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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 210
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The next day found us rested and refreshed. We hadn't ended up challenging anyone, just enjoying our time at the Pavilion. We still needed to find the faction behind them, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that Melissa was more the type of person we wanted to work with than Cicero. We hadn't interacted with her much personally, but she'd seemed pretty fair, if a bit blunt and straightforward. She left a much better impression than the top hat wearing dick who tried to make us dance like monkeys.

    The presence of the other candidate would have been a huge problem for that plan, except that as far as I knew they were working with that faction just to get Cicero out. It was more than possible if we could help them with that they would take the chance to jump ship, especially since there was no way whatever faction they were working with had them interacting directly with the candidate. No large faction was g0ing to turn over full time access to an asset like that to some random small time sub-gang in a circus.

    So, with lots to think about, we went home. We slept off the partying (though I didn't drink to there wasn't too much to sleep off for me) and then we decided to take the day off. We'd been rushing around trying to get things done, but entering the Pavilion meant we were at least on schedule enough that Cicero couldn't claim breach of contract. He could bitch about it, but I didn't particularly care what he was unhappy about. Callie decided that we would go down and visit Cark as well as finding a spot to house Randall where Jessie could visit him.

    I brought Jin and she brought Rellia along, Jessie let Lily, her own wolf, tag along as well, and with just the three of us and the three wolves it wasn't too cramped in the back of the car. Once we were driving, I leaned back and looked up at where Jessie sat in the drivers seat. "So you excited to see your new buddy? Because that whole giant bear thing is kind of awesome, and I could tell that whole using him as a bed suggestion was partially serious. He does look like a big fluffy pillow."

    Lily whined in what sounded a bit like indignation, and I raised an eyebrow. I was never sure exactly how smart the wolves were. I knew they were sentient but not sapient of Jessie's powers wouldn't effect them the same way, but it seemed to be kind of a moving target. Sometimes it seemed like they knew exactly what we were saying, and sometimes they just acted like normal animals.

    Jessie groaned. "Damn it Shane. Now she's going to be all clingy and jealous for the rest of the day when I'm trying to get Randall settled in. But yes, I am excited to see him." She had a wide, soft smile on her face. "Honestly, the animal thing is my favorite part of my powers. I know I can do interesting things with plants and healing, but I've always loved animals. The ravens showed me how useful working with animal partners can be, and being around Lily showed me how much fun it was. You may have noticed that I haven't exactly been focusing on my Might as much lately."

    I nodded. I had noticed that. Which was a shame because Jessie was one of the most naturally talented combatants I'd ever seen. I'd been shocked when I saw her fight Benny for the first time, and honestly I wasn't entirely sure she couldn't have passed the mirror test by herself if she'd been willing to put in the time to do it directly. Still, I could respect her desire to leave the direct combat behind. She'd been impressive but I never got any sense that she enjoyed battle, just that she was exceptionally suited for it in some ways.

    Despite thinking it wasn't a big deal though, I didn't bother directly addressing it. She wasn't really aiming that at me. Callie gave her a reassuring smile. "It's fine Jess. I get it. I think you more than proved that it's a workable combat style, and if you feel more comfortable focusing on that aspect of your abilities I say go for it. I may be team leader but your powers are still your own. You write your own legend. Do what you think is best and we'll support you the whole way. Though I hope this doesn't mean you're going to stop healing us when we need it."

    Jessie's giggle had a relieved quality to it. "Of course not. Though speaking of you being a team leader, we haven't really had time to hang out since we got to Rajak. Between being a tactical badass and mooning over your boyfriend you kind of left me in the lurch. Why don't we set up a day to go out just the two of us. Well, we can bring the puppies if you like, but no boys."

    Callie looked kind of shocked at the suggestion, but not against it, just surprised to hear Jessie ask to spend time with her. That basically sealed the deal for me in terms of it being a good idea. I didn't interject or tell Callie she should do it though, aside from an encouraging smile that she could actually see since we were in civvies today. My girlfriend cleared her throat. "Yeah, that does sound like fun. I love spending time with Shane, but if I don't get a break I'm going to forget how to solve problems without punching them."

    I put on a faux offended face. "Says my girlfriend the insatiable loot goblin. But fine, I see how it is, just toss me aside when you don't need any arm candy." I let my teasing tone drop. "Seriously though, I can hang with Benny, we haven't done anything just the two of us in ages. He spends most of his time with Celine these days." I was going to suggest they bring Celine, since Jessie and she seemed to hit it off, but it was their plans and not really my place, so I just left it at that.

    A head of black hair dropped down on my shoulder as Callie cuddled me consolingly. "Aww, don't be so sensitive. You know I love spending time with you. Just like I know you really want me to do this because you want me to take more time for myself." I rolled my eyes, but couldn't stop the smile tugging at my lips. She leaned up to kiss me, so I imagined she could tell easily enough even if I fought it.

    Jessie groaned from the front seat. "HOW? How are the two of you getting even more nauseating the longer you're together? This is supposed to fade over time, not get worse." Lily chuffed lightly at her person's exasperated tone, and Jessie shot a quick glare at her wolf that was all she could spare. "Don't you start. Just because you're a puppy doesn't mean I don't know you're smart enough to make fun of me." The wold just panted placidly in a gesture that looked suspiciously like sticking out her tongue at our friend.

    We spent the rest of the trip just chatting, with Jessie and Callie making plans for their day on the town that I mostly tuned out because none of their ideas sounded particularly amusing to me. Callie liked to fight and loot when we were together, but Jessie was more of a cultured sort of girl, and Callie was obviously taking the opportunity to get more of that kind of thing in her life. I was perfectly fine not going to see an opera or to a botanical garden.

    When we arrived we parked and Jessie bolted out of the car heading inside to see Randall, with Lily trailing behind her and Jin and Rellia following Callie and I inside father behind them in turn because we were in less of a rush. I grinned at the sign for the Rowdy Badger, still as amusing and interesting as ever, as we stepped through the door to Cark's hangout.

    Our friend had taken to spending most of his time here, and surprisingly when we showed up, Sage was here with him, the two of them sitting at a booth nursing a pair of drinks and deep in conversation. They were just looking up to see what the noise was when we came through the door, and when he saw us Cark put on a beaming smile and waved us over.
    "Hey! You guys came over! It's always nice to see friends." His smile become somewhat wry. "Especially when they show up just in time to explain the BEAR that is now living in my back room. That sure was a surprise."

    I held my hands up to indicate that wasn't on me, turning to look at Jessie, who pouted. "Oh sure, just blame me for everything why don't you? I'm the good guy here you know! I saved a poor helpless animal from being abused. Randall is a sweet and cuddly bear who wasn't hurting anyone and those thugs at the Pavilion were tormenting him for no reason at all." I chose not to point out the terrible maiming that poor sweet animal had inflicted on the blue haired guy we saw fighting him. She had a point anyway, it was a terrible thing to do to an animal.

    Cark rolled his eyes. "Fine. It's not like he's been attacking my people or anything so I don't mind letting it go. He IS going to be protecting my bar though right?" His gaze was a little hungry when he said that, not that I blamed him. Having an F ranked guardian beast was basically the closest someone down here could get to a safe zone. I still had no clue where the pavilion had found Randall, but if it had been anyone but those battle maniacs they probably would have been incredibly pissed Jessie had taken him.

    Though, maybe Melissa hadn't been as chill about it as she'd acted. It was hard to say. With the boost from Jessie's lifeweaving he would be stronger than ever. It was possible she just didn't feel confident whatever method she used to subdue him would work again. In any case we'd come out of that situation in the best possible shape so I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. Some things I just didn't really care about the reasons for as long as it didn't effect me. Curiosity was a useful life skill in a lot of situations, but it wasn't valuable all the time.

    Jessie rolled her eyes at Cark's question, but nodded. "Yes, obviously. He's not a freeloader. You're going to be housing and feeding him so the least he could do is keep you all safe. Just don't bother him too much with random problems or wake him up unless its an emergency. He's probably going to be sleeping most of the time. He's a big sleepy bear." She gave a fond smile talking about her new friend, who I imagined WAS pretty sleepy, given bears usually hibernated to store up enough energy to move their giant ass bodies, and Randall was bigger than most.

    Cark nodded amiably. "Of course. No reason to disturb our protector outside times of trouble. He can just relax as long as he wants and we'll handle housing." His smile froze as he seemed to realize something. "Wait...you said we're supposed to feed him?" His voice was horrified, and I had to stifle a laugh as I saw him process what she had just said, no doubt horrified at the amount of food something that size would have to eat. Oh well, I was sure he would get over it. Having Randall around we be damn useful. Still, I was glad I didn't have to feed him.
     
  2. Threadmarks: chapter 210
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    As we sat down at the booth across from Sage and Cark, I finally took the time to take in my friend's appearance, and I was pleasantly surprised. Cark had spent months looking for Cass, and even after finding her he'd still been in fight or flight mode in some ways. The time down here running the show and spending time with Sage had done a world of good for the big bounty hunter though, and it was refreshing to see him looking so relaxed and well taken care of. I'd never seen him any other way, so I hadn't really known enough to worry, but seeing the two different states made it obvious to see the improvement.

    I said as much directly. "This job is certainly treating you well. You look like you're having fun. I take it you don't regret your choice to accept your current position?" Despite how easy that was to assume I had to ask. Cark had done a lot for us and helped us out. If he felt trapped or limited I wanted to help. Picking a fight with one more faction wouldn't matter, we'd prepared to pick a fight with the Flame Riot Militia to start with anyway, so there was no reason to be afraid of it now. I didn't say that out loud obviously, no need to start a fight between Cark and his new girlfriend if he wasn't upset.

    He gave me a reassuring smile, clearly seeing through my intentions. "I'm fine Shane. I appreciate you looking out for me but I have to admit I like it here. It's a bit busier than the bounty hunter life, but it pays better, and I talked to Burning Fist. If and when Cass manifests he's going to pull some strings to get her to H rank and sponsored for the Academy like you guys. H is low for that place, but she'll still probably be pretty young still, which should help make her case, assuming she even gets an ability."

    It was hard to tell if kids in Ascendant families would manifest an ability. If it was a full on cultivation family it was likely, but Cark's parents hadn't been Ascendants, which meant he could very well have been a one off. I didn't think so though. I suspected Cass would get an ability, and probably something similar to her bother's. If not I could always put my thumb on the scales and help her out. I'd already made the offer for Callie's mom so there was no reason not to tack Cass on to the list.

    In either case I was happy for him, and I said so. "That's fantastic! Don't send her too early though, that place is a complete snake pit. Maybe you could arrange some private tutoring from someone in town for a while before she goes. I bet that would help prepare her. I guess it's a bit soon to make that call though, we still have to see if she ends up with an ability. I'm betting she will, personally, but I could be wrong." I shot him a wink. "Statistically it has to happen eventually, right?"

    He chuckled at that, and I saw his eyes flash with understanding at my hint. My emphasis on my opinion here serving as a reminder that I had ways of tweaking those odds. He couldn't say anything about that in front of Sage though, and I appreciated that discretion. That said, he chose to move on rather than hold her attention on the subject. "So, I've been asking around, and I managed to swing you a few meetings. I know you were hoping to reach out to some of the more trustworthy factions, and I managed to get you in. Mind you, I'm functionally a nobody right now, and I had to call in a few future favors to make even that happen. But it's a start."

    He reached into his pocked and slid over an envelope. I opened it up to find a series of monogrammed cards with sigils on them, each with an address written on the back. I shot him a grateful smile. I couldn't go into details with Sage around, but this was a great step. Regardless of which faction supported the other candidate I would need my own to go up against her. I should be able to make a deal with one of these groups to work directly, which would give me access to power and resources at the top levels of Callus and a real shot at dealing with the other potential wishmaster.

    I'd have liked to keep myself out of the limelight and just build slow until I had a chance to get to the top of the heap. Revealing my abilities would be much less scary if I had the personal power to back it up, but the other candidate was forcing my hand by having already done so. They were way ahead of me in terms of timeline, and if I didn't catch up fast I was going to get screwed out of my qualification to participate in the competition, my home, and potentially my life depending on the temperment of whichever relative happened to be here.

    I slipped the cards into my jacket, shooting a look at Sage and surprised to find her checking her scan ring and ignoring us. That was a shock, but at a second thought I could kind of understand. While this was important and secret to me, Sage spent her whole life growing up around actual powerful forces in Rajak. Without the knowledge of my ability or the stakes at play this whole thing probably seemed like a farce to her. She probably just assumed whatever was going on was us being over the top for our own amusement. Like kids meeting in a parking garage because it reminded them of bad spy movies. As much as the image hurt my pride I wasn't going to be the one to disillusion her.

    That was the main reason I wasn't bothering to hide my identity from her. Someone like me would be so far below her radar it wouldn't even matter. Plus we had been the reason for Cark getting involved with the Militia, trying to force him to hide our identities as well would make his transition of power much harder, and we didn't want to cause any problems for him.

    While I couldn't bring up the competition, we could still ask questions about the cards themselves. Callie decided to do just that. "Can you tell us a bit about the people you're putting us in touch with? I'd like to be able to do some research on these factions before we show up. Aside from knowing what to expect it would be kind of insulting to show up with no idea who any of the players involved are." She winced. "I probably should have done more thorough research before we went to the Militia headquarters honestly. I looked into the place, but mostly in a general sense."

    I put a hand on hers and squeezed, letting her know that she was the only person who wasn't happy with how she handled that incident.Though to be fair, I was still pretty shaken by her breakdown after Burning Fist compared her to her dad, and even if I had held it against her there was no way I'd have mentioned it.

    Cark nodded. "Of course. I got you four meetings. The four factions represented aren't the strongest, but they have pretty solid positions in larger blocs. First up is the Beast Lord Garden. The Beast Queen inherited the place from her father, and they're an old and established force. She's pretty moderate as far as interactions go, but she's a tamer and supplies pets and companions for most of the people in Rajak. No one likes to mess with her because of how useful her ability is, and I think Jessie is going to be pretty interesting to her." He smirked at me. "Not that I expect history to repeat itself, I know Jessie is an integral part of your team, but The Beast Queen will probably like her."

    That sounded like a decent reasoning, so I kept my mouth shut, waiting for him to continue. He smiled at my patience and kept going. "Next up is the Sanctuary Hall. They're the faction with most of the healers. Peace Lord is the E ranker in charge. He avoids conflict with everyone, and it's commonly accepted practice not to fuck with healers, so they're a pretty stable faction to deal with.I figured you would most want to meet with inoffensive and peaceful factions like that since it would be easier to have a nice discussion with them." Left unsaid was the fact that being more neutral would probably make them less like to try any sneaky shit, which I somewhat agreed with.

    He paused briefly before finishing. "Finally the last one I set you up to meet with is Silent Dagger. They're a spying and infiltration organization who serve under The Nothing. The Nothing is one of the more mysterious E rankers. Wears layers of dense clothing that have built in anti scan features and rarely appears, but because of that people avoid fights with them. Bad idea to attack someone who can vanish and be anyone. Even more than most Ascendants The Nothing is a problem if provoked."

    At our looks he chuckled. "I know, Silent Dagger doesn't fit with the image of the other two places, but they have a reputation for honoring their agreements and aren't likely to turn on you. Plus the nothing is well known to be a genius at shadow manipulation. Callie might even be able to pick up a few tricks." He shot Callie a meaningful look. "Even Midknight isn't better with shadows than The Nothing, not the he would ever admit it. Those two are like fire and water and have been since Midknight got to town. Some people even suspect there's a history there, but Midknight refuses to comment and the nothing never answers questions about anything."

    That was...interesting. I could tell the idea of her father having a nemesis made Callie sit up and take notice too. I'd been worried that bringing him up would upset her, but it seemed she still liked the thought of putting him in his place. I mentally pushed The Nothing ahead a bit on the list of possible alliances, but I wasn't stupid enough to commit to something like that even in my head without some research and an actual meeting. I wasn't worried about a direct attack right now, but it still paid to be careful.

    Which brought up the fact that I needed to try not to rank up too quickly. Zeke's protection was a huge part of the insurance I had for staying safe, and as soon as I hit F rank it would be gone. There were no D rankers on this planet, and Zeke couldn't interfere when someone was only one rank up from me. If we broke through during this political mess we might get killed off without even knowing how it happened. If Zeke had to demonstrate his power early on though, people wouldn't know he was forbidden to step in after I reached F rank here. That would be some protection at least, even through deception.

    We talked for a bit longer and Jessie enjoyed her time with Randall. The big bear was very affectionate and it was nice seeing our gentle teammate look so happy. It was easy to catch her looking forlorn or hopeless when you looked at her during times she thought no one was watching, so seeing her so joyful when she was on her own brought a smile to my face too. Once Cark and Sage had to go Callie and I just sat back in the booth to enjoy our time together and pulled up our scan rings. Might as well do that research now, there seemed to be plenty to learn.
     
  3. Threadmarks: chapter 211
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    We spent the rest of the day at the Rowdy Badger, but after Jessie had spent enough time with Randall (which was to say he went to sleep because he was a bear and didn't have the energy to humor her anymore) we headed back home. We'd been doing research all day on the various forces, and while I'd looked into the Sanctuary Hall and the Beast Lord Garden, Callie spent almost the entire day looking up every single fact she could find on Silent Dagger, especially the relationship between Midknight and The Nothing.

    I expected her to be all upset reading about her dad, but in an odd twist she was unusually excited as she filled me in on what she found during the ride back. "So I looked into The Nothing, and it turned out that most people don't think they're from here. The Nothing appeared several years before my father showed up, but there was no sign of them before that point. It took me ages of trawling the forums but I managed to pick up a few accounts of people who were around when The Nothing first rose to power. As far as I can tell, they probably came from somewhere weaker than Rajak, in fact, there's a decent chance they came from Velan itself originally."

    That got a blink of surprise from me. "Wait, what? Another Velan native? How come we never heard about this person. If they were around when Midknight was coming up you would figure you at least would have heard of them. I know that older Ascendants could have gathered renown long enough ago to fade from public memory, but they only came to Rajak a few years before your old man right?"

    Callie shook her head. "Well, a few years for us. More like ten or twenty chronologically. As for why we haven't heard of them? I suspect they left Velan young. It isn't impossible to get to the capital if you're willing to pull strings. Jessie had been here before if you remember, and so had I. If we have channels I'm sure the WCP does too, and I'd imagine those channels are much more easily purchased. Most people wait until at least high H rank to come to a place like this because any weaker makes you one hundreds of millions trying to carve out a piece of the pie."

    I nodded in understanding. "Most as in not all. Some people don't join a force, and some people don't wait until they're at the top to jump to a higher ranking area. You think The Nothing was someone who knew your dad growing up and came here ahead of him to take advantage of the abundant resources? That kind of risk would take some serious willpower if nothing else."

    Callie seemed genuinely impressed by this person. "Oh that it is. I imagine the improvement in resources and channels is cancelled out by the absurd amount of diffusion on the renown in this place. Think about how we've been doing here, do you have any confidence you could have accomplished even this much without the resources we've been using?" Her voice was excited as she described someone who seemed to be on a similar path to the one she was on, at least in terms of interacting with her dad. Knowing there was some E ranked badass who had walked the road she was traveling had energized her in a whole new way I hadn't seen from her before.

    I knew we would be meeting The Nothing sometime soon. If nothing else Callie would want to talk to them about what exactly they had against her dad. I imagined there would be some asking about secret weaknesses and that kind of thing too, but mostly I think she was just happy to hear about someone who may have effectively stepped out of her fathers shadow like she had planned on doing. Her fervor died down a little as she shook her head to clear it. "Enough about that, what did you find out about the other two factions?"

    There was no hiding the fact that she was forcing herself to change the topic, but I appreciated her at least pretending to be interested. "They're pretty well documented honestly. They both do huge amounts of business with other factions and are pretty up front about how they get things done. The Beast Lord Garden has two main industries, selling powerful tamed pets to high rankers and selling cubs to younger Ascendants to grow alongside them. That said they do follow up interviews to check how the tamed beasts are integrating with their new masters, which I think is pretty nice of them."

    It made me think highly of Jessie's chances of getting along with them. I was prettysure her Lifeweaving was pretty unique, and I didn't doubt they would lose it if they knew even a fraction of what it could do. Even just the taming portion of things was probably going to grab attention. I hadn't done enough research on taming to know the specifics of why it was good but I had a hard time believing any power that versatile and unique wasn't something impressive to someone in that particular industry. Callie didn't interrupt, waiting for me to continue and offering me an encouraging smile.

    So I moved on. "The last group is the Sanctuary Hall. The Peace Lord is considered a pretty decent guy, especially for an E ranker. His power is some kind of pacifying energy. It cancels out violence on a conceptual level, eroding the violent actions that originally caused a wound to help it recover like making it so they never happened. It can be used defensively too to cancel out attacks, and it makes him pretty damn scary, even to other E rankers. The busted ability is the second reason no one messes with him, aside from the whole healer thing which is the main reason."

    Callie whistled. "That's...weird. Not sure how the hell you get a power like that but it sounds crazy useful. Not the weirdest ability I've heard of grant you. There are some really weird Skill and ability combinations that result in some strange powers. Unique Skills alone can cause strange changes, but even more than that certain stat totals and conception in Skills can change the outcome of synergy. One guy back in Velan had the power to summon rolls of cheese of varying sizes and compositions. As long as it was a type of cheese that existed he could conjure at least a small piece, even if it was higher rank."

    I blinked at that. "There are higher ranked cheeses? I mean, I guess given other higher ranked foods existing that makes sense. Do the cheeses become higher rank through gaining stats? Or are they made with high ranked milk from a high ranked cow?" It was a ridiculous question, but it illuminated a secondary path for materials that I hadn't really considered. The initial formation through legend didn't have to be the only way. Hell, I bet high ranked cheese makers could get a solid chunk of change selling to restaurants.

    Callie leaned in and kissed me for a minute or two, and when she finally pulled back she was smiling up at me impishly. "Callus to Shane, we lost you there for a second. As much as every girl loves to be ignored for hypothetical cheese, I'd prefer I keep my boyfriend's attention for the moment thanks. So, we need to take the time to go talk to some of these groups, but which one do you want to hit first? We shouldn't drag our feet since we still need to make ourselves seen at the Pavilion."

    She was right, we should take the chance to check in with these factions, since things might start moving fast once we discovered who was behind Melissa's uprising. Hell, if we did want to shift the Pavilion to our side having our own faction backer could only help. That said, we couldn't afford to rush it too much, and we couldn't afford to half ass it, so I had to disappoint Callie. "I think we need to visit Silent Dagger last. I know you're excited to hear from The Nothing, but we need to cover all our bases. Even if we think Silent Dagger is the best fit we need to check the other two."

    The conflicted look on her face broke my heart, but eventually she nodded. "You're right. I want to push you to skip them, but I know it's the wrong choice. Silent Dagger has been around for decades, they aren't going anywhere." She took my hand, squeezing it. " I have to do what's best for the group. But even if we end up deciding on Beast Lord Garden or Sanctuary Hall, we can still at least take the meeting right? I have so many things I need to know that I think The Nothing can tell me."

    I leaned down to give her a soft kiss. "Of course. I'd have insisted on it even if we ended up sticking with the first faction we ran into. I know what this means to you. It's not just about finding someone to help you surpass him is it? The Nothing might have other answers you're looking for." I kept my tone gentle, but I didn't want her to get into the habit of bottling things up. I knew what I'd have been thinking of in her place, and I knew her well enough to be pretty sure her head had gone to the same spot.

    She sighed, slumping against me. "I know it's stupid. I hate him, I'm not going to stop hating him even if I find out about his past. Having reasons doesn't undo the terrible things he's done to me or mom, but...I just want to know WHY. I want to know what made him this way. It can't just be recursion, because this part of himself was never something he showed other people. He's always been careful to be Midknight, the stalwart defender. He manages his image so carefully, and ruthless sociopathic bastard isn't any part of it. So what the hell happened to him? What made him like this?"

    Part of me wanted to just shrug it off. Recursion didn't make a person. He might have just been a psycho from a young age. My money was on that option. But Callie wanted to know for sure, and I think deep down part of her was hoping she would find something that would excuse it. Some magical event or transformation she could undo that would make him a good dad who was in a bad situation. It was possible, anything was in this universe, but I doubted it.

    Even so, I wasn't going to shatter that hope before I had to, especially since it was so fragile she wouldn't even let herself actually contemplate it. Besides, I didn't know what had happened. All I could do was be there for her, was walk by her side to the end of the road and then have her back as she dealt with the fallout. If she got a few days of hope or peace before she had to finally set fire to the last remnants of the part of herself that wished her dad could redeem himself, I wanted her to have that, she'd have thousands of years to live her life without those positive feelings.

    So I held her, and said nothing, even as I watched what was probably going to be a train wreck in the making. We sat like that for while before I exhaled. "Well, I think tonight is as good a time as any to make our next trip to E district. I don't think we can hit all three places in a row, but we can at least knock out the Beast Lord Garden and Sanctuary Hall. We can meet with Silent Dagger tomorrow so we aren't away from the pavilion too long. What do you think?" Callie gave me an uncertain smile and I just pulled her close. Yeah, I didn't know what to think about all this either.
     
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  4. Threadmarks: chapter 212
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The trip back down the E district wasn't too long. We had to change into our costumes because even if I was willing to work with a faction as a Wishmaster candidate I wanted to keep my regular identity secret from anyone who was going to know about my Wish power, friends excluded. It was a nice pleasant ride down to meet with the people at the Beast Lord Garden. Since we were going to a taming faction, we even brought all the wolves with us, or at least the three of them belonging to Jessie, Callie, and I.

    Benny had headed back to the Academy to spend time with Celine, not that I could blame him, though he and I made plans to hang out the day after next when we had some down time. Callie and Jessie were planning their big day out for that day, which I was glad about because it meant that they would have some down time after Callie's meeting with The Nothing, however that went.

    Speaking of our blonde healer, she was sitting a distance away from us actively sulking. I groaned aloud as I saw her pout. "Agria, we've been over this. Your bear wouldn't have fit in this elevator, at least not easily. We would have been cramped as hell trying to pack him in with us, and that's IF they even let us bring him on." Which they would have, my black card was good for plenty of things. But still, I wasn't being ridiculous here, the bear wasn't going to fit properly. We already had three people and three huge wolves in here.

    She turned to glare at me. "Beast Lord Garden is home to so many fun animals. Randall is still new to being with me, this would have been an amazing bonding experience and I could have introduced him to so many new friends. Maybe even some lady bears. Now I have to resort to buying him a bunch of expensive meat or something to win him over, because SOMEBODY won't let him live at the house so I can have consistent access to him."

    I rolled my eyes. "Lily is still here with you. Stop ignoring your wolf, you'll hurt her feelings." As if on cue (though I suspected she just understood her name) Lily stepped up to lay her chin on Jessie's knee, staring up at her soulfully with a low whine.

    Jessie's eyes widened in surprise and I was pretty sure slight panic. "Oh sweetie! Have I been ignoring you? I'm so sorry." She reached down to scratch the wolf behind the ears with glowing green fingers, an action that the wolf very obviously enjoyed based on the rumbling she was giving off. She looked back up to us as she pet the canine, not bothering to stop. "So, do you have a plan for this one boss lady? Or is this going to be another case of throwing a talented Ascendant at the leader of the faction so she'll be nice to us?" Her tone was teasing despite her serious words, so I knew she wasn't worried.

    I snorted, reaching my hand out to ruffle her short hair under her hood and getting an offended squeak as I pulled my hand back. When we finally arrived at E district she stood up and stormed off with her chin in the air, the wolves trailing behind her. Jin gave me an amused look as he went and I winked at my wolf, who chuffed at the gesture. That wolf was much smarter than he let on most of the time.

    When we stepped out of the elevator I noticed immediately that something was different. Where before golden sunshine had dyed the buildings, making them look peaceful and idyllic, this time the entire place was washed with silver moonlight. I looked up and sure enough it was night here, a huge full moon hanging in the air surrounded by tens of thousands of twinkling stars. Apparently the sky here was actually functional. I was mesmerized for a moment as I watched the fantastical sky, but I eventually shook it off.

    Looking back down at the buildings, I noticed that the change in lighting had completely altered the impression this place gave off. The cold and mysterious feeling of E district at night was completely different than the previous vibe. It seemed much more dangerous like this, and even the lamp posts (that I hadn't seen before) were casting a mysterious silver light.

    Callie whistled. "Wow, this place is pretty at night, but kind of creepy. Plus there's way less people around. It's like we're walking through a giant mausoleum or something. I don't suppose Cark gave you direction to any of these buildings? All I saw was symbols and addresses, which doesn't help us much since I don't know the layout of this place well enough to find a specific address assuming I even knew where on the buildings to look."

    My snort made her look over questioningly and I grinned behind my mask. "Please. I can get us there easily, we're in a high place looking down on huge buildings." I looked down at the sea of white marble and triggered Seek Hidden, focusing on the Beast Lord Garden building. Huge targets like this were ideal for Seek Hidden, and it was easy to pick out the red glow especially from up here on the platform.

    I gestured down in that direction and Callie didn't question me, she and Jessie just trailed behind, the wolves fanning out around us in a wedge formation to keep us safe if any tried to attack us. I wasn't sure if Jessie did that or if it was some pack dynamic that we were included in now, but either way we were lucky to have them. I didn't know what Jessie's chances for taming were but they couldn't be a hundred percent, so getting all of them had been amazing. It had probably only been so successful because goblins were assholes.

    We followed the creepily lit paths without much trouble, I had to use Leaf on the Wind and Cloud Step up to check on our heading. It was impossible to see the building past the other buildings from the ground so that was our only option to prevent from getting horribly lost. Finally though we came to the huge white marble building with the right address. We had to look around a bit to find where address was actually recorded, but we managed it, and the symbol on the card matched in any case.

    When we arrived I handed over the card itself to the tall man in green robes at the front of the building, and he took it with a solemn nod and not a word in response. His face was mostly covered by a green mask made of some kind of smooth stone. He glanced down at the wolves, then back up at us and gestured us inside before turning to walk away in silence. I turned to Callie. "I'm going to complain to management. Their doorman is way too friendly. I mean really, how is anyone supposed to get anything done around here?"

    Callie stifled a snort of laughter, smacking me on the shoulder and making a shushing noise. Still, the slight tension from the creepy atmosphere and silence had been washed away. I stepped up and put an arm around Callie, while the wolves clustered further around Jessie just in case as we headed inside. When we stepped through the door at the back of the entryway just inside though, we stopped in shock.

    Flowers. So many flowers in so many shades and colors it was hard to even take it all in. Not just color, the shape was so varied and insane it was crazy, big ones small ones, short ones, and tall ones. There were flowers that looked like strange geometric designs, ones that looked like paintings of animals, and some that were too strange to really describe, but they were all somehow perfectly cohesive in overall impression. Each disparate element was somehow arranged perfectly to sit in the absolute perfect spot for...something.

    Jessie was spellbound. I'd actually forgotten she used to do flower arrangements for a living. This whole place would have already been amazing to her probably, even if not for the animals. A plethora of creatures scattered throughout this one huge room full of plants and color. This, I was sure, was the Beast Lord Garden in its true form. This was where the name came from, and I could feel some kind of indescribable power in here that I'd never come into contact with before.

    I wasn't sure what it was, but Jessie, being the one of us with the most experience with flowers, picked it up first. "An Enchantment. This is some kind of huge field enchantment. But it feels different right? Like it isn't something someone made. Naturally occurring somehow? How does that even work?" After she pointed it out I realized she was right. This was somehow an Enchantment, but I couldn't see any runes anywhere. It just seemed different than a traditional Enchantment.

    A melodic voice came from off to one side. "Well spotted, dear girl." We all jumped and turned to take in the caramel skinned woman with amber eyes and long dark curls sitting on a bench off to one side, slowly stroking a small furry animal. When she saw us looking she offered a gentle smile. "Hello. I hear you've arranged to meet with me. My name is Melinda. Some call me the Beast Queen, but I find it a tad ostentatious. Melinda is fine, or Mel if you prefer. I've never been one for formality." She gazed down at the wolves. "Your companions are quite lovely. Are they new friends or did you raise them yourself?"

    Jessie practically lit up. "Oh, they're recent additions to our team. We found them out in the forest. They were living with some mean goblins out in the forest." Her face shadowed with sadness. "There were a few others in the pack, but we couldn't save them all. Luckily they didn't hold it against me. Wolves are very practical like that from what I can tell. They know that sometimes bad things happen and don't feel the need to find someone to blame. I wish humans could be as understanding."

    Melinda gave a solemn nod. I often find a similar level of empathy toward the actions of animals. They're more honest I think. The main difference between humans and animals is that animals don't lie. Not to themselves anyway. Humans lie to themselves more than perhaps anyone else."

    That was probably more true than most people would be willing to admit. Jessie stepped forward to look at the furry critter Melinda was scratching. "That little guy is so cute. What's his name? And what kind of animal is he? Looks like some kind of weasel?" I realized when she spoke that if I focused on the animal I could feel a sense of weight that I recognized, and almost jumped out of my skin when I realized the damn thing was an E ranker. I suspected it had been hiding it's Impact in the way that some of them seemed to be able to do.

    Melinda smiled. "This is Travis. He's my partner. He was the first beast I ever tamed, and he's been with me for over a century. One of the reasons my Beast Lord Garden is considered such a stable force is because we have two E rankers where others have only one. Travis is a Moondancer Weasel, a particularly rare variant of beast. But enough about Travis and I, you came here to meet with us about something important, yes? We're anxious to hear you out. You keep excellent company so we're feeling well disposed to you." She stroked the little creature with more power in one claw than I had in my whole body and smiled placidly. "So go ahead. Impress us."
     
  5. Threadmarks: chapter 213
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    We let Jessie answer, though we had coached her on what to say. Since we'd come down here to feel out forces before committing to an alliance, we naturally weren't stupid enough to just tell her the whole story right off the bat. Letting an E ranker know what we wanted without any assurance of safety was eight different kinds of stupid. My blonde teammate was much more reliable than she let on to most people, and she had no problem navigating the situation.

    She offered Melinda a warm smile. "We were looking for a faction to join. You might have heard of our group, we took first place in the freshman scavenger hunt at the Academy. While that definitely helped us out in terms of notoriety and even standing over there, we're not exactly top of the heap. A lot of things can happen before graduation, so we figured we would take advantage of our temporary fame to get our names out to other forces and shop around for something that would be a good fit. After all, it's not like we would need to quit the Academy."

    That had been a relief to learn, but it wasn't surprising. Joining a WCP force wasn't grounds for expulsion. Plenty of graduates made the jump actually. The WCP was the counter force for the momentum of The Unity in Rajak, and they were a necessary part of the local ecosystem. Granted they weren't thrilled when people with actual potential tried to join up with the other team, but the WCP was a powerful enough force that straight up forbidding it would be a poor decision.

    Melinda looked a bit interested, but not in a hurry to respond, so while she thought it over I decided to cut in with a question. "Excuse me, earlier you mentioned that Agria had good instincts to notice that the Enchantment here was odd. Can you tell me what it is exactly? It doesn't feel like anything I've been around before." The vibe I was getting off the thing was really driving me nuts actually. I was a decent Enchanter even if it had been a while since I indulged. Not knowing something that seemed so interesting was bugging me.

    She smiled widely. "Of course. I'm happy to enlighten such a curious young man. This is a formation." Since my mask was covering my face I cocked my head as usual to show confusion. She paused, searching for the right words. "Formations are naturally occurring Enchantments. You may have heard for instance, that some materials are formed with special unique runes on them. These runes can form into many different types of effect. When several form together and promote each others function, it's called a formation."

    I had heard of that. All the way back in Velan the Undine we'd met had taken a piece of stone from Callie with a naturally occurring water rune. I hadn't really understood what that meant at the time. Melinda continued. "Formations can be either naturally formed through special circumstances, which is rare, or arranged by formation masters. These people learn to move the special material involved into unique patterns and structures to enable them to resonate. The garden is a formation formed from dozens of powerful Ascendant plants with naturally occurring runes."

    That sounded amazing. It also sounded expensive and like way too much work for me to bother learning. There were lots of neat things out there that a person could master as an Ascendant, but I'd come to the conclusion over time that I was going to need to focus on the more punchy aspects to keep up. I enjoyed it sure, but more than that, my power forced me to distribute my stats in such a way that I was never going to be able to compete with specialists in their stat category. Learning to use the multipliers I had in combat and applying my martial skills was the only way I was going to be able to keep myself relevant.

    People like Abel and the others at the Pavilion finally gave me a path to walk, and the more I learned about it the more it seemed like a method I could use to keep pace with my friends as they soared through the ranks. Oh, I'd always be able to effortlessly keep up stat wise, but by my nature even as I did I'd never surpass them in their area of specialization. Not when I helped them focus all theirs into more optimum configurations.

    I didn't mind that honestly. People hyper focused on individual strength. Teams were made up of different pieces, people with different skills. But aside from wishes my main skills were combat based, so I needed a way to remain combat capable. I could just evolve my DS Mastery, and I would, but if I could shift each of my subskills to more perfectly compliment a holistic style I'd be able to get exponentially more out of the power I had right now.

    Which would be much easier once I could work with a larger force. Being able to work with more varied Ascendants was key to being able to flush out my stats to a more well rounded whole. As it was I was mostly taking whatever my team could spare, and while it was helping me a bit in shoring up my weaknesses, I definitely could use a wider pool to draw from. Not to mention it provided a source of Skills and other things I couldn't really get from my own people without depriving them of some of their own tricks.

    Jessie had been chatting with Melinda for a few minutes, having recognized her chance to get the conversation back under control when I lapsed into silence thinking about the whole formations thing. She hadn't even given Melinda a chance to really notice, but I made a mental note to try to avoid losing focus like that in the future. It wasn't exactly safe to get lost in thought in territory that wasn't ours, and it was a mistake I made far too often for my own liking.

    Melinda had listened placidly as Jessie spoke, seeming amused by the younger woman's enthusiasm. She stroked Travis under the chin as she waited, and finally, after a few minutes she spoke up. "Well. I have to say I'm certainly interested in your potential. I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to offer you some kind of valuable position in my inner circle or some such nonsense. You're talented children, but you're still young. Feeding you too much renown or resources will hinder your growth. If you choose to work with the Beast Lord Garden, we would welcome you, but as entry level members."

    To my surprise, hearing that didn't actually bother me. I'd have expected being told to work out way up would irritate me when we'd been expecting terms like Cark had gotten at the Militia (at least for Jessie). But thinking about it, she wasn't wrong. We'd seen at the pavilion how empty some G rankers strength was in comparison to people who worked harder. It made me like her a bit more.

    Callie seemed well disposed to the decision too, but she still needed to ask the obvious question. "What about Agria? Wouldn't you want to train her personally? You've seen what she can do and I'm sure she would be an asset. A friend of ours had a power set complimentary to the Flame Riot Militia and they made a point to focus on his development and give him a decent position."

    That got a laugh from the older woman. "Yes, dear. He was the one who got you this meeting. But there's a major difference. Blue flame callers are rare among pyrokinetics, and pyrokinetics aren't that common themselves. Tamers however, come in many flavors and varieties. There are no shortage of people who love animals and want to work with them. Your friend certainly seems to have a gift with beasts, and I prize that, but so do most of our other members. I'm not putting down her ability, I don't even know what it is, but even if it's something powerful and unique, it won't do her any harm to go through the systematic education I give my tamers. I'm not as impatient as Burning Fist."

    Callie nodded. "That's fair. In the spirit of returning that same honesty though, this isn't our only meeting. We are going to speak to a few forces, so we can't give you an immediate answer. It's only fair for you to expect your new recruits to earn their place, but by the same token, it's only fair for newcomers like us to seek out the best benefits possible when looking to join a faction around here, especially while we still have access to the fame and prestige that will make us a commodity in the first place."

    I didn't think Melinda was the kind to get upset about some bluntness, and I wasn't wrong. She gave an approving nod. "Good girl. I'm not such a hypocrite that I would fault some kids from trying to get the best offer they could. Take your meetings, your place here is open if you want it. That said, we aren't going to increase our offer no matter what Santuary Hall or Silent Dagger offers you. What they want to give their new recruits is their business, not ours."

    We thanked her and were just getting ready to leave, but Jessie stopped us. Melinda raised an eyebrow at my green clad teammate, who blushed in embarrassment. "Sorry if this is abrupt or rude but....can I pet your weasel?" I bit down on my cheek hard to prevent myself from cracking up, and I thanked the gods Benny wasn't here because he'd be rolling on the ground right now. She stopped, went back over her words, then blushed harder. "Oh gods, I'm sorry, I mean, your beast companion is very cute. Can I scratch him behind the ears?"

    Melinda grinned at her. "Little girl, if you think I'm so old that I've never heard that joke before, I think I might actually be offended. At least you made it by accident. As for your request..." She looked down at the small furry animal. "Travis says he'd be happy to let you scratch him behind the ears." Jessie looked excited by the prospect and stepped forward to gingerly scratch the small tube shaped silver animal behind its tiny rounded ears. It made a happy chittering sound as she scratched it.

    Jessie really did love animals, and the chance to pet an E ranked animal was probably only slightly less exciting for her than the opportunity to pet such a cute little critter. Either way she sat there cooing to the little thing for about five minutes, and it flopped back lazily, enjoying the attention. She didn't use her lifeweaving, presumably because it would be rude without asking, but she clearly had a knack for petting animals because the little weasel seemed thrilled by the attention, and whined pitifully when she pulled back from him.

    She turned to Melinda with a wide smile. "This place is so pretty. For what it's worth I hope we join your faction. I feel really at home here. It's not my decision in the end but I'm definitely pulling for you." She pumped her first once for emphasis and the older tamer laughed as she bid us goodbye.

    As we walked out I looked back at the building, remembering the beautiful garden and the formation and all the animals. I kind of hoped we settled on this one too. I liked Melinda, and I thought she might be the kind of person we could trust with my secret. We still had two other meetings though, so it was too early to commit. For now, it was time to head to our next destination. We were going to Sanctuary Hall. I was interested to see what someone who called themselves the Peace Lord looked like.
     
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  6. Threadmarks: chapter 214
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Jessie's mood as we left the Beast Lord Garden was fantastic, and it brightened my day to see it. She'd become more effervescent since we'd made our pact about bringing back her brother, but this was more than that. It was the closest I'd seen to the way she acted when we first met, back when her brother was still alive. I couldn't help but be grateful to Melinda for giving her this kind of peace of mind, even just by creating that place. Jessie was one of the sweetest people I knew, and seeing her so happy made this whole trip worth it even if we didn't manage to find a faction to ally with.

    Letting her enjoy her mood I slipped over to Callie as the wolves padded along beside our teammate. I lowered my voice slightly, but not enough to be considered a whisper. "So, I heard you get directions from the door guard, guess the new one was more talkative. Do you know if the Sanctuary Hall is close to here? I wasn't really paying attention to the directions when you got them." I gave an embarrassed chuckle at her knowing smirk. She knew how prone I was to getting lost in my own thoughts.

    Still, she didn't make things difficult for me, just rolled her eyes at my bad habits. "No. It's not a long walk. This is a pretty decent area of E district apparently, and much like the Beast Lord Garden, the Sanctuary Hall makes pretty good money and has lots of favors to call in. No one is as in demand as healers after all." She turned to Jessie. "Speaking of, do you want to show off some of your ability at the Sanctuary Hall? I don't think Cark mentioned what you can do to them since I think he assumed you'd prefer the Beast Lord Garden."

    Jessie just shook her head. "No. He was right. I do prefer the Beast Lord Garden. I really hope we end up working with them, even if they aren't the faction we join with in the end." She gave a soft smile. "They seemed really nice. I think that's something we should prioritize. We've already seen from dealing with that circus guy that not everyone can be trusted. I think sticking with the group that takes care of small furry animals is the best way to make sure we end up trusting the right people."

    Despite the ridiculous basis...that was actually a really good point. I'd seen plenty of evidence showing me that not even all heroic Ascendants could be trusted. Aiden was a good example of that. But in terms of tests of character, devoting your life to the care and comfort of animals was as good as anything I could think of. I'd been thinking about all this in terms of benefits, and I still had that on my mind, but even though character had always been on my mind at least a bit, weighting it a bit heavier might not be a bad call.

    I turned to Callie. "She has a point. I don't want to commit to anything too early, but I think the Beast Lord Garden should definitely go on the list. I know you have your heart set on meeting Silent Dagger, but keeping them in line won't hurt anything. That's just my two cents though." Despite being the boss, Callie never minded when we shared our opinions. She usually welcomed input, which is why I was thrown off by her stopping to give me a strange look.

    I waited for her to voice her thoughts, and when she did, she sounded confused. "You...know this isn't my decision right?" I cocked my head in confusion. She stared at me for a minute before bursting into a fit of giggles. "Solomon. Sweetie. This is your call. I'm here to help and weigh in, but group leader or not I don't have any say in this. You're the one who has to live with this decision, so you're the one who needs to make the call. I love you, but I'm not going to give you a direction on this. I won't risk you resenting me later if I make the wrong choice."

    I blinked at that, because it hadn't occurred to me, but then nodded. "That's fair. I guess it was kind of shitty for me to just assume you would be making the call. I guess I got used to you being the one to come up with our plans. It was easier to just decide you would be the one to decide what we would do. I didn't want to have to be responsible if I pick wrong. You sure you don't want at least equal say?"

    I wouldn't say it out loud, but I wasn't sure I trusted myself with this call. I had little to no foresight, and I made impulsive decisions based on my gut. I'd gotten us into trouble too many times by following my instincts. Callie didn't even need to see my face to know what I was thinking. She stepped in close, putting a hand under my masked chin and tilting my head down to meet her eyes. "Hey. I trust you. You aren't stupid, and you aren't reckless, even if you like to think of yourself that way. Just because you've made bad calls doesn't mean you haven't made good ones too."

    Jessie chimed in. "Yeah, don't forget you picked each of us. You were the one who decided to trust us with your secret, to help us grow. You decided to bring in Cark, you decided on plenty of the things we've done that were important. Not being as good as Nightstrike at tactical thinking doesn't mean you have bad instincts. You have a knack for knowing the right people to trust. Out of our whole group, I think you're actually the best person to be making a decision like this."

    That wasn't something I'd considered. "I...I guess I did. It didn't feel like that. Picking you I mean. You're my friends. I just trusted you. I wasn't trying to build some perfect team or something. Hell, I didn't even know Clockwork's power when I decided to bring him along." I turned to Callie. "Alright. I'll make the call. You're right that it's mostly to do with me anyway, and it wouldn't be fair to put that on you. But don't think this means I want to be in charge."

    Her smile was gentle. "I know, love. You have too much fun rushing headfirst into situations. I'd never ruin it by forcing you to think through everything you do." She winked at me to show she was kidding, but then pulled to a stop. "In any case, we don't have time to go on about it. We're here." She gestured up at the building. "Man, the outside of these gets way less impressive after you've seen a few of them. You'd think that they would personalize the street view a bit. It's so boring when they're all the same."

    We had come within hearing range of the door guard as she said that, and the average looking man in the gray robe looked at us in amusement. Callie realized she'd accidentally brought another person into the conversation and apologized for the offensive comment. The man just waved it away. "Don't worry. I feel the same. Unfortunately the Deacon has forbidden customization of the outside of the buildings. They used to allow it, but too many forces tried to use perspective and building tricks to exceed their allotted space."

    I could see how that would have been a problem. I was still surprised the Deacon had been capable of enforcing that directive. I also wasn't sure HOW one would redisign and standardize a building facade when the building already existed, but they probably had a guy for that. With an internal shrug I reached into my pocket and slipped out a card, passing it to the door guard, who took it with a small nod. "Hi there, we're here for a scheduled meeting with the Peace Lord."

    He smiled reassuringly. "Of course. You are expected. Please, come in. Sanctuary Hall welcomes all visitors, though I admit, a personal meeting with the Lord himself can be difficult to come by, given how busy he is. The Lord's particular brand of healing is exceptionally effective on almost any brand of injury, even those coming from enemies whose wounds do not normally heal at all, so he is quite in demand."

    A chill went down my spine at that. I hadn't known that there WERE enemies who made wounds that didn't heal. That sounded like a terrifying power, and I made a mental note to watch out for that kind of thing in the future. The last thing I wanted was to go to sleep after a fight and bleed to death from a small cut or something. Sometimes the powers that Ascendants had terrified me a bit.

    The guard led us into the interior of the Sanctuary Hall, and the first thing I noticed was...there wasn't much to notice. Not that there was nothing in there, but just that it was all fairly unimpressive. Sanctuary Hall wasn't as enchanting as Beast Lord Garden, or as imposing as the Flame Riot Militia. It was actually kind of homey. Comfortable carpets lined the floors, done in warm tones and obviously prioritizing function over form. The walls were lined with soothing pictures and the variety of furniture scattered around the place was a series of mixed and matched couches and chairs that looked downright snuggly.

    All in all the place was one of the most welcoming and inviting places I could imagine, and the complete lack of anything surprising was a surprise in and of itself. When we all stopped to stare the man in the robe laughed. "Ah, I'm assuming you all expected some cavernous throne room or something? Most people who come here are thrown off by how humble the surroundings are. The Peace Lord likes to put patients at ease. He believes comfort and accessibility is far more important than gauche displays of wealth or power."

    While that might have sounded judgemental or snippy from some people, the robed man delivered the indictment of the other forces with a sort of peaceful ambivalence that made it clear that while he was proud of the man he chose to work under, he didn't judge the other forces for their own decisions. It was the sort of condescension that only absolute perceived moral superiority could give someone, and only the fact that it was obvious that he attributed that superiority to his boss and not himself kept it from coming off as unbearably smug.

    I wasn't entirely sure I liked these people much. While being so 'humble' and 'helpful' was nice and all, the vibe of this place was aloof and snobby rather than the ascetic thing I think they were going for. Not that it was surprising. I doubted an E ranker was close enough to mortal to really understand how normal people thought anymore. This was less like someone being a saint and more like watching a saint in a badly written movie. It was all flash and no substance.

    I wondered how I'd come to that conclusion after such a short period of time and decided it was probably those weird instincts that seemed to be a result of my Fantasy stat. Whatever it was, it put my back up, and I had to try my hardest to keep the unease out of my posture as we drew closer to our meeting with the Peace Lord. I just hoped any discomfort was seen as nervousness at meeting such a big shot. As we stopped at a wooden door in the cozy hallway, I ran out of time to think about it. Well, E ranker meetings were never boring at least. It would be interesting to see what this one was like.
     
  7. Threadmarks: chapter 215
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Much like the rest of his place, the Peace Lord was...underwhelming. As we entered the small but mostly empty office and I spotted him behind the desk, the first thing I noticed was how utterly normal he appeared. The biggest thing that stood out about him was probably his eyes.

    The icy blue of his irises clashed dramatically with his unassuming features, giving him a sense of placid steadiness that wouldn't have been easily discernable from his slightly crooked nose or clean shaven but tapered jaw. It was like someone had taken the eyes out of some kind deity and transplanted them into the guy who bagged your groceries when you went to the store.

    Aside from being dramatically colored and slightly disdainful, his eyes also gave a feeling of cold serenity. I could understand why they called him what they did. He looked like nobility to me. When we walked in he glanced up to see us and gave a welcoming smile.

    Whatever you could say about the Peace Lord, you couldn't claim he wasn't a charismatic man. That one smile transformed his otherwise plain face into something warm and reassuring, and even those cold tranquil eyes lit up with welcome. "Hello there. You must be our new friends from the Academy. I heard you children were coming to meet with me so I took the liberty of a quick internet search. I do hope you don't mind. Please, come in and sit down, can I get you anything? We have a wonderful soothing herbal tea that is excellent for calming the mind if you like."

    It looked like he knew Jessie was a healer, but he didn't seem to focus on her to the exclusion of the rest of us, making sure his warm smile encompassed even the wolves. Callie sat down first in the chairs on the other side of the desk with a guarded smile. I could tell he made her slightly unsettled too, and it made me think better of my own instincts that I wasn't the only one reacting. Far from making me feel better, seeing him go from cold and aloof to warm and welcoming at the drop of a hat made me much more wary of him. Anyone that good at lying had lots of practice.

    Still, we weren't going to benefit from offending an E ranker, and especially not the one who did the majority of healing for the whole WCP, so she just shook her head. "No thank you. We still have the trip home after this, and it doesn't do to be too relaxed on the elevators." I hadn't really noticed them being that much more dangerous than anywhere else, but I wasn't going to question her reasoning since it was probably bullshit anyway.

    The Peace Lord nodded amiably. "Of course, seeing such cautious young people does my heart good. You can never be too careful in these uncertain times. So, since we aren't going to be sharing a mug of tea, perhaps it would be best to get to the main point. What can I do for you children?"

    Callie gave him the same explanation Jessie had given Melinda, telling him we wanted to shop around for terms while we had prestige to do it with, striking while the iron was hot. He listened, nodding along, and when she was done, he responded warmly. "Well, I'd be happy to welcome such fine young people. I was very impressed by your showing at the exams, and while we are traditionally healing based, we do have a law enforcement hall under the main Hall branch that deals with protecting our healers. Miss. Agria could also apply for you two to be her personal guards instead of protection for the whole Hall."

    That made sense. Relying on something as ephemeral as good will wasn't really a strategy at all when it came to doing business. The whole 'don't piss off the healer' thing was common sense, but common sense wasn't really that common. People were frequently idiots and almost always assholes. If they could get away with something, they would, or at least they'd try. Even with Sanctuary Hall as shelter, our backing only mattered if we were alive to complain when something went wrong.

    Jessie bit her lip now that he'd mentioned her. She'd been planning to take a miss as the focal point of these negotiations, but his research had derailed that. I wondered if the other had done the same research, and decided they probably had. Melinda hadn't been surprised by Jessie's ability or the implication that it was more than she was seeing. She'd most likely looked into us when she'd heard we were coming, it just hadn't really been relevant to her pitch. She wanted us to work for our position there, regardless of our potential. I respected the hell out of that mindset, even if it wasn't optimal for me.

    She seemed to hesitate to interrupt, but at a gentle nod from Callie, who had noticed the same indecision, finally spoke up. "So, what do healers who work for you receive, and what about their guards? What kind of terms do you offer? Not to sound greedy, but we have skills and they're currently in demand, we're shopping around for the best possible terms after all."

    I'd half expected him to pull some bullshit guilt trip, but his smile just widened. "Of course. My healers are extremely well compensated. We offer competitive pricing to our clients. People who are able to come to us aren't emergency cases, they're strong enough or have enough Vitality to be able to make it down here, not to mention the access needed to even be in this district. As such we don't see a need to hamstring our prices. We charge what our time is worth, and since we're so in demand, that's a premium. I like taking care of others, but I also like taking care of my own. We don't expect anyone to work for free. Healers aren't medicine dispensers. We're real people with real needs, and that's ok."

    Oddly, unlike the rest of his speeches, this one came across as entirely sincere. There was passion in his voice as he spoke, and while it didn't offset the weird creep factor, it did make me like him a bit more. I could tell he'd made this speech quite a few times, and I could feel his frustration at trying to make it stick in his sharp words. It was pretty clear that lots of people wanted healers to be selfless and virtuous at their own expense, and equally clear that the Peace Lord was having absolutely none of that shit.

    Jessie either also felt he seemed sincere, or hadn't gotten the bad vibes I had in the first place, so she just nodded along solemnly. "I can understand that mind set. But if I join your faction, would I only be able to use my ability for official jobs? I don't want to sign some contract that makes it so I can't heal people for free any more. As much as I like the idea of being able to make a bit of money, I still like helping people." It made me glad to know that even if she hadn't picked up on the odd impression I had, she'd still seen through something that I hadn't even considered.

    I knew better than to underestimate my blonde friend, but sometimes she still surprised me. Her sneaky side was well hidden, and I knew she liked it that way. It was easy to forget that she had a knack for getting information and for talking to people, and you don't develop those without being a good judge of character with a sharp mind. I saw a flash of surprise in the Peace Lord's eyes when she asked that, and got the feeling that he might have tried to slip something like that into the contract, but he covered it with a placating smile fast. "Of course not. I'd never restrict any of my recruits like that. You're free to use your ability however you like. Though as for the contract, the details are of course, confidential after you sign."

    That in itself was a huge red flag. Not letting your hires talk about their terms of employment didn't seem like a great sign. Jessie just played it off though. "Ah, well that's good then. What kind of position would I be looking at in your organization? I'm not familiar with the way you structure your forces, but my friend who got us this meeting had a very complimentary power for Flame Riot Militia and managed to get an exceptional status when he signed on. Would it be possible for me to get something like that here?"

    I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be accepting this guy's invitation, and while it was good to see Jessie trying to get us the best benefits here, I just wanted to leave. The longer I stayed here the more this place creeped me out. At this point I liked it only slightly less than the person who ran it. Still, the guy was an E ranker, and it would have been a bad idea to just bail. Hearing him out wouldn't hurt anything as long as we didn't agree to any terms. I officially crossed this place off my list of possible alliances though. Even if I couldn't put my finger on why I absolutely wasn't willing to let this guy know about my ability.

    He leaned back with a chuckle, getting into a more comfortable position for negotiating. "Well, now. I'm not against that, but my Sanctuary Hall is less stratified than most forces. In order to get the position you're looking for you would need to have some strong relation to me personally. Perhaps I could offer you a position as my apprentice. Even with different abilities I'm sure I could teach you plenty of things. Maybe I can help you refine your first aid skills. Most healers use that Skill as a foundation for ability advancements, though whatever you mixed it with must have been unusual."

    Jessie, just put on a cheerful smile. "That's certainly a tempting offer. Of course we still have another meeting, so I'll need to accompany my friends there to check things out. We're making this decision as a group, so we need to weight every option together and then discuss things. I trust there's no rush?"

    With a casual wave he dismissed the notion. "Of course not. Take all the time you like. I'll make sure the guards are aware that you're always welcome here. In any case, since the offer has been made you can all see yourselves out. I wouldn't want you to be late for your other meeting." With that, we all made our way out of the room, heading out as quickly as possible. I was glad to be leaving. As we turned the corner though, I caught a glimpse of the door closing. As I did, I took in the expression on the Peace Lord's face. All I could see was emptiness. I got the strong impression that was his normal visage, and it made me even more determined to avoid him.

    After we left we headed back up the elevators to make our way home. I put an arm around Callie's shoulder as we ascended. "So. Tomorrow is our big meeting with The Nothing. Are you excited?" I didn't bring up the Peace Lord. After meeting him I was feeling too paranoid to be comfortable talking about him down here. We could have that discussion later.

    Callie gave a worried smile. "I am. I'm just hoping things will go our way. Just in case I think I have some..." She paused, clearly noticing my reticence to talk about sensitive topics. "Requests. That I can make for tomorrow. To make sure we can stay safe. We can talk about that later though. For now, lets just go home, I'm tired and I just want to go to bed." I just chuckled and pulled her tighter against me. I could definitely agree with that plan. We had a big day tomorrow, and we'd all need our rest.
     
  8. Threadmarks: chapter 216
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The trip back down to E district the next day was quieter than the last one. Callie had used yesterdays wishes to arrange several safeguards and contingencies in a way I hadn't expected. Things like shields and threat activated teleportation. Unfortunately the shields wouldn't stop anyone above F rank and the teleportation would take us about ten miles. Still, it had been a brilliant maneuver I'd never even considered, and I felt much safer going down there today.

    Aside from her interest in learning more about her dad, the fact remained that The Nothing was an enemy of Midknight's and Callie WAS his daughter. Some precautions were definitely warranted. Luckily The Nothing was unable to act against us directly without Zeke interfering (I'd been assured Zeke could protect us from anywhere on the planet with ease and trying to hide an attack from him inside the WCP itself was even more ridiculous a proposition) so the F rank shielding and the escape options were plenty to guarantee our safety.

    The one consolation to our mobility was that we left the wolves back at the house. As much as we wanted to bring them along the Wishes were too expensive if they needed to cover more than the three of us. We'd sounded out the values for various configurations before finding the wishes that would work best.

    Or rather, Callie had because I was only allowed minimal input without unbalancing the payment for the wish. We'd managed to get four of five in place though (aside from the shielding and teleport, a good luck wish for the actual duration of the meeting and a wish to foil deception Callie was expecting) and that should be plenty to keep us all safe down there, or as safe as we ever were.

    So it was with a decent bit of confidence that we made our way to the address on the card. Since we had found the address last trip we knew where to look, and Callie had looked up a map before we came down here this time so we didn't have any trouble finding the path. It was a relief not to have to waste charges before going into such a tense situation, even if I realized that if it came down to a fight we'd be in a bad enough position that it probably wouldn't matter anyway.

    So we arrived relatively early, Callie not wanting to bother waiting. As we got to the entrance the two black masked and hooded figures led us inside silently, gesturing us forward but not actually saying a word. It was hardly unexpected that Silent Dagger members would be quiet so no one was really surprised. Once we entered the building, we saw yet another of the E rank forces and how they exerted their power on their territory.

    It was different than the others. While all the other headquarters had been large and imposing, this particular layout was much more confined. It wasn't small exactly, but it was almost cramped, going more for length and relying on confusing twists and turns to make use of the principles of expanded space. The black carpets were thick and muffled the sound of movement and the lighting was dim and relatively condensed, appearing in the form of candle flames and similar small methods of lighting the way to produce lots of jumping shadows and dark patches as they led us through the black walled corridors.

    It was obviously made to allow people to sneak around unnoticed, and that was further confirmed by the numbers of drapes and curtains lining the walls in what were supposed to painting alcoves and were almost definitely excuses to randomly toss in secret passages that the members of the Silend Dagger could use to pop up behind people unexpectedly during any attempted attacks on the base or even during visits from people they decided they didn't really like. That wasn't a comforting thought to have, and I ratcheted up my awareness of my surroundings to make sure I didn't get
    snuck up on.

    What was odder though was Callie. Not how she was acting, but how she was being treated. As someone who was known to be Midknights daughter I'd have expected the subordinates of his worst enemy to treat her like shit, or at least be wary enough of her to make sure she didn't get into trouble. Instead they were treating her with immense respect and trying to be as accommodating as one could be while also remaining totally silent.

    I wouldn't have thought you could show deference without talking, but they were managing, conveying their respect through gestures and stance rather than words. Finally we arrived at a large pair of dark wood double doors. The escorts gestured inside, pushing the door open for us so we could step into a new room. The new location was huge and dark, lined with bookshelves and large furniture while still having plenty of room to move around.

    Behind the desk sat....a person. Not a very visible one, granted, and not one I could make identifying guesses about. The person was wearing thick, bulky black robes and under that wrapped head to toe in cloth. Wrapped black bandages covered their face, not even revealing the shape of a nose or eyes, and a good was thrown carelessly over the bandages to provide shadow even to the pitch black cloth, making seeing through it even less likely.

    Despite that, Callie froze when she saw the figure. She stared for a bit, squinting suspiciously. "That's shadow embodiment." There wasn't any hesitation or uncertainty in her voice, though there was surprise and I could understand why it would be there. Shadow embodiment wasn't a unique ability, but it was rare. It required a certain combination of Skills and a base ability, not to mention certain foundations in those Skills to make sure the synthesized ability came out as they wanted. There were also stat requirements and various other factors, factors Callie had been able to accommodate because her father had guided her through its formation. It was extremely slim odds a stranger would manage it, and even slimmer ones that stranger would have a contentious relationship with the only person with a thorough understanding of how to grant the ability.

    Callie, far from being upset by the revelation, was ecstatic. "I was right wasn't I. You knew him when he was younger. Maybe some sort of friend or ally who had a similar enough power you were able to create the same ability. Though I'm surprised you went with cloth. I did it on purpose to make sure I kept myself distinct from him, but if you saw him coming up you must know that metal is a much more effective vessel in most cases." She forced herself to stop. "Damn it. No. Sorry. I like to wax eloquent about informational topics when I'm nervous."

    I snorted at that, and she wheeled to glare at me. I stayed perfectly still, not needing to avert my eyes or anything behind my mask. She gave me a look just as suspicious as she'd given The Nothing before turning back to them. "Well. In that case, I should introduce myself. My name in costume is Nightstrike. I know yours already. Can you tell me what exactly your relationship is with Midknight? He's my father, which I suspect you know, but I'm not sure how you met him."

    The cloth wrapped figure cocked its thoroughly obscured head before speaking. "Are you sure I have some deep connection to Midknight?" The Nothing's voice was unsettling, to say the least. It was soft and raspy, with very few identifying features. Somewhere between the rustle of dead leaves and the buzz of a cicada's wings. It gave literally no indication of the age or gender of the person it was issued from, and I highly suspected that a purposeful effect. Not surprising for a figure so shrouded in secrecy, both figuratively and literally.

    Callie was not to be deterred though. "Because I'm here. You're an E ranker. Getting a meeting with the two others might have been a bit easier because of Agria's power, but they were both support and business type enterprises. They're known for being accessible and easy to reach. Silent Dagger isn't nearly so simple to get in touch with. You're an upper level force in the city, and me having a shadow ability isn't enough to get this meeting. Neither is our rising star. In fact,
    I'd bet if we interrogate Cark, we'd find out that you arranged for him to even consider it. Maybe some mole in the Militia dropped a hint, or you arranged for him to overhear something. Either way, some middle manager in a lower level E ranked force isn't enough to push someone like you to see us."

    I blinked. I hadn't considered any of that. Callie had done quite a bit of research and apparently formed some theories based on them. I was pretty impressed by the deductions. It seemed The Nothing didn't share the sentiment however. "Little girl, this was all clearly obvious. However, you've made several leaps of logic that are far from certain. Do you have any actual evidence? Or are you also in the habit of assuming you know better than everyone else like that arrogant old bastard?"

    Callie flinched at that, and I remembered how upset it made her when people compared her to her dad. Her obsession with being nothing like him might not be healthy, but it was something she cared about, and this cloth wrapped asshole had obviously hurt her with his comment. Which of course, made me angry. "I'm sorry, did we come here to get sneered at by a shapeless blob dressed in someone's sock drawer? Or was this supposed to be a meeting? Because based on what I've heard about that bastard, the person here acting like Midknight is you. He's exactly the type of asshole to lord his power over helpless lower rankers just because he can."

    The cloth wrapped person pulled up short, turning to me as if they hadn't even noticed my presence before. "Well, it seems one of you has a spine at least. Boy, do you think I won't kill you for some reason? Or are you so besotted you're willing to risk death to pay back a little harmless probing?" The dry leaf whisper had turned sharper, and I could almost feel the winds of autumn slicing at me skin from chill and edge contained in the words.

    I rolled my eyes. "Kill me if you want. Either you let me be after talking to you how I want, or you kill me and prove you weren't smart enough to refute what I was saying. I can't keep up with you in a murder contest, but if you feel like announcing to the world that you got outsmarted by an eighteen year old with probably exponentially less Focus than you feel free to do so. If not, maybe let me know so we can get out of here and end this waste of time. I've got things."

    There was a sound like tearing cloth and a flash of darkness, and a strip of black fabric slashed the air right next to my head. I didn't move, and I assumed he'd been avoiding me on purpose, because if an E ranker had actually tried to harm me Zeke would have swatted him like a fly. I'd have probably been much less insulting if I didn't know he couldn't do shit to me. This was a smart call in a few ways though. It would establish my rep among higher rankers as someone fearless, so when I eventually hit F rank I wouldn't have to worry as much about Zeke's protection being gone.

    Sadly, I was the only one who had that protection, and despite knowing I did, Callie had become enraged at seeing me attacked and lashed out with a wave of razor sharp shadows of her own. To our mutual shock, they slammed into The Nothing, crashing over them like waves off a stone cliff. I expected things to escalate, but they didn't continue to get worse. The Nothing retrieved the cloth and with a deep chuckle began to clap. The voice that came out this time was much clearer and obviously male. "Excellent. You didn't disappoint me Calliope. Nothing like Midknight indeed. That was all I needed to see. Now this meeting can really begin."
     
  9. Threadmarks: chapter 217
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Callie was staring at the man in the black cloth covering hard. Her eyes were hard and cold as permafrost as they bored into the dark form. "So that was what? Some kind of test? You ATTACK my boyfriend just so see what I would do about it? Because if that's the kind of place this is we have no interest in staying. We have enough to worry about dealing with our enemies, we don't need attacks coming from our allies too." Her teeth were gritted as she hissed out the words, her voice dripping with barely controlled rage.

    The figure of The Nothing raised it's hands. Apologies. It was a necessary deception. You know better than I how much of hypocrite he is. Research wasn't trustworthy when it came to you. It was far too likely that your might be hiding your true self like he does. That said, he would never attack someone two ranks higher than he was for the sake of a loved one, much less one that wasn't even actually hurt. I'll be happy to compensate your boyfriend for any distress I might have caused, Calliope, and I apologize for the necessity of my deception. I assure you, neither of you were in any danger."

    The irony of him saying that, not knowing he'd almost been...hell, who knew how Zeke would have killed him, but whatever had almost happened to him wouldn't have been pleasant. I stepped up to put a hand on her shoulder, and I felt the muscle under my fingers relax as she allowed herself to unclench once she knew I was safe. "Fine. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that I buy that. How the hell do you know my name? It's incredibly bad form to dig into someone's civilian life like that."

    He let out a deep, rumbling chuckle. "Of course I know your name, little girl. I was there when your mother picked it out. Amelia always enjoyed the old stories, and Paul was willing to agree to anything that sounded pretentious." His voice was wistful, though there was an undercurrent of bitterness to it that I wasn't really sure how to read.

    Callie's eyes narrowed. "Ok, that's it. Who the fuck are you? I knew you might have known my dad, but knowing my name, my mothers name, all of that is a step too far. If you really are just his nemesis then I'm seriously disturbed by how much research you've done. I'm absolutely not willing to let some E ranked asshole run around with complete knowledge of my loved ones without some explanation, especially not one with a grudge. Even if I'm sure it's deserved."

    There was a shifting in the bandages, and they all slid away, exposing the face of...a guy. Not a guy I knew. Black hair, blue eyes, strong jaw. The usual. Callie looked like she was about to fucking explode when she saw his face, so I decided to take her mind off it the best way I knew how. "It's you!" I gasped dramatically, pointing right at the now unmasked man in the robe.

    It was so out of nowhere, even Callie, who had been about to have a meltdown, paused and turned to look at me quizically. "You...you know him?" Her voice sounded uncertain, and a little guarded, which made me curious as to who the hell this guy was. But luckily it was only a bit of hesitation. She wasn't actually suspicious of me.

    I just shrugged. "No. But that was such a dramatic reveal moment I assumed whoever he is, he must be someone shocking. Plus, I figured it would be harder for you to be angry or upset if you were confused at my nonsense." I shrugged widely. She just stopped, staring at me and blinking dumbly for a second, before finally dissolving in a wave of giggles, laughing so hard she almost fell over as she planted her hands on her knees. There was a slight hysterical edge to the laughter, but at the very least she wasn't having a panic attack. After a minute she finally calmed down and stood up again.

    She stepped up to me and kissed the cheek of my mask. "Never change sweetie. The reason by the way, that I freaked out, is that my the man standing over there looks literally identical to my father. With a second to actually think about it, I'm positive it's NOT him. Just the brief interactions we've had with him make it unlikely. For one thing my father would never speak ill of himself, even as a deception. He values his reputation too much to allow anything to sully it, even if doing so would benefit him in some way."

    The man laughed. "Yes, that does sound like Paul. My name is Alexander Reynolds. I'm your Uncle. Paul is my identical twin brother. One of the reasons I cover my face. Partly to avoid being associated with that bastard, and partly because people are idiots and one out of every pair of Ascendant twins always gets typecast as the evil one. Since Paul already has a reputation as a hero and is a member of the Unity, I'd have to deal with all that evil twin recursion. Easier to just keep the whole thing a secret to avoid the hassle. "

    I felt my jaw hang open, but then I thought about it. I...kind of did expect one twin to be evil. In fact, evil twin was the first thing that popped into my head when he told us his identity. Callie recovered faster than I did. "Ok. That's...big. Not sure how it matters here though. Why would you invite me here? Is there some kind of problem you need help with?" Her voice was shaky and uncertain, and I could see this information had shaken her deeply. I didn't blame her. She'd wrapped lots of her identity up in her dad, even if it was negative, and finding out he had a twin brother must be wild.

    The Nothing, or rather, Alexander, gestured for both of us to sit down. I realized he'd managed to nullify Callie's shadows perfectly earlier, protecting not just himself, but the desk he sat at as well. Callie looked like she might protest, but finally decided to take her seat, gesturing for us to do the same. It was a testament to how much she hated her dad that I was pretty sure she had to actively resist the urge to refuse to sit just because this guy looked like him.

    Once we were seated Alexander leaned back, steepling his fingers. "To answer your questions, no. I have nothing I need help with. Rather, I heard you were poking around down here and simply wanted to warn off any of the other forces who might take an unhealthy interest. The Beast Lord Garden and Sanctuary Hall have lots of theoretical power, but they aren't exactly considered scary. Which is stupid because the Peace Lord is a monster, and fighting Melinda is the same as battling a pair of E rankers at the same time. Still, I won't deny that they're far from the biggest threats down here. My interest in you serves to dissuade some of the cockier forces, or some of the newer E rankers who haven't seen them cut loose."

    We nodded. It was easy for people to underestimate support powers. Having literally the ultimate support power, and a teammate with one that was only slightly less amazing, I was well aware of that phenomena. Callie opened her mouth to speak, then paused before she finally responded. "That's...kind of you. But how did you even get here? You and my father clearly don't get along, but you've been in Rajak much longer. Hell, why bother hiding your face in the first place for all those years before he showed up."

    Alexander averted his eyes in discomfort. "Well, for one thing, I've always preferred full coverage. Just as a matter of principle, it provides better protection. For another I didn't want my face being used to track down my family. I may not like Paul, but I don't want him dead." He paused. "Ok, that's not entirely truthful, I often want him dead, but I'm aware that it's a bell I can't unring. Plus he has you and your brother, and despite what you may think, losing a parent isn't anything I want my niece and nephew to endure. As for how I got here? I had someone in the WCP who owed me a favor.
    They have their own channels. Once Paul and Amelia got married...well, Velan didn't feel as welcoming, so I left before you were born."

    Callie's face was a mask of confusion and warring emotions. I could vaguely guess what her mind was spinning on. The idea of another person who might have been there to help make their lives easier, someone to keep her father in check. But even upset she was smarter than I ever was. She calmed down pretty quickly. I supposed she must have seen some of his reasons for not staying, even if I didn't. Well, aside from the obvious pain in his voice when he mentioned her mother's name.

    She stayed silent for a minute or two before sighing. "So...what now? I know who you are, and apparently you're scary enough that we'll be left alone by most people. Are you going to extend me an invitation to join your faction now?" Her voice was light, but I could sense a tension in her as she asked the question. I wasn't actually sure how she was feeling about this, and I couldn't tell if she was either, but however she was feeling, it was obviously important to her.

    He shrugged. "I can. If you like. I'd be happy to teach you. I've spent years honing my ability, and I know plenty about it that would allow you to increase your abilities with it exponentially. Hell, you probably don't even have the Shadow Manipulation Mastery Skill based on what I just saw. Until your manipulation abilities reach at least the Minor level you're going to be losing out on more than a little power efficiency."

    Callie froze. "Wait...Shadow Manipulation can become a SKILL? I mean...I guess anything can become a Skill, but I hadn't really considered it to that level. Does that mean all my training and effort has been so sloppy and ill defined it doesn't even rate a Minor Skill designation? That's..." She look devastated, and I couldn't blame her. She had put so much work into her ability, and finding out there was a literal Skill that defined how well she was progressing and she didn't have it yet must have been rough.

    Still, she collected herself quickly. "But no. Thank you for that information, but I want to step out of his shadow, no pun intended. Taking shelter in yours so I can beat him isn't a solution. If you were able to beat him then you would have already. You two are probably pretty close in strength. I can do this on my own, or at least my team and I can. I appreciate the good intentions though." She stood up, clearly needing to get out of here and process this. "I'll pass your regards to my mother." And with that, she turned and fled the room.

    I gave him a nod and chased after her, Jessie hot on my heels. This had been a huge day for Callie, and I didn't like the idea of her running around in that condition. She was clearly too upset to think straight. As I gained on her I wondered about everything we'd been told today. Eventually though, I put it out of my head and focused on triggering Seek Hidden to track down my girlfriend. However she wanted to handle this, I needed to find her first. Then we could have a long talk about all this. I had a feeling aside from venting, she had some wishes she would need granted. I was happy to oblige.
     
  10. Threadmarks: chapter 218
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    By the time we got back to the house, I had a pretty decent idea of where my girlfriend's head was at. Even Jessie, who normally tried to lighten the mood with her happy chatter, was uncharacteristically silent during our drive home. Once we got inside the three of us split up, with Jessie bounding off to say hello to the wolves and Callie and I retreating to my room to sit and talk. I escorted her inside, closed the door, and waited until she seemed to have gotten her head on straight enough to speak to me about whatever she was thinking.

    Finally, she looked up at me. "So. That was a lot." She kept her tone light, but her eyes were lost and worried. Despite that I didn't say anything even when she stopped talking. She was thinking this through out loud and needed time to sort it out. After a brief silence she kept going. "I learned a whole bunch of things I didn't know today, and I'm not sure which of them is the most shocking, or the most relevant. I'm guessing you know perfectly well why I turned down Alexander's offer of tutoring?"

    She looked almost worried about how I would react, but I just rolled my eyes. "Yes, I know you're planning to with for that Skill now that you know it exists. We've been over this Cal, I don't mind granting you wishes, I don't feel like you're taking advantage of me." I gave her a gentle smile, having already removed my mask when we came in. "Besides, I also know the reason you gave him wasn't a lie. You know as well as I do that your victory over your dad is personal business. You don't want to get sucked into some nonsense family power struggle."

    The chuckle she let out at that was thick with stress and impending tears, but she held them back. "You have a point. I still can't believe my dad has an evil twin. Well, IS an evil twin. Whatever. Wow, I kind of get why Alexander kept that a secret, it's kind of an easy place to go mentally. Still, that's not the biggest shock of the night. That would be the Shadow Manipulation Mastery Skill. I can't believe I didn't consider that before. I mean, it's so damn obvious in retrospect, but I can't believe I haven't hit Minor."

    I just shrugged. "What the hell even is Minor Mastery of Shadow Manipulation? Making those puppets on the wall with your hands? Minor Skills are supposed to be normal mortal grade stuff. Whatever, we know that it exists, but I can understand the shock certainly. This is a good thing. I mean, it's not going to turn you into an absolute peak master of combat, but thinking about it, your ability to make things has always been kind of...simple. Blades, waves, boxes. Just shapes mostly. I saw you do a key once, but it was small and not too intricate."

    She opened her mouth to retort, but then paused. "Well damn. That's a really good point. I only ever trained by trying to increase responsiveness and things like thickness and sharpness. I wonder what kinds of things I'll get from a Skill like that. Of course, I'll still be working it into proper combat training. I'm going to milk those training facilities at the pavilion for all they're worth. I know you feel the same. But still, I feel like that one supplementary Skill opens a huge door for us all."

    The bitter snort that leaked out of me came too fast to catch. I tried to play it off but Callie looked at me with concern and given how upset she already was, I relented with a sigh. "It'll benefit YOU. My power is pure support. It's a great way to help you all grow but it's functionally useless to me except for stockpiling stats. My most promising Skill is my DS Mastery, and that's a ways off from taking a jump in effectiveness. Supplementary Skills are useful to you all because you can wish for them, but I can't. I can only trade them other people, and they won't have any of the ones I need. I can't use any of the flashy impressive attacks you all have."

    Callie froze, appearing thunderstruck. "But...why?" I blinked at her, not sure what that meant. She looked like she was starting to get excited. "Why can't you use our attacks? We've paid with memories, with tasks, with Skills even, why not attacks? What if you could charge us attacks for wishes, and then seal them up in a bottle or something. Then you could stockpile an arsenal and then unleash them in combat. That's your big problem right? You need more force. But you don't need to stick to just the stat gain method for acquiring it. I mean, you can still get stats from us and help us change our builds, but this would make you WAY more effective in combat."

    I just gaped at her. She was right. She was so fucking right I felt like an idiot for missing it. The image of mixing Callie's shadow waves or blades, or a life force boost from Jessie, or one of those flame blasts from Cark, into my attack patterns was amazing. I'd already seen I could mix my DS attacks with other people's moves too. I could use that aqua acid flame on my own without any need for Cark to be there.

    It wasn't exactly the most glamorous attack style, but with enough attacks like that I could just straight up drown the other person in overwhelming force. It was an attack style only I could use, and it would maximize my advantages while also being incredibly flashy and impressive. No one would be able to guess my ability from it either, because I'd be dropping a ton of powerful attacks from all different kinds of abilities. It would completely obscure my Wish ability.

    Before she could even process what was happening I'd swept her up in my arms, getting a surprised squeak in response as I spun her around before kissing her soundly. When I pulled away we were both laughing and when I finally set her down she smiled up at me happily. I flushed as I realized how sudden that had been. "I've been really worried about that. I feel like I'm getting further and further behind in terms of damage potential. But now that I have this option there's hope for me to keep up."

    She went up on her tiptoes and kissed my cheek. "I'm glad I could help. But we still need to see if it actually works. We need to figure out if you can actually store them anywhere. So, in the spirit of that, I wish for the Beginner Shadow Manipulation Mastery Skill. I'm willing to pay with a full power attack." I hopped up and sprinted over to grab a bottle and a piece of paper, figuring I'd give my power options for storing the attack in case one of them didn't work out.

    Sure enough, the familiar purple flames rolled over my vision. Wish detected. Grant wish? I confirmed without a thought. Stat points sufficient. Requirements: 189 Focus, 240 Perception, 63 Fantasy, 246 Creation, 36 Impact. I was pretty sure that the reason I kept hitting the ceiling for all my stats on Beginner Skills was that I didn't have enough to create a top tier version, just a solid one. It was just making the best Skill possible, with Impact making up any differences as it did. I was still able to grant the wish, but if she'd wished for a peak Beginner level Skill right on the edge of Intermediate I didn't think it would have worked.

    But she didn't so I reached out my hand, taking hers firmly as I accepted the wish and let the already rising electricity roll out of me and into her. We'd been sitting on the bed after I put her down, which was lucky, because it meant she didn't have to fall over as she writhed on the mattress. I winced in sympathy as she grit her teeth through the screaming. Beginner Skills appeared to be pretty unpleasant to recieve, and I was almost glad I hadn't met anyone willing to trade one yet.

    As the Skill was burned into her, there was a rush of darkness. A funnel of shadowy power was sucked out of her, condensing into a tight vortex as it dove down at my other hand, where I held the bottle, and...bypassed the damn thing altogether as it seared itself into my wrist. I hissed in pain myself but didn't move, letting everything play out before she finally went still with exhaustion. With Callie ok and recovering, I let go of her hand, pushing up my sleeve to reveal a small tattoo on my wrist of her sigil.

    Huh. That actually made some sense. No normal paper or bottle would be able to hold a full power G ranked attack. But my body could. I WAS a G ranker. I didn't think I'd be able to handle an infinite number of these of course, the body can only take too much, but I was pretty sure more than one wouldn't be a problem. The burning in my wrist settled down, leaving behind just smooth skin marked with Callie's symbol. I could feel the thing on me, ready to be unleashed, though I couldn't alter or mess with it like a normal Skill.

    It seemed like Callie had a mental image of what kind of attack I would be using when she agreed to pay it. This one was a wave of dark blades. I should be able to aim them well enough, but changing size or shape or any of that wasn't on the table. Callie, meanwhile, seemed to be processing her new Skill, and I scooted over on the bed to pull her head into my lap, rubbing her temples to help her deal with the pain as she digested the new information.

    Finally, after about twenty minutes, she opened her eyes. She hadn't been sleeping, just in so much pain that she needed all her focus on processing, but I sighed with relief when her eyes opened. I smiled down at her. "Well, that seemed like fun. We should make this a regular thing. Maybe have Beginner Skill granting date nights once a week." I gave her a crooked smile, trying not to show how worried I was, but she saw through me. She lifted a hand to stroke my cheek before sitting up gingerly.

    I helped her up, making sure to take special care so she didn't fall or hurt herself. She gave me an exhausted grin. "Tell you what, we can trade off turns. On odd numbered weeks I can get a new Skill, and on even numbered weeks you can lay your head on a rock platform and let me smash it with a sledgehammer." Her grin became sugary and sarcastic. "After all, I want to make sure that we both get the same amount of enjoyment out of our dates."

    I stuck my tongue out at her and she giggled, pulling me in for another kiss. Then we both laid down, Callie too exhausted to head back to her room, and cuddled against each other. We could deal with the new Skill and the implications of the other uses for my ability later. For now I was tired, and so was she, and we just held each other as we drifted off to sleep. It had been a long day, and lots of things had happened. But regardless of the drama or the pain, or even the new use for my ability, this part of it, just spending time together and relaxing, was still a memory I was going to treasure.
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 219
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The next morning we headed down to the training room. The wish for the shadows manipulation skill had been the fifth of the night, and it had worn me out enough that I slept in, but we didn't have any hard commitments so we decided to go test things out. When we got downstairs Callie was practically vibrating in excitement. She was warming up as we got ready for some tests, shadow boxing with a big grin on her face. I felt the need to burst her bubble. "Just so you know, past Beginner Skills need to be personalized. I think you can still wish for them, but it'll cost A LOT more most likely."

    She stopped and shot me a smile. "It's fine Shane. I wasn't expecting you to carry this one. I have a ridiculously solid foundation, but a Skill like this concerns my entire combat style. I'll blaze my own path moving forward. I'll have to put in some serious work on that though. There's no way I'm not synergizing that Skill into my ability. At Beginner it'll work fine for my rank up to F, but getting this one to Intermediate is going to be a bitch. Enough about that though. What about you, excited to try out your new trick?"

    I looked down at my wrist, rubbing over the marked skin and reaching into myself to feel the power stored in my arm. I grinned at her. "I really am. I was a bit worried after I had the idea, I didn't want to change things up too much and ruin all the work I already put in, but thinking about it a second time all my combat experience should be applicable. My DS Mastery in particular will be useful. My Fatewalker build is mostly formed around status conditions and augmentations, which means I can apply those subskills to the attacks as I use them."

    That had been the most exciting thing about Callie's suggestion. I'd have insane versatility, and it provided an advantage that other people, even other Wish users, wouldn't have. I was sure I wasn't the first Wishmaster candidate to think of storing attacks, even if it probably wasn't universal, but I WAS almost definitely the first with DS Mastery. There were other modifier Skills, but not many I'd heard of as versatile. Even if I went up against another candidate using the same strategy, I'd have a marked advantage.

    Callie gave a low whistle. "Well damn, that's going to be scary when you get enough of them. I take it aside from my shadow blades you're going to stockpile some of Cark's fire blasts? I saw what your Skill did to that attack in the Rowdy Badger. Being able to solo cast that trick will be a scary trump card. Hell, Cark's ability in general is a scary trump card. Make sure you get at least a few of those if you can."

    It was clear she was as excited about my own gains as hers, and I gave her a warm smile. "I plan to. So, tell me exactly what this Shadow Manipulations Skill can do. Or better yet. Show me. We ARE in the training room. No need to hold back or anything. Let me see what you've got."

    She looked about ready to burst with glee when I said that. She held up a hand dramatically. "Very well. I'll demonstrate the power of my new skillset. First up. My shadow blades!" She reached out and sent a surge of shadowy cutting edges out from the ground at a nearby training dummy. As it exploded forward, I noted that the blades really were different. The blades themselves were more compact and defined. Before they had mostly just been pointy and sharp edged tentacles. Now there were actual blades and they looked much sturdier and more dangerous. They struck the dummy and tore it into sections, the edges so sharp they left smooth cuts behind.

    Now it was my turn to whistle. "Ok, that was pretty cool. I can already tell those are much more effective. What exactly is different about them. Also can you do that again? I want to see what I can figure out from your attack. If I can spot something on my own it'll be a better outcome since that'll help me in the future. I can't always have you to walk me through things right?" I gave her a wink to let her know I was only teasing. I knew how much she loved being a source of information. I was always happy to ask Callie for answers, but I really would need to learn to figure this shit out myself.

    She flicked a wrist, sending out another barrage of blades. I made a slight hmmm sound. "Ok, I think the biggest difference is probably the compression. Aside from being much more structured and stable, you also condensed much more shadow than you could have fit before into the blades. They were able to hold up much better under the reinforcement. Even with a higher Might, this was an exponentially better method for increasing strength It also seemed to make the weapons more fluid and easier to move, which made sense for a manipulation Skill.

    Another dummy collapsed into pieces. I wondered how those got replaced, but that could wait until later. Callie looked pleased with my observations. "You got it. There are a dozen other subtler tweaks, but those are the biggest. Of course I can do more than that. I have all sorts of new tricks." She gestured and a trip of extremely lifelike black cats climbed from the shadows to prowl around the training room.

    I blinked in shock at the sleek, delicate construction of the cats, which looked like actual cats to me for the most part. Aside from the eyes and the inside of the mouth both being pitch black these things could have passed for real animals. Which was absurdly impressive, I had to admit. Callie looked pleased at my awe. "See. I can do this kind of thing now. Or this" She flicked a finger again and a series of snowflakes made of shadow drifted into existence. I raised an eyebrow at that, not sure what good that was, and she flicked her finger, sending the razor sharp shapes spinning into another dummy like throwing stars.

    Being so thin and delicate was apparently good for sharpness. I walked over to look at the shredded dummy, which still had at least one snowflake in it, and turned back to her. "Admittedly, that was awesome. The snowflakes all look the same general shape, and they're a bit simple design wise. That seems like a great way to refine your minute control though. Is this your new training tool?"

    She beamed at me. "I knew you would get it. Yeah. Beginner is, as mentioned, only the beginning. I'm going to work on the snowflakes as a unique attack method. They're flashy and interesting, but also made of shadow so not the kind of flashy and interesting that pulls the gaze. They're pretty much perfect weapons, and if I can refine the process to a certain point I can use clouds of them. Plus the more I work on making them delicate and deadly the less shadow I have to use for each and the more of them I can conjure."

    It was definitely scary. This would be a big bump to Callie's reputation too. The whole 'beautiful girl in a snowstorm of darkness' aesthetic was awesome. It would leave a big impression once she learn to apply it in combat. I stepped up next to her. "Alright. My turn. Let's see what this attack you gave me can do." As much as I didn't want to waste it, I was more than aware of the need to train new abilities, plus I needed to see exactly how my subskills could effect it. Plus this was an old attack, any new ones she traded with that new manipulation Skill would be better anyway.

    I focused on the feeling of the shadow in my head, raising the hand with the mark on my wrist as I targeted one of the remaining dummies. I triggered my skills one after another. Mercy Kill, Flurry of Blows, Consecration of Flame, Touch of Tears, I even used Afterburner, since the five minutes of weakness afterward wouldn't be an issue while I was home safe here. Then I used the attack.

    If the defense Callie had put up in the labyrinth was the ultimate shield, this was the ultimate spear. The flash of a dozen blades of darkness was rapid and deadly. I didn't bother aiming them more than just envisioning them hitting vital spots. As they came out, I gaped a bit at the sight. The shield had been facing away, plus I'd been a bit busy, so I hadn't realized how visually impressive this kind of attack was.

    A rain of blades of darkness filled with green flaming cracks slammed into the dummy, reducing it to basically chunks as the enhanced power tore through all the materials. The black became even more obvious when contrasted against the dull green light of the poison fire, and as I watched, the pieces of the dummy dissolved. Once the attack finished I just stood there and gaped.

    Callie's decent amount of Might,multiplied by Afterburner, augmented by Mercy Kill, and honed by poison fire, not to mention the speed bump from Flurry of blows, was an attack on a level I had never used before. As I watched the corroding ashes of the dummy drift to the ground, I couldn't help but grin victoriously. I was exhausted from Afterburner after it faded, but that didn't stop me from being excited. This was an absolutely perfect answer to all my problems so far.

    I'd been worried about how to keep up with my friends, even with my quick progress I wasn't able to keep pace because I had to spread out my stats so much. This would let me use the power of concentrated and specialized abilities without having to damage my ability to use my Wish power to maximum effect. Not to mention the synergy with my current skillset. I'd finally found a path to making myself stronger. Hell, there was a pretty good chance I could actually punch above my rank if I could fill out a good loadout of attacks.

    Turning to Callie, I grinned at my girlfriend, who was likewise gaping at the destruction. "Ok. That was crazy. I remember how strong that shield was...vaguely, but seeing an attack at that level. Those were weaker shadow blades too. My current attack would be twice as efficient in terms of penetrating power. That's just ME, could you imagine if you got some attacks from Cark? Or one of Jessie's heals to keep in reserve? How many of those things can you hold? Is it unlimited? You could just stockpile a ton and crush anyone who tried to hurt us."

    She sounded pretty excited. I appreciated the vote of confidence, but I had to rain on her parade. "Probably not too many. I'll have to check. I might be able to hold a few of each, but even if I can hold an unlimited number I still have to keep up my stat gain. I can't use all my wishes on storing up attacks or I'm going to fall behind. I need to head back to the crafting hall soon, I can't keep moving around stats in the party."

    I sighed, having been worried about this for a while. "While you get a commensurate number of points in another stat, when you pay with stat points you still lose points from somewhere. In order for me to grow you need to lose out. If I can get points from other people I can gain and then you all can trade attacks for your points." I wasn't sure how many of those attacks they had in them per day, at least not full power ones, but in any case, it was a solid plan. For now though we had more training to do. Might as well push myself a bit. At least after I recovered from Afterburner. I was still exhausted.
     
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  12. Threadmarks: chapter 220
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The days wishes were used on attacks. I was able to get two from Callie, though she had to rest after the first before giving the second. It seemed that drawing out the attacks worked the same as just executing them, and her full power blows weren't so easy to toss around. Vitality seemed to have a lot to do with energy and recovery time, and I made a note to remind her to keep up with that one.

    Luckily I had other roommates, and I was able to get two attacks from Cark and one healing burst from Jessie in case of emergencies. Callie and Cark put theirs into Might while Jessie put hers into Vitality. The points this time had increased though, because I had FINALLY broken through whatever barrier of stats kept my wishes limited to two points. Now I could trade three points per wish, and that would be a huge boost to our power going forward.

    Unfortunately I wasn't willing to burn five wishes on training, so I could only keep the attacks in reserve for now. I was planning to up my stockpile since I could feel my body wasn't at capacity yet, but I'd have to make sure not to waste all my wishes on attacks. I still had to boost my own stats. My new combat style would help make sure I didn't fall behind, but only if I kept up with the progress I'd already been making. The extra stat point per wish would help with that.

    I wasn't surprised I'd gotten it though, because I remembered the other candidate being able to do three points already, and she'd been G ranked too. It occurred to me as I had that thought that though my style of stat distribution increased versatility, it wasn't necessarily the only way. It was possible other candidates stuck to the stats they were born with and because of that were only able to grant specific kinds of wishes, just at a greatly enhanced pace. I even briefly considered that strategy, but dismissed it. My power was too versatile to sacrifice that for some temporary convenience.

    The more wishes I could grant the more people I had to draw from for skills and stats. With all that done for the day though, we headed back down to the circus to check in at the pavilion. We still had a mission to complete. We needed to figure out which faction Melissa was colluding with and hopefully talk her out of it, possibly roping her in on our own side.

    When we arrived at the pavilion, most of the members weren't there. Alden saw us come in and grinned widely, waving us over. "Well if it isn't our four newest recruits! Good to see your smiling faces." He glanced at me sideways. "And creepy blank mask I suppose. Anyway what can I do for you kids today? Not too busy around here right now so I'm free to chat if you need something." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a bottle. "I have refreshments. I always carry a few bottles of the good stuff on me."

    I rolled my eyes, but didn't turn him down. "Do you have any black cherry?" He grinned and passed me a soda, while Callie asked for a watermelon flavored variation. I popped the cap and took a sip. "These must be expensive, can you afford to keep giving them away for free? Also where are all the others? It was a lot more lively here last time we came. I expected there to be crowds."

    He lout out a snort so loud it shook his beard. "Don't be daft boy, we have lives. We don't all just sit around the pavilion all day waiting to punch each other. As for the drinks they aren't cheap, but I make decent money. Friendly wagers on the outcome of battles you know." He gave me a wide and somewhat terrifying grin. "Of all the active pavilion members, I'm the one with the most wind under his belt, but those damn fools keep trying anyway."

    I admit, I kind of wanted to fight him after hearing that. It would be a great way to build up reputation here. But I wasn't stupid, if Alden was at the top of the heap here he was way too strong to beat in a sparring match. With all my new tricks I might have been up to fighting him if we went all out, but I liked the guy, and I wasn't willing to do that. He'd been nothing but nice to us, and even if that had been useful to make a good impression (which I couldn't imagine it would be) I would never do it.

    Benny spoke up. "Well, can you tell us a bit about people close to our own level? You've seen us fight, and since you're an experienced combatant you might be able to suggest someone who can push our limits." He sounded as intrigued by the possibility as I was.

    Alden guffawed at the question. "See, this is why I like you kids. That's the proper pavilion spirit. Sure, come on over and sit down. I can give you a few suggestions." He led us over to the seats off to one side of the dirt ring, and when we sat down, Jessie and Benny both picked out drinks.

    Jessie sipper here chocolate soda (I hadn't known that was a thing and I was kind of curious how it tasted) happily and made a noise of appreciation. "This is so good!" She gave Alden a warm smile. "If you need any healing in the future you can feel free to ask me. I'm pretty good at patching people up, and you seem really nice! Thanks again for how welcoming you were at the party the other day."

    It was hard not to feel good when Jessie was smiling at you. Her cheer was just infectious, and Alden obviously thought so too since he grinned right back. "I'll keep it in mind lass. I don't get wounded much, but it's always nice to have a decent healer on hand. They're usually damned expensive to work with. Not that it ain't worth it, but the damned Peace Lord snaps up most of them for his faction and their rates are outright extortion. Luckily there are more than a few who joined up with the other factions so his goons can't bully them too much."

    Jessie's eyes went wide. "The Peace Lord is that bad? He sounded like a pretty nice guy, and Sanctuary Hall is in E district right? Do they have a branch down here?" She avoided mentioning our meeting, which was smart, but still set us up for lots of information. I was reminded how Jessie used her cheerfulness and easy nature to draw out conversation and info from plenty of people. I hadn't seen it in action personally much, but it was an effective method from what she'd told us in the past.

    This time was no exception. Alden was happy to complain. "Oh, aye. He runs that group like some kind of doctor street gang. Anyone who doesn't join up is considered a 'misguided healer' and the members treat them with contempt and make trouble for them under the guise of trying to be helpful and educating others. Sanctuary Hall doesn't have branches exactly, but it does have a presence through all the districts. It acts like something of a healer's union, and since healers are everywhere so are they. It's one of the things that make them so irritating. Everyone still treats them well though, since they're needed. You'll even see them around here at times, I'd avoid healing independently if you spot them."

    Callie looked disturbed. "Will Jessie have trouble with them if she doesn't join a faction?" We'd basically decided to join the Beast Lord Garden anyway, or at least I had. Melinda was nice enough, and I trusted her to actually treat us fairly far more than I did the Peace Lord, especially after hearing that. The Nothing was a complicated issue I'd rather avoid. Callie wanted to do things on her own, so she wasn't likely to be comfortable being forced to join up with her uncle. With Melinda having two E rankers to hold down the fort I wasn't worried about the strength of her faction either.

    Alden frowned thoughtfully. "Might be something happens, can't say for sure. My advice is to make an effort to find someone to take you in. Being free and unfettered is always best, but some powers are desirable enough that having a tree to shelter under is basically a necessity. Healing is a sought after gift, and if you don't have any backing there are some folks who aren't against using force to make sure they have access to it. The pavilion isn't something to sneer at, but that's only down here. With your gift I'd bet you can get a low level position at least with one of the big factions."

    "Anyway, we can talk about that later." He said with a dismissive wave. "For now you wanted some input on who would be the most challenging fights. I assume you'd like those challenges to within your ability to complete?" I just nodded at him, sad he couldn't see the droll look through the mask. "Well, that makes it a bit trickier. I know plenty of folks you kids would struggle with, but if you want something relatively close I can oblige."

    He paused for a minute. "Alright, well for the shadow girl I'd say your best bet is Gust. He uses this odd form of wind manipulation that lets him turn to air. Provides him good mobility to avoid attacks and get in close. It'll be a rough fight, but it'll also be educational as hell. You're going to need to do some quick thinking to pin him down and beat him. Gust is a little power dependent though, so you have a decent shot at pulling it out if you can counter him."

    "As for you." He turned to look at Benny. "Probably Mountaincrusher. He's not actually earth based, his body turns into metal, but given your versatility and the tricks I saw, your biggest weakness is putting down people who can take a real beating. Mountaincrusher isn't too high up the ladder here either, so you have a chance to turn things around, all you need to do is stay on your toes and think."

    Jessie waved him off as he looked at her, clearly not interested, and he nodded before turning to look at me. "Last but not least you should fight Fang. He's strong, fast, and damn skilled, but his power is mostly just increased regeneration from a Vitality multiplier. He's a good dummy for training on if you can survive him, and I can tell your biggest weakness is the lack of experience or foundation." He shrugged. "They'll all be tough fights you might lose, but from my point of view those are your best chances to grow, and that's really what we're all looking for here."

    I nodded along as he spoke. I could tell he meant what he said, and I couldn't deny those were pretty valid points. I'd been thinking about that issue with my combat style to start with. Plus if we were walking Vitality I had a boost from Jessie that would not only heal me up but also give me an energy surge that would last quite a while during the fight if I needed it, which should let me keep up. I mulled it over for a bit before finally deciding to go for it. "So where do we sign up?"

    A broad grin split Alden's face. "Lad, I knew there was something I liked about you. That's the kind of spirit I like to see!" He gestured over to one side. "Right over there is a table you can use to sign up for battles. Remember the names I gave you and just tell them you want to engage in a sanctioned match." His grin took on a vicious tint. "Remember to try your best. I'll be betting on your victory. Winner even gets a share of the profits from whatever bets the pavilion pays out, so work hard for both of us!" He clapped me on the shoulder and I suddenly had the sinking feeling that this might not be as good an idea as I'd though earlier. Oh well, too late to back out now.
     
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  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 221
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    My opponent, as it happened, was ready first. I'd been worried that we would need to wait, but apparently Alden had taken 'is here right know' as unspoken criteria, and all of our opponents were on the premises. I was glad not to have to wait for my big match. I was raring to go at the moment, having more than recovered from any exhaustion from my earlier training with Jessie's help on the elevator ride down here. Having a teammate who could mainline pure life force into your body was insanely convenient.

    The guy I was fighting, Fang (and wasn't that a boring name, I had to wonder how he had even gotten it, I'd have thought it would be taken) was an average looking man with pale skin, brown hair, and amber eyes with dark circles under them like he didn't get much sleep. His expression was serene, which I wouldn't have expected from a guy named Fang, but I could somewhat sense and aura of danger coming off him, like I was looking at a predator.

    "It's nice to meet you, I think I saw you around at the party." I said politely. Fang's expression didn't change, but he gave a slow nod. Not a chatty guy. "So, any rules you want to make, special circumstances, safe words? This is my first time in one of these so I don't exactly know what the conventions are. I hope you can guide me through what we're supposed to be doing for this match."

    Fang stood there, unmoving for a second, looking up and away ponderingly before finally giving a slight nod. "Attack until one party calls stop, or unconsciousness. Avoid killing blows." His voice was deep and rumbled up from his chest, surprisingly growly for such a small man. I didn't put him at more then five foot six, but he his voice made him sound like a giant. It rumbled up from his chest like an eruption from the depths of the molten earth.

    It also stopped immediately after he said that, clearly having decided that he didn't need to illuminate me anymore. I shrugged internally, it was nice enough for him to bother to start with. I didn't mind just starting. I turned to Alden, who was apparently taking a position as officiator. He gave me a wide grin. "Now, as you all know, officiator of the battle is a sacred trust. No suspect calls are tolerated. I've proven my impartiality, but I wanted to inform our fresh hire that I won't be going easy just because I bet a chunk of cash on him. Understood?"

    I nodded. "That's fine, I wouldn't want it any other way. I take it his rules were all there are?" I glanced to Fang. "Not that I'm doubting you, just want to make extra sure I haven't missed anything. It would be a shame to lose on a technicality I didn't see coming. I'd rather have as fair and even a match as possible" I also didn't know this guy. No harm in doing a bit of double checking.

    When Alden nodded, I breathed a sight of relief and did something I hadn't done in a long time. I activated my overlay. I had let this particular tool in my arsenal rust for quite a while since we arrived in Rajak. With all my new overt attacks it just never seemed too useful. I preferred sneak attacks and overwhelming force. I wasn't done though. Along with the overlay, I resonated my Balam Skill, and the arrows shifted.

    Suddenly I was standing in a field of images of myself and my opponent, some red, some green. Because they were, after all, my Skills, I could see that each image represented one of my Balam forms, and I could tell what the responses might be. I prowled forward, staying loose and ready to attack, as well as keeping my eyes out for attack opportunities on Fang, whose power I didn't actually know yet.

    When I got close, I spun off my front foot, back leg scything out in a sweeping whip from low to high with my entire body behind it. Fang reacted by taking a slight step back, which had been an option I prepared for, and I hurled myself back into a flip off my feet as my kick came full circle and my other one hit the ground, pressing my hands down for extra distance as I brought both heels down in a smash at Fang's head and shoulders.

    The overlay was combining with my Balam Mastery to form a sort of predictive textbook on how to use my attacks. It gave me lots of options that I could use, and lots of potential responses, and using it was letting me refine my technique in combat. My overlay, as I'd suspected, was the perfect way to figure out how to string all my movements and forms together optimally. It was going to take lots of repetition to find the patterns that worked best, but then again, that was the whole point of this fight.

    My heels smashed down at Fang's face, and I expected him to dodge. I did not however, expect him to pick the least likely possible response and headbutt my heel while using both hands to catch the other. I reacted with a cloud step, pushing off the air to change direction just before he was able to wrap his hands around my ankle. I landed a few feet away,and once I realized I wasn't going to break his defense with the range I had, I reached into my coat and drew my cane.

    When he saw the weapon, Fang did something I hadn't expected at all. He smiled. The smile started as a small, quiet thing, but then it began to grow, his lips pulled back, continuing past the point of natural possibility as he fece lengthened and shifted, the action acting as the opening for a transformation as his visage twisted into a muzzled furry wolf face. The rest of his body expanded and began to fill in with fur, until the small man was gone, and I was looking at a seven and a half foot tall werewolf.

    Which kind of explained the whole Vitality regen thing. I mentally cursed at Alden for burying the lead here, but I didn't really blame him. Based on the first part of this fight, Fang might not have needed to actually shift for most people, especially if he had a limited version of that regen in human form. I wondered where all the extra mass came from, then just wrote it off as Fantasy. I bet he could do other crazy werewolf shit with Fantasy if he leaned into the stories too, but for the moment I doubted it was relevant.

    It took me a second to decide how to handle this, and I finally decided to use my poison fire. It was a soft counter to regeneration, and would burn his energy more quickly. Plus it would hurt which was distracting. Once that was done I triggered Leaf on the Wind, because mobility was the only possible way I had a chance at beating someone this big and based on what I knew about werewolves, probably strong.

    I was guessing this was a racial ability, I knew that fairies weren't the only things around, it was also possible to become a devil or monster. Werewolves weren't a big surprise, though I hadn't heard of any before so they might have been rare like vampires, or I might just be a frog in a well...and I was distracting myself again. I shook off my wandering thoughts and decided to put more energy into raising Focus, it was possible having it so far behind Perception was the reason I was so easily distracted.

    With my attention back where it should be, I rushed forward at Fang, staying light on my feet to take advantage of Leaf on the Wind. My cane whirled as I pushed off, hurtling toward him in a long, low lunge that carried me forward about fifteen feet right above the ground. As I came forward the overlay showed his mist likely response, and since this was a direct attack, it was easy to see what he would go with.

    Knowing what was coming, I waited until I got in close, then triggered cloud step three times. I pushed off once sending me hard to the side, out of his eyeline, then again pushing forward at a diagonal to appear behind him, then a third time from the back to throw me forward at his back, my cane lashing out at his undefended skull from behind as the quick series of motions allowed me to slip into his blindspot through using the cloud steps like a wall corner I was able to bounce off of.

    Fang was fast, but his reaction was still limited to what he could track, and he didn't manage to turn around quickly enough to avoid the poison fire can snash upside his head, sending him staggering forward as I used the opportunity to follow up with a few attacks from behind, aiming my first one at the back of his knee to unsteady him. Luckily the overlay warned me of his coming attack (well, a dozen of them, were possible but they all involved an attack to drive me away) so I was able to dodge back in a smooth handspring and avoid the powerful werewolf claw attacks as he spun.

    Despite his absurd size, Fang was also FAST. The werewolf had the speed of a striking snake, and only a combination of my mobility and the overlay let me stay ahead of him. Even that wouldn't have been enough except for the fact that I had the healing burst from Jessie. I triggered it, along with Afterburner, which amplified one of my moves massively. A five times boost to Jessie's life energy pushed my physical ability to it's absolute maximum and left me overflowing with vital power even as all my energy usage until now recovered.

    I went on the offensive. I only had until the quintupled power of the Vitality boost ended, which would be at most a quarter of an hour, but that was plenty of time to immerse myself in the battle. I'd also confirmed that unlike Mercy Kill, Afterburner would work on a healing skill as long as I was the one using it. That would be useful information in the future. For now I just flashed forward to attack with the best combinations I could find in the overlay. My cane lashed out, spinning between fingers to take advantage of the rotational specialty of Balam.

    I lost myself in battle. I knew the energy wasn't infinite, and at fifteen minutes might not seem long, but the amount of learning you can do with my level of Focus and a perfect opponent to test every idea of concept on, as well as a guide, isn't small, even in that limited amount of time. I flashed through endless combinations, blurring through the air at the absolute maximum speed my ninety seven points of Might could manage.

    Fang met me head on, obviously much more Vitality heavy than Might (which made sense with a VItality multiplier for regeneration in his combat form) but still stronger than me. But between my ability to predict moves and make them myself with Leaf on the Wind I managed to avoid most hits. He got in some lucky shots, broke a few ribs and left a lot more bruises, but the poison fire was wearing him down.

    I didn't expect it to actually beat him, even if I lined up every shot perfectly and joined the effects together in stacks. With his Vitality that would never happen, but what DID happen was that each stack of poison fire took up resources his body needed to heal. After fourteen minutes, my lifeforce charge was about to run out, and I decided to end things right then and there.

    Flurry of Blows, Mercy Kill, and a triggered burst of stored force I'd been stockpiling through the whole fight slammed into his knee and shattered it in such a vicious way even his regen would take a minute or two to fix it. I looked to Alden, who accepted that I could have killed him with that blow if I'd hit him in the head and declared me the winner. Then the weakness hit and I fell on my ass, breathing heavy as the lifeforce ran out and the backlash from Afterburner hit. I didn't mind though, because I could feel one of my Skill breaking through. Balam Mastery had just hit Lesser. Perfect.
     
  14. Threadmarks: chapter 222
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Next up for combat was Benny. Where I'd been fighting the werewolf, Benny was up against the metal man. An appropriate match up considering that iron hide was his original power. I was sure this Mountaincrusher person was able to synergize some more skills in to make himself even tougher, but Benny was going to have a tough time taking the man down based on what Alden had said. I was looking forward to the match, and based on his fidgeting I was pretty sure Benny was too.

    My best friend leapt off the seating he'd been perched on and dropped into the dirt ring. Instead of plummeting and landing hard, he drifted to the ground. Not slowly, but not nearly as quickly as he should have. I was pretty sure he had altered the density of his leg again making it lighter than air to provide a bit of resistance. He landed on the other leg, strolling out to meet the absolute beast of a man who emerged from the other side of the circle to fight.

    Mountaincrusher was a large man. Like...about as tall as Fang in his wolf form large. Rather than a mask,
    Mountaincrusher sported a bare upper face and a massive bushy beard that joined his tangled and matted hair in tumbling down his chest and back, covering his otherwise bare chest and making him look like some sort of ancient warrior savage or something. His wide green eyes were fixed on Benny, and his lips were pulled back in a manic grin that exposed white teeth from between the bushy plumes of beard and mustache.

    "So, you're my opponent. Bit scrawny, aren't you?" Mountaincrusher rumbled in a voice that was appropriately deep and booming. Unlike Fang though, his voice was less growl and more crash, like an avalanche rather than an animal. I wondered if that had anything to do with his name and size. It seemed like the kind of thing people might subconsciously attribute to someone and then affect through recursion.

    Benny glared at him. "Asshole, I'm six foot three, I am NOT scrawny, you're just gargantuan. I will not be made to feel inferior because people are taller than me." He turned to glare at me. "Especially if they fucking shouldn't be!" I grinned under my mask, Benny had been enraged about Callie paying off one of her wishes with an inch of height because we had previously been the same height and now I was taller than he was.

    I'd expected Mountaincrusher to be offended by getting snapped at, but his grin just widened even further. Benny rolled his eyes, muttering something about 'crazy battle maniacs' before turning to give Alden the ok to call the match to a start. Alden smirked at their antics before holding up both hands. "Alright, once again, the fight goes until either someone gives in or I call it to a stop. No attempts on anyone's life of course. This is just a friendly match, so have fun with it."

    Benny stepped forward at his indication, and the match began. The spider legs extended from his back, gleaming wickedly in the low light of the pavilion, and his turtle shell formed behind him in preparation for attacks.
    Mountaincrusher looked intrigued at the devices, shifting his body into his metallic form as the fight started to make sure he could handle it. His pale skin rippled, becoming the rust red of old metal as his body converted from one of flesh to one of iron. He raised his fists in what I recognized as a boxing stance and stepped forward.

    Benny's spider legs lashed out, and Mountaincrusher raised his guard to tank the hit, deflecting them off his forearms with the boxing stance, the ground beneath him cracked at the impact, and my eyes widened as I realized what had just happened. I turned to Callie, whose own eyes were just as wide with surprise. "Wait, did he just density shift those spider legs?" Benny didn't have nearly the strength to strike with that much force, which meant he'd done something else. Add in the cracking of the ground under his own feet, both of them mind you, and density shifting the spider legs was all I could think of. His effects were supposed to be limited to a single body part last I checked, sometimes able to spread, but the leg that allowed that move was a completely separate limb. We turned to Jessie, who spent the most time with Benny lately, something I felt guilty about.

    She gave a wide grin. "Yup. Clockwork figured out that his embodiment makes the items part of him, so he can use their properties like Skills and not just trigger them. He can't use more than two at once yet, but even that is pretty impressive." She gave a small sigh. "He's been training hard when you guys aren't around. He feels like you're leaving him behind, and he doesn't want to be useless. Even though he acts like nothing bothers him, he came here to support you. Well, he also wants to become stronger so Celine will be impressed, but still."

    I had no idea." I knew my voice was hoarse as I spoke, but my head was just spinning. I knew how hard mastering Skills like that was. Benny must have been completely exhausting himself trying to get better, and I hadn't even noticed. I pushed that day off with my best friend up even higher on my list. I was definitely going to talk to him when we hung out. I wanted to find out more about where his head was at. Jessie was right, he'd come here for me, and while I wouldn't go so far as to say I felt bad about spending time with Callie, especially when he had been off with Celine just as often, I did feel like shit I hadn't noticed all he'd obviously been doing to get better.

    Meanwhile, in battle, Benny was kicking ass. While he wasn't able to use more than one extra skill on the same limb, it did not, apparently, affect his ability with the others. His brain was clearly overclocked based on the speed and precision of the weighted spider limbs striking the metal mans arms. Mountaincrusher was on the defensive, holding up under a barrage of ultradense strikes with the wicked metal arms. He was also laying into the bigger man's guard with his own fists, and while even the triple strike punch wasn't managing to do as much as the obviously much more powerful spider limbs, it was doing something.

    I didn't see any obvious effect from the tranq punch, but he was still managing to put his opponent on the back foot. Finally though, the attacks stopped being enough. Mountaincrusher got his footing and started lashing out with quick but obviously powerful blows. I was worried Benny might be hurt (though with his F rank gear even the stat disparity shouldn't be enough to do serious damage) but even that turned out to be an unfounded concern. As the fist approached him, Benny activated the ranged attack attraction effect through one of the spider limbs, pulling the punch off course.

    The attraction was used perfectly, pulling the bigger man up and forward with the offending limb, pulling him off balance and leaving him open on one side in a way that made it clear Benny was using that cognitive speed boost to best effect. He stepped in and smashed a series of powerful attacks into Mountaincrusher's torso while he was open, before drifting back out of the way and avoiding the recovery attack in a way that made me pretty sure he'd lightened most of his body to pull off the move.

    Mountaincrusher stepped back, guard up and not willing to attack, but I was sure he wasn't giving in, just trying to find gaps. Benny's demonstration of multiple abilities of Skills was worrying, but Skills could do lots of things. My DS Mastery was unique, but it wasn't the only unique Skill out there. Benny's combat style wasn't perfect, but being able to stack his effects was devastating in a direct fight. I was absolutely flabbergasted in how much improvement he was showing here. I'd kind of been starting to think of him as mainly an inventor, but this new trick put him on the same level as Callie and I in terms of potential, probably higher if he could get some better gear integrated.

    Despite what Mountaincrusher might want, he wasn't capable of just standing there and waiting for the attacks to show a weak spot. Those spider legs were G rank, and with the density increased, they were heavier, denser metal than his body was, which meant he was essentially getting beaten up with baseball buts as far as actual inflicted damage went. It was a brilliant counter to his strengthened form, but then, iron hide had been Benny's first ability. I was pretty sure he'd considered how to get past it well before this match.

    Despite all that, I truly believe without his armor Benny would have been broken by this guy. F ranked gear was pretty much the best possible safety measure against serious injury in a fight between G rankers. It wasn't some impervious invincible shield, granted. It covered the parts of the body that were directly protected, and it mostly stopped piercing damage. Even my gear, which was enchanted with the same sort of impact absorption that I'd had on my last set, wouldn't fully nullify blunt damage, just siphon off some of it to store.

    When I wanted it to. It became clear we could somewhat manipulate the effects of our gear, since Callie wasn't constantly nearly impossible to see, mostly saving that for combat situations. Regardless, the powerful gear gave Benny a chance to make mistakes without paying for them in blood, and a few broken bones wasn't the end of the world. He was improving at a noticeable rate, managing to switch between secondary abilities on each limb much more quickly as time wore on. He even got a opened up a slice on Mountaincrusher with one of the spider legs, presumable with the three times damage ability.

    As they fought on though, it became clear what the deciding factor would be. The tranq punch. It wasn't exactly all powerful, and even augmented three times (I suspected he had the triple fist and the tranq fist both augmenting each other so he got both effects on each hand) it was taking ten or fifteen minutes, but I could see the metal man beginning to look a little unsteady on his feet. The amount of buildup needed was staggering, but it was working over time.

    They traded blows for about a half hour in total, Benny looking like he was about to pass out from pushing himself hard and fast enough to keep up with the much stronger man. Even being lighter he had a serious disadvantage, and if not for the ability to attract punches with the spider limbs and Mountaincrusher's slow descent into dizziness and eventual unconsciousness, I doubted he could have lasted the whole time with just the Vitality stat he currently had. Eventually though, the bigger man slipped out of consciousness with on final hammering tranq triple punch, and fell over backwards.

    There was a massive thud as the big metal man hit the dirt, and Benny dropped to his own knees after, groaning in discomfort and cradling his hands, which had been punching actual G ranked metal for the last half hour, even with the gloves taking the worst of it. Alden grinned down at him, and called the match. "Clockwork WINS!" He walked over and knelt down, offering Benny a swig from a flask, which he took, and giving my best friend an approving slap on the back. "Well done lad. That was a hell of a fight to watch. Go back to your friends and get healed up." He needn't have said anything, Jessie was already headed over to heal them both. Once that was done we all settled in to wait. Callie had the last match of the night. After that, we would see if we'd earned enough respect to get in deeper and finally learn what we came here for.
     
  15. Threadmarks: chapter 223
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Callie's match, the last one, wasn't ready right after Benny's. We had a little while to digest the battles and think over what had happened, as well as strategize for her match. From what Alden had said, this one was going to be the toughest for any of us to manage. Benny and I were in at this point, if a single fight was enough. We'd proven ourselves, but more importantly, we'd learned. These had been huge growth opportunities for both Benny and me, and Callie was excitedly trying to figure out how to get the most of her own match now.

    "So how do I beat up the wind?" She said, not bothering to sugar coat her intentions at all. At my loud snicker she just rolled her eyes. "Don't laugh at me. It's a totally reasonable question, this guy can turn into air, that's going to be damn hard to counter. Any ideas would be appreciated so I don't make an entire damn fool of myself. I don't want to be the only one of us who can't hack it in one of these fights. Based on how impressed Alden has seemed we have a solid chance of making it into the inner circle if we can prove ourselves."

    I exhaled loudly. "Yeah, but I don't have any real ideas. I think that's kind of the point. You need to have whatever epiphany Alden was hoping for on your own. Learning is part of what impresses him. He's looking at potential not just combat ability. I can't give you an answer or I might blow it for you. But if you want to talk it out for us we'd be happy to listen and let you bounce ideas off us." I looked at Benny speculatively. "Well, I would. Benny had the attention span of a goldfish, it's even odds he doesn't even remember what the beginning of this sentence was about."

    Benny flipped me off, his hands having been healed up by Jessie, who was now trying hard not to giggle at his put out expression as she spectated our sniping like a sports match. He growled out. "Ok first off, fuck you very much, secondly, I have a higher Focus than you shit for brains, which means I have a better memory, though I wouldn't have expected you to have remembered even that much you muscle brained baboon."

    I gave a malicious grin that was so obvious in my voice I didn't need to let him see it to know he knew what the look on my face was. "Sorry, that just sounds like sour grapes. I think you're holding grudges because you're so scrawny. Even your enemies are commenting on it. It's ok though little man. I don't hold it against you. I think it's admirable that you've dedicated yourself to intellectual enlightenment to make up for your shrimpy underdeveloped body. Only forty Might? Your Focus is like twelve higher than mine, but I've got more than double your Might. Do you even lift?"

    His face was a picture of righteous indignation as he gaped at me offendedly. "Alright, we don't have time for this. If you aren't going to help at least don't waste my damn time." Callie said in exasperation. Benny and I broke off our back and forth with a pair of matching unrepentant grins. Alden called Callie down in the background, ready to start the last of our matches. She leaned up and planted a kiss on my mask. "Alright babe, looks like I'm up. I was going to try to bounce a plan off you but it was pretty bare bones anyway. Just watch how I do this."

    I smiled down at her, glad for my mask so she couldn't see the embarrassed flush on my face from burning her strategizing time bickering with Benny. She didn't seem mad though, just fondly exasperated as she hopped gracefully down from the seats to stroll across the dirt ring to fight her opponent. As she did, I thought over the Pavilion as a whole. This place was a blast. Constant training and combat, constant improvement. Despite that everyone seemed pretty nice, the sole requirement was dedication to getting stronger.

    It just highlighted how complex people could be. I hadn't expected everyone to be so friendly and accepting in what was essentially a giant pit fighting club. Callie reached the center of the circle, turning to smile at Alden in concern. "So any extra notes for me? I think I have a grasp on the rules, but our fight is going to be a bit less restrained I think, so I wanted to check out what we need to keep in my for energy attacks and things like that. Don't want to hurt the audience by mistake."

    "Not something to worry about." The bearded man laughed. "It may not be obvious but we have protections in place to stop the fights from spilling out of the ring by accident. That's what this place is for after all. Go wild, you don't need to worry about us. For fights like this I want you both to keep in mind that giving up is better done sooner than later. I can't and won't force you, but it's extremely difficult to predict the outcome of overpowered blasts. If you feel you're in danger you should stop, because as with any fight we can't assure you of safety."

    Callie nodded, and her costume began to activate, making her harder to see or pay attention to. The other man, a five foot six inch man with a mostly blank green mask and a hooded green robe, also gave a solemn nod, piercing eyes never leaving Callie through the only two holes in the jade surface of his face covering. With the out of the way, Alden gestured for them to begin and stepped back out of the way.

    Callie had been refining her new shadow manipulation technique every possible chance, and she'd shown me some of it. I expected her to use her snowflakes, but she didn't start off with those. Her costume made her hard to see and focus on, and the effect was ultimately based on shadows, so she was able to somewhat recreate it with pure constructs. Callie raised a hand, blanketing the area with darkness, and then letting it fall away to reveal thirteen identical copies of her, all with that exact same effect.

    I blinked. I hadn't know her fine control was that good. Snowflakes were one thing, but people had lots of details, it was impressive she could make those copies. Then I realized she wasn't. She was using the difficult to see nature of the costume as a crutch to allow her copies to be less complete. She'd clothed both them and herself in a shroud of nearly smoke like shadows, and the insubstantial configuration managed to cover the lack of details. She wasn't capable of making perfect copies of herself, but she didn't need to be.

    Gust didn't speak, just lashed out with a hand, sending a series of cutting windblades toward her. Windblades that were jerked aside as he was forced to turn insubstantial and avoid the spears of darkness stretching up from the shadow beneath him. Callie had shifted the shadows cast by her insubstantial clones to crisscross the areas around where he was standing just subtly enough that it had been easy to miss when distracted by her copies.

    Her stab didn't hit him though, and even thrown off the wind blades managed to disperse two of the shadows, leaving her with only eleven. Still, I was damn impressed. Callie had used that burst of dark at the beginning to lay down several concurrent traps. Shadow manipulation had clearly given her the control to truly start taking advantage of her experience and tactical acumen.

    The wind whipped around the ring, circling, and Callie watched calmly as her opponent failed to appear. Suddenly she whipped out both hands, as did the copies, and shadows darted between their fingers, thin as razor wire. They wrapped and connected the lines, creating a tapestry of sharpened shadow thread that spread through the ring like a spider web. It was impossible to tell from looking which one was the real one, all of them acting on concert. Callie's ability to put her stats to use now was staggering. That one Skill had qualitatively improved her combat ability by leaps and bounds.

    With no place to reform in the ring itself, Gust was forced to manifest as an insubstantial wraithlike entity above the field of shadows lines. I was guessing he couldn't actually remain as wind for more than a few seconds based on the timing. It would have been much better to wait for an opening, but being made of air was probably a trump card more than a normal part of his toolkit. That at least showed he was taking Callie seriously.

    Sadly, that meant the next move was a wave of raining wind blades. I'd have expected that tactic to be frowned on in a place so dedicated to combat mastery, but then again, Alden had said that Gust leaned on his powers too heavily. Still, I was in awe at the control and fluidity he was showing with the attacks. Every wind blade was carefully aimed and calculated to hit exactly where it would to the most damage, and I even saw several of them adjust midair. Whatever this guy's Focus was, it was damn sure higher than mine was.

    The rain of wind cutters smashed down on the ring. I saw several of them cleaved in half when they hit the razor wire shadows, but the shadows shattered when they hit as well. Several of them managed to avoid the defensive net that Callie's shadow doubles had thrown up into the air at the start of the attack, managing to submerge themselves more completely in the hanging strands to prevent them from getting sniped from above the netting. The ones that managed to get through tore holes in the shadows, dispersing most of them.

    By the time the attack was done there were only three doubles left, and the spiderweb of shadows had been mostly torn apart in the attack. The three Callie's darted into the center, each of them flicking their hands in a weaving gesture to pull the strings into a powerful dome shield over top of them, blocking them all from sight under a half sphere of pure darkness. There was no movement from the shield for a minute or two, and Gust just waited for a while, clearly expecting her to come out or attack or something similar so he could find an opening to exploit.

    Nothing of the sort happened. Callie just stayed under there, taking shelter in the shield, and Gust eventually began to descend. His translucent form had become more substantial as he lowered himself down, his shadow growing as he approached the solid earth, until his feet eventually touched down on the hard packed dirt. That wind form was probably pretty energy intensive, and keeping it up during such an obvious lull would be a waste of energy. Callie wasn't giving in, that much was clear.

    Gust stalked forward, raising his arms, and began hammering blast of compressed air like hammers into the shadow dome. It creaked, then began to buckle, eventually being torn apart. As soon as it breached though there was a massive explosion of shadow energy as a pressurized blast of the stuff poured out of the hole like a waterfall and smashed Gust longways across the ring, smashing him into the barrier at the edge. The rest of the dome dissolved, leaving behind...nothing. It was empty.

    None of the Callie's who had been inside were remaining which could only mean that she'd never really been there. There was a disturbance on the ground near where he'd touched down, and Callie stood up. She brushed the dirt off her coat as the visibility returned and the smoky veil of shadow making her identical to her doubles flaked off. She'd used his growing shadow during the descent as cover to burrow out under the shield using her shadow construct to dig through the dirt, completely covered in a layer of shadow to obscure her, then she must have dispersed the doubles and used the energy to create a high pressure environment. She turned and gave me a wave and I laughed loudly. That girl definitely had style.
     
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  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 224
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Alden looked damn impressed by our results, as well as pretty pleased by his obvious winnings. He let out a long whistle. "Damn, you kids did not disappoint. You made me a mint. Especially you, little miss. Gust is known for being nearly impossible to pin down properly. Odds are always disproportionately in favor of him. Personally I think he's a showoff with no substance who uses his power as a crutch, but I don't deny he gets results."

    After stopping to collect multiple bags of what I was pretty sure where chits, he escorted us over to sit down on the seating far enough away from everyone else that we could talk, he passed out drinks to everyone, then, with that done, he sipped his own bottle of what I was pretty sure was beer for a minute, reveling in the taste, before shifting his eyes back to us. "So. I like you kids, and you just won me a ton of money, so I'm going to go ahead and let you explain your purpose for weaseling your way in here before I decide to be a bit more...aggressive."

    My eyes widened, and Callie, always quick on the uptake, seamlessly put 0n a hurt expression. "What? I don't know what you mean, we told Melissa already, we're hoping for protection from Cicero. He was really putting the screws to us, and we weren't sure he would leave us alone unless we had some backing. Joining a big faction would be great, but it doesn't necessarily happen overnight. Is this because we're new? Because we can go, we didn't mean to cause any trouble or anything." Her voice sounded so small at the end even I halfway believed she was hurt. I was impressed.

    Alden was not. "Lass, Mel is seven kinds of stupid when it comes to the boss man. You say his name and every ounce of sense in that girl's head flies right out her ears. Now, I was willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and I still may be. But it's clear you aren't here just to learn fighting. You have too many questions, you're pushing far too quickly for authority, and when I mentioned joining a faction you were much too willing to be picky. Any normal G rank kid would fall in with any E rank faction that would take them. You lot were being picky, picky means options."

    "That's..." Callie started to defend herself before eventually sighing. "Damn. That's a good point. I missed that. You were baiting us. So I take it from the lack of violent blows to our skulls you're at least willing to hear us out? Because we really don't have anything against you in particular, or the Pavilion. We're here to get some information about a third party, and we weren't planning to use anything we learned here against anyone."

    Callie liked these people as much as I did, and it must have shown in her voice, because Alden's faux casual demeanor softened into actual sympathy. "Well sure. Like I said. I like you. If you have bad intentions I won't let you off, I could crush the four of you if I needed to. But I don't. I trust my read on people, and it tells me you lot are ok. I'm willing to be proven right."

    I exhaled in relief. Alden was a damn decent guy, and I didnt want to have to fight him. I also did not love how absolutely confident he was that he could beat us all after watching us fight. He clearly had some solid insight into combat, if he thought he could take us after seeing us battle, he might actually be right. Of course, we hadn't used all our moves, but this seemed like a good chance to make the switch from hostile to possible friendly as long as we played it right.

    Putting a hand on Callie's arm, I gave it a light squeeze, and when she glanced over at me, I gave a small nod. This was ultimately her call as leader and I trusted her, but I wanted her to know where I stood on this. She seemed to be of the same mind because that was good enough for her to sigh and stand up. "Alright, but even though this place is semi private, it's not nearly secure enough. Follow me." She walked over to the edge of the seats and gracefully stepped down, not bothering to roll or anything given her leg strength.

    None of us really needed any fancy tricks to get down from something this low to the ground, but it was more stylish to avoid smashing a foot into the dirt on landing. This spot was pretty low down the seating though, so even just absorbing the landing force only left some marks in the dirt. We followed her down, including Alden, and I mentally congratulated myself on the choice not to fight him. It was theoretically possible he was just massively overconfident, but I doubted someone with that much insight would have such a bad estimation of his own skills.

    When we reached the spot behind the seating, Callie held up a hand to stop us, then flicked a few fingers and covered us in shadow. I could feel the Stealth Skill blending seamlessly into the shadows, and being under a big overhang would make the darkness totally natural looking on the off chance someone actually bothered to look. This was pretty much a perfect environment for Callie to keep the contents of this meeting secret. Once she did, she turned to Alden. "Alright, we can talk freely. Ask your questions."

    Alden raised an eyebrow, but smiled all the same. "Careful at least. That's not bad. Less likely to just half ass an excuse, no reason to put effort into a sloppy lie. Doesn't necessarily ensure you're honest, but it's a good start. Now. Like I asked before, why are you here? Despite being sneaky and suspicious, albeit badly, you lot have been pretty stand up folks, and I don't think you're here for something nefarious, though I can't be sure. So convince me. If I don't think you're a threat to me and mine, we may be able to work something out."

    "Alright." Callie said again. "We're here because Melissa is working with someone. I don't know exactly how familiar you are with the day to day here, but Melissa has joined up with a faction that will help her oust Cicero. Normally, we wouldn't care, he's kind of a dick, but the faction she's allied with is doing all this at the behest of someone whose goals run counter to ours and we believe it's part of a larger plan that will eventually make trouble for us, so we're doing our best to put a stop to it. We're here to try to figure out who she's working with so we know who our enemy is supporting."

    I blinked. She really had taken my opinion to heart. That was more honest than I'd expected, or at least more detailed, but I thought it was the right call. Alden seemed like someone who respected honesty. When she finished talking, I turned to look at Alden, and was surprised to see him looking sad. "Damn fool girl. She's been obsessed with getting some imaginary vengeance for so many years. Can't admit the boy left of his own accord. She doesn't want to face the fact that he loved his brother more than her. That whelp left a mess in his wake, no doubt, but to collude with external forces against the whole circus? She's more desperate than I thought."

    "Whoa." I held up my hands to interrupt. "Wait, you make it sound like you knew them when they were kids. Were you one of their friends growing up? Were you here before the founded the cavalcade?" We'd only gotten brief snippets of what had happened between all of them, and while it was enough to puzzle some things out, being in front of someone who was there for the whole thing.

    Alden snorted. "Knew them? Boy I trained those brats. All three of them, though Abel was the one who took it most to heart. That boy surpassed my wildest expectations. He asked me to stay on and help Mel train up the youngsters when he left, and I couldn't deny a request like that. I knew he was going to sever all contact, and that girl was hopelessly in love with him. She never got over it though, not like we hoped. Just let it fester and rot under the surface. I hadn't realized quite how bad it had gotten for her to be willing to risk the livelihoods of everyone in this place just to stick it to Cicero."

    His voice was tired, and his face looked worn and aged, despite having not actually changed since we started the conversation. Like the weight of years was slowly crushing him the longer we talked. I reached out to clap him on the shoulder. "I'm sorry. But the people she's working with are enemies of ours. Do you know what faction she might have allied with?" Even as I asked I knew there was little to no chance. Alden hadn't been aware she was even doing anything involving outsiders. It occurred to me that he might have been one of the reasons Melissa seemed so adamant on keeping things quiet.

    I wasn't sure what Alden's position in the pavilion was, but based on what he said it was obviously high. It seemed odd that he was stuck at G rank if he was old and strong enough to train someone like Abel, but then again, Abel's whole deal was strengthening his foundation at the price of growing fast. Maybe Alden had reached his current level specifically by spending decades or centuries in the G ranks.

    "Sorry, lass. I haven't a clue." Alden's voice was as sorrowful as his face as he answered her. "I wish I did. But it's clear she doesn't take my council as she once did. I knew she'd drawn away, but I never expected her to leave me out of something like this. I suppose she knew I wouldn't approve." He let out a heavy sigh. "I'll look into it. I won't mention your reasons for being here...for now. I'll be keeping an eye on you, and on Mel." His eyes narrowed, and a sense of palpable danger radiated off him as his voice dropped to a growl. "If I see even a hint of treachery I'll out you, and we'll show you what the Starchaser Pavilion does to traitors."

    Callie raised both hands placatingly. "No need. Like we said, we don't mean anyone here harm. We just need to know the source of this mess so we can track down the instigator." I wasn't sure how much I wanted that, but we'd need to face the other candidate eventually. If we could crush her attempts to overtake the branch then so be it, if not, a direct confrontation was probably the only chance we had. She hesitated a second. "Will you tell us who it is? If you find out? It would really help us."

    He fixed her with a glare for a moment, but it softened, and he let out a tired sigh. "I'll look into this myself. If I see evidence that the faction she's cooperating with has nefarious intentions, then I'll let you in on it. If not, I'll keep an eye on the situation until a path forward becomes clear. In either case, you can keep poking around if you want, but don't go too far. If Mel finds out what you're doing she'll crush you. You're tough kids, but those fighters you were playing with earlier are babies compared to the real monsters here. Don't push your luck." With that last warning he turned and strode out of the stealth field. I guessed we had to tread more carefully from now on.
     
  17. Threadmarks: chapter 225
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The next week passed in a blur. With my new ability to grant wishes for three stat points instead of two, the thirty five wishes accrued over those seven days came out to over a hundred total stats. Given the lacking foundations of one of our members, namely, Benny I made sure my friend got twenty four of those, which he paid off with four of those triple strength density shifted blows, and four of the triple strength tranq hits.

    He chose to dump those twenty four into Might, given the physical nature of his recent attack style. Jessie had given me ten of those heals bursts for another thirty points of Vitality, choosing to lean into her advantages, and Callie had gotten the other fifty one points, specifically because she had enough accumulation to actually trade me some points for myself instead of just adding to my stockpile of attacks. She paid for eight of the wishes with shadow attacks and then the other nine with ten points of Focus, ten points of Perception, and seven points of Vitality.

    With a fresh twenty seven points and a massive stockpile of attacks, I was ready for anything, even if I'd been forced to put Cark on the backburner for a bit to prioritize my team. I still had two fire attacks in any case so that wasn't urgent. Aside from the massive amount of wishes I'd spent the week granting, we also spent the entire time ass deep in combat training. Alden, true to his word, didn't rat us out, but he also kept his promise of watching us like a hawk, which to him apparently meant harsh and brutal training plans he custom tailored for us.

    We could have turned him down, but it gave us a good excuse to interact with him, and a better excuse to continue our training and shore up our foundations a bit in combat. The week was a hellish exercise in persistence as we forced ourselves to follow various training regimens, some reasonable, like weight lifting and fighting constructs, and some insane, like being forced to run across precariously balanced sticks without stats or Skills.

    He gave each of us separate tasks and we undertook them willingly, being forced to spar with new opponents daily to test what we learned, even when dog tired. With our Focus and dedication though, the last week had definitely shown results. We were all much stronger than we had been when it started, even if our Skills hadn't actually improved that much. Alden had helped us merge our Skillsets into our combat styles more holistically, developing trials that allowed us to use one skill at a time to accomplish a task outside the purview of that Skill until we learned to apply them in
    disadvantageous situations.

    After enough of the sessions we were able to use our Skills much more naturally and fluidly in combat, and had learned a ton about when to use them too, rather than just how. We had learned more in the last week than we had since becoming Ascendants, and I could tell without even seeing it that if I fought the me from a week ago, I would have crushed myself within the span of a minute. Honestly at this point I was looking forward to upgrading my DS Mastery and enchanting, because twenty four charges daily just wasn't enough.

    My stockpile of daily attacks had been plenty when I first made the jump up to G rank, but over the last week I'd seen how much smoother I could really be when using my Skills, that kind of fluidity required a sort of ingrained repetition that I couldn't afford at the moment, so I'd also added studying Enchantment to my daily regimen. I'd carved out some time to Enchant at the end of every night with whatever points I had left. It wasn't much, but it was enough to get the Skill moving again, which was all I needed.

    Of course, this was what the three of us had been doing, but Jessie had been undergoing much less training. Or rather our blonde team member had been her own specialized training at the Beast Lord Garden, working her way up the ranks as demanded. She did a few team battles with us, but mostly spent her time in E district, learning more about beast taming and helping heal injured animals. She somehow managed to come home exhausted most night, even with her Vitality, but she was clearly thrilled, and had even picked up Minor Beast Taming Mastery Skill.

    She wasn't going to merge that one, because her eventual goal of saving her brother required her to have the life force related ability, and it was already insanely useful and powerful, but still, having the Skill made her current abilities that much more effective, so no one was going to complain about it. She'd been doing so well that Melinda had even arranged a personal card for her to use the lifts down to E district, which was convenient because I didn't have time to escort her there every day.

    Training aside though, this week had also brought as closer to Alden, who I believed was growing to trust us much more than he had before. Even as he trained us we talked to him, and while he wasn't revealing groundbreaking secrets about the lives of the founders of the circus, he happily shared anecdotes about when the cavalcade was just starting out and the antics all the original performers got up to. After the full week of getting to know each other though, he finally made enough progress to confirm some things, and asked us to meet him in the same spot.

    When we got back there Callie set up the field again, resonating her Stealth Skill, and putting us back into that undetectable state. Despite all the interacting, this was the first time Alden had asked us to head back here, so it was a reasonable assumption that he wanted to talk to us about something sensitive, which really only left one option. Callie smiled at the bearded man. "So, I take it you found something and are deciding to trust us? Or are you planning to share the recipe for the moonshine mash you've been working on."

    "First of all." Said Alden, in an amused tone. "I do trust you, and yes I have information. Second of all, that recipe will follow me to the grave, and you can try to pry it from my cold dead fingers after that. I've been poking around while I had you kids doing your training. I had to oversee most of it, but some of the exercises didn't actually serve a purpose other than forcing you to do embarrassing shit so you would be distracted." He grinned at us. "Don't worry, I made sure to have someone record those for me when I wasn't there."

    I bristled at that. "You fucker! I knew that crab walking thing wasn't a real training method. Don't tell me any of the others, it'll just piss me off. I'm happier reading some nonexistent meaning into everything I did. I suspect I might have learned a few things you didn't even mean to teach me, and I don't want to ruin it. Plus if I don't have details I wont need to punch you in the throat for the humiliation." I made sure my tone was jovial enough that he didn't take it as an actual threat.

    I needn't have bothered. "You're a hundred years too early for that lad. But as you wish." Alden choked in voice rife with barely controlled laughter. "Anyway, as I was saying before you mouthy brats interrupted me with your rabble rousing, I've been looking into what you told me, and I managed to confirm at least some of it. Mel is being too careful for me to manage to uncover what she's doing directly but I managed to put together a series of clues and figure out when she's meeting with her benefactors."

    "I don't like it..." Alden said sadly. "But I'm willing to bring you along to scout the meeting. Something about this feels off, and worst case I can keep you three in line, but if I bring you I want your word that none of you will interfere actively without my say so. Aside from not knowing exactly what's going on, I also don't want you ruining things if the meeting isn't what we think it is. I will stop you if you try to get in the way of legitimate Pavilion business, is that understood?"

    His voice was serious enough that we knew there was no room for argument, and we all nodded. Callie confirmed it aloud as soon as she saw we were on board. "Agreed. We'll give you priority on when to move. All we want is to see these people. We don't need to act directly." I had ways of identifying others, so it wasn't necessary for us to wade into a fight in an inopportune moment. Not that we were afraid to wade in if he decided to intervene, but promising to stay back so we could get the information we were here for was fine. We could always attack later if needed.

    The bearded man sighed in relief. "Good. I won't lie to you, I'm a bit worried about all this. Mel might be in over her head. I don't doubt she received plenty of assurances we would all be alright, and was probably even promised she would retain control, but she's a bit straightforward at the best of times. When she's dealing with her feelings for Cicero she's practically a bull in mid charge, and it wouldn't be hard to slip some sneaky terms by her. I like you kids well enough, but I'm not in the business of trusting most newcomers. I doubt whoever Mel is working with has intentions as benevolent as she probably thinks they do."

    I winced at the reminder of learning that exact lesson from Cicero not too long ago. Callie, ever the focused member of our little band, got to the heart of the matter. "So when is this meeting taking place? It would be nice to have some time to prepare. Not that we're going to need it for a simple recon mission, but its nice to make sure of things before you go charging off into danger. Double check our equipment and so on." It was a pretty flimsy excuse. He probably thought we wanted to stock up on bombs or something. In reality I knew Callie was thinking about using wishes to make sure things shook out in our favor.

    Alden gave her a suspicious look, but finally nodded with another sigh. "It's tomorrow night. I only managed to find out about it by tracking the movements of some of Mel's more loyal lackeys. That girl has a knack for inspiring her people, but she isn't always too smart about deploying them. Battle maniacs don't make good spies. I don't know exactly who the meeting is with, like I said, but I was able to put together its existence at least. As for the exact time, I know one of the people who will be there. We'll tail him to the meet."

    With that laid out, we arranged a time the next night to meet up, and then said our goodbyes. None of us were stupid enough to spend the day training and getting our asses kicked before a possible huge confrontation. We all headed back up, calling Jessie home from the Beast Lord Garden to fill her in. We would be bringing the wolves along for this obviously. They were very stealthy when needed and would be a huge force multiplier, even if they had to hang back at the start. Once that was done we started to plan as best we could. I had the sinking suspicion that this wasn't just going to be a simple recon mission, and if it went sideways, we needed to be ready.
     
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  18. Threadmarks: chapter 226
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The preparations for the meeting we were crashing began the next day. Benny made the wishes after talking with Callie for a bit. It seemed like I was running into a wall on storing more than ten of any one kind of attack, and Benny was best able to supply a new type. Callie was thinking about trying to supply a stealth ability for the next try, but we figured experiments should be done when we didn't have so many important things on the line, so Benny paid for the wishes with five uses of his spider leg attack.

    It was temporary, just like his was, but still a G ranked pair of extra sharp limbs was a damn useful thing to have in my back pocket, especially with my DS skills to modify it with. once that was done Callie pulled him aside and discussed the potential wishes we might need. Once he had a good idea of what we should do without my input mucking things up, he came back and got started. "Ok. So we talked it over and we have a few wishes for the meeting. Mostly environmental stuff to help us stay hidden."

    I just raised an eyebrow, waiting. Seeing I had no questions he started with the first one. "Ok, first off I wish during the duration of the meeting, every possible clue that might reveal our presence would be masked, and by possible I mean as many as I can afford not every clue conceivable." He's obviously put a decent amount of thought into this, and one he said it, the usual purple flame licked across my vision.

    Wish detected. Grant wish? After confirmation I got the rundown. Stat points sufficient. Requirements: 270 Perception, 219 Focus, 36 Impact. I whistled. That was a decent chunk of points, but that was good, it had been a modular wish, which was what I called the ones that were open ended and just applied the best possible version of the effect. More points meant more effect, and this many should hide us from plenty of accidental slips if we made any. Benny paid with the spider leg attack and I felt the growing charge in my body explode into the ether, altering the world around us.

    Benny, meanwhile, seized up, falling to his knees in pain as the price was extracted. I panicked a bit, wondering why it was painful when Callie's hadn't worked like this, and then Benny gagged and vomited up a pool of molten gold the same color as the spider legs, which flowed across the floor and up my leg, funneling up my body and condensing into a small golden gear mark with a C in the middle near the other symbols.

    Benny lay there for a minute, dry heaving and shuddering on the ground before staggering back to his feet and slumping back on the couch he'd been sitting on before he fell. "Well, that was deeply unpleasant. Sucks I have to do it four more times." He hacked a few more times and Jessie brought him a glass of water, pumping some life force into him to patch up any injury or exhaustion.

    She rubbed his back for a while, imbuing her touch with green power. Her expression turned worried as she glanced up at us. "I don't know if doing these too close together is a good idea. That was pretty rough looking. I don't think he's actually injured, but it seemed draining." She frowned seriously. "I might be able to overcharge him enough to offset the drain though. I'll leave it up to you Ben, whatever you want to do is fine. I trust our fearless leader won't ignore her healer's recommendation?" She arched an eyebrow at Callie.

    "Not at all." Callie said quickly, putting both hands up in a placating gesture. "If he doesn't think he can keep going we can wait. The meeting isn't until later tonight, so there's no rush. We can space these out to let him adjust. That really did look kind of rough." Callie's blue eyes cast a concerned glance at my previously shaking and drained friend. I'd have been worried too, but I knew from earlier wish sessions what Benny could handle when he put his mind to it. He would tell us if it was too much.

    Sure enough, he shook his head. "I'm fine. I appreciate the worry, but Jessie's little pick me up did me a world of good. I can definitely keep going. I'll let you know if I need a break, but I want to get these out of the way so I have time to take a nap. I don't want to feel like this when we're heading to the actual meeting." He turned to me. "I wish that the enemy we'll be watching would be as unguarded as possible in their speech so we can learn their secrets more easily. Obviously I'll be paying with the spider legs again."

    Wish detected. Grant wish? I hesitated this time before confirmation, but I trusted Benny to know his limits. Stat points sufficient. Requirements: 219 Focus, 36 Impact, 270 Perception. I noted that the stat distribution here was basically the same. I suspected those thirty six points of Impact were making up for quite a bit of lacking potency in the wish, but those two stats being used for essentially the opposite of the first wish made plenty of sense. Once again the purple electricity built and exploded out into the ether, leaving Benny choking on the ground.

    This time he seemed less affected though. Jessie had kept him topped up and he was clearly in better shape despite still not enjoying the process. Once he was done he held up a hand, taking another drink from the water glass. "Ok, I don't need too long, but give me at least a minute. That was loads better, but it still sucked ass. You better fucking cherish these attacks, because no way am I ever doing this shit again."

    I winced at his comment, and Callie finally stepped in. "Ok. That's enough. Switch attacks for the last three, Benny. Shane, you can hold ten of each type right? And he's only given you four of the density shifted triple and tranq blows. Use those instead. You can trade the other spider leg attacks for stats later if you want, but give yourself some time to adjust." MY friend grimaced but after that second try he was willing to make a change. He wasn't giving up, but switching to a different attack type wouldn't halt the wishes.

    He sat up with a groan from where he'd been on hands and knees. "Fine." He said in a raspy voice. "I'll pay the last three with triple tranqs. Those will be the most useful anyway. Sharp limbs are great, but knocking people out is a good match for your style. I wish for a random escape teleport applied to me that will take me to a random place somewhere in the city if I come under attack." He paused. "Then, I wish for one for Jessie and her wolves, and one for Callie. I figure with Zeke there you should be fine if the worst happens, right?"

    As before, the wish energy began to gather, and I confirmed it as I read over the stat requirements. Wish detected. Grant wish? Stat points sufficient. Requirements: 291 Might, 63 Fantasy, 270 Perception, 219 Focus, 35 Impact. I had been worried about granting three in a row, but it seemed as long as the wishes were made separately my power could queue them up like that. Benny and Callie were worth the same to transport, but Jessie, probably by virtue of bringing the wolves along, also cost two hundred Vitality, which I happily paid for.

    I felt my power surge and discharge three more times, and each one pulled more and more from me. Granting big wishes was tough, and these were large. I was the one on the floor this time, and Jessie stepped up to infuse me with lifeforce, which really helped. Wishes took a lot out of me, but it was worth it. I looked up at the others. "Alright, that should be enough to keep us pretty safe once we're there. If we get into too much trouble I can slip away with Double Trouble probably. I have escape skills for this, plus Zeke watching my back."

    Callie sighed, helping me up. "I guess. I'm worried about this though. I get not using one of the teleports on you, with your background you'll be the safest if push comes to shove. Still, I don't like it. The thought of leaving you behind doesn't sit right with me, even as a hypothetical." I pulled her into my arms, squeezing her tight as she laid her head on my shoulder, knowing that sometimes there wasn't anything to say to refute someone's fears, and that when I had moments like that, a hug was usually the most helpful response.

    Personally I was just glad Jessie could bring the wolves with her. I hadn't been sure that would work until it did. Their Vitality connection and the fact that they weren't sapient was probably the main reason. It was still damn convenient for us. With the wishes out of the way for the day, there was only so much prep work I could do before tonight now. I told the others I was going to do some training and left them to their own devices, giving Callie another tight hug. She stayed to talk to Jessie about their day out, which had been postponed due to our insane training schedule.

    I had a massive stockpile of attacks if I needed them, so I decided to work on upgrading some of the DS Mastery subskills. I'd need them all upgraded before I could get that Skill to intermediate. I decided the first skill upgrade I would focus on was Stone Limb. That skill had become much less useful over time because of the long buildup needed. Touching rock was fine, but touching rock for thirty seconds was just too big a liability mid combat to be useful.

    I decided not to do too many of these, we weren't planning any combat tonight, but even with the wishes I wasn't stupid enough to burn all my enchantment charges before an operation. I settled on fourteen. That would leave me ten charges to work with, and literally dozens of attacks stored up to use them with. I placed my hand on the dirt in the training room, the track was made from the stuff. Then I triggered Stone Limb, straining the skill to make it form faster. It hurt my head but I managed to shave down the time from tens of seconds to only eight.

    Of course, that wasn't fast enough, and it still hurt. So I repeated myself. Eight seconds to six, six to four, four to three, then to one. I finally got the cast time down to a second, and then I began perfecting that. I used the one second cast Stone Limb, then used it again, each time I got more and more proficient at it. The more I forced the skill into that shape, the less it hurt, and the more natural the changes became to the skill itself. One use, two, five, each one making it more and more complete until finally, the changes were permanent. Like a puzzle piece clicking into place, Stone Limb CHANGED.

    I pressed a hand to the ground, triggering the skill normally with the last of the fourteen charges, and I grinned as the rock climbed my arm, officially snapping into place in a single second, and finalizing the change to the second of my subskills. Two down, plenty more to go, but it was fine. I'd take my time and optimize every skill for my new combat style. This wasn't just a task to do, it was an opportunity to customize the Skill to my exact needs, and I wasn't going to waste it. When DS Mastery upgraded, I planned for it to become an even more key part of my arsenal.
     
  19. Threadmarks: chapter 227
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    We set up on top of a building near the east end of G district to watch the meeting. We hadn't known where it was, but the guy we were following showed up early, so we had some waiting to do. We hid up on top of a building with Callie using her stealth field to cover us. The wishes should cover us even if something went wrong with that, but there was no use advertising that to Alden, plus it was more amusing to be able to talk during the wait instead of sitting in silence.

    Sadly, nobody felt like chatting, we were all too tense, so we did end up just sitting around until the meeting started. It was easy to notice when that happened, because one second the blonde guy with the pointy beard was alone, and the next he was surrounded by a number of figured in pitch black robes with beaten bronze masks. I nudged Alden. "Any ideas where the hell they came from? Because I don't recognize them as any faction I've heard of, but my experience is limited."

    The bearded man looked troubled, but shook his head. No, but that doesn't mean anything. One use costumes are often employed for meetings like this. Keeps people from being traced. All we can do is wait and listen to what they say, then maybe try to follow them." Of course, he didn't know about the wishes we'd set up to make sure someone here slipped. We would definitely get some clues.

    The blonde guy, Marc, cleared his throat loudly, making it plainly visible that he wasn't comfortable here. "Good, you've arrived. There's a problem. Your agents aren't holding up their end. Ronnie the Beef was up to the task, but Way Crazy Wyatt is barely focused on shaking confidence in Cicero's leadership at all. He's too caught up in rampaging around and enjoying himself."

    One of the figures made a disapproving sound. "As expected. It is simply not worth trusting such unreliable figured to advance our goals. I suspect a more visceral response is needed. Perhaps...unleashing the Wendigo?" His voice was wicked and cruel, reveling in the suffering he was proposing, and something gave me a very bad feeling about whatever he'd just suggested.

    Not that it mattered. One of the other masked figures smacked him upside the back of his head. "Gods damn it Andy, we've been over this. That is NEVER a proportionate response to anything. Stop suggesting it. You don't even save it for times when it's hypothetically warranted. Last week you suggested we unleash the Wendigo on Darrel when he made us all chip in for the lunch bill. It's never going to happen."

    Andy rubbed the back of his head, muttering under his breath. "I thought it was a good idea. Not my fault you guys are so wimpy about how you get things done. It would have totally worked too. I bet you not a single person would have been causing trouble for us if we unleashed the Wendigo."

    The other robed figure raised a hand again and Andy shied back. The unnamed figured ground out. "Yes, because they would have been dead. Everything would have been dead. That's literally all the Wendigo is good for. There's a reason we keep it in a dark hole in the ground." He paused, clearly suspicious of something. "Have you been going down there to talk to it on weekends again? You know we told you to stop doing that."

    The third unnamed figure sighed. "Enough, Paul. He's young, I'll talk to the boss about keeping him out of the pit. You're not wrong that it's a bad idea to be down there." His eyes swiveled to Andy. "And you, the next time you suggest we unleash the Wendigo for any reason other than some kind of war, I'm going to throw you in that hole yourself and you can try talking to it in person." He glared for a minute before turning back to the blonde man. "Apologies. You know how the newbies can be."

    "As for the rest of it." The unnamed third figure said. "We aren't your babysitters. We already committed quite a bit of resources to this venture, helping Mr. Jack-tastic break through to E rank and then arranging for the Jerks to be shipped over. Getting them here through WCP channels without alerting any of our enemies was no mean feat, and we did so under the impression you would use the opportunities granted to assume control." That was interesting. I could only assume that Mr. Jack-Tastic had used some sort of elixir to make his breakthrough. I'd don that myself with my breakthrough to G rank, so I knew it worked as long as you hadn't used up your safe elixir percentage. They had taken a much more direct approach than expected.

    Marc snarled. "We're TRYING, but they're incompetent. Cicero has been in charge for quite some time, and a vote of no confidence isn't something any of the factions in the circus are going to rally behind unless it comes at the right time. We need to prove him unfit, and your lackeys aren't getting the damn job done. I don't know what you need the circus for, but you wouldn't have been doing all this for nothing. You can't just bail at the last second."

    Third figure shook his head. "That's where you're wrong. We approached Melissa because as a fringe element she was more amenable to working with us, but her very attempt to oust him will be sufficient pressure to leverage Cicero into an agreement if needed. We've wasted too much time and effort on this venture, and we're done. Figure this out with the resources we've given you, or we'll take another path to our objectives. Don't contact us again unless the job is completed or you're forfeiting the contract. But be warned. If you give up, you'll be responsible for repaying the resources used. That is a heavy bill."

    Marc looked furious. I had expected him to pull back meekly, scared of the forces behind the robed men, but I had neglected to remember one very important thing. Marc was a member of the Starchaser Pavilion, and everyone there was a fucking lunatic. A red glow suffused the man as he began to grow. Marc's body shifted and changed until the formerly medium sized man was twenty feet tall, glaring down at the hooded figures. "You think I'm fucking scared of you chumps? We're not your dogs. We agreed to work with you as equals, if you think you can threaten the pavilion and get away with it you have another thing coming!"

    His voice boomed across the street around us, driven by massive powerful lungs as he bellowed in rage and lifted a foot to slam it down on the nearest figure. The closest man to him, Andy, snorted and raised his hands, clouds of frost gathering to his palms as he prepared to receive the strike. Before I could register what was happening, Alden cursed and darted out of our concealment, leaping from the rooftop and smashing down among the three figures harder than should have been possible.

    I watched ground crack beneath him and then saw the other three men stagger as something slammed into them, and I figured out exactly what Alden's power was. Gravity. Alden's ability was the power to effect gravity. I almost whistled. That was a hell of a power. In the end though I didn't have time. I glanced over to Callie. "Ok, I get why he didn't want to watch one of his get torn apart, because three on one is bad odds even for a pavilion member, but what are we supposed to do?"

    "The deal was we wouldn't interfere without his permission. He specifically mentioned interfering with pavilion business." Callie said with a grimace. "We're supposed to stay out of it. If Alden can't handle this we can jump in, but for now stay in concealment. He seems to think he's strong enough to take all of us, so I doubt he'll have a problem with a two on three fight." She didn't sound any happier than I was, but she settled back in to watch, and I did the same. The wish would cover us enough not to be revealed unless we broke stealth.

    I heard the unhappy growls of the wolves and grimaced. We might understand staying back, but the puppies weren't really ones for planning. We kept them in line, but it was still unfortunate. I focused back on the fight to take my mind off things. And damned if it didn't. Alden was tearing apart the three robed men, while Marc was standing back in shock watching his boss rip through them. Not literally mind you, there was no blood, but it was easy to see the integration of combat and ability in every one of his moves.

    Alden's combat style involved lots of grappling. Joint locks, throws, even holds. But where a normal person would use their center of gravity and body weight for that, Alden seemingly blended his power into his fighting style completely. Throws involved smashing gravitational strikes, locks were assisted by vortexes of gravity pulling the limb in whichever way it was being twisted and holds crushed down with power of a plummeting mountain, pinning the men under an inexorable weight.

    The ice hands that Andy had used had never managed to land as Alden swept under the outstretched grip and grabbed the man in a suplex, smashing him down with force multiplied exponentially by a powerful gravitational pull. Every action and motion was supported by his power, making it exponentially more effective, but the actual martial art at play was clearly an incredible polished combat style that would have been devastating even without it. It took Alden roughly a minute and a half to crush the three of them.

    The other two tried to intervene, one using some kind of acid conjuration and the other some kind of golden augmentation energy, but nothing managed to stop the bearded man as he took them apart. Despite the amazing show though, that wasn't the biggest shock. We'd gone out of our way to wish for the opponents to slip up and reveal something, and then had. It was the third man, Paul, who used that golden energy. When he'd gone down, had lost his mask, and my eyes snapped to Callie's as we both recognized him. He was the obnoxious attendant from Sanctuary Hall. The one who had been yammering on about the Peace Lord as he brought us in to speak to the E ranker.

    That meant we now knew who the faction backing the Jerks and trying to oust Cicero was. The ones working with the other Candidate. It was Sanctuary Hall. The healers were the ones behind all of this. I tried to puzzle through the potential fallout of this, and couldn't even begin to grasp it. I wasn't a politician, and even if I had been we'd never actually learned the ins and outs of the politics here beyond what we needed to know. This whole plan was a massive line of carefully arranged dominos and we were only able to see the last few to fall.

    Alden was restraining the robed figures and turning to tell off the giant form of Marc, who was now literally shrinking back from the smaller man as he resumed his original size. I noticed a slight movement to one side and barely managed to call out a warning to Alden as a massive wave of black corrosive gas came pouring down the street, seemingly appearing from nowhere. The bearded man reacted fast, stomping down and smashing a depression in the ground where he and Marc could take cover.

    The gas receded, and I saw Alden had shielded Marc's body with his own, his back scorched and twisted by the corrosion, though I was relieved to note he was still alive. Marc helped him to his feet. "Alden? Can you hear me? Come on boss man, don't black out, you need to stay conscious." The rest of us were already on the way down to help, and the wolves, Callie, Benny and I took up a defensive perimeter as Jessie put her hands on the bearded man and began to heal him. I didn't have time to watch the progress though, I was too busy staring hard at the series of robed figures emerging from the dark of the street. Looked like these assholes had brought backup.
     
  20. Threadmarks: chapter 228
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    There were six new robed figures, all wearing hammered bronze masks just like the ones on the other men. The one at the front, who based on position I assumed was responsible for the wave of corrosive black gas, turned to the downed figures. "Honestly. The three of you had one job. This is what happens when we let Andy go on jobs, so I own that one, but I expected better from you Paul. Honestly, can't even handle some nobody G ranker and an old man. I'm ashamed to belong to the same organization as the three of you."

    I stared in horror at the casually chiding man, focusing in on him with a sinking feeling in my stomach as my Perception told me what my brain had been trying to deny. This guy was a fucking F-ranker. The others were all G rank, but this guy was hands down the most powerful person here. I felt my gut clench at the idea of trying to harm him. With my new tricks I MIGHT be able to manage something if it was one on one, but against eight G-rankers at the same time? We were fucked. No two ways about it.

    I cleared my throat. "Well, seems like you folks have some HR stuff to handle. Personally I hate when other people sit in on peer reviews, so we'll just take our friends and go. Good luck to you all." I turned to try to leave, knowing I couldn't but at least being confident that our preparations could save my team. I was personally completely screwed, but those teleports would whisk them away before they had a chance to come to harm, so all I had to worry about was getting Alden out of here, and probably Marc since I doubted he would leave him.

    Before I could take a step another wave of terrifying black gas circled around me and ripped a huge chunk of street out from in front of me, making it impossible to proceed. I gulped. Black gas wielding mask guy snickered a bit. "Sorry buddy, your pals went after one of mine. I can't have people spreading around that I let my people get attacked. Bad for my reputation you see. It's my job to protec-" His smug diatribe was cut off by a burst of flame as I unleashed one of my two stored fire attacks.

    Mercy Kill, Touch of Tears, Consecration of Flames, Afterburner, hell I even tried to superimpose one of Benny's triple strikes on it, though I couldn't get it to work. Still, that was a blast of flame from Cark, who was middle to peak G-grade in pure Might, multiplied several times over and infused with vicious poison. It was literally the heaviest blow I'd ever thrown in my life, and the absolute explosion of aqua flame that consumed the whole street within twenty feet of where the man had been standing would have killed literally any G-ranker I had ever met expect maybe Abel.

    Which only made it all the more heartbreaking as the flames receded and I saw the masked man standing only lightly singed in front of a crowd of much more badly burned but still alive G-rankers. I could almost feel the force of the glare from behind the mask. "That was rude. Here we were having a perfectly nice chat and you go and try to exterminate all of us. Granted, it was an impressive effort for a G-ranker. I have to say that might have even been enough to barely cross the rank gap. Not enough to hurt me mind, but I've met F-ranked fighters that would have worked on, so you can die proud."

    I gaped, until I remembered that raw numbers weren't the only factor in play. The Impact difference was a full twenty points, and this guy probably wasn't too early in the F-ranks either. I'd took my biggest shot and it hadn't done shit to him. I was barely standing at this point, and it occurred to me that using my biggest punch might have been a bad plan. I'd panicked and tried to sucker punch them, and I was pretty sure that blast would have killed the G-rankers if the leader hadn't protected them, but now I was exhausted and vulnerable.

    A hand landed on my shoulder, and I looked down to see Alden stepped forward, cracking his neck. "A good try lad, but you're far too low in stats to fight up a rank, even with...whatever that was. Despite being powerful, that was ultimately a G-ranked attack, so the effectiveness was massively diluted. It's possible to fight up ranks, but it's nearly unheard of to drop a higher ranked opponent in a single blow. It's all about accumulation. I'll engage him, can your lot hold back the riffraff?"

    I nodded, gesturing to Jessie to dispatch the wolves. Marc was back on his feet and Jessie and Benny joined Callie in attacking the G-ranked robed figures. Unfortunately, they had emergency escape effects on them. If any of them received what would be even a solid blow, they would be gone. If it happened to Jessie we'd lose not just our healer, but the wolves too. Despite being exhausted, I decided to help out. I triggered another shadow attack, infusing it with Flurry of Blows. The blades of darkness ripped from the ground right in the middle of the group of figures, causing them to scatter.

    I would have liked to use more of my DS modifiers, but unfortunately I'd wasted way too many charges improving my stone limb. The others started attacking the figures as soon as I disrupted them, and Alden blitzed forward to engage the leader directly. He rocketed across the street, smashing into the man like a wrecking ball with his shoulder. It was a monstrous attack, on a level it was hard to even contemplate taking, and I was absolutely sure that it surpassed the threshold of a thousand points of force.

    The leader took a step back with a small grunt at the hit, but Alden took advantage of the moment of retreat and began his attack. Whatever this man's stats were, I was pretty sure Alden had more Might. He just wasn't as fast as the bearded man. I knew everyone had a few dump stats, and Might must have been one of his. The shorter fighter had stuck close, and was taking advantage of a combination of a massively more advanced martial arts knowledge and the perfect fusion of that knowledge with his ability to contend with the robed boss.

    Lots of grappling and locks when possible, but unfortunately the enemy knew his own weaknesses too. He'd coated his body with that black gas, and Alden's skin was being eaten away as he attacked. He didn't stop, just kept up his assault, ignoring the damage even as a green glow sprung up and started to repair the damage. While his Vitality wasn't enough to offset a higher ranked attack, it seemed like Jessie had loaded him up on life force. It must have been burning away his charge at an insane rate, but it WAS healing him.

    The other fighter wasn't too high Vitality either from what I can see, most likely specializing in Creation and maybe Perception. This guy was pure battlefield control, which with a rank advantage would have been devastating without Alden to soak up his attention, but despite his confidence, our bearded friend wasn't exactly winning this fight as much as he was surviving it.

    Alden grunted as he traded blows with the more powerful warrior, barking over his shoulder. "Damn it boy, get your people out of here, I'm having more trouble than expected, I can't have you damn fools distracting me. Take Marc with you. " Despite that, he didn't look surprised, and I realized that he'd always been planning to lose. He was just buying us time so we could get away. Before my eyes, the wounds started to close slower and slower. He was using holds to muscle the other man into place for some brutal strikes, holding him down by using the gravitational joint locking move I'd seen earlier, but keeping his hands on the other man was taking its toll, and he was almost out of Jessie's energy.

    I triggered a heal burst on myself and then another one aimed at Alden, which shockingly worked, showing that I didn't need touch to heal others when using one of my stored heals. I felt my body flood with energy to combat the weakness as Alden started to regain momentum. I tried to see if I could give him some of my stored abilities, but other than the healing none of them worked. I supposed because the healing was always meant to be able to effect both the self and others.

    I decided to try to take out the other figures so maybe Alden could leave with us. I could probably at least delay the robed bastard that long. As I turned I noted that Jessie and the wolves were gone. Their teleports were probably triggered. Callie and Benny were working together and had avoided getting tagged with any solid blows, even managing to take down two of the five. The original three were still restrained and I jumped in to help, five on three not seeming like that bad of odds compared to the other fight. I kept an eye on Alden though, so I could throw him more heal bursts if needed.

    I dropped a Touch of Tears and Consecration of Flame combo on my cane, then triggered Leaf on the Wind. All of them were longer term attacks that would last me a while, so I didn't have to worry about burning charges. I couldn't wait to upgrade my damn Enchanting Skill so I had an extra twenty four a day to play with. I leapt up into the air, sailing over the heads of Callie, who was engaging two of them without problems, towards the spot where Benny was being battered by the three others. As I came down I swung the cane like a sledgehammer, spiking down on one of them with a triple damage density shift blow I got from Benny, smashing down on a collarbone like a descending star.

    There was a loud snap as the blow connected, snapping the thick bone and driving the robed figure to his knees. I saw him try to gather a cloud of mist to form some sort of object, but I stepped off the air with a Cloud Step and stomp kicked the bastard in his masked face, knocking him out cold before I landed lightly. I had three charges left and my head was starting to hurt from spamming them, but I had enough presence of mind to check on the downed man. The poison fire was hurting him, but not enough to kill him.

    I heard a shout of warning and whirled to check what had happened when I noticed a glowing gold sledgehammer the size of a horse appear before me and smash into me hard. I was sent flying away from the downed combatant and smashed into a nearby building, my body cracking the wall. I looked up to find that Benny had taken the momentary lapse to take down one of his opponents, but Callie had been hit hard enough to trigger her teleport and the last of her own opponents had ganged up on him from behind.

    He'd taken a hit and yelled a warning before being ported away, leaving me alone with what felt like a broken arm and shoulder and two opponents left. Meanwhile Alden was getting his ass kicked, and I dropped a healing burst into each of us to help. Sadly it was too late, as Alden missed a block and got a massive hole burned in his side. The whole burst went to keeping him alive and he had no way to defend from the next blow.

    The leader was cackling like a lunatic as he charged up some kind of gas bomb, ready to kill Alden and probably finish me off, when I caught something out of the corner of my eye. A motion, so subtle I almost missed it, preceded a fist the size of a fucking train car smashing headlong into the F-ranker and sending him careening down the street like a skipping stone in a pond. "Well now." Said a calm, thoughtful voice. "I'm afraid I have to ask."

    A man stepped from the shadows, and I couldn't fight the grin that split my face as I recognized him. He narrowed his eyes behind his distinctive rabbit mask and glared coldly after the now rising F-ranker. The calm and thoughtful tone melting away into a simmering cauldron of white hot rage. "Exactly hose fucking teacher do you think you're putting your hands on?"
     
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  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 229
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I'd met Abel a few times now, and every one of them he'd come across as a carefree, somewhat loony man, who just did his own thing and didn't much care what anyone thought. He was friendly, polite, and most likely laughing at you behind that mask even if you couldn't tell, but not in a malicious way. Seeing him here like this though, I didn't see any of those things. The mask was still a black rabbit, it should have looked ridiculous. It should have been impossible for him to be intimidating.

    But he WAS intimidating. Despite being a G-ranker standing before a higher ranked enemy and a group of similarly ranked thugs, Abel Castleton wasn't losing out to any of them in sheer momentum of presence. It wasn't Impact, he only had the same twelve I did based on how he felt, this was something less definitive. An aura of barely restrained violence, of bloodlust and the willingness to do harm, as well as the absolute certainty that harm WOULD be done if he chose to inflict it. Standing in front of Abel was, almost ironically given his prey like mask, like standing in front of an enraged predator on the hunt.

    The version of him I'd seen in the Labyrinth had been kind of scary, but it was more wild. He'd been a big blunt instrument. Maybe with some edge, like a heavy axe, but his presence had been impersonal. He was dangerous and violent, but it was just a fact. Water was wet, the sky was blue, and Abel was going to fuck you up if you gave him a reason. This was much less universal. Abel wasn't radiating the ability to fuck up everyone, he was radiating the INTENT to murder these robed assholes, and that intent was much more terrifying for how controlled and sharp it was.

    There was a shifting of stone in the background as the leader stood up from the rubble of the building he hit with Abel's first blow. Even behind his mask, I could tell that he was seething, and he staled back down the street to take his place between the last two members of his entourage, and among the unconscious and restrained bodies of the other six. As one might expect, there was barely restrained fury in his stance as well, though not the amount of fear that I felt was warranted here.

    That wasn't exactly a shock though. Abel's reputation wasn't exactly something universal down here. People knew him, but he wasn't at the front of everyone's mind after so long away. Most people just thought of him as the wacky sausage seller. They had forgotten exactly who Spruce Bunny used to be, but judging by the faces peeking out of windows in the surrounding buildings, there were more than a few of them about to getting a stern reminder today.

    "How dare you?" The leader spat. "Do you know who I am? What I am capable of? How dare some pissant G-ranker put his hands on me. Do you morons even comprehend what the rank difference is? I might as well be a god down here. How dare you ignorant plebians sully my robes with your filth, inflict your absurd delusions of relevance on me in the discharging of my duties? I'm going to show-"

    There was a flicker, and another train sized fist smashed into him like an oncoming locomotive. He didn't go flying this time, having dug his feet into the concrete beneath him. He was still forced back easily a dozen feet, tearing a long furrow in the ground as he glared through the beaten bronze, nearly panting with rage. Abel just glared at him, so angry it was almost palpable. "Are you done? Because I have to say, the 'you're all ants to me' monologue is hardly original, and I can't begin to tell you how annoying it gets after the first few times you hear it."

    The leader sputtered with fury, so angry he had to take a second to form coherent words. "I am PHANTASM you rodent. I've walked this world for decades, wreaking havok and inflicting misery on my enemies. To think to subdue me, especially with a rank difference." He reached up, removing the mask to show a wild eyed man with pale features and green and purple hair. "I'll enjoy crushing you, seeing the humiliation and shame in your eyes when I murder your so called teacher right in front of-"

    And then Abel was gone. No. Not gone. Somewhere else. He'd used that weird spatial fluidity to step across the intervening distance in a single motion, appearing right in front of Phantasm and his cronies. Phantasm reeled back, eyes wide as he threw up his hands, a wave of corrosive black gas swallowing the area in front of him. Rather than try to break it with force, Abel simply stepped to the side and kind of...swerved. It was hard to understand as it was happening. I could only assume he'd created a sort of half moon shape of spatial lubricant and stepped into it, because in a flash he'd looped around behind the other man.

    A fist smashed into Phantasm from behind, and it hit as if it was the size of a bus, but due to Abel's ability completely avoided any intervening space. It kind of made my head hurt just watching it. I knew that even if Abel was punching him through a single fist sized hole in a wall, he could still land that same titanic blow without damaging the wall around his hand, it wasn't a size changing power after all. The fist crashed into Phantasm, shoving him forward into his own corrosion, which he hurriedly dispersed into wisps of mist as he caught himself.

    Unfortunately his footing was unsteady, and he caught himself in an unbalanced, forward leaning state. Abel swerveds again, and drove his fist up as he appeared. Due to his forward stumble and momentum, it almost looked like Phantasm threw himself onto Abel's fist chin first. The ascending fist exploded up from under the falling man with the force of a plummeting mountain, and I heard a sharp crack as the hand made contact.

    Then Abel proceeded to beat him. It wasn't flashy, or awe inspiring. It was brutal. Phantasm didn't even have a chance to react. Where Alden had been barely managing to exploit openings and weaknesses, Abel was methodically hammering every weak spot the other man had. Not just obvious ones either. Each blow set up the next, and the one after, creating openings that hadn't been there and exploiting them before Phantasm even knew they were there.

    It wasn't a power difference, as much as it looked like one. Oh, granted, Abel's Might was probably in the higher end of G-rank, and I imagined he had a dozen Skills to improve and heighten physical damage, but that was irrelevant. I think even with my strength he probably could have managed it. He could see exactly what the other man was going to do and each move was designed to restrain Phantasm before he could get a speck of momentum.

    The purple and green haired man tried to kill him too, multiple times, but he could never bring his power to bear for more than short bursts, because Abel was ringing his bell hard enough to make conjuring any significant amount of concentration impossible. The worst part was I was pretty sure Abel could have killed him with the first blow, but he didn't. He DESTROYED him. Every blow broke something or caused excruciating pain, and Abel just kept hammering away.

    The others tried to help, though one of them died pretty quickly, his head melted off by a burst of black gas Abel effortlessly avoided. I felt my stomach turn at the sight. He wasn't the first person I'd seen die, but even the head exploding in the underground arena hadn't been quite as gruesome as this. The rabbit masked man killed the other one with a sharp punch to the chest, hitting him so perfectly that I only realized he'd actually stopped the mans heart when the body fell over, seemingly undamaged.

    Even then, he didn't stop. Phantasm became less and less able to resist, his attempt to fight back wilder and more violent, but none of them touched Abel, despite the horrible corrosion damage to the street around them, and the few times I saw him try to target Alden from a distance Abel attacked hard enough to force him to reorient. Eventually the other man was lying on the ground, seriously injured, even his Vitality overcome by the sheer amount of damage inflicted despite lower ranked wounds not being as effective.

    He stared up at Abel in horror, blood bubbling from between his ruined lips as his eyes shone with fear and pleading. "I...I'm sorry. I didn't know someone like you was here. Please. I'm with Sanctuary Hall, please don't kill me. We can pay you! We can give you healing, resources, anything you want. You don't need to do this." His voice was choked and labored, his eyes streaming tears, but credit to him, he didn't try to threaten or bully Abel. I think he could tell as well as I could that it wouldn't work.

    Abel just stared down at him from behind his mask. The fury was still there, but it wasn't hot anymore, it was cold, and I felt the icy chill of death radiating off him as his voice rang out, a single clipped syllable with such a frigid hate radiating through it that it scared me just listening to it. "No." Then his foot lashed out like a striking snake, catching Phantasm's head at a very specific angle and twisting it along the rotation of his neck, snapping it and killing him instantly. Abel stared down at the body for a moment, breathing heavily, and I could almost so the bloodlust inside him clawing to get out.

    But instead, he took a long, slow breath, and it all just...vanished. The anger, the hate, the violence, it all melted away like that ice had been exposed to the bright summer sunshine, and as it did,Abel pretty much transformed. Between one breath and the next, the terrifying predator vanished, and Spruce Bunny, the friendly sausage seller, was back. His shoulders drooped, his smile became more friendly, and a dozen other imperceptible things shifted, turning him into a completely different person in the blink of an eye. I blanched. If anything, that was the scariest thing he had done tonight, and I'd just watched him literally beat a higher ranked Ascendant to death with his bare hands over the course of several minutes.

    He shot me that same friendly smile from when I'd been to the sausage cart. "Well, hello there! Sorry I seemed to have missed your friends. I appreciate the effort you went through to help my teacher." He cut a sardonic look at where Alden was laying, healed up from that least heal burst after being left alone for so long, but obviously absolutely exhausted as he lay on his back, gasping for breath. "The old man is a bit of a busybody, but he dotes on his students, and it's always good to see that kind of loyalty repaid."

    Casually sauntering over to where the bearded man was wheezing on the ground, Abel knelt down, looking into the eyes of the exhausted man with a grin. "Just can't help sticking your nose in everyone else's business huh Alden? What exactly did Mel do this time? You're too old and careful for me to believe this is your fault." Alden didn't answer and Abel rolled his eyes. "Fine. I'll ask her myself." Alden's eyes widened, and mine along with them, as Abel extended a hand and pulled him to his feet. "I suppose it's time to go home."
     
  22. Threadmarks: chapter 230
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    The first thing I did after Abel's crazy rampage was call Callie and the others. My girlfriend was frantic when she picked up the line, her face appearing on the floating screen over my scan ring. I saw her almost melt with relief. "Sh-" She started to say my name but cut herself off when she realized we were in costume. "Solomon, thank the gods. Are you alright? Is it safe to talk? What happened? Our....emergency exit, took us miles away. We started making our way back over but we weren't sure we had any chance of arriving in time. Are you hurt?"

    I checked myself over mentally, even feeling around to make sure I was alright by hand. I shook my head when I felt nothing. "No. I'm fine." That last heal burst had patched me up, hell I wasn't even tired. "How about all of you? Were you injured? I know your exit was supposed to prevent serious injury, but I was worried those last hits might have messed you all up?" Seeing Callie already gone had terrified me. I hadn't had time to focus on it in the heat of battle, but just seeing her face and hearing her voice was helping me calm down a lot.

    Granted, seeing Abel murder several people who couldn't fight back was pretty jarring still, and even without the worry I was shaken, but knowing Callie and the others were safe was definitely a big weight off my shoulders. As for Abel...well, this was the WCP. I had to remember that the Wish Curse Palace wasn't the Unity. The people here might use the conventions of the locals, but they weren't heroes. Nothing drove home Zeke's warnings about the realities of cultivation like seeing people brutally killed in front of me.

    I briefly wondered if I should have tried to help them, but then I considered how easily Abel had demolished that F rank who had been beating Alden, and I shuddered a bit. The image of a big trying to throw itself in front of a speeding car came to mind. Plus they WERE going to kill us first. Down here, self defense wasn't just legal, it was downright encouraged. Not that there wouldn't be trouble, but Abel would deal with that, not me. I was alive and so were my friends. Trying to reach for anything else would be overboard.

    "Solomon?" Callie's voice jerked me back to reality and I saw her give me a worried frown. "Are you ok? You went quiet there for a bit." Her frown turned disapproving. Or are you spacing out again? That isn't safe, especially in the middle of hostile territory. You need to be careful ok? We're on the way." I could hear the fear and relief in her voice and smiled behind my mask. It was nice seeing how much she cared, even if the circumstances could be better. I knew she loved me, but still, it felt good for someone to actually SHOW that emotion. Of all my loved ones Callie was the one who was most honest with me about her feelings. It was something I cherished about her.

    I cleared my throat, mostly just to show that I was focused again. "Yeah, sorry, big night. Just meet us back at the Pavilion, we're headed there now. We have a mutual friend with us, though he sadly didn't bring any sausages." I figured that would be as overt as I could be without just saying his name, and I wasn't sure where they ended up. They might be being watched and not know it. It was unlikely given Callie's Perception, but still completely possible. While they were high, there WERE people in G-rank with higher stats than her. Plus we'd already seen tonight that F-rankers were a possibility, even if I didn't expect many of them.

    "Alright." She said after a brief pause. Then she said in a quiet voice. "Please be careful ok? I know what we do is dangerous, but we still usually face it together. I never want to be whisked away to safety and leave you behind to deal with potentially dying again. It was awful. Stay safe and I love you." She hung up before I could respond, probably a bit embarrassed at being quite THAT emotionally honest. I watched the screen fade with a soft smile, even if no one there could see it.

    It was Abel who cleared his throat this time. "That was certainly very sweet, and I'm happy for you. But can we perhaps leave? I don't like sitting around here with all these bodies. Someone might send backup." He grinned at me. "Also, to answer your last comment about me, you are incorrect. I ALWAYS have sausages." He looked around shiftily, as if making sure no one would see, and opened the coat he was wearing, showing tubes of meat strapped to the inside of the fabric, thankfully sealed in plastic individually so they weren't touching any cloth. "Get a load of these. Premium stock you know."

    I stared at him blankly. I thought back to Alden and his insistence on giving people drinks, and suddenly Abel's weirdness seemed to make more sense. I shook my head, not hungry right now anyway. Besides, despite the wackiness, I was pretty sure I recognized a stalling tactic when I saw one. Making sure my smirk was in my voice I asked. "Are you sure you aren't just nervous about going back to the Pavilion, or hell, the Cavalcade in general?"

    He gave a violent shudder. "What? No, I'm not even remotely sure of that. I'm terrified of going back. Mel is going to strangle me with my own guts for being gone so long. But if forces like this are moving I'm needed. Not sure what my idiot brother did this time though. I thought not having me around to inflate his ego would keep him cautious. I guess I underestimated how ambitious he could be." I noted that despite asking what Mel had done jokingly earlier, he immediately assumed Cicero was responsible for this mess.

    Which...was actually fair in a roundabout way. If he wasn't such a dick then Mel wouldn't have made a deal with Sanctuary Hall. I grimaced internally as I considered having to deal with the Peace Lord. Not directly, thankfully, given the protection from Zeke, but that would be gone soon. I'd have to move up my plans to talk to Melinda about my abilities. It was still a bit early, but I was protected from her too, and if I waited I might have to have that meeting when I hit F rank, which would leave me vulnerable.

    We started our walk back. We'd ridden the wolves out here to meet Alden, and I was annoyed at the massive difference in trip quality. The wolves were faster than me. They were also four footed and used energy that wasn't mine. It was a smooth ride, even when they'd been holding back, and walking on my own two feet couldn't compare with the convenience, even if my Might stat could have allowed me to sprint there faster than most cars. We were also escorting Alden, who while healed was still very weak, and Abel and I each slipped under a shoulder to help him along as Marc trailed sulkily behind, half ashamed and half in awe of Abel.

    As we walked, I glanced over to the rabbit masked man. "So, how much of what's going on do you know? I'm sure it's not all of it, but I'm equally sure someone like you wasn't stupid enough to just barrel into a fight without scouting out the enemy. You have to be aware of some of the undercurrents here right?" Even I wasn't reckless enough to just jump into a battle with a higher ranked enemy just because I was pissed off. Well...maybe I was. But Abel was supposed to be some combat genius, I doubted he was as dumb as I was.

    Abel cleared his throat and looked away as Alden burst out laughing. The older, bearded man guffawed so hard we had to hold him up as he sagged under the effort of the cackling. He took a few deep breaths to steady himself. "Sorry lad, that wasn't aimed at you. I've been telling this brute for years he needs to think things through, and he never bothers. He just smashed himself against any powerful enemy he finds until he wins or they kick his ass and he needs rescuing. I had to save his scrawny ass more than a few times as a boy when he picked fights with G-rankers while still at H-rank himself." He paused, his expression growing serious. "Though I suppose that's more or less what happened here isn't it?"

    Abel clicked his tongue. "Don't be stupid. You got pulled into that. I showed up last minute and even I saw it. That absolute moron with the expansion power following behind us was at fault if I don't miss my guess. You really should train your kids better Alden, if they're that stupid you must be slipping."

    "That's rich coming from you." Snorted Alden. "You're decent enough at strategy in the heat of battle, but you prepare for combat more carelessly than any student I've ever had. I don't need tips on how to teach people to think things through from a human wrecking ball." He grimaced, flicking his eyes over his shoulder. "Though I admit, I've clearly been too hands off with the young ones. Mel's stirred up too much trouble this time, I'm going to have to step in. And so are YOU, no matter how scared of her you are."

    Abel scoffed. "Don't bait me you old busybody. Mel is terrifying when she's angry. I'm not going to agree to intercede on your behalf just to prove I'm not scared. I'm not a five year old. I'm coming back to find out what's going on and help everyone get out of it. Once that's done I'm going back to my stand. I won't be Cicero's excuse on his mad quest for power, no matter how much I love that twisted sneaky fuck."

    I blinked at that. It was probably the best description of his brother I'd heard from anyone, and it told me that Abel knew perfectly well who Cicero was, flaws and all. Just because he loved his brother didn't make him oblivious, and that made me just a little more hopeful we could work this all out. We could use every ally we could get, if Abel could keep Cicero and Mel both in line and pointed in the same direction that would be an even better solution than just getting Mel on our side.

    We made it back to the circus pretty quickly, even tired and carrying Alden. We were Ascendants, and we were damn strong and fast. We didn't run with him between us, but even a brisk walk ate up ground when you had bodies like ours. Hell, I was at the lower end of that spectrum physically, and I probably could have carried him alone in only a few tens of minutes without hitting a run. When we made it through, I saw Emery watching us enter and then slipping off, so I knew Cicero would be aware of our presence soon.

    We made it back to the Pavilion, setting Alden down to sit on the nearby seats and I dropped down to sit next to him. I heard a slight noise and turned my head to feel Callie slam into my side like a missile, clinging desperately to my much larger frame as she squeezed me hard enough that I think it might have killed an H-ranker. I was about to greet her when a piercing scream ripped through the air. "YOU RAT BASTARD!" I looked up to see Abel standing off to one side, seemingly about to slip away and looking like a deer in headlights as a wave of coruscating golden fire plummeted down to land on top of him. I winced. Looked like Mel was here already.
     
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 231
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    I wasn't worried about Abel being hurt. Not after his showing earlier. But I still whistled at the sheer fury of the attack. "Well that doesn't seem like a healthy relationship dynamic at all." Callie giggled against my side and poked me in the ribs, shushing me so the two powerful warriors didn't hear, but they were both far too busy with each other for it to be an issue. Still, I felt it bore mentioning.

    Alden chuckled from his place next to us. "Violence is more a part of their lives than most. They're training lunatics who often talk with their fists, and their relationship mainly grew out of sparring to begin with. Still, they care for each other and would never actually try to hurt the other out of anger. Mel is just confident enough in Abel's strength that she isn't worried that blow will actually land. He won't stop her though. It's good for her to let off some steam, and once she's wasted some of her frustration she'll listen better. He knows her well enough to let her vent."

    I frowned but didn't comment. It wasn't my relationship, so it wasn't my place to say anything. Callie and I did spar, so I supposed I could see a bit of the point. But I felt like this was a bit outside of a consenting and informed battle. If both of them were happy with this way of doing things though it wasn't my place to comment. Not like I could do anything about it even if it was. Besides, I could see the smile on the unmasked portion of Abel's face. He wasn't upset or even afraid. He looked almost relieved that she was trying to burn him alive. Alden had been right. They WERE lunatics.

    Still, Abel wasn't the only one having fun. Despite the blazing glare on her face, I could also see a small twinkle of enjoyment twinkling in Mel's eye if I wasn't mistaken. She was raining down golden flames on Abel, who was altering the space around him to create alternate paths so the fire would pass him by. He didn't even look warm as he casually swatted away torrents of fire that probably would have cooked anyone else. Despite not being the same impressive blue color, Mel's fire was seriously powerful, and pretty damn distinctive too.

    "So what exactly is her power?" I asked Alden. "Because those flames are weird looking. That shade of gold isn't natural at all, they're almost metallic somehow. I've never seen anything quite like it. I assume that isn't a pure fire ability. She mixed in something else right?" Despite acting like regular flames in terms of motion and effect, the fire was visually pretty distinctive. I remember Burning Fist mentioning that most fire wielders mixed other attributes and Skills in with their fire to provide extra power.

    Alden nodded. "I won't give away trade secrets obviously, but the name isn't exactly unknown. She calls it Starflame. It's why her title was Starbreak, back when she bothered to use one. Some of the circus performers still use that, but for the most part she's just Mel. Starbreak was Apollyon's partner, and after Abel left she had no desire to use it anymore." His voice sounded sad.

    I felt for the man, but I was more focused on something else. "Apollyon?" I asked. "Was that the name Abel used?" I'd never bothered to find out what his original name was. Thinking back, I doubted it had always been Spruce Bunny. "I've never heard anyone mention it before. Was he important back in the day or something?" I couldn't imagine anyone as terrifying as Abel not having a hell of a reputation. He'd made it to G-rank at the very least, and young enough that he didn't strike me as having aged much.

    Alden nodded. "He was a member of the Titan Twenty way back when. He and Starbreak both. The strongest twenty Ascendants under tthirty years old in all of Rajak. If he hadn't vanished when he did his Ascension to F-rank was expected with a year or so. Once he was gone he got replaced and people forgot him. Such is the way of renown sadly. People have short attention spans. There's always someone clawing to be relevant, so if you don't make a move for a while they'll forget you within a month. Especially with the mastery some forces have over the media outlets."

    "The Titan Twenty?" I asked, intrigued. "That sounds awesome." I was still only eighteen. "Wait. The top twenty Ascendants under twenty? Wouldn't they just all be from the Academy?" I imagined anyone who managed to gain that kind of renown could write their own check in the Academy. I wondered how many of those people were at the school, and what their rankings were?

    That got a loud snort out of Alden. "They'd certainly like to think so. But no. As you've seen from our training methods stat pumping isn't the best way to make a strong warrior. Don't get me wrong, there are some real monsters at that school of yours, but there are plenty outside it. Hell, they aren't even all members of the Unity or WCP. There are at least a few independents last time I checked, and a few from other factions living in town. The Twenty are anything but uniform."

    That sounded...fucking awesome. Callie looked as excited as I did. Granted, we had a ways to go for sure, but still, we had years to go. I glued my eyes to the formerly irrelevant fight, trying to pay attention to how they were both engaging. Looking close, I could see Mel's flame waves looked big and sloppy, but they were actually incredibly precise. Abel was forcing them off course to avoid being hit, but the heat in those waves was tightly controlled. No radiant energy was leaking off to singe or bother anything around them. Granted in Abel's case that might just be his own power, but she wasn't burning or damaging the objects nearby either, and I couldn't feel the fire from here, or even a spike in the ambient heat of the Pavilion.

    It was astonishing to notice given the wild shifting waves of fire, but the obvious implication was the Mel had pinpoint control over those flames. There was no stat for that, though there was a Skill if it was like Shadows. Still, the absolutely absurd amount of effort and training needed for that level of control must have been insane. It also spoke to Alden's point that they were just playing around. If she had that kind of control she could have made something much hotter and more focused. I still wasn't sure what was mixed into those flames, but I somehow doubted it made them LESS dangerous when condensed.

    She hurled fire at him for about ten minutes, and he just stood there and let her, deflecting and avoiding it. He didn't stand still the whole time, probably worried it would come across smug, and actually ran off to let her chase him around the Pavilion for a while. They both knew it wasn't a real threat, but they did it anyway, and seeing that made me rethink my earlier reaction. They weren't anymore insane than any other couple, though they were a bit more vigorous. Eventually though, Mel calmed down and let the fire fade away, vanishing in a swirl of flames and appearing right next to him, hurling herself into his arms.

    She buried her face in his chest, and I was pretty sure she was talking based on the slight body movements, but I didn't hear a word. It took me a second to realize the air was slightly warped around them, and figure out that Abel was using his ability to catch and funnel the sound waves away from anyone else around the tent so no one would overhear. It was another display of absolutely terrifying control on a much finer scale than I'd seen from him, and made it clearer than ever that I hadn't even scratched the surface of what he was capable of.

    Abel had been a monster before he'd vanished all those years ago and it seemed like despite not accruing any stats after he dropped off the map, he'd kept up his training. His easy defeat of that F-ranker had shown me exactly what the difference was between a true Ascendant and someone who just made numbers go up. I remembered what I'd heard before, about how some more powerful clans had full heritages where they taught people the control and Skill combinations that Abel had learned on his own, just because they all the family ability and had been able to spend years working on it.

    I even briefly wondered if I'd have learned things like that back at the WCP if I'd grown up with the family. Then I dismissed that. My combat style was massively impacted by my DS Mastery, which was gained from the way I spent my life when I was on my own. I might not have a heritage to show me what direction worked best, but I truly believed I could be stronger than any other candidate if I just learned to use what I had better. I'd make my own path, and become stronger than any other Wishmaster, candidate or otherwise.

    My new attack stockpile would certainly help, but I was sure plenty of other candidates had figured out the uses of that. No, my main advantage was in DS Mastery, and how it combined with my new style. My character abilities tended towards buffs and augmentations, giving me unique twists on the attacks I copied that no other candidate could match. It was just one more reason to finish ranking up DS Mastery to Intermediate. Once everything calmed down between those two though I hopped down and headed over. I wanted to talk this out with Mel before she had a chance to adjust to what had happened, especially since Abel was here. That would be my best shot at getting her on my side.

    As I approached, Abel let go of Mel and stepped back a bit, just enough so she would look up and see me coming. She cocked her head to one side, her gaze complicated. "So I heard you helped bail Marc out, and held some assholes off Alden until this dumbass could make himself useful and save our teacher. Still, I get the feeling from how this all went down that there's more than a bit going on that I'm not aware of, and I'm not really a fan of being kept in the dark."
    I turned to find Alden approaching, and at my gaze he nodded, ready to fill her in. He caught her up on finding out about us, the talk, his worries and his attempt to keep an eye on things. By her clenched fists she wasn't happy, but Alden didn't even give her a chance to interject before cutting her off. "And before you go mouthing off to your teacher, girl, consider how the situation went down. If anything, I wasn't paranoid enough, and if I hadn't come alone that idiot Marc would have been slaughtered."

    "Fine." Snapped Mel. "I'll admit your sneaky bullshit was mildly useful in this instance. I'm still not happy you let spies stick around and even trained them." She shot us a pointed look but then sighed. "Not that the plan is even still viable, so there isn't much to spy on now. I'm not working with Cicero, but given what a mess this turned into I'll at least hear you kids out."

    She turned and headed into the back area we'd met her in originally. "Come along then, all of you. We can figure out our next move. Somehow I doubt those bastards will let it go at this after losing an F-ranker, and we'd better have a plan when they arrive." With a glance at the others I shrugged and trailed after her. She wasn't wrong, we'd need a hell of a plan. Luckily I already had the beginnings of one. I just hoped it would work.
     
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  24. Ranan

    Ranan Making the rounds.

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    I honestly think the people who have been complaining are fairly insecure and immature, I’m of the belief that most of the fault lies with the person in a relationship. Also as of Chapter 101 nothing has been revealed as to what exactly Midknight may or may not have told her to convince her, ignoring the massive stat difference which even with a few dozen point difference has made Shane many times more intelligent so I assume Midknights high stats made manipulating her easy, we have no idea what lies he may have told or anything else. The people complaining obviously have little experience with real world relationships because they are trying to lay the blame on a victim rather than the perpetrator and are completely ignoring her own perspective and possible reasonings
     
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  25. Threadmarks: chapter 232
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Mel's office seemed smaller than I remembered, but to be fair, there were more of us this time. She slumped into her chair with a groan. She put a hand over her red mask in despair, like she was trying to rub the bridge of her nose but couldn't reach. "This is such a mess. All I wanted was to kick Cicero out of the leadership position and replace him with someone less backstabby." Her eyes flicked to Abel, but she didn't say what she'd obviously been thinking: that if Cicero was gone he wouldn't have to stay away for his brother's own safety.

    Abel rolled his eyes. "Revenant, Mel. You used to be smarted than this. No one approaching you to undermine the power structure of the circus is someone with good intentions. You lay down with dags, you get up with fleas." His voice was reproving, but I could tell he was very carefully avoiding any implications that she'd done this for him. He knew it was well as the rest of us, he just wasn't stupid enough to try to make her admit it.

    "I'll neuter you like a dog." Mel snapped.She hurled a fireball at him, which he dispersed rather than deflecting it. He made a casual motion, snapping his fingers once, and the small but powerful ball of flame just...collapsed. I blinked, staring in shock as I tried to puzzle out how he'd done that. I'd seen a slight shimmer in the air around the flame orb, but I had no clue what he'd actually done. Still, whatever it was it had become obvious that he wasn't in the mood to humor her anymore, and Mel acknowledged that by getting serious.

    She cleared her throat in embarrassment at having misread the situation. "I mean, sorry, yeah. I screwed up." Her voice sounded genuinely contrite and she let her head thunk down on the desk. "I didn't mean to bring these assholes to our door. I just hated seeing him every day, strolling around like he's some big hero that everyone should respect." The desk cracked under her hands, scorch marks scoring the wood as her fingers raked toward the edge like molted claws.

    Abel stared at her in shock. "I...I didn't realize it was that bad between you two. I mean, I knew you'd be angry at him, but I figured you would get past it. You were so close when we were younger." He sounded bewildered, his serious mood melting away in the face of a confusion so deep it almost sounded like hurt. "What could he have done to make you hate him this much? Did he hurt you?"

    "Did he-" Mel's head snapped up, her orange eyes boring into Abel furiously. "Did he HURT me? He took away the one person I loved most in the world, you frigid asshole. Or course he hurt me. He was the reason you left, the reason you abandoned me. I couldn't hate YOU for it. I could never hate you, especially not when I knew you were just doing what you'd always done, bending over backwards to accommodate him. I don't care what you intended or how you viewed it. He stole you from me. I despise him."

    Abel looked horrified. "That's not what happened. I left to protect all of you. Sure, his ambition would have drawn a target on us, but my own abilities were almost as bad all on their own. I was making waves, and people would have come calling to find out if I was really as good as the rumors said. It was safer for everyone if I just faded into the background. Cicero gave me a good excuse, but I couldn't have stayed in any case. Independents can make it into the Titan Twenty, but we can't afford to be on top. The wrong sort of people were starting to get upset about my power."

    "You think I cared?" Mel spat. "That I wouldn't have gone with you? You didn't even ask. You just walked away. You didn't even say goodbye in person. You just left me a fucking note. I never thought I'd see the day that Abel Castleton slunk off into the dark like a coward." He flinched when she said that, like she'd physically struck him with the word, and I had to marvel that one poisonous comment could hurt him when even that F-ranker had been unable to leave a scratch.

    I cleared my throat, and Mel wheeled to glare at me, but I glared right back. "Listen, you guys have stuff to sort through, I get that, but can we maybe save the romance novel drama for when we aren't dealing with a probable war with an E-rank faction? Because we have some possible options, but they won't do us much good if this whole fucking place is already burning down by the time we can enact them because you decided Abel needed to be yelled at." I paused as Callie gave me a disapproving look and rolled my eyes. "Not that you shouldn't have your conversation. But just maybe save it til after the meeting."

    You-" Mel hissed, her orange eyes blazing. "Might have a point." She let out a long sigh, the exhalation stealing the tension from her body like it was taking literal wind out of sails. "Now isn't the time for this, no matter how urgent it feels to me. We won't survive a war with Sanctuary Hall. Even with the deed in hand, the defenses here won't hold back the kind of force someone that influential can throw at us. Even lower end E-ranked factions might shy away from the protections in place, but anyone with that much money and power, not to mention access to unlimited healing, can just throw people at us until they get through." Her eyes fixed on me. "What options do you have? You mentioned a possible plan."

    I nodded. "Well, the beginnings of one. We're members of the Beast Lord Garden. I'm pretty sure we can get them to intervene. Melinda is an E-ranker herself, and Travis, her partner, is the same. Having two members at that level makes them a terrifying force to reckon with. I bet even the Peace Lord won't screw with them." I had no idea if that was true, actually, but even if it wasn't I refused to let the other candidate win this after all the bullshit she put me through. I'd bring Burning Fist into the loop for an alliance if I had to.

    Mel looked skeptical. "I mean. If you're members it can't have been for long. How exactly are you planning to convince a force that large to move? I'm sure they like you fine, but you might be underestimating the motivation of a faction to help out a low rank member. Hell, they might just forbid you from taking part in this mess at all. It's what I would do in that position." I could tell she was trying to be polite, which at least meant she was taking us seriously as allies if nothing else. I could work with that.

    I looked to Callie, who gave me a supportive smile. She was in charge usually, but this involved who to tell about my abilities and she'd already told me that was my call. This was my show until Melinda had officially accepted the offer. I turned back to Mel and gave a serious nod. "We have some assurance of getting them involved. I can't go into details but we have leverage. Assuming we can get them on board though, how is this going to work? It's not like they'll be sending their E-rankers down here. Hell even any more F-rankers would probably destabilize the entire structure of the WCP."

    Abel was the one who answered that. "They'll swarm G-rankers. If there were more factions involved there are alternate methods to take, but it would become a huge mess pretty quickly. The large factions have access to huge reserves of G-ranked Ascendants. The F-rankers might engage in F-district, but that won't effect us here, and E-district forbids outright battle. Too destructive and hard to clean up. Having an extra E-ranker would put a ton of pressure on them to avoid tipping this into a full on brawl in one of the dark districts though."

    "Dark districts?" I asked with confusion. "Not sure I've heard that term before. What are those?" We hadn't exactly memorized every corner of the WCP. G-district was pretty much our main base of operations at our current level, and any place higher would essentially be suicide for people at our level.

    Abel grimaced. "The dark districts aren't level restricted. The large forces sometimes use them for proxy battles, but for the most part they're a place for desperate Ascendants to try to accrue reputation by mixing with higher level enemies. Rank doesn't matter there, it's just a free for all when anyone can show up. Even some E-rankers have been seen there, though usually only the craziest and most powerful will risk it. If an E-ranker dies their whole faction takes a hit and can even collapse, so letting them see combat is a huge risk. Everyone will avoid that situation if possible, but having an extra E-ranker will definitely help."

    "Except we don't." Said Benny. We all looked at him. "Don't forget how we got into this mess. Mr. Jack-tastic is in town because he hit E-rank. That means they have a second E-ranked fighter too. Albeit a much newer and weaker one." I cursed silently. I had forgotten that. The Jerks had become so low priority in the face of this whole convoluted mess that I'd let them slip my mind completely.

    I turned to Callie. "What are the chances M-Jack will be a legit threat to Melinda and Travis. I know next to nothing about how he fights or what he can do. Is this something we have to worry about?" Honestly the Peace Lord alone sounded terrifying, and the two on one aspect was the main reason I'd been confident in Melinda winning. That weird conceptual peace ability sounded hellish in a fight.

    Thankfully, Callie shook her head. "No. In fact, Melinda is the worst possible matchup for someone like him. His ability manifests in a manner similar to summoning beasts, though it isn't exactly the same. Melinda should be able to handle him easily enough, especially given how recently he hit E-rank." That was a relief. Honestly she was right, even if the other candidate had been pumping no one but him every day, those points wouldn't be enough to put a dent in the E-rank, and I knew she hadn't been doing that anyway since she was working with the Peace Lord primarily.

    This would stay at our level for now, and I'd do everything possible to keep it that way. With Abel and Mel on our side we would be at a huge advantage in the G-ranks, and keeping the fight at that level would help us train and improve anyway. I had a long way to go before I was satisfied that I was strong enough to hit F-rank. I didn't want to end up some stat heavy joke who didn't have any combat ability when push came to shove.

    Before any of that happened though, we had other things to do. It was time to do something I'd been worried about since I got my power. I'd trusted my friends and used my abilities as best I could, but I'd never really leaned into the true strength of a Wishmaster. Connections. Everyone wanted wishes, and almost as much as the ability to grant them, having people to pay for them and put them to use was an important aspect of what I could do. It was time to take the plunge and trust someone more powerful than me with my secret. I just hoped I'd picked the right person. Even if I had though, I had a feeling things were going to start getting complicated.
     
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  26. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Yeah, that was pretty much my own take on things, but enough people disliked her as a character that I just scrapped it. Royal Road readers are way more conservative than people on QQ anyway, if it bothered people on there it would go over even worse on RR. She's around, but I nixed the plans for the redemption arc. Shame too because I like her.
     
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  27. Threadmarks: chapter 233
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    This journey to the Beast Lord Garden was a solo one. I could have brought the others, but I decided against it. This seemed like something I should do solo. I had plenty of attacks stored up if I needed them, and as a member I doubted I'd run into trouble. I should at least be able to escape, though I made a mental note to try to get my hands on some kind of mobility effect. That would show dividends when combined with Leaf on the Wind not to mention Cloud Step.

    When I got to the Garden, they let me in without an invite. I was a member, and while I did have to show off this cool green stone token with gold veins Jessie had brought back for us, once I did no one hassled me. I let the guard know I needed to see Melinda, and that it was urgent, and while I expected to be told to wait or come back later, he just escorted me back to the formation garden when I'd met with her the first time. Melinda was apparently pretty chill with her faction members, and treated everyone with respect, even if they were newbies.

    It made me much more willing to trust her with my secret, and I'd already been leaning towards yes. Seeing how she treated her people like family, regardless of power, made my good impression of her grow by leaps and bounds. When I got to where she was waiting she smiled up at me warmly. "Ah, Solomon. It's so wonderful to see you. I see Agria didn't join you on your trip. That's a shame. Travis has developed quite a fondness for the girl. Apparently she gives excellent scratches and smells good."

    I chuckled at that, sitting down next to her as she gestured me to take a seat on the bank of a small pond I hadn't even noticed when I'd been here before. Looking back, I realized it was hard to focus on individual aspects of the formation rather than the whole, and briefly wondered if that was a factor of the formation itself. Sadly it wasn't the time to do research on interesting topics. I was here to make a choice, or rather, to follow through on one I'd already made.

    In the interested of that I took a deep breath, trying to figure out the best way to broach this subject. "What do you think of the Peace Lord?" I was going to have to broach the topic carefully. The best way I could think of was to try to get her to commit to some sort of position on the enemy. Once I'd established a baseline for their relationship I'd have a better idea of how to broach the topic of what to do about stopping him.

    "He's an ass." She responded serenely. I blinked, not expecting such a direct response from her. "I wouldn't have spoken so freely in the past, but since you've joined my faction, there's no need for niceties. The Peace Lord is a bully and an arrogant blowhard. That isn't to say he's not dangerous. He's a slippery bastard, and I don't recommend crossing him if you can help it. But the man has an ego the size of this whole galaxy, even if he hides it behind his pompous nonsense."

    I couldn't really argue that after having met him. It wasn't obvious exactly, but I could definitely look back on our meeting and see where that kind of arrogance could have been present. "Alright, well that makes things simpler." I said with a wry smile. "If that's the case, I'd like to ask you to help me deal with a problem. I'm not asking for free, I have means of paying you, but in order for me to do that I needed to know if you would be willing to set yourself against the Peace Lord, because he is firmly on the path to becoming my enemy."

    Melinda burst into giggles, and I glared at her a bit, because that wasn't really polite. She took a second to choke down the laughter, holding up her hands. "I'm sorry. It's just, you sounded so serious there. I recognize that you're probably very upset with the Peace Lord, but someone like you being an enemy to someone like him seems a bit far fetched. Not that you won't get there eventually, but the Peace Lord has better things to do than pick fights with G-rankers."

    "That-" I sighed. "That's fair. I didn't exactly do this properly. You have no reason to think I would be a threat to him, but I wanted to take your measure before I told you this next part. Can we be assured of our privacy?" She smiled at me again, and snapped her fingers in response. There was a sort of...shift in the air. The force of the snap rippled out, and the space we occupied seemed to change in some way I couldn't describe.

    She glanced around appraisingly before nodding. "Alright, that should work. This formation can conceal our words and presence from basically anything. I use it to isolate myself from the world when meditating or training. It wouldn't do to have someone spy on my capabilities. But it's occasionally useful for meetings as well. We are as secure as anyone on this planet at the moment, so please, unburden yourself."

    Her words sounded like she was humoring me, but somehow, I got the feeling she was interested in what I had to say. I imagine her Fantasy stat was high enough that her sense for opportunities was finely tuned. She must have picked up something to indicate that this would be important. I took a deep breath, preparing myself, and decided to just get it out there. "I've come to ask you to consider backing me in my dealings with Sanctuary Hall. They've been starting trouble at the urging of another party, a party I'm having a problem with, and I have reason to believe they won't stop unless I stop them. I can offer you a unique resource in exchange for your help...wishes. I am a Wishmaster candidate, and I'd like your support in exchange for my own."

    I felt the weight drop off my shoulders as I just...ripped off the band-aid. I didn't have any sort of subtle or gradual way to work up to the actual reveal. I'd never been suited to that kind of subterfuge, it was half the reason we'd been so careful choosing the people we would work with. This was a reveal that couldn't be taken back, once it was out, it was out, and I was completely at Melinda's mercy, barring an attack and Zeke's intervention. Despite that though, I just felt relieved. It was so exhausting keeping this kind of secret from everyone, having to watch every step.

    There was something freeing about sharing your secret, especially with someone that you were pretty sure would be able to protect you. Melinda was getting the chance to get a unique resource, but to me she would be my new backer. She would be the person who could keep me safe without all the strings that Zeke had attached. In that moment, it occurred to me that this might be the whole point of the candidacy. Teaching us to build our own forces, to see what we could put together to protect ourselves and take advantage of our abilities as best we could.

    The Wishmaster had built the WCP on his own merits, what better test of a candidate than seeing if they could use their own abilities to do the same? It even helped explain why the other candidate was so set on depriving me of the backing of the forces on this planet. This would be my foundation, the base of my power as I expanded into the universe. If I couldn't get my planet of origin on my side, bring a backwater rock into my faction to act as a stepping stone, then how would I manage to convince any future forces to work with me?

    I forced down my excitement at digging up a potential piece of the puzzle and any implications thereof and focused on Melinda, who was the more immediate concern. She was staring at me, all amusement and gentle humoring gone from her expression, replaced by shock and if I wasn't mistaken, greed. That was fine, I didn't mind greed. If she tried to use force I had Zeke, and if she didn't there was no need to worry. I was planning to grant her wishes anyway. She swallowed hard, getting her expression under control. When she spoke, her voice was a bit hoarse. "A...a Wishmaster candidate?"

    I nodded. "Yes. Not just me either. There's another candidate working with the Peace Lord. That's what I meant about another party. I'm sure you can see how that situation might pose a problem for you if left unchecked?" That was the part that I'd needed to confirm. If the Peace Lord hadn't been an enemy there was a chance she might side with Sanctuary Hall, and possibly with the other candidate.

    As it was though, that was unlikely at best. Not just because she didn't like him, but because it would be stupid. Why would she share an asset like a Wishmaster (even if only a potential one) with another group she didn't like. The less people who knew the more wishes she got for herself and her people.

    Still, she was going to be going up against another candidate, and she deserved to know that. It might be dangerous to deal with, and forewarned was forearmed. As expected, she barely thought about it, the lure of having her own Wishmaster too great a lure to even pretend to turn down. "I won't insult you by pretending not to be interested." She said with barely contained excitement. "But if we're doing this I'd like so assurances about exactly what we're going to be getting from this arrangement. What are your capabilities, at least the ones you're comfortable sharing?"

    That was a fair question, and I took a moment to mull over how to answer. Deciding that if I was trusting her I'd trust her with most of it. "Five wishes per day. I can grant stats but for the most part I trade them for others, so it's more along the lines of redistribution than actual power gain. I can grant Skills but it's costly and I can't do anything past beginner at the moment. The actual wishes I can grant are dependent on my own stats, so the more I grow the better I can help, and I can only grant a total of three stats per wish right now."

    I didn't tell her everything. Trusting was one thing, but it would be stupid to spill all of it. The stat thing would become obvious and if I didn't tell her the number of wishes I couldn't make sure to clarify that she couldn't use them all. But just in case I kept my ability to trade attacks to myself. I could take the memories of the fact from anyone I needed to make the swap with, and having that ace in the hole couldn't hurt if push came to shove. Always good to have a trump card up your sleeve.

    I saw her getting more and more excited as I spoke, though my statement about stats being mostly traded caused her to wilt a bit. I expected she'd been hoping to be be able to boost a bunch of her people to E-rank, which I absolutely wouldn't do at the moment. Backing or not, messing with balance of power like that would firmly push most other factions into the other candidates camp just to keep ahead of the potential fallout. Melinda took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm down. "Alright. Well in that case let's talk about cost. What exactly can I do for you?" I grinned behind my mask. The hard part was over, I'd gotten through my speech. Now came the fun.
     
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  28. Threadmarks: chapter 234
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    "So, I'd like to start out saying that I'm not willing to commit to more than three wishes a day." I kept my tone firm as I stared down Melinda. I wanted to make sure she took me seriously as a partner, which meant making my terms clear and refusing to bend on basic framework as much as it meant being flexible and amenable to change. I wanted to have a reasonable and productive discussion, but if I gave too much too fast I'd get taken for everything I had.

    My reason for picking three was simple. It left me two a day to work with my friends, and it also allowed me to gain a massive amount of access to the stat pool of the whole faction while seeming like I was doing them a favor. As much as liked to make sure my team was up to speed, it was a fact that too confined of a circle would put a strain on resources. I could theoretically give stats for attacks, but I didn't grow from that, not in a direct sense. I could only hold so many attacks too. Doing it this way would mean they'd feel like I was showing a lot of sincerity but it would leave me with wishes to burn for myself and my people while gaining more points. It was a win win.

    As expected, Melinda didn't object to that at all. "Three is fine." She said with a warm smile. "I have plenty of people who would love the chance to focus their stat distribution into something a bit more suited to their style of combat. Even that is a huge boon. I can't help but note however, that you've described something you can give us. I'm curious about what you want in exchange for this gift."

    "Well there's the obvious. Protection and backing against Sanctuary Hall." I said matter of factly. I wanted a direct commitment to help with the healer problem first thing, and while I was pretty sure she would give it I was hardly going to base the whole negotiation on that assumption. That said, filling her in on the more important aspects of the battle might ease some tension. "Specifically in G-district. They're trying to consolidate the whole district under their banner, presumably without anyone noticing. The Flame Riot Militia picked up on it, but I'm surprised that more groups haven't stepped in to stop it."

    Melinda shrugged. "G-district is a feeder district, but none of the real power players bother with it. Most of the powerful groups have their G-rankers deployed to the dark districts. It's more dangerous, but they reap better rewards. The Militia is pretty weak in the grand scheme of things. Burning Fist is young for an E-ranker. It's not exactly a stupid idea to take over G-district if you can swing it, but most powerful factions don't bother with low hanging fruit like that. Besides, Sanctuary Hall is a particularly influential force. They may have paid some people off to stay out of the attempt."

    Considering the existence of the other candidate I could believe that. It wouldn't be impossible for them to make up any losses. It also didn't shock me that the high rankers considered G-district expendable despite it being a large gathering. I imagined it was easy to underestimate that kind of force as an E-ranker. Hell, thinking back to what I'd been like at I-rank it was hard not to do it myself. The further you got from mortal the less you had in common with what you used to be.

    I stared at Melinda, not making any other comments, until she finally sighed and nodded. "Fine. I have some G-ranked forces I can pull to send down to support you. I suppose it'll be a good opportunity to blood some of our people in any case. A battle between large factions in a district that low isn't a common occurrence. This might be the first one in my lifetime. You can get to know some of the warriors with potential among our ranks."

    That sounded interesting, but I was worried about something else. "Will they send more F-rankers? They sent one down there last time, albeit in disguise. If they don't we should be fine, but if they do it could be a problem." I wasn't worried about anyone managing to beat Abel and Mel at G-rank, but enough F-rankers could drown them in raw force. I wasn't sure even Abel could fight too many opponents up ranks.

    "No." Melinda's voice was firm. "With our attention on this matter, any room for backstabbing or double dealing as at an end. Their only recourse now would be to either face Travis and myself, or to stick to the structure of the battle and drown you in G-rankers. That said, don't dismiss them. As I mentioned, they are wealthy beyond measure. There are plenty of powerful Ascendants they can higher that would abide by the restrictions of the district. We are fairly well off, but not nearly so much as Sanctuary Hall, and I'm afraid that hiring outsiders would be a bad decision given the unusual nature of your gift."

    I cursed. She was right. She could control her own group and limit the spread of information, but there was not possible way to control mercenaries. Which meant we couldn't use them. Not in such a short time anyway. It might be possible tp arrange a contract or something if we had more time to work. but nothing short term. Still, I was confident in Mel and Abel. I doubted anyone would see them coming. They'd been out of the game for years, but were scary powerful still. Most of their peers were probably F-ranked already, so they would be relative unknowns to start I bet.

    "Alright." I said decisively. "You put together the group you want to send and I'll bring them down. Do you want me using the wishes we agreed on to improve their capabilities? Also can we get a contract written up, just for my peace of mind." I wasn't sure if that would be offensive, but I didn't really care. Cicero had fucked us over even with a contract, I absolutely wasn't going without one for something this important.

    Luckily it didn't seem to be a problem. Melinda just gave me another warm smile. "Of course, nearly every faction has someone with the contract Skill on staff. The ones that don't have to consult the Lawbinder Cavern for every little thing, and those crooks charge more than even we can afford easily." I cocked my head in confusion and she chuckled. "The Lawbinder is one of the older E-rankers. His ability is contract based. Not sure exactly what, people tend to keep that under wraps, but he can make incredibly powerful binding documents and words for a fee. He recruits similar talents for his faction and they serve a purpose much like we and Sanctuary hall fulfill."

    The more I found out about this place, the more intrigued I got. I wondered what other factions there were, with something like a hundred E-rankers around, that meant if it was an even split between Unity and WCP there were a full fifty factions around. There must be so many amazing groups with so many interesting aspects to hear about. For now though, I just needed to focus on the Beast Lord Garden. If I could help them solidify their position I'd naturally come into contact with the others.

    It occurred to me that since we were driving out Sanctuary Hall, we could help the Beast Lord Garden take over G-district instead. There would be some things to work out there, but since Sanctuary Hall saw a benefit in it, we could definitely gain as well. Plus Melinda was my backer now, which meant the stronger she got, the more secure I was around here. It was something to keep in mind long term in any case. "We can get that figured out in a minute though." I said. "You never mentioned if you wanted me to use the wishes on the G-rankers coming along?"

    Melinda's smile turned into a beaming grin. "Of course. Since you won't be able to just add points to anyone to bump them up ranks directly, adjustment will be priority, and the G-rankers are the ones with the least time adjusting to their current stats. Giving them a solid foundation to build off of will help them make better impressions in the upcoming battles and pay dividends anyway. If they can make powerful reputations down in G-district some of them might even break through before all this is over."

    She seemed to have come to the same conclusion about the snowballing effects of reallocating stats that I had, which wasn't a surprise since she was an E-ranker whose Focus was probably higher than all of my other stats put together.
    With that decided Melinda shut down the privacy formation and called one of her people, asking him to retrieve someone named Basken. Based on the context I assumed he was the contract maker we needed, and I was happy to see she was taking my comfort so seriously. Having seen how worried I was she'd gone out of her way to make sure we got this done quickly.

    Basken, as it turned out, was a fairly normal looking guy. I was used to Ascendants being strange or visually striking, but Basken was just a lanky man with curly dark hair, a goatee, and thin wire rimmed glasses perched on a thin nose, making his brown eyes seem larger than they should have been.

    He had a lazy, almost tired manner about him and when he was introduced he gave me a sleepy smile. Melinda didn't tell him about my ability, happily, just gave him a bare bones framework. "Basken, this is Solomon. He's working with us for the foreseeable future. We need a contract drawn up for a guest elder position. Nothing restrictive, and something he can break at any time. Support and resources in exchange for services rendered as a growth consultant for our lower ranked members I think." She looked at me questioningly and I gave a nod of confirmation.

    "That sounds fine to me." I said. "A guest elder position certainly sounds like what I'm looking for. A member of the organization without being too bound by the command structure." I noted she hadn't mentioned THEM being able to dissolve it, just me, and looking over the shoulder of the contractor as he scrawled out a lengthy document I didn't see a loophole for that. It was a hell of a gesture for them to make me solely responsible for the deal staying in place, and it made me even more certain of my choice.

    I went over terms with them for the next hour. Despite my good impression, I wasn't some moron who took what I was offered. I combed the contract top to bottom, making small changes and quibbling over what looked on the surface like minutiae. My old man hadn't been around too much, but the exercises he had me do as a kid and the few conversations we had were a strong motivator to understand contracts. Even before I'd know about his power, my father treated everything like a contract.

    I'd had lots of practice finding loopholes and gaps, and I put all of it to work, trying to get the best terms possible. Melinda, for her part, just laughed it off. I think the fact that I was taking the contract so seriously made her more confident I'd stick to it. Allowing me to break it at any time was a calculated risk, and bargaining so hard was putting her mind at ease. Eventually though, we finished the contract and we both signed it, finalizing the deal. With that done, I was ready to head back, but not before meeting my new entourage. I'd be bringing back a bunch of new G-rankers for the war effort. Strong ones hopefully. Time to meet our new comrades.
     
  29. Threadmarks: chapter 235
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    There were easily a dozen G-rankers tapped to come with us down to G-district, and the first thing I did when I saw them was ask Melinda why there weren't more. "Ok, I appreciate the help for sure, but isn't it just asking for trouble sending so few of them down help us? There are hundreds of G-rankers in the major factions right? Won't they drown us in bodies this way?" The last thing I wanted was to see all my new allies killed off. I was pretty firmly convinced that Abel was invincible in G-rank but that wouldn't save these people.

    "Normally yes." Melinda said with that ever present doting smile. "But not in this case. While a full on war in G-district might be viable, it's also attention grabbing. Normally it wouldn't matter if it grabbed attention, the Peace Lord is paying people off as we talked about, so no one would get involved even if a full scale army battle broke out. In this case it's different though. With your revelation about your origins and the origins of his backer, too much attention would bring in competitors for your resources."

    My eyes widened in understanding. "Ah, so he's going to send his best, and you'll do the same. Smaller groups of elite Ascendants to battle it out without draining resources that would obviously be missed in the dark districts and bring in new players." She gave me a startled look and I glared at her. "I'm not an idiot you know. Just because I let Nightstrike call the shots and recognize she's better at planning than I am doesn't make me stupid. I notice plenty, I just mostly keep it to myself."

    Which was true. Despite the constant tinge of violence over my thoughts these days I did think things through, my thoughts were just so scattered and wandering that I didn't bother to say most of it out loud. I needed to prioritize Focus. I kept meaning to try to even it out with my Perception. I was hoping it would fix the whole wandering thoughts thing. Too much input and not enough processing power to deal with it was leading to lag in my thoughts that I couldn't afford. I'd gotten some more points into it recently and that seemed to be helping though.

    Melinda gave me that warm smile again before turning to her people. "Well then, I suppose I should introduce your companions. I don't have time to give you a thorough run down on all of them, but these three are the leaders of our younger generation." She pointed to a trio of Ascendants, two men and a woman. One of the men was huge and pale with long hair and intense amber eyes, the second was shorter with darker skin and high cheekbones framing bright blue eyes. The last was the girl, an olive skinned woman of middling height who looked incredibly athletic.

    Melinda pointed to the two men. "This is Baric and Croll." Then she pointed to the girl. "This is Sloane, my apprentice. She's the strongest G-ranked member of our organization. Her ability is Beginner Beast Embodiment, and she can use it to assume aspects and body parts of her tamed beasts." Her voice was proud as she pointed out her obvious favorite. "Sloane, this is Solomon, a new guest elder of the Beast Lord Garden. Despite his rank being similar to yours, he's a greatly capable person, and I expect you to show him nothing but respect. Is that understood?"

    The green eyed girl nodded solemnly, intense gaze fixed on my mask as she tried to give me a once over to see what made me so special. Her gaze was intense and a little wild. I wondered how she stacked up to someone like Abel. That was a hell of a power. My eyes flicked to the animals at her side. A massive black fox and a small silver bird that perched on one shoulder. They both gave me the familiar pressure that told me they were G-ranked. Then I looked to the other two, Baric and Croll. "What about those two? I'd love to hear about their abilities, if they're open to sharing."

    "Of course." Melinda said proudly. "Baric shifts into a tiger-man hybrid, and Croll into a lizard-man. Their alternate forms have other abilities they got through synergizing, but those are the base forms. They're extremely potent. and are some of our most powerful front line combatants. Full form shifting is rare. It provides a bit of an advantage to taming beasts of a similar species as well, though both of their animal partners are still H-ranked and are being left at home to prevent them from being harmed in the upcoming battles."

    I paused, thinking back to Fang. "What's the difference between someone with a form shifting ability and a racial trait. I met a werewolf recently I think, but that was just an assumption. His power might have been some form of shifting. Unless being a werewolf is a form of shifting?" The line between some powers was tough to spot sometimes, and since these people were experts in the whole beast thing I might as well ask them while I had the chance.

    Apparently it was a good question, because Mel nodded like I'd pointed out something important. "Well spotted. The major difference between a natural shifter and someone with a racial trait like werewolf is that a werewolf is always a werewolf. Baric and Croll are human when they're human, and beast form when they shift. A werewolf possesses their werewolf abilities in human form as well, though they're not as potent. It's rare to find them out and about, but not unheard of. Still, I'm surprised you met one here. I'd be interested in speaking to him."

    That didn't seem like a big deal, but it wasn't really my call, so I just shrugged. "I'll extend the offer. I don't really have any say in what he does, but I don't see a reason he wouldn't want to. That's the best I can do though." Seeing that she was happy enough with that sentiment, I moved on. "So, I take it these three will be the ones I'm going to be working with most. In terms of...resource allocation?"

    It was hard to think of a way to obliquely hint at wishes and be understood, but after thinking about it I realized I didn't have to. The whole point of the guest elder position was to be able to act semi-overtly without being questioned. From the explanation she gave during the contract negotiation, guest elders were a mostly ceremonial position given to people who had something to contribute but wanted independence and secrecy outside the organization. Saying 'I'm doing this don't ask about it' was fine. Plus the whole resource claim could easily be explained away by an ability to acquire wishes made by others.

    Melinda nodded. She glanced over at the other nine G-rankers, having them remove themselves from the area, and then activated the formation again, this time with the three elites inside. "As our most promising seeds, these three can be trusted. I won't tell them anything, I'll leave that to you, but know they're all bound by fairly strict contracts as well as being people I personally consider absolutely loyal."

    I weighted my options for a minute, before figuring that I'd have to tell them something eventually, and inside the stealth formation was probably the best spot anyway. I fixed my gaze on the three of them. "I have access to a steady supply of wishes from the WCP main branch due to a favor I did for an executive." I fed them the story Callie and I had come up with to explain my access to wishes if push ever came to shove. "I can, most interestingly to you I suspect, grant Skills and reallocate points between stats to align your build more closely with your preferences."

    That got an approving smile from Melinda, clearly happy I'd chosen to share. "Their main stats are Vitality, Might, and Perception. Shifters tend to be mainly physically focused, and Sloane needs plenty of Vitality to fuel her embodiment. I trust you can work with that?" I grinned internally, though I only gave a solemn nod to acknowledge the comment. That was perfect actually. My Fantasy and Focus were both falling behind, with Creation being a distant third. My Fantasy stat in particular was only twenty one, easily the lowest stat I had.

    The three Ascendants, for their part, were wide eyed, and starting to look a bit excited. The idea of respeccing was such a novelty that they hadn't even considered it. They were smart enough to grasp the value of that gift, especially for someone still early enough in their path that it would make a marked difference on their still developing reputations, compounding the gains over time. It had taken me a bit of time to notice that. I wondered if that meant they had high Focus stats?

    Apparently hearing I could give them pretty much anything they wanted had made me worthy of the treatment, because that appraising look I'd seen from Sloane earlier had faded completely from her gaze. I'd figure out more about their details later though, when we had actual time to grant some wishes. For now having their respect (even if it was by proxy) was plenty. I addressed my one final concern to Melinda. "So, how do we do this? We need to make sure they don't send too many don't we? Do we like...challenge them directly? Do we send them some kind of declaration of war?"

    "Gods no." Melinda laughed. Covering it with a cough when she realized it might have come across as rude. "Ahem, sorry. No. There's no need. This is E-district. Every faction keeps an eye on what happens here. You coming to meet us and possibly joining wasn't enough to make waves. But the seeds moving out is bound to stir up some attention. We usually keep them down here for personal training. It won't be enough to raise any real red flags, but once Sanctuary Hall notices them heading for G-district our position will be clear. They'll dispatch their own elites soon after, as well as mobilizing any forces they have down there already in reserve."

    Which meant the Jerks were finally going to come into play for real. Way Crazy Wyatt wasn't the only G-ranker left in that crowd, and we'd be facing the others. It was just lucky for us we had the Pavilion members. I hadn't gotten a read on the total number of G-rankers down there, but I knew we had at least three or four, depending on how combat capable Cicero was. With the twelve represented here that was a solid force. With a basic gameplan we officially decided to move out. Melinda took down the formation and bid Sloane and the others goodbye and good luck, and we all made our way to the elevators.

    As we mounted the lift, I sat down and considered exactly how thinks might go from here. I didn't know how wars functioned in the WCP, not really. I had the impression that anything I had learned should be taken with a grain of salt though. There was a difference between stories and the real thing, even in a world like ours. But the war itself wasn't my biggest worry. This action had effectively declared my ability to stand as a real threat to the other candidate, as well as made it clear I was aware of her presence.

    Something told me with that challenge on the table she wasn't likely to stick to the shadows. There was a good chance the coming war would be managed by her directly. I didn't know what another candidate would be capable of, but one thing was for sure. I needed to be as strong as possible before that fight finally occurred. I couldn't afford to face a member of the family with anything less than my best. It was a good thing I had all these new clients to make wishes, because I needed to pad my stats quite a bit, more than that though, I needed to train. It was time to see if Abel would be willing to teach me directly.
     
  30. Threadmarks: chapter 236
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Experienced.

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    Once we got to G-district, we headed right for the Pavilion. Once we got there I found a private spot and spoke to Beric the were-tiger. He was eager to get his stats redistributed, and I picked up 15 points of Focus first thing, since he was a pure physical combatant. He had them all funneled into Might, to my absolute lack of surprise. That brought me up to 88 Focus, which helped to bring it closer to evening out with my Perception. Once it was done I did a quick check of my status to catch up on all the changes.

    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-71
    Focus-88
    Perception-90
    Creation-82


    Stored:9 shadow attack, 1 fire attack, 7 triple strenth tranq blows, 4 triple strength density shifted attacks. 2 spider leg attacks, 8 heal bursts

    Skills:Beginner Doom Sovereign Mastery,Lesser Enchanting Mastery, Lesser Cooking Mastery,Lesser Inventing Mastery, Lesser Stealth,Lesser Balam 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 First Aid Mastery, Minor Herbalism Mastery.

    I could see an accounting of all the stored attacks I had access to, and I whistled internally at the list. Those would be some damn powerful trump cards if I needed them. I also took note that I was only a few tens of points shy of a five hundred total, nearly halfway to F-rank. I was glad I'd figured out the whole attack storage thing, because I never would have been able to keep up in terms of raw output without it. Spreading myself so evenly across every stat made me much weaker in terms of individual stat values, even if it was the optimum build for my Wish power to show its worth.

    Once the day's wishes were done we headed for the Pavilion itself, where Callie, Jessie, Benny, Alden, Abel, and Mel were currently holding a meeting about how to deal with the potential sea of G-rankers coming to most likely burn this place to the ground. After a discussion we all came to the conclusion that destroying the cavalcade would be the most expedient way to erase its influence and pave the way for Sanctuary Hall to take over, and the new information from
    Melinda made that much more likely, at least to me.

    Once I got in, I introduced the three G-rankers and their nine companions. To my surprise, at least one person was already familiar. "Sloane!" Jessie squealed with excitement, tackling the other girl. Melinda's apprentice gave a small grunt as the tiny blonde barrelled into her, sweeping her up in a crushing hug. "I didn't know you were coming! This is so great, we really need the help, and you're so strong!"

    Sloane, for her part, was laughing affectionately as she squeezed Jessie back. "Good to see you Agria. You'll definitely be a huge help down here. Especially given we're going to be fighting the damn healer capital of the planet. Good thing you're worth a dozen of those garbage bandage peddlers." Jessie put her down as she heard her speaking, and I could see a blush on my teammate's face at the compliment.

    I raised an eyebrow, cocking my head so my confusion was visible. "I thought the Garden was all about earning your keep. Melinda didn't want to give Agria any special treatment, how did she end up palling around with the Beast Queen's personal disciple?" It occurred to me that I had taken way too much of what Melinda said at face value. It seemed like she was taking care of Jessie behind the scenes even before I revealed my ability. I couldn't exactly be mad, but it made me wonder what else I'd missed.

    Sloane just shrugged. "Master can't directly interfere with newbies without breaking established tradition, but there's no rules about who can and can't be friends. Agria is a sweetie, and she has a damn useful power. She's also a fast learner. I was able to teach her the Beast Taming Mastery Skill pretty quickly." She shot my teammate a bright smile, and Jessie beamed back at her. Despite the blushing I didn't think Jessie's interest was romantic, she was just extremely flattered to have such a high evaluation from someone she respected.

    "Well this is all very nice." Mel said, cutting in. "But we kind of have other things to deal with. Another thirteen G-rankers is a solid boost to our capabilities. The pavilion itself has ten of us at a level I'd be comfortable fielding in combat. The cavalcade has another eight I'd call combat capable, but they're all directly under Cicero, and we need his support if we want them to jump in on this." I could literally hear the disgust in her voice as she asked Abel. "Can you talk to him about lending aid?"

    The rabbit masked man rolled his eyes. "Yes, Mel. Revenant, you act like he's pure evil. He's not going to leave us twisting in the wind. Gods, even if he wanted to, this is his place too, at this point he doesn't really have a choice on whether to join in or not. They're coming to tear down the whole cavalcade, when they come at all. His options are to help or watch everything he's worked for get destroyed, possibly dying in the process."

    I cut in before Mel could snap back. "Speaking of the cavalcade, should we try to talk him into closing it? I don't think anyone here wants a bunch of civilians underfoot when the attack goes down. I know the defenses are supposed to be powerful, and I'd rather not see them all get mowed down in the crossfire." Left unsaid was my worry that Cicero wouldn't be quite as worried about civilian losses because he was a selfish dick.

    "I was already planning to do so." Came a familiar voice from behind me. I jumped slightly, not having expected to hear it so soon, and spun to see Cicero stepping into the Pavilion, Emery following at a distance that seemed aimed at providing the top hatted man room to move around, while still staying close enough to step in if anything went wrong. I wasn't sure what the point of that was honestly, unless Emery was WAY more dangerous than I'd been led to believe, there was no possible way the spymaster would be able to stop Abel if he chose to attack his brother.

    It didn't matter anyway. Abel stepped forward with a wide, welcoming smile, opening his arms in greeting. "I've been back for hours and you're just now stopping in to visit? You're a terrible host. I'm surprised this place hasn't gone belly up with you in charge the last few years." He stepped forward to hug his brother, and Emery tensed until Cicero waved a hand subtly meeting his brother's embrace with a tight hug of his own.

    To my shock, the mustachioed ring master stayed like that for a minute, squeezing his big brother tightly as if reassuring himself he was real. I might be misreading him again, but I got the impression that despite his double dealing personality, not all of Cicero's stated affection for his brother was a lie. Maybe her personal strength really wasn't the only reason Mel had lasted so many years sewing dissent around here.

    The hug only lasted a minute though, and once he composed himself Cicero pulled back, his face melting from a peaceful expression of relief that I'd almost missed as he turned to face us, to it's usual calm, positive smile, the one I knew for a fact was utter bullshit. His eyes raked over the assembled group. "Well, it seems the lot of you have been busy. What an interesting array of allies. Tell me then, Melissa, are these here to deal with me? You seem to have suborned my new spies easily enough. Perhaps you've become more skilled at gathering subordinates yourself."

    Despite the dire nature of the question he didn't sound distressed at all, perhaps reassured that Abel would come down on his side. "Yeah, she's got this revolutionary technique called not being an asshole. I was bowled over." I chimed in helpfully. Callie snorted out a laugh, and Mel raised a hand to her mask in an exaggerated cough to hide her own chuckles. "Sadly, as much as I would love to participate in a rousing game of 'kick the bastard in the hat' we have bigger problems now, and Mel is on your side, though I suspect she'd rather have her teeth pulled than admit it out loud."

    Mel gave a silent shrug, her lack of commentary a clear agreement with my sentiment. Cicero raised an eyebrow, seemingly unbothered by my hostility, or at most slightly miffed. He sighed. "Well, I suppose an explanation is in order. That does explain why my brother has shown himself. Very well. Regale me with your tale." He walked over to one of the massive bench seats lining the dirt ring and sat, leaning back casually to wait.

    Abel looked over at Mel, who glanced away, then at me, then at Callie. When he saw none of us were willing to tolerate talking to his asshole brother without being forced to, he sighed heavily, rolling his eyes before beginning to fill Cicero in on everything that had happened. Mel had apparently given him all the details she had, as had Callie, because his summary of the situation included quite a few things he hadn't known before (though he didn't mention the candidate or me, so Callie had held at least a few things back) but he gave a coherent and concise summary of events.

    Cicero waited, listening to his brother for a few minutes, before turning to glare at Mel. "So our resident firebrand put as all in horrible danger with her recklessness and thoughtlessness, how shocking. This is what I get for tolerating your nonsense for all these years I suppose. I should have handled you years ago." To my shock, his voice was laced with actual rage, some of the first negative emotion he'd allowed himself to show in my presence.

    Mel stepped forward, golden flames roaring to life in her palms. "YOU tolerated ME? You want to try to evict me yourself you cowardly fuck? I was here at the beginning of this entire place. I would have left years ago if I wasn't worried your poison would ruin the place Abel and I worked so hard to create. You're a pathetic, simpering, backstabber, and if you want to start a fight I'll gladly oblige!" Mel's tone was every bit as enraged as Cicero's and Abel was staring between them in shock and what looked a bit like panic.

    Before they could actually fight though, a wave of crushing force smashed into my shoulders, and theirs too from the looks of it, forcing us all to our knees. "Enough, children." Came an authoritative voice that was barely recognizable for it's intensity. We all turned to look at Alden, who scowled through his beard at the three of them. "I've had enough. You're fucking adults, act like it. Cicero, you'll supply the manpower we need and deal with your issues with Mel later. Mel, you'll focus on the task at hand and worry about your grudges when we aren't all about to die."

    His eyes flicked to Abel, who looked relieved to have been skipped. "And you!" Abel's eyes jerked up in surprise as his teacher laid into him. "If you're going to come back after so long have the decency to deal with the trouble you start. You're one of the most terrifying people I've ever trained, but you refuse to stand up to Mel or your brother and it's absurd. I realize you worried about hurting them as kids, but you aren't ten anymore. You can't just let them do whatever they want because you don't want to upset them. Stop coddling them and grow a spine."

    The three of them all looked like they'd been slapped, and I thanked Zeke mentally for the mask he'd made not showing my mouth, because I was grinning at seeing them all chastised. The older man sighed in annoyance. "Damn kids will be the death of me. Now, the rest of you, gather our forces while Cicero clears this place out. Who knows how long we have before the enemy arrives." He gave us all a savage grin. "We need to make sure to show our hospitality, and thorough preparations are a necessity for a proper welcome."
     
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