June 13, 2021

It's been days since Dust left the Ebott region.

He's been spending his time at the Hero's Guild: humanity's last stand against the Celestial Calamity, as evident by the 24-hour military activity. Even the non-combatant support staff worked in shifts to cover the unending workload.

From what he observed, much of the buzz took place at the main lobby where outstanding activities would be posted on the mission board for the heroes to pick up, with rewards given out according to importance, difficulty, and urgency. It was an old-fashioned low-tech set-up. Judging from the dilapidated 4K monitors hanging overhead, the apocalypse disrupted their ability to maintain their digital infrastructure.

Most of them were lower-priority jobs, though. Grunt work dressed up with a better name. Perhaps urgent or high-profile cases are directly issued to the best candidate?

"Not a single dreamworld?" Dust groaned. They had invited him all the way to the heart of their prestigious organisation, then had him doing… absolutely nothing.

Under normal circumstances, he wouldn't mind the free meals and lodging. He was the infamous lazybum of the Underground, after all. However, a constant tense atmosphere made it difficult for him to get comfortable.

The heroes didn't trust him, and he didn't trust the heroes. The cordial invitation was merely a polite front issued by James Pashowar, or so he figured.

Were they afraid of him, Dust wondered? In theory, being back at LV1 meant that he could now stand around humans without triggering any ill effects, especially while wearing his special cap and cloak.

Still, too many of the heroes bore an aura of Red, like Anya and Stephan, parading around without suppressants. He could tell from the faint mist that trailed behind them anywhere they went. Ever since he intercepted the heretics at the hospital, he could somehow see the ebbs and flow of Determination. Their glow seemed to grow stronger at night as well. He thought that this was an odd development, since he knew he was not born with this kind of perception.

All that Determination gathered in one place… This must be Pashowar's way to show off his fighting force: to say that even in the worst of circumstances, humanity is not to be trifled with.

'The Guild had survived for a thousand years and will survive another thousand years!'

The message brimmed with confidence, but the delivery was aggravating. It would have been nicer if they gave him the official tour within the first few hours instead of letting him bum around for days while they flaunted their might.

Anxiety gnawed on the back of Dust's mind; The Celestial Calamity could reactivate at any moment. If the Guild continues to refuse him a job, he'll be forced to cancel the cooperation and hunt his victims on his own.

Then, right before he decided to give up, Anya approached him with a sealed dossier. The Guildmaster had finally issued Dust a formal mission.

While Dust read the contents, she briefed the details of the task at hand: "We've received reports of armed smugglers carrying suspicious cargo. According to our intel, their last known location is an old warehouse. Judging from their modus operandi, we suspect them to have a mix of heretical mages and experienced mercenaries on their side. That makes this mission especially dangerous."

"So," Dust asked, "Are we dealing with an indie group or a smaller branch of a bigger syndicate?"

"I would consider the latter. Regional smugglers have had a known history of transporting contraband during the pre-Calamity days. Nothing noteworthy. However, this latest collaboration is a sign of a greater unifying power, allowing them to take bolder risks for larger profits."

"Welp. As the saying goes: 'if you can't beat them, join them'. The surviving crime lords must be making a killing during these extra hard times. Kinda makes me wish I took the effort to pop 'em all during the earlier years. Unfortunately, I wouldn't have been able to do so without abandoning Ebott."

His eyebrow raised when he arrived at a peculiar detail in the report. "Hold on… this says that you guys never managed to tail a convoy all the way to its destination. 'Tracking prohibited due to Hollow obstructions'? Seriously?! A bunch of common criminals had the balls to drive their precious cargo straight into a field of nightmares? And they survived every attempt? Do they have some kind of a Hollow-charmer in their group or what?"

The woman tensed her grip. "You are correct. That is how we suspect that they have allied with heretical mages, especially necromancers. By the way, the exact enchantments to produce the desired result are known to me. I could even apply them myself and mount an assault, but Guildmaster Pashowar has vehemently refused the proposal because it would take our forces deep inside of unknown territory."

"Understandable. You guys are stretched pretty thin as is. Makes sense then that James would want to strike where it hurts the most: their wallet. No need to wade into Hollow territory if you can sabotage them from afar. So, how many can I kill? Any particular fellows that James wants captured instead?"

"Negative. Do as you please. They're yours to reap."

"Alrighty, let's get going. We have some extermination to do."

Thus the Hero's Guild once again transported him under the cloak of night, blindfolded by personal request. They didn't pry, either out of respect or convenience. The plan was to have Dust ambush the warehouse, while Captain Anya and her crew waited in hiding at the perimeters.

Infiltrating the warehouse itself was super easy. After all, it was nothing a few teleports from the right angle couldn't handle. He landed on the mezzanine, looking over the facility from above.

It was so quiet that he could hear a pin drop. At a glance, the place seemed absolutely abandoned. Cleared out. Perhaps they had arrived too late to catch the criminals red-handed?

He also noticed what looked like a bunch of explosives plastered on a trapdoor. Should anything remain on site, whatever they were trying to protect must be underneath there.

When Dust stepped forward to look over the railing, he felt a thin nylon string resisting against the bottom of his shoe.

"Oh shit-"

A moment later, the explosion had sent him crashing and tumbling into a wall. Right before he lost consciousness, he thought that had lost his one measly point of health and died.

Yet, he was somehow still alive. As he woke up, he could hear Anya's alarmed voice holler through the earbud taped to his earhole.

"Mister Dust!" she exclaimed, "Report, Mister Dust! Do you copy?" Even at the height of concern, she maintained her military tone.

Reaching for the communicator strapped to his belt, he found a piece of shrapnel jutting out from the gaps between his ribs, lodged against the wall behind him. What a close call. A centimetre higher or lower, and that sharp bit of metal would have struck his bones head on. That would have been a fatal blow.

He yanked out the offending piece of metal and tossed it aside. Opening a secure line, he said: "I'm alive. Haven't lost any limbs either."

"Thank goodness…" Relieved, her professional front faltered, though she immediately forced herself back to business. "Status report, please. What happened? I heard an explosion."

Dust sighed. "This warehouse is a giant trap. There's bombs and tripwires everywhere. Everyone skedaddled too. Have any of your guys managed to chase them down?"

"Please wait for a moment." A moment, it was. He could hear Anya coordinating between the other teams drafted for this mission.

Upon return, she said: "Team Bravo chased another enemy convoy all the way to the Hollow field. After that, they were unable to continue their pursuit. Mister Dust, for your next course of action, I suggest that you hide yourself inside of the warehouse. The smugglers might return thinking that the explosion led to your untimely demise."

In addition, The Phantom whispered into his mind: "Brother, I can't believe I'm saying this, but listen to the necromancer. I can sense something magnificent lying beneath this warehouse. Trust me on this, nyeh heh heh!"

How interesting. Maybe they were protecting that trapdoor after all.

Dust responded back, "Sound plan. I'm gonna chill in the beams until they return. Or until you call it quits. Whichever comes first."

So, that was what he did. He waited, and waited, and waited. Patience was one of the virtues in his sea of vices.

Hours later… Anya reported: "Your targets have returned. One truck is arriving at the main entrance as we speak, though more may be inbound."

"Roger that," he whispered back.

The first team immediately went around disarming the explosive traps for their own safety. Rather intriguingly, they seemed to be rather nervous of their own setup.

After disarming the bombs on the trapdoor, a bunch of muscular thugs lifted the whole hunk of metal off the ground and out of the way. There was nothing but cold hard concrete under there. Dust was both annoyed and amused by their scummy bait.

Soon after, the criminals proceeded to remove a similarly heavy panel of the warehouse's back wall, revealing the hidden true entrance to the fabled basement. They went inside and returned a while later hauling out their secret stash: burlap sacks of mystery contents.

That was his signal to strike. Swift and merciless, he left none alive.

In the end, the harvest was not as much as he had hoped for. "I think I hit LV 4 there. Sheesh, that's nowhere near enough. What were they hauling anyway?"

With the tip of his finger, he made a small cut on the nearest bag. Grains of pink orbs trickled out from the gash.

He reported back to Anya: "Hey, they're transporting ammonium nitrate. Fertiliser. Looks like the stuff you sell to desperate farmers at jacked up prices, or used in IEDs. I guess now we know how they made those traps."

Anya replied: "If more of those traps were triggered during a group raid, they might have ignited the fertiliser and caused a massive explosion. All our forces would have been obliterated, including the ones scouting outside. The smugglers were prepared to sacrifice their business to prevent authorities from securing their stock…"

The Phantom didn't care about all of that. "Silly brother, those stinky bags are merely padding! They've hidden something much, much more valuable inside."

How paradoxical. What sort of contraband could be so controversial that they're willing to destroy it?

Dust reported: "I'm going in to investigate. Ending comms. Over and out."

He thus went down the stairs. There, he found more sacks of fertiliser surrounding crates of other illegal goods, ranging from weapons to questionable drugs. They even had several crates of good old dynamite.

Deep in the stash, he found a lone locked iron box. Faint ebbs of magic seeped out from the gaps under the lid. After confirming that it wasn't trapped, he cut the lock open with a Karma tinged bone, revealing a single bottle filled with a glowing prismatic liquid.

Picking it up, he questioned: "What the hell is this?"

The Phantom replied, "Use your magic eye, you lazybones."

On request, Dust activated his Seer's Eye to confirm the contents. The data read: '20000 EXP'.

"Bottled EXP…? How? Where from?"

Yet, The Phantom urged: "Drink it."

Dust furrowed his brows in disbelief. "You're telling me to drink a mystery liquid from an unknown source?"

"It's not unknown, brother. Your Eye sees the truth. It's EXP. This is the bounty we've searched so hard for. Are you gonna let it go to waste?"

"I…"

And so began the tug of war between safety and desire. On one hand, he had no idea what this drink would do to him. On the other hand, he desperately needed that LV.

"Drink it," said The Phantom. "Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it. Drink it."

"Nuh uh. No way. You're forcing it, bro."

The Phantom yelled back with greater force: "DRINK IT!"

"I refuse." Dust replied. Yet, against his better judgement, he uncapped the bottle and glugged the contents whole.

Immediately, a strange, twisted thirst stirred from deep within his SOUL. It craved for more EXP. More life. More power. More.

His earbud started to pop and crackle from sudden interference. Anya tried to contact him, but her words were barely audible.

" …Enemy… reinfor… Ru…n…!"

The transmission ended in a full static. Irritated by the noise, Dust yanked out the device, and tossed it aside.

His senses had become more sensitive and attuned. He heard vehicles drive overhead. After that came the stomping of dozens of footsteps, ready to fight against any meddling meddlers who managed to weasel inside.

Four armed mercenaries rushed down the stairs first, their firearms at the ready. However, their charge halted when they saw Dust's bonely self standing there.

Judging from the faint traces of terror exuding from their shivering arms, they must have expected their foe to be regular humans: people they had experience fighting.

That slight delay would spell their doom.

They opened fire. Yet, it was too late. Dust had vanished from their line of sight, appearing right behind them before they had even pulled the trigger.

Blood and dismembered pieces of flesh soon rolled on the floor, mixing in with the powdered remnants of metal, fabric, and plastic. Their panicked screams were instantly silenced in an efficient, thorough, yet messy assault.

The rush of victory was too sweet to resist. Every win compelled him to seek more prey in insatiable hunger and thirst.

A brave fool approached the stairway alone, drawn in by the initial screams. Without a second thought, Dust plunged his Karma-infused hand straight into the human's chest. Any protective gear was rendered naught by his disintegrating touch.

Out came the human's heart. It was still beating, soaked in the owner's blood.

The Phantom praised with glee: "Wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! You've become so much more competent!"

"Hey…" Dust raised the human heart for The Phantom to see. "This… This thing looks like a ripe tomato."

"Ooooh? You have a point. Why don't you take a bite?"

Yielding to the aberration's suggestion, Dust chomped down on the raw heart. The object had a fine balanced taste of sweet and sour, packed with fragrant flavour. It's so full of moisture that the skin had a springy snap against his teeth.

Slurping on the contents, he commented: "Heh. Delicious! I haven't had a fresh tomato in ages. Miss those so much."

"At long last, my sloppily lazy brother achieved his true potential!" The Phantom caressed Dust's cheeks with his ethereal gloved hands. "Come, let's go and pluck some more fruit. We shall have a feast tonight! Nyeh heh heh heh heh!"

"Heh. Can't wait."

He knew a whole army had spread throughout the warehouse; the harvest had finally arrived.

How fortunate for him.

One.
Five.
Ten.
A hundred.

The more the merrier.

"Hey chums," he whispered, "You wanna have a mad time? 'Cause… I do. I really do."

June 14, 2021

Dust woke up on the simple, thin mattress of a bunk bed.

Looking down on himself, he noticed that someone had put him in bright orange clothes. They were human society's prisoner's garbs: designed to make any escapee stick out like a sore thumb.

And prison he was in. The morning sun beamed through the rusty bars, casting their shadow on the concrete floor.

The prison cell was rather run down too. The once white walls had stained from grime, neglected over the years.

Understandable. Why bother maintaining a room for the damned when all the resources were better used elsewhere?

He found no attempts of physical restraints such as handcuffs or leg-chains. No magic-based seal either. Strange. He was obviously imprisoned, yet no effort was made to tie him down.

Next to his pillow was a two-way transceiver: the same model James Pashowar used to contact him from the farm fields.

The moment Dust approached it, the device started beeping. He answered immediately.

James greeted in his usual jolliness. "Good morning, Lone Defender! I hope the bed was comfortable enough."

"…It's fine." Dust rubbed his forehead. "I've slept on worse. Got a nagging headache though."

James replied, "I see, I see. How old are you anyway?"

"Uh… 36 years old, I think."

"Hmm, hmm. That means you were only born in 1985. Wow. I was worried that you might actually be a thousand-year-old vampire."

What an odd leap of logic, thought Dust. "Skeletons can't be vampires. As far as I know anyway. What about you? What's your birth year?"

"Well," James replied, "I was born in the good year of 1967."

The younger of the two snickered. "Heh. 54? You're old, dude. I'm calling you ole' James from now on."

The implication of senior age had pricked the Guildmaster's ego, it seems. "Sir, why are you so cruel? You speak as if I'm 80…"

Funny. However, the Seer was not in a mood for more chitchat. "Alright, enough fun. What happened to me?"

James answered, "You happened to drink the evidence and lost your mind. It's completely out of character for you to do something so reckless! Well, I suppose the years of fighting had pushed you to the edge."

"...I did what now?!"

"Among the stolen fertiliser and assorted contraband, the most important piece of evidence was a bottle of lifeforce: a cursed product of Soul Necromancy. Fortunately, I was able to syphon the contents out of you."

"Did you kick my guts until I puked or something?"

"Oh no, no. Nothing so violent! It was closer to… how do I put this? Reverting your lapse of judgement."

That was when Dust had vague recollections about the night before, down to the point where he sunk his teeth into an awfully large and ripe tomato.

No, it wasn't a tomato at all. It had the wrong texture, the wrong temperature, wrong smell, wrong colour, wrong flavour-

His breathing quickened. A part of Dust wished that he gagged in disgust at the thought of what he had done. Yet, he had no physical reaction.

"Are you alright?" James asked.

"Unfortunately, yes." Dust replied.

"Then, I'll continue. Your grim adventure didn't stop there. You went on quite the rampage. To summarise, you wiped out every mercenary in the warehouse. One of the truck drivers fled the scene in panic the moment they heard of the mayhem, driving off toward the horizon. Yet, that was no problem for you at all. A decisive teleport was all you needed to get on the roof of the vehicle. I have no idea how you managed to hold on with all the wind."

"But hold on, you did. Slayed every Hollow your presence had attracted. The truck ride then took you straight into the enemy's headquarters. Well. I would rather not elaborate too much about the aftermath. Let's just say that we don't need to worry about that band of smugglers anymore."

Wiping the sweat off his skull, Dust asked: "Wh-what happened to Anya's team?"

"Thankfully, they're safe and sound! Stayed well out of your way until you collapsed from exhaustion. Everyone has their physical limits after all. I used that moment to fix you up, give you a bath, a change of clothes, and a nice little private room for you to rest."

"You sure love to give crappy things lovely descriptions, huh?"

"I believe perception is a powerful tool. Speaking of which, I hope that you now understand the downsides of your art. The more lifeforce you acquire, the more it erodes your sanity. It is one of the many reasons why necromancy was condemned by The Guild. I'm surprised you've lasted for over six years."

The vampire comparisons started to make sense. Human legends state that those creatures had a taste for blood to sustain their existence.

Dust saw his own prison cell in a new light. It wasn't meant for containment. Instead, it was a warning that his human contacts no longer allowed him to have his freedom.

No point crying over spilt milk. He decided to be direct and asked about his fate. "So, what are you gonna do to me now? Execute me?"

"Heavens, no. I believe you still have much to offer us with that genius mind of yours. However… we may need you to take an extended vacation from the battlefield. Perhaps retirement may be a more apt way to put it."

"No bloody way. I can't retire. The Calamity could happen again anytime now. It's been too long since the last one."

James' voice turned grim. "About that… You may be right. Scouts have reported sightings of giant black briars as far as the westmost isles."

"…W-what?" Dust muttered, "You're kidding, right? That's hundreds of kilometres from Mount Ebott."

"I'm afraid not. The Calamity's roots have been spreading quietly right beneath our feet. We've mistaken their silence for inaction, completely outplayed by your flowery adversary."

"That means the entire Willowherb Village is compromised! We need to evacuate-"

"They've known for a long time, and they have chosen to stay. Know that they refused to inform you, so that you won't worry too much about the inevitable."

The Guildmaster let out a deep sigh. "Sir Dust. If the harvests fail this year, countless people will perish from famine. Our reserves have emptied from the years of constant battle. Every farmer in the country knows this. Therefore, they cannot give up their land… no matter how dangerous it has become."

Dust clenched the side of his prison bed so hard, his magic seeped through. That section crumbled under his grip. "Why…? If the Willowherbs told me the truth, I would have forced myself to work harder. Faster. I'm too damn patient for my own good!"

"On the contrary, your patience protected you," said James. "If you were any hastier, you would have consumed more lifeforce than you could possibly bear. Imagine what might have happened had you lost yourself in a civilian zone."

There would be many dead innocent bystanders, for sure. Dust grit his teeth in dismay, knowing that it was impossible to protest.

"Lone Defender," said the man, "On behalf of humanity, I – James Aran Pashowar – Guildmaster of The Hero's Guild, thank you for your years of tireless service. Captain Willowherb will escort you home. Meanwhile, us heroes will uphold our oath to finish the job. Farewell."

Call, end. The two-way transmitter had gone completely silent.

Dust grabbed his pillow and smothered it against his face. He screamed his non-existent lungs into it in absolute frustration.

Six years. It had been six long years of fighting against that stupid flower… and the flower was winning.