Aldrich and his undead flew into the entrance of the Variant Nest. When Aldrich and Valera hopped off the eagle and landed in the dark, subterranean entrance tunnel, he waved the eagle away.
"Wait outside. In a confined space like this, you won't do well. When I signal, come down here and pick us up," said Aldrich.
The eagle bobbed its head in a nod and then flew away.
Aldrich stared ahead into the depths of the nest. The path ahead led through a dark, winding tunnel that sank deeper down into the cliff. He tapped his red scanning visor and checked any recent heat signatures.
Nothing. The whole place was cool, almost cold. A good respite from the hot sun above. A natural place for Variants to gather and live.
Aldrich kept his eyes tuned in with the Grave Ward that he sent to scout ahead. He did not want to move into this unknown nest without having mapped out where he wanted to go beforehand. While the Grave Ward scouted, Aldrich looked down at Fisk's Eye-Phone, making sure to keep the brightness down way low so as not to attract attention.
He refreshed his memory on the few reports the AA had made about this nest, the latest of which was dated six months ago.
Beings that possessed Alter organs and cells emitted a natural energy signature that could be traced, especially when the powers were active. However, if there was a large enough density of dormant organs, such as in the case of Variant Nests, it was possible to determine a rough average estimate of energy emissions.
With that, the AA determined how 'strong' a Variant Nest was and categorized them into letter ranks that ranged from E to A to S. Broad AA guidelines suggested that ten Alters of the nest's rank were required to fully destroy it, but of course, this number was highly flexible depending on what type of variants there were and the layout and unique characteristics of the nest itself.
As for this nest, Aldrich read that it was ranked a solid D. The variants recorded here seemed to be largely reptilian with a few arthropod types, specifically ants. Not particularly threatening.
However aside from these few reports, there was precious little information about the nest.
Aldrich figured it was because as a D-rank nest, it was simply not that important.
"Dynamite Girl," said Aldrich.
"Call me Stella," said Dynamite Girl. "That was the name I remember having. And the name I remember using with people closer to me."
"Close?" Valera leered at Dynamite Girl suspiciously.
"Close as in trust," said Dynamite Girl, or Stella as she wanted to be called.
"How strong do you think we are?" said Aldrich. "In terms of how we compare to variants and heroes. What rank do you think we are?"
Stella crossed her arms and stared at everyone for a good minute or so, nodding to herself.
"Alright, here's what I think. Mind you, I'm not some kinda expert on all this. I think Valera is high up on the C rank. So C+."
"Only C+? Are you sure you are not miscalculating, hm?" said Valera.
"No, I think I'm fairly right. C'mon, don't complain, I was on the lower end of the C rank. Maybe now in the middle now that I can surpass my limits," said Stella. "Squid face is like, I dunno', low to mid B rank? You gotta understand here, there's a huge gap between the E/D ranks with C. Then there's a huge jump between B to A, then an even bigger jump from A to S."
"Then what about me? How would you class me?" said Aldrich.
"You, captain?" Stella cocked her head. "Er, well, I guess if you were workin' as a hero, maybe like, low C?"
"You dare to suggest the master is that weak? When he is the very reason you enjoy eternal life now?" protested Valera.
"That's what I was goin' to say," said Stella. "The captain's powers ain't really suited to this whole hero thing. If he joined the agency, I don't think they'd let him use his powers, all that raisin' the dead and stuff.
But say he was a villain, then I'd say he's already way up at high B. In terms of just straight up individual strength, he's around or slightly below us, but the simple fact that he can do all this necromancy stuff means he'd get classed as an insanely high threat.
Maybe already a low A, considerin' the fact that the AA places a threat premium on villains or variants that are considered 'self-replicating' or capable of creatin' minions and more threats."
"I see," said Aldrich. "Well then, we're four C to B rank threats taking on a D rank nest. This should be no issue at all."
"Yeah, I figure," said Stella.
"Good." Aldrich figured out where to go via the Grave Ward. "It's time to start hunting."
Aldrich spun his lantern around by the chain, a ghostly red light flickering around him from the glow of the eye entrapped within. The light lit up his surroundings, showing more than a dozen pairs of gleaming yellow, reptilian eyes staring at him.
Below these eyes were rows of sharp teeth.
Up ahead, Aldrich could hear Valera's shouts of "DIE! DIE! DIE!" in the distance accompanied by regular explosions and bursts of light from Stella.
"You do not wish for my interference?" said Fler'Gan as he walked beside Aldrich, his arms behind his back.
"No. I want to see how well I stand up compared to D rank monsters on my own. You're here as insurance in case anything surprises me," said Aldrich. "And I'll repeat this again: do NOT interfere."
"Understood, Elder." Fler'Gan nodded and watched.
"Come on." Aldrich waved his free hand towards himself, egging the Blurred Lizards onwards. Each of them were the size of large dogs with grey and brown color patterns on their scales that shifted, making them blur and camouflage into their environment.
The blurred lizards loosed shrill screams as they rushed forward.
Aldrich casted [Negative Surge] on himself, granting himself ten seconds of massively enhanced stats. He gained 12 strength, agility, and perception along with a strong aura of green.
[Mana: 183/183 ] 168/183]
[Strength: 11 ] 23]
[Agility: 10 ] 22]
[Perception: 13 ] 25]
Aldrich back stepped, evading two lizards from chomping down on him. He swung his lantern forwards in a swiping arc that broke both lizards' necks. He immediately had to retreat again as several more lizards rushed forward, trampling over the corpses of their dead brethren to try and maul Aldrich.
Aldrich activated his [Anti-Life Shell]. A foggy green mist emanated from him, and inside, all of the lizards were slowed, their life force sapping away. Their camouflage did not matter because the light from the [Lantern of the Accursed Eye] revealed them constantly.
And now that Aldrich was considerably faster and the lizards slower, he outmaneuvered them with ease. He swung his lantern forward with expert handling, shooting out the head like a wrecking ball that caved in skulls with each strike.
"Alright," said Aldrich. He put down his lantern. "Time to test my hand to hand."
He squared up in a shoulder width stance, raising his arms in a guard. A lizard lunged at him, and he unleashed a straight kick upwards, smashing his bare foot right into the variant's chin and launching it into the rocky ceiling above.
Another lizard came forwards, leaping up and snapping at his arms.
Aldrich spun around and launched a downward elbow strike that broke the attacking lizard's skull and then used that lizard's corpse as a shield to prevent three more lizards from swarming him. The three variants instead sunk their teeth into the corpse.
Aldrich pushed and tossed the corpse away, making the lizards fall backwards.
"Good." Aldrich. His skills were not gone, and training like this helped to keep him sharp. "Now for my magic."
Aldrich deactivated the active portion of his [Anti-Life Shell] to conserve his mana.
[Mana: 168/183 ] 123/183]
He had only kept it up for 5 seconds but the 5% maximum mana per second drain was hefty. But expected. [Anti-Life Shell]'s active was not that useful for its mana cost until higher ranks when it obtained a stronger slow, stat debuffs, an instant death effect, and heavy buffs to undead.
"Time for my magic." Aldrich picked up his lantern and wielded it in one hand while he kept his other hand free to cast magic. Six lizards surrounded Aldrich now, making it difficult to fight them hand to hand.
Aldrich activated his [Lantern of the Accursed Eye] and shone it in front of him. A cone shaped laser of crimson light blasted forth, illuminating the three lizards in front of him and making them shriek as their flesh started to turn into ash and disintegrate.
He then dealt with the three other lizards behind him by casting [Chill Bolts] with his free hand. Two chill bolts per lizard. One to stun them, one to freeze and smash their brains.
[Mana: 123/183 ] 99/183]
[12 Blur Lizards defeated!]
[EXP Bar: 870/1400 ] 1350/1400]
"All done." Aldrich patted his hands together, content.
"Excellent work, Elder," said Fler'Gan. "Such competency in the dark arts along with exceptional physical abilities. It does remind me of my younger days, but now my lower back ails me far too much for such wild movement."
"Yeah." Aldrich cracked his neck. "But my weakness as a Legion Necromancer stays the same. I don't have an issue defending myself, but when I do, I have to eat through my mana rapidly. It's far more efficient to let my undead do the real heavy lifting.
Aldrich looked at the dozen grave markers floating above the lizard corpses. His health was completely full. He did not even have to replenish his [Corpse Barrier]. In fact, he did not even have to manifest the barrier in the first place.
He could choose to keep it dormant or spontaneously generate it, but obviously, generating a barrier of corpses made it difficult to engage in hand-to-hand combat.
Maybe it was better for him to be riskier in combat. Take more damage, especially when facing larger enemies, and then use his [Grave Consumption] to restore lost health.
Aldrich noted this down for later.
More experience funneled into him from Valera and Dynamite Girl practically speed running their way through the lizard infested tunnel, blowing up or punching through anything they saw.
[30 Blur Lizards defeated!]
[EXP Bar: 1350/1400 ] 2550/1400]
[Level 11 ] 12]
[EXP Bar: 1200/1600]
[+5 stat points available to distribute]
Aldrich nodded. Now this was more like it. Mass EXP farming. The kind that Aldrich theorized would skyrocket his levels up.
Aldrich started to invest points back into his physical stats more. In the game, he did not invest much of anything into his physical stats, but that was because he knew the enemies he would face. He needed to be more self-sufficient in the real world.
[Strength: 11 ] 16]
Aldrich figured that getting his strength, agility, and perception up over twenty would make him strong enough to handle a C rank hero or villain reliably. He noted that the first few stat points he invested into his physical stats made a massive difference.
Just five points got him almost twice as stronger and faster than a normal man. But stats, or at the least the physical ones, did not seem to increase multiplicatively. Every five points did not make him twice as strong or fast.
It was difficult to quantify in numbers exactly how much stronger he got with each stat point. The only thing that mattered was that he did. He figured that the 20-30 stat threshold for his physical stats would keep him self-sufficient, especially with [Negative Surge] and, later, its upgraded version [Death Surge].
Aldrich then felt a mental signal from Valera.
*Master, you should be here. There's a monster here that will be to your liking when we have slaughtered it.*
*On it* said Aldrich.