1

A few women rushed past the gate, and some ran outside it as they found the corpses of their loved ones, and the mourning soon began.

The wives of the thugs killed by Jay, and one of the scouts killed by stray arrows - some of the injured ones too.

Jay tried to ignore it, but there was something primal and unsettling about the cries of a wailing woman. It somehow left a hollow, empty feeling deep in his chest.

Until now, Jay didn’t really ever consider the destruction he left behind, or the broken lives he had shattered - but there was some solace in his mind that when he left this dungeon, everything would reset. Plus, he didn’t consider these people as ‘real’ and thought of them more as distant memories or copies of humans that the dungeon somehow created.

Though his conscience still attempted to condemn him.

“I’m on a mission to escape this dungeon. I can’t show mercy.”

“Besides, it had to be done. They crossed me and threatened me with death.” Jay gritted his teeth, becoming more resolute and forcing himself to accept his actions.

He knew he could tame his conscience for now, but in the real world he now realised that taking one life didn’t just take one person’s life.

The skeleton stood around Jay in a circle, and the crowd of villagers stood around the undead in a wider circle. They gazed at the skeletons and Jay with both hope and fear.

Glancing into the village, Jay could see other villagers trying to pack up their things as quickly as possible and fleeing.

No one said anything, they just watched. When Jay or his skeletons turned to look at them they avoided eye contact and lowered their heads to the ground, hoping not to draw his ire.

Since there was no one around taking initiative, and Landen was talking with the group of men outside the village, Jay realised he would have to take the lead.

“Dammit,” he sighed, shaking his head, “I wish one of the skeletons could talk and do this for me.”

Clearing his throat, he addressed the village, attempting a powerful and mysterious speech.

“Greetings. I come from a far away land, outside the crucible.”

Suddenly their faces were filled with awe and wonder.

“I am not here to destroy, but to investigate. A plague is sweeping this world, and only I can cure it.” Jay glanced at his skeletons, signalling that he has some power over death and the fake plagues he mentioned.

“You have two options. Line up to be tested for the plague or I will have to assume you are infected, and give you a merciful, quick death...”

Hushed whispers filled the crowd as signs of fear appeared on their faces, but no one moved.

Not because they were disobeying but because they had no direction.

Jay sighed, “You.” he pointed at an older man in the crowd.

“Step forward and stand here. Everyone else, form a line behind him.”

The crowd seemed to just stare at Jay, as if he were a painting and they were separated from him through the medium, distant and disconnected.

Unbeknownst to Jay, the bystander effect was in full swing.

(Grab him.) Jay pointed, and a skeleton ran forward.

Handy dashed forward, clasping the man's wrist. The man seemed to wake up, and finally it was like everything sunk in as he was pulled towards Jay. Thankfully he was fairly compliant, and seeing his calm reaction made the other villagers start to follow too.

“Good.” Jay thought to himself with a nod.

Over the next thirty minutes, Jay began to test the villagers with the needle of hunger.

Landen came back with the other men and the mentally-broken scouts, wanting an explanation.

Jay was meant to leave after taking the cube, but now he was sitting in the village, commanding them all around.

“Excuse me sir, what is the meaning of this? What are you doing?” he questioned as politely as he could.

“No cuts. Join the back of the queue.” Jay said, not even looking up as he dismissed Landen completely and pricked another villager on the finger with the needle.

Landen felt awkward. He was dismissed so easily but really couldn’t make any objections.

“Ah - right. Yes…” Landen awkwardly nodded, looking at the long queue.

The mentally-broken scouts who were Jay’s captives all went to the back of the queue immediately, obeying Jay’s orders without question.

Landen was as confused as he was confounded, but slowly went to the back of the queue too, looking defeated as he walked.

Landen noticed that Jay seemed annoyed as he made it through the rest of the queue.

Jay continued to test people and shew them away as quickly he could. Some returned to their various jobs while others kept standing around watching, wondering what would happen next.

“Damn. Everyone is turning the needle red, meaning they’re all tainted.” Jay frowned.

“The quest was to protect the innocent. These people are ‘tainted’ but that doesn’t mean they are or aren’t innocent. Even the few children here are tainted.

But what does the needle have to do with hunger, and changing red or white?” Jay wondered.

He pricked himself too, and he was also ‘tainted’.

“Tainted by what…” he thought.

Jay sat there thinking for a moment.

Seeing that everyone had been tested, Landen finally approached again.

“Ah, sir, now that your test is done, will you be leaving?”

“Yes.” Jay shrugged, “I might be back, I may not be. Who knows - but I’ll need someone to guide me to the knight’s territory, preferably right to their doorstep if you know anyone who knows the way?” Jay asked politely, but it was clear that Landen had no say in the matter.

The leaf-skin villagers had the best scouts out of all the villages, and were the best equipped as they lived the farthest from the knights at the centre of the crucible. It was the reason why the cannibals chose to trade with them, since they could get a better deal from Jay’s black cube.

Landen knew a few good men who could guide Jay, but he was the village elder now, since Liny’s body was lying lifelessly near the gate.

He wasn’t sure if he would be sending them away to die or not, and he believed that he ought to lead by example.

“Me. I know the way.” Landen said coldly.

“Good. Then as compensation for attacking me, you will guide me. You have ten minutes to gather your things and prepare for the journey ahead.”

“You want to leave today?” Landen raised a brow.

“Of course.” Jay raised one back.

“We can’t leave today. The kindred will be attacking before nightfall. We’ll be caught by them before we can leave.”

“The kindred?” Jay questioned.

“The villagers who stole your black cube. The kindred. They eat human flesh and do the knight’s bidding, attacking us regularly.”

“Oh, you mean the cannibals?” Jay smirked with a knowing nod.

“Yes. So we can’t leave unless we risk becoming their food.”

Jay chuckled, picking some dirt out from under his fingernails.

“I don’t think they’ll be bothering your village any time soon…”

Landen looked at Jay as confused as ever, and Jay’s face suddenly turned cold as he looked Landen right in the eyes.

“...because I slaughtered them.”