you so excited when that board trick worked.”

“Means we’re going to be getting university grants for our time, and it means other adventuring groups are going to know to stay away. Aishi is part of our group on an official level, and anybody coming back with him would fall under suspicion if something ‘mysteriously happened’ to us.”

“Does the university really have that much pull with adventurers?” Ren asked.

“Oh yes, you piss off the university you will find things very hard for yourself.”

Another pause to watch the flames.

“Isak,” Ren thought to ask. “What if the behemoth comes back for Aishi?”

“I doubt it will, it would have left with him if that were the case. Besides we’re leaving tomorrow and Aishi seems quite attached to you, I think we can pretty safely say you’re protected.”

Just then Isak seemed to realize something.

“Aww crap...” and then he got up and began rummaging through his pack.

“Whats up? Lose something?” Ren was instantly on alert.

“Nope, we had a behemoth sighting here today, means we need to report it, AH, here we go!” Isak pulled out a paper flare, held his breath walked out of the dome and shot it up into the air. With no trees that flare would likely be seen for miles.

Isak sighed with relief when he got back into the tent’s forcefield.

“Of course this means somebody has to stay up for when the patrol comes by, but that’ll be for whoever keeps watch.”

“Not you?” Ren asked.

“One of the privileges of being both old and the leader is that I can decide who gets watch, unfortunately that also means I need to be the one to talk to them when they get here. So you guys will be doing watch shifts and I’ll get last watch before morning.”

----------------

The flare like the campfire didn’t act as expected, instead of slowly falling out of the sky and burning out it simply sat up there floating and burning in an atmosphere without oxygen. Ren looked at it during his watch trying to think about what kind of spell could keep it up there like that.

He was on watch, the second watch, they rolled one of Mira’s dice to figure out the order.

The rat was out here with him, it seemed to have taken a liking to him and had half of it’s body up on his lap with thankfully cleaned paws. Ren enjoyed petting the rat. He felt that it was like a well trained dog, obedient and calm. Also warm, the jellyfish bell was like a blanket and it was noticeably warmer inside than out.

The night sky here was no different than the day sky, dark, stars, a moon that was just able to be made out by how it made stars disappear. Of course at the moment he couldn’t see any of that because of the flare hovering above him.

That was when he heard something skitter around, but when he looked for whatever it was he couldn’t find it. Aishi didn’t react to it even with his many eyes taking turns watching in all directions. There is only so long you can be on watch for something that only happens once, so eventually Ren turned his gaze out to the frozen wastes around him.

Continuing to look out at the frozen wasteland around him to be frank Ren was bored, he didn’t have his handheld, he didn’t have any books, and he didn’t have anybody to talk to.

“Hey.”

Ren looked over at the tents as to who said that, it didn’t sound like Mira or Liz and it certainly didn’t sound like Isak. There was nobody there, everybody was still asleep.

“Hey, Ren, down here, I wanted to ask you a couple questions.”

The rat, was taking to him.

Ren blinked at the rat, he really must be tired after today, an animal was talking with him.

“Can I ask you a few questions?” Aishi the garden medusa asked him.

Ren nodded his head dumbly.

“First, where you come from, do they have any magic, any at all?”

It took Ren significantly longer to answer that question than if say somebody else had asked him that.

“No, not unless you count sleight of hand.”

“You came from Earth right?”

Ren nodded his head.

“How far into space are you guys, has somebody walked on Mars yet?”

Ren had to think about that one, it was an odd question.

“I heard last year we just launched the International Space Station, the Mars Polar Lander is supposed to be landing sometime soon.”

There was a delay that let some of the shock wear off for Ren.

“Ooooh, so it’s a couple hundred years too early then by the sound of things.” Aishi mumbled to himself like he was reading something, even though he was still just sitting in Ren’s lap.

Ren woke up a bit from his stupor at that point, a giant rat asking him questions could only keep him stunned for so long after all.

“Hey, what’s the deal? Why can you talk now?”

“I’ve always been able to talk.” Aishi said with the air of somebody looking at their phone.

“Well? Why didn’t you?”

“I’m going to tell you a secret Ren.” Aishi looked up at him then around at the camp. “I’m not dead.”

“Well obviously, you’re right here talking to me.” It was apparent at this point that Ren was more than a little tired.

“No, I mean I didn’t die before coming here.”

“Oh, OOH. That’s not good.”

“Yeah, so I’m going to ask you to keep this on the down low for right now.”

“Why?”

“I’m still suspicious of this whole affair.”

Ren hadn’t looked at the clock in what felt like a long time, he was pretty sure it was past 3 in the morning. Somewhere he knew he probably should question this more but he just didn’t have it in him right now.

“Yeah, whatever, sure.”

Ren did not stop petting Aishi, frankly that was the only thing keeping him awake at that moment. If he was more awake it probably would have made things more awkward, but maybe not, Aishi was just a big rat, even if he could talk, and was a jellyfish medusa rat thing. Yeah that made sense to his 3 AM, post fight, post gory crime scene cleanup, brain.

About fifteen minutes later, well it really could have been ten, or even thirty, Ren was not looking at the clock too closely. The response from their flare arrived, another adventuring party by the looks of them.

If you only looked at their gear the first impression would be “a young rich pretty boy and his all female adventuring party.” The party leader, who Ren later found out was named Matteo, was wearing a full set of bone-plate armor and used a halberd or spear, something pointy with a stick that was fancy. He was a moose man and was bulky as heck, easily 6’6” but no antlers. Very well built, Ren would bet he worked out beyond what was required for adventuring.

A fox woman(Leah), was the party’s other frontline with a more traditional sword and shield setup. Not bulky and actually rather thin, Ren would have called her a blacksmith’s build.

An antelope woman (Tyra) seemed to be some kind of ranger with a bow, the notable thing about her was that she looked like she could kick one of the wolves today once and it would just die.

And their apparent healer(Cleo) a lithe mountain goat man. Yes, that was the first indication that there was something different and not just “Matteo’s floozy’s”. Or perhaps it was, looking at Cleo, Ren thought that was still a very distinct possibility.

The second indication that this wasn’t going to be their rival team with that one jerk cropped up the moment Ren started talking to Matteo.

“Jeez, is everybody all right here? We have a healer in our party!” The Moose Man said to Ren the moment he walked through the tent’s environmental barrier.

“Nobody’s hurt, but hold on a sec I should wake the party leader, important things have been happening here.”

Ren slipped into Isak’s tent and shook him awake, there was no need to get dressed or anything Isak was expecting this.

“Isak is that you?” Matteo exclaimed. “I haven’t seen you in months, so this is what you did with that retirement of yours.”

“Matt?” Isak questioned back.

“I never thought I’d run into you out here, so what’s up? Wolves giving you trouble?”

“I wouldn’t say that, but we ran into behemoth tracks around our camp today. That’s why there’s so much blood, it ran into a wolf pack.”

Matteo instantly got serious at that, turned his head to Tyra the ranger and sent her off to scout around. Leah went with her and Cleo came over to talk to Ren.

Cleo was dressed in higher end armor than Ren was, if this was an RPG Ren would have said he was a priest. One of the side effects of higher end armor was that it was powered by magic, thus easier to maintain and more flexible in it’s design. A lot more flexible in it’s design. This was armor for those absolutely confident in their fitness as well as being almost explicitly there to tease glimpses at his body. Built for a slender effeminate guy.

Ren wasn’t sure how much he should be looking, worried about letting his eyes wander he tried using something he had heard about from one of his autistic friends once. “I stare at their nose, people can’t tell the difference.”

“So that rat there,” Cleo said. “Any connection to the garden gorgon behemoths?”

“We don’t know, we think it might be, he was in camp alone when the behemoth passed by.”

“Why not take him along with you on the hunt? He seems obedient enough.”

It was hard for Ren to keep that inside his head at the same time as Aishi speaking to him earlier.

“Yes, but his stats are all G- across the board, we were looking for alternate ways to level him up.”

“Really?” Cleo crouched down to get a closer look at Aishi. “I always wondered what G- everything would look like, I almost can’t believe you’re trying to keep him alive.”

Cleo began to pet Aishi and Ren really couldn’t decide how he felt about that. On the one hand he had done that a lot since coming to this world, it was a comfortable relaxing default for him. On the other, he had thought of Aishi as a large dog until he spoke.

“You seem a bit distracted Ren.”

“Today has been a little bit too much, first fight with wolves, or ever for that matter. Come back to find this bloodbath, and then I get second watch.”

Cleo stood up and put a hand on Ren’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry about it. Fighting starts out hard but it gets a lot easier, the only thing you have to fight are monsters, and these wolves out here, they’re all monsters. We’ve tried to tame them, but only monster tamer skill users can even get them to stop attacking anything else on sight. The best advice I can give you is sleep like a soldier, learn to catch any whenever you can.”

Ren had to ask Cleo something that wasn’t exactly burning in his mind, but was stuck there pretty firmly. He just had to know.

“Cleo, are you and Matteo… an item?”

It took Cleo a second to shift gears and realize what Ren was asking.

“Oh, OH, I suppose it might look like this group is ‘the rich guy and his harem’ doesn’t it?” Cleo laughed. “Nope, we all graduated together and just kinda stuck together. There isn’t anything like that in the group.”

Then Cleo made a bit of an assumption that turned the conversation awkward for both of them.

“Sorry, I’m married.”

It was during that awkward phase where Aishi showing tact saved them by butting his head onto Ren’s lap for pets. That diffused the tension in the air a bit.

“Yeah, I just wanted to head things off a bit early there.”

“I wasn’t expecting that, you look like you just recently finished whatever adventuring school there is around here.”

Cleo laughed at that.

“Well adventuring makes you age well, I’m actually forty five.”

Ren giving himself some leeway to look, could not see that at all.

“I do have something to say to you though, people are going to be a bit reluctant to get into a relationship with you for a long while.”

“Why?”

“You’re a summon right?” Ren nodded. “Fresh summons have very high mortality rates, most people know that one summon they became friends with in their first weeks, only for them to become wolf chow.”

“Oh. That’s a bit cold isn’t it?”

“It’s not your stats that determine if you’ll live or die out here starting out, they help, but it’s how fast your fighting skill can grow to keep up with your race to level up.”

“I’ll take that to heart at least.”

“Oh and another thing, normally I’d tell you about a shop or two to go to, but I think what you have going is working fantastic.” Cleo looked Ren up and down. “You don’t need a specialized tailor, you can just pick any women’s clothing store you want.”

Blushing at the compliment, Ren was let off watch then by the new party so he could finally get some sleep. He would have to thank Cleo for that later. Aishi followed him into his tent and Ren flopped down onto his mattress, too tired to undress.

“I cast a sound dampening spell on the tent.” Aishi said, and Ren was too tired to question it.

“So Aishi, what’s your impression of this world so far?”

“Not the worst situation I’ve ever been in to be honest.”

“Really? And what kind of situations would a garden medusa like yourself get into? Actually scratch that, how do I know you’re a garden medusa, a he, and your name?”

“Oh that’s easy, I’ve got a broadcast system that tells people those things automatically.”

“You’ve been putting stuff into my head?”

“No, it’s more like a signpost you can read sorta situation.”

“How can I even read the signpost then?”

“Same way we can talk and understand each other, that’s been hijacked for the broadcast.”

“Why would you even need something like that in the first place?” Ren asked after a couple seconds thought.

“Too many different races, people keep customizing them and hybridizing them, ‘I want to be a vampire werewolf vampire’ or ‘I want to be an alpaca centaur’ eventually somebody just got tried of trying to figure things out and implemented a simple solution. Spend the next fifty years developing the broadcast system. That was pre-split of course.”

“It doesn’t sound that simple.”

“I should mention the person who came up with it was a programmer.”

“Ah, okay then. That sounds like something a programmer would do.”

Ren tried to think of what a jellyfish poncho rat would actually look like and failed.

“So that Cleo, right?” Aishi said.

“Yeah.” Ren said nonplussed.

“Oh come on I saw how you looked at Isak, don’t tell me you draw the line at looking at somebody who wants you to look.”

“I’d rather people didn’t know. It’s one thing to look at somebody from a distance, it’s another when they’re right up close to you.”

“Well he did give you some useful information, I know a bit of human history pre-split, it sounds like coming over here to be an adventurer has given you a bit of a life extension.”

Ren noticed the word “pre-split” in there again.

“What do you mean pre-split?”

“It means prior to the invention of magic.”

“What?” Ren laughed. “I mean obviously there is magic here, but ‘invention’ you’re saying we invent magic? Besides, I can only get a life extension if I live long enough fighting monsters. If you ask me that sounds like a bit of a raw deal.”

“Not with your stats it doesn’t sound like it. Right now it does, but once you’ve ‘leveled up’ as they call it, a couple times things are going to get a lot easier for you.”

“It only occurs to me to ask now, what happened when the wolves attacked?”

“I’ll only tell you if you don’t say anything until after all of this gets out. I’m still scoping out the situation and I want to see this university for myself.”

“All right.”

Aishi looked him in the eye and said.

“I killed those wolves.”

“With G- stats.” Ren stated.

“Yeah.”

“And a behemoth just coincidentally showed up and all the wolves were clearly killed like a behemoth would kill them.”

“Yep.”

“If you didn’t want to tell me you could have just said so.” Ren said huffily before rolling over and trying to go to sleep. As it turned out heavy winter gear isn’t the best to wear inside of a heavy winter tent with heavy winter bedding.

Getting too warm Ren had to face something that he had been trying to avoid.

Taking off his clothes Ren looked down at his… underwear.

It wasn’t the same as what he had been wearing on the trip over to this other world.

It felt wrong. That was a lie.

It scared him. That wasn’t a lie.

It felt like he was plunging off a cliff that he had been standing on for most of his life, but looking down, now he had wings.

It scared him out of habit, living on edge had left him scared for most of his life.

It scared him because everything felt so natural for a guy like him to wear. Looked so natural. That Ren could look down and see a bra and panties with his body and feel perfect, that nothing else about him needed to change. Even the raised hipline essentially meant he wouldn’t even be able to wear normal men’s clothes again.

Just once before he turned off the light he peeked down at himself, just to remember what it looked like, in case he woke up from all this. He was flat naturally, but the way everything fit together, the way it matched, the way his hips were exposed, the way it looked, and just looking down and seeing it with his own eyes. He went to sleep cradling the little flame of hope in his heart.