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Wish upon the Stars (Original Superhero cultivation sci fi litrpg)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Malcolm Tent, Mar 19, 2022.

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  1. Threadmarks: chapter 186
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Ronnie wasn't really prepared for Cark going all out. My friend had previously been holding back a bit because he was feeling out his opponent, but he wasn't fucking around when he made his second attack. Rather than anything small and contained like an orb or some kind of spray, the next attack was a fucking TORRENT of aqua flame that hissed as it ate at even the air around it.

    I'd never considered the synergy between my poison fire and something like the staff before, but as a flame calling focus it was apparently perfect for this. Aside from the poison, the fire aspect from Consecration of Flames augmented the already boosted power of the fire Cark was outputting, and he was taking full advantage, sculpting the wave of toxic blue flame into the shape of a coiling serpent that roared toward the other man, mouth agape in a roar of challenge.

    A roar that Ronnie met head on with one of his own. Despite being clearly intimidated the big thug didn't let his confidence waver, he planted his feet, opened his mouth, and unleashed an augmented bellow of force that tore up the ground in front of him as it raced toward the other fighter. The blast hit the head of the snake and ripped it apart, exploding the flame construct into a shower of disparate flames.

    Without a second of hesitation Cark whirled the staff, gathering the dissipating snake into another construct, a leopard this time, and flicked the staff up, ordering the animal to bounce off the ceiling to get a better angle. Ronnie snarled, using that guttural sound like a thunder clap to disperse the leopard. Cark kept the battle going, flicking his staff again and separating the cascade of falling fire into a dozen smaller shapes.

    With a second flick he set the now fluttering forms of a series of falcons whirling in a circle over Ronnie before ordering them all to dive bomb the big man. The fuchsia haired loudmouth threw back his head and roared, managing to blast away MOST of the falcons, but one of them got through, smashing into a shoulder before he had a chance to react to the flame beast, and sinking into him like a rock into a pool of deep water. Ronnie roared with anger and pain as the bird slipped under his skin, clawing at his own chest and arm to get it out.

    The enhanced poison fire was much more effective than I had expected, submerging under the skin and causing a burning swathe of toxic flesh to permeated out under his clawing hand. Sadly, G rankers who weren't mindless slaves or random students were a tougher nut to crack than the ones we had fought so far. He reached into a pocket of his too tight pants and fished out a clear sphere that I was pretty sure was a pill. He tossed it back, leaving his head lolled for a second before spitting it back into his hand with a glare at Cark.

    When the pill came out of his mouth, the poison fire was siphoned out of his flesh and into the sphere. The now blue green pill sat glowing on his palm, and he shoved it into a pocket before spitting to one side in disgust. "Ok, this was fun to start, but you're getting annoying. That actually hurt, and that pill cost me a fuck ton of money. No more playing around you jumped up little pansy." Ronnie set his feet shoulder width apart at those words and took up a boxing stance as he faced Cark.

    Without another word he started firing off punches. One, two, a steady rapid fire tempo that picked up speed as he went. As he moved faster I could hear the noise of the punches begin to mount, and the air and dust around him started to stir. Cark got what was happening too because he shot another blast of poison fire. Nothing fancy, just an attempt to get him off his game before he could get himself moving at a pace that would be dangerous for the big bounty hunter or the rest of us around him.

    It didn't work. The next jab snapped back with a crack, and the burst of force dispersed the flames before Ronnie slipped back into his tempo, resuming his speed up as the force blasts started cracking and warping the air. Ronnie unleashed a flurry of punches, each one displacing the air around him like a thunder clap, and increasing in power with every blow. The bursts of sonic damage were much more focused than I'd expected, and while Cark managed to duck and dodge some of them, it quickly became clear that continuing to do so wasn't an option.

    In order to combat the ranged carpet bombing the boxer was laying out, Cark was forced to use consistent bursts of flame to disperse the sonic blasts. Rather than just pure fire, he seemed to be letting loose miniature explosions, short sharp expanding snaps of fire that displaced the air when they were released, nullifying the force. He was able to nearly intercept and blast apart every single burst of sound, seeming unconcerned with Jerk trying to pun holes in him like a cheap piece of paper. The sight of his staff whirling to and fro was mesmerizing.

    Despite the apparent ease though, I could see that this wasn't going well. It took effort and concentration to form those bursts, more than it took to slap a bit of power into a punching noise, even if you had to shape it. At least, that was the impression I got based on the slight sheen of sweat on Cark and the triumphant grin growing on Ronnie's face. This was not an even match, even with my help. I wasn't sure how strong Ronnie was after getting help from the other candidate, but my guess was pretty close to F rank, and almost all of it was in Might.

    So I did what any reasonable person would do in this situation. I cheated, as subtly as possible. I triggered Sucking Mud on the floor, making sure not to draw attention to it. I could tell Ronnie had noticed, obviously, but at the speed they were moving any interruption in the barrage of sonic blasts would be an opening that Cark could exploit, and Ronnie couldn't afford that. I saw the big man try to shift his feet a few times, but they were minor shifts, because anything else would compromise his footing and he would have lost his rhythm.

    On top of that I don't think he knew what was happening here. I suspect the softening of the ground under him was mostly attributed to all the heat being thrown around. By the time he sunk down enough to realize it was more than that, he'd have had to tear his feet loose to get them free, and Cark was hammering out explosions at him so fast that he was actively having to work at deflecting them now.

    Once my friend caught sight of what was happening he not only blitzed out more attacks to keep his enemy going, he even overwhelmed the other's pace and stole the tempo of the battle for him. Because there was an end in sight for this fight, he didn't try to conserve power of go for the long game, he just put it all on the line to overwhelm his foe, and it appeared to be working. Within a few minutes Ronnie was shin deep in the floor, and his face was starting to look panicked. Cark was pale and sweating, but he didn't seem to care much, happy to pour on the heat until it was over.

    As they fought, several bursts of flame had made it through, and Ronnie's body was slowly being overcome with poison flame. He didn't have the time or space to get out another pill like the last one, so all he could do was slowly be worn down unless he wanted to take one of those blasts somewhere really dangerous. I turned to Callie as we watched. "So, what are we going to do when Cark takes him down? Do we need to step in? I don't really know the protocol here for Unity members."

    Callie shook her head. "This is WCP territory, and he actively came here looking for a fight. As long as they don't actually kill him right in front of us I say we let them take him. He's a sadist and a bastard, and this is gang business outside of our territory. If he was someone we liked we might be able to push for his release given all the players here that we know and can call in favors from, but honestly I wouldn't bother. This is his mess, he can get himself out of it." Her voice was cold and detached, almost clinical as she gave me her read on the situation.

    I reached over to squeeze her hand. I could tell she wasn't entirely comfortable with the solution, but that she knew he would cause more problems and probably harm us later. This wasn't the sleepers, where we needed to try our best to spare them because they were unwilling pawns. Ronnie was a violent bully who would actively target out friends and loved ones, and was getting close to strong enough that he would be a real problem for us soon. Letting the Militia have him was the smart call. They would almost definitely interrogate him, but the other candidate was almost certainly smart enough to have a geas to protect her secrets. He wouldn't answer, and he would probably die.

    Surprisingly, I didn't actually have a problem with that. I expected to feel upset or disgusted, but somewhere along the lines us versus them had become the norm. Ronnie had expressed a vested interest in harming people I cared about, and while I don't know if I could have brought myself to kill him in cold blood, no matter how angry he made me, I was shockingly alright with letting him reap the consequences of his own actions. I wondered if this was recursion as well, or if I'd always been the type of person willing to put morality aside to protect my loved ones. It was getting hard to tell where I ended and Solomon began these days.

    As the poison fire began to take more and more effect, Ronnie's movements became jerkier and less forceful, and his shaping of his sonic waves became less cohesive. Rather than bursts of force they started to resemble waves of concussive damage, a less and less effective counter to the explosive bursts of poison fire. As he gained the advantage Cark began to close in, and Ronnie became both more frantic and more agitated as he did so, trying desperately to avoid letting the clearly powerful G ranker get within touching distance.

    I wasn't sure what Ronnie was afraid of, but he was able to wring out the last little bit of strength in his body to put out a full on assault of sound that stalled Cark at a few feet out, and our friend wasn't able to close the distance. Finally, the bounty hunter stopped where he was, and Ronnie let his fists drop. He gave a vicious snarl. "I won't let you get in close. You won't be able to finish this without coming closer to me, especially if you let me take another antidote pill. You aren't as strong as me. Not to mention I'm a bit woozy." He gave a vicious grin. "What if my next attack hits one of your H rankers?"

    Cark looked at him hard, he sighed disconsolately and let the staff fall to his side, hanging his head in shame. "Fine. Take your pill." Ronnie laughed unpleasantly, reaching down into his pants to get the pill, and as he did he glanced down for a split second. With absolutely no hesitation Cark hauled back and smashed the stick into the big mans head. Ronnie's eyes widened, but the poison flooding his brain didn't give him a chance to react as Cark bashed him over the skull with the elemental focus over and over again. He looked pretty unwilling as he finally passed out, and I could understand why. That staff was a ranged weapon, it shouldn't have been a viable bludgeon. I really loved my skills sometimes.
     
  2. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    You could consider Ascendant materials as physical manifestations of lump sums of stats. They have attributes and inclinations depending on their nature and legend, but they're basically slightly different variations of lumps of raw stats. Conjuring them is pretty expensive, especially past a certain point. Wishing for materials you have to be forged into something is a bit less pricy for sure, but even that takes a lot of energy.
     
  3. dxdragon

    dxdragon Versed in the lewd.

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    So, is there any way to consolidate some of Solomon's skills without changing his ability (Wish)?

    Like, he has so many miscellaneous skills that could probably easily be merged into 1.

    Minor Piano Mastery, Minor Guitar Mastery, Minor Singing Mastery

    Just make that a Lesser Music Mastery.

    And what about his idea of getting memories of people's skills and stacking them up to get Lesser? He could be making contracts to rank up his skills to be more useful.

    Also surprised that at no point the MC didn't get the Minor Woodcraft skill to go along with his "expected" ability to manipulate wood.
    He could even merge Woodcraft and Music to "Sing" to the Trees just like Elves do, and shape them into what he wants to craft. Maybe he could do the same with Inventing? "Sing" with the same Harmonic Frequency Inventing uses to create stellar inventions?
     
  4. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    You can synergize Skills with each other to make custom Skills yes, but it makes them infinitely harder to rank them up. Since custom Skills are kind of a personal thing it would mean even wishing for them to get stronger (if he could make wishes for himself which he can't) wouldn't even be an option. He's been focusing hard on DS Mastery in recent chapters, and more custom Skills (which DS Mastery is at this point) would just slow him down. He'll get to doing more with them later, but he's just had other stuff to do lately.
     
  5. Threadmarks: chapter 187
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Seeing Ronnie laid out because of skills was immensely satisfying. Much like everyone else, the big man had massively underestimated what my enhancements could do. While they did provide a boost to the channeled fire, the main point of both skills was to enhance the melee capabilities of the weapon. The stick was G rank anyway, so it probably wouldn't have broken in one shot, but it definitely wouldn't have survived repeated use as a bludgeon. As it was though, the think nearly caved in his stupid fuchsia covered skull.

    After he finally passed out there was a loud wave of applause. Every Militia member in the bar was whooping and cheering. The other two Jerks hadn't made a move, but given that it was now four G rankers to two, I was figuring they were a bit nervous about what was coming. I left it to Cark to deal with though, this was his show. I expected him to handle it immediately, but to my surprise he pretty much ignored them, turning to address the room with his staff over one shoulder. "Which one of you is Saffron?"

    The red haired woman with the pixie cut stepped forward. She grinned broadly at Cark. "Nice to meet you boss. When they told us we were getting a Baron of our own we were expecting great things, but we didn't know even your friends would be so scary..." She eyed me appreciatively. "And cute too." Callie stepped forward, clearing her throat and narrowing her eyes, and the redhead just smiled and turned back to Cark. "So, what can I do for you boss man?"

    Cark snorted in amusement, ignoring my now glaring girlfriend in favor of gesturing to Ronnie. "Tie him up and call someone from headquarters to pick him up. Restraining him shouldn't be a problem in that condition, but make sure to wrap him up good. We do have some G ranked restraints around here right?" The red haired woman nodded. "Good, have the other G rankers stand guard with you, and if he looks like hes waking up kick him in the head until he loses consciousness."

    If it had been anyone but the absolutely dumpster fire we'd met earlier that would have made me wince, but since it was I decided it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. They hauled him off to one side, and I called over to check once they had him secured so I could be sure to remove the effects of the poison at the right time. Once they had him all locked up Cark turned to the other two. "So, you two planning to avenge your boss or try to take him with you when you leave? Because I can't say that would be wise."

    The blue haired one on the right shrugged. "Nah, Ronnie was kind of a dick. No one really liked him much, but M-Jack liked having someone mean around to keep everybody in line. Back in Velan he managed it so it didn't get so bad but..." He trailed off, his face shadowing. "Since we got to Rajak Ronnie got worse. Scary. We ain't gonna complain you took care of him, especially since he started it. You want I should give M-Jack a message for you or something? I figure if you wanted us busted up we would be already."

    That was more critical thinking than I expected from a Jerk. I couldn't help but speak up. "Who are you exactly? You're a G ranker, I figure back in Velan I'd have heard of you before." I wouldn't have, I knew like, none of the G rankers in Velan outside the guild, but I figured he'd be more likely to share if he was feeling respected. Most people were like that as far as I had seen.

    He snickered. "Ragin Ray. I only got to G rank after I showed up. I was close enough to use elixirs yo push me over. They're way easier to get in this town." He snickered. "I don't need to ask about you. Everyone in the Jerks knows Punchin Carl's legendary nemesis Solomon. I half expected you to be ten feet tall. Or one. The story changes day to day, depending on Carl's mood and level of agitation." He turned to Cark. "So you gonna let us go? Or we gonna have to try to fight our way out?"

    The big bounty hunter sighed. "You can go. If I wipe you out I'll end up with your boss hunting me down for wiping out his people. This way there's at least a chance you can let him know what happened to beefy over there." He looked covertly at Callie and I, clearly wanting our feedback since we were nominal experts here. I just shrugged and chucked my chin at my girlfriend who nodded subtly. Cark sighed. "Alright. You can go, but if my people see you around here again we won't be as gentle. Your crew aren't welcome in Militia territory. You can tell your boss that."

    It was surprising to see how stoic and unafraid our friend was, but to be fair he had been pretty unshakeable during the hunt too. Cark was a cool customer, and he'd been on the streets for a long time. He looked around after they left. "You." He pointed at a random H ranker. "We have questions. Who knows the most about the local political situation?" The mousy brown haired man with the scraggly beard gulped and pointed over to Saffron. Since we didn't want to leave Ronnie before the Militia came to get him, Cark led us over to where she was sitting.

    As she saw us coming she raised an eyebrow. "Letting them go huh boss? Well, it's your call, you earned that, but I'm skeptical it'll work out well. So, you wanted some feedback on local politics huh?" Cark nodded and she chuckled. "I can't tell you how nice it is that our new Baron isn't a muscle brained idiot and actually knows how to ask questions. We were a bit worried about it. I'm sure you know how obnoxious it is working around a shitty boss."

    I supposed he must have, because his lips quirked up in amusement. "I'll try not to be too big an imposition." His voice was wry and sarcastic, and Saffron gave him a wide grin to let him know she was in on the joke. "Anyway, tell me about whats been going on down here. Someone is attacking, clearly, but it can't just be the...what did you two call them? The Jerks?" I nodded and he turned back to her. "There has to be a faction behind this that's local. They're picking fights with the Cavalcade too. Who benefits from this?"

    We had no clue about the political landscape down here, aside from the bits that Cark had heard from Sage. Saffron however lived down here, and she was more than capable of filling us in. "We've been looking into that ourselves actually. Originally the attacks on us were being performed by mercs and third parties. This was the first time these new guys came after us. We heard about them messing with the Cavalcade, but a bit of a shakeup is hardly a new thing. People pick fights down here all the time. It didn't seem like our concern."

    That made sense actually. If they planned to take all of G district as an endgame then letting whoever was coming for the Cavalcade bust themselves up and soften up the circus at the same time was a solid plan. Callie made a noise of surprise as something occurred to her and we all turned to look. "The timing here can't be a coincidence. You said you were looking into which faction is trying to push into G district now, maybe you got too close and they sent the Jerks to scare you off. But why would they do all this now?"

    I was pretty sure I knew though, and Saffron confirmed it as soon as I had the thought. "Probably because that asshole Aiden is gone. Pretentious dick. He wasn't nearly as cuddly as he liked to pretend, we had a couple of people disappear after interacting with his goons. Of course he played up his defender of the innocent act whenever we tried to pick a fight, but we all knew he was a snake. Still, he WAS powerful, and our respective groups pretty much cancelled each other's influence out down here."

    Callie nodded ponderingly. "That...might make sense. I guess it's not crazy for someone to take advantage of a shift in the balance of power if it showed up. But why G district? I can't see how taking a place like this would really give any benefits for anyone with sufficient rank. F district has the most money, and E district has the most power, what the hell does G district have that's worth anything?" There was something going on here that we were missing, there was no reason for any of the things that had been happening as far as I could see, which meant there was a piece of the puzzle missing.

    I wracked my brain for anything that they could gain from this, for anything G district would give them access to, and I only really came up with one option. "Bodies." Everyone looked at me blankly. "The only thing that G district has over the other districts. There are more G rankers in the WCP than F or E. There are probably more H rankers than that, but H rankers are barely above mortals at the low level, so if they get G district in line they could exert pressure on the lower rankers too. Hell they might be able to pressure the F rankers by virtue of connections with people down here."

    Saffron was stunned for a second, but she began to nod slowly. "That...that might work. Most of the F rankers have multiple friends and family members in G rank, and G rankers are authority figures in the lower districts without being too powerful to handle. Trying to take F district would be...unpleasant. The spectrum of F rank is WIDE, and at the higher ends of it you can do some real damage in a fight. Unifying that large of a contingent of powerful and, lets be honest, strange Ascendants, would be hellish."

    Callie made a frustrated sound. "That still doesn't help us. We have no clue who they're working with. We need to try to figure out what's going on down here as soon as possible. It's pretty clear they aren't going to just sit tight and ignore us poking into things. Any chance they'll just send a crowd of F rankers down to crush us?" E rankers we would be safe from, but F rankers would swat us like flies.

    Luckily Saffron shook her head. "Doubtful. The reason they're using cats paws has to be to avoid sparking off a huge turf war that would gridlock the whole WCP. If F rankers start showing up down here people would know, and they would know who sent them. F rank is notable on this planet, there are lots of them, but all the ones in the factions have enough reputation to be recognizable, even if they disguise themselves, F rank powers are usually pretty distinct. No, they'll keep this under wraps until the last second."

    That made things easier. "Well then, we only have one course of action. We need to head for the Cavalcade again and try to sniff out some answers. Without Ronnie there to run things the Jerks will be their usual scattered ridiculous selves, and the chances of them giving something away is huge." I turned to Callie with a huge grin that she sadly couldn't see under my mask "So what do you say? Want to go back to the circus?" Her own answering grin was easy enough to see. I had figured.
     
  6. Leroidumonde

    Leroidumonde Getting sticky.

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    F rankers are more powerful than E, I think that may be a typo.
     
  7. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Nah, they have protection from E rankers from Zeke. F rankers are stronger but withing the two rank tolerance limit so they have to actually fight them.
     
    Leroidumonde likes this.
  8. Threadmarks: chapter 188
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    We waited until an F ranker came to pick up Ronnie to head to the Cavalcade. While the higher ranked Ascendants weren't supposed to come down here to interfere picking up a package wasn't a big deal since we'd already subdued him. He was grabbed in short order, and I couldn't help but assume he was probably going to die. I knew they would question him, but I doubted he would be able to tell them anything, there was no way the other candidate didn't leave a geas on someone like him.

    I still wasn't really bothered. Besides how he'd been talking to Callie, he was so obviously abusive to everyone around him I knew it couldn't have happened to a nicer guy. Before I'd become an Ascendant I'd never been in a position to know about someone dying, but I wasn't sure I would have been blase about it before. This was one thing I could firmly lay at the feet of recursion. Cultivation was dangerous, and sometimes people died. The perception that enemies weren't really a loss was one I'd tried to avoid, but this time I couldn't bring myself to care.

    Once the big man was gone we all headed for the Cavalcade. Saffron came with us, as did the other two G rankers, Trager and Vic. The H rankers left in the bar all scattered, just in case the Jerks came back when their heavy hitters were with us, and between the three of us and the three of them I was much more assured. Since we had time though, I had to ask Callie what the plan was. "Ok, I know we've been doing the whole taking a break thing, but you know how to handle delicate shit like this much better than I do. Do you have any ideas about how we're going to find anything out?"

    Callie leaned against my side, rolling her eyes. "You know, I'm going to start make you read tactics books. You've been falling harder and harder into this punching role, and it's not a good idea. Especially since your whole combat style is stealth based. I don't want you getting hurt because you keep charging in." She gave me a worried frown. "I still sometimes think about what happened to you in the necropolis when that Dullahan hit you. How scared I was seeing you tank that blow."

    I winced at that. I thought about that too. Though more in terms of how much it fucking sucked than in terms of wanting to avoid emotional trauma. I didn't dismiss her though. It was something I'd been thinking about too. I sighed. "Yeah, I know. I've been letting it influence me far too much for my liking. It's just so hard to see where I end and where the recursion begins. If you can see it that easily though, I'm figuring the hair trigger violence is much more obvious. Being in the city is helping with that least a bit though."

    She nodded. "I did notice that. You're still quick to fight, but dealing with humans and not monsters makes you a bit more cautious of the outcomes. Mostly." That last part was more directed at her than me I thought, and I suspected she felt off about letting Ronnie get taken despite knowing he deserved it. That was fair, but not really useful right now, so I didn't comment. She shook off the thought. "Anyway the plan isn't complicated. We wander around and see if anyone starts trouble, the Jerks aren't subtle. If we look for some problems we're bound to dig some up, and I'm sure SOMEONE has to know what's going on."

    It was possible every single Jerk had made a wish and gotten a geas put on them, but it was unlikely. If nothing else it would take a while to get them all, even five per day. The Jerks weren't an army or anything, but they weren't exactly going to fit at a table for four. "Ok, but how is that different than the original plan when we first came down here? Because I remember that didn't work so well for us when we tried it before."

    She just snorted. "We got distracted by the big reveal, it was working fine. Without Ronnie running things there's no way they'll be keeping themselves in check either. It should be much easier to track them down this time, and once we do we can learn more about whoever this mystery faction is. " She turned to Saffron. "Speaking of which, are any of the enemies Cark told us about major faction participants? They all seemed like either loners or bit players, I can't see them joining up with any major powers to build a political presence here."

    Saffron shrugged. "You're not wrong. They aren't really part of the faction wars, but then, neither are we. The boss is technically with the independent faction, but they're the least cohesive bunch. The independents are basically just people who want to be left alone to do whatever they want. Most of the others that you guys mentioned while we waited are independent too. The Moravian is a member of the cooperative faction, and he tends to lean more towards being a team player with the Unity, but they don't really start trouble."

    The information was interesting. The existence of a faction like that implied one that wanted the opposite also existed. I wondered exactly how much traction that faction had. I couldn't imagine how functional it would really be. Even if they broke ties what would they do? Take the planet? The WCP was universal, but it existed throughout the rest of the factions. It wasn't like there was some place to keep the planet once they 'liberated' it. Plus this was an E ranked planet, what use would it even be to gain control of a backwater like this? I couldn't imagine it being considered much of an accomplishment for anyone who took their achievements seriously.

    Our conversation was cut off as we arrived at the circus again. Without a doubt, the second time seeing it was just as staggering as the first. We once again decided to split up into pairs, and Callie was quick to claim me as a partner, cutting off Saffron who had been about to do the same. I honestly kind of enjoyed the attention. Callie had nothing to worry about obviously, but I had started to take for granted that she was the partner in the relationship that got outside attention. Callie was gorgeous, and while I wasn't too shabby myself, I wasn't supermodel stunning.

    Still, I got attention from women at times, being incredibly tall was a big draw for some people, and my features were symmetrical and well put together, one of the many things I'd inherited from my dads side of the family. I was pretty sure I was actually getting better looking, though whether that was recursion, some sort of stat thing, the fact that I was still growing, or some combination of the three I had no idea. Callie wasn't being overtly hostile or antagonistic about any of it, she was just kind of put out in an obvious way, and it was honestly kind of cute.

    I wasn't stupid enough to say that out loud, obviously, but it was amusing that she got a little extra touchy physically after Saffron showed interest. When we broke off from the group she eased up a bit on her grip, though she was still a bit more affectionate than normal, and I admit to taking a minute to bask in the attention before moving on to the actual task at hand here. We needed to get started looking for the Jerks, and much like last time I didn't have any ideas where we were supposed to start.

    Callie, fortunately, did. Once she pulled away she started steering us to a specific location. "So, now that we know exactly what they're doing, I suspect that the Jerks are here to cause trouble for an internal element of the Cavalcade. It's the only thing that really makes sense. Given this faction's reach and ability to move unnoticed, having a mole inside the Cavalcade is entirely possible. If you look at it that way it's totally reasonably for the Jerks to try to show them up and embarrass them in their own territory, because it opens the door for that mole to take over."

    I nodded along, following her logic. Callie had experience with sneaky politics bullshit, even if not on this scale. There were micro versions of this whole mess back in the Velan WCP, and she'd lived there when she was sixteen or so, and learned the lay of the land. I trusted her instincts, and I was happy to see how exhilarated and excited she was about working on this after some times to relax and decompress. Now that she'd stopped running herself ragged I was easily able to see the difference in mentality and demeanor that even a few days of relaxing had wrought.

    I pulled her closer. "So, break it down for those of us with more muscle than brains? What's our next move since we obviously don't want them to succeed in that. Also how would they go about it? Or rather, how would you go about it if you were them. We can assume leadership is making the tactical calls, since I'm pretty sure the low level members couldn't out think a stick of butter." I had no clue what she was getting at honestly, and it was kind of embarrassing. I felt like she was trying to lead me to a specific line of reasoning to help me get back into the habit of using my head, but I just wasn't getting it.

    Luckily she didn't seem too frustrated at that, just patient. The very fact that she was thinking this far ahead of me meant these kinds of exercises were necessary. I didn't have the stat dominance in combat to become a shoot first ask questions type, and the constant resistance of that would help offset the recursion. She pointed off to one side. "My guess would be something they can excel at. Something reckless and stupid enough that they'll feel like they'll get some rep from trying it, and most importantly, something that's going to screw over the current management. Something like...that."

    I turned to follow her gesture and froze, smacking my palm into my face. Now that she pointed it out I couldn't believe I hadn't guessed it already. It was the surest way I could think of for them to make an impact on this place. "Do you think they'll actually be able to manage that though? It says there's a reward, sure, but they have to actually win it, and willful stupidity can only do so much. What are the chances any of them have the skill set to pull off a decent result in something like that?"

    She shrugged. "Don't forget the wishing thing. I'm sure that with a wish at least one of them could prepare, plus I could see those idiots managing it even without cheating. They may not be smart, but they're sure as hell stubborn. It looks like the prize is substantial too. I'm guessing that they accumulate the invested money for the trial and then pay it out if someone manages it in a specific period of time. Chances are pretty good that no one does though, and they count on using that money. It's a publicity stunt for investment gathering."

    We headed in the direction of the huge wooden structure, filled with people in bench seats watching each new challenger do their best to pass the trial and gather the massive chunk of money afforded the winners. As we drew in close I wrinkled my nose at the smell. It smelled like wild animals, which wasn't a shock. When we made it to the counter next to the pen I pulled out a bunch of low level chits and dropped them in front of the circus employee. "Hi, we'll take two tickets to the bull riding competition?" At the very least it should be a good show.
     
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  9. Threadmarks: chapter 189
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    When we got inside, we were able to confirm the rules of the bull riding competition. You had to put up a single G ranked chit per attempt, if you managed to stay on the bull for a full three minutes you got to keep all the chits anyone had paid over the course of the month. It started over again on the first of each month, and the previous month's stockpile was divided up amongst the management of the cavalcade.People HAD passed the trial a time or two, but it was uncommon. Mostly anyone attempting the task ended up thrown across the bull pen.

    Mostly this had to do with the absolute fucking monster of a bull they used. A Might focused beast of an animal called a Stone Footed Titanic Ox. The thing was high G rank, and was considerably stronger than most Ascendants at that rank, not to mention much bigger and more able to exert that strength than most (read any) human beings. Forgetting not being able to stay on, if your stats weren't high enough you could easily die in the test, and no one rational failed to take that seriously when making the attempt.

    Which, of course, was why neither of us were remotely surprised to see a green haired Jerk desperately clinging to the saddle of the titanic ox, whooping with joy while a full dozen multicolored tough guys with no shirts and leather pants hollered their mohawk covered heads off. To my surprise the short but incredibly wide man was managing to stay on, though he seemed pretty terrified of what was happening as he did. Still, terror or no, the guy had a death grip on the saddle and wouldn't let go.

    Callie snorted, a small smile on her face as she rolled her eyes. "Way Crazy Wyatt. If Ronnie epitomizes the bullies in the Jack-tastic Jerks, Wyatt is the distillation of the other side of the organization. He's completely insane, but he actually does care about the others. He's ok for a lunatic. He and Ronnie each have a few much weaker G rankers under them, and Wyatt's lackeys are generally considered much easier to deal with. I'm not surprised he's the one trying this, he's the kind of person who won't send a subordinate to do something he won't do himself."

    I chuckled a bit at the exasperated fondness, it reminded me a bit of how I talked about Zeke, though less affectionate obviously. "So I take it you two are friends? I didn't know you were close with anyone at the Jerks." I didn't mind too much, it was hard to take the Jerks too seriously, but some of them seemed like good people. If she thought he was a decent guy I was happy she had a friend to meet with, and if we could potentially get some info from her buddy that was all the better for our purposes. It always paid to have sources of information.

    That got me an embarrassed cough. "We're...friendly. We've fought plenty of times, but Wyatt is a decent enough guy to match blows against. He's bulky as hell, so he's slow, but he has a defensive ability to make up for it. That's probably how he's managing to stay on that bull honestly. That thing looks damn strong, I doubt I could keep my grip if I were up there. Wonder how long he's been on it's back? If he makes it through the whole ride then he gets the prize, and I imagine the Jerks plans get one step closer to fruition."

    Using the term Jerks and plans in the same sentence was a strange concept, but I got what she meant. "Not sure, but if it was recent I'm doubting it. His hand is already starting to slip, he won't make it another minute, let alone two. If he's been on there a while he might pull it off. If he doesn't do...do we try?" I actually had an idea of how I might be able to pull it off, and to be honest I was kind of excited to give it a try. We could use the money too, though if we won I wasn't sure if we could take it or if that would run counter to our mission. Maybe we would have to give it back.

    Callie obviously knew I wanted to try and rolled her eyes. "Ugh. I knew you were going to want to ride the bull. We can see what happens. Who knows if Wyatt will-" She was cut off by a wail as the blurred form of Wyatt came flying across the pen to smash into the wall next to us. We both stepped out of the way without looking, more than able to hear his screams as he hurtled through the air toward us. He smashed through the pen and hit the rock wall surrounding it around the outside.

    Before impact I saw his body shift, and his skin rippled into a tapestry of multicolored and multitextured gems and stones. I wasn't sure exactly what the stones were, but the wall broke and not Wyatt, so whatever they were they were pretty damn sturdy. He popped to his feet, scowling past us at the bull. "You'll get yours meat!" He shook his fist at the bull, which I swear literally sneered back at him somehow, and then turned and noticed us with a blink. His eyes focused on Callie and he grinned happily. "Nightlight!"

    He swept forward to scoop her up in a hug, and Callie scrunched her nose in disgust. "Ew, ew, ew sweat! Personal space Wyatt!" He put her down, embarrassed, and then turn and swept me up in the same crushing grip. I'd been a bit bothered by him grabbing Callie, but the second hug made it clear that it hadn't been romantic. Way Crazy Wyatt was just a huggy person. I had to suppress a chuckle as the big friendly puppy of a man put me down, clapping both Callie and I on a shoulder each.

    I turned to look at her skeptically as he put me down. I could understand her discomfort, the shorter man had clearly been exhausted trying to ride that bull, even I was covered with sweat now. Still, that wasn't the salient point. "Nightlight?" I layered as much amusement and teasing into my voice as possible, making it clear that I was definitely going to continue messing with her about this. The name was ridiculous, and I couldn't wait to tell Benny and Jessie when we got home.

    She scowled at me, but before she could answer, Wyatt slapped me on the shoulder with a grin. "Of course! Everyone back home knows Nightlight! She's the toughest, she even gave me some trouble in a fight." His body had shifted back from the gem studded form before he even initiated the first hug, but at his words he let the rocky change roll over his arms again up to the elbow, holding his hands up to show us how strong he was. "I heard about you too of course! That serial killer was a nasty guy, thanks for taking care of that Sally!"

    My eyes widened in horror behind my mask at the nickname, but I saw Callie's face bloom into a catlike grin. Before I could speak, she cut me off. "Of course Wyatt. SALLY here is a true hero. Speaking of, I wasn't expecting to see you here. I knew the Jerks were in town, but you seem like you have plenty of free time to be here trying to ride a bull. Unless you're on business for the boss?" She added that last bit as an afterthought, casually tossing out the question so no one could tell it was important.

    I wondered if she felt bad about it, but cultivators were weird sometimes. Just like she didn't seem to care about the fact that we'd just handed over the other G ranker in the Jerks before starting this conversation, the concept of trying to manipulate him for information wasn't a big deal. In the end, this was how the game was played, and she knew better than me which lines to cross or not. The weird enemies but not relationship that the Unity had with villains was tough to navigate for me, and I was lucky to have Callie's help.

    Despite that, Wyatt was a G ranker, and NOT an idiot, even if he was a bit direct. He just rolled his eyes. "Oh no! I'm not falling for that again. M-jack got super mad the last time I told you stuff about our secret plans. No matter what you ask I'm not going to say a word about why we're trying to take over the circus!" He waved his fist dramatically in the air, and much like I often did with the Jerks, I felt the urge to facepalm at his over lunacy as he effectively confirmed the existence of a plan while loudly declaring he would never tell us a thing.

    Callie's flat expression told me that she was used to this kind of behavior, and despite being pretty sure all the Jerk names were nonsense, I kind of understood why even the other Jerks called this guy 'Way Crazy Wyatt'. I recognized that blank, mildly traumatized expression from my own experiences with the Jerks. It wasn't some sort of fear or bad memory exactly, Callie was resigning herself to dealing with people who had absolutely no grasp on or use for common sense. Ascendants all lived in a strange world, but the Jerk's world was stranger than most.

    Wyatt, it seemed, was on his guard now, and despite seeming to still be friendly he turned to the group of Jerks. He pointed to one of them, an average looking Jerk with a bright blue mohawk and a series of facial piercings. "Sticky Jim! You give it a try! No one sticks to stuff like you do, not dumb bull can throw you off!" His tone was proud and triumphant, but judging by Sticky Jim's face I was guessing the blue haired Jerk was much less certain any of that was true than Wyatt was.

    Callie, taking pity on the poor G ranked Jerk, cleared her throat. "Wyatt. We came here to try the bull riding competition too. If you keep making your Jerks do the challenge over and over until one of them wins and don't give anyone a chance, don't you think people will start saying you were too scared to let anyone else try? You know how much Mr. Jack-tastic hates when people badmouth the Jerks. Maybe you should let..." Her lips twitched. "Sally, give it a try first. It's only fair."

    That sounded like an obvious attempt to manipulate him to me, but Wyatt gave a serious nod. "Of course. M-Jack always tells me to keep my reputation in mind when doing things. He hates when I embarrass the Jerks." I resisted the urge for another face palm as I noted that Mr. Jack-tastic was probably talking about the fact that he was so easy to trick, but I couldn't complain since I was benefiting. I did feel a bit bad though. Wyatt was a nice guy, he was just SO DUMB.

    Callie gave me an understanding chuckle and a nod, she knew what I was thinking. Since he'd lasted this long and was this powerful though there had to be more to him than I was seeing. In either case, since he gave the ok I knew it was my turn to try the bull riding. I was still sub one hundred on Might, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve, and I was excited to give this a try. I'd never ridden a bull before. Besides, maybe we could keep at least some of the prize money. It wasn't like they had to have ALL of it.
     
  10. Threadmarks: chapter 190
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Bulls, as it turned out. Were BIG. Like, most people knew that, they knew Bulls were large, and I'd seen this one from a distance before. Given that, and my own Perception, I should have been prepared for the size of the animal I was preparing to ride. I should have remained stoic and unbothered as I closed in to climb onto the back of the best that was currently being held confined in a small area, waiting for its next rider. I wasn't.

    Standing there next to the Stone hoof Titanic Ox, I felt...small. Not just physically, I was a big guy, and even if its sheer mass dwarfed me, I was tall enough to at least look it in the eye. Not in terms of Impact either, that was something I'd felt from Zeke, and I knew what it was like. This though...this was different. This animal was just...more. It was my equal in Impact, in the weight we imposed on reality, which meant I was essentially feeling the same thing I would be feeling as a mortal when facing something like this.

    I'd expected to be unbothered by that, really. I'd stood in the presence of a giant dragon skeleton so big I could fucking run around in its rib cage, but that was somehow more surreal. It was too strange to hit me like this was. Still, despite being incredibly worried about what was coming, I never really considered turning around and leaving. I felt intimidated like a mortal might have instinctively, but only as a sort of phantom instinct. It was just the person I used to be flaring up at an inopportune time. Shane Wyndham might be afraid to do this, but Solomon wasn't. Solomon had done worse, and that knowledge let me shake off any lingering worry easily.

    The person the circus had sent to help me out gave me time to sort out how I was feeling. I don't know if he knew I was worried or not, my mask covered my face, but regardless he let me wait, and then, when I indicated I was ready, he led me over to the small boxed in sub pen and let me climb over the side to sit astride the bull. I figured it would buck as soon as I got on, but they had it trained I supposed. Once I was on it didn't move, granted it didn't have much room to move in the smaller section of pen, which was the point, but still, it was impressive.

    The assistant looked up at me seriously. "Ok, do you understand all the rules?" I did, and I told him as much, and he nodded again. "Good. You're free to call a halt at any time, it's tough for a G ranker to get killed by accident, so if you get thrown don't be afraid to halt the competition. Getting trampled CAN kill you, and plenty of people have died that way, so don't take any stupid chances. Are you ready to start?" His voice contained a warning, clearly having given this speech to many others and been ignored more than once.

    I nodded and he moved to open the gate. As he did, I went ahead and put my plan into action. I triggered Leaf on the Wind. While it might have seemed odd to some people to use that ability to pass this trial, I was pretty sure it was perfect for multiple reasons. Firstly, my strength was colossal, and Leaf on the Wind didn't make me weaker, just less affected by gravity. Being lighter meant that having a grip on the saddle would be much more effective, with less pull from the bucking of the bull.

    The decreased gravity should also somewhat mitigate the momentum, or at least my reaction to it. I wished briefly I had some kind of sticking ability, but I would just have to deal with the current setup. Being so much lighter should effectively multiply the efficiency of my Might stat for this though, so I had a decent chance. My other main trump card was my armor. I hadn't switched it out yet, and the absorption ability of my gear should be able to handle what little force I had to suffer with my decreased mass.

    With all these idea running through my head, I was pretty confident as the bull trotted out of the sub pen and into the main area where the trial would take place. The bull was moving at a slow and steady plod into the middle of the pen, and I was curious as to what the hell was going on, at least for a second, until we got to the middle of the trial area, when the bull stopped. I looked down at it in curiosity when it did for a second, until finally, with nearly no warning, the bull went absolutely fucking nuts.

    The first buck took the bulls back feet off the ground so hard the thing went fully vertical snout to tail. I gripped hard on reflex, barely managing to maintain my hold, and then the bull REALLY started. That first kick had been intense, but it had also been singular. Once its feet touched the mud again (which I swear somehow took less time than gravity should explain) it kicked out again, and then again, faster and faster and harder and harder until I half thought it was just teleporting itself into position, or would have if not for the strain from the yanking.

    The thing snapped and whipped like a towel someone was cracking in a locker room, and even with my skill active I had trouble managing to keep ahold of that damn saddle. The beast wasn't fucking around, he wanted me gone, and he wasn't shy about how it happened. This had looked so much less terrifying when Wyatt was doing it, and while I didn't let myself scream, I DID understand why Wyatt had done so.

    Even with the lightened gravity, I felt like a rag doll as my body was jerked back and forth in mid air. Despite all that though...I was having fun! This was amazing, the adrenaline, the thrill. My heart was pounding and my blood was thundering in my veins. It had become clear up to this point that I developing a reckless and sometimes dangerous love for combat, but apparently, it wasn't just battle I enjoyed. Despite the danger of getting thrown free and my very close up view from several positions of why it was a STONE HOOFED Titanic Ox, this was the most fun I'd had since the hunt ended.

    I could see the audience around me, cheering and whooping as I held on for dear life, but the person I was staring at hardest wasn't any of them. It was Callie. Her smile lit up her face like a beacon, not because of the job or because we were closer to completing our mission, but because she could tell how much fun I was having. This beautiful girl was here with me, and she was happy, for the simple and uncomplicated reason that I was happy, and she loved me.

    I'd done many things since becoming an Ascendant. I'd fought monsters, beaten serial killers, and even saved some children. That smile though...that smile was the most amazing thing I had seen since I entered this world. Treasure and magic was impressive and interesting, but it didn't have a patch on the sheer beauty of seeing that look on Callie's face and knowing it was aimed at me. I gripped the saddle tighter, and despite being in the exact same situation as a moment ago, I felt so much more...free.

    I felt like I was flying, and I knew for a fact that I could do this. I let my body relax, and found that going limp actually helped a lot as long as I maintained my grip, especially with Leaf on the Wind still active. I let myself be jerked back and forth on the back of the bull, and I couldn't pretend I had literally any idea when this was going to end or how long it had gone on so far. Despite my glee and my good mood I was extremely confused at that moment, and when the assistant finally called out for them to end it, I barely heard him.

    Luckily, there was a loud horn to signal me passing the trial, so it was easy enough to puzzle out what he said. I relaxed my grip as soon as I heard it, which turned out to be a huge mistake because I'd forgotten I being whipped through the air by a giant beast. I went flying, though Leaf on the Wind slowed me down as I flew. It didn't end up mattering how fast I was going past that though, because I came to a stop against a huge black cushion that I could easily see was made of shadows. Callie had me.

    I felt myself lowered slowly to the ground, my head still spinning, and I laughed breathlessly as my back hit the mud softly. Callie's face appeared in my vision, and I wished neither of us were wearing our masks, just so I could see that smile unobstructed. Sadly that wasn't to be, so I sat up with a groan instead. Callie chuckled as she helped me up. "That was pretty damn impressive. Wyatt and the other Jerks are all in awe of you now. That bull made a big impression on them, and seeing you conquer it really won them over."

    I laughed a bit as she helped me stand. "Enough to give me the answers to how they're planning to take this place down and for who?" That got me a snort of dismissal. Wyatt might be a bit of a dunce, but he was also a G ranker. With that level of Focus there was only so stupid you could actually be, and I knew better that higher ranking Ascendants tended to level up incredibly low stat values fast because of the overall impression their power left on other people.

    She helped me over to the edge of the pen, my feet still a bit unsteady especially on the mud given how dizzy I'd been. When we got to the side, the assistant led the others in a loud round of applause as we approached, giving me a nod of respect. "An excellent showing. I'd ask how you managed, but it's something of an unspoken rule that one doesn't question how a thing is done, as long as you see it completed." He passed me a big. "As agreed, your winnings my friend." His visage was a bit unhappy, and I suspected they collected interest or something while they held the money.

    To his shock though, I didn't take it, pushing it back. I put an arm around Callie's shoulder. I had a ready made excuse here. "You Circus is where I first told my girlfriend I loved her, that's worth much more than a few chits. Keep it. Consider it a thank you for everything you've done for us." The assistant looked completely poleaxed, which was far. What I'd just done was absolutely batshit crazy. People didn't just give back money like that.

    He looked confused as he took the bag, but after a second his head snapped up, tilting to one side. After a brief pause he turned to us. "You are too kind, I wonder, perhaps you would like to meet our founder. Mr. Castelton hopes to invite the two of you for a personal meeting as thanks for your generosity." I grinned. I'd been hoping for something like that. While they might have someone infiltrating this place, I knew there was at least one person who wouldn't be working for the Jerks or their employers. After all, Cicero Castleton had the least reason to allow his circus to change hands. It was time to get some answers.
     
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  11. Threadmarks: chapter 191
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The assistant lead us to Cicero Castleton directly, though we did stop to say goodbye to everyone. Despite being here to thwart their plans, the Jerks seemed enthused about the results I'd gotten, and Way Crazy Wyatt in particular was insistent that we were best friends now. Despite my insistence that I barely knew him, and that my name was NOT Sally, he refused to hear a word of it, loudly proclaiming to the other Jerks that even though the money was given to the circus and not available anymore, he was going to challenge the ox again so he could beat it and we could be "bull buddies".

    I had been thinking about how much I preferred Wyatt to that shit bag Ronnie, but after a brief interaction before we left for the ring master tent, my headache made it clear that Wyatt was MUCH more annoying to interact with, even if it was for harmless and amusing reasons. I desperately hoped that Wyatt wasn't part of the faction the supported Punchin Carl, though who even knew what that support entailed or what he would use it for. I still wasn't sure exactly what Carl's ability was, but I was hoping to avoid him entirely. Even if I could beat him in a fight once he hit G rank (which I wasn't certain of) I had no motivation to actually do so.

    As we approached the ring master tent I pulled Callie close to me. Since we were playing the love birds it fit the narrative for us to be cuddly, plus I think she was genuinely excited about the bull riding thing. Still, we didn't ignore everything around us, and I asked the assistant a question I'd been wondering about as we approached the huge green and black striped tent in the center of the circus, which I hadn't even seen until we got close. "So, do many people get the chance to meet Mr. Castleton? I've heard lots about the cavalcade but little about him personally."

    The assistant chuckled. "The cavalcade is the Mr. Castleton's life's work. Since it has his name on it everyone who hears about it hears about him. As such he doesn't bother too much with in person appearances or gathering personal power, instead putting his all into making the cavalcade as famous and beloved as possible. It was one of the main differences that led to the departure of his brother. Mr. Abel always preferred to see more direct results from his development. He tried to insert himself into the acts to gather acclaim, and when they couldn't agree on the subject Mr. Castleton asked him to leave."

    That was interesting. I hadn't heard about that. "So, Mr. Castleton has a brother? He's a G ranker too I take it? How come I haven't heard about him, and why isn't his name part of the title of the circus? It seems like that might cause some issues between them if nothing else." I couldn't imagine founding a huge place like this and having someone else put their name on it and leave mine off.

    The assistant sighed. "The name of the circus used to be the Confounding Castleton's Captivating Chaotic Cavalcade, Mr. Castleton, or rather, Mr. Cicero, changed the name when Mr. Abel left. As for why you haven't heard of him, despite their differences Mr. Abel loves his brother. When he left the cavalcade he decided that he would abandon his name so as not to detract from his brother's fame. He donned a mask and tossed away his original name and reputation, opening a sausage shop at the entrance to G district. The only tribute to his former life is the use of the word Cavalcade in the name of his shop."

    I froze. "Wait...Spruce Bunny? He's the one who pointed us here, and we've gotten help from him before. He's Mr. Castleton's brother? I hadn't really considered where he might have come from I guess, though that story does make sense. I take it since he was so focused on personal power, he must be pretty effective in a fight huh?" He would be G rank for sure, but I was guessing based on what the assistant had said before that he was high G rank. We resumed walking, drawing closer and closer to the big tent, though it was bigger than I'd thought because the walk was taking a while.

    The assistant nodded emphatically. "Oh, heavens yes. Mr. Abel was one of the most powerful G rankers in the district before he went into exile. I suspect that Mr. Cicero expected him to take a position of honor with one of the other factions. Mr. Abel's ability is rather potent, and he could have easily gotten such an opportunity. Instead he tossed his entire reputation aside and became a nobody in order to protect his little brother. Mr. Cicero has always regretted that, I think, but he doesn't feel he has the right to meet with his brother to ask him about it after the trouble he's caused."

    I had no clue what to say to any of that. Knowing that wacko in the rabbit mask was some kind of elite combat master was...weird, but then again, most Ascendants were weird. Hell, it was possible that Spruce Bunny was gathering as much rep as Abel had, though based on his lack of advertising and how long it took me to hear this story I doubted it. Still, I couldn't resist asking the obvious question. "You said his ability was potent. Is it ok if I ask what that ability is? I love to hear about interesting powers."

    The assistant chuckled. "Of course. It's no secret. Mr. Abel possesses a speed ability. It creates a field of...warped space, around him that acts like a lubricant, allowing him to move much faster with the Might he has than would normally be possible. He's also a dedicated practitioner of Ragam, and extremely dangerous high speed striking martial art. Mr. Abel in combat is something to behold. Sometimes I wonder if Mr. Cicero shouldn't have allowed him to create an act like he wanted."

    That was...scary. I could think of a dozen ways that could synergize into something truly terrifying, not even taking into account his skills in martial arts, which, if they were notable enough to bring up here, were probably at least at Intermediate. Maybe even higher, since he was apparently not focused on gaining stats at the moment. It was theoretically possible for him to be at Expert rank in the discipline, though granted, that was extremely unlikely. Even for someone at the peak of G rank.

    A person COULD get a Skill to two ranks above where they were currently, if they were careful and didn't cripple themselves trying to leverage usage of that Skill past what their soul could bear. It usually wasn't done, because it was difficult to know which aspects of a Skill couldn't be used, but martial artists in particular often tried to go that route. Physical skills were easier to handle in that context, and since many matial artists synergized their fighting style with their ability, it gave them much more overtly impressive combat power.

    My thoughts were cut off sadly, as we finally made it to the lime green and black striped canvas tent. When we reached the entrance we stopped, and the assistant turned to us. "Mr. Castleton is waiting for you inside. I wasn't summoned so I won't be entering with you, but I would like to thank you again for what you've done tonight. You don't know how much it's helped us." He gave us a low bow, a courtly and elegant gesture involving a flourish of his hand. "My name is Emery, feel free to seek me out if you have any needs here in the future."

    With that, he rose and stepped back, gesturing for us to enter on our own. I pulled Callie tighter against me, and turned my body slightly to put myself ahead of her as we entered, though she caught me trying and elbowed me in the ribs. I let out a whoof of breath and rubbed my ribs as she gave me a sweet smile, which I couldn't help but chuckle at. We stepped through the opening in the tent together, pushing aside the heavy fabric to step into a large dark space, lit by only a single candle at a small table in the middle of the room, at which sat a tall man.

    Cicero Castleton looked young, but to be fair, most Ascendants did at this level. He wasn't some old monster like that Moravian guy Cark had mentioned, at least I didn't think so. He looked about our age, with a tall top hat, a red velvet waistcoat with thick black buttons, and a black vest with a gold watch chain trailing between it and the breast pocket of the coat. He had a thick mustache and kind brown eyes, and when he noticed us enter he gave a low, deep nod and gestured us forward to join him.

    When we sat down, he gave us a welcoming smile. "So, you're the young man who returned all those chits to the cavalcade rather than take them. I was impressed by your kindness, though I suspect your reasons may be more complex than Emery might believe. Given your interaction with those new troublemakers, I take it you find yourself standing on the opposite side of the faction attempting to oust me from my seat here?" Despite the grim nature of the question, his tone was light and up beat, like he wasn't worried about anything. It was kind of impressive.

    I didn't see any reason to pretend. "You got us. Yeah, we're here to try to prevent the faction behind the Jerks from taking over G district. I can't go into details, but if there's some way we can be of assistance, maybe you could tell us about it? Also, it might help if we knew who the hell is doing all this. We've run into a bit of a wall in our investigation, we only know what they're planning, not who is behind it all." Not that it mattered to me since I knew no one here, but finding out who our enemy was couldn't hurt.

    Cicero chuckled slightly, the air making his mustache ruffle. "Help? I suppose I wouldn't say no to a bit of assistance. I'm not sure who the faction behind this is. I'm the last person they would tip off, given my own connections in the WCP. It would defeat the purpose of working through intermediaries. That said, I do know who would be aware. In point of fact, it's the same person who would have benefited had you not returned those chits you won. One of my managers, and one with quite a bit of influence in the cavalcade."

    That surprised me. "How come you haven't gotten rid of the person if you know who it is? You're the boss, can't you just kick them out?" This whole place was way more complicated than it should be, the politics were insane. Callie reached down and gripped my hand, and I eased off a bit. I wasn't a fan of all this double talk and shady dealing, but she was in her element here. I'd let her handle things, though I doubted she would let me ignore it completely given her desire to make me pay attention to the political side of things.

    That got another, much sadder laugh. The young looking man's face settled into a much more aged appearance. Not from some kind of Skill or effect, but from the lines of stress and sadness I could see etched into his skin. The expression on his face made it seem like he'd aged twenty years in just a few seconds. His voice was quiet as he responded to my question. "I couldn't bear to do that. You see, it's my fault she's trying to get rid of me in the first place."
     
  12. TheArgentOne

    TheArgentOne Know what you're doing yet?

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    is it the wish girl? Is his daughter a wyndham who's trying to oust him because of things happening? We've only seen male wyndham's other than her so it's not impossible for there to be a female one we haven't met yet, who's her mother.

    Edit: clarification.
     
  13. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Nah, it's more to do with the whole mess with Abel. She's not his daughter though, more of a childhood friend.
     
  14. Threadmarks: chapter 192
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I wasn't sure how to respond to that. It sounded like a pretty sad story, and part of me didn't want to pry, but at the same time we needed to know what the fuck was going on. I decided to let Callie handle this, she was better with people than I was mostly, and was mostly taking charge right now anyway. Sure enough, she broached the subject in the most tactful way possible. "I'm sorry to hear that, but I wonder if you might clarify a bit about what exactly happened to cause one of your people to turn on you like that? Emery made it seem like everyone here was pretty united."

    Cicero gave a small, sad smile. "Yes, I heard him talking to you outside the tent. He knew that of course, he'd hardly have told the story so close to where I sat if he hadn't wanted me to know. I suspect he has a better grasp on this situation than most involved. Emery is a quiet and subtle person, but he hears much more than anyone imagines. Well, he also probably wanted to spare me the pain of recounting it myself, and to slip in a bit of a reprimand for being too much of a coward to speak to my brother, not that he would phrase it as such. He rarely does things for a single reason when he can accomplish more than one goal."

    I hadn't gotten that impression from Emery, but then, that was probably the point. It was odd to see someone who operated so subtly in this world we lived in. Ascendant powers didn't lend themselves to that sort of subterfuge, even stealthy Ascendants were mostly just a more edgy kind of flashy. Either that or they used their lack of presence as its own kind of attention gathering tactic, cultivating a reputation of whispers and efficiency by spreading rumors of their terrifying deeds after the fact.

    I could tell from her demeanor that Callie was a bit surprised too, and a tad impressed. Emery making it to even H rank without any notable presence was pretty impressive. She shook that off though and focused back on our host. "Does this rogue element have something to do with your brother then? We met him and he seemed really nice. I'm not naive enough to assume that means I know him well enough to think he wouldn't do something like this, but Emery seems pretty certain he doesn't bear you any ill will." I'd gotten the implication too when he mentioned Emery knowing more then he let on, but Abel had clearly gone above and beyond for his brother, and causing him trouble spat in the face of that effort.

    Cicero nodded. "You aren't wrong. My brother does not hold his situation against me, as much as he really should. The same can not be said of everyone here, however. While Abel never blamed me for having to leave, he was not without friends in this place. Starbreak, who I suspect is behind this, was a childhood friend of ours. We were inseparable when younger, and I admit I had a bit of a romantic interest, but she was always more interested in Abel. After he left, Melissa blamed me for driving him away. Suspected I was jealous of them. She's resented me ever since, though she's done her best to conceal that."

    Callie looked at him hard for a second, reading the subtext there. "You agree with her. You feel like you ruined things and that's why you can't bring yourself to clean house." Cicero tipped his hat, giving her a rueful smile of acknowledgement. She sighed. "That actually makes this more complicated, not less. If this was just business we could narrow down who she's working with based on her known associates. From the way it sounds though, she just wants you gone and is willing to work with anyone to get it done. I take it this Starbreak person is powerful?"

    I assumed the same, Ascendants tended to listen to people stronger than them from what I'd seen. If she was capable of forming a faction inside the circus she was probably as strong as Cicero. Sure enough, he confirmed it. "Yes, Melissa always shared Abel's love of combat. She was going to be part of the act he was planning as a matter of fact. She's one of my most powerful managers. Abel refused to allow her to follow him when he left for just that reason, wanting to make sure I would still have her support. As you can see that didn't work out very well, but then, Abel was always better at fighting than dealing with people."

    That was interesting actually. Spruce Bunny had seemed...friendly. He was an outgoing and cheerful person, if a bit odd. I had a hard time reconciling the image of the two people as they were described to me. That said, this whole thing left me wondering one thing. "How can we actually help? Because I somehow doubt you're sharing your family drama because we're good listeners. Not that I don't appreciate the trust, I get how hard it is to open up like that, but if you're telling us this you probably have at least some kind of idea of what we could do to ameliorate the situation right?"

    The mustachioed man laughed softly at my bluntness. "I do. If you're willing to help me. I realize I have no claim on your time or energy, as I don't actually know either of you. If you can help with this, however, I would be extremely grateful. In fact, I'd even be willing to allocate you some territory in the cavalcade if you'd like. It is far from simple to acquire land in the WCP after the forces have settled in for so long. Only the E district has available space on demand, mostly because there are so few E rankers to take it up."

    I had no response to that. I hadn't even considered getting land in the WCP here, but given my access level it might actually be a smart idea. I looked to Callie, content to let her make this call. We were going to be leaving this planet eventually, because we weren't stopping at E rank. That said, investing in territory might not be a stupid idea, since we were going to be leaving friends behind. We couldn't possibly take every single person we knew out into the major universe. Hell, Cark was almost definitely a no go because of Cass.

    Callie looked intrigued, but cautious. "This is an interesting deal, but pardon me for saying that it doesn't seem particularly balanced. You're offering us territory to get involved in outside business, but there's a pretty decent chance that the territory might get snatched by your competitors, then would you even be able to give it to us? You're basically creating a situation where we only get paid if things work out, which is helpful to you for sure, but makes this kind of a risk for us. Shouldn't you pay something up front?"

    While we were planning to help, Cicero didn't actually know that, or at least not to what extent. We had our own reasons for doing this, but if we let everyone assume we would work on commission that would get out and become part of our reputation. Recursion made reputation an important part of being an Ascendant, and forced us to be careful about anything official we did. Especially in costume like we were now, we had to keep in mind how we wanted to be perceived by everyone else.

    Of course, this took me a minute to puzzle out, while Callie saw it pretty much instantly. I wouldn't be bringing that up though. As much as I was in awe of her instincts and skills for this kind of thing, I knew she learned most of it under less than favorable circumstances. As much as she might not want to admit it, her dad had played his part in making her a more effective Ascendant. Because she spent so many years working around his manipulation she gained an innate understanding of how cultivation worked and how to turn situation to her advantage. Midknight was probably going to seriously regretting giving her a reason to get so competent.

    Cicero just smiled widely, like we'd passed a test. "Of course. I confess I don't exactly know what people your age might be focusing on these days. I'm willing to make a down payment on your assistance, given you prove to me that you can accomplish the task I'll be setting you. If you're expecting payment up front however, even partially, I'll need to test you to make sure you're suitable for my purposes. Are you willing to undergo such a test? If so you can pose your request to me and we can work out the details before you assessment."

    The older man's gaze was still kind, but there was a sneaky gleam in it that let me know he'd been aiming for this. Us offering to help was great, but he had no reason to think we were capable of much. I wasn't even sure he knew who we were yet, not everyone watched the scavenger hunt stream. A G ranker who ran his own small faction would be unlikely to waste time vetting newbies from the academy. With little to no chance of co-opting them and not enough reputation to convince them to switch sides it would be a pointless exercise for him.

    With that in mind it became a matter of finding out exactly what we could do to see if we would be useful. It occurred to me that promising to pay us later with something he might not even have could have just been bait for this exact outcome. I felt stupid for missing it, but luckily Callie seemed to be unsurprised by the whole thing. She really was better at this. Still, it was no wonder Cicero managed to retain control of his faction even when someone inside it wanted him gone. This guy was way sneakier than he let on.

    Callie didn't look upset by this turn of events though, she looked happy, and I was able to figure out why as soon as she started talking. "Fair enough. We're happy to undergo the test, but since we took the initiative to help you and you're making us prove ourselves, we hope you can show some sincerity. If we pass the trial and can help you pull off whatever your plan is. If we can manage your test, we want you to fully outfit our team of four in custom F ranked costumes. We'll need that in writing, by the way."

    I saw the older man literally flinch when he heard that. He'd been expecting her to ask for chits or something, maybe a bigger slice of the pie, four sets of custom armor a rank above him would be...pricey. I was sure he had enough to afford it, this place probably raked in a ton of money, but it would bite into his funds hard. He hesitated for a minute. "IF, and I mean if, you can successfully clear my trial and are willing to enact my plan, and if you are willing to sign a contract binding you to that course of action...I agree."

    I felt a grin split my face as I considered what we would be taking into battle with us soon. Granted, I'd need to stick relatively close to my current style to prevent degradation of my legend, but still, an F ranked costume would last me for quite a while at my current rate of cultivation. I was a bit worried about the trial though. The ring master must be desperate to be willing to commit to that, and I was guessing his trial wasn't going to be anything to sneeze at if we had to earn that kind of payoff. We would pass it though, and after that...we'd see exactly what this plan of his was.
     
  15. Threadmarks: chapter 193
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    This entire thing had gotten way out of hand. From our original mission all the way to this crazy trial, we'd been reeling since we first came to this place. While joining up with Cicero might be a bit premature, and I wasn't planning to let him know about my ability (G rank wasn't nearly strong enough to consider partnering with) it put us firmly on offense. While I knew punching all my problems didn't work, I was deeply uncomfortable being so reactive all the time. Taking the initiative would help me feel a bit more in control, and if I needed to take a test to do it I'd take one.

    On the upside, Callie had outdone herself this time. We needed better gear, and while we could afford G ranked stuff, we would all be ranking up before long hopefully. Much like I'd gotten H rank gear for my first set, this would future proof our loadout for a while, and considering the gap between cultivation ranks, it would be a decently long while. I was glad we didn't have to pay for that shit ourselves, because based on what I'd seen of custom gear prices in the crafting hall, an F ranked seat for each of us would cost WAY more than we had access to.

    So, with the formalities out of the way, we followed Cicero through the tent and out the back to another, larger space, that I was pretty sure wasn't actually there from the outside. When we stepped in, a series of torches in the same green as the stripes on the outside of the tent burst into life, illuminating the entire tent for us to take in. Weirdly, there was no green tint to the light, and while the torches were green, the light cast was just the neutral illumination of normal colored flame. It was an odd sensation, but I'd seen weirder so I shook it off, following Cicero to one side where a table lay.

    On the table was a document, and when I scanned over it I realized it appeared to be a neutral contract. A series of terms that seemed fairly universal, like an NDA and guarantees of safety for both parties from the other for the duration of the contract were scrawled out over an empty stretch of page. Cicero gestured to the paper. "This is a contract frame. High level scribes write and sell them. The terms are neutral and broadly applicable, though they come in multiple variations. You fill in the terms, and then you sign them and they bind you to the outline. The signatures don't bind by mistake or unknowingly or if you don't agree, so don't worry. Once we get the terms hammered out we can double check."

    We wrote out the terms as agreed upon, and Callie let me do this part. While I wasn't one for politics I KNEW contracts. Not from any sort of specific training exactly, but because my dad basically treated life like a contract. Everything was about terms and conditions, as was made clear by his geas with Zeke. Recursion actually explained A LOT about the way dad was. I had no clue how Zeke had ended up as normal and functional as he was, though his tendency for drama was probably the biggest side effect of his cultivation.

    While I outlined everything Callie DID chip in, adding her thoughts on different terms and phrasing, and her notes weren't bad. I didn't take all of them, and she didn't question the ones I dismissed, but in the end we came up with a half decent contract. The terms basically stated that if we passed the trial we would be given the details of the plan. Assuming we accepted our participation in the plan Cicero would arrange for our custom gear immediately, and we would be given the costumes before being expected to go on our assignment.

    Theoretically it was possible we might take the trial and fail, or decide not to participate in the plan, and if so we would end up with nothing, but given what was at stake neither of those options was likely. Once we confirmed and signed I felt the binding settle over me, and I made a note to pick up some contract frames just in case. I probably should have gotten the Skill itself but...I didn't want it. I didn't resent my dad quite as much as Callie did hers, but I definitely didn't want to become him. I was fine using contracts other people wrote or when I needed them. I didn't want my life to become a transaction. My Wish power already made it close enough to that.

    Finally, Cicero rolled up the scroll, slipping it into his red waistcoat. "Well then my friends, it seems that we've come to an accord." He stood up gracefully, and between his manner of speech and how he moved, not to mention the hat, I could see Spruce Bunny in him now that I knew to look. The brothers were very similar people in some ways. He gestured off to the side. "Now, if you'll follow me to the center of the tent I have your trial arranged already." Which confirmed that he'd known how this would go. This guy was much more dangerous than he seemed. I could respect that.

    We followed him to the center of the tent and he gestured to the open area behind him. "This particular test will be quite a challenge. It will involve the use of multiple skill sets. Stealth, acrobatics, and of course you'll be engaging in combat. If you'll both stand over there." He gestured to a small circle in the dirt floor of the ring we were in, and we walked over to stand in it, turning back to look at him. "Well, good luck on your trial, you're free to concede at any time if you wish to leave, safety first after all. Oh, and you might want to bend your knees to cushion the landing."

    I cocked my head and was about to ask what he meant, when the ground dropped out from under us and we plummeted about a hundred feet, landing on the stone floor in a long corridor. It didn't hurt, with our Impact a hundred feet wasn't enough to do any damage. Still, we did bend our knees to take the drop, no reason to make these things harder than they had to be. When we landed I rolled my eyes, looking up at the hole we'd fallen through. "Was that necessary?" I called up to Cicero. "We couldn't have taken the fucking stairs?"

    A laugh floated down from the space above us. "Oh heavens no. We don't keep stairs down to that place, all the monsters would get out. In any case, feel free to give up at any point, otherwise getting to the center means you pass. If you forfeit we'll get you out quick as you like, though you'll need to come back to this spot to have yourselves pulled up. If you get to the center and bring back what is there, you pass. There shouldn't be anything too bad down there...probably." That last part sounded absently uncertain.

    I had been starting to walk, but I froze and looked back up. "What the fuck do you mean, "probably" you don't KNOW what's down here?" There was a conspicuous silence and I growled in rage. "You asshole, there's something in here you want and you aren't sure you can get it. You're using this test as an excuse to have us retrieve it for you. How did this place even get here? Is it past G rank? Because if it is, I'll count that as hard and a violation of the contract and we'll be leaving and collecting our payment too."

    There was an annoyed click of the tongue. "Calm down, it isn't above G rank. My brother left something down there. He arranged that maze so that only he would be able to pass through it. My plan to deal with Melissa requires that item to advance, and so I need you to retrieve it. Theoretically I could have gotten it at any time, but the maze is dangerous, and it's safe enough down there. Now, however, it is needed. You can still back out, and there won't be a penalty, but to continue on this path will require that item."

    I wanted to just leave, this had become a mess, but honestly...I kind of wanted to see if we could do it. I had saved today's wishes, so if we got into trouble Callie could get us out, and Abel was supposed to be this epic badass. I wanted to see what his tests were like. How they worked. Whether I measured up. I cocked my head at Callie. She bit her lip before nodding, and I sighed, though whether in relief or exasperation at the both of us I wasn't sure. "Fine!" I shouted up. "But I'm going to hit you for this. You won't know when it's coming. But it's going to happen." I turned and stalked off down the passageway, muttering to myself. "Fucking labyrinths all over the damn place."

    As Callie caught up to me I cocked my head at her. "You don't seem surprised. By any of this really. Was he secretly obvious about it and I was just too dumb to notice?" I hadn't expected any of this nonsense. Though I was glad I'd slipped those nullification terms into the contract, because having the option to kill the arrangement and get paid anyway if he pushed it too far was definitely reassuring.

    She squeezed my hand. "No. I was just pretty skeptical of his whole persona from the start. Kind amiable people don't tend to last long when dangerous rogue factions are working to undermine them at all times. While I'm sure some of that sob story was true, more likely the power struggle is a bit more cut throat than he made it sound. Anyone who takes control of an entire WCP faction and holds off all comers is probably at least a bit of a bastard. Granted, he could just be a total monster in combat, but given he said his brother was the more talented I was guessing he was just a sneaky fuck."

    I clicked my tongue in distaste. I'd missed all that. He'd seemed so nice, I hadn't really considered that. She clearly noticed my change in demeanor because she smiled at me. "It's fine, really. At lower levels you're less likely to run into people like that. Recursion pushes people to act as they appear to others, and you need a serious well of willpower to resist it consistently. People with that much control are more common the higher up you go, but most of the people we've met so far are more likely to be what they appear. Backstabbing and hypocrisy become less unusual as you go higher up."

    Which made sense. Villains who didn't bother to resist recursion would just be overtly untrustworthy. The negative traits they had would be obvious from their legends, and heroes at lower levels tended to be pushed towards being more upright in accordance with the stories about them. We wouldn't see people hiding their nature as much until later on. I tried to imagine having to constantly resist and fight my nature, and it sounded exhausting, I wasn't sure how Cicero did it.

    Since his reputation appeared to be as a sad but kind man filled with regret, people would underestimate him. I wondered how much of what Emery had told us was specifically leaked by Cicero to make himself seem more sympathetic. I was betting this Melissa woman had no clue who she was really dealing with, otherwise she'd have leaked it to ruin his reputation. Shaking off the thoughts I realized right now it didn't matter. We had a labyrinth to get through, and...something in the center, to find. I really wished he had told us what it was.
     
  16. Threadmarks: chapter 194
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The hallways in this labyrinth were boring. Yellow stone blocks stacked in a staggered pattern for stability, lit by more of those weird green torches that had sparked up as soon as we got down here. As we moved further into the hall, we crept carefully. Lies or not, Cicero's mention of stealth had definitely put the idea in our heads, and it was obvious that we'd be less likely to be attacked if nothing noticed us, so we slowed our steps along the rough stone floor tiles to erase as much of our presence as possible with each step.

    I grabbed a hold of Callie's hand as we snuck, the two of us sharing the stealth burden, and allowing the other to hear when we spoke. I still whispered when I asked. "OK, I'm assuming there will be traps here. I absolutely won't let us get blindsided if I can help us, but using Seek Hidden to search for traps is pretty damn general. I might be able to force it if I beat the skill into shape, but it'll be a huge strain, and I won't be able to detect anything until we get right up next to any traps. You're going to have to keep us safe while I do that."

    She gave me a reassuring smile. "Of course. You know I can handle it. I can use my ability to cloak us even more than the stealth skill does. The wells are far enough away that there are plenty of darker spots between the islands of torch light. Leave it to me." She squeezed my hand, and we both focused hard, reaching for our skills. Seek Hidden flared to life, and I was barely able to force it to search for something as broad as traps by massively reducing the area it could detect any targets in.

    As we walked, I saw the telltale red glow start to spark up, and pulled Callie to a stop. "Wait." She looked at me in confusion. "This entire corridor is riddled with traps. Even within a few feet of us, I can see at least five of them. I...I think there are some behind us too. From what I can tell, this place is set up so once we pass a certain point all the traps trigger at once. I don't know WHICH point, but if this density is consistent there could be dozens of the damn things around here."

    She froze, not daring to take another step, and I glared down at the ground near us. I was pretty sure the walls might be rigged too, but the trigger mechanisms looked like they were in the floor. I cursed. "Just within sight I can see some spike traps on the floor, a few swinging blades in the ceilings, and what I'm pretty sure is some kind of shaft that carries boiling oil. This whole place is a death trap. Forget combat prodigy, Abel had the skills to walk through this that power of his is scarier than I thought."

    I wondered exactly how his power worked. Spatial lubrication was weird, but paired with sufficiently high Focus, it would essentially be slowing down time. At least thats how I thought it would work. The thought was terrifying, but not as terrifying as all these fucking traps. I was seriously going to hurt Cicero over this. We could have died down here. We could STILL die down here. I doubted that bastard even cared, he was probably just focused on getting whatever Abel had left down here for safekeeping.

    Callie frowned, but then here eyes flew open wide. "Hah! I wish I had a Beginner Trap Mastery skill!" I blinked. That...holy shit, I hadn't even considered that. I wasn't entirely sure I had the stats to make that happen, but I had gotten a huge bump recently so it might be possible. Before I could respond, she bit her lip. "Wait, payment...I need to give you something. I'll offer enough of my stealth knowledge to get your Skill to Lesser." I blanched at that. Giving me that much was going to damage her stealth Skill. Maybe not enough to bring it below Beginner considering the huge gap in scale between ranks, but it would be A LOT of memories to lose, and it would HURT.

    The familiar lines of rolling purple flame spiderwebbed across my vision, scrawling out a series of words.Wish detected. Grant wish? I confirmed, curious to see exactly what this would cost. I'd never given anyone a Beginner Skill before. Stat points sufficient. Requirements: 240 Perception, 189 Focus, 246 Creation, 36 Impact. I almost fell over at the numbers. Over seven hundred points needed to make this work. I was pretty sure it was only even possible because Trap Mastery was an extremely basic Skill too. Something complicated like Balam Mastery or one of the more esoteric skills wouldn't have been possible for me yet. I was pretty sure I'd need over a thousand points to make those happen.

    The conversion for Skill creation got steeper every rank, which made sense considering how much more potent and insane Skills got as they ranked up. Still, this was enough. I squeezed her hand. "You're sure you want to do this?" This was going to be agonizing for her. She just nodded, and I sighed, resigning myself to seeing her suffer as the Wish began to build under my skin. Purple electricity danced over me, building and whipping over my skin, rolling across me, gathering power as it went. It was denser than it had ever been, brighter too, but I just wanted it over with. No matter how gorgeous the lightning was I didn't want to drag this out.

    The wish broke with the snap of a rubber band releasing its tension and spilled down my hand and into Callie. I pulled her against me, not wanting to let her slip and fall into the corridor to trigger a trap, and covered her mouth as she started to scream. I closed my eyes, hating this, and rested my forehead against hers, closing my eyes. Oddly, our heads touching seemed to make transferring the knowledge easier, with her memories flowing in faster than any wishes I had made before.

    It lasted for a while, and while less painful than usual, the longer time kind of made me wonder if this was the best way to do things. It might have just been a factor of a much larger wish however, and it showed me there was still plenty of things to learn about my power. When it ended, I was holding Callie up, and we were both exhausted and shaking. I'd never channeled that much power before, and my head was killing me. Apparently the larger the wish compared to my stats the more it took out of me to grant it, though it was still well within my power.

    I stood there, holding Callie up, until she came back to herself, groaning in agony. "Ow. Ow. Ow. That was...awful.
    There's so much nonsense in my head now. Things I never knew, or really cared that much about even. I know so much about traps. Like...an absurd amount. I can probably build most of the ones in here myself at this point. My stealth is still Beginner, but only barely. I feel like I'm missing part of my skillset. It's going to take me weeks to shore up the weird gaps in my brain. How about you?" She looked at me questioningly, wincing as the light speared into her sensitive eyes.

    Wishmaster candidate status. G-rank. Ability: Beginner Wish- Five times a day grant a Beginner wish in return for proper compensation. Wish must be feasibly achievable by the candidate's own efforts within a three day period with current statistics.

    Might-97
    Impact-12
    Fantasy-21
    Vitality-44
    Focus-63
    Perception-80
    Creation-82


    Skills:Beginner Doom Sovereign Mastery,Lesser Enchanting Mastery, Lesser Cooking Mastery,Lesser Inventing Mastery, Lesser Stealth Mastery, Minor Piano Mastery, Minor Gymnastics Mastery, Minor Swimming Mastery, Minor Guitar Mastery, Minor Singing Mastery,Minor Poker Mastery, Minor Archery Mastery, Minor Boxing Mastery, Minor Balam Mastery, Minor First Aid Mastery, Minor Herbalism Mastery

    I hadn't checked my stats in a bit, and the new Creation bump was definitely nice at least. I needed to shore up Fantasy, and Vitality was a close second. Still, when I checked my skills I found what I was looking for. "Yup. Lesser Stealth. That's going to be a huge help going forward." I set her down on her feet, being careful to keep my hands near her in case she wobbled or fell so she wouldn't be in danger from the traps. "So, how about we take a minute to let you head settle and my energy shore up, and we can take a crack at these traps?"

    She nodded slowly, steadying herself. "Yeah, sounds good. I'm sure I can take apart any trap made by anyone G rank or below. The Skills from wishes are always so damn comprehensive." They were, though I wasn't sure that would continue to be the case. From what I could tell as Skills improved they required more individual conception to grow. Less foundational knowledge and more what the person felt was the right path, changing and shaping the Skill as they went to make it their own. I had no clue how that would work going forward. I knew it would still be possible to wish for Skills, but I suspected past Beginner they would start getting much more expensive to grant to others.

    It didn't matter though. My three times modifier should make it easier to keep up with that as I went along. I'd worry about the rest of it later. I put a hand on Callie's shoulder. "Alright, are you ready? My energy is back where I need it to try Seek Hidden again." My skill had dropped when I was distracted, so I'd need to use it again if I wanted to help her track down the traps. "It's your show, so just let me know exactly how to arrange the skill. What kind of radius do you need? And should we look for something specific?"

    To my surprise she just grinned and shook her head. "Not necessary. With my Perception I can pick up the small discrepancies in the stones here. I just need you to list the traps that you already saw and I can compare them to my read on the situation. If they match up then it means the traps here are within my capability to find and disarm. Luckily this Skill relies heavily on Perception and that's my most impressive stat. Go ahead and list out the different traps you saw and point to them."

    I began pointing out spots where I had seen traps, mentioning the specific dimensions and placement in detail. My high Focus made my memory crystal clear, even without using the Seek Hidden skill again, and I was able to give her accurate descriptions of every trap I'd seen down to shape and structure. The more I spoke, the more excited she got, and I could tell that my skill had found exactly the same things she had noticed. I was pretty sure she was actually resonating Perception with the Trap Mastery Skill itself in order to detect them, because no matter how much I stared I saw nothing, but that wasn't really important.

    Once I'd listed everything out, Callie closed her eyes and exhaled. "Alright then. That should be everything I need. Looks like this is exactly the Skill for this problem." She grinned and began to stretch. "Now there's a few ways to do this, first off I can slowly deconstruct each trap to open a way up for us, but that'll take hours. So we're going to do it the second way. Use Leaf on the Wind and cloud step to get back to the entrance so you're out of the way." I cocked my head, not understanding what she was getting at. She didn't mind clarifying though, and her grin got predatory as she responded to my unspoken question. "I'm going to set all the traps off all at once." Huh, maybe there was a reason we were so compatible. She was just as crazy as I was sometimes.
     
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  17. Threadmarks: chapter 195
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Getting out of the trap corridor without triggering the traps was a lot easier with Callie's directions, though admittedly my ability to not touch the ground for several hundred feet didn't hurt. Once I settled down where we had landed, I leaned against the wall to wait. Cicero, who was apparently waiting up there, yelled down to me. "Are you giving up? I didn't expect you to leave your lady love behind. Children these days are so cruel. Shall I send you down a ladder so you can get out of there?"

    I sneered up at him, though between my mask and being in a literal hole in the ground, he couldn't see. "We aren't quitting, I'm just giving her space to work. Also, if I wanted to get out of this hole I wouldn't need a ladder, I could be punching you in the throat before I finished this sentence, I'm just not willing to do so before we accomplish the objective and earn those suits. Don't suppose you're willing to just cut the bullshit and tell us what it is we're looking for?
    The whole mysterious game master thing was old before it even started."

    I heard a chuckle float down through the dark. "It's a piece of paper. Tied with a red ribbon. I won't be telling you any more. Just bring it to me and you'll get your reward. I would pay more attention to your lady, however. My brother's defenses are nothing to sneeze at. Anyone save Abel could easily die facing those traps alone. She could be in grave danger and might need your help." He sounded genuinely concerned. But then, he'd also sounded like a nice guy before he dropped us in a fucking hole, so I trusted that about as far as I could throw my car.

    Turning away, I decided to ignore the mustachioed asshole and focus on my girlfriend. Callie had started to stretch a bit, getting herself ready with a series of graceful bends that never brought her into the path of the triggers for any of the traps. Once that was done she started bouncing on her toes. Despite the weight of her body her bouncing was light and fluid, and after she built up some momentum she landed smoothly and with no lag time darted forward off her toes, using the same bouncing motion to push herself forward at blurring speeds.

    She blasted into the hallway, feet touching lightly in a series of seemingly random places as she almost floated from one spot to the next, using every bit of Perception and Might together with her new skill to avoid any of the traps as she moved. Each tap of her feet set off a new trap, and I almost had to look away as she was nearly skewered, burned, sliced, and various other terrible fates. Despite the close calls though the traps never managed to actually touch her, not even her hair was damaged by the attacks as she whirled and spun between the dangerous mechanisms.

    I could see the influence of her Balam Mastery in her movements, the cyclical dance of her evasion resembling nothing so much as a dissipating whirlwind. Each rotation began to fade as if dispersing before she lightly spun up again. It was staggering to see. Her dodges and pirouettes were almost a dance, skating gracefully from on spot to the next in a series of movements that would have been terrifying if she were an enemy, but instead were just absolutely breathtaking to behold. I was mesmerized watching her, and I got so caught up in the beauty I almost forgot to be afraid for her. Almost.

    By the time she finished darting through the corridor, the whole place was a fucking wreck. Spikes, blades, acid, fire, tons of other traps I hadn't even noticed (including a really nasty looking needle attack that she managed to swirl away with her coat without actually getting any stuck in the fabric) the stone hallway was absolutely destroyed. I looked around, checking for more traps with Seek Hidden before I walked back in, but didn't see anything. Even the traps from earlier in the hallway had triggered and tried to kill her, but she'd just slipped between all of them.

    I whistled appreciatively. "Damn. This was quite a gauntlet. How is it going to reset though? These can't all have been single use traps can they?" Having to reset these every time would have been a labor of months. No way Abel could have made it back in here to get his shit without setting them off. Though the mess did make it clear why we'd been sent in. I was guessing Cicero had sent plenty of people down here before. I wondered how many of them were dead. I was guessing more than a few.

    Callie nodded. "They are. You notice when we landed we had a bit of space before the trap corridor started? That area was the beginning of the gauntlet originally. There were a few signs of it once I got the trap Skill. Whoever came down here before undoubtedly died in the attempt." Her voice was cold, and I could understand why. Cicero had set us up to die. What had we done to deserve that? Ruthless or not, this was a massive provocation for no apparent reason. Why would he do something like this?

    I asked Callie and she frowned contemplatively. "I'd say desperation. If he sent every random person who came his way down here it would have long since gotten out. This can't be normal behavior. He's panicking over the impending crisis. We showed up and offered to help, but he isn't buying that we can deliver. This way he either gets rid of fake helpers, or gets what he wants and proof we can follow through. It's pretty fucked up, but I can at least see the logic there. Doesn't mean I'm not pissed about it though."

    I was pissed too. This guy had tried to fuck us over. We needed to work with him for the moment, or I'd have tried to switch sides and help his dissenter oust him, but this wouldn't be the end of this. I was going to make sure he fucking paid for this. Panicked or not, no one got away with doing something like this to me, and damn sure not to Callie. Not while I was around. I could see in Callie's face that she was just as furious, though admittedly she was better at controlling it. Still, I didn't say anything out loud. I didn't think he could hear us, if I did I wouldn't have granted her wish, but we needed to focus.

    Callie laid a hand on my arm, not wanting to be too specific about it just in case, but wanting to reassure me. "I have some things in mind. Just leave it to me. We can talk more when we get home. As she looked me in the eye, lowering her voice a bit to speak softly, I realized that I had massively underestimated how angry she really was. Callie's blue eyes were basically ships of ice, and her jaw was white with fury. She was good at keeping up her image, but being this close, between my Perception and how comfortable she was with me, I could see how angry she really was.

    A small, vicious smile spread across my face under my mask. I'd thought for a moment she'd just written this off as the cost of doing business but I could see in that fury and answering call for payback to what roiled in my gut. I wasn't the only one who took it personally when someone endangered a loved one. She was just as furious at me being in danger as I was at the risk to her. I gave a long, slow nod, making sure she knew that I could see her fury and was willing to wait for it. I trusted her.

    With that done, we turned to make our way back down the hallway. There were no more traps, so we didn't need to work around any obstacles. Still, the Skill was going to come in plenty handy moving forward I was pretty sure. I was glad I'd been able to give her one more layer of safety. We both watched the corridor ahead of us carefully, letting our attention wander ceaselessly, never resting in one spot as we made our way forward. As we stepped forward I saw a slight disturbance, putting an arm out to stop her.

    I spoke up absently, focusing on what was in front of us. "Wait. Did you see that? I could have sworn I saw something move just then." I sighed internally. This was the very last trope I wanted to play into while stuck in a hostile underground labyrinth, but ignoring a danger would be infinitely worse. So, despite feeling like a character from a horror movie I scanned the corridor as thoroughly as possible, until I realized my mistake and almost literally face palmed. "Wait, hold on. I can find whatever it is."

    Activating Seek Hidden, I focused on finding whatever enemy had just been moving. Even though I didn't know what the damn thing was, just being able to focus on something that specific relieved a lot of the strain of the skill. I flicked my eyes quickly over the tunnel, looking for the telltale red glow of the enemy I was searching for, and didn't see much of anything as I scanned the nearby walls and floor. I was beginning to think I'd imagined the whole thing, until I chanced a glance UP.

    I froze. Seek Hidden had been looking for the enemy I'd seen moving, but the general shape I'd imagined for the skill had been to search for that TYPE of enemy. I hadn't really consciously considered that, and I wouldn't have thought it would matter even if I had. In this case however, I was wrong. Because searching for the TYPE of enemy revealed the enemy I'd seen, and all the rest of them too. In point of fact, it revealed dozens of the damn things. Dozens of fucking SPIDERS hanging from the ceiling and glaring down at us.

    Swallowing hard, I turned to look at Callie, who appeared to have been scanning the ground like I had. I cleared my throat. "So, weird question. Are you by any chance arachnophobic?" I tried to keep my voice calm and level, despite the crawling my skin was doing at the sight of all those eight legged horrors. I wasn't arachnophobic myself, but I was deeply unsettled by spiders, and Callie had a lot more exposed skin than I did.

    She turned slowly to look at me, her face looking hesitant for the first time in quite a while. "Not exactly, but spiders and snakes really freak me out..." She trailed off, her tone shifting to one of worry. "Why?" I pointed up at the ceiling, and she tilted her head back slowly, looking up at the hanging monsters, all G ranked themselves, like a convict accepting a sentence. She swallowed too. She stared up at the swarm of disgusting bug beasts for a few seconds warily before finally speaking. "Ah. Well. Fuck."

    The speaking of those three words seemed to act almost as some kind of signal. The spiders all released their holds on the ceiling and began to plummet toward us, screeching a terrifying high pitched battle cry of arachnid fury as a fucking CLOUD of the things fell to blanket us. Callie reacted instantly, pulling in a wave of shadow to try to block off the attack, but the things were too spread out, and too strong. They hit the huge dome of shadows and started tearing through them. I snarled up the spiders. "Ok, seriously, I'm going to break Cicero's nose when we get out of this shit." Well, IF we got out of it. But hey, no need to jinx it.
     
  18. Threadmarks: chapter 196
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I was not proud of my reaction to the cloud of arachnids trying to tear through the shadow dome. "Spiders! Holy shit no! Keep them away!" Despite NOT having a phobia, something about a huge swarm of spiders raining down on us was absolutely the most terrifying thing I could imagine. The bone wyvern had absolutely nothing on these things, despite being literally a thousand times the size at least. Without thinking at all I triggered Boiling Cloud, unleashing a wave of superheated steam right at the wriggling bastards as they writhed above us.

    Callie flinched and yelped, batting at the cloud, which didn't really manage to get all the way through the dome very well. She glared at me. "Solomon, sweetie, can you maybe not melt our fucking faces off? I don't like the things either, but having my eyeballs boiled is even lower on my list of things to try than spider baths." Her voice was a bit stiff with discomfort, though that skill wasn't really designed for single target damage so much as diversion and distraction, so her face didn't get too badly burned, and her Vitality caused the slight redness to fade after.

    Even so I winced in horror. "I am so sorry. I wasn't even thinking, I know better than yo use that damn skill in close quarters. I should have guessed it would get bottled up." I sometimes lost track of when Callie's shadows were and were not solid. I reached down to wrap my arm around her waist. "Ok, I'm going to get us out of the way, just wait until my signal and drop the dome ok? I can use Leaf on the Wind to carry us both out of the way. Just let me know when you're ready ok?"

    She shook her head wryly, but she had a smile on her lips. "It's fine. It wasn't fun, but neither of us were hurt much. I'll count to ten and drop the dome. Just be ready to get us clear as soon as it comes down." I nodded, making sure Leaf on the Wind was refreshed and readying a cloud step if needed. Callie started to count down backwards from ten, and when she hit one I jerked her back by the waist and threw myself backwards full force, pulling her with me as I resonated the skill through both of us.

    It was a huge strain extending the skill over the two of us, but keeping Callie safe was my priority, closely followed by getting the fuck away from all those spiders, preferably as far from them as humanly possible. As the dome came down I was glad I'd put in the effort, beacuse there was a squeal of predatory glee from the creepy spider fucks as they plummeted through the air right at our faces and by the time I stopped with my arm around Callie twenty feet away, the spiders had already reached the spot our heads had occupied when the drop began. I shuddered in fear at the thought of one of those on my face, mask or not.

    One of the damn things somehow managed to brace itself on another one mid fall and push off it, flying toward us full speed with a sqeal. A crowd of falling spiders was terrifying, but just the one was mostly gross. I removed my arm from Callie's waist, slipped my cane into my hand, stepped up, and swung the cane at the flying arachnid full force like a kid hitting a ball with a stick. The sickening crack and then thump of the cane smashing in part of the spider and then the spider hitting the wall was loud enough that we could hear it even over the chittering.

    I wasn't letting them close in, so I triggered Sucking Mud on the floor between us. They could climb walls, but hopefully that would hold them off for a minute while we got our bearings. I shuddered. "Ok, that was deeply unpleasant. I count twenty four left. They're G rank, but also small and weak, which is good right?" Small was relative, they were about the size of a palm, but still, normal mortals could smash normal spiders. G ranked spiders should be more than killable by someone at the same rank.

    Callie shook her head, staring in annoyance and disgust at the writhing mass. She raised a hand and the walls began to surge with waves of shadow. It wouldn't be enough to spear them or anything, but it would throw them clear and make the floor their only real option. "No. You need stats to get to G rank. If their stats aren't in Might, which I think we would have noticed, they must be in something else. No telling what that is or how dangerous it might be. Given the lack of healing and the fact that we noticed them, I'm guessing whatever it is, it's probably something offensive, maybe in their bite."

    That drew a curse from me. "Well, that's not ideal. Keeping them off the walls is good, but they're pretty light. These stones are pretty porous, so Sucking Mud is less dense than normal, but they'll figure out how to cross eventually. Can you swap the wall waves for blades or something, maybe spear them?" I didn't feel like playing whack-a-spider for the next few hours as we slowly tried to maneuver them into being crushed one by one.

    Sadly nothing was ever that easy. "No. Might isn't infinite. I can only manage so much power in total over all my shadows. Diffusing them that much means I can only exert a small amount of force per square inch. It's a big corridor. None of the individual sections will have enough power behind them to damage a G ranked creature, even a small flimsy one." She gestured to the squirming mass of spiders, scattering and bolting around, trying to climb the walls and find a place on the floor to cross. "They won't sit still either, so a single huge blow is out too."

    I groaned. "Can we snipe them one at a time? If one blow would be enough maybe you could take pot shots at range." We couldn't just stand here until the Sucking Mud wore off. If Callie couldn't do more than waves on the walls, then there was no way she could keep the floor free. The spiders were slipping back away from it as they began to sink in, but I only had twenty plus charges left today. Twelve of those charges would only burn a single hour, and that was assuming I didn't have to tweak the skill at all during that time.

    She shrugged. "Maybe. It could work. Even if it does though, they'll probably try to scatter once the first one dies. I'd need to be able to hit them fast enough that they couldn't avoid it. They're quick little bastards. Not much Might, but they weight very little too. I wish I had a way to hit them faster." She was biting her lip, glaring over at the shifting carpet of spiders. As she said that though I had a thought.

    "Wait." She turned to look at me questioningly. "What if you did. Flurry of Blows could be extended to you. It would give you a few shots at a much faster rate. I'd have to keep using it, but with your Perception you should be able to find the right spots to aim, and Flurry of Blows will make sure they can't dodge." I could practically feel the headache beginning just from thinking about rapid fire spamming of a skill that I had to share with someone else. "You want to give it a try?" I tried not to let the impending pain shake me too much.

    There was no hesitation in her expression as she agreed, and I felt my heart warm a bit at her trust. I knew that letting people use skills on you required you to let your guard down for them, and being willing to open herself up to the power I was using for that long meant a lot to me. I put a hand on her arm, reached down into myself, and triggered Flurry of Blows, pushing it out of me and into Callie, making sure that she got the full brunt of the skill. My brain twinged roughly as I did it, but not as bad as the last time I'd shared a skill. I was pretty sure repetition was helping me improve at this.

    Callie let out a deep breath, closed her eyes for a three count, then opened them and stared coldly at the spiders. She flicked out a hand, and a spinning arrow of darkness blurred across the room, smashing into a spider, with two other arrows landing so soon after it that the sound was almost one continuous noise. I grinned at her and she returned it. "Ok. There were twenty four of these things, so all I have to do is kill twenty one more. Seven more times triggering that skill should be easy enough right? You're not almost at your limit?"

    She looked worried about me, and I smiled under my mask, shaking my head. "Won't even take me down to half of my charges. I should be at thirteen after this." I neglected to mention the head pain, but I didn't want her to worry. I could handle it, I'd just have to take things one charge at a time and try to minimize the damage. The better I got at it the less pain I would feel when I used the skill this way. In fact, I was beginning to have a sneaking suspicion about skill growth the way I was doing it.

    I was pretty sure that when someone changed a Skill, with a capital S, they had to alter it the same way I was doing. The more they changed it and the better they got at that change, the more stable it became. Once the Skill had taken on its stable form, from what I could tell, that would the next form of the Skill. That was how people evolved unique skills, and it was why that path was considered nearly impossible. The more changes you made the more strain, and the harder it was to complete the Skill.

    Normal Skills had a heritage, and method of evolution that you could follow by accruing the knowledge of other people, basically using information to fill in your understanding of the Skill instead of changing it to better suit you so it could evolve naturally. That was why Skills became more individualized as they got stronger, because there was less standardized information and the Skills needed to altered in order to better fit the user so they could fill them up with their own experiences so to speak. You could fill a Skill up with just normal experiences, but it was less efficient and would take much longer than anyone would reasonably spend.

    Beginner DS Mastery was like that too. I needed to alter the Skill to fit me so that I could elevate it. In its current form it would probably take me decades to properly complete it. I could alter it and make it more compatible with me, but none of my changes had taken so far. I was pretty sure that in return for how versatile and powerful it was, altering the Skill was harder in comparison. I needed to change each individual subskill to properly attune it to what I wanted to achieve before I could reach the next level.

    So I focused. I used Flurry of Blows. Then I used it again. I focused on the task of making it a skill that could buff others, that could be spread by touch, and with every use, that became a little more true, my head hurt a little less, and the skill flowed a little more smoothly. This was my first time testing my theories and trying to make a stable long term change, all this information on Skill growth had been the fruit of a ton of research on my down time. In the end though, as the last spider died, I felt the skill click into place in a way I'd never experienced before, and I knew I was right. I'd found the path forward. Now I just had to alter all the other subskills like that. I groaned internally. I really wished I hadn't picked such a convoluted build.
     
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 197
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The rest of the labyrinth was even worse. We spent two hours getting through it. Snakes, bats, locusts, a huge red dog with horns, more traps, guards, and a dozen other equally annoying obstacles sat in our way. After hours of effort though, we managed to get past them all, and we finally trekked into a huge chamber where we didn't see anything except...a person. A tall man standing in the middle of the room stoicly, looking pretty much completely unbothered by our presence. Once he noticed us, his eyes slid over to pin us in place where we stood.

    He raised an eyebrow. "Visitors? That's a novelty. I'm surprised he managed to trick you into coming down here. The last few he sent died. Once they stopped showing up I assumed word had gotten around." He looked over his shoulder at a stone pedestal in the middle of the room. On the pedestal sat a single rolled up piece of paper with a worn red ribbon tied around it in a bow. "I'm not going to let you have it. I'd prefer not to kill you both, so you should just leave. I can still let you go if you turn around now."

    I blinked. I recognized that voice. He wasn't making loud insane proclamations or wearing a bunny mask, but I'd heard that voice more than once now. Spruce Bunny, or rather, this was Abel Castleton...somehow. I cocked my head. "How are you here? We were told you left. We even saw you in G district proper. You were the one who sent us here. Is there a back way into this place or something?" For the life of me I couldn't figure out what was going on here, why he was down here with us.

    Abel shook his head. "I assume you mean the original. This isn't really me. It's a phantasmal guardian. These are expensive to have made. It's a type of enchantment that anchors a copy of a person to a location. I only exist within this room, but because of the enchantment I'd as good as real in here. The original left me to guard this place to make sure my brother didn't get this back." His voice was cold and flat, barely inflected at all, and it shocked me how different he was from the rabbit masked man we had met at the sausage shop.

    That didn't tell me any more than the back entrance would have though. Why would Abel be keeping something from his brother? I'd thought there were on good terms, this was a lot of trouble to go through to keep a piece of paper away from your family. I didn't have a chance at guessing any of it, so I figured I would ask. At the very least I could ask about what the hell the paper was. "He did send us, though he didn't give us much choice or warning. He wanted us to get something but didn't say what. I take it that paper is the target? What is it?"

    He shook his head in exasperation. "No one ever takes Cicero seriously until it's too late. He tries hard to make sure that bad habit continues. I'm, not surprised he tricked you into this. It's his style." He paused, looking pensive. "I suppose I can tell you though, what the paper is. I won't be letting you have it anyway so a bit of a clue isn't going to cause much problem. The answer isn't complicated. It's the deed. When we bought this place from the last owners we signed for it together. Sadly, that means shared ownership, which means he can sell it if he so chooses."

    That...didn't fit with the narrative Cicero was giving us, but then again, he'd proven himself to be pretty untrustworthy. Callie spoke up. "Why? Why do any of this? It's been so much trouble for no real reason, and now he's trying to get the deed? For what? Is he going to sell the circus? Would that even be viable at this point? Who knows if everyone would be willing to calm down and pull back a bit on fighting until this was over."

    Abel shot her a cheerful smile, the first real expression I'd seen on him at this point. "I imagine he's facing pressure. Despite his mercenary nature, Cicero DOES care about his subordinates. I wouldn't have left him in charge if he didn't. I just made sure to leave this here, because I know my bother's habits. He's extremely intelligent, but also something of a coward. He'll fold if he thinks the situation is beyond saving, and I didn't want that to be an option.If he wants to sell this place he needs to come convince me to retrieve it. No one else at G rank should be able to manage it."

    I sighed deeply, not having any other questions. "Alright. Fine, so what's the test here? We playing checkers with you?" I was pretty sure it was a combat oriented test, but I wasn't willing to risk an assumption. Asking might be repetitive to some who knew what was at stake and would have wanted to jump in, but I'd never been one to take information for granted. Trust but verify, that was my personal philosophy. Despite that though, I was pretty sure this wasn't going to be a game of chess, at least not like anything I'd played before.

    Abel chuckled. "Oh no. I'd never set up a test like that. If you want to get past me, you do it like an Ascendant should. Stepping over my corpse. Since you're so young I'll even let you come at me together. If you can beat me you keep the deed. But just so you know this is a very slim chance, I only even offer because I actually like you. Shocking I know, but if my other self got you in. Not exactly perfect, but they would do for now. Now, as I said, you can both come at me together or you can just lose."

    Which was...deeply troubling. I knew what his power was, but not how it worked. Presumably the version of him from outside would have either been stronger or convinced him to stand down because they were the same person. If he was this convinced he shouldn't be able to lose to someone his own rank though, he must be terrifying. Which brought up one more question I had to ask before we started. "What was stopping some F ranker from tearing this place down and just taking the deed?"

    Abel smirked. "You haven't been Ascendants long have you? Despite a qualitative difference in power, lower ranked Ascendants have plenty of ways to limit higher rankers from getting their hands on things. They can't use any of those interdictions you see on some lands of legacy or dungeons that keep out powerful warriors, but the weak have their own methods of self protection." For the first time since we had started talking to the image of Abel, he seemed genuinely excited to share. Not just mocking or sarcastic, but thrilled to tell us all about this interesting thing he knew.

    He gestured around us to the labyrinth. "Mad Madigan, who built this maze for me, is well known for creating vaults that can keep out higher ranking Ascendants. This whole place is a single, delicate spatial construct. It's precisely calculated to contain certain tolerances of Impact. Too much dimensional weight cracks the foundation, and the whole thing disintegrates into the void, destroying everything inside forever. Of course, building spatial constructs on the edge of tipping into the void is INSANE hence the Mad part of his moniker, but before he accidentally got swallowed by a void beast, Mad Madigan was considered a prodigy at spatial arts, so his constructions are all actually very stable."

    That opened up lots more questions, and made me extremely nervous as to what would happen if we somehow managed to crack the space in this place some other way besides being F rank. I briefly felt sick as I considered that WISHES might be able to do something like that, and remembered the thirty six Impact I'd spent on Callie's trap skill in here. I wasn't sure how close we had come to both dying, but at the very least we'd gotten lucky enough to survive. I shook off the horrible image. "Alright, fine, if we need to beat you to pass we'll do it."

    I reached down and put a hand around Callie's waist, triggering Flurry of Blows again. As I'd confirmed earlier, the change to that subskill had been perfected, so it didn't even hurt when I flooded the speed boost into my girlfriend. Callie, feeling the effect take hold, flicked out a hand and sent a series of razor shard shadow blades in at Abel from multiple directions. The enhanced Perception she was so proud of let her see in perfect detail where to attack, exactly how to aim and from what angles she could stab down to prevent him from blocking those hits. She executed the most flawless attack I had ever seen, all her Might driving those blades into the exact right positions, since he was just a copy and she didn't need to worry about killing him.

    None of them touched him. Not a single piece of his clothing got so much as scratched. Her blades were so fast, so deadly, I'd expected anything he did to avoid them to be a blur. I expected him to dart around like a maniac and maybe dodge a few and get cut a couple times in the process. I didn't actually think that would be enough to finish him off, but I had assumed it would be enough to do SOMETHING. I'd been wrong. The blades came down, and he watched them placidly, an expression of mild interest on his face. Then he just...moved.

    It wasn't some kind of superior dodge or anything like that, he didn't contort himself. He moved calmly and slowly, unhurried, and my head HURT watching it. The space around him warped, and his casual, unhurried movements were just more than they should have been. They crossed more distance than was possible. He made a series of lazy, unconcerned shuffles side to side, and every single one of those shadow blades just flowed right by. He watched them go, eyes following them as he moved, and somehow the break in his movements opened up a gap between the strikes where none had been before.

    We just stared at him, terrified, as he smiled gently over at us. "Well, that was certainly a lovely effort. I'm impressed. That level of attack was much more than I expected from a Perception build. That was nearly a five hundred Might strike. Good instincts going for piercing damage too. I assume you used some sort of speed boosting skill. Piercing lends well to that kind of thing, more concentration means more bang for your buck. Meta Skills like that are rare at G rank. You must be very successful. Mind if I ask where it is you came from?"

    I swallowed hard, just staring at the absolute monster in front of us. I had no clue what we could do here. That had been, as he mentioned, a nearly five hundred Might strike. Callie's one hundred fifty seven points of Might amplified three times for the purpose of speed, maximized by penetrating damage. We'd just thrown Might similar to what Cark was throwing around at this guy, and he'd barely even needed to move. "We're from the Unity. The Ascendant Academy." No reason not to be polite.

    He cocked his head. "How...interesting. We don't get many of you down here. Tell you what. Why don't we make this interesting. If Cicero is so desperate to get the deed that he's chucking Academy geniuses down here without worrying what might happen to him, something big must be going on. Still, I can't just give you the deed, it goes against my purpose. You have to pass the trial to get the deed. Still ,you seem like interesting kids." He bit his lip, staring up at the ceiling in contemplation.

    He took his time speaking, as if carefully choosing his words. "I've been stuck in this hole for years, and this is probably my best chance to get out, so I'm willing to talk terms. I'll let you make three rules for the fight. No limiting my power or Skill usage, but physical limitations are in play. However. If you fight me as is, you have to last for two minutes, and the number increases by two for every rule you add." He grinned savagely. "Take your time deciding. Even if I'll be fading soon, I want to have some fun before I go." Somehow. I didn't think that would be a problem. I also didn't think we would be sharing in his joy.
     
  20. Threadmarks: chapter 198
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I was surprised he had offered, honestly. That seemed counterproductive for a guardian, but then again having been stuck down here for so long would make any squirrely. It was odd how hearing we were from the Academy had changed his mind, and I realized that Cicero hadn't mentioned that and might not even know it was the case. I turned to Callie, muttering under my breath. "I don't think we have a legitimate chance of beating him at full strength. What he just did was...terrifying. We should limit him with rules, it's our only shot."

    I couldn't believe how strong he was. Not just the Might, we hadn't seen much of that, but just the overwhelming aura of pressure I was feeling from him. It was like being locked in a room with a hungry monster. I felt like nothing we could do could touch him. I remembered Emry mentioning that he was supposed to be the strongest G ranker in the whole WCP, and I thought that I might have underestimated what that meant. I'd heard stories of course, of people who could fight up ranks, but I'd never really seen any evidence of that. I was pretty sure this guy was one of those. No wonder he set the maze up to keep F rankers out.

    Rather than rush us, Abel just stood there casually, an amused smile on his face. Callie and I chatted back and forth for a bit before speaking. We came up with three rules, and Callie was planning to state them, but before she did I had to ask a question. "How are you so strong. I've never seen anyone our rank thats that powerful. Some of the older freshman in the scavenger hunt at the Academy were powerful, but they didn't give me the same feeling of being unbeatable. You just seem like you're on a whole different level."

    Just the way he avoided Callie's strongest blow so easily showed he was in a weight class above ours. He just smiled at me. "You're new. I can tell. People at the Academy, hell most people on Callus, are obsessed with progression. They try to constantly improve and progress, throwing themselves into combat to get more stats. Some of us though, once we get to a reasonable rank where we won't age too fast, like to take our time. There are more ways to grow in power than just getting higher stats. I've been at G rank for decades, honing myself, polishing my abilities. Not to show others or gain renown, but for my own edification."

    I cocked my head, and he chuckled. "Skills are a decent way of illustrating it. With enough time you can get and raise dozens of Skills that qualitatively increase your ability to leverage the stats you have. Its more than that though. Skills are useless if you can't apply them right, and the Skill itself isn't the be all end all of application. Combining skills, maximizing your ability, efficiency, and economy. These are all aspects of combat normal hurried Ascenders ignore completely. "

    I hadn't ever really considered that. Sure, I knew everything he said piecemeal, but I'd never put those things together the way he was talking about. "Is that even worth it though?" I couldn't help but pry. "I mean, maybe you can punch up a rank, but you definitely can't punch up two. Is it worth it to basically hobble your reputation in exchange for power at the level you're at?" I couldn't imagine being stuck at G rank for decades, maybe centuries. Some people were stuck by necessity I knew, but doing it on purpose? How much discipline did that take? Hell, how much had it annoyed Cicero, who was pretty obviously still at G rank and definitely wasn't some kind of combat ascetic. Talk about salt in the wound.

    He shrugged. "I do what I do because it's what I want. I love battle, perfecting myself, growing. I have other interests of course, I like to cook when I have the time, but in a general sense, my life is what I want it to be. Besides, I think of it as solidifying my foundation. Once I perfect my combat art and decide to finally take the stage, I'll demolish the rest of these pretenders. It'll be hard for someone like me NOT to rank up by that point, and it'll give me a much more refined starting place for F rank, carrying over even into later ranks. Now. I believe you two came to an agreement on rules?"

    Callie raised an eyebrow questioningly at me, but when I nodded she exhaled and turned to Abel. "Fine. We're instituting three rules. If you'll accept them. Rule one. You can't move your feet from that spot. If you move them even an inch you lose. Rule two, you can only use one hand, your off hand, whichever that is. Rule three, you can't use any weapons. Only your hand or fist. Do those rules sound acceptable to you?" I didn't expect them to. Honestly they didn't sound acceptable to me. They seemed like overkill.

    Despite that though, they also felt...necessary. Maybe this was Fantasy again, letting us read a bit of the strangeness of the world, maybe our Perception picked something up, or maybe it was instinct. Whatever it was, I felt like we needed these rules to have a chance at winning, and even with them it might not be enough. Abel was just too calm, too collected. None of this seemed to mean much to him, like he was just playing with us, and even with concessions we would be leaving empty handed.

    I didn't trust his comment about wanting to leave, he'd as good as told us that wasn't important to him. He just loved to fight. It was all he cared about. He was doing this because he thought it might amuse him a bit, not as a favor, and that meant he really thought he could still win. Even when we listed the rules, he didn't look upset or worried, just smiling jovially as Callie spoke. "Sure, those are fine. Decent ideas, I'm curious to see how much good they'll do you. I'll let you both decide when your time starts."

    The more he talked the less certain I was that we should be doing this. Still, we didn't have too much choice at the moment. As much as working with Cicero was annoying to consider, it was the best lead we had. I supposed we could approach Melissa as enemies of his for real, but I imagined anyone as sneaky and dickish as he was had countermeasures for that. Besides if he did go and convince the real Abel to come get the thing we'd have burned that bridge for no reason and possibly fucked ourselves in the process.

    Callie and I looked at each other, nodded, and then spread out a bit. Since he could only use one hand, attacking from different sides should give us an advantage. With that done, we confirmed aloud we were starting, and I immediately cast Sucking Mud. I condensed it into a small area, making it reach down instead of out since her couldn't move his feet, and once it was activated we attacked, hoping to distract him from noticing.

    We came in from both sides, my cane lashing out at the mans head while Callie tried to attack his ankles and make him move his feet. Abel just smiled, his expression sharpening from his previous placid joy to a new expression of bloodlust, this new grin all teeth and violence. His left hand lashed out at me, and as it did I had to yelp and retreat because I was positive it was going to hit me, Callie made a similar noise and backed away, and Abel just waved at us mockingly. "Hard to beat me if you don't get close. What are you doing all the way over there?"

    His tone was condescending and teasing, but he wasn't wrong. The issue was that closing the gap was dangerous. The odd lubricated space ability he had was useful for dodging, but in close quarters combat it was deadly. As long as we were within range of his wingspan his fist could basically collapse the distance between us. It wasn't just speed, it changed the way his hand interacted with space in a way that made it feel like his punches were following us without actually changing their trajectory.

    I'd felt a massive sense of danger from that blow, like his punch was inevitable and unstoppable, and I didn't know how strong he was, but I was pretty damn sure it was strong enough that I didn't want to get hit by that punch dead on. Callie looked pale and frightened, and I could tell she'd sensed the same thing I had when she dodged. No wonder he'd agreed to this, rules or not there was very little chance we were going to beat him in the allotted time, We could just retreat and wait him out, but he'd said we had to last in a fight, and I doubted he would count that as a win. We needed to change tactics.

    Abel was grinning at us viciously, but his smile dropped as he looked down at his feet. "Some kind of skill to compromise footing? No, maybe an earth bind. Sneaky. Fine. If you're going to put a shorter clock on this I'll have to stop playing around." I blinked in horror that what he'd been doing so far was considered 'playing around' but I prepared myself as best as I could to block an attack. I stepped over next to Callie and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked over at me and nodded, clearly as worried about this as I was.

    Abel cocked back his fist, and I wondered what the hell he was going to do but I doubted we wanted to just stand here and take it. Callie threw up her hands, erecting the thickest shield of shadows she could manage in front of us, condensing the thing so it only barely took up the space in front of us. I was pretty sure this move was going to be the only one we would manage before this ended given that Abel seemed convinced he was about to end things with this next blow.

    To prevent that I started triggering skills. Consecration of Flame, Mercy Kill, Afterburner,a modified Stone Limb, even Touch of Tears just to add a bit of extra kick. I poured them into Callie as she mounted her strongest defense, and the shield became...more. Harder, dense, and imbued with flashed of green fire in the depths of its now obsidian structure as the thing condensed into an aegis of power the likes of which I'd never seen from any of us. Callie's eyes were wide and her breathing was heavy as she struggled to hold it together.

    Abel in the meantime had thrown his punch, and I realized I'd made a pretty big assumption. No one had ever said Abel's ability was confined to close range. I felt the air warp and shift as Abel reached out to the whole fucking room with his ability, creating that odd lubricated space just like before. He threw the punch, and while it did that same ground eating homing thing the last one had done, it did it with the whole room. My head was splitting as I watched because his fist didn't change size at all but somehow that punch took up as much space as an onrushing train.

    There was a rumbling boom as the fist hit the shield in front of us. Callie had wrapped it around us like a cocoon once she saw the blow coming, making sure the fist didn't have an in. The room shook, and Callie's face paled, noticeable even in the sickly green light inside the thing. Boom after boom echoed out, raining down on us, and Callie's nose started to drip blood as she tanked the hits.

    I used the skills as a medium, passing her as much power as I could, but I didn't really have the skillset for that. Eventually though after what felt like eternity, the booms stopped. An annoyed voice rang out. "Alright. Fine. That's your win. Damn it. The original is going to be so annoyed at me." The shield dissolved and I had to catch Callie as she blacked out. She was smiling as her eyes rolled up though. I guess we really could call that a win.
     
  21. Threadmarks: chapter 199
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I lowered Callie to the ground as the shield collapsed. My head was killing me, multiple skill manipulations aside, channeling Stone Limb into a shadow construct was...hard. I was pretty sure we would have caved if that had taken even a second longer. I wasn't sure if it had really been eight minutes, but even if it hadn't I was damn relieved Abel had conceded the match.

    Once the shield dropped it became more than apparent WHY he had done so. Abel was waist deep in the stone floor of the chamber, looking deeply annoyed. "I get why you made the feet rule now. I didn't expect to get screwed over by something like that, but if you hadn't been able to hold that shield those punches would probably have killed you, so I can't exactly call foul. Fine. You can take the deed. Though I'd appreciate if you got me the hell out of here. I could break out once it solidifies but I'd rather not shatter the floors by accident and drop my ass into the void."

    I was kind of thrown, he seemed so much less...lofty now. Like he'd been putting on an act before. I furrowed my brow at him. "How do I know you won't just kill us when I pull you out?" I had zero hope of beating him on my own, or even with Callie if it came down to it. Even the win we'd gotten was mostly a combination of sneakiness and luck. This guy was on a level I'd never even seen before. I wondered if the upper classmen of the Academy were like him. I'd been impressed with the people we met in the hunt, but he would have torn them apart all at the same time with one hand.

    He rolled his eyes at me. "How do you know I won't kill you if you don't? You have no guarantee that I won't rip you a new asshole except my own desire to keep my word. I said I wouldn't kill you, so I won't. Hell, I could finish you from here if I really wanted to. This whole conversation is just one big presumption. Besides. You'll need to pass me to get the deed, and control of the territory requires the deed. " His voice sounded exasperated and a little annoyed, but calm enough that I wasn't worried about him killing us.

    I hesitated, but he was right. I walked over and held out a hand, and when he took it I pulled him out of the pit. I let the Sucking Mid skill lapse before I set him back down, and he brushed off his clothes casually before stopping, staring at the still clinging dirt, and glaring at me. He kept brushing, doing his best to clear off his clothes before he rolled his eyes and turned them to face me.

    Once I hard his attention I moved to the side, trying to put myself in the way of Callie just in case. Once that was done I raised an eyebrow. "Ok, you're free. Now can you tell me more about this deed? You made it sound like it's special. I get having ownership of the land is useful, but a piece of paper isn't exactly some invincible artifact. Does it really matter who has the deed?" I flicked my gaze to the rolled up piece of paper on the pedestal behind him, trying to spot anything special or interesting about it.

    Abel just rolled his eyes. "Babies, the lot of you. The land owned by the WCP belongs to the WCP. That's not just a tautology, it's a magically binding declaration. They claimed this territory. There are high ranking implications for things like that, but on a planet like this the main function of the deed is that it entitles the holder to access the protective measures the WCP puts in place. Someone who own a deed is a designated land holder, and their authority is designated by the Deacon."

    That made sense. The Flame Riot Militia for instance, didn't have the authority to ask for protection from the WCP. The had their own organization, but they weren't entitled to membership perks. "So you're saying if anyone screws with the deed holder the others all...what? Dog pile them when they get out of line? Some kind of mutual aggression pact?" That was impressive, but it didn't really sound like magic. He'd made it sound like there was some kind of force that would strike down on violators.

    Sure enough, the question got a head shake. "No. There are literal defenses. Wards, gun emplacements, that kind of thing. As long as the attackers don't breach the tier barrier the other signatories don't step up, but even taking down a deed holder with same rank enemies is nearly impossible with access to the defenses. If he's trying to retrieve the deed the situation must be bad, but that's the reason I hid it from him. With the defenses it shouldn't be an issue to deal with most G ranked threats. Unless the original me is helping them he should be fine. Still, you passed the trial so if he has people like you around and is still in trouble I suppose it might be necessary."

    I had another thought though. A terrible thought. "These are WCP defenses right? So would someone with a high enough access level be able to override them?" I didn't think Cicero was aware of the other candidate, but I was. We had black cards that gave us unfettered access to the WCP. We had to pay for that access when it was needed, but things like transportation were free, so maybe access to the protections was too.

    He cocked his head quizzically. "I mean...I guess if you theoretically had access that surpassed the Deacon of the branch maybe. I don't think they even have access levels that high though, or at least I've never heard of them." I had. At least I was pretty sure I had, but it introduced a variable no one else was aware of in either case. That was something I'd need to take into account.

    The biggest surprise was the tier limit. I'd known the higher tiers didn't interfere in this kind of thing for fear of starting an all out war, but knowing there was a codified rule when it came to land owners cast that in a much more reliable light. Before it had been entirely predicated on people being smart enough to do what was best for them, and I didn't have much faith in that when it came to money and power. This at least explained why the Jerks and their friends hadn't steamrolled Cicero, or at least why they hadn't tried. The defenses were scaring them off, and even if their candidate could shut them down it would be announcing their existence way too early.

    My head hurt. I hated politics. None of this made any real sense to me, and all the mitigating factors and secondary motives were adding to my already absurd migraine. I walked over to pick up the deed before turning to Abel, or rather, Abel's...clone? His double. "So, what happens to you after this? Do you die? Fade away? You're some kind of guardian right? Will you still be here without anything to guard?" I'd never seen Spruce Bunny fight, but Abel (this Abel) was a damn monster. He'd left an impression, and part of me felt a loss for the world if he just vanished.

    He shrugged. "I'm not really a person, kid. I'm a snapshot. People grow, they change. The original me will have been training for all the years I've been down here, and he'll be much stronger than I am for the effort. Me vanishing isn't death, its more like someone deleting a video. Trust me, if I was a real boy I'd have gone crazy sitting down here in this room for years on end. It speaks well of you that you're worried about it, but don't be. If anything, I'm grateful."

    That left me flabbergasted. "Grateful? To us? But we beat you. Now you're just vanishing. If you're self aware enough to have this conversation shouldn't you be self aware enough to want to live?" I didn't understand how this could work. He seemed so at peace with fading, and thinking of myself in the same situation I'd be terrified out of my mind. He was just going to be gone.

    He just chuckled. "Grateful because I was bored. Just because I can't change enough to lose my mind doesn't mean I'm not aware. This place was boring the hell out of me. You entertained me for a bit and I appreciate it. As for being afraid...how to explain this? You ever look in a mirror?" I nodded impatiently, obviously I'd looked in a mirror what kind of question was that? "Right, when you move away from the mirror, does your reflection look scared? Do you think it feels discomfort at the idea of vanishing?"

    I hadn't considered that, but it still felt weird to just leave him to fade. "I guess not. Do your memories go to your other self at least? Like will he know all the things you've done for him? Also when are you going to fade? You still seem fine, is there some way we can preserve you?" I just couldn't accept someone who'd impressed me so much vanishing like they didn't even exist. I even considered trying to drop a hint to get him to wish to be real, but I was pretty much dead certain I didn't have the stats to CREATE a G ranked Ascendant out of some illusion guardian.

    Sadly, there was nothing to be done. Even as I asked the question I noticed him starting to become less solid. He saw my expression and shrugged. "The guardian enchantment was anchored to the deed. Now that its gone so am I. Don't worry too much about it kid, I had fun in our fight. Say hey to the original me when you see him will you?" He gave me a casual salute with his ring and middle finger before just...vanishing. He'd been fading and then he just popped like a soap bubble.

    I held the deed in my hand, staring at the spot he'd been with a complicated expression before walking over to pick up Callie. My unconscious girlfriend groaned and nuzzled against me, and I wiped blood from under her nose tenderly. She'd done a lot of the heavy lifting there. I decided I'd focus on making the alterations to some of my DS Mastery subskills defensive. I had a few things in mind. I had ways to cover most eventualities but I needed to be a bit more focused with my build to maximize my combat strength. Now that I knew how to upgrade I was going to turn DS Mastery into a truly powerful Skill.

    As I made my way back through the labyrinth I smiled down at Callie. I needed to catch up to her stats so I could be a proper partner. My skills bridged the gap a bit, but we'd seen we both had a long way to go. I'd become so focused on the sprint to F rank I'd been letting myself lean too hard on stats. Abel showed me that the higher year students were probably much stronger than we were. With all that extra time to polish themselves they were probably dangerous as hell, and we still had plenty to improve on.

    I got us back to the entrance, the traps and monsters having been bypassed or defeated, and when I got there, a combination Cloud Step and Leaf on the Wind took me up out of the labyrinth, much to the shock of Cicero, who was seated at a table nearby lazily sipping tea. He nearly choked when I came out, I guess I'd made good time, or maybe he hadn'[t expected me to live. Regardless of reasons though, it didn't matter. I had his deed, but he was going to pay up before he got it. I didn't ow him any favors, and I wanted my new gear.
     
  22. Threadmarks: chapter 200
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Cicero wanted the deed badly, and I half expected him to try to take it, but knowing that we'd beaten the maze that had killed all his other participants definitely made the smug backstabber think twice before deciding to pick a fight with us. When he reached for the deed, I didn't hesitate at all to pull it back away from him. "Nope. We got the item, which means we completed the task. You said retrieve it and bring it to you, which I did. You never said anything about surrendering it to your custody."

    A slight technicality, but he knew as well as I did it wasn't the real reason. I didn't trust him as far as Cass could throw him, and I wasn't giving him shit until he confirmed that we were getting our damn gear. He seemed to know it too. He sighed. "I already signed the contract, as long as you passed the test I'm bound to give you your prize if you accept the job. I can't deny you accomplished the test, so you're eligible to hear the details of the plan. Assuming that you're still interested and aren't just going to give up?"

    He smirked at me, and I was annoyed because I knew either option would be beneficial to him. Sure having us do the mission would aid him, but even turning him down would benefit him at this point, since the deed was his, and even if we denied his help we'd still have to give it up. I needed to think this over like Callie would, or preferably delay it until she was awake. I tossed the paper up, catching it before it hit the table and keeping a sharp eye on Cicero, who was obviously worried about what would happen if I dropped the thing.

    I raised an eyebrow at the older man. "If you want us to do a job we need details. I want the full story behind the whole mess. Informed decisions are made with consideration and knowledge. Tell me about Melissa, about Abel, about what happened exactly that screwed up your relationships with them and drove Abel out of this place. He didn't strike me as the type to take off running at the first sign of trouble. If Abel left I'm betting it was because of something more serious than a random circus act you didn't want him to start."

    Cicero frowned, looking genuinely upset, before he finally nodded. "Fine. I wish you weren't all such busybodies. As I mentioned Melissa, Abel, and I were childhood friends. Abel was much more talented than either of us, so we didn't even try to compete. We all went out of our way to try train ourselves up too. We were considered cream of the crop originally, but with the training from Abel all three of us quickly managed to get to a point where we posed a genuine danger. It was part of how we managed to get this deed to begin with."

    He gestured at the deed. "Abel left because he was concerned that I was going to use the defenses enabled by the deed to start expanding. I wanted to push our territory out using the defended perimeter as a fallback point. In retrospect I might have been slightly overeager. Melissa sided with Abel, but he didn't want to rob the cavalcade of one of its strongest defenders, so he had her stay behind. Abel himself left, because he knew that defenses or not, with him to here hold things up this place was basically unbreachable."

    I didn't know Spruce Bunny well, but the Abel I met down there I could see being the type not to want others using his name to scare off enemies. He was very much a 'do it yourself or not at all' type of person. The fact that he forced us to fight and then honored the terms despite not being thrilled with the outcome was evidence. Unless he was thrilled with the outcome. I still wasn't entirely sure what side of this the guardian had come down on. He'd said a few things that made sure he wanted us to get it, but hadn't wanted us to win the fight. Who knew how people like that thought though?

    I groaned. "Ok, but what does this have to do with what's happening now. You keep talking about this plan, but what the hell are we supposed to do to get the information from her. Because if she was someone who trained with Abel, I somehow doubt a straight fight will go our way. We barely survived that damn guardian, and with years to practice I sincerely doubt even a sparring partner of his will be within our capabilities." Abel had been a monster, I didn't even want to see what a current version would look like in a fight.

    He waved a hand dismissively. "You're overthinking this. I told you the trial was to determine your suitability for the mission, and I didn't like. Melissa and her thugs prioritize martial prowess. They want talented fighters and recruit them for their little faction whenever possible. If you go in there and show off skills that could best or even equal a past version of my brother they'll snap you up. You get in good with them and you should be able to scope out who they're working with and get the answers both of us want."

    I blinked. "That's...not a plan. That's an extremely optimistic goal that you're going to be expecting us to accomplish all on our own." My head hurt. I couldn't tell if we'd been screwed or lucked out. On one hand this is how we probably would have had to do this anyway if he'd told us, and now we got paid for it. On the other hand jumping through all these hoops was bullshit, even if I kind of understood what he was testing for now. I glanced down at Cicero's throat, but realized punching it should probably wait until after we got paid.

    I stood, lifting Callie's unconscious body. "My girlfriend is the one who makes the calls, so I can't answer you now, plus she needs to be involved in the set design just like I and my other teammates. So I'll call you with the details once we've made our decision, but for the sake of the contract consider this a tentative yes and get started at least trying to find an artisan to work with us on our new gear. If we do accept we'd get started after we get the new equipment, as we mentioned."

    I could tell he wanted to stop me and get a commitment about the job, but I could also tell he knew he wasn't capable of keeping me here. I didn't know what his ability was, but we'd just beaten Abel (not really, but he had no way of knowing that) so he probably considered us both absolute beasts. I wasn't in a hurry to disabuse him of that notion if it kept him out of my way. I'd had about enough of Cicero Castleton for the day, and I just wanted to get my girl home and let her sleep off the backlash of a stupid reckless move I should have been more careful about.

    I hadn't even stopped to think about how much damage pumping her up with all those skills would do. I was pretty sure she was ok thankfully, her pulse and breathing were stable, and her face wasn't pale or anything, but I wanted to get her back to Jessie as soon as possible so our healer could take a look or at least top up her energy. It was worrying she was still unconscious at this point given what Vitality could do.

    I messaged Cark on my scan ring as I left, and once I told him we had a lead and searching was pointless he dispatched the others back to the bar and came to meet us to head back up. When he ran into us, he took one look at me holding Callie, a small bit of blood still on her face, and his expression grew serious. "Ok, what the hell happened to you two. Last time I saw you the two of you were snuggling and walking off together like you were auditioning for a teen romance movie."

    I realized from his tone and looking down that I wasn't in much better shape. The labyrinth had been annoying and long, and I was pretty much in tatters after it. I'd had plenty of holes in my armor already, ones I'd been patching with stopgap materials so they weren't obvious, at least until I could upgrade, but at this point my gear was more hole than outfit. I winced. Guess the timing on the replacement duds was good, because I was absolutely not going to be able to wear this set out into the field again. I felt a pang of sadness at the knowledge that my old familiar costume was now officially dead.

    As we climbed onto the elevator back, Callie finally began to stir, and I was relieved to see a complete lack of pain or soreness in her actions as she woke up. She squinted a bit at the light, but otherwise seemed like she'd just woken up in the morning, albeit before she had a chance to have her coffee. I pulled her close, hugging her to me since I couldn't take my mask off on the elevator, and I felt a slight shaking as she chuckled warmly. "Hey there, I'm glad to see you too, but give a girl a minute to put her face on."

    I chuckled slightly, my face still buried in her shoulder. "I'm so sorry. I was an idiot, I should have asked, should have warned you how much I was going to do. You could have been killed, just because I made assumptions. I know we're usually in sync but just assuming you know what my moves are going to be and can handle them is pure idiocy. Hell, I've never even use Afterburner on another person." My head was still pounding from the effort too. My brain felt like someone was hammering a railroad spike through the stem.

    Which was not helped by the sharp knock Callie gave me. I winced, but she wasn't even a bit sympathetic, just glaring into my mask. "Excuse me? I know you weren't just second guessing a solid combat decision that led to a victory because you weren't sure I'd be tough enough to handle it. Do I need to kick your ass in a sparring session to remind you which of us is stronger? Because I've got over sixty points of Might on you." I winced. She glared a bit longer and then relaxed. "It's fine Solomon. Really. The labyrinth pushed us both. You made a judgement call, and I trust your judgement so I'm fine with it."

    That made it even worse honestly. "What if I don't trust my judgement." Seeing her like that, unconscious and vulnerable, was absolutely terrifying. There was no possible way I'd ever want to go through that again, much less when I had caused it. If I had to make the same decision again I wasn't sure I could go through with it. It had been reckless and stupid and I didn't know what I was thinking.

    I got another tap on the skull and then a kiss on the mask. "Then I'll have to kick your ass for bad mouthing my boyfriend. I love that guy you know?" I grinned, not that she could see it. "But really. If you hadn't done it we could have both died. It was the right call and I'm proud of you for taking the initiative. If you'd stopped to ask we might both be dead. Partners consult each other, but they also trust each other. You didn't have time to do anything but act and so you did. Thank you." She leaned up and kissed my mask again, where my cheek would be, and I smiled. I was a pretty lucky guy.
     
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  23. Threadmarks: chapter 201
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Once we got home, we gathered up Benny and Jessie into the living room while Cark took Cass out for some ice cream to give us privacy. Zeke tagged along, partly for the same reason, and partly because I think he had a soft spot for the kid after watching her for so long, and we were left in the living room with the wolves. I used Jin as a pillow, because why wouldn't I, and we filled the others in on everything that had happened and what the ramifications were for that. Benny was the first to speak up after the story, and his first question echoed my own sentiments. "He was that strong?"

    I grimaced but nodded. "Yeah. I think some of it was stats, he was high G rank, but even without them...it was bad. He was just on a different level than us. Even people like Fisher couldn't hold a candle to him. I was actually wondering about that, since you graduate at F rank and Fisher is a freshman G ranker. I wondered how he could be so clearly at the top of the rank in terms of power, but I clearly have a LOT to learn about what Ascendants are capable of doing with the proper training and dedication." I paused with a grimace. "Speaking of dedication, Jessie, how's our girl?"

    Callie, who was sitting under the green glowing hands of our healer, glared at me. "She's fine, and not a fan of being talked about like she doesn't exist. That was suspiciously close to patronizing me again." I held my hands up in mock fearful surrender and she rolled her eyes, but her lips quirked a bit. "Alright, fine. As long as you're not hovering, I don't mind the question." She reached out to grab my hand, giving it a firm squeeze. I even felt a bit of the energy coming off her. "I feel much better so don't worry. Now, lets talk about your costumes the both of you."

    She focused on Benny and Jessie. "Jessie you have a look already and it works. The green looks great on you and the cloak is pretty. It's distinctive enough to catch attention but not specific enough to be jarring when you switch it up. You can try something new if you want, but my personal suggestion is keep the broad strokes and maybe fill in some details that are more to your taste. Nothing too crazy, but just some ornamentation to help you stand out. Benny, you're going to be in a similar situation, but I'd say even more so. To the point I'd say you almost have to add some flavor."

    Benny nodded. "I know. Clockwork's gear is generic to the point of being embarrassing. I have some concept work I've been sketching out in my spare time. I considered making my own but inventing isn't stable enough to be good for armor. Defensive items that do random terrifying shit are a pretty terrible defense. What about you two? You going to make any big changes or stick with the iconic gear? Well, more Shane, you kind of have your brand solidified at this point I think, given your time on the scene."

    She just shrugged. "You're not wrong, changing at this point would be more trouble than it's worth. I'll get a similar set made up from the higher tier materials. F rank kicks my current armor's ass, and I'm hoping to get a few tricks added in to help me out of tight spots. I saw how much use Shane got out of that energy absorbing feature in his old gear. Having a trump card like that will be a comfort even if I never end up having to use it. As for Shane, he's sticking with his current look from what he said, but he's trading the cloak for a hooded long coat."

    I was, though given the damage I was almost regretting it. I lifted the remains of my poor ragged cape with a sad sigh. "I know its not a big change, but it seems almost sad. These clothes have been through lots with me. Wish I could have at least retired them with dignity. That isn't the biggest question though. The biggest question is are we taking the jobn. I'm not in charge and I didn't feel ok committing us to this half assed sham of a plan without your input Cal. I think it might be our only shot here though."

    A groan of frustration tore from her lips. "I know! Trust me. I can't think of an in either. We need a quick way to get in contact with whoever is pulling the strings here so we can use them to track down the other candidate. I just hate to cave to such obvious manipulation and backstabbing. That mustacheiod asshat is sure that we'll dance to his tune. It pisses me off having to fall in line, even if its to our benefit." Her eyes were blazing with anger, and I could tell the situation we'd been in still enraged her. Despite her cool head, she wasn't ready to forgive or forget.

    I understood, but I also had a better idea. "That's true. But we have other options." I produced a rolled up piece of paper, unfolding it to show it to her." I pointed to a few clauses, and as she read over them she began to smile. "Did you do that on purpose? Because I can't believe he would leave a loophole like that for us to exploit. I knew he was in a hurry, but not that he was in THAT much of a hurry."

    The smirk on my lips was pure evil. "It was give and take. I let him screw me over on some minor technicalities to make him think I wasn't paying attention and then slightly amended the wording on that clause. It looks functionally identical to the original wording. But changing it from the original wording to 'no more than F rank' completely alters the agreement. We can special order the most expensive F ranked gear we can find and he'll have to pay for it. I'm absolutely going to punch him in the mouth when I get a chance, but I plan to hurt him more where it counts. His wallet." We were going to spend that smug bastard into the ground.

    To that end, we all turned to Benny. My friend shrugged, grinning widely. "I know what you're thinking. And yes, I can find us the most expensive and unusual F rank materials to use. Especially since we have access to the Academy crafting hall. Getting your hands on mats like that might be hard for normal people, but for Academy students it's much less of a challenge. I'm betting this Cicero guy was never a student at the Academy himself or he would know that. One of the downsides of insane over the top PR is that its hard to trust it. The crafting hall is kind a skeptical legend around here. People hear stories but they figure it can't be as good as everyone says."

    At our confused looks he shrugged. "Despite its varied supplies the crafting hall doesn't have EVERYTHING. I've been making contacts in town through the local forums for inventors. It's all anonymous of course, but I've picked up some useful into. I've actually been sourcing some rare materials for my newest inventions. I want to integrate something really good next. I haven't integrated any really powerful items, but at G rank I should be able to make some fairly impressive things if I pick the right materials. I can't decide what comes out, but I can steer it a bit if I find the right item combos."

    I grimaced at that. "You ever consider just using someone else's gear? You can do that right? Hell, you probably could have integrated some of the stuff from the necropolis. Like the hourglass. Does your ability work on consumables?" I'd been thinking about that for a while, it seemed like it would be a bit too broken though. He probably would have mentioned that since it would be a game changer.

    As expected he shook his head. "No. Consumables don't actually count as items for the purpose of my power. They're closer to medicine as far as my integration is concerned. Which is a weird distinction but understandable in a way. Regardless, yes, I could use someone else's gear, but it would be stupid long term. My inventing is my only synergized skill. I need a solid foundation in it to improve my power. I could maybe keep wishing for a stronger version, but I have a feeling the experience is going to be useful for my power itself, not just for making gear."

    That wasn't something I could comment on. Besides, given what I'd just learned about Skill wishes he might be on the right track. Granted, Inventing wasn't a custom Skill, so I had plenty of sources to pull from, but I wasn't entirely sure that the benefits of improving one of your main skills personally and relying on your own conception weren't superior when dealing with a Skill that would decide the direction your power went. If he wished for it I would grant it, but I made a note to tell everyone what I'd learned when we finished up this new gear thing. In the meantime we still had to figure out what materials we were going to use.

    While Benny got on his forum to go over possible builds, we called Cicero. He picked up fairly quickly. After he answered I didn't give him time to continue. "We're in." He took a breath like he was about to speak and then stopped. I smiled, continuing my thought. "We have some stipulations though. They fall within the scope of the contract but I wanted to clarify them with you. The terms should change as we adjust them right? Assuming both of the signatories are able to come to an agreement about any modifications that need to be applied."

    He sighed in consternation. "Yes. As long as we both accept the changes it'll be fine. Though I get the impression that I'm not going to be agreeing so much as tolerating these changes. I'll have to see if I'm going to allow your modifications or not." That was a bluff. I knew it, and he probably knew I knew it. He wouldn't have acted so quickly and burned the bridges he had if he wasn't desperate. Abel had been clear about the fact that us being Academy students was odd. It might not mean he was willing to screw himself, but it at LEAST meant he was in too much of a hurry for research.

    In either case he was clearly on a clock here. I imagined the forces closing in were making him panic, and he wanted this taken care of before something unforeseen screwed him over. The old man wasn't as gutsy as his brother, at least from what I got from my brief meeting with both of them. I outlined what we wanted, trying to couch it in the most ignorant and optimistic terms so he thought we didn't know the value of what we were asking.

    I managed to get him to agree to letting us select materials as long as we could supply them. He'd still be paying but we had to use our own channels. He was undoubtedly assuming some random G rankers wouldn't have much in the way of supply connections. I danced around the point a bit to get him to bite, but he was operating with much less information than he should have been, so I wasn't too worried. I was betting when his people finished their research on us (they would obviously do some, he wasn't an idiot) he was going to be enraged, but since the contract couldn't be amended without both party's consent I wasn't too worried. I was just excited about our new duds. I couldn't wait to see how they turned out.

    A bit of fanart included from a reader on my royal road of the sign from the rowdy badger. This is literally my favorite thing ever! As usual patreon.com/malcolmtent has the advance chapters, hope you all enjoy.

    [​IMG]
     
  24. Threadmarks: chapter 202
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    It took several days for us to get everything set up. Multiple trips to the Academy, to the WCP, and to a shop in the center of Rajak had been exhausting and time consuming, but after all that effort everything was finally done. A full four sets of gear at the peak of F rank, one for each member of my crew. They had just now been delivered for us to look over before we headed down to participate in our mission in G district, infiltrating Melissa, or rather Starbreaker's faction within the cavalcade for Cicero so we could find out who our enemy was.

    Callie and I had discussed Cicero's actions toward us at length, and despite still wanting to punch him in the eye socket because of it, we figured out the motivations in retrospect at least. Aside from his stated reasoning, we'd neglected the obvious fact that Melissa would definitely be watching. My show with the bull and donation of the chits would have been an obvious sign we were on team Cicero, and for his plan to work we had to be our own separate entity. By being so aggressive and manipulative he not only secured our help, he also visibly and obviously alienated us, something Melissa was sure to have noticed.

    Since she would know we hated him now she would be more open to us being recruited, hoping to snatch a pair of talented kids that Cicero clearly wanted on his side. It made me think slightly better of the old ring master, though not by much. I was still pissed about the danger and lack of warning. I was planning to repay that favor whatever his reasoning. Until then though, we would have to be satisfied wasting a ton of his cash, and we had definitely done that well enough.

    Which led us to now. We were all in the living room with the wolves, and since this was such a big moment we had decided to open the new gear up one at a time so we could all see what the others had gotten. We'd gone out of our way to keep the details private so we could surprise our teammates, and I for one couldn't wait to show everyone my new equipment. Since we'd left them behind for the negotiations though, we had decided to let Benny and Jessie go first.

    Rather than agree to take turns the both of them decided to settle it with a game of rock paper scissors. Shockingly they played about a dozen hands before Jessie managed to eke out a win, and I briefly wondered if one or both of them might have cheated slightly with Perception or something. It would have been easy enough, but whatever the case they had settled it now, and Jessie practically sprinted from the room to put her new gear on, excited to get to show off the powerful armor set that she'd had custom made for herself.

    When she came back in, we were all absolutely floored by her new gear. Technically speaking, Jessie's outfit was similar to her previous one, but at the same time, they couldn't have been more different. Rather than one of concept, the main difference was in execution here. Despite being a green cloak and leotard with boots and a green mask, the relation between Jessie's old costume and her new one was akin to the similarity between a child's finger painting of a car and an actual living feline.

    There were plenty of differences despite the thematic similarities too though. The materials were what appeared to be literal leaves instead of fabric, though they were special leaves, the golden vessels inside the leaf structures forming intricate rune patterns so spiderweb thin I had to focus to even spot them. The runes, which had somehow been grown INTO the leaves, held a series of powerful enchantments I couldn't begin to recognize.

    Her mask wasn't leaves, but it was a single piece of carved emerald filigreed to look like leaves, with traceries of gold along the edges. The cloak itself was a long carpet of crushed velvet with runes sewn in using some gold thread, and the boots were green leather I didn't actually recognize. It fit together flawlessy, possessing a subtle and harmonious wholesomeness of design that made it clear the set had been made all by one person. Jessie was obviously thrilled with it, doing a pirouette to show off her new gear and shooting us a grin.

    She gestured down to herself. "Isn't this great? The leaves are life tree leaves. Celine got them for me. They're super heavy in Vitality and they amplify life and healing based abilities. The enchantments are elven design. I wasn't sure I could get them, but Celine called in a favor to get them laid into the leaves. They had to be done once the outfit was already finished, but it was so worth it!" Doesn't it look amazing? Aside from amplification it also has insane defense and will protect me from most anything."

    I could see the elven handiwork in the design now that I was looking for it. Well, not exactly, I could see what looked like elven handiwork. I'd never seen elf gear really. Celine had gear but I was pretty sure she used locally sourced stuff. In any case we all clapped for Jessie, who looked thrilled and walked over to flop down on her wolf as Benny got up to go and get into his new costume. He was just as excited about this whole thing as Jessie had been, and I realized that this was his first set of custom gear.

    He'd made his own stuff for integration, but this was his first set of real armor he had bought and I could see why he would want to celebrate it. I was looking forward to seeing how excited he got when he was showing us his new clothes, and to see exactly how impressive they were. I had high hopes after seeing the masterpiece Jessie had on when she'd come out to show us.

    In some ways, Benny had a lot more to work with than Jessie had. While he had an aesthetic to stick to like Jessie, Benny's aesthetic was much more average and unimpressive. That was a problem for getting his name out there aside from certain situations like the hunt, but it was also an asset when redesigning his image like this. There was a lot more variety you could get in the strike zone of 'boring black outfit' than 'green leotard and cloak'. There was lots of variety to be found in a black mask and a hood.

    And find it he did. I blinked in impressed shock as he stepped out from behind the wall, preening ridiculously as he waltzed into the room like a model on a catwalk. He whirled, looking dramatically back over one shoulder, and Jessie clapped as I rolled my eyes. Callie was doing her best not to laugh, and I finally had to cut in. "Would you two stop feeding the animals?" The wolves all looked up at me suspiciously and I coughed in embarrassment. "Not like that guys, I mean can you stop humoring him. He's got a big enough head as it is, and the last thing he needs is someone convincing him his jokes are actually funny."

    Benny sniffed disdainfully. "The intricacies of my humor are far beyond the petty thought processes of an unsophisticated thug such as yourself." His tone was haughty and snobbish, but in an over the top way that made it clear he was just messing around.

    Which didn't mean I wasn't going to respond. "Ok, first of all, I'll thuggishly unsophisticate you upside the head. Second of all your back is turned you nimrod. Your stupid cloak is covering up your costume so we can only see parts of it. It's pretty impressive but maybe you can sit still so we can admire it instead of having to look at your frankly underwhelming face, mask or not." I grinned to let him know I was also teasing, and enjoyed the over the top look of offense as he literally put a hand to his chest in shocked outrage.

    That faded after a second though, and he rolled his eyes. "Fine. You sure your power isn't cancelling electricity? Because I've never met such an effective buzzkill." He swept back the cloak dramatically. "Very well nerds, behold!" He exposed the entirety of the new armor, and with a better look my impressed shock was amplified. Benny's new costume was a basic black set of gear. A thick arming jacket over a black leather breastplate and leather pants. The pants were thick rough leather rather than the kind you might see for fashion, and had thick cargo style pockets for holding objects.

    The entire outfit was covered in a tracery of gold, silver, and copper filigree, traced over the leather in the shapes of mechanical gears of varying sized and complexity, with runes set into the material at various intervals. Nothing as impressive or flowing as Jessie's but I could tell just from the impressions I was getting there was some durability and protection mixed in there.

    The subtle accents of the metallic thread changed what had been a basic and uninspired costume into something understated and elegant. I hated to admit it but I kind of wished I'd been able to go for a change that dramatic with my gear, but with my current rep I had to stay on brand as best as I could. Callie waited for Benny to get his preening and posing out of the way before she hopped up and bolted out of the room to get her own new costume. I knew hers had been a bit more difficult to find materials for because she needed either a ton of time to imbue the shadow aspect of her embodiment into the clothes or something shadow attuned that would accept the power more easily. Her embodiment power was extremely useful and I knew she wouldn't be comfortable without her clothes fully empowered so we'd chosen to look carefully for more suitable mats.

    I was surprised to learn about the time requirement for her embodiment skill, but it made sense. I'd never seen her use it on anything not prepared, and she had mentioned something about special materials when she showed me her bike I was pretty sure. Still, despite knowing what was coming, when Callie stepped out I admit my jaw dropped a bit. As she'd mentioned, she didn't change her style or aesthetic at all, the design was literally identical. The material however, was a total shift.

    Callie's old costume had been black. As in the color. This new one was dark, as in, the absence of light. The entire thing seemed to literally consume the light around her, giving the very jarring impression that she was wearing some kind of screen that was giving us a view into a bottomless abyss. I was almost positive that would harmonize perfectly with stealth and her shadow power both, and just watching her move took a bit of adjustment before I could even process what was happening. My brain kept losing track of her because it didn't want to process the effect, and I was damn impressed with the work of whoever made it.

    She gave a twirl and a wide smile and I applauded alongside Jessie. She posed, gesturing to herself dramatically like Benny had, only much more appealingly and with way more grace. "As you can see, my new gear is made of shadowspun wraith weave. It holds dark energy better than almost any material at G rank, only losing out to some proprietary fabrics from the cult we would have had to wait for months to get. It's enchanted with stealth runes." She dropped the pose and looked to me. "Now. Why not get changed into your own costume and show us what you got because we have to go soon." She held up her hand, scan ring out. "Apparently the delivery service told Cicero we got the gear. We've been summoned." I cursed internally. Not my big reveal was going to be spoiled.

    A slight note for the readers on here, I'm going to be changing my schedule slightly. WUTS will be updating on weekdays, with saturday sunday off. Patreon will still be getting daily chapters but the time off is going to help me a ton with my schedule.
     
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  25. Threadmarks: chapter 203
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    As expected I didn't have time to show off much. My gear was similar to my initial loadout but with a hooded coat instead of a cloak as Callie suggested. The sleeves were somewhat loose to give a similar vibe and all in all I looked amazing, the crafter had paid special attention to the detail work on the leather armor to make it harmonize with the coat properly but I didn't have time to enjoy it because fucking Cicero was calling us in for his nonsense mission. I added an extra strike to my throat punch tally for that mustachiod bastard.

    We got back to the cavalcade quickly enough, and Callie and I both stared at Spruce Bunny from afar as we passed. He gave us a jovial wave, and we waved back, feeling conflicted to be exchanging such jovial greeting was a legendary monster who have been able to crush us in a fight even years ago, nearly beating us one handed from across the room. Knowing such a terrible combatant lay underneath that cheerful rabbit mask made the entire image go from amusing to kind of terrifying.

    When we got to the cavalcade we were about to head in (just the four of us, Cark was already starting to become known down here, and since the people working with Melissa were enemies of the Militia it would be stupid to bring him) but we were stopped outside the entrance and waved over by a hooded figure. Since we were already in a mess down here and it was unlikely we could make things more complicated. I checked with Callie before we moved in, and at her nod we stepped up to speak to the hooded figure.

    Once we got close enough to see him through the deep shadows of the hood (I suspected it was some kind of artifact since our Perception should be too high for a little dark to be a problem, especially at this range) I was able to recognize Emery, who was standing placidly off to the side of the entrance, looking for all the world like he was waiting for a cab. As expected of Cicero's master of sneakery, the supposed assistant wasn't fidgeting or drawing any attention at all, blending in easily by virtue of his surety.

    When we got within range he smiled lightly. "Good. You arrived in decent time. Melissa is having one of her combat trials tonight. If you'd missed it you'd have had to wait a week, and Mr. Castelton isn't the most patient of men at the best of times, never mind when on such a time crunch. Given we received word of the arrival of your new costumes we decided to make sure you had the best chance of infiltration in a reasonable time frame." He held out a hand, palm up, and passed us a few small paper tickets.

    I took the stubby red paper, a square with a pair of half circles punched halfway up each side. I grabbed them, passing them to the others. "Ok, so what the hell is this trial anyway? You didn't say much. Do I need to worry about bringing all my team members into this? Our healer is pretty scrappy admittedly, but I don't know if she can keep up with someone like Abel. Not that WE can keep up with someone like Abel. If the trial is beating someone even half that strong there's no way we're passing."

    Emery just shook his head. "If that was the test no one would pass. If you think there's even a fraction of a chance you could beat Abel he wasn't fighting you seriously. Melissa is one of his devotees, but not on his level, and you won't even be fighting her. Melissa prizes talent for combat over raw power. You can gain stats, but instinct and creativity are inborn. She'll probably put you through the mirror trial, it's her most commonly used appraisal method. You'll be fighting a mirror duplicate of yourself if she goes with that one."

    That sounded...awful. "What? How the hell are we supposed to beat an exact copy of ourselves?" I had nightmarish visions of trying to punch myself only to slam my fist into the fist of the other me when he tried the same move. It sounded like the most frustrating exercise in futility I could imagine. The only upside was it meant Jessie should be fine. Benny I was less worried about given all his tricks, but Jessie's Might had been falling behind recently. I'd been working with Callie to increase Might, and had gotten twenty points of Vitality out of it for her twenty point bump in Might, but I'd let Jessie fall by the wayside given Callie's involvement in this whole mess seeming more direct.

    The worst part is fighting a mirror image meant my girlfriend's now one hundred seventy seven points of Might wouldn't even be an asset. It was effectively pointless. Emery finished filling us in on what he could find out, but given they were in a rival faction he didn't have all the answers. Sneaky or not, he was known to be loyal to Cicero, and that meant Melissa's people watched their mouths around him. No one with common sense ran their mouth in front of the enemy. Once he finished filling us in he gave us a solemn nod and slipped off into the shadows, vanishing. It was an impressive
    trick.

    With that done we headed into the circus, following the path Emery had mentioned to get to the tent where Melissa held court. She tended to keep her people together when possible, with the grouping only changing slightly as people had to go and do work or tests. The trials especially she did her best to have everyone attend. She was under the impression it would build camaraderie for her people to see how tough new entrants were. Anyone who didn't put on a good enough show to impress probably didn't belong there anyway, and the ones who did would have a much easier time winning respect from the old guard there.

    The tent we got to was orange and black striped, as opposed to the green of Cicero's tent. I wasn't sure if that had any sort of special meaning or if Melissa just liked the color, but regardless, it was definitely the right place because when we stepped in the similarities ended. Where Cicero had been in a mostly empty and quiet tent (aside from the fucking deathtrap labyrinth he had in that weird annex) Melissa's tent was a riot of color, sound, and energy.

    The other members of her faction stood around a giant dirt ring, drinking, cheering, and hollering as a blue haired boy around our age danced around a huge roaring bear in battle armor, dodging it's blows by skating over the ground on small waved of water under his feet. It was my first time seeing a water element cultivator since I'd come up as far as I could remember. Unlike pyros hydrokinetics weren't flashy or overly impressive by nature. I knew that there were more than a few out there, it was a big universe, but none had been good enough to catch the eye of the people or Rajak that I'd seen.

    Apparently I was now seeing different. The blue haired guy was holding his own well against the F ranked bear, and I wondered how the actual fuck they kept that thing under control. The armor, on second look, had chains on it, and might have been some kind of restraint system, and I was pretty sure the weight slowed the bear down a bit. Under those conditions it was actually kind of interesting training, drawn out combat with a much stronger opponent to try to figure out how to hit hard enough to damage it.

    Sadly for blue hair, punching up ranks wasn't so easy, and he hadn't even managed a small cut through the bears thick pelt yet. I saw Jessie's eyes narrow at the big beast, and I felt for her. I didn't like seeing them use an animal like that either. Ferocious or not that bear was a living thing, and being trapped and attacked every day sounded like hell. I'd have used a zombie or something. I put a hand on Jessie's shoulder and squeezed. It was shitty to ignore it, but we had a job to do. We could negotiate with Cicero to free the bear after we helped him cut off Melissa's faction.

    She gave me a sour grimace but nodded, and I sighed in relief. As much as it sucked we were way outclassed here. These people were all combat fanatics and there were LOTS of them. We took a seat off to one side of the ring, waiting for the trial to start, and the water guy lasted another five minutes or so before he slipped and got tagged in the arm by a paw. I could almost hear the bone shatter over the crowd as I watched his arm almost get powdered and the people on the other side of the ring hauled on the chains, dragging the bear back as a healer rushed to his side.

    I was curious how their healers power worked, but when he arrived at the blue haired guy's side he just held out a hand and encased the limb in some kind of light cast. I was expecting it to fade, but once the cast was on he nodded to the guards and they picked up the blue haired fighter as best they could without disturbing the limb and carried him off behind the seating to who knew where. I turned to look at Jessie, being our resident healer I was sure she had a better idea what that had been than I did.

    She saw my head shift toward her, and even without seeing my face she got it. She shrugged. "Healing powers are pretty varied. Powers like mine that work directly with life force aren't common. Most healing powers you see come from synergizing with a first aid skill, but without a life based ability like my plant growth. You end up with something more akin to a regeneration buff. The ability amplifies the Vitality of the recipient rather than using the power to directly heal. Of course, nothing is perfect. Powers like that are useful for long term engagements or large crowds. My power is much more draining to use."

    I could see how larger forces might find some use for that, but I was glad we had someone like Jessie. I hadn't realized she was so impressive in terms of healers, though looking back it should have been pretty damn obvious. Her lifeweaving ability was insane in terms of scope. I wondered exactly how she ended up with it. Was it really just a random combination of her ability and Skills? Horticulture couldn't be that common, but still, I would have figured if there was such an overpowered path people would know about it. I wondered if stat totals and similar factors played some part in the way abilities evolved or if it was really just a Skill and power addition sort of thing.

    That was a question I wasn't going to get an answer too anytime soon though, so I just shook it off to focus on the dirt pit. As we watched, the crowd quieted down as the bear was led...somewhere. As it left a woman came stalking out. Tall and lithe with leather pants, a bright red crop top, and a red full face mask with no features save eye holes, as soon as the others saw her the fell silent and the woman stalked out into the center of the circle. When she reached the middle she threw up her arms. "My friends! It's that time again! Time to see who comes to join our number."

    Her hip length red hair was shot through with bright yellow streaks, and I wondered if she had a fire ability like Cark, given the obvious themes. I was pretty sure this was Starbreaker. I had to hand it to her, she knew how to work a crowd. She had a pleasant and energetic voice that thrummed with excitement, like she was playing a song to get everyone psyched. She scanned the room slowly before turning back to the crowd. "So, any of you that are here to compete please step forward." I could hear the wicked grin on her covered face in her very words. "We can't wait to see what you all can do."
     
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  26. Threadmarks: chapter 204
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The lot of us headed down into the ring after her announcement. A surprising number of the people in the audience were here for this apparently, and I handed over my ticket as the collected all of them, with Melissa (or Starbreaker rather since she was in costume) making sure to get all of them. I wondered if the tickets acted as some sort of waiver, or if we would have signed one when we got them from...wherever Emery had picked them up. The thought wasn't reassuring but I wasn't going to dwell on it. No point crying over spilled milk.

    Melissa nodded approvingly as she took the last ticket, turning back to the crowd to play to her audience. "Well now! These fine people are willing to put themselves at risk to prove their worth!" She turned back to us. "Here in the Starburst Pavilion we measure our worth by combat prowess. You will be measured, tested, and strained to your very limits. We accept only the most talented and dedicated combatants, and mere Skills and stats will not be enough to see you through this trial." I was assuming the Starburst Pavilion was the name of this tent. It was kind of cool honestly.

    Melissa gestured widely with both arms, her voice rising as she gestured to all of us. "Combat is more than simply Skill or power. Combat is a matter of instinct. Of drive. Of talent and determination. In view of this fact the trial you are about to undergo will be different than any other trial you have ever undertaken. It will push you to your limits and beyond, and only those with true potential will ascend the next step through the ranks to become a member of our Starburst Pavilion. Knowing this, understanding the stress and danger, do you consent to be tested?"

    Her eyes, blazing orange behind her red mask, pinned us all as she waited for her answer. We all thought it over before confirming, nodding and agreeing verbally depending on the person who made the affirmation. She gave a pleased hum. "Very well. Bring out the instrument!" She bellowed the last part loud enough for everyone to hear but never took her eyes off of the rest of us as she did so. "Your test now will be one of the hardest of our trials. We have great plans on the horizon, and we need only the most talented."

    The same people who retrieved the bear carried out a massive rectangular shape, and when they stopped and set it down Melissa stepped up next to it, grabbed the cloth still covering the shape, and whipped it dramatically away. "Behold!" SHe was really milking the drama here, but it seemed to be working, everyone was excited. "This is the mirror of multiplication. Look into the mirror and any of G rank or lower will find their very reflection stepping from the glass to face them in single combat. Do any of you dare?"

    She didn't wait for a response, just continued speaking. "The mirror test will require much of you. In order to pass you must defeat yourself in battle. An enemy who knows your every weakness, your every thought, who can match your every Skill and ability. You will need to overcome your limits, to push past what is possible for you, to even come close to winning. Only those who have the talent to overcome impossible odds are worthy of joining our pavilion. Now, whichever of you is willing to take on this burden, step forward!"

    She finally fell silent, and I honestly wanted to sigh in relief. She hadn't cared about any of us, putting on a show for her own benefit, not that I minded too much, but I didn't really enjoy being set dressing. Still, I volunteered to go first. My tricks were varied enough that I might be able to swing something interesting. I wasn't actually sure how this was going to work. Could the mirror let the clone grant wishes? I was betting not, but that wouldn't matter anyway given the circumstances. My ability wasn't combat oriented, so it wouldn't be needed in the fight.

    I stepped past Melissa, gazing into the mirror as she stepped back, letting me have unfettered access to the testing implement. I stared into the reflective surface, contemplating myself. Sleek black leather armor with purple trim, a black hooded jacket with loosely hanging sleeves, and a wooden mask with no features or eyeholes. I watched myself in the mirror, checking for any sign that something unusual was happening, but I saw nothing. I stared into the blank masked face, and eventually tried moving. I raised an arm, and nothing odd happened, so I took a step back to see what it would do.

    Unlike the arm raise, the reflection didn't just do the exact thing I did like it was supposed to. When I stepped back, it stepped forward, and I saw the armored form, push slowly through the surface of the glass, the reflective surface warping and shifting like mercury as the reflection passed out of the mirror. The others had all backed away, opening up the ring for me, and the assistants or whatever ran up to carry off the mirror, leaving just me and my reflection out here getting ready for our upcoming fight.

    I glanced up and down the reflection, and sure enough, just like a real reflection it wasn't at all different than I was. I expected the lapel logo of my well of wishes sigil with the S in it to have been reversed, but it wasn't. I stared at it for a moment and then decided to start the fight with something to throw the other me off balance. I triggered mistwalking, filling the air around me with concealing mist. I resonated it with stealth, hoping that it would enable me to hide
    myself from the other me's Seek Hidden skill, even if it seemed unlikely. Any little bit helped.

    I immersed myself in my own Seek Hidden skill, focusing on finding the other version of me, and was forced to roll sideways as a mirror image of my cane came scything through the space where my head had been. I cursed internally, and used the dip to begin rotation, drawing my own cane from a spot on the inside of my coat and whirling both it and myself to begin my Balam forms. The cane in my hand smashed toward the other me, only to be deflected by the whirling duplicate in his hand.

    I didn't bother with poison or fire. I had no desire to wreck my gear, and it wouldn't have done much good anyway since the other version could just use the same skills. I just began to circle slowly. I was wracking my brain for what the hell to do in this situation. As expected, beating yourself in a fight was the opposite of simple. I was up against someone with the same tricks and tactics I had. He could effectively counter every move I made. I tried a few more probing strikes, only to have them met and deflected, and he tried a few of his own that I easily saw coming.

    Contrary to what I had expected, this wasn't some kind of perfect mime routine where we did the same thing in unison. People were complex creatures, and the choice they made vary depending on a myriad of complicated factors. Even innocuous changes like direction faced could have an impact on the choices a person made, and any deviation would snowball into even larger differences. The optimal tactic for me didn't exist in a vacuum, and the changes to our positions and view were subtle but important factors in something as delicate in battle.

    I needed to focus on those differences, to force them to expand, and to exploit them. Step one was change the game and step two was win it. I considered my options, things I could do to separate us and force him to take a different tactical route than I was. Then I realized that as much as taking advantage of differences could help, the opposite was also an option. We shared several things here, and if I affected them he would have to adjust to that without having been the initiator.

    I darted forward and smashed down with my cane, aiming right at his head but making sure it was only barely on target. As I would have done, he ducked back to avoid the blow, wasting the least energy by slightly opening the distance to let it pass harmlessly by instead of committing to a block. I smiled under my mask as the attack passed him, and instead of pulling back or disengaging I continued the strike, letting it smash into the ground as I triggered the stored force in my cane, turning the ground under his feet into a crater as the effect blasted the dirt up into a shower.

    He lost his footing trying to backpedal and I pressed. While knowing each other's moves was a pain in the ass was a potential weakness, it was also a great strength. I knew where I'd be vulnerable if someone opened me up like that in battle, and I was able to exploit those gaps ruthlessly. The harder I pushed the more off balance he got, and I laid into him as hard as I could in the hopes that he wouldn't be able to regain his balance and I could end this in a single concentrated push.

    Sadly, the other me was about as good at fighting as I was, obviously. He took a few solid hits, but I'd wasted my force burst throwing him off balance, and his armor was the same set I had. I cursed myself mentally for upgrading before this. I might have been able to drop him if he'd been wearing my old H grade gear. Still, I had used Mercy Kill and Flurry of Blows during the exchange, and I could see the ones that had hit had damaged him enough to make him a bit unsteady as he took his stance again.

    I considered coming in to take advantage of the damage and stop him before his Vitality patched him up, but the wounds were inflicted by a G ranker, so they wouldn't vanish fast. Despite how badly I wanted to overwhelm him, I recognized that a battle of attrition favored me more here. As long as I didn't let him recover, the smart call was drawing this out and taking advantage of my better condition to chip away at him. Haste made waste, and if I was too aggressive I'd leave openings for him to exploit back. If he evened out our conditions I might not be able to win at all. I had a feeling a draw wouldn't be considered my victory.

    When I backed up I saw him tense. He was me after all, and he knew exactly what I did. Unfortunately, he was on the other side of that dilemma. A battle of attrition would be detrimental to him, and he couldn't afford to drag things out and let me widen the gap. I heard a muttered snarl of frustration as he dashed forward, and it was his turn to activate Flurry of Blows. I turtled up, trying to minimize my profile as I deflected the attacks, not wanting to give him too large of a target to land a hit on.

    I waited for several minutes, doing my best to avoid and deflect hits without taking damage until one of the blows I landed on his ribs started to cause him obvious pain. I waited as the gaps in his offense got bigger, until finally I lashed out, smashing a blow into the side of his head. He staggered and I activated Flurry of Blows, my wait over as I finally pressed the attack.

    We fought it out for the next few minutes, me chipping away at him slowly until I finally landed a solid blow and knocked him out with my now refilled force cane. I slumped down onto the ground, gasping for breath. That had been the hardest fight I'd had in a while, but I did it. Now it was time for others to give it a shot. I was eager to see their fights.

    And we're back! Also ignore the previous post that was tomorrows chapter. Monday to friday is still daily updates, but weekends are time off to relax and build up my stockpile. Speaking of my patreon chapters are seven ahead now so theres a full week of advance content for anyone who wants to check it out at patreon.com/malcolmtent
     
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2022
  27. Threadmarks: chapter 205
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I was exhausted by the time I got up to the seats to drop down. I was the first one up, so none of my friends were here yet. I was alone watching the show, but to my surprise one of the nearby revelers offered me a drink from a cooler he had with him, shooting me a grin. "Good showing my friend, that mirror trial is the most difficult one we have. Not many make it through. Do you want something while we wait?" I blinked at that, but smiled and accepted. I rifled through the cooler and found a soda, since I wasn't one for alcohol.

    He chuckled at that. "Not a fan of beer huh? More for me I guess." He held out a hand. "I'm Alden. I've been a member of the Starburst Pavilion for about four years now." I took the offered hand, noting his firm but not excessive grip. Controlled. I could tell just from the measured squeeze that Alden spent quite a bit of time on controlling his strength. Another follower of Abel's philosophy. Considering where we were that made perfect sense. Still, for battle maniacs they seemed like nice enough people, bear fighting not withstanding.

    I popped the bottle and took a sip, enjoying the sweetness and the bit of the drink. The soda was unusual, a watermelon flavor that I'd never had in a drink before, but it was delicious and refreshing. I felt my body flood with energy as a sipped it, and I realized with a start that this was an H ranked drink. I had never seen ranked food in prepackaged form before, and I cocked my head at Alden in curiosity. "Where exactly did you get this? I've never had a drink like this before, and I figured I'd have seen it around."

    Seemingly unphased by my mask opening up into a mouth to allow my sip he took a long pull of his own drink as Callie stepped up to the mirror. "Macintosh. He has a brewing skill. He synergized it with Alchemy at G rank and has recently opened a boutique specializing in bottled Ascendant drinks. They have some interesting properties, though the H rank versions mostly just give a really effective sugar high that you don't crash from. Still, they taste divine. Best beer in the whole WCP you mark my words."

    I raised an eyebrow at that, it was a fascinating thing to hear. I wanted to see if I could pick some of this stuff up after, but sadly the question would have to wait since Callie stepped back and her double followed her away from the mirror just like mine had. I watched with bated breath, and after seeing my own battle everyone else quieted down too. They'd seen a winner today, and that gave them some hope. They weren't taking the chances for granted now, so they could only watch carefully.

    Mirror-Callie stepped forward slowly, and my own Callie stepped to the side, angling herself away. She wanted to draw her double out further or open up some space. Mirror-Callie, just smiled and flicked a finger. Spikes of shadow tore up off the ground splitting the air in a wave as my girlfriend watched on impassively. The double had made the first move, and Callie was going to need to counter it or get seriously hurt. Callie flicked her coat up, reinforcing it with her shadows so it could tank all the damage.

    As she did she hopped into the air, taking what had turned from sharp into blunt impact and using it to fling her further away. She flicked her coat out, snapping it into a wing configuration and using it to glide further away, and Mirror-Callie snarled in annoyance as she tried to bolt after the fleeing original, Callie let herself drop as she did, turning to face her double and falling the ten or so feet to the ground into a roll the sent her flashing toward the other her. She flicked a hand as she rolled to her feet, using the momentum to slip into a Balam stance, the forward roll being a type of circular motion, and drew a rapier made of shadow from nowhere.

    Mirror-Callie sneered and conjured her own, stepping to meet her, and they began to duel. Watching them battle was...jarring. Pitch black blades flickered and blurred through the air, between Balam mastery and her Perception she was moving like an artist, and her body was flickering at such irregular intervals because of her new gear I was having trouble tracking her. The circular motions made slipping into blind spots much easier, and I kept losing track of her, of both of them.

    Despite that I had no clue what the hell she was doing. This was impressive, but she needed to create some kind of gap between them to take advantage of for a win. She couldn't just match her clone head on. They were made for that situation. This was an exercise in futility. Still she pushed on, clearly going all out, and the clone did the same, and though they weren't exactly perfectly matched, they were pretty close. Callie was improving, but I didn't see what that had to do with anything, because the clone was improving too. This fight wasn't going anywhere at all. She might as well be doing nothing.

    And then I caught it. A slight slip of the clone's arm as Callie licked out her blade to slash her opponent's side. She managed to deflect it, but it wasn't perfect. I couldn't figure out what she was doing for a second, and then it hit me all at once. She was learning. Or rather, training. She had this absurd Beginner level Skill for Balam Mastery, but hadn't been able to use it to its full extent on anyone. She had the knowledge, but not the muscle memory. So she was using the differences in the situation to force the clone to adapt differently to the knowledge to create a difference in their styles.

    It was brilliant actually. Not that I should be surprised to see that coming from Callie. My earlier thoughts about even small differences making a huge difference in the perception of a fight were being applied here in a completely different way. Not only was Callie pressuring her clone to develop differently, she was matching herself against that clone. She had a chance to actually win this, and when she did she would be able to remember all the ways her clones style had differed and try to recreate it.

    The differences weren't, as one might expect, huge. They were mentally the same person, and while changes in positioning, placement, and initiative, might have caused a slight deviation, the major change was that with every passing blow, the clone was facing someone with a slowly changing style as those differences added up. Still, even with that, it took a solid thirty minutes of constant high speed output before Callie was able to slowly whittle down her counterpart, and it was a damn close thing.

    She staggered up to drop down next to me, absolutely exhausted, and I handed her my soda to take a sip of. Her eyes flew wide as she took a sip, but she seemed to enjoy it, clearly loving the energy boost. "Wow, this is almost as good as life energy. Plus it tastes pretty awesome." She cuddled up to my side. "That was exhausting. I don't think I could pull that off again, I barely managed to win. So, any ideas on how our teammates might pull off a win? Because I don't think the tricks either of us used will work again."

    I winced at that, shaking my head because she was right. Sadly we didn't have time to discuss it as Benny stepped up in front of the mirror. He stepped back, drawing out the opponent, and once he did, he turned his head to Jessie and whistled to get her attention. She'd been frowning at the area where the bear had gone for some reason, but at the sound her head jerked up and she reached into a pocket, pulling out a small gold device and tossing it to him. He gave her a nod, then pressed it against his chest.

    It vanished into his flesh like a stone submerging into water, and I grinned in realization. He'd had Jessie hold his new device so the mirror clone wouldn't have it, then he integrated it into himself. Since he was using what amounted to a Skill or ability now as opposed to just a spare artifact this SHOULD count as part of his capabilities. I looked over at Callie who was grinning at me. "Well, that's one way to do it. I wonder what this one does?"

    I did too, but our question was answered as he turned to look at the mirror clone and a pair of razor sharp gold spider legs emerged from his shoulders, arching up and over to poise above him, ready to strike down at his enemy at a moments notice. I was curious if Melissa was going to stop this, since it would be easy to call foul, but it seemed like having the intelligence to come up with the scenario meant it was within the rules. These people were actually pretty easy going when it came down to it. I was finding myself liking them more and more, with some notable exceptions in their behavior like the bear thing.

    Unsurprisingly, it didn't take Benny nearly as long to end the fight. With an entirely new element of combat he was able to take his clone apart pretty fast. It was kind of hilarious seeing how pissed off the clone got as he dismantled it too, because I could really imagine Benny looking like that as he was losing, though admittedly it was less jarring because the clones didn't really bleed so much as leak a mercury like fluid when injured. If I'd had to watch my best friend punch bloody holes in himself I imagine I'd have been less amused.

    He jogged up to join us, absolutely giddy from the experience. "Wow, what's it like to take so long on such an easy test? You guys really dragged it out there huh?" He plopped down next to us, staring down at the dirt circle. The others went one at a time, but Jessie didn't volunteer, and after a while I got a bit worried. Noticing my unease, he clapped me on the shoulder. "Don't worry. Jessie has a plan too. She was worried about it at first, but she had an idea, when I did, and I trust her judgement. This should be a good show."

    Jessie finally came up in the rotation, everyone else having already gone, and I watched her stand up to move over to the mirror. At some point she had knelt down where she'd been spacing out, her eyes staring off at the bear's exit point. As she stood up I notice her kick some of the dirt on top of a single green vine snaking across the ground toward the spot she'd been staring. She walked over to stand in front of the mirror and repeated the same process as the rest of us. As she stepped back another version of her stepped out as well, staring at her intensely. The clone took up a stance, getting ready to attack, but before it could there was a loud crash.

    Everyone looked over to see the enraged form of the huge F ranked bear. It had torn free of its chains and ripped its way through a spot in the seating where there were no watchers. We all watched in shock as the massive animal charged forward and smashed its paw down on Jessie's clone, smashing it into a mercurial paste. Jessie stared impassively at the scene before calling it over. As it walked over to her she reached up and scratched under its chin before looking at a shocked Melissa. "This is Randall. He's mine now." I couldn't help it. I burst out laughing.

    Accidentally posted this chapter yesterday, skipping one. I fixed it really quickly but if you recognize this chapter skip back to last chapter to catch the one you missed. Hope you all enjoy!
     
  28. Threadmarks: chapter 206
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I half expected the crowd to turn on us after Jessie's stunt, lashing out at us for taking their bear, or declaring the strategy invalid. Instead, there was a long, deep silence as Melissa stared at Jessie and the now no longer restrained bear. The red haired woman mulled over the situation for a minute, and when I started to get ready to jump in, shocked me into stunned silence by throwing both fists in the air and bellowing happily. "SHE PASSES!"

    Every person in the audience stood up and roared with approval, cheering the girl who had just stolen their insanely powerful beast and wrecked their seating. It was wall to wall roars of approval, and Jessie threw her hands up in triumph. Then Randall the bear let out a roar of enthusiasm and everyone sort of quieted down. Jessie headed up to meet with us as Melissa declared a short break in the proceedings so she could help repair the stands that Randall had broken. The big bear himself thumped down at the base of the seats while Jessie climbed up, waiting for his mistress.

    I wanted to congratulate her on her victory, but before I did so, I had a much more important factor to clarify. "Under no circumstances are you allowed to bring him back to the house." I didn't need to wait for Callie or Zeke to weigh in. We had no legitimate way to store a bear that size, nor did we have a way to get him back to the house without being noticed and drawing attention. I knew she would be attached now, but she absolutely wasn't going to be allowed to take him home with us.

    She gasped in hurt. "B-but Solomon! He saved us! And they're so mean to him! We can't just leave him here! We found room for the puppies we can definitely find a spot for him! He can sleep in my room. He can be my new bed! We can move the one I have out of there to make room!" The whiplash from upset to excited was giving me a headache, but I understood where she was coming from. I think her ability to bond and communicate with animals made Jessie extra empathetic towards them, especially ones she had a connection with. It made a lot of sense when you considered how she interacted with the wolves.

    Callie, ever the peacemaker, stepped in. "No Agria. He's too big. It's not even just about us, he won't enjoy being locked up in a house all day, and we can't let him out into the streets. But no one is saying you have to give him back. We can talk to Cark and see if the Militia can make some room for him. I somehow doubt they're going to be upset about an F ranked beast living with them, provided he at least pretends to listen to them and helps out when they're under attack." Her voice was kind, and even Jessie couldn't fault the logic, so our healer calmed down.

    It was pretty much a perfect solution for us too. It gave the Militia some protection. Granted, the Pavilion had subdued the bear in the first place with a crew of G rankers, which was impressive, so it was clear he wasn't invincible, but Jessie could make animals stronger as she imbued them with her life force. Between that and the G rankers already at the Militia hideout I didn't expect the Jerks to manage a another coup attempt, even if the were crazy or stupid enough to give it a try a second time.

    It spoke to the cohesion and ability of the Pavilion though, that they were capable of subduing a massive animal like Randall. It should be noted that when I said huge, I didn't mean 'big for a bear' huge. I meant 'big for a truck' huge. Randall the bear was at least twenty four feet from snout to tail and fifteen at the shoulder. It was easily three times the size of any bear I'd ever even heard of, though to be fair I wasn't exactly a bear expert, nor had I seen one in person. Still, I knew bears weren't supposed to be THAT big.

    On the upside we had apparently been allowed to keep the massive and probably expensive bear fitted armor set made of what looked like G rank materials. I wasn't given much time to ponder that though, because Melissa came back and took her place again in the center of the dirt ring. She held up a hand and everyone stopped talking, which was impressive considering the people in question were all battle maniacs. Once everyone stopped speaking she gestured up at is. "Well now! Seems like we have more new recruits than expected. Six of our initiates passed their trial this time, and I for one am impressed!"

    Aside from the four of us, two of the others had managed to beat the mirror trial, though they'd both used unusual tricks I hadn't really been able to understand. Regardless, it wasn't just us entering the Pavilion, which honestly made me feel a bit better. It would have been pretty suspicious if just the four of us had passed the trial and she realized we were together, especially after she found out about our discussion (unfriendly or not) with Cicero. This way though it was less of an issue. We were just a few of a larger crowd.

    Once the cheering (which I really appreciated) calmed down, she put a hand on her hip. "Now that we have entrance interviews out of the way, we can all mingle amongst ourselves. Get to know our new members, welcome them to the Pavilion. As you know we work closely together, and it's easier to trust people once you've shared a drink with them." She pointed to us. "You four, with me. I want to talk to you about something before you join the party." Without waiting she turned and strode out of the center ring.

    I looked at Callie and shrugged. We had been expecting her to question us about what happened with Cicero. This was earlier than expected for sure, but not by that much. Since we had no reason to worry we just headed after her, curious to see what she wanted.

    We followed her into the back of the tent, into a series of wall drapes that made up a makeshift office. She plopped down into a chair and reached up to take off her mask. Much like Cicero, Melissa looked young, a side effect of her having reached her current rank years ago and only aging one subjective year for every twelve chronologically. She didn't seem bothered to show her face to us, and when she noticed the surprise from those of us with exposed faces she shrugged. "It's more ceremonial than anything else. I don't sweat the secret identity. My hair isn't exactly subtle."

    She gestured down to her bright red locks with yellow strands through it, and I had to concede the point. With hair like that a mask only did so much. It made me wonder how some of the other people I'd seen or met with brightly colored hair handled that. Maybe dye or wigs? I mentally shook off the thought. Callie stepped forward to respond. "We're happy to be part of the team. Might I ask what you were hoping to talk about?"

    Melissa snorted. "You four. Obviously. Well, the two of you more like. You were seen leaving Cicero's tent, though one of you was unconscious, and you didn't seem particularly pleased. I'm not unfamiliar with that asshole and the little tricks he plays. I wanted to know if you're here for some kind of revenge or something? It's not exactly a well kept secret that he and I don't see eye to eye." She kept her tone even, not letting on if she would be pleased or upset if this was about revenge.

    As always my girlfriend had good instincts. "Less about revenge and more about protection. We assumed that he would be less likely to harass us if we were with you. No reason to single us out if there's a whole group who are known to be against him. Birds of a feather and all that. Is that a problem? We didn't think you would be too upset about starting trouble for him or tweaking his nose."

    That got another snort. "Not exactly. But things have gotten complicated lately. If you want protection we can swing that, but I'm not going to stir up trouble. There are things in motion and setting off a war with Cicero right now isn't in my best interest, or the best interest of the Pavilion. So this is a friendly warning. Don't drag us into some bullshit dispute over pride, because we won't be backing you up if you're the aggressors. Just wait your turn. Things might not be exactly as they appear."

    With that ominous and cryptic remark she waved us off. It was clear that she had some things cooking and didn't want us to trip her up, but getting involved with those things after that speech would require us to prove ourselves a bit. Luckily, proving ourselves was easy in a place like this. We just had to kick some ass and draw some attention. Before that though we needed a better grasp on exactly what the situation was, and in the spirit of that I grabbed Callie by the hand and pulled her with me to find Alden.

    The others trailed behind us without needing to be pulled like Callie. When we came within range of Alden the short, barrel chested man waved us over. Without the trial to focus on, I was able to pay more attention to Alden. He was about five foot four, with a bald head and a thick red beard. The wild growth of his facial hair was streaked with white, and his kind brown eyes were clear and energetic as he waved us over with one of his bulky arms, bare from the lack of a shirt under the overalls he was wearing. "Hail the conquering heroes!"

    When we got close he clapped me on the shoulder, offering a hand to Callie, Benny, and then Jessie in turn. "Alden Perkins, nice to meet you folks. Welcome to the Starburst Pavilion. Don't let the location fool you, only about ten percent of us are actual clowns."

    Another voice cut through the bustle of the crowd. "Mostly the ones with beards!" Alden whipped around to glare off into the throng of people, his beard almost bristling with fury as he scanned everyone nearby with narrowed eyes.

    He barked out. "I know that was you Brian! I'll set your feet on fire! Don't you think I'm afraid of you because your wife knows how to use a hammer." Despite the glare and the harsh words I could see a twinkle in the eye of the bearded man, and I had to suppress a chuckle at the easy camaraderie between the people in this place. They reminded me of me and Benny in a way. Again I found myself resolving to try to talk Melissa out of the deal with whatever faction she was allied with if I could. These people would be better friends than enemies, and I was a candidate same as the cloaked woman.

    Turning back around Alden apologized and offered us all drinks. I took another soda, this time a black cherry (my favorite), and waited for him to introduce himself to everyone before I finally broached the subject I'd been wondering about. "We're glad to be here. We were hoping to make a name for ourselves, so what do we need to do to get some more responsibility around the Pavilion. As you saw we're pretty tough, we can handle anything you can throw at us." I made sure my voice projected strength and confidence. I wasn't sure what we would need to do, but I was sure we could get it done. Alliance or not we had a job to do. We needed to find out who that other faction was, so it was time to show off.
     
  29. Threadmarks: chapter 207
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The most obvious way to prove ourselves, according to Alden, was apparently to undergo a kind of obstacle course. It was designed by the Pavilion to test combat capabilities. It sounded similar to the testing at the Academy, but when I asked about how it worked I was informed in no uncertain terms that the Pavilion course was rank neutral. The obstacles were enchanted and could be adjust for the stats of the participant. Since the Pavilion prized combat standards, Skills were still allowed, but in order to beat the times of previous course runners you needed some real skill.

    The obstacle course was one of the first things most pavilion members did on joining, and the score you got was basically an indicator of who would accept a challenge if you decided to fight. Being an entire organization of battle maniacs, the Pavilion was heavily influenced by fighting strength. Challenging others was a prime way to earn respect, and people would even bet on the outcomes, but no one would accept a challenge if your time wasn't within a certain number of seconds of their own time.

    So, in order to raise our profile and become better known here, we needed to take the course, do well, and then fight some people. When we announced our intention, I expected it to be mostly ignored, and for Alden to lead us to a small underground area or something. Instead he bellowed. "Obstacle course!" And threw his fists in the air, with every other pavilion member echoing his yell with a loud cheer. Then he led the two of us (Jessie wanted to stay with Randall and Benny didn't want to leave her alone, bear or not) behind the seating off to one side and through a tent flap that led us into another open space.

    I was reminded of Cicero's tent, but this side tent seemed much less cramped, so it was probably a bigger spatial distortion. When we got inside, everyone stampeded past, climbing up onto the seating in this room, excited to watch us throw ourselves against whatever impossible odds these were supposed to be. Oddly despite having just fought, I was looking forward to this exercise. It would give me a chance to cut loose without feeling so stifled or like I was on a razors edge like when I had to beat my clone.

    Alden walked us out to the middle of the ring, which was also dirt, but seemed to be covered in strange objects and constructs, some for running over, some for climbing, and some humanoid and obviously meant to fight. There was a huge selection of options for what would be tested, and I was excited to try it out for myself, but I had one more question about this whole thing. "So, just to clarify, is this solo only, or can we try in teams?" Callie and I were partners with exception compatibility, so I was sure it would improve our time to work together.

    Alden chuckled. "Tag teams are fine, but your time is doubled for the purposes of the record. Can't have doubles screwing up our times. In some ways bringing a partner is even harder than doing it solo, so are you sure that you want go up together?" Despite the warning words, his tone was eager and excited, and I smiled internally at how up front everyone here was. It was refreshing after dealing with a backstabbing dick like Cicero. Granted these people could also secretly be sneaky manipulators, but somehow I doubted it. They struck me as people more like myself.

    I looked over at Callie, letting her decide, and she grinned and winked at me, an obvious sign of approval. I nodded to Alden. "Yeah, take us to wherever we're supposed to start." He led us over to a seemingly random spot in the center of the circle of seats, equidistant from a few different machines and obstacles.

    He pointed over to the nearest few. "Now, there's no specific suggested order for the tasks, coming up with an efficient way to tackle everything is part of testing your combat capabilities, but we do give a few minutes to come up with a proper strategy. Don't feel too bad if you don't get some legendary score first time. There are people here who have spent years trying to refine the fastest and most efficient path through the course. All you really need to know is that the humanoid constructs detect damage based on how and where they're struck, and will shut down once you reach their limit."

    With that he turned and left, giving us time to discuss our strategy. Callie scanned over the devices, most of which were pretty obvious in terms of use and execution. She went over everything a few times in her head, discussing our route out loud minimally to avoid giving away any of our tactics before the big show, but once she finally came up with what we should do she whispered in my ear so softly it was barely audible even with my perception.

    Once that was settled we officially set off toward the first obstacle on our list. It was a mystery to me how they were going to arrange for the stat totals to matter on the obstacles, but once I got closer I realized that I could feel gravity itself seeming to increase. Callie and I both came up short in shock as we realized that our physical abilities were greatly hampered by even the proximity of these things. Alden had mentioned that the constructs could adjust their stats to match us, but apparently he'd decided to keep it a surprise that they could also do the opposite.

    This was the second time we'd run across some amazing structure or device down here, and both had to do with Abel. I could see someone like him arranging this kind of place for his friends or subordinates to help them improve, and the existence of this and the labyrinth illustrated a big gap in what we thought we knew about enchanting and creation in general and what we actually did. The hatchery itself illustrated some interesting things about how crafting could be applied on a larger scale, but it was clear that invented buildings weren't unique or the only way for crafting to interact with the larger world.

    Putting aside how individual powers could interact with those abilities in unique ways like that whole brewer thing, and the sheer variety of possibilities boggled the mind. That said, we didn't have time to think about it because we had to get through this, but we were unfortunately neutralized in terms of advanced physical abilities. The first obstacle was a relatively simple one. A wooden ladder led up about fifteen feet to a platform connected to another platform by a beam system with hanging steps.

    The steps moved consistently, spinning and swinging without ever tipping, but being swapped along within a large field of empty space between the two platforms. Basically we had to jump from one step (small wooden boards that would barely hold two feet) to another to reach the other side, finding a path between them through the randomized movements of the steps in question.

    Callie was staring at this thing in genuine horror, clearly unsure how to proceed. Luckily, I had something for this. I stepped forward. "Ok, I got this one." If she wanted to cross she would have to use a massive amount of shadow to create her own path or pin the things down, and that would defeat the purpose. I, however, had a variety of useful and powerful skills I could use to traverse the distance. In this specific case, Minor Gymnastics Mastery, while reality breaking, still put me at the level of a mortal who had been practicing for years.

    I climbed up the ladder, not daring to lag behind in case I screwed up our time. I could see why they doubled it. Two people meant two Skill sets, not to mention we could probably double up on some tasks. For this one I triggered Minor Gymnastics Mastery and Leaf on the Wind. I decided since this was training as well as a test I wouldn't use cloud step, because it would invalidate things. Once I had Leaf on the Wind active I leapt for the first step that came close.

    I landed on the wooden board, my body swinging away from the platform on the board's circular trajectory before I came within range of another board and jumped to that too. I controlled my movements perfectly, using Lead on the Wind to give me the hang time to really optimize my gymnastics. It might not be necessary, but working on my other Skills couldn't hurt, and besides, this was fun. I spent longer than I probably should have on the boards, unable to properly gauge the timing on some of them and having to take a more roundabout route, but I made it to the other side in about ten minutes or so.

    In doing that, I realized the purpose of these tests. Abel's philosophy was about creating refined and cohesive battle strategies from your skills and ability. By forcing people to adapt to a variety of situations he was able to arrange for people to form a single coherent doctrine they could use in any part of their Ascendant career. It was kind of like making your own martial art, but on a much bigger and more inclusive scale.

    More than that though, this was FUN. I'd kind of started taking my Might stat for granted given the fact that I couldn't turn it off, but trying to use my body from a mortal level again was kind of a blast. It was also somewhat scary, and I knew that if it was a thing outside this limited environment I would have been way too worried to enjoy it. It made me wary of higher tier planets with gravity naturally closer to this. I could see why despite people our rank being able to survive there most people didn't make that trip until closer to E rank.

    After we got past the first obstacle, Callie was up next. The one after the platforms was a series of wooden stakes designed in such a way as to require extreme grace and a very light step to cross them. While gymnastics made jumping around easier, this was a simpler task for Callie with her years of training in stealth and careful movement. I used Leaf on the Wind on her first, and we tore through the test in like, thirty seconds, easily making up for my slow time on the platform obstacle.

    We continued on like that, switching back and forth between the two of us depending on who was best suited for the task, sometimes her, sometimes me, and a few times we ran across tests we handled better together. As we moved though, the downside of this gravity became even more obvious, not just in its difficulty, but in the toll it took on our bodies. Neither of us were used to moving under these constraints, and I felt my muscles burn as I did my best to ignore the fatigue that was slowly overtaking even what my Vitality could fix in a short time.

    I could see why this was considered such a good indicator of combat ability. It wasn't just Skill use and methods this tested, it also forced us to economize every motion and try to get the maximum possible energy from our now shockingly mortal seeming bodies. Of course, we weren't mortal, so we didn't get injured or anything, our Impact still offsetting things like the ground or strikes from other items, which made the test hard but not dangerous. Finally though, after almost an hour, we moved on to the part of the test where we needed to face the humanoid constructs. Oddly, part of me was looking forward to fighting like this. I had a feeling it would be a real challenge.
     
  30. Threadmarks: chapter 208
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The humanoid constructs were waiting in front of the last few obstacles, spread out so we would have to face them one at a time to get to the end of the course. So when we came upon the first pair of constructs we didn't really have time to engage them slowly and figure out their moves or habits. We just attacked. The pair of them were different sizes, one short and stocky and one tall and lithe. I left the tall one to Callie and blitzed the short one as we closed in, figuring her Perception would let her counter its reach more easily.

    Meanwhile, I came in at the stocky one with the intention to capitalize on my only real asset. I used my skills. I triggered Flurry of Blows as I approached, amplifying my attack speed as my cane flashed out in a whirling circular pattern easily recognizable as one of the Balam forms.

    I expected the construct (who looked like a sort of blank doll of vaguely human shape) to dodge or block, but he took his cue from me and tried to counter attack with attack. For such a squat form, the thing had incredibly quick punches, and used them to devastating effect. Each punch was carefully aimed to intersect my line of attack before it could build momentum, disrupting all the power I was trying to generate with the centrifugal force of my whirling cane.

    I was impressed with the tactics this thing was employing, not just in terms of actual combat sensibilities, but in using his assets. The squat construct was wide and powerfully built, and I could see from its movements that even with equalized Might it was stronger than I was by virtue of its powerful body and experience using it it. More specifically it wasn't EXACTLY equalized, more like generally equalized because the variance in gravity affected the different sized body differently.

    Still, the power it did have it used exceptionally well. While most big strong entities built like the construct would throw wide, exaggerated punches to maximize their damage with big swings augmenting their power, the construct was using a series of light, quick jabs on me. Because it was stronger, it didn't need to commit to a blow as much to deal damage, only land a hit with the power it already had, so sacrificing force for speed was a much more rational decision. It was tough for me to deflect and intercept the rain of jabs with just the cane to work with.

    As it attacked though, I began to rethink my strategy. The biggest issue here was that I was focusing too hard on the win.
    Granted we were doing this to make an impression, but since this was our first run it was unlikely we'd have managed. No one was going to hold it against us having to do this twice, which meant the smart move was to try to learn as much as possible from the experience.

    So I changed my focus slightly. Rather than push for speed in victory, I decided to focus on learning more about fighting an opponent like this. In the end, while we were trying to show off enough to be able to show people what we could do, even if we didn't have an amazing time we would earn the right to challenge the other members of the Pavilion and we could work our way up that way, plus we could always try this again later for a better time.

    In the spirit of that, and of learning what I could before we actually had to fight one of those challenges, I started the Balam forms. Not a carefully selected for specifically for this fight, but running through the list, one form at a time, to probe this construct and try to learn what its weaknesses and strengths were. I wanted to figure out how I could find gaps in someone else's combat style.

    I worked my way through the list, getting hit a few times with glancing blows because of my commitment to learning rather than winning immediately, but I didn't mind. As I fought, I got a better grasp on what the construct could do and how and I recognized some of the fighting style as belonging to Abel. He didn't have Abel's power, but he still had the same sort of ruthless combat efficiency, and it taught me a bit about this path.

    While 'combat prowess' sounded like some sort of magical secondary ability that you had to train on its own based on the way we all talked about it, in reality it was a pretty simple thing. It was about perspective. People in the Academy tended to view combat as a math problem. Your opponent has a value, your attack has a value, you subtract your attack from their total and repeat until their number is up. It was simple and relatively easy to accomplish, except when it wasn't, but win or lose was pretty obvious either way.

    Combat prowess was just the ability to break down those numbers into more detailed chunks. Instead of one overall value for a person, you needed to look at the values of each part of the whole. Find the weak spots, both in yourself and in the enemy, and exploit the latter while doing your best to eliminate the former. That was what made Abel so scary, I realized, he could see it all. He'd literally spent to much time in battle that he'd developed an instinctive grasp on what an enemy could do and could use that apply maximum pressure in the weakest spot they had instantly.

    The construct couldn't really do the same, but it came close enough to give me a bit of the same feeling, and I used it to sound out the weak spots in my forms and to learn more about how they functioned individually and how they fit together. I checked on Callie to make sure she was ok, but she was having the same experience from what I could see. Callie had taken advantage of her battle with the clone earlier to start to develop her own unique style, and this was an excellent time to polish that.

    While Skills from Wishes did give you a huge amount of bulk knowledge, combat styles weren't just move sequences. There were lots of elements and techniques in any fighting style, and people picked specific ones to focus on, creating a person style even within their martial art. Since Callie's was so new, having these scary constructs that could partly deconstruct our fights was a blessing in disguise for her just like it was for me.

    After seeing she was ok I got back to work. First form, then second, then third, broken, I'd done that one wrong, I'd done that one too fast, that one worked better before the one I'd used two forms ago. It was like a puzzle, and each movement showed me where pieces fit. Balam was a new skill, and I hadn't put in as much time with it as I should have. I'd done some training obviously, since Callie needed to do so for her geas, but I'd been too distracted to put my all into it.

    Sadly, not every battle is an opportunity to climb to a higher tier of mastery. Sometimes you learn some things but come away without any marked gains. All too soon the battle finished. I decided to cut it short because I was physically exhausted from all the obstacles, and I needed to rest up a bit. Flurry of Blows let me speed up enough to land a hit, and while I couldn't have gotten through a solid blow easily, a light tap was within my capabilities. After all the blocking and deflection my cane had stored up a solid charge, and I dumped it into the side of the constructs neck.

    It froze, not damaged but having registered a defeat, and I slumped down to the ground to let my Vitality overtake the muscle fatigue and exhaustion while I watched Callie continue her fighting. As I watched her almost dancelike combat style I noted that Callie was much better at maintaining her condition than I was. With her years more of training and experience even with her strength returned to mortal limits she just understood her body and how to use it better than I did.

    It was beautiful to watch, her evolution as a fighter, and I reveled in the chance to see her show what she could do as I recovered. Might made combat much easier, but I could see the reasoning behind the suppression equipment here. It was an excellent way to polish technique. You had to come up with solutions to problems that would have otherwise been solved by brute force, and you learned to deal with enemies stronger than you were despite the disadvantage.

    Finally, Callie too finished her battle, though whether because she was done training or just didn't want to waste any more time I wasn't sure. She landed a final blow with the rapier of shadows she'd constructed and had to repair multiple times during the battle and the construct registered the strike as lethal, officially ending the battle. I hopped to my feet, bolted over and swept her up in a hug, getting a surprised squeak as I spun her around laughing. "That was amazing! You kicked ass out there."

    She giggled as I whirled her around. "Hey there, we're not done yet. Put me down you human mountain!" Despite her words she was smiling, and I would have kissed her if not for my damn mask. Sadly I WAS wearing a mask, so I just put her down unhappily. She seemed to sense my annoyance because she pulled me in for a tight hug, just holding me close for a bit.

    I was riding high on adrenaline, the learning, the growing, the combat, I loved it all. Doing all of that with Callie alongside me just made it even better. She obviously loved it too and it was nice to share the happiness we were feeling, even if we were in front of an audience. Ignoring the crowd we got back to the course, finishing in far from record time. It had been over an hour, and based on the way people had talked about it I was guessing even if we hadn't had to double our time for working together we would have been far outstripped.

    I was going to challenge someone, but I was exhausted from the gravity, and everyone was so happy and upbeat it just seemed wrong to kill the party mood. It felt like we'd been playing some kind of party game. Everyone was so excited and energetic. Alden came barreling over. "Not bad kid! No one gets a decent time on the first run, but most people don't even finish! Sorry we didn't warn you about the obstacles, it's something of a tradition to keep quiet about the gravity stuff. Forces the newbies to adjust. So, what did you think of our course?"

    He slapped me on the back roughly and I laughed, able to stand up easily under it with my returned Might. "I had a blast. I've never tried anything like that, hell I didn't know you COULD do anything like that. No wonder you're all so gifted at fighting with that kind of resistance training to do. It's scaling right? No matter how strong you get it just increases the difficulty?"

    He nodded. "Mimics the gravity on some of the higher ranked planets for those of us on the weaker side of things. But it only works on G rankers." He gave me a wide grin. "If you think that was hard, you should try running it drunk. Anyway, enough business." He turned to the crowd. "Our newbies emerged victorious! Let's PARTY!" There was an echoing roar of acceptance and I felt myself smile under my mask. This place was turning out to be pretty great.
     
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