Aldrich woke up first, probably because he was still not too used to letting himself just go and sleep like that. He looked up at the ceiling. Dark still. He considered his internal clock quite consistent, and he roughly estimated he had slept seven hours. He felt incredibly refreshed from just sleeping, his mind feeling clear.
According to game lore, mages would feel mental exhaustion the lower their mana became, and this made it more difficult to control their spells. For example, though it was not actually possible in the game itself, the lore stated that mages were capable of controlling details of their spells like projectile speed, output, area of effect, and so on by finely manipulating the mana that went into it.
Mages often did this by chanting their spells, delaying the cast and giving it away but in exchange letting them customize its effects a little.
Aldrich himself was capable of doing this, but so far, only with what felt like simple changes like changing the trajectory of a [Death Bolt] or willing a [Bone Wall] to rise up faster. The Death Lord had noted he did not actually have to sit down and study years to formulate a spell – the knowledge was imparted into him automatically – but knowing how to use a spell and how to use it to maximal efficiency was different.
In that regard, Aldrich likely needed more training and experimentation. Now that he had slept and refreshed his mind, he was ready to push his mental limits.
Valera stirred beside him, sensing him waking up. She had slept on her side, with her head on his shoulder and her hand and leg placed over his body. She had wanted to sleep facing him, and Aldrich thought he had heard some somewhat concerningly intense whispers of 'I love you' throughout his sleep that he chose to wisely ignore for his own safety.
"Is something the matter?" said Valera. She was quiet, moderating her voice not to wake the Chrysalis. She looked at Aldrich with half open eyes, strands of black hair cast across her forehead in a curtain of messy bed hair.
"No, I was just wondering how to train my magic," said Aldrich.
"Wandering again, I see," said Valera. "In my adventures across our old realm, I heard gossip from women across many a tavern counter that loving a man with ambition is a hassle. They said that ambition becomes like their second lover, taking up so much of their attention, but when you try to pull them from it, you also feel awful inside, for it feels as if you are pulling them from their dreams."
"Is that how you think?"
Valera smiled and shook her head. She put a hand on Aldrich's cheek, gazing at him with a tender look. "Not at all. I think a man must have ambition. No, to be more precise, I do not mind men or women content with simple lives and simple dreams.
But I believe men that seek power should have ambition they put that power towards. The more power a man has, the more they gain, the more ambition they must have, for what else do they sit upon that power for?
Power is so often taken from others. From gaining experience in combat by killing to taking a position that would have gone to another – it is difficult not to gain power without taking. There must be something that justifies that taking in the end.
There is nothing worse to me than those that hoard power and sit upon it, or worse, take it from others, ruining the lives of many, without attempting even the slightest bit to use it for anything other than stroking their egos and desire for power."
"I agree with you," said Aldrich.
Valera spoke from a place of personal hurt, for her father was assassinated and taken over by relatives for no other reason than simply to take power. But what she said also rang true in this world where so many corporations or heroes or celebrities did nothing with their power except sit on it to feel good about it.
"Your ambition in this world, can I ask what it is?" said Valera. "In the past, I knew you wished to save the realm as any grand hero would. What about now?"
"Maybe you're right. Maybe I am still the same, whether it was me in your past memories or me here. I still want to 'save the realm'. But unlike in the g-," He stopped himself from saying 'game' as it felt like it trivialized Valera's life experiences. "Unlike before, there isn't one massive, big bad tentacled monstrosity like the Howling Dark to defeat.
There's a little bit of bad everywhere. Villains, variants, false heroes, destructive corporations, the list goes on."
"And you wish to stamp that all out?" said Valera.
"I'm realistic. I don't consider that a good possibility. There will always be some bad out there. Hell, I'm also that 'bad' in many peoples' eyes," said Aldrich. "I still want to save this ream, and though I am a Lich now, I still have an attachment to humans.
But how will I do it? Do I do that by destroying every villain and corrupt hero? Do I destroy every variant that threatens humanity? Is that even enough?
Do I go further and dismantle every corporation and government that stands in my way?
Do I sit back and let the world fix its own mistakes, only acting to help and guide them?
Or do I take over entirely? World domination, as Volantis said?
How far do I go? How many am I willing to sacrifice for it?
All of these are questions I do not have answers to yet. I'm sure back in the day, when Vanguard was at the prime of his power and could shape the world as he wanted to, he thought about these very same questions.
All I know is that I want to keep walking the path I'm walking and trust that the more I walk it, the more I figure out my powers and how I stand in this world, the more I'll know what to do eventually."
"And I will walk that path by your side forever, no matter where it leads us. I owe at least that much to you for what you have done for me." Valera stroked Aldrich's cheek with a soft touch.
"Where it leads us, huh?" Aldrich looked up at the painting from his mother he had saved from the Boundary. It depicted a house, a modest one-story house, atop a rolling green meadow as a bright sun started to rise in the distance, casting a warm orange glow across the dusk kissed landscape.
"A pretty piece, that one," said Valera.
"It's from my mother" explained Aldrich. "When my parents were alive, they dreamed about saving enough money to buy a little house in a nature zone."
"Nature zone?" asked Valera.
Aldrich wondered how to explain the economics of housing and how the modern housing market was almost entirely rent driven. A good chunk of the world's land being either uninhabitable or infested with variants meant that buildings had to be built high to sustain concentrated population densities, and that meant no individual ownership of houses.
Instead, corporations and governments owned practically all housing.
The only exceptions were granted, obviously, to the ultra-rich for whom spots in nature, away from the chaos of big cities, were zoned out and cleared of variants. These were nature zones where the wealthy could build homes for exorbitant prices.
There were some nature zones, however, that were less pricey due to a variety of issues. Maybe they were too remote, maybe they were not as well maintained, maybe they were not as safe, maybe they did not have the best views, and so on and so forth.
It was in one of these that Aldrich's parents had seen a pretty little meadow they wanted to build a house on and retire to, living simple lives by quiet nature.
In the end, instead of explaining the economics behind it all, he just decided to tell her what she would understand. "Basically, my parents, when they were done working, wanted to settle somewhere far away, away from these massive cities. Somewhere quiet and green."
"Is that what you desire as well? After you have finished walking this path of ambition?" asked Valera curiously.
"Maybe. I've come to realize that the reason I've never let myself slow down and enjoy things was might have been because that opportunity was robbed from me," said Aldrich. "I wouldn't mind living a quiet life in a quiet place when I'm satisfied with how things are.
But easier said than done. I know myself better than anyone.
I doubt I will ever be satisfied."
At that moment, Aldrich and Valera both instantly hopped out of the bed, sensing the impending approach of a powerful presence. Valera immediately materialized her shield while Aldrich's [Death Essence Barrier] shone bright in an orb around him.
Instantly, the door their room was flung open with violent force. The Death Lord stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips and a triumphant smile upon her face, showing all her fangs. Notably, she had replaced her destroyed arm with an emerald green prosthetic decorated with scaled patterns.
"Now then! Tell me all about the fine consummation of this love!" said the Death Lord, beaming. "There is nothing that excites this immortal heart of mine more than the blooming of love between young hearts!"
"Oh, it's just you." Aldrich put a hand to his face, lowering his guard.
"Now, now, what is that reaction?" The Death Lord pouted, putting her nose in the air. "Hmph. After all I have done in allowing this momentous consummation to pass."
"C-consummation? What nonsense are you speaking of!?" said Valera, red.
"Ah, you were a knight of the Midnight Order, no? And a Guardian Knight at that, having to take that crusty old vow of celibacy.
Goodness, how can one enjoy an eternal life without the pleasures of the flesh every now and then?" The Death Lord laughed. "I understand you may be ashamed to admit it, little lady, but I know it happened! So, tell me!"
"Nothing happened," said Aldrich.
"Hoh? Have I misjudged you, Death Walker?" The Death Lord squinted her eyes and put a hand to her chin. "I thought myself a most excellent reader of character, but I did not know you did not desire women. Then I hope Chiros with his elegant looks has taken to your heart-"
Aldrich face palmed again. "No, it's not that."
"Then what is it? Hm? Ah, are you perhaps respecting my customs?" said the Death Lord. "The draconic mating rite of locking bodies together in battle first, then in desire?"
"No, I didn't even know that was a thing," said Aldrich.
"You came all the way down here to bombard us with this silly topic!?" said Valera.
"Why not?" The Death Lord. "I ensured the bed was spacious and quite sturdy, the room silenced so none outside could hear, and even took away your own bed.
Of course I would wish to see the fruits of my labor sprout!"
At that moment, the Chrysalis came to Aldrich's side, tugging at his pant leg. She pointed at the Death Lord. "The scary lady. Do I have to go with her?"
The Death Lord looked down at the Chrysalis, then at Aldrich. She was the one to face palm now, though with how powerful the motion was, it sounded like a concrete block smashing against a brick wall. "Bah! I forgot that you humanoid races do not like consummating your love in front of your hatchlings. What a bizarre custom."
"Con-consume?" The Chrysalis looked up at Aldrich quizzically.
Aldrich blinked at the Chrysalis, thinking about how to explain what 'consummation' meant but instead gave up. He instead talked to the Death Lord. "How about you stop corrupting the youth and tell me something useful?"
"Ever ready to fight and grow stronger," said the Death Lord. "I do like that. In any case, I have found the perfect solution for developing your boundary.
Medula, master of warp magics as she is, is the perfect mentor for the Chrysalis, and a training regimen that I have approved has been outlined already.
While Medula trains your Chrysalis, you may now clear those Trial Quests of yours so you do not waste time. I have even planned the feast that Volantis desired. We shall end every day of training with a well deserved time of merriment.
By the time you leave my realm, I should say you will be an entire tier of strength above where you stand now." She closed her fist in excitement. "Soon, none of those pesky humans from the new realm will offer a challenge to you."