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The Right Path

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It was nearly dusk, the sky ablaze of reds and oranges like a grand spell cast over the world. The earth below was starting to still, with villagers and adventurers alike finishing up their business for the day and returning to their beds for a night of restless sleep. It had been a month since the war had begun and the tension was high and unaddressed in the air, slowly eating away their morale like a cursed debuff over the entire population.

The world was turning into a secret hell. One that was not spoken of aloud, but was clear in the backs of every mind. People were flocking to population centers across the kingdom en masse. Trying their best to seek shelter behind the highest and most heavily enchanted walls they could find. Smaller villages could be wiped out in the blink of an eye, and those with the ability to help seemed few and far between.

The kingdom had called for those of higher level to head to the capital at once. Especially those with any variants of the Adventurer classes, Cleric classes, and Warrior classes. They were to prepare for war. Not only against the rise in demonic monsters sprung from whatever hell plane they’d been spawned on, but against the impending world war between the kingdoms and their respective deities.

Yuuri sighed.

It was nearing time for him to head back to the inn for the night. His body was bruised and his mana was depleted which was causing his faithless debuff to draw from his health bar. If he didn’t get some rest soon, he’d be in some serious danger.

At his level, he likely could have survived the night outside of the small villages’ walls, but with the demonic presence in the realm growing more powerful, he wasn’t willing to take the risk. Especially as an omega, without a decent scentless buff, he’d likely attract alpha monsters like bees to honey and not get a single moment of rest. One last glance at the setting sun sealed his intent; It was time to head back to the inn and get some rest. He checked his quest progress with a mental command.

Quest: Path of the Unbound: You have been blessed with the divine skill Unbound and must live up to its expectation of you. Raise your Cleric class to level 5 and meet with the deity who chose you at an unclaimed shrine or temple.
Progress: Cleric level - 4/5
Unclaimed shrine or temple found - 0/1

How was he supposed to find an unclaimed shrine or temple while heading toward the capital? There was no way with this divine war brewing that nearly every cleric wasn’t out in the world trying to claim as many power centers as possible for their alignment. The closer he got to the civilized world, the more likely he would never be able to finish this quest. He grumbled internally, convincing himself that this was just the system doing it’s best to mock him for being a failure of a cleric with a deep frown.

Yuuri worried at his lip with his teeth as he always did when thinking that the world and the system itself was setting him up to fail. His anxiety had gotten so intense by this point that the system had morphed it into a title, ...the Awkward: - Due to overthinking everything, the holder of this title will gain +10% to all mental attributes and lose -10% to all charisma based skills when title is activated. .

It was the cruelest joke he’d ever heard of the system playing on a person. It was known to be a bit snarky from time to time, clearly exasperated with the general populous for some reason or another like anything with its level of knowledge and power would be. Adventurers and higher level people seemed to get the worst of it, of course, likely due to their higher exposure to it while leveling their varied skills and attributes. Some had even reported direct messages from the system from time to time. Usually something vague yet encouraging, or some snippy or sarcastic comment.

But this? This went beyond snarky. It was bordering on cruel and heartless. When Yuuri had hit his character level 5 he was given his blessing like anyone else would. He was excited to find out what his totally random, system granted, skill would be. It was a rite of passage for anyone trying to level up enough to be able to explore the world, whether that be as some kind of tradesman, fighter, or explorer.

At the time, he hadn’t even had the cleric class, as he’d chosen his two classes to be Adventurer and Scholar when prompted to select his two base classes at character level 2.

Everyone was supposed to have only two base classes, so when Yuuri finally gained enough experience to hit character level 5 and opened his record to see that he’d unlocked a third class and was granted his blessing, which was of legendary ranking, he’d believed that he was finally going to be able to do something great. He thought he’d been given a chance to prove himself against the stressed, nagging feelings in his mind. The things that kept him awake at night with his awkward title blinking in his vision.

He would finally stand a chance of being considered more than alpha monster bait in a party. He’d finally be able to prove that omega’s could be just as powerful, if not more powerful than the other genders. That it wasn’t in his nature to want to be protected and coddled...even if it seemed like these days no one but him cared about that. Other omega’s seemed happy to just stay in their villages now that they were treated just like everyone else. Pleased to be safe and protected from the monsters now that they were no longer oppressed and allowed to live their lives freely. Few and far between were the omegas who didn’t want to just try to live as safely and comfortably as possible in their villages. Never even leveling enough to select classes.

Yuuri wanted more than that. Yes, he was allowed to train and fight for the kingdom now. And, on the surface, everything was fine. He honestly wasn’t actively treated differently than anyone else. But inside, he could feel it under the surface. The truth underneath the kind smiles and the ‘equality.’ That undeniable air that no one really believed that an omega could do it. That they would keep up with the training and the leveling. That they wouldn’t get spooked and drop in battle. That they could be more useful to a party than the monsters that their scent would lure. It just wasn’t fair!

...the Awkward began blinking quickly in the corner of Yuuri’s vision and he let out a pained chuckle as the enhanced mental faculties washed over him. Stewing over these things right now wasn’t going to help him get back to his bed and rest. He needed to calm down and head back.

It was times like these that Yuuri almost thought that maybe the system wasn’t being intentionally cruel to him. That maybe the enhanced ability to think when he was panicking was actually kind of helpful to him. Being able to think a little more clearly in those moments did tend to be quite useful. Maybe the minuses to his charisma were just the balance that had to be made. The system did like balance, he’d read in a book at some point in his studies. The thought made him smile and Yuuri allowed himself to believe it for a moment as he jogged back to the warm lighting of the small village ahead.

The door of the inn swung open as Yuuri reached for it and he jumped back startled before chuckling awkwardly. He was faced by a large burly man with a scar running along the entire left side of his face, a warrior by the look of him and his armor. Yuuri was tempted to do a lore check on the man to see his stats, but that was considered rude. The man gave him a small smile and nod before he exited the building with a light limp.

Yuuri almost let him pass when he was struck with an idea and turned on his heel. “Excuse me?”

“Hm?” The limping man turned to face Yuuri with curious eyebrows. Yuuri’s heart pounded in his chest from anxiety, but he just gave the man a soft grin while mentally double checking to confirm that he’d regenerated enough mana to do this.

“You seem injured, I have a heal skill. Would you like me to…?” Yuuri trailed off awkwardly, his barely passable charisma doing him absolutely no favors in holding this conversation. The man smiled warmly and nodded at Yuuri.

“Thanks.”

Yuuri nodded excitedly and approached the man, placing a hand on his forearm. He activated his basic heal spell and felt the mana drain course through his body. The expression on the warriors face softened and his body seemed to relax a bit. Heal was Yuuri’s only cleric skill and was still at novice rank, but he’d clearly eased a bit of the man's burden which made him happy.

He also was selfishly excited for a chance to keep leveling his cleric class, he thought for a moment with a frown. The only way to level his cleric class was to use clericspells. His only cleric spell was heal which barely gained experience. Which meant that the only way for him to make progress in his Path of the Unbound quest was to get hurt. A lot. Yuuri shuddered at the memories that gained him his last 4 levels and returned to the present where the warrior male was still standing before him.

“I’m sorry what?” Yuuri questioned with an embarrassed frown upon realizing that he’d completely missed whatever the man had just said to him. Luckily he seemed to take it in stride and repeated himself.

“I said thank you. Not many are so willing to help a stranger who almost ran them down.” A soft and kind chuckle followed the words and took Yuuri by surprise. “Name’s Cao Bin. That’s a handy spell, are you a cleric?

As the man asked, Yuuri could feel the mental pull of the man checking over his stats. He also knew that the man would not find what he was looking for. For whatever reason, though he had three classes, no one could see the cleric class in his record. Yuuri also wasn’t so keen on revealing that information, deciding long ago that there was probably a reason that the system was keeping the information from others.

Yuuri held the panic from his scent and tried to give a relaxed smile. “No, though I am a scholar so I can learn some other classes skills with enough study.” The lie rolled of his tongue with practiced ease,”It is very basic, but I’m happy to have invested the time.”

“Yes,” Cao Bin’s face lit up at the news, the mental pull on Yuuri’s record ceasing at that moment. “Amazing that you can heal without being bound to a deity’s whims. You could heal anyone regardless of their faith or alignment.”

Yuuri did not miss the flash of excitement that crossed Cao Bin’s eyes and took a moment to activate his lore skill and examine the man's record:

Name: Cao Bin
Character level: 25
Classes: -Guild Leader (Warrior)
- Spellsword (Mage)
Leader of the Guild: Travellers - 3rd Rank

Yuuri flushed and how brazenly he’d been speaking to someone so important and the man smirked knowingly at his reaction. Cao Bin spoke softly, as if afraid to spook Yuuri.”Don’t worry about it. You didn’t know and you actually helped me out a lot.”

“Oh,” Yuuri nodded, growing more uncomfortable by the second. Like his pathetic 4th level heal spell did much of anything for a level 25 like Cao Bin. Yuuri wanted to bury himself in a hole. Pray to the system that a portal to the hell plane would open below him and save him from this awkwardness. Alas, he had to continue this conversation in his shame because the travellers guild were the protectors of this region and he probably owed this man his life in some way or another. “Um..thank you that’s kind to say.”

Cao Bin seemed to have read his mind and let out a small laugh. “Ok, so, you only healed me for 10 health, But!” He smiled warmly, “That damage was in a really inconvenient spot on my foot and it hurt a lot.”

Yuuri couldn’t help but laugh softly. The man was being very kind and even through his awkwardness, he could see it. He allowed himself to relax a bit and go along with the tone of the conversation, giving a joking smirk. “Anything for the protector of the city.”

“Finally,” Cao Bin barked in jest, “The respect I deserve.” Across his scarred face was an expression that could only be described as a ‘shit eating grin.’ Yuuri laughed again, unable to freak out in front of a person with such high charisma in front of him being kind. After a moment of cheerful chuckling Cao Bin spoke again, his tone a bit more serious than before.

“Yuuri, are you heading to the capital?”

“Oh. Well, no, I’m not high enough level for the kingdom to want me to fight, even if I am an adventurer.” Yuuri trailed off, a nagging feeling in his gut putting him on alert and making him consider his words carefully. “Though I do wish to get stronger so that I can be of use to the realm some day.”

“Good,” Cao Bin said on a soft growl, the fact that he was alpha truly making itself apparent for the first time since they’d met. Yuuri couldn’t help but freeze at the sound, not afraid but on alert. It made him feel like prey and he hated it. Though the moment was short, there was no debuff, nothing in his combat log so it wasn’t as if the alpha had tried to command him or anything. He was simply intimidating, and Yuuri was apparently just a pushover. Yuuri’s thoughts probably would have started spiraling had Cao Bin not continued talking, his voice cheerful and light again. “Well, my guild is clearing out a dungeon a few miles out from here in a few days. If you wanted to power level that heal spell, I wouldn’t mind you tagging along with us.”

Yuuri sighed, “I don’t want to be your alpha bait.”

Cao Bin looked shocked at the bluntness before going back to his normal grin. “You wouldn’t be. No way I’d let you anywhere near the dungeon.” He laughed, “We have battle clerics who volunteer for that. They heal us in battle, but it’s not like they take us all to one hundred percent.”

There was a short pause where Yuuri felt Cao Bin studying his face to see if he should continue. Yuuri couldn’t pretend he wasn’t intrigued by the offer and nodded to tell the man to continue. Cao Bin seemed pleased. “I was thinking you could hang around camp. Keep the area clear of monsters with the trainees and when we get back have you power level that healing by topping off all my warriors?”

“Oh.” Well, that actually wasn’t such a bad deal. Yuuri had only one issue with the arrangement. “But...do I have to join your guild for that? I-It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, but it's my dream to travel and explore so I can’t um...really, be, you know, tied down?” Yuuri looked up at the taller man sheepishly and hoped to the gods that he hadn’t caused offense.

“That’s fine.” Cao Bin answered kindly. “I honestly didn’t expect you to join us. We are a warrior guild.”

“I’m definitely not a warrior.” Yuuri said with a soft smile, letting his gaze wander down the quiet village road before snapping back on the alpha. “Why would you help me?”

“You helped me.” Cao Bin shrugged before a mischievous glint crossed his eyes and expression, “And you’re very cute.”

“C-Cute?” Yuuri puttered and covered his face, turning deep shades of red in awkward embarrassment that only caused the warmth in Cao Bin’s face to spread further.

“Yes, very cute.” He spoke as clear fact, completely unfazed by the embarrassment he’d caused, “And I fear the world is going to get much scarier as these wars go on. So, if I can help a - very cute - very kind little scholar keep himself alive by leveling his heal skill, then I will absolutely do that.” A long pause where Yuuri’s embarrassment almost disappeared completely. “Also, it means I get to look at you longer.”

Yuuri sputtered unintelligibly as Cao Bin laughed proudly at the reaction.

“Don’t you worry, I’m not going to try to court you.” He patted Yuuri on the head good naturedly while Yuuri tried to return his soul to his body after it had tried to escape. His tone when he spoke again was lighthearted and wistful, “Big scary war of the gods and the demons, nations fracturing and crumbling into factions, dungeons sprouting and spilling horrors unknown into the world. Me and my warriors come back from a day of battle to a cute little nerd who will use his magic to take all the pain away.”

His laugh was boisterous, clearly proud of himself. His charisma stat had to be astounding because he’d somehow managed to pull a near panicked Yuuri into his headspace, causing him to laugh along good naturedly and understanding the intent behind his ridiculous personality. Before Yuuri had a chance to agree to come along, Cao Bin waved and started back down the road, calling over his shoulder at Yuuri. “Sent you a quest, see you in a few days if you accept.”

Yuuri stayed standing on the spot for a moment watching the whirlwind of a man in full set armor descend into the darkness of the unlit road toward wherever he was staying. Once the figure had completely retreated, Yuuri was shaken from his reverie and noticed the flash of notifications in his vision. He chose to wait to open his record until he was back in his room. He’d gotten quite a bit of loot from his training today and could just take care of everything at once before washing himself off in his room.

Once he’d made it inside he flopped on the bed with a sigh of relief. He’d been lucky to have made enough money to stay in the inn. The drops he’d been getting lately had gotten more and more valuable, he supposed because he was finally getting close to a respectable level and was fighting higher leveled mobs. He turned his attention to his record and opened his log to see the notifications. There were more than he’d anticipated.

>You used heal on [Unknown]. Success. 5xp to heal skill.
>You have gained reputation with [Unknown].
>You have gained reputation with [Unknown].
>You used lore on Cao Bin. Success. 10xp to lore skill.
>Talking to strangers isn’t so bad, bet it was hard for you. +1 Charisma. Good job.
>Reputation gains have been applied.
>You have gained reputation with [Cao Bin]. Your reputation is now [pleasant]. +200 reputation points to [friends] status.
>You have gained reputation with [The Travellers]. Reputation is neutral. +500 reputation points to [friendly] status.
>You have gained reputation with a faction. This has unlocked the factions tab in your record..
>New menus available.
>You have gained reputation with a person of influence. Reputation gains and losses with this person are measured by the system and displayed alongside their faction. Reputation can be viewed in the factions tab of your record.
>You have [2] pending quests in the quests tab of your record.

Yuuri flipped to the quests tab of his record, the shock of his notifications leaving him in a minor daze. What had he gotten himself into? He read over the quests in his log, the overload of data having still not fully sank in yet.

Quest: Sweet in Warriors Clothing: The Guild Leader of the Travellers guild would like you to accompany them as camp support on their next dungeon crawl. To accept, meet the Travellers outside the city gates at daybreak in 2 days.
Rewards: [Variable]

Quest: Fake Role: You have chosen to keep your cleric class a secret from a person of influence. Probably a good call, did you see the way he looked at you when he realized that you could heal him? You should still go with him, just be sure to keep your secret and the rewards will be worth it.
Rewards: [Variable]

Yuuri couldn’t keep his hands from shaking. Though if the shaking was from excitement or fear, he couldn’t really say. His mind started racing as he considered the implications of the wording in his log and his quests. Personalized messages. A legendary quest. Political intrigue? It all sent a chill down his spine.

Maybe, just maybe, the system didn’t hate him after all.