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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.

  1. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    I believe so yeah. I thought I added that. Sorry.
  2. Revanandfriends

    Revanandfriends Getting sticky.

    Apr 25, 2019
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    What a coincidence, I am also curious on what ability Maria will ended up with XD. Curious if it will be similar to Benny's in any way.
  3. Threadmarks: chapter 277
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    We talked over meeting with Maria about the wish, but I realized no one had explained to her about how it worked it, and if I offered her one I couldn't tell her to wish for an ability without compromising it we decided to make that a tomorrow plan. Today we were going in to see Stella and Cap at the guild. Amelia was coming with us to do her Intake, but other than that it was just Jessie, Callie, Benny, Celine, and I. Cass and Cark decided to sit things out with Zeke and Alexander at home, since they weren't Unity.

    Celine, as a member of the Academy, was welcome of course, and Benny seemed excited to see the Valen branch of the Unity as much as to show it to her. "This is going to be amazing!" He said as we all sat together on the bus. "I've never really spent time at the guild, except for that time you got kidnapped by a psychopath and we were waiting for you to wake up." He said to me cheerfully. "Understandably I didn't do much sightseeing there at the time."

    I rolled my eyes. "Sorry my near death experience ruined your day trip. I'm sure this one will be better." I briefly worried Jessie might be upset at the flippant joke about Stricture, given what he'd done, but apparently a combination of the fact that he was dead now and the fact that we were planning to bring back her brother made it much less stressful to think about. Speaking of Jessie. "Oh hey, Agria, are we meeting Sparkdove here? I figured she'd want to spend time with you while we're in town."

    Sparkdove was Jessie's brother's friend Lindsey, who had been on a team with him before his death. They'd been close, and after he'd died, Lindsey had taken it upon herself to look after Jessie as best she could. They'd kept in touch via scan ring after we headed to Rajak, as far as I knew, though Jessie didn't talk about their conversations much. I got the feeling she confided a lot of the things she liked to push down in her childhood friend. She'd been a lot better since we'd talked about bringing Alan back, but everyone had bad days.

    Our blonde teammate lit up at the question. "She is! She's been taking a more active role in the guild since we left. I was so happy to see her when we touched down, but we didn't get to spend much time together, so this will be awesome. Cap is going to be meeting us there too, right?"

    Callie answered this one with a grin. "Yup, and not just him. He's been spending all his time with Blue Fox since we left. I think those two are FINALLY dating. Honestly watching them dance around each other for years was getting frustrating for pretty much everyone. I was beginning to think Stella was going to have to assign him a mission to finally ask her out before he would get around to it."

    Amelia just laughed. "Oh gods, I remember those two coming over to the house. It's nice to know they ended up together. Ian was always a good boy. I liked his mother quite a bit. I always thought picking her as successor was the only thing your father did right when he was in charge here. Paul was hopeless at paperwork. Stella did all of that for him anyway. She deserved to be recognized for her contributions to the guild."

    It was weird to hear about Stella when she was younger, but thinking about it, despite her youthful appearance (especially now) Amelia was in her forties. She was part of the generation before Stella took over. Though that brought up another question I'd had. "Why didn't Harvest take over? She's G-rank, but I'm pretty sure she's at the higher end. I bet if she became Guild Master she could have broken through, and since she grew up with you she'd have had seniority right? Why did Stella get tapped?"

    "Oh that." Amelia said dismissively. "Paul didn't ask because he knew Alyssa would say no. Hell, if she wanted, she could have taken over before he did. Alyssa has always been good with people, but she's also not an ambitious person. She likes her woods and interacting with people at the grove. She doesn't want to be in charge of anything. She just wants to enjoy her life."

    Jessie nodded. "That's true. Alan mentioned a few times that he wished she'd be more active in the field. It just isn't her scene though. I think she partly bowed out because she didn't want to rank up. F-rank comes with a lot of attention in Valen. If she got there she would be forced to interact with the higher level factions whether she liked it or not. I got the impression catching up with her that she's more than happy to stay where she is."

    That almost reminded me of Abel in some ways. It was interesting how many reasons some people seemed to find not to rank up. It was a good reminder that not everything in life was about progression. Finally, the bus made it to the guild hall, and we climbed out. I stopped outside, staring up at the building with a smile. It had only been a few months since I first stood here for my intake, and so many things had changed. I had new friends, a girlfriend, power, and I knew things about myself and my family I never could have imagined.

    It looked so different now, having seen what I'd seen. Smaller and less impressive in some ways, but more special in others because this was where I came from. It still looked like a courthouse, with columns and a marble facade, but it didn't look nearly as large or imposing as it had the first time. Not with buildings like the Unity headquarters in Rajak to compare it to. We headed inside, Callie pointing things out to Benny and Celine since this was their first visit aside from the wait to find out if I was alive for Benny. She seemed just as excited to be back as I was.

    Ian met us downstairs in costume, alongside Blue Fox, who I didn't know very wall. A tall, friendly girl with bright blue streaks in her blonde hair that matched her cerulean eyes, along with a wide infectious smile. She cheered in excitement as she saw us, or rather one of us in particular, as she slammed into Callie, sweeping my girlfriend up in a crushing hug. "Nightstrike! It's so good to have you back, we really missed you." While Blue Fox was pretty tall for a woman at five foot ten, Callie was on the short side for anyone, a full foot shorter than the energetic blonde.

    It was amusing to see my kickass girlfriend who was on the high end of G-rank manhandled by an H-ranker, but Callie just smiled fondly and squeezed her back. "Nice to see you too, Fox." She nodded over to Ian. "Cap, I see the two of you are as close as ever. Did you actually bite the bullet and finally ask her out? I was almost positive, but it's hard to tell with you to so I figured I'd ask."

    Ian just rolled his eyes, giving me a hand shake before getting an enthusiastic hug from Jessie, and then a more measured one from Amelia. "Yes. We're dating. We started going out last month, and not that it's any of your business, but SHE asked me."

    Callie spat a curse. "Shit. I owe Stella five chits. I had you being the one to finally get up the guts to ask. Why must you always find new ways to hurt me." She shot Blue Fox a wide smile. "Not that I'm not happy for you guys, I'm glad one of you has a spine at least. I'm just annoyed at losing the money. So, why, don't we show Celine and Clockwork around. Actually..." She paused, turning to Celine. "Do you not have a codename? I just realized that."

    Celine chuckled. "No. I don't use the heroic cultivation system. Where I'm from we don't really use them. I just go by my regular name, same as I don't use a mask. Still, I'm on good terms with the Unity branches on this planet, so a tour should be fine. I'm interested to see how things work here."

    "Wait." Ian said, eyes widening. "Are you an elf? Like a real one? I saw the ears but I figured it was some kind of Skill or ability based change. Like some people have oddly colored hair. That's so cool!" We all looked at him in amusement and he flushed. "I've never met an elf before ok? Only low level fae like Suki. Elves are cool." He stood there awkwardly for a minute as we stared at him before huffing. "Oh shut up, let's just go."

    Blue Fox, or rather, Clarissa, snickered and put an arm over his shoulder. "It's ok sweetie. I'm sure you aren't the first nerd Celine has met." She kissed him on the cheek, smiling sweetly at Ian as he gaped in betrayal, and then grabbed Callie and dragged her ahead of us into the building.

    I stepped up next to my former team leader. "Oh, I like her. Just sorry I didn't get to meet her when I was in town the first time. How've you been boss man? You seem happy, mortification at being a 'nerd' notwithstanding. Things been going ok here? With the Jerks gone I bet the city has been quieter."

    We started walking, Celine and Benny catching up with Callie, with Jessie trailing behind. Ian grimaced. "Less than you would think. Mr. Jack-tastic was a lunatic, but his whole brand was being MOSTLY nonthreatening. There were a few psychos like Ronnie mixed in there, but for the most part the jerks were more zany than actually threatening. With him gone, some of the other gangs in the city have been moving to hold some of that territory."

    I hadn't been expecting that. "Can they even manage that? Without an F-ranker how would they be able to keep up with the Queen of Hearts or The Nobody Man. I'd have figured the bigger factions would be snatching up the free territory to split between them."

    "Some of it." He admitted with a sigh. "But there are limits to what they can comfortably hold. They're fighting over the prime real estate, but that leaves turf wars popping up in the smaller and less important parts of open territory. Granted, the bigger gangs will probably just annex anything that gets taken later, but that's its own kind of benefit." He shook his head absently. "Not your problem, kid. You have stuff to worry about already. Leave that to us. Mom is excited to see you. Her little investment. She was over the moon when you won the freshman scavenger hunt at the Academy. Hasn't stopped bragging about it since."

    With the F-rankers from the capital coming to support Amelia I doubted the political situation would stay too unsteady. I flushed a bit at the other comment though. "Wait, bragging? About me? I mean, that's really nice, but I didn't know she cared that much."

    He just laughed and clapped me on the back. "Of course. You and Callie represent Valen on the world stage. Now she gets to tell everyone how she has such a good eye for talent because she got you into that contract early. Plus a not insubstantial amount of gratitude mixed in for catching Stricture, and a bit of guilt. She's definitely team Solomon though. She'll be glad to see you home." I smiled a bit under my mask at the words. Not just because Stella was proud of me, which felt...weird, but good. But also because he was right. I did feel like I was home.
  4. Threadmarks: chapter 278
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Stella didn't come down to meet us, because she was busy and also in charge. She DID call us up to say hello, which was nice, and if was fun to see Celine and Benny awed by SOMETHING. Stella's office was impressive in it's own right. It occurred to me that as a Guild Master of one of the branches, she would have access to resources that an F-ranker in Valen might not. I'd only ever met with E-rankers in official faction headquarters, it was probable people like Alexander had crazy rooms like this squirreled away somewhere to meet with other big names.

    The Guild Master looked the same as I remembered, no nonsense bun, well tailored suit, sitting at a huge wooden desk. Unlike the first time I'd seen her though she was smiling warmly when she saw us. "Hail the conquering heroes." She said with a chuckle. "My budget has nearly tripled because of you two, you know? Between your win and the nonsense Mr. Jack-tastic has been getting up to Velan's star is on the rise, so to speak." She gave a wink so subtle that I almost missed it when she dropped the pun.

    "That was bad." Said Callie in a deadpan tone. "And you should feel bad for saying it. Is this what you do when I'm not here? Spend your time coming up with bad celestial puns? I need to visit more often I guess. I should have known nothing gets done around here without me."

    Snorting, Stella looked over her glasses at my girlfriend. "Little girl, you've bulked up a decent amount in Rajak, but the day I need a G-ranked baby telling me my business is the day I retire. Especially a G-ranked baby who needed her Auntie to cover for her when she slept through a patrol rotation eight times in the first year she was on the job." The two of them had teasing smiles tugging at their lips as they bantered.

    I gave a wave. "Nice to see you boss. Hope things have been quiet. Glad we could drop in and say hi." I leaned forward, lowering my voice. "Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, maybe you can tell me more about these missed rotations. I'm always looking for good material to keep her humble." Callie glared at me and elbowed me in the ribs pointedly, which didn't do much given she wasn't trying to hurt me and I was in F-ranked armor.

    "I think." Said Stella with a smirk. "You are pretty much the worst possible influence on her humility. Or did someone forget asking me to partner him with Nightstrike when we were working up his contract?" My eyes widened because I HAD forgotten that. My Focus had been ridiculously low when that happened. I very carefully kept my eyes on Stella as I felt my cheeks burn.

    Callie, smiled broadly like a shark scenting blood as she cooed. "Oh, sweetie. That's so cute. I was like your mortal crush. Did you collect my merchandise? I still have a full set of those Nightstrike novelty mugs lying around somewhere. Do you need any of the holiday run? Those can be hard to find." I could hear suppressed laughter in her voice as I did my best to completely ignore her comments.

    "I was hardly the only person to have a crush on you." I said with faux dignity. "And no. I have them all." I mumbled. "But my two hundredth anniversary Unity mug is cracked. I wouldn't say no to swapping it out with one in mint condition." They both just stared at me, and I felt everyone who wasn't Benny swing around to look at me in disbelief. "They're a good investment!" I defended myself fervently. "Those mugs are worth forty six percent more than they were when I bought them! Plus Callie has been crushing it in Rajak. Jokes on you, when we hit S-rank I'll auction the damn things at the WCP headquarters."

    Giggling musically, Callie buried her face in my shoulder as she pulled me into a hug. "It's ok sweetie. I know you're a huge nerd. I love you anyway. She's right though. You are the worst possible thing for my humility. Teasing not withstanding, you're the most supportive boyfriend I can imagine."

    "Ok." I said, irrationally offended that I was being told I was a good boyfriend. "Can we get back to the meeting please? This is about catching up with Stella, not putting my collecting habits under a microscope. Amelia! Aren't you and Stella old friends? Don't you have things to tell her? It's been a pretty big week for you right? So much to fill her in on, don't you think?" I said almost desperately. Literally anything to change the damn subject.

    Amelia just clucked her tongue. "Honestly Shane. Even I didn't buy the novelty mugs." She said judgmentally, ignoring my glare. "But yes, hello Stacy. wonderful to see you again. You look like you've fit into your role here wonderfully. I've had a certain former paramour of yours staying at my home recently. He talks about you when he isn't paying attention to guarding his tongue. We all do so love our masks don't we?" She gave a subtle wink of her own.

    Unlike Stella's joke, Amelia's produced visible results as the Guild Master's face lit up tomato red as she squeaked. "Amy! Don't talk about my romantic history in front of the kids!" She averted her eyes and sniffed. "And I know he's here. If he wants to see me he can get off his lazy ass and come visit. I'm not his nanny. I don't need to go running every time he shows up in town."

    "Well, if you're going to tease my daughter and my poor little future son-in-law." Amelia said, ignoring the wide eyed squawks of shock and yelps of mortification from Callie and I because that was moving WAY too fast. "I'm going to poke fun." She arched an eyebrow in challenge. "Now, why don't you climb out from behind that absurd desk and come with us to meet with Benjamin. I haven't seen the boy in years and I want to make sure he hasn't blown himself up in any permanent fashion."

    Seeing the normally implacable Guild Master look like a chastised teenager made this entire thing worth it. As she climbed down, Amelia shot me a conspiratorial wink and I had to fight a smile. It was nice to know she liked me at least. As we met Stella at the other side of the desk (which had an entire set of stairs for descending) she smiled at the younger woman. "Jokes aside though, I'm here to register for intake. I've recently developed an ability of my own, much to everyone's surprise."

    Stella actually tripped when she heard that, turning to stare in shock at Amelia. "I...what? At forty? That is...so rare. I mean, dear gods, I can count the number of times I've heard of that happening on one hand with fingers left over." She paused, looking suspicious. "Wait, you said Zeke was staying with you?"

    She came to pretty much the exact wrong conclusion, but I decided to play into it. The WCP knew about my ability, and that would eventually spread to the Unity, but for now having an alibi might keep the information away from people like Midknight for just a bit longer. I raised my hand. "I asked Zeke to get a wish for her. He had some favors to call in, and he was drunk for my last like...eleven birthdays, so I figured he owed me one."

    I felt a bit bad lying to Stella about this when she'd been so nice, but worst case I could apologize and offer her a wish or something later to make up for it. At the mention of Zeke's drinking she just rolled her eyes with a huff, clearly distracted by my uncle's alcohol intake and not thinking past the easy answer I'd given her. Callie twined her hand in mine and squeezed, which I knew was a thank you, but which fit with the story well enough anyway. I still felt a warmth in the pit of my stomach at the gesture.

    We headed down the steps to Beaker's lab, Amelia telling Stella all about her new abilities as best she knew them. She didn't bother filling her in on stats since she had to do the intake anyway and we would all just see them. I snickered internally when I remembered how impressed Stella had been that I'd managed to hit H-rank before coming in. Amelia wasn't quite there, but she was damn close. I foresaw a pretty lucrative contract in her future.

    We remounted the spiraling crystalline stairs, and when we got a certain part of the way down, Stella stopped and fished a key from her suit pocket. I recognized it as the one Stricture had used all those months ago. She slipped it into a spot mid air, that with my current Perception I could BARELY see shimmering, and turned it with a click, letting the same door we'd seen at my own intake swing open. She gestured us all in, and Amelia took the lead.

    Entering with a sniff of disapproval, Amelia looked around and shook her head. "That boy. Functionally incapable of not making a mess." She looked around before calling out impatiently. "Benjamin! You have guests, dear. Be polite and come say hello." It occurred to me that Beaker, being F-rank himself, was probably older than he looked, and much closer to Stella's age than the twenty he looked. He'd probably just ranked up early.

    Beaker came stumbling out of a side room, carrying a glass tube full of bubbling neon pink liquid, eyes bleary behind his glasses. He froze when he saw Amelia, and I saw the carefree attitude melt from him as he stood up straight, looking like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. "Miss. Amy! It's...so good to see you. What brings you to my study? I haven't seen you in quite some time."

    Out of all the reactions I'd seen from other people, this was the first one that seemed more afraid than fond. Not in a genuine way you might see from someone who had been bullied, but in the sheepish way you'd see from someone talking to a strict mother. Stella's generation had been kids when Paul was active, so I guessed that made sense, but it was a weird thing to see from Beaker of all people. Especially knowing how things ended up. I remembered Callie saying that her mother spent most of her time at the house when she was growing up. I supposed Amelia had stopped coming around after Stella and Beaker's time, maybe when Callie was born.

    Amelia gave him a fond smile. "It's nice to see you too Benjamin. I see, you've managed to confine your messes to an appropriate work area. That's excellent to see." She gestured down at herself. "As for why I'm here, well...I'll be needing one of your intake devices. I've recently developed an Ascendant ability of my own. I'm here to register my stats for the first time."

    Rather than being shocked, Beaker looked excited. "Oh, really? That is FASCINATING. You hardly ever see older people awakening an Ability. I've never gotten to process one before." He turned to bustle off to one side of the room to look for the device, breaking off conversation without any acknowledgement as the same old manic energy reignited in the spectacled man. He paused after he got about five feet, looking over his shoulder. "Well...are you coming or not? I believe we have a test to run." We all followed him with a chuckle. It was nice to see Beaker had stayed the same. Visiting him was never boring, at least.
  5. Threadmarks: chapter 279
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The rest of the visit home went by in a blur. Between finally getting Maria her ability (magnetism of all things), going out to hang out around town with Callie, spending time with Amelia, and catching up with Maria while she got to know Celine, the days just flew past. By the time we were ready to head home I had to basically force myself to leave. It had been so relaxing and peaceful since we got here that the thought of returning to Rajak to deal with the tournament nonsense almost wasn't worth it.

    In the end though, I knew that none of us would be happy long term just lounging around. As nice as it was to decompress, we all really loved getting stronger and having adventures. We'd just been a bit burned out on training and this trip had certainly helped. Of course, I kept up my wishes, getting another nine clone charges from Callie and granting one last wish for Amelia to bump her to H-rank before we left (since she was I-rank and it was a single point she was able to get by paying me promises to cook us a bunch of snacks for the return trip). I still had today's wishes, but I'd deal with those later, for now we were on the road and heading back to the capital.

    Callie sighed heavily as she looked through the curtains at the rapidly shrinking city. "I'm going to miss it. Being home. It was...fun. Hell, even seeing Ashley was kind of nice. Granted, mostly I just enjoyed rubbing my growth in her face. We've been at each other's throats since we were both twelve though. She's...like my nemesis. It's really kind of sad she isn't getting strong as fast as me." Her eyes snapped to mine. "Don't you dare tell anyone I said that."

    I held up both hands placatingly. "Whoa, no sharing secrets, I've got it. I don't think it's that weird though. She's been on your heels for more than half a decade. That's an important relationship. Just because someone is kind of an asshole doesn't mean they aren't a big part of your life. Nobody likes leaving people they care about behind." I reached out to take her hand, squeezing it. "If it helps, we're not going anywhere. This team will be sticking together for the long haul, at least as long as everyone wants to stay."

    Jessie, who was lying on a couch across from us with her feet up, cheered. "Hell yeah! You aren't getting rid of us that easy. Just watch, you'll be sick of us before long." She winked at her slightly teary friend, who chuckled at our healer's enthusiasm. "Anyway, I feel you. I'm going to miss it too. Honestly Shane I'm surprised you didn't bring Maria with us. She could totally keep up, especially with your help."

    Benny cut in. "No." Jessie looked surprised at the vehemence in his voice. He just gave her an apologetic smile. "Sorry Jess, but I don't want my sixteen year old sister in the fast lane. She's only a couple years younger sure, but so much of the shit we've gone through has been insane. We could have all died multiple times over." He looked at me. "I love you like a brother, man, and I'm happy to stick it out, but I don't want Maria in this shit. She can go slow and steady and work with Amelia."

    Callie sighed. "Honestly. I get it. It's kind of condescending, but based on the things we've seen and done it isn't exactly crazy. She's in a better spot than I was at sixteen for sure. Mom will help her out, and she has those F-rankers Uncle Alex is sending to look after her. She's arguably in a better position to grow than we are. She doesn't have wishes, but she'll have powerful team members to boost her up, plus none of your enemies trying to murder her."

    At my hurt look she leaned up to kiss me softly. I wasn't wearing my mask on the trip, but at the moment I wished I had. She gave me a soft smile. "Hey, we all know what we're doing. I'm not saying anything that has happened was on you. I'm just saying you tend to attract trouble, and while that's great for fast cultivation, it's less than ideal for slow and steady progress."

    Zeke snorted from off to one side. "She's right kid. Any shortcut to the peak will draw ire. Her current advantages are good for the moment. If it helps you can always come back and give her a hand once you get higher ranked and can more easily protect people. It should be insanely easy to help her rank up with that kind of power. Speaking of easier rank ups. How are you feeling about this tournament?"

    Blowing out a breath, I let myself relax into the seat. "I feel...good. The downtime definitely helped clear my head. I'm still a bit nervous but I think relaxing helped some of it sink in. I know that Abel is going to kick our asses for the next two weeks, but still, making it this far into the training gives me a serious sense of accomplishment. Especially seeing how Callie did in her dust up at the club."

    "Dust up?" Callie snorted out a laugh. "Are you six hundred years old? Though admittedly it wasn't much of a fight. But yeah, comparing myself to other G-rankers definitely helped me realize how far we've come. We're nowhere close to done obviously, but it feels good. I can't wait to win and get that bump to Impact. Imagine being just that much tougher than any other person your rank." She paused. "Actually Zeke, have you ever gotten extra Impact?"

    That surprised a laugh from my uncle. "Oh sure. Not many times, but I've gotten a few points. Comes in handy at higher ranks, and it sets a foundation. You'll learn about why later. Its definitely worth doing though. And it has compounding effects. The more you demonstrate capabilities beyond your rank, even slightly, the more you stand out. People who can buff Impact early tend to build up a lot of momentum. It's not universal but it happens more often than not."

    I had figured that would be the case. Having that little bit of extra durability against others of your rank would mean the weaker ones wouldn't really be able to do much of anything and even middling Ascendants would have to put in effort. Not as good as a full rank difference, but also not nearly as obvious. Though that little tidbit about Zeke brought up a question I hadn't considered. "So wait, are you watching our training? I never bothered to ask. If so I'm curious about your feedback."

    Zeke grinned widely at me. "That is a fantastic question. The answer is...kind of? I keep an eye on you most of the time but its vague. Just a general sense for anyone E-ranked or higher who might be nearby. If you're in proximity to someone strong enough to need my intervention I'll focus a bit harder. I try not to intrude too much since I cant help with lower ranked enemies either way. I did check out your training when you mentioned it though."

    It made me feel a ton better that he wasn't just watching me all the time. The idea had only just occurred to me but it was creepy as hell. I looked at him expectantly. "Well? What did you think? Was it impressive? Mediocre? You've seen what things are like at the top so I'm damn curious what you think of the whole thing. How does Abel measure up to the big dogs in the universe? I think he's the strongest I've seen here level by level, though I'm not exactly an expert so some of the E-rankers might be better."

    "Oh." Said Zeke in mild surprise. "That's what you wanted to know. Figured you were fishing for sympathy. He's decent. He's not the first battle nut to try to perfect his own heritage. His is pretty incomplete but its better than most of what you would find on this backwater. He's bit exactly the strongest for his level per se. But he's definitely powerful for his age. There are some E-rankers that could keep up if they were at the same level because of their rich experience, though not all of them by any means. In the wider universe I'd call him mediocre probably. For a world at this level he's a top tier talent though."

    That kind of scared me honestly. The idea that Abel, who was damn near invincible as far as I was concerned, was mediocre in terms of combat standards. I had the feeling that Zeke was counting those huge forces with a heritage though, and that was definitely a factor to take into consideration. I shook off that thought though. We'd deal with what came as it came. For now we just needed to focus on the tournament. I had to trust anyone coming to an event at this level would be something we could deal with at least with Mel and Abel's help.

    Not wanting to get sucked back into tournament prep before we got home and were forced into it, I turned to Benny, who had seemed quiet. He and Celine had been sitting to one side and he'd been staring into space for a bit. Aside from his comment about not wanting Maria to be on the team he'd been mostly silent, and it struck me now how out of character that was. I waved a hand to try to get his attention. "Hey man, you doing alright? You seem out of it."

    He started a bit. "Huh? Oh, sorry. When you guys got back onto the tournament I sort of spaced out. I'm fine. Just weird seeing my parents. I spent so much time growing up in my dad's shadow. I didn't mind it even, it was comfortable and I wasn't really ambitious. I liked being able to relax and just let my family name help me coast. Then I started doing this and you guys all outpaced me so fast. I had to buckle down and work my ass off to catch up. Now I've been doing that so long I don't even recognize myself."

    I got where he was coming from, but I also knew he wasn't done, so I just waited for him to continue venting. He stopped to think for a bit before he went on. "Now though...seeing my dad, who was this larger than life person, and comparing him to some of the people I've seen...it just kind of highlights the huge differences. Part of me envies him for being able to stay the same, but I know I couldn't go back to who I used to be with what I've seen." He sighed. "I don't know. I guess I'm just having an existential crisis."

    Celine smiled and put a hand on his. "Introspection is hardly a flaw. Seeing one's roots can make a person rethink their path, or affirm it. It's not a bad thing that you're choosing to mull over where you are in life. Just know that no matter what conclusion you come to, I'll be hear to listen." We all turned and blinked at her in shock. That was...a lot of emotion for Celine.

    The taciturn elf was intentionally closed off most of the time, a side effect of her upbringing. Hearing her express that level of fondness and support was jarring to say the least. I had to wonder though, if Benny wouldn't be a bit less down if he had something to focus on. I couldn't exactly find him a teacher, since he was kind of doing his own thing, but we could look into buying him some more inventing materials. Maybe an upgrade would help him find a bit of purpose. If not it might help him break stuff more effectively. That always made me feel better. Either way it was something to think about as we started to descend. We were finally back.
  6. Threadmarks: chapter 280
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    We headed straight for the Pavilion when we touched down. There was no rush getting home, at least not for the four of us. Zeke headed back with Cass and Cark, and Celine said goodbye to Benny and headed for the Academy to meet up with her team. When we got to the Pavilion, it was mostly empty. We'd gotten there around mid morning, and Abel and Mel were relaxing in the stands, sharing a cup of something hot and with Alden and chatting as they watched the Pavilion members train.

    "When we walked in, their eyes all flicked to us, and I raised my hand in a wave. "Hey there!" I called over. "We just got back in, so we aren't here to train right now, but I wanted to stop in, check up on Pavilion business, see how everyone was." I held up a bag I'd been carrying for a while. "I also brought presents!" We'd discussed it and figured bringing even lame gifts would make Abel more likely to leave us alone the first day back.

    Sure enough, at the mention of presents, the rabbit masked man's head perked up and he practically teleported to the space in front of us. Or literally teleported. It was hard to tell with Abel. Still, it made me smile to see my teacher so excited. "Presents? See, this is why you two are my favorite students. None of my other disciples bring me presents." He was practically bouncing in place as Mel laughed behind him, striding down the stands with wide steps that covered several benches at a time.

    I rolled my eyes. "We're your only students, so that isn't saying much, but yes, we brought you presents." I reached into the bag, pulling out...a huge paper package full of meat. "We figured you might enjoy some new cuts to test out for the cart. We hit up Rantano's in the WCP over in Valen and got a sample of all their regularly accessible premium meats. We talked over some terms with Suki, and if you're interested she's willing to set up shipments of whichever ones you like best, for some...small considerations."

    Which meant money, but buying in bulk she had assured us he would still be able to turn a nice profit. I'd expected derision or an eye roll, but to my surprise, Abel looked...touched. It was hard to tell through the mask, but I was pretty sure the man was completely dumbstruck. Mel, who had only gotten close as I explained it, gave me a warm smile. "That was very thoughtful, Solomon. Abel has been missing his sausage cart. He hasn't really had time to get a new one set up here with all the Pavilion business and the training, but it's been on his mind."

    "Yeah." He said, his eyes fixed on the package in his hands. "I...thanks kid. That means a lot. Most people assumed I'd give up on the cart when I came back. Said it wasn't dignified for a powerful G-ranker to run a food stand." His voice was bitter and I was pretty sure I knew who that sounded like. Fucking Cicero, he was pretty much incapable of not being an unmitigated bastard.

    Mel's jaw tightening up at the comment pretty much solidified that for me. I just rolled my eyes. "Fuck those guys. I love to cook." I put my arm around Callie's shoulders. "You think a giant thug like me gets a woman like this without serious culinary skills? If I didn't feed her there's no way she would stick around." I caught a sharp elbow in the ribs for that, but she was smirking a bit under the glare. She knew I was just trying to cheer Abel up.

    The rabbit masked asshole nodded sagely. "We were wondering. You aren't good for much else." I flipped him off, and his serious expression melted into a snicker. "Seriously though, this is going to be great. I recognize a few of these meats, but I haven't had a chance to work with them much. After I left the circus I was on my own, and I didn't have much in the way of funds. The only skill I really had that I could market was fighting, which sort of defeated the purpose. I worked my way up the cuts I was able to afford now, but it wasn't anything this quality."

    It made me think well of him that he put so much work into his passion, and I was glad I'd been able to help. I reached back into the bag. "Mel, I'm afraid this gift is slightly less meaningful, though no less heartfelt." I passed her a red sphere of crystal. "It's a focus crystal. The ruby was mixed with a drop of blood from an Ifrit. Not enough to make it higher than F-rank, but it amplifies the heat of flames by a quarter, and lowers the cost by a flat ten percent. We weren't sure if you had something better, but we figured it would be of some use as an offhand weapon either way."

    She tossed it effortlessly into the air, catching it on a fingertip and setting it to spin. An Ascendant dropping an object that size and not being able to pick it out of the air was pretty much impossible at our rank, so no one batted an eye as she tested the balance and the weight. She focused and a candle flame bloomed in front of her, shifting shapes into a snake that wrapped her arm. She nodded. "This is fantastic. I'll need to do some training with it, but it should compliment my current weapon pretty well. Thanks, both of you."

    Her warm tone was enough to convey her appreciation even through the mask. We passed Alden his present (a selection of Valen microbrews) before I turned to face Abel with the question that had been on my mind almost since we left. "So. What is in store for the last two weeks?" I asked with a forced casual tone. "I know we aren't training today, but I figure knowing what's coming will help us prepare."

    To my surprise, the grin I got this time wasn't exactly entirely malicious. There was a hint of the usual sadism, but it was also part genuine excitement. "Well, I was planning to have it be a surprise, but we're going to take a trip down to one of the dark districts. It's one of the more out of the way ones, so we won't be running into anyone too powerful. No E-rankers will be in this one, and any F-rankers Mel and I should be able to handle between us. But it'll be a live combat situation that we aren't likely to be able to recreate."

    I froze. That was...terrifying and amazing at the same time. Even an out of the way dark district seemed dangerous as hell, but the chance to experience that kind of environment was definitely exciting. "Wow. Really? But isn't the whole thing with the dark districts that anyone can show up there? What if we run into someone too strong for us?" I knew that they wouldn't be able to take every F-ranker, or even a bunch of them together. E-rankers I was less worried about with Zeke around.

    Abel just shrugged. "It's unlikely this territory will have too many people with real potential. There's almost nothing valuable there. It's kind of an agreed on newbie spot. Not just G-rankers, or there would be no point, but anyone with real power and experience will be in one of the other districts. Plus the Beast Lord Garden should have people down there who can help you out. Hell, Sloane and the other two will probably be sent along with you."

    Mel held up a hand. "Listen. This isn't going to be entirely safe. We'll do our best to watch out for you, but there will be real danger in these next two weeks of training. We won't force you to do this part. You can always say no and stick with sparring. We just thought live combat would help temper you guys some, and you've been learning quite a few things that you could use experience putting into practice."

    "That does sound useful." Callie said uncertainly. " I definitely see why it would be helpful. Can we get back to you? I want to talk it over with our team first, if that's ok." I hadn't even really considered that. Leaving the others up here to go put ourselves in horrible danger would definitely suck for them, and no way was I ok taking them with us knowing what we knew. Talking it out was a smart plan, even if I really hoped we ended up doing it.

    Abel just waved the question off. "Of course. Like you said, it's not a today problem. Think it over. Just know that you two are more than skilled enough for us to be comfortable taking you down there. Your teamwork is extremely refined, and both of you are dangerous in your own right after so much training. We wouldn't have suggested it if we didn't think you were ready."

    "Doesn't matter." Mel cut in. "That's a problem for future you to worry about. For now, you're all home and it's good to see you." She turned to yell over the the Pavilion members training. "Hey, can you lunatics take a break for a bit. We haven't had a good party in weeks, might as well celebrate the kids homecoming." She turned to Alden, who was seated nearby, cracking into a microbrew that Zeke had mentioned was pretty decent. "Hey, old man. You have enough refreshments stocked around here for a spur of the moment bash?"

    The bearded man, looked contemplative. "I...don't know. I'd have to check my stashes. I'm probably good on booze, but my soda stores have been running low. Someone keeps raiding them. I have no clue who, but probably someone with high Perception because I keep them stashed away pretty well. Anyway, give me a minute to grab what I've got." He turned to Abel. "What about food? You think you can handle that?"

    My masked teacher grinned. "Obviously." He looked down at the meat in his hands. "I don't really want to waste the time making new sausages during a party, but even if I haven't had the time to open my shop I still have some stock on ice I can use." He grinned at Mel. "I'll take the money out of Pavilion funds, but don't worry, I'll only charge at cost since this is a party for me favorite disciples."

    She rolled her eyes, waving him off, but didn't argue as the three of them scattered to get ready. As we watched them leave I turned to blink at Callie in surprise. That had escalated quickly. She just grinned and shrugged. "From our first night here, I can assume they like to throw parties. I guess we've kept them too busy to have time for them during training, so having one now seems like as good an idea as any. Besides, I think they want to make sure we end our vacation on a good note." She looked around in amusement. "I'd be shocked if it takes them more than an hour to get set up."

    I turned and looked back over at Jessie and Benny. 'Think we have time to go pick up the puppies? I miss Jin." My big furry buddy might not be too insane by Rajak standards, but G-ranked wolves wandering Valen would have been enough to touch off a riot. Even though leaving them behind had been the right choice, it was still going to be nice to see my wolf. I hadn't even realized how used to having him around I'd gotten until he wasn't there. From her expression Callie felt the same, and we headed over to talk to Jessie. If we were going to party, we should have the whole team around.
  7. Smol Duck

    Smol Duck Not too sore, are you?

    Jan 18, 2020
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    Funny typo

    My opinions on the story so far (Chap 101). The LitRpg aspects feel disjointed especially considering that it’s functionally a metric that exists only so that Shane can accrue power more simply via wishes. It doesn’t feel diegetic even though it very much is meant to be.
    This is further exacerbated especially with the how reliant Shane is on his Doom Sovereign Skill rather than his ability. This makes some sense considering that Wishing is best for accruing Skills and developing others, but Doom Sovereign has so little presence in the story it doesn’t feel fitting. It’d be perfect if E-gaming actually had narrative influence in the story, but that isn’t the case.

    Also too much of the story is currently built around the status screens. LitRpg is expedited exposition but the story is currently built around training to get those numbers up. Meaning a lot of reoccurring exposition alongside other exposition. Very much tell rather than show. It’s as if every scene is going for brevity to get us to the next scene quicker.

    On the good notes I really enjoy the heroic cultivation and recursion aspects. And the best bits of combat was when Shane was first tasting the synergy between Doom Sovereign and Gymnastics.

    If the elemental effects was from synergy between enchanted equipment or other skills, the discrepancy from having a video game playing skill resulting in what seems to be the most varied ability set wouldn’t be as absurd.
  8. Threadmarks: chapter 281
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    I had assumed, based on prior experience, that the trip to the dark district would be accomplished through an elevator. I'd used my five wishes all on Sloane and the others yesterday, netting myself another fifteen points of Perception and getting that stat to an even one hundred fifty, and had plans to do the same today if I didn't need them in the dark district, as we were told to show up at the Pavilion pretty early.

    To my surprise though, when we showed up the next day Abel and Mel had been dressed in sturdy, functional clothes, and had gestured us towards a car, telling us we would be driving to the entrance. At our surprise, Abel had smiled. "The dark districts are considered restricted to civilians, so making them accessible through the upper terminal was considered a bad decision. We'll be taking a series of tunnels, and will be walking most of the way." The biggest surprise of the morning had been Abel. My teacher had replaced his signature rabbit mask with a stylized silver mask that covered half his face. I assumed it was the mask he'd worn as Apollyon.

    As we drove, Abel filled us in on more of the reasoning for this trip. "Alright, the dark district we're heading to is specifically known as Doomtown. It's a relatively out of the way spot that as I mentioned, is mostly aimed at newbies. Different forces send their youngsters there to get them some combat experience before dropping them in the deep end, though there are also several unique forces that have formed there over the years. Doomtown is, as the name implies, dangerous and cutthroat, aside from the basic courtesy of higher end F-rankers and E-rankers staying out of there, don't expect any rules or protection to be in place, which is why we had you leave behind Clockwork and Agria."

    Benny and Jessie had been understanding if a bit annoyed at staying behind, but once we passed some cash to Benny and told him he should work on his Inventing, he'd perked up quite a bit. Jessie had headed for the Beast Lord Garden with most of the wolves to say hello to Melinda and get in some training, with only Rellia and Jin coming along for this particular trip.

    "So." I asked with some trepidation. "Are we...supposed to just randomly kill people down here? Because I'm not really ok with that. Even if they're trying to kill us first, it just seems kind of wrong defaulting to murder. Is there some way we can avoid that? Because if we're expected to just wantonly slaughter anyone we meet I'd rather avoid the whole mess. We can just work on the normal training we've been doing."

    Mel and Abel looked at each other, but my teacher finally just shrugged. "It's not really anyone's default down there. While there's definitely a 'what happens in Doomtown stays in Doomtown' mentality, it isn't unheard of for people to declare vendettas if someone they love is killed. Most of these people are younger generation members of bigger factions, so wanton slaughter is usually avoided. Not that someone won't murder you if they can get away with it out of sight, but most public brawls lack a killing edge. Most. There are some straight up psychos down there, so be aware we may not always have a choice."

    I still wasn't ok with killing, but I could handle it if someone forced the issue, especially if they were some mass murdering lunatic, and I told him as such. He nodded in relief. "Fair. I wasn't sure where your line was on that. The Unity tends to be more inflexible about that than pretty much any other faction in the wider universe because of the nature of heroic cultivation. As Ascendants who grew up in the WCP we're a bit less persnickety about ending problems, but we aren't here to force you to do anything."

    That was a whole can of worms I wasn't going to open. It wasn't my job to try to convince Abel and Mel killing was wrong. The whole live by the sword mentality was pretty common in the WCP and I figured you took your life into your own hands when you went down there, even if that might make me a bit of a hypocrite for refusing to actually kill anyone unless I had to. Callie, seeing my thoughtful silence, decided to pick up the conversation herself. "So, you implied there were other reasons to go down there. Is there some unique aspect of this place that's relevant to us right now?"

    Clearly happy for a return to the subject at hand Abel cleared his throat. "Right. That. Anyway like I said, Doomtown is where most of the big wigs send their juniors. We're likely to run into several of our competitors down there. You'll get a chance to match yourselves against other people in the same general strength bracket and see how you stack up. We're G-rankers but we aren't exactly considered your average combatants, and while training against strong opponents is great, actually being able to WIN some training matches is also kind of necessary."

    From anyone else that would have sounded like hubris, but thinking about how they'd spent the month before our vacation bouncing us off every surface in the Pavilion it was tough to argue. Also the idea of meeting up with some people more our strength was a lot of fun to consider. Without the worry about killing someone (past any accidents we would do our best to avoid obviously) it sounded like a ton of fun to see how we measured up before the big tournament.
    Although..."Wait." I said. "Isn't the main difficulty in the tournament likely to come from outsiders coming over from other parts of the star cluster? I mean, I guess the Titan Twenty are a concern, but will those other forces send their people down there when it's such a disadvantage that they do so? Like their juniors could get hurt before the tournament and they they would be out of the running."

    The look Abel and Mel shot me made me feel like a total idiot, though I didn't really know why until Abel spoke. "Yes, Shane. They WILL send them down to feel out the opponents. Anyone that they consider top tier will be strong enough not to worry about, and anyone who gets killed or injured fighting G-rankers from a backwater planet like this isn't worth their time. I forget sometimes how sheltered you guys are in the Unity."

    Zeke had said similar things a time or two, though he'd also implied even the Unity wasn't as cuddly as it pretended to be for the most part. Still, it stung to have that condescending look shot my way. That must have been clear in my body language because Abel sighed. "Look, it won't be all of them. There's a spectrum out there. Some factions, like the Beast Lord Garden here, are more concerned with their juniors than others. Some do the law of the jungle thing. There will be a few scary outsiders running around I'm sure, though plenty we won't see until the tournament."

    I sighed. "Yeah, I get it. It's just hard for me to think in terms of 'well if you're good enough you won't die in the first place' ." My experience with the WCP hadn't been GREAT, but they at least left me Zeke to watch my back against really high level people. Thinking it through though, the Black Sorrow Cult was probably more cutthroat than the WCP in that regard. I remained silent as we arrived at the tunnels we were taking to get to Doomtown and climbed out of the car to begin our walk.

    It took a few hours to get down there, and we talked a bit, but mostly I just thought over what I knew, came to terms with how things worked, and chose to focus on my excitement. As we started to get closer though, I tuned back in to the conversation around me just in time to hear Callie asking something extremely relevant. "By the way, how common are attacks? Should we expect to be assaulted as soon as we get down there? Will they try to catch us somewhere secluded? What should we expect?"

    Abel, who was walking ahead of us, turned around to walk backwards, still easily keeping pace with Mel, who was out in front. "Depends who we meet. Some of the factions native to the place are less restrained. Since they never leave they don't worry as much about politics. Those are the ones more likely to just attack when your back is turned. Larger factions usually try to make a pretense, but they're often bullshit. Bumping into you and accusing you of spilling their drink, shit like that. Best to just assume you're always in danger of an attack and act accordingly. Everyone else will."

    I nodded, tightening my grip on my cane as we finally emerged from the tunnel, into...well. A town. Not a huge one, but not as run down and shitty as I expected from the name. The buildings were squat, made of sturdy dark stone, and the light was mostly shades of red. It gave the place a sinister, hellish vibe, and despite being unlike what I had thought I'd see, it was pretty fitting for a place called Doomtown. I turned to Abel, who was still walking backwards. "Ok, we're here. Where are heading to get some training in?"

    That got a laugh from my teacher. "Where else? A bar. If you want to get into stupid fights, there's nowhere like a drinking spot to get them started. The Raving Baby is still around I think. I haven't been down here in years so I'm kind of behind the times. But if we can't find a fight there we can at least ask around. In either case, it's that way." He point off in a direction that looked the same as all the other directions, finally resuming a forward gait as we headed off down the road.

    Before we had walked twenty feet though, a series of forms melted out of the shadows, all dressed in identical brown and black dog masks with bright red eyes. Their clothes were a variety of black leather articles covered in chains and studs of different kinds, and they surrounded us quickly and silently. Once they had us encircled, the leader spoke. "Well, well, well boys. What do we have here? Looks like fresh meat to me. And here I was getting hungry." He grinned nastily at us. "The question is which of you are snacks and which are trash for us to toss?"

    Mel glared at him, taking a deep breath and reaching into a pocket to pull out a jingling bag that I was pretty sure contained chits. "You indescribable assholes. You couldn't have waited for the next group? This is my pocket money for the whole month." She turned and passed it to Abel, who deftly caught the bag and jingled it beside his ear with a happy sigh. "Don't gloat. It's unattractive." I could almost hear the sulk in her voice as she pretty much ignored the men standing around us.

    Abel chuckled at her. "No one likes a sore loser dear heart." He shook his head derisively. "Betting we would make it to the bar before we got attacked. Honestly, it's like you WANTED to lose your money. I have to say though, getting surrounded by LITERAL rabid dogs is a bit on the nose. Good to see Doomtown doesn't disappoint after my time away." He turned to us, his grin taking on a brutal edge. "Well then kids, looks like were in for a practical lesson. Pick your dance partners fast, or all the good ones will be taken."
  9. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The absurdity is kind of the point. DS Mastery shouldn't exist. It's a unique skill that would be nearly impossible to acquire without the ability to source intelligence from other players. Other Ascendants don't really play Doom Sovereign, because why would they? They have superpowers in real life. Since they don't play Doom Sovereign mostly, the ones who did end up getting to Minor at best, which as you may remember is peak mortal performance.

    Nobody takes the time to train a Skill like Doom Sovereign Mastery to Lesser, which is where you start seeing any effects, and even if they did, they wouldn't be able to reach Beginner with it without sourcing a bunch of experience from others like Shane or training their asses off for years. Doom Sovereign was every inch the lucky break for him because of his ability, and its existence is completely unique to him. Mostly because no one else would ever put in the time or effort needed to get it the normal way.

    As for using it instead of his ability, that's absolutely true, mostly because the Wish ability, as you mentioned, is a support ability at its heart. Having another main Skillset is key, and focusing on his unique Skill is his best bet. As for the game not being popular, it IS popular, but only with mortals, because Ascendants have better things to do. Since Shane only interacts with Ascendants it's kind of faded into the background.
    Hyperion47 likes this.
  10. Threadmarks: chapter 282
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    There were ten of the dog masked men. I didn't even consciously count them, my Focus and Perception synergizing to grant me an innate sense of the number of enemies based on the various inputs. I wasn't sure if that was some kind of side effect of my training with Callie, or if it was just a factor of surpassing some threshold of either stat, but regardless, I could tell without even looking how many men were around us and where they were standing.

    Abel and Mel were letting us take priority, since they were much more experienced and would have an easy time working themselves into our cooperation, so Callie and I shifted into our teamwork trance and blitzed forward, instinctively knowing we were going to take the four directly in front of us and leave the rest to the others. Rellia and Jin each jumped one, leaving two each for Mel and Abel as well, and it was nice to be able to trust our team enough to just ignore our backs as we attacked, knowing they had us covered.

    The four men in front of us barely seemed surprised by our attack. I considered using some of my stored attacks on them, but when I gamed it out I decided to stick with my DS Skills. These were random G-rankers attacking newcomers, they wouldn't be too strong. Callie and I both had the same thought, which wasn't unusual, and we closed the distance , ready to work together as we'd been taught. As we got near them, I layered a Touch of Tears and Consecration of Flame on my cane, and then let my left leg drop out as I fell into a shoulder roll toward Callie.

    Being able to sense me and instinctually react to my moves, Callie stepped off my shoulder mid roll, splitting into a trio of clones as her body was cloaked in darkness. The two who she'd been approaching froze at the sight of a foot and a half more Ascendant than they had been expecting swinging a green flaming cane at them, and I was able to stack a Mercy Kill and Flurry of Blows to tag both of them several times. One in the ribs, knee and shoulder, and one in the hip, elbow, and collarbone.

    As soon as I landed the blows I turned to swing overhand at full extension, smashing an ice attack aimed at Callie's temple out of the air even as one of the clones slipped out of my own shadow to tank a burst of lightning from one of my two. Callie, who had been backing away after landing a series of light cuts on the legs of her opponents, hit my back and we switched places.

    I choked up on my cane and swung it like a bat, unleashing the force stored so far along with a mercy kill to smash what looked like a ball of super heated rock straight at the ice user, who squeaked and dove out of the way of the attack, not having expected it. The meteor (basically) attack had been aimed at Callie's head, which considering her height meant it had been coming right up the middle for me, perfect for a proper swing.

    As soon as I made the hit I used Sucking Mud, then switched with Callie again, taking advantage of a shadowy smokescreen she had put up to attack lightning guy, hitting his other knee and dropping him before changing directions and attacking the other guy, who was trying to use a wall of water to protect himself from all sides. I could see why those two worked beside each other, water and lightning was a good combo, but unfortunately for him, whereas MY mask had a filtration function, his didn't, and the steam that came off my cane as the posion fire hit the wall of liquid was definitely not healthy to inhale.

    I tapped a sharp series of beats on the ground with my cane to let Callie know the situation as I changed targets to meteor guy, since lightning guy and water guy were submerged in a cloud of poisoned steam that they inhaled even as they tried to scream. It wouldn't kill them, but burned, poisoned lungs had to fucking suck. Callie was engaging ice guy with her clones, leaving meteor guy to me aside from a quick deflection of an ice spear aimed at her back from one of the puddles water guy had left behind. Another solid bit of synergy.

    Meteor guy had tanked quite a few hits and seemed sturdier for G-rank than most, probably an ability, so as I got close, I stopped, letting him notice his feet currently beginning to submerge in mud. The distraction was enough time to use my improved Stone Limb (only took a second to cast now), and another consecration of flame on my leg, then I did something I had decided against and stacked on a triple strength density shifted blow and tossed on a Mercy Kill, before spinning off my leg other and smashing into his side with a super dense triple stacked Mercy Kill empowered magma spin kick.

    My head spun a bit as the soul weight of that much mid combat fuckery slammed into my brain, but not nearly as hard as my suped up kick slammed into that guy's ribs, which I could literally hear crack under the blow, even if they didn't break. He went sailing off on the opposite direction, smashing into the wall behind him hard enough to leave a crater, and only the groaning made me sure I hadn't accidentally killed him. That fucking Magma Leg combo was nuts, and I made a mental note to add it to my permanent loadout against opponents with defensive abilities.

    Turning to deal with ice guy, I realized Callie had already dropped him, and was leaning against a wall petting Rellia because the wolves (one of whom looked a bit singed) had taken down their two and Mel and Abel had made short work of the other four. Abel, who was walking over, whistled as he looked at the broken wall where meteor guy had landed. "Holy shit kid, that was a rough one. I think even I would have trouble tanking that. Of course, it would never hit me, way too slow, but still, hell of a finisher."

    I groaned, putting a hand to my head. "Yeah, but I'm going to need to practice it some more to get used to the strain. That kind of soul weight is no joke. I was doing way too much at once during that attack." I paused, letting the pain slightly recede. "Although if I can get used to it, a Flurry of Blows tacked on would take care of the speed issue. That move would be even scarier at a faster speed. Remind me to give that a shot."

    "You will do no such thing." Snapped Callie. "Especially not mid combat. Are you insane? You don't test theoretical move combos with unknown costs to your soul mid battle. What is wrong with you?" She marched up to me, yanking my head down to look into my eyes as if checking for a concussion. "You seem like you're ok, but you need to be more careful Solomon. I know it's been a while since you were able to really cut loose with Skills like this, but doing things like that is dangerous without testing. Promise me you won't do that again."

    I winced at the tone, but nodded. She was right. I'd been sidelined in Valen, and we hadn't been using Skills in training with Abel and Mel, so I'd been antsy and done something stupid. I held up both hands with a sigh. "Sorry. You're right. Got a bit excited and took a stupid risk. It won't happen again, I promise."

    Her shoulders relaxed and she stepped up to wrap her arms around me, resting her head on my chest. "Good. Sorry, I just saw you start to wobble like that and kind of freaked out. It wasn't that big of a deal. You made sure it was your last opponent at least. Still not smart, but you put some thought into it." She stepped back, clearing her throat as she turned to the others. "Speaking of putting thought into things, you couldn't have warned us about a potential attack? You clearly though it was likely enough to bet on it."

    Abel just shrugged. "We did warn you. What part of 'be ready to be attacked at all times' was unclear? Besides, you're all fine. Jin looks a little toasty, but he's been picking up more from your training sessions than I thought. He and Rellia were acting in perfect sync, it was impressive. Some of that was probably just wolf instinct, but I'm pretty sure they've been learning from some of the lessons, which is kind of crazy. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?"

    I turned at a sudden realization to see Sloane and the other G-rankers from the Beast Lord Garden stepping out of an alley. Callie shot them a 'what the fuck?' look, and Sloane just shrugged. "Sorry, we were behind all of you a ways, but the time we showed up they had already surrounded you, we figured we would jump in if you needed it, but that clearly wasn't necessary."

    Come to think of it I hadn't seen them during the last portion of the walk down, but I'd been too distracted to notice it. Maybe they had stopped for a break or something? Whatever the case, they didn't really ow us backup, and the chance to make our reps here was appreciated. I noticed a few windows closing along the street, and I was pretty sure we had been noticed during our little spat.

    Abel seemed to think nothing of it, so we just shrugged it off, with him telling them to keep up because things were going to get a bit dicier here soon enough, and we resumed our walk. With a full fifteen people we weren't stopped again, and Mel looked kind of annoyed that Sloane and the others hadn't show up earlier and saved her some money, though she didn't say anything to them. The Beast Lord Garden initiates were along for the ride as an allied force, but they weren't Pavilion. Mel wasn't in charge of them, and while I kind of was, she couldn't really use that authority.

    Finally, we made it to an old run down black stone building . There was a sign out front with a picture of a cigar smoking baby in a spiky black leather jacket and a mohawk that read 'The Raving Baby', which I thought was awesome. When he saw it Abel gave a whoop of joy. "It's still here! Fantastic! I wonder who's running the place. No way Taggert hasn't outleveled this place by now. Maybe his nephew Owen?" He shrugged. "Oh well, doesn't matter, lets head in and see if we can get the lay of the land."

    I made to follow after him, but he stopped after a few steps, turning to look at us. "Oh, one more thing. Alliances down here get complicated. Don't make waves immediately until we can figure out who stands where in terms of local powers. Not to say bar fights aren't fine, but try to keep things one on one until we get some answers. Once we know who is who we can pick our targets, maybe get you acquainted with some of the Titan Twenty." He shot me a wink to let me know he meant violence, then turned to head inside.

    I looked at Callie and shrugged, stepping close enough that I felt like I could help her if someone attacked and vice versa, and then we trailed Mel and Abel into the bar, the Beast Lord Garden crew behind us and our wolves padding along beside us. We were going to be down here for the next few weeks. Time to go learn exactly what we would be dealing with, and how to best use it to our advantage.
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 283
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    The Raving Baby was pretty much exactly what you would expect a dive bar to be. Low light, smoky air, pool table, old worn chairs and tables. It looked like someone had written up a 'seedy dive bar' checklist and gone down the list one item a time just to make sure it was as authentic as possible. Abel was scanning the room, but rather than serious worry or any sort of scan for danger his eyes were wide and excited. "It hasn't changed a bit! And that smell! I missed that smell so bad."

    Mel sighed dramatically. "Oh gods, I forgot about the enchiladas." At our confused looks she rolled her eyes and pointed across the room. On the opposite wall from the entrance was a huge wall of hanging pictures, above which was written 'Enchilada Avalanche Challenge' each picture had a paper star with a number on it hanging from the bottom, and all the way at the top was a photo of a clearly recognizable Abel, in the same silver mask he wore now, with the number eighty seven pinned to it.

    I froze, blinking in shock at the number. "Ok, we can come back to everything else in a minute, but I have to ask, is that label implying that Abel ate EIGHTY SEVEN enchiladas in one sitting? How is that even possible? Like, I know Ascendants tend to eat heavy, but stomachs still have limited space in them, that's what higher ranking food is for. How do you physically FIT eighty seven enchiladas in a human body?"

    Ignoring me completely, Abel bolted for the bar. "Rudy!" He crowed happily. "You're still here! I figured Taggert would be gone, but I'm glad at least you're still around. How's my favorite bartender?" Abel managed to cross the crowded bad without actually bumping into anyone, the space around him warping to allow him to slip between other people and around tables so quickly and seamlessly it was almost hard to see it happening.

    He appeared in front of a seven foot tall man with maroon hair and a goatee who was cleaning a glass, but when his eyes, which had jerked up at the sound of his name, found Abel, they widened. For a second I thought it was surprise, but it only took me a second to register the expression existential DREAD on the face of the huge bartender as he looked down at my teacher. "Sweet Revenant NO! You can't be here! You're dead! Everyone said so!"

    Abel frowned sulkily. "Hey now, that's not nice. I was one of your best customers. I spent tons of money here when I used to visit, if you'll remember. Did anyone else ever buy as many enchiladas as I did?" He sounded genuinely offended by the clear distress the other man was showing, but the big bartender was too busy having a small panic attack at the sight of him to acknowledge it.

    "Yes, but we SPENT about twice that much on repairs whenever you showed up." Rudy almost wailed. "Taggert only let you come back because he was too scared to ban you. We threw a party the day we heard you weren't coming back. The stone here is so expensive, do you know how much effort it is to repair buildings in Doomtown? And you literally never failed to break SOMETHING."

    A new voice cut in. "Enough, Rudy." The bartender turned to see another man, much shorter and with seaweed green hair. He shot the man a wry smile. "Go work on inventory in the back for a while and collect yourself. I'll handle the bar." Watching the massive form of the red haired man blur out from behind the bar and into a door in the back, the man shook his head with a chuckle before turning to Abel. "Must you make a ruckus every time you go anywhere Pol?"

    Despite his words, he held out a hand with a grin and he and Abel clasped wrists, pulling each other into a quick one armed hug as they smacked each other on the back. My mentor looked thrilled once again as he pulled back. "Owen, good to see you. I figured Taggert would leave the place to you. He was already early F-rank when I stopped coming. How long since you took over?"

    The green haired man gestured us to take a seat at the bar as he slipped behind it, filling up glasses for each of us with some local beer. "Oh it's been a few years now. For the record, I never thought you were dead, and neither did my Uncle. It's why he insisted on keeping the insurance policy he took out on the bar for you active. Still can't believe they made him pay for you as a separate policy. To be fair though, the premiums have gone WAY down since you vanished."

    Mel clicked her tongue as she took the offered beer, along with the rest of us. I was NOT a beer guy, but it seemed rude to refuse so I decided to just nurse it (which, spoiler alert, makes beer SO much worse). She raised an eyebrow at the green haired man. "I'm surprised he got you to retire and take over. Taurus was almost as famous as the two of us back in the day. You were responsible for half the trouble my idiot got into when we were younger, though granted, he probably got you into just as much."

    Owen just shrugged. "I kind of retired when you two left the scene. It just wasn't fun anymore. I considered ranking up and leaving, but it had just lost the appeal." His eyes flicked to us. "Who are the new kids? You two finally pick up some apprentices? I heard there's a big tourney coming up, and introducing a couple of newbies would be a great way to make a splash. If so let me know, I'll make sure to get my bets in on them early while the odds are still good."

    Abel raised an eyebrow. "See, you say that, but it kind of sounds like you're feeling out whether the kids are going to be entering the tournament. I don't suppose there's been some sort of bounty offer going around for contestant information by any chance? Because I could see some of the bigger factions putting out a standing offer for the low down on who they'll be up against."

    The shameless grin Owen shot back made it clear he had indeed been fishing. "Well, maybe. Though that answer is just as good for confirmation as telling me yes would be, isn't it? Of course, I don't know their names or who they represent, but the others you came in with are Beast Lord Garden, and one of them is the Beast Queen's personal disciple. I bet if I look around for information on new Beast Lord initiates I can find SOMETHING out. The question is what it's worth to you for me to keep quiet."

    I expected Abel to be upset, but he just shook his head ruefully. "That would be a mistake on your part. The kids ARE entering, but they're going to be entering with the two of us. Anyone you pass their information to is bound to just get dinged out anyway. It would be a better investment to pass us the information you have so far and then actually place those bets."

    The casual way they were discussing us being sold out was...weird to me. Owen seemed like an on old friend of Abel's but he barely even flinched at the idea that our information might be for sale. Apparently down here that kind of thing was commonplace. For his part, Owen seemed shocked by the fact that Abel was going to be entering. "Wait...you're fighting? Personally? BOTH of you? That's...shit, yeah, ok, give me their names so I can put money on them before that comes out. The odds on the two of them will nosedive when it comes out you two are on their team. I'll pass you what I've learned so far on the house, as long as you promise not to spread your participation for at least two days."

    Abel looked interested. "That does seem like it would be a good deal, but we could get that information somewhere else. I think we need you to sweeten the pot a bit. You're getting a chance to make a shitload of money. Granted, we can put money on the two of them too and we will, but if we're helping you I want to get something out of it." He planted both hands on the counter and gave the other man a bloodthirsty grin. "I want free enchiladas for traveling companions for a month. REGARDLESS of quantity."

    I expected an eye roll or some kind of dismissal, but Owen's face paled immediately. "A-a month? Pol, that's crazy. You eat at least fifty per sitting even when you aren't trying. Sure, the meat is only H-rank, but in those quantities you'll be seriously cutting into my bottom line. I'm running a business here. I don't even know how much the others might eat, a month is way too long."

    Mel reached out and smacked Abel in the back of the head. "We aren't here to feed you enchilada addiction you lunatic." She glared at Owen. "A week, because if he doesn't get SOMETHING he'll never shut up about it. Agree so we can move on to the business at hand." The last part wasn't a plea or a question, it was a command, and the glare in her orange eyes was enough to make me want to take a step back.

    At least some of Owen's reticence had clearly been for show, but because his 'pale' face completely drained of blood as he cleared his throat and looked away. "Right. Yes. A week. I can do a week." He reached out and he and Abel shook to confirm the deal. "Let me get you all set up with a plate on the house to get you started and we can talk shop." He looked over his shoulder. "Rudy! Break's over I'm going to make some food and then eat with my friends. Get your ass back behind the bar."

    There was a loud groan from inside the door we'd seen Rudy flee through. "Do I have to?" He called hesitantly. Owen didn't even bother to respond, glaring through the door as if Rudy could see him. A weary sigh echoed out and the big man slunk out of the back and took his place behind the bar, glaring distrustfully at all four of us from his spot in front of the bottles as Owen headed for the kitchen.

    "Alright, you folks go sit down and I'll get your food." Owen called over his shoulder. "Then we can go over the details of what I know and you can let me in on the who our new wonder team is so I can get my bets in. Four plates of enchiladas coming up. No charge." Despite his supposed resistance to the idea, he seemed to be almost skipping with happiness as he headed for the kitchen, clearly feeling like he'd gotten one over on us with how little he'd been forced to concede.

    Or at least, he was putting one on until Abel called him to a stop. "Hey Owen, aren't you forgetting something?" The green haired man froze, turning suspiciously as Abel raised a hand and pointed over to the table with our Beast Lord Garden allies. Owen's eyes widened with horror even before the other man spoke, but he clearly noticed the loophole in his earlier agreement at the same time I did. Abel's grin was positively vulpine as he asked. "Aren't you going to go ask if any of them are hungry?" Admittedly the evil laughter after he said it might have been a touch over the top, but I couldn't say it wasn't satisfying.
  12. Threadmarks: chapter 284
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    "Dear gods." I said through a mouthful of rice and cheese and sauce. "These enchiladas are amazing. Like, top five of all time in terms of sheer deliciousness. These are only H-rank?" I shoveled in another bite happily, ignoring the blistering glare Owen was shooting all of us as we scarfed down free enchiladas for almost twenty people. I was planning to eat here every meal for the week we got these free. They weren't that expensive honestly, it just kind of added up because I couldn't stop eating them.

    Abel, who was polishing off his fiftieth somehow, nodded without looking up. "Yeah. The original recipe was created by some D-rank chef Taggert met ages ago. He pulled some kind of high ranking nonsense and figured out how to make the ingredients harmonize perfectly to boost the flavor profile. Still only H-rank materials and results, but the taste is G-ranked in quality somehow. Gods I forgot how good these are. I didn't see the chef, who is cooking these things anyway? They must hate me." He laughed after he said that like it was a joke, but I was pretty sure he was right about that.

    Owen actually smirked a bit at that. "Cherry took over as chef ages ago. And yes, she hates you, but to be fair, she's hated you for years. My sister always could hold a grudge, and she never forgave you for winning her motorcycle in that poker game and then crashing it. I think she might have tried to have you killed if anyone would have been willing to take the bounty." He was smiling fondly as he stared off into the distance, but at that last word shook his head to clear it. "Ah, right, bounties. You wanted to hear about all the contestants I've met so far."

    I fixed my eyes on him, waiting expectantly as I continued eating enchiladas. There was a pair of big platters in the center of the table, and Rudy kept bringing out a fresh one to swap for whichever emptied first. Apparently deciding he might as well enjoy the expense, Owen grabbed a plate and started piling on enchiladas himself, starting to eat as he decided where to begin.

    "Well." He said between bites. "I think the first thing to mention is that while I was only planning to collect the information bounty, most of the local factions are taking out legitimate contracts on the known contestants. Once you're all noticed you'll undoubtedly have a few taken out on you too. There's a whole pre tournament war game type thing going on down here, and the biggest names are all paying the most. The outsider factions don't have as much in the way of connections, but most of them are making offers where they can, so just being down here is dangerous as hell."

    Abel swallowed a bite and actually stopped eating. "Really? That sounds fun. Anyone we would know participating? We can't be the only ones from the old days that held up at G-rank for whatever reason. I know some of the old Twenty were almost as into combat specialization as I was. Granted, they'd be too old for the list now, but still, they would be decent competition."

    That got a chuckle for Owen. "Just two. Rayka Vale and Helix. Vale has been running a bounty hunting business down here for years now. Never felt the need to jump up ranks because she didn't want to lose her cash cow. Word on the street is she's finally ready to make the jump up to F-rank after the tournament. Helix disappeared for a few years there. No one is sure where he went, but I heard rumors he ended up in one of Mad Madigans lost mazes and got stuck there for a while. He came out...weird. I'd avoid him. It's not common for Ascendants to go crazy for non recursive reasons, but I'm pretty sure Helix did."

    Abel actually cringed at that. "That's...not ideal. Helix was a scary bastard even back in the day. That transmutation power of his is nasty, and he was always good at coming up with creative ways to use it. Sad to hear he's had such a bad time. He wasn't very talkative, but I always liked him well enough. I remember Rayka too, but she made less of an impression. Something about energy constructs I think? I'll keep an eye out for them. What about the new bloods? Anyone with potential or just the usual legacies?"

    Owen shrugged. "Most of the E-rankers have kids going in, but not too many of them are notable. We've got them coming in from both sides too. The Unity and WCP both. Screaming Stevie has a kid entering who seems to be pretty competent. Sonic powers are always a pain in the ass to deal with so he's under scrutiny. Dread's daughter is going to be in it, to no one's surprise. The entire Titan Twenty is going to be competing, though only a few of those are notable. Beat and Sever are supposed to be solid, and they've been seen around with Serenity, the Peace Lord's daughter, though all three vanished for a while."

    I shared a look with Callie, who smirked slightly at the mention of our defeated enemies. Good to know that was getting around. Abel, on the other hand, looked annoyed. "Food aside, this isn't really worth much man. You've told me about a few people I could have heard about elsewhere. You made it sound like you had the inside line on anyone we might be meeting. I assume that you can at least give us the details on the outsider factions?"

    The eye roll Owen gave my teacher reminded me so much of something Benny would do that I had to stop myself from choking on my food. "Impatient ass. " He said fondly. "Yes, I have the details on most of the recent arrivals. I also have my sources still scrounging and have my ear to the ground. I'll get you the new information as it becomes available too. We're in this together now, so I want the four of you to place well. How else will I get paid?"

    "We appreciate the help either way." Callie cut in with a reproachful glare at Abel. "Any information is better than none, and this food is delicious." I tried not to snicker at that. Callie was obsessed with good food, so this deal was already a good investment as far as she was concerned. Abel knew her well enough to know the same and just rolled his eyes at her predictable reaction. "In any case, any info on the outsiders is bound to be useful. We can find out about the locals from anywhere, but knowledge about the new arrivals is sure to be sparse."

    Even Abel couldn't argue that, and he raised an eyebrow at Owen, silently prompting the green haired man to continue. With a victorious smirk at my silver masked teacher, he did so. " There are a few of them that I've heard about. Mostly bigger factions from the nearby star systems. The Twilight Order is here. They're monk types, most of them use some variation of light and shadow powers, sometimes both. Big on tricks and illusions and SUPER pretentious. Their contender's name is MacGregor. Big blonde bastard with a beard who prefers light based attacks. Heard he burns out peoples eyes sometimes."

    He looked around quickly before continuing, lowering his voice. "The Darkling Institute use some weird combination of necromancy and mad science to create minions. They're mostly pretty scary, but the most dangerous is a girl named Mordaunt. Dark blue hair and dark skin, travels with a huge bandaged guy in manacles. Has the creepiest glowing green eyes. The minion's name is Malgrim and he's got a freaky level of regeneration. Some kind of Vitality multiplier ability I think, because he straight up knits back together as you watch."

    I shuddered a bit at what kind of abominations necromancy and mad science could produce in conjunction. Mad science could seemingly bend or even break the rules that governed most ranks out of sheer randomness, and necromancy created powerful undead servants. The last thing I felt like running into was some kind of super corpse with rule bending abilities, and I made a not to avoid the Institute's people if possible. I had to ask. "Are there any less...creepy options? Someone more into direct combat?"

    He smirked at that. "Well, the Spear Legion are here. They all have the same ability actually, or versions of it. Spear Mastery. They tend to synergize it with odd stuff, but their whole thing is just being really good at stabbing stuff with a spear. It's less straight forward than it sounds though. Weapon masters are nasty in a fight. They only have the one trick, but they're damn good at it." He gestured at Abel. "This scary bastard could technically be considered an unarmed combat specialist, to give you a bit of context."

    That did give me a bit of an idea about how versatile some of those spear users might be, but far from scaring me off, it made me even more excited. I hadn't ever fought a spear user before, and I was betting they had some fantastic martial arts. I wanted to see how they would measure up against our Balam Mastery, not to mention my combination style with Callie. "Who did the Spear Legion send? Most of the system factions have a primary inheritor right? Same as the locals? They must have some really impressive contestant lined up as their primary."

    "Got it in one." He said with a nod. "Lament is their main contender. That girl basically breathes the spear from what I've heard. She's spent twenty five years in G-rank, just polishing her spear skills to the peak of Intermediate. If I had to pick, I'd say she's Apollyon's best shot at a decent match up, though the other three members of that team are no slouches either. Their second is a guy named Wren, uses an absolutely gigantic spear made from some oversized animal bone."

    At the mention of a peak Intermediate Skill, I just blinked in shock. The absurd amount of dedication that would have to have taken at G-rank boggled the mind. If her Spear Mastery Skill was peak Intermediate and she was still at G-rank, it also meant that wasn't her actual ability either. Probably a synergized Skill. Someone that scary having an unknown ability made me even more excited, and even Abel looked intrigued.

    My mentor's eyes had lit up at the comment as he looked at Owen intensely. "Peak Intermediate? My Ragam is intermediate, but its a ways off from peak. Managing to get a Skill more than a single rank above your current ability rank is difficult, bordering on impossible. The soul weight is too much for most people to take. If she's planning to break through to Expert before she hits F-rank she must be a monster."

    That was something I was curious about actually. "Does combat mastery have a high requirement for soul strength? I know that any alterations to a technique strain the soul, and combat specialists are all about maximizing usage. Do you and Mel have a high soul strength? I know Alden's is above average for his rank." The news that having a Skill more than a single rank above your standard caused soul weight made sense when I thought about it, considering how elixirs and such worked, but it opened up a lot of possible questions.

    Abel nodded absently, barely paying attention. "Yeah, any decent combat specialist has a strong soul. Soul strength is pretty important for any decent elite, it's much more common in higher ranked planets. We need to feel out some of the competition. Most of them will probably be holed up scheming, but the Spear Legion sound like they're the kind to prefer a straight fight." He turned his predatory grin on Owen. "I only have one more question. What are the chances the Spear Legion fighters are at the Bone Arena?" Owen's answering smirk was all the confirmation I needed. Guess I knew where we were heading next.
  13. Threadmarks: chapter 285
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Owen was incredibly relieved to see us go. Sloane and the others were disappointed to leave, but when they heard we were heading for an arena they perked up. Arenas were pretty popular among Ascendants from what I'd been able to find. We were all show offs who loved to make a scene and being able to make flashy moves in an open space against a strong enemy while potentially thousands of people watched was a popular pass time.

    I couldn't pretend to be any different really. I'd gotten excited as soon as I'd heard about the arena, and I was DEFINITELY going to fight someone there. Maybe not Lament, since I didn't want any part of a combatant someone would equate to Abel in terms of skill, especially not someone who knew and had fought with him. Granted, from what I could tell, Abel had gotten exponentially scarier after years of being a sausage selling hermit who presumably trained constantly because he had no social life, but still.

    So we were all in a pretty good mood as we headed for the Bone Arena, Doomtown's answer to the unspoken questions on every Ascendants mind: 'is there something stupid and violent we can do today, and how many people will watch?'. As expected, traveling with our full contingent was apparently more than most people wanted to bite into, so we weren't attacked again, and we made good time getting to the arena, which was a massive black stone coliseum that somehow managed to look squat and dark despite being ten times the size of every other building here.

    When we got to the Arena, Mel was the one who took the lead, stepping past Abel and waving jovially to the dark armored woman standing to the left side of the entrance. "Ceras! I thought that was you. I haven't seen you in years. They have you on door duty huh? You still fighting? Or is this your usual gig." She stepped up to hug the surprised guardswoman, shooting a perfunctory nod to the man on the other side but otherwise ignoring him in favor of an old friend.

    As Ceras responded and the two began catching up, Abel stepped up to us and leaned in to murmur. "Mel was always much more interested in the arena than I was. Don't get me wrong, I came here often enough, but I've always preferred a spontaneous battle to scripted combat. Mel practically lived at this place during our time in the Twenty though. Starbreaker was the queen of the Bone Arena for years, so don't be surprised if she seems to know more than a few of the people here."

    As if on cue, Mel waved us all over. "Alright you lot, Ceras says there are a few fights on the card for the evening, but we still have time for the open bouts. Some of the Spear Legion are here. That Wren guy that Owen mentioned is around, but Lament doesn't show up until right before her matches. They have her up against the reigning champion tonight." She turned to Abel. "Apparently Blight is still fighting here. He moved up after I left and has been undefeated for quite a while recently."

    Abel snorted out a laugh. "Blight? That super pale kid with the long hair and the skinny chest who only wore leather pants and a vest and followed you around like a puppy? I forgot that kid even existed. Oh wow, this place has slipped since we left." He shot her a wolfish grin. "Though I suppose it became obvious when we first arrived that this place had...gone to the dogs."

    We all groaned at that, and one of the Beast Lord Garden intitiates actually booed loudly, though when Abel turned to see who it was he didn't seem to be able to tell. Shame, I'd have liked to tell them how funny I thought it was. Mel had just rolled her eyes and ignored her boyfriend. "Anyway, there are still plenty of matches open for sign up if you two want to fight against Wren. If he accepts you can try challenging him two on one. There aren't a lot of limits in the arena aside from what the contestants agree on."

    I turned quickly to shoot Callie a pleading look, which she saw immediately, prompting an eye roll and a giggle. "Oh stop it. I'm fine with a fight. Even if this guy is too tough for us it'll be good practice for the tournament and give us something to work off of. If he isn't we can put the fear of us into the Spear Legion, so really it's a win win." She turned to Mel. "Do we have to pay for this?" We had some money, but most of it had gone into expanding the Pavilion, so we weren't carrying much of it on hand.

    Luckily, Mel just shook her head. "Not directly. They charge to watch the fights, but its sort of an all access pass for the open challenges, and fighters are exempted. The rest of us will be fine, Ceras will let us in just this once. The owner, Melkar, is an old friend, and he won't mind her letting me in for free with some friends. So, are you going to challenge Wren? Because if so I have bets to place."

    I snickered at that. "Place some for us too then, because yes. Most of our liquid cash is in the Pavilion so just take it out of there. Though I'm not quite as confident as you are that we'll win. We've been training our asses off, but competing against someone like this is a level of combat we haven't ever really experienced. Beat and Sever were the closest but they were distracted and they're locals anyway. This is a guy from a force considered powerful in the star system as a whole. I have a feeling he won't be an easy mark."

    Mel just shrugged. "If you lose you lose. It's not like I'm betting my life savings on you. Besides, if he's been doing well the odds should be pretty good. I'll make sure not to put too much of your own cash on you either. I figure ten G-rank chits or so." We followed her past Ceras and into the arena, but the other guard led us away from the group and down a side hallway. We had to stop to do a bit of paperwork before being led to a waiting area with more than a few other Ascendants in it.

    We'd signed up for pairs, with the option to fight singles as a team, and when we arrived we sought out Wren, who was actually really easy to find. A huge man with olive skin and long red hair, he was easily identifiable by the absolutely colossal bone spear leaning against the wall next to him. Made from what appeared to be a femur the size of a person, the thing had been shaved down to be grippable by Wren's dinner plate sized hands (seriously, he was at least seven feet tall) and had a single steel coated tooth molded seamlessly into the end, honed to a razor's edge.

    We stopped in front of the big man, whose amber eyes remained closed as he reclined in his seat, at least until he heard us stop. They creaked open slightly. "What do you want?" He said in perhaps the most relaxed voice I'd ever heard. "I'm trying to nap before my next match." He yawned expansively after he spoke, but despite the relaxation and laziness, I noted that his hand was never more then a full arm's extension from grabbing the spear. He might be napping, but if he was he wasn't stupid enough to leave any openings.

    Callie smiled cheerfully, holding out her hand to shake. "Hi there! I'm Nightstrike and this is Solomon. Can we both fight you at once?" Her tone was upbeat and entirely without shame for how unbalanced the match was, and everyone in the room turned to look at us in confusion. They had all been sitting quietly, staring down opponents or trying to look disaffected and tough.

    Wren's eyes opened completely, focusing on Callie, before his lips twitched into a wide grin and he burst out laughing. "That...that was the weirdest challenge I've had since I got here. Wow. No posturing or excuses huh? Just 'let us gang up on you so we can kick your ass?'" He paused in contemplation before standing up, cracking his neck and hoisting the spear up over his shoulder. "You know what? Sure. What the hell. I was going to let them do a random match thing, but why the hell not?"

    He strolled over to the window where a clerk was quietly doing paperwork on one end of the room to accept a challenge, and I turned to Callie. She'd been smiling widely at his acceptance, but as soon as he was out of range her face turned serious. "I'm assuming you noticed that?"

    I nodded grimly. "He was straining to lift that spear. Not a lot, but anyone at peak G-rank in a physical combat style should have absurdly high Might. Whatever the fuck that thing is made from, it's HEAVY." I wasn't sure what the weight ratio was on bone, but since Ascendants in the G-rank clocked lifting power in the TONS I was pretty sure that thing wasn't any normal type of bone. It seemed to be made from F-ranked materials if the Impact was anything to go by, but it was probably on the high end of that scale.

    Instead of coming back, Wren gave us a broad wave and gestured over to a hallway across the room with a sign next to it saying 'left gate enclosure' he turned and vanished into the one on the right, and I got the obvious idea. Callie and I headed for the hall, walking down it to a small stone room with a dark metal gate on one side. It was lit with widely spaced torches, though the flames were the same red we saw in most of Doomtown.

    Seeing the closed gate Callie and I posted up nearby. I turned to cock my head at her. "You ready for this? Our first taste of real combat at the star system level? I'm pretty psyched myself." My hands were basically shaking with anticipation. One slipped down to my coat to slide my cane free, twirling it between my fingers so fast the sand at our feet was blown around.

    "I can tell." Callie said fondly. "But yeah. This will be fun. How is your Balam Skill by the way? We've been training a while, and I forgot to ask. I know you're at Lesser, but with all the non stop work we've put in I'm assuming you're coming close to Beginner?" She sounded hopeful, which I got. Even if it wasn't much of a restriction, the geas was inconvenient, and I would be just as glad when it was gone.

    I shook my head sadly, but before I could answer, a loud voice rang through the stone. "Ladies and gentlemen! Our next match is going to be a special treat. A two on one showcase against Wren, who you've all seen in here the last few days." The gate began to rise. "Now, coming in from the left gate, put your hands together for NIGHTSTRIKE and SOLOMON!" Taking that as a cue we headed off out the gate and into thew massive expanse of sand that was the arena proper.

    Seeing us enter, Wren gave a cheerful wave before gripping his spear one handed and whipping it through the air around him. The weight and force caused small explosions of air and sound as the thing broke the sound barrier, blowing the nearby sand around in a storm of motion. "Well!" He called across the sand. "Hope you two can give me a decent workout. I haven't had a solid fight since I got to this mudhole." There was an explosion of sand as he rocketed himself forward, moving so fast I wouldn't have been able to move out of the way if I hadn't been expecting it. Guess we were starting.
  14. Threadmarks: chapter 286
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    Avoiding Wren's wrecking ball charge didn't mean that we escaped it. As he landed from what I now saw had been an incredibly long, low leap, the impact sent sand geysering up into the air around him and shook the ground beneath us, displacing our footing. Unfortunately for Wren, he made the immense mistake of picking the wrong one of us to prioritize. Or rather, picking the RIGHT one to prioritize, leaving the other open to defend.

    On landing his spear lashed out at Callie, who, having much more impressive stats due to specialization, was a bigger threat. I had no clue how he could TELL that, but he clearly had some way of doing so, and he went right for her. Sadly for him, Callie had zero defense during our combat trance, she left that up to me. Making a sharp gesture with one hand, I pointed at a spot in the air near her, triggering Cloud Step. While her footing had been disturbed, I'd made sure to put it close enough to plant her hands on the surface, allowing her to arch up into a backbend handstand.

    The spear smashed through the air where Callie's ribs had been with bonecrushing force, failing to find any purchase as she pushed off and sent herself flying out of range, at an angle that kept her close to me. During this whole mess, I was able to regain my footing easily enough, and as she distracted Wren with her acrobatics, I used a Sucking Mud skill on the sand to prevent the shifting ground from being as big of a problem, then layered Consecration of Flame and Touch of Tears on my cane as I lashed out at the side of Wren's knee with the weapon.

    To my surprise, Wren choked up on his grip, smashing the butt of his spear into the mud and using the ground to create a blockade between my cane and his leg. My blow bounced harmlessly off it, not even managing to corrode the bone. He barely showed any difficulty yanking the spear from the mud, but before he could turn to attack, he was forced to wheel in place and swing the spear to deflect a massive pitch black ball of shadow swinging at his head on a wide chain.

    Balam and the combat trance combined to show me exactly where I needed to attack, and I silently activated my overlay, resonating it with my Balam Skill to find the perfect trajectory to attack from. Selecting the option that best mirrored Callie's own attack, I rolled sideways through the mud, smashing out at Wren's lower spine with a vicious blow that left me in his blindspot provided he was focused on Callie.

    It...sort of worked. He didn't notice the attack until the last second, and avoided it by pivoting his body around the spear that was driven into the mud again to fend off Callie's offensive. That took his feet off the ground for a second, and as he came down a barrage of shadow spiked lashed up from the ground. He's slipped on the mud, but I was doing the same damn thing. This mud was vaguely better than sand, but not by much.

    With the split second of distraction the blades brought me, I used Consecration of Flame again, but this time, I strained my soul to force it to treat Sucking Mud's area of effect as a focus, causing the mud to harden as it was imbued with the same magma like properties my stone limb could get. I dropped the skill nearly instantly, then used Mistwalking, creating a bank of mist around us, which quickly turned into hissing steam.

    Wren's frustrated growl was music to my ears as I used Seek Hidden, wincing a bit at so much soul weight so quickly. Still, he came into view perfectly and my mask kept the steam from bothering me. Callie wasn't inside the bank of mist, since she'd been attacking from a distance and I activated Stealth as I walked, keeping my footsteps silent as I circled in the obstruction, looking for an opening.

    "Ok." Wren's voice snarled. "I admit. That's really fucking annoying. What the hell is your ability? Fire, water, earth, some weird poison shit if that cane glowing was anything to go by. You're not exactly super powerful, but you're versatile as hell." I snickered at that internally, though I didn't let out a noise. He had no clue how powerful I was. I hadn't used a single stored attack yet.

    There were two reasons for this. Firstly, we were trying to see where we stood against an opponent from the star system. Second, the less of our tricks we used here the less we gave away for the tournament. And finally, because this was GREAT training for our dual combat style. This guy was absurdly good with his weapon. I didn't know how he was picking up our attacks so quickly (maybe a Perception specialization) but his ability to react to them without leaving openings was first class.

    Sadly for him, that lack of openings didn't extend to his monologue, because as he vented his frustration, I finally noticed a gap in his guard. I flashed in, triggering Flurry of Blows to massively speed up my attack, and swung for his hip joint in what should have been a blind spot. I was kind of suspicious, so I didn't commit too heavily, and that turned out to be a life saver. I was barely able to react to the shift in his center of gravity in time to dodge the blazingly fast attack he launched because I was staring at his midsection for the attack.

    The boom of displaced air crashed into the mist and steam, dispersing them both as I landed out of a handspring. Wren grinned at me viciously, opening his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by having to dive sideways to avoid a massive black hammed Callie brought down right on top of him. The impact compacted the ground, which had been sort of loose after being quenched from magma and heated from sand, flattening out a section of it. I considered using my magma leg combo, but it seemed stupid this early in the fight, so I just quietly slipped around to join up with Callie, who was in her dark distorted form, taking advantage of her armor's disguise features.

    She'd been waiting for the opening he made with that strike, preparing to cover me if I was in trouble, and I gave her a grateful nod, which earned me a happy smile, one with a violent edge I only saw in fights, and which made me all the more aware how well we fit sometimes. She raised an eyebrow at Wren. "You're pretty good. I heard you're the second in command of the Spear Legion's team. Is Lament really that much better than you?" While it seemed like info gathering or smack talk, I could tell she was just genuinely curious.

    Wren's laugh was good natured and rolling. "Are you kidding? Lament is a monster. Three of me would have trouble taking her. You two are damn impressive for such a backwater. Your cooperation is seamless and it's incredibly irritating, and all those fun tricks and the shaping power make you a versatile and surprising team. That said, Lament would pulp you both in a single blow. That's not to denigrate your skills. She'd kill me just as easily. Some people can't be described with common sense."

    That was...unfortunate. But then again, she wasn't the only monster. If we couldn't take her, maybe Abel could. Of course, considering how fucking scary Wren was turning out to be, we would need to handle him, or let Mel do it and handle the other two. Assuming they were fielding a four man team. I wasn't sure if teams could be smaller. Either way, no use worrying about it now. We had a fight to win.

    I spun up my cane as he spoke, easing myself into a circling movement to try to get to the other side of the disk of solid earth we were using for the fight. Wren noticed, but didn't so much follow as step back so he could let his eyes take in more of the circle. He let them unfocus the same way Abel had done in training, letting his field of view expand so he could react more quickly.

    He was not, however, watching behind him. Which was why he didn't notice Callie rise from the sand in one smooth motion and launch a cascade of shadow spears up from behind him. I dove forward in a quick juke before withdrawing, and Wren reacted, tensing up and then looking at me confused before his eyes widened in understanding. He spun on his heel, lashing out with another air smashing strike that dispersed the shadows and hit Callie directly.

    My eyes widened in horror before she started to dissolve, and I grinned. She'd used the cover of the mist to make a clone, but had sent the clone around for the sneak attack instead of going herself. Wren's distraction left him open with his back to both of us, and we flickered forward as a single unit, coming around from opposite sides, my cane flashing out for his ankle with a Mercy Kill layered on it as she swung another massive hammer construct almost as tall as she was right at his head from the other side.

    Between the shock and the perfect timing, he didn't have time to block both, and dug the but of his spear in to stop the hammer. It was an understandable move, the head was the most vulnerable part of the body, but he left himself open, and I took advantage. Unlike my shadow strikes or flame attacks, the triple stack density shift was completely viable to use without drawing attention. I layered that one onto the cane along with a Mercy Kill to boost it even higher, and unleashed every bit of stored force along with the strike as the head of my cane smashed into Wren's ankle.

    There was a loud crack as the bone shattered, prevented from regenerating by the creeping poison fire that I heavily suspected hurt WAY worse when it was getting into broken bone. Wren roared in pain, forced to shift onto his other foot and effectively ruining his footing. I spun off the strike, reversing to spin out into a blow aimed at the back of the mans head as Callie attacked his ribs with a pair of condensed shadow tonfas, even as the hammer dispersed into a concealing shadow fog.

    That was a new trick, and my Seek Hidden let me see right through it just as Callie could. We spent the next five minutes whittling him down. Cracking his ankle broke his concentration, and as the pain and damage from the poison fire mounted every time I got in a hit, he got slower and slower as our teamwork chipped away at him. Finally he roared out. "Enough!" Swinging his spear in a full circle to drive us back, then drove it into the ground to lean on. "That's enough. I concede."

    I let my body relax, feeling relieved as the constant skill use had been slowly cranking the pain in my head, and held up a fist in triumph. As the match ended, an arena healer scurried out onto the field to treat Wren, who grinned at us widely. "Well, you two are certainly worth watching." He let the healer patch him up as I allowed the poison fire to dissipate from his body. As he turned to walk away, he looked back over his shoulder, still with that same grin. "Don't lose too quickly in the tournament. I want a rematch." It was only after he disappeared behind the gate that I realized that he hadn't used his ability once in the battle. He'd been holding back as much as we had, maybe more. I mirrored his grin, my mouth stretched wide behind my mask. This tournament was going to be so much fun.
  15. Threadmarks: chapter 287
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    When we got back to the waiting room, Wren was gone, but Abel, Mel, and Sloane were there waiting. Sloane was particularly impressed, cheering loudly when she was us. "That was FANTASTIC! That guy was a monster, his Might must be insane. I was afraid he'd kill one of you by mistake, but you kept him off balance the whole time. He never even had a chance!"

    Abel rolled his eyes, holding up a hand. "Alright, let's not take this too far. It was a decent fight, but he wasn't going all out. He never even used his ability. Granted, you kept plenty of your tricks in reserve, which I approve of, but you had plenty of room for improvement. Either Mel or I could have taken him one on one pretty easily. It's fine to recognize your strengths, but don't let it go to your heads. These next two weeks are for training, and if you lose motivation you'll stall out."

    "He's not wrong." Said Mel in a conciliatory tone. "But still, I do think you two did a damn good job for your first major fight against an outsider. With the caveat that you can still learn plenty, it's not a problem to be proud of your battle. In that vein though, why don't you point out some of the things you did wrong. It'll help to contextualize where you can improve in the future." She gestured over to the nearby seats. "We can wait over here. Sloane signed up for the singles matches, but she needs to wait until her name is called."

    Callie, as usual, picked up the inconsistency first. "Wait, where are Beric and Croll and the other Beast Lord Initiates?" She asked. "Also what are you all doing down here? Weren't you being escorted to like an observation deck or something?" Thinking about it that way I was pretty curious too.

    "We were." Answered Abel. "It was more of a VIP box. But the part time fleabag decided she wanted to fight, and Mel and I know this place pretty well. The others are up in the box watching the fights, but we figured coming with her would be a good chance to give you some feedback." He pointed to the back corner of the room where a scan box was projecting an image of a currently starting match onto the wall. "We can watch her match over there. Now, like Mel said, what did you do wrong? Solomon, you go first."

    I wasn't sure if he decided that because Callie was better able to note details or because I was more in tune with combat, but it didn't really matter. I cocked my head slightly in thought before I responded. "Off the top of my head, using my triple strike on his ankle might have been sloppy. I was trying not to use any of my powerful tricks before the tournament. It might have been noticed and given away some more of my abilities."

    To my surprise, Abel shook his head at that. "Nah. It was a physical attack, hard to tell when those are more than they seem. And you showed enough variety with DS Mastery to make it unlikely for anyone to catch the slip. It was a measured risk that you put thought into. I'd say it worked out fine, given the overturn in the combat dynamic when it happened. Try again."

    That had been the most obvious slip, and I had to dig a bit deeper to find something else. "The mist?" He raised an eyebrow over his mask, gesturing for me to continue. "I used it without warning Callie it was going to happen. She adapted on the fly, but it was a stupid slip to make, cutting off her line of sight to me without letting her know." It was sometimes hard to remember that while we were incredibly in sync, we couldn't read each others minds. Trust could become a liability if it wasn't tempered with knowledge.

    Abel smiled. "Good. The hardest part of perfecting team dynamic is to find your partner's limits. You two did well taking advantage of the mistake, but it still happened. You count on your partner in all things when in battle, which means you need to be able to estimate how much information they can glean. Without knowing what they know, you can't predict what they'll do, and someone you can't predict isn't an asset in a battle, they're a liability."

    "I guess." Callie said thoughtfully. "I mean, I feel like that was a good move though. Using that combo to take care of the sand. He communicated some of it with handsigns. I wasn't expecting the steam, but it didn't seem to hurt us. Are you saying we can't improvise? Because that doesn't sound like you." I smiled a bit at how defensive she sounded of me. It was sweet how much she cared.

    Abel shrugged. "Not at all. I'm saying you need to game out these combinations and responses beforehand and have contingencies for them. It's not a matter of never reacting, it's a matter or making sure your partner has a frame of reference for every action you take. The whole, magma mist combo was a smart way to solidify the ground, but it was NEW. Trying new moves outside your partner's grasp on your abilities creates gaps."

    "So...more training?" I asked wryly. His answering grin was response enough, and I rolled my eyes. "Fair enough. I can't imagine how many years you two trained together when you were younger to have as good a grasp on your combat style as you do. How did you even maintain that level of cooperation for such a long time? Even after Apollyon was gone for a while you just fell right back into it."

    Mel just waved that off. "Once you hit a certain point your combat style tends to solidify. I was able to predict how he fights because he hasn't changed it much. He still uses the same martial art, the same ability, he just uses them more smoothly. It's a benefit of developing your cooperation now. Less change at this point in your journey, at least in terms of combat. Not that no one ever pivots or changes their style, but most people tend to stay on brand. Consistency helps build a bigger impression."

    That made sense with how most people gained stats. Less of a priority for me honestly, but I could see how even without that factor, specializing in a certain kind of combat and sharpening that skill set would be a big help. Hell, I'd been doing exactly that lately. Deciding to do the rest of the 'what did you do wron' exercise later and in private, I turned to Sloane. "So, you decided to fight next? I haven't really seen too much of your serious combat abilities. Some during the siege but I'm curious to see what you can do."

    I knew she could merge with her animals somehow, she got bird wings and...,fox ears? I guessed foxes had good ears since they were so big. It would be interesting to see more of what she could do with them. She'd mostly been fighting random minions in the siege, so she hadn't had a chance to shine.

    She certainly looked excited enough. Sloane was one of the many WCP residents that didn't bother with a mask. Some of the kids of the E-rankers, like Sage, just figured there was no reason for a second identity given who their parents were. I wasn't sure if Sloane was Melinda's daughter or just her apprentice, but she seemed to have gone with the same general idea. It made it incredibly easy to see the energy and anticipation on her face as she spoke. "Hell yes! I saw your fight and it got me pretty pumped. I hope I get someone that strong!"

    Mel chuckled. "You won't. None of the regulars are that powerful, but you might get someone with a drastically opposed power to yours. Those are always fun. I remember one time I got matched against an opponent who absorbed fire and converted it to physical strength. That fight was annoying."

    Callie nodded fervently. "I'm lucky my constructs are dense enough that normal light doesn't affect them much. I've run into a few counter powers and they are absolutely awful to deal with. Unless you work with a team, the easiest way to deal with them is to have some kind of combat Skill." She cocked her head. "Although, actually, I don't think I've ever asked if you have a martial art Skill. Being the direct disciple of an E-ranker I figure you probably do though, right?"

    "No spoilers." Sloane snickered. "You'll have to wait and see like everyone else. Don't forget that the Beast Lord Garden is entering the tournament too. Don't want to give away any tricks to the competition too soon. If you can figure some things out from watching me fight that's fine, but I'm not giving any hints." She gave a mysterious smirk, making it clear she'd be holding back just as much as we had.

    We talked for a bit longer before a voice called for Sloane and she headed out to get ready for her fight. I raised an eyebrow at that and turned to Mel. "Wait, why did she get called but we didn't? We were able to just head out when we were ready, is that not how it usually goes?"

    "Nah." Mel said casually. "You were benefiting from Wren's status. He's been tearing into their best for days, and while he isn't at the same level as Lament, he's got quite a rep at this point. If there wasn't a qualitative difference in renown at higher levels I don't doubt factions like the Spear Legion would just send all their kids to backwaters to crush everyone else. Hell, some of them probably do that anyway, though thankfully it's not common."

    That made sense. "So he was just allowed to go up whenever he wanted and took us along? I'll have to thank him when we see him again. So can we place bets down here? Also how much did we win off the last bet? I'm pretty confident in Sloane and if we got a bunch of extra cash anyway might as well keep it going." I wasn't sure how much Mel had put up for us, but our odds had probably been decent if Wren was so well known here.

    My enthusiasm got a chuckle from Mel. "I figured you'd say that. I put some of your winnings on Sloane, though the odds were much less favorable for her. I figured if you decided not to bet I could just take it out of my personal account instead to cover the difference. You won about a hundred G-rank chits. I put twenty down from your Pavilion account and you got five to one odds. Pretty decent, though I doubt it'll be anywhere near as much if you do it again. I put twenty five on her for you, but it's only two to one odds."

    "If?" I asked in confusion. "I figured we'd be spending most of our trip down here. Seems like a great place to train. We need to polish our combat skills don't we?" I'd been looking forward to possibly becoming a champion pit fighter. It seemed like such a cool accomplishment.

    Abel answered with a laugh. "Kid, most people aren't responsible enough to come to a fighting pit in Doomtown. We'll get in just as many fights out in the wild, and under plenty more circumstances, besides, it'll be a good idea to establish your brand a bit around hear. Aside from learning about your opponents you'll have plenty of opportunities to expand your reputation." Before I could respond he held up a hand and pointed over to the screen. "We can talk about it later. First lesson of the arena kid, always watch matches you bet on." And with that bit of wisdom, we turned to see Sloane's fight.
  16. Threadmarks: chapter 288
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Sloane had already merged with her companions by the time she reached the sand. They had somehow restored the arena to its original state, sans big circle of rock, but I noted with interest that her feet seemed to skim over the ground without imprinting too deeply. I wasn't sure if it was some effect of the silver wings, or some kind of light step fox ability, but it was an interesting detail to note.

    I turned to Mel briefly. "So." I asked. "Who exactly is she fighting? I don't think they said. Do either of you know?" Having details on the other fighter for comparison would help give me a better idea of what Sloane could do. Since we were apparently going to be fighting her in the tournament. Or more realistically, I might be fighting her. If our team ran into the Beast Lord Garden's crew, Abel and Mel would crush them, but the team competition was only the preliminary stage of the event.

    She shook her head. "No, but they usually do some kind of announcement." Even as she spoke, the announcer who had introduced us bellowed Sloane's name, mentioning her affiliation, before moving on to introduce the dark cloth wrapped form slinking from the other gate. When Mel heard the name, she winced. "Ah. That's not going to be an easy fight. I've never fought Shale, but I got a quick run down of the big names from Ceras."

    "Shale?" I asked suspiciously. "That's a type of rock right? Some kind of earth manipulator? I could see how that might be a pain in the ass." As the battle started, I saw Slone pivot forward, her wings cracking the air as she was driven straight at the other fighter almost too fast to follow. The glow of the wings made it clear there was more at work than just muscle, and I whistled at the speed on display.

    Still, it wasn't too fast for someone like me to dodge, so I assumed Shale would move. I assumed wrong. Not only did Shale not move, Shale didn't do ANYTHING. They just stood there as Sloane smashed into them at top speed...and bounced off, skidding across the sand with a scream of pain, holding the shoulder she had led with. She staggered to her feet, giving a quick jerk of her arm to pop it back into place as she glared at the other fighter.

    The cloth across Shale's chest had been shredded slightly by the wings, some kind of split second slashing attack I hadn't even been able to see in the split second after Sloane bounced off, but the flesh under the wrapping didn't seem to be bleeding. Hell, it didn't seem to be flesh. Shale shook their head, reaching up to unwind the cloth from their face and rebind it over their chest.

    The revealed face was masculine and rough. Not like some people use that phrase to mean worn or hard won, but LITERALLY rough. Also grey. Because the form under the wrappings was made of solid rock. Mel snickered slightly. "Earth manipulation adjacent." I turned to cock my head at her. "He's a golem. It's a relatively rare racial trait. They're pretty environmentally specific, but in an arena like this he's going to be a beast to get by. Most of them have a few earth manipulation Skills."

    I winced. "That sounds...unfortunate. I take it from that blow he tanked that they're relatively sturdy for their level of Impact?" I knew that some abilities could make people more durable within their rank. Rock with twelve Impact was tougher than wood with twelve impact, and they were both tougher than flesh. That was how defensive abilities worked, and this seemed like a pretty good one based on the attack he just took.

    Rather than answer, she gestured to the screen, where Sloane was climbing to her feet. "Ok." She growled. "That hurt." Her voice was rough and animalistic as she began to slowly stalk forward. "I admit, I wasn't expecting that. Don't suppose I actually did any damage?"

    "Not much." Shale chuckled. If Sloane's voice was the growl of an animal, Shale's was the crashing of falling rocks. It was so bassy it was almost hard to discern the words. "Still, that's better than most manage. You definitely cut into me a bit. I'm curious to see if you can do it again." As he finished speaking, he stripped the sleeves off his arms and knelt down, pressing a fist to the sand. The earth began to crawl up his grey stone flesh, thickening and expanding his arms and then moving to his chest, stretching the chest wrapping to the limit but not breaking it.

    I could see why he used the wraps instead of normal clothes now. The expanded as he did, preventing rips and tears. By the time he was done and stood back up, his upper body had almost doubled in muscle mass. The sand had condensed into something halfway between armor and a body modification. I winced. Mel had been right. Earth based Skill. Probably his ability before he became a Golem. I knew racial traits shifted the primary ability to a Skill when the transformation was activated, just like Jobs.

    Sloane looked a bit conflicted. She was obviously unhappy to just sit and watch him buff up, but this was such an obvious opening that actually attacking probably felt like a trap. I knew I probably wouldn't have closed during that little show, maybe trying some kind of ranged attack. I didn't know if Sloane even HAD any of those. She seemed indecisive for a minute, before eventually deciding to just bite the bullet and attack again, flashing forward in another blur of silver wings.

    I was confused as to what she was going to do, but she seemed to have taken into account the new information. Instead of slamming into Shale, when she got in close this time, she juked sideways, spinning out on her wings to circle around behind him. As she pirouetted in the air her wings lashed out like blades, scoring along the exterior of Shale's new enhanced body and flitting away too quickly to grab.

    Despite the wings versatility, I was ninety percent sure that some of the movements Sloane was making shouldn't be physically possible. Not for lack of power or anything like that, but because the smooth shifts in momentum were antithetical to how force and inertia should work. In some strange way, it reminded me a bit of the weird lack of impression her feet had left when she entered the arena. While the wings clearly gave her some kind of massive speed boost and could carve into the stone that way, I was pretty sure the fox aspect of her transformation was giving her access to agility and maneuverability that shouldn't be possible.

    The combination was absolutely brutal, and despite his incredibly powerful form, it made her functionally untouchable by Shale as he lashed out at her with short, precise jabs and grabs. Despite the huge disadvantage of his speed though, the Golem was doing an amazing job of keeping himself from being damaged too much by assuming an extremely tight defensive stance and focusing the slicing attacks at non vital areas.

    I could see grey metallic blood begin to leak from some of the slashes, but only a trickle, and Shale remained as composed and unmoving as his rocklike exterior implied as he patiently waited for her to show some kind of opening. Sloane, for her part, was starting to look a bit tired after a few minutes of the stalemate. She began to slow down, and finally, after three minutes of the attack blitz, she desperately dove for a low sweeping cut that left her open to the Golem's retaliation.

    He lashed out with all the speed his immense Might could manage, snapping out a grab at her wing with the speed of a striking snake. Unfortunately for him, she had expected that. Her 'accidental' slip hadn't been an accident at all. She'd been setting up an opening to exploit in return. As he dove forward in a split second grab, the wings turned into silver mist in his grip.

    Eyes the color of granite widened in shock as he overbalanced slightly when he grabbed nothing but air. It was only a split second, but it was enough. As the wings faded, birdlike talons tore free of the shoes on Sloane's feet as she planted her hands in the sand and lashed out at Shale's exposed body. One claw raked over an eye, another opening his throat, both vulnerable spots he'd bee protecting with his defensive stance.

    The gouges weren't crippling or life threatening, she didn't have enough force for that. But they were distracting and painful and kept him preoccupied enough for her to swing around and start lashing out with more blows. The claws were much better suited for cutting than the feathers, and they tore holes in several vulnerable places, cutting into the under arms, the pecs, and even the thighs as Sloane unleashed a blistering storm of slashing kicks on her enemy, who stumbled back blindly to get away.

    A back handspring up to her feet followed by a scything flip that brought her legs up and over again in another assault pressed the attack, and Shale desperately tried to regain his footing to defend. It looked like she was going to pull off the win for a minute, until Shale managed to find a small gap in her attacks and post up again.

    With his defense in place her attacks did far less damage than they had been up to this point. No vitals on display meant no obvious strike points, and aside from being durable, Golems were apparently tough as nails, because the damage he'd taken up to now didn't seem to be slowing him down much. While her earlier exhaustion had been a feint, Sloane had been going all out in this attack blitz, and after another minute or two she actually started to flag for real.

    Having learned his lesson, Shale didn't go for the opening, he just stayed posted in place, feet sunk deep into the sand as he endured the slowly flagging wave of attacks. In the end, Sloane just wasn't able to put him down, and after she had thoroughly exhausted herself and slowed down immensely, he started taking cautious shots at her. She avoided some of them, but not all, and slowly but surely he chipped away at her until she left herself open for a finishing blow.

    The punch that he landed to her jaw snapped her head to the side sharply and she was unconscious by the time she hit the sand. Mel cursed. "Shit. I should have quit while I was ahead." She shrugged guiltily. "Sorry about that. You want me to cover the bet? I didn't ask you so I won't be too bothered to handle the payment."

    Callie just waved her off. "Nah. It's fine. You won us seventy five chits on top of the loss, so we'll cover it. Cost of doing business." Seventy five G-rank chits was a decent windfall anyway, so I wasn't too worried about it either. Glancing at the screen she winced as some guard hopped into the pit and started dragging Sloane out by her ankle. "Wow. She's going to have sand in so many uncomfortable places."

    That surprised a laugh out of me. On that note we headed for the tunnel to meet Sloane when she was dropped off. Might as well save her some annoyance by picking her up. I was a guest elder after all. Once that was done we headed back up to meet with the rest of the Beast Lord Initiates, who all seemed a bit sulky, probably having bet on their boss to win like we had. I tried my hardest not to snicker at the expressions. At least Doomtown hadn't been boring so far.
  17. Threadmarks: chapter 289
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Sloane was understandably upset about losing, but we made sure to let her know how well she'd done. "You were awesome." Callie stated with finality. "Seriously. You were so fast. You just met the exact wrong opponent. Solomon or I would have had a hard time beating you and you're going to do great in the tournament." I wasn't really sure that was true, but I decided not to get involved. She was trying to help Sloane feel better more than anything.

    "That's not the point!" Cried Sloane in frustration. "I barely put up a fight. Not to mention everyone bet on the match. If I got back to the Garden missing that much money I'm going to be in so much trouble. Since the two of you kicked the shit out of the big guy, I can't even bet on you both to make it back, because no one is going to give either of you decent odds in any of your fights now."

    Abel snickered a bit at her frenzied tone. "Well, I was planning a trip to the Burning Rain Casino next. If you really want to make money you can always do some gambling. Sadly the games are all luck based so enhanced stats don't do much good, but still, it's not a bad place to make a few bucks if you're having a good day." He paused. "Or lose a few, it's pretty hit or miss, but you're already behind quite a few bucks anyway. Might as well give it a shot."

    "That's..." Mel sighed, putting her hand to her mask in annoyance. "We aren't really trying to get them all to gamble away their...and you're gone. Fantastic." Abel, apparently not in the mood for a lecture, had turned and wandered off when she started talking. That was the most proactive I'd seen him about ignoring anyone. I expected Mel to be offended but she just sighed. "Right, I forgot how he gets down here. Honestly surprised he stuck around for that much of the conversation. Oh well, you kids coming?"

    Apparently deciding to follow him to wherever the Burning Rain Casino was, Mel just set off after Abel. Callie and I shared a look and then shrugged. We still had seventy five G-ranked chits worth of profit here, so a few bets wouldn't be a big deal. Besides, I was curious to see more of Doomtown. Sloane and the others all trailed behind us, Beric and Croll trying to reassure their team leader as we went.

    The wolves prowled around behind us, and it struck me that I hadn't really noticed them around for a while. I wondered where they'd gone or when we'd lost them, but they were still fine so it didn't really matter I guessed. They were smart enough not to go around eating random people. They caught up to us and I scratched Jin behind the ears as Rellia snuggled up to Callie as she walked, all of following behind our mentors as they led us back out onto the road.

    It didn't take us long to get to the casino. Much like the rest of Doomtown the building was dark stone, but unlike the other places we'd seen, the stone on this place was slick and reflective. The tall building had hundreds of windows, each shining one of a half dozen colors and creating a sort of absurd, fantastical effect as the mixture of colored light poured down on the entrance. A pair of double doors lie open, blocked off by a rope attended by a pair of hulking guards in suits and featureless black full face masks.

    I caught up to Abel with a grin as he stopped to take the place in. "Another old haunt? Do you or Mel know the guys at the door here too?"" I could understand why they might have old friends all over at the places they brought us, since they were pretty impressive and they'd taken us to places they knew best, but eventually they were going to have to run out of places where everyone knew them on sight.

    To my surprise, Abel just shrugged. "Who the hell knows. It's not like I can tell them apart. They're just door guards." He strolled forward with purpose, coming to a stop in front of the guards. Instead of telling them who he was or bullying them, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gold casino chip, holding it up to show the guys at the door. As soon as they saw it they opened the rope to let him in, ignoring the boos of the people in line that we'd walked right past.

    Mel snickered at that. "He was never close to anyone here, but he came by a lot. The arena has built in bets, but Doomtown as a whole tends to attract lots of fights. You can place prop bets on the outcome of fights between certain big name players. Apollyon used to come here to bet on himself and then hunt down all the strongest fighters." Then she sighed. "He ALSO has an extreme fondness for roulette, and he ended up feeding them back most of his winnings. That's why he has the golden chip, it's a high roller token. He's never really worried much about money. Easy come easy go."

    I could kind of see that really. He definitely seemed like the type to ignore anything that didn't suit him. If he needed money he'd just go get some. It put his sausage stand into a bit of a different context. I knew he'd worked his way up, but it was a lot more impressive knowing he could have solved any money problems even easier than I thought. I noticed them closing the ropes and hurried forward, not wanting to get left behind.

    Shockingly, even the wolves were allowed in. I wasn't sure if it was a factor of having a gold token or they just didn't care, but it was a relief we didn't have to find somewhere to board them while we went inside. The inside of the Burning Rain was, if anything, even more chaotic than the outside. The multicolored swirl of lights was still present, but the carpets and furniture were made in swirling patterns of black and white that caught and twisted the colors in ways that probably would have made a mortal pass out.

    Even I, with a surplus of Perception and plentyof Focus to block this out, was feeling a bit disoriented. I turned to look at Abel, who at the very least was less dizzying that the surroundings, and found him rolling his eyes. "They haven't changed. Same nonsense games to throw people off." He turned to Mel, giving her a charming grin. "Honey, do you happen to have some pocket money we can use? I want to try the roulette table." He literally folded his hands under his chin and pouted as he asked, like a puppy dog begging for a treat.

    Mel just snickered at her boyfriend. "Oh now you listen to me? Not going to just wander off?" Abel had the good sense to look abashed and began to apologize (probably a bit too vehemently to be serious), wrapping Mel in his arms and expounding at length about how heartbroken he was to have offended her. The whole performance carried over into blatant sarcasm after a few minutes, but Mel was giggling too hard to be annoyed, finally putting her hand over his mouth. "Enough! You lunatic. Fine, take some money and go."

    "Fantastic!" Abel cheered. Leaning down to peck Mel on the side of her mask. "Thanks honey, have fun!" Then turned to us. "If you kids want to have some fun might want to come with me. Knowing Mel, she'll probably go relax at the bar or something, though she might hit the prop bet table and try to get in some odds on the lot of us before people start adjusting for your fight with Wren. Either way, it'll be boring so come on."

    He didn't bother waiting for us as he took off into the crowd, energetically bulling past everyone around him in his hurry. I shrugged at Callie, and she and Sloane both trailed after us. The rest of the Beast Lord Initiates didn't follow, probably because they cleaned themselves out betting on Sloane. Sloane herself was hoping to make some money back, so she should have at least something to bet.

    The wolves trailed behind, moving through the dizzying crowd like sharks through a neon ocean. I couldn't even find Abel for a second, but luckily his silver mask stood out in this light, so I caught a trace of him. We pushed through the crowd to reach him and found him standing at a table in front of a diminutive woman in the same nondescript mask as the guards. She was wearing what I suspected was a white shirt and red vest, and standing in front of a huge roulette wheel, which was ALSO lighting up in a riot of colors.

    "Whooo!" Abel cheered. "Rainbow wheel! Guys come over here!" He waved to us excitedly, shoving a few nearby forms aside to make room. "This is awesome. It's rainbow wheel. Unlike boring roulette where there's two colors and a bunch of numbers, rainbow wheel is even more fun! The wheel is covered with numbers, but the numbers are in grey screens, As the wheel spins the colors flicker randomly across the tiles and when the ball stops they all lock into place. Don't worry though, rainbow wheel is watched over by high Perception reps from the WCP to make sure they don't monkey with the color change."

    That was...insane. "So you just pick a random color and number and hope it hits? Is this the game you always play? Also what are the odds on this?" I kind of wished someone had thought to do a luck wish before coming here, but I made a note to bring Benny back once he was strong enough to survive down here.

    "A thousand to one." Came a smooth, lackadaisical voice from the other side of the table. I turned to find a girl with dark skin and glowing green eyes staring back at me. I couldn't see her hair color with all the light pollution, but my guess was that it was dark blue. Of course, the hulking bandaged for with wrist manacles and a long coat standing behind her kind of gave it away. This would be Mordaunt then. She smiled widely when she caught our gazes. "But no, rainbow wheel isn't a consistent thing. They only spin once a night."

    Abel nodded excitedly. "It's true! Sadly we can't play tonight. You can only bet money on rainbow wheel you won AT the table. It stops people from just dumping all their cash on it. Shame, I love rainbow wheel. I've played four times. Never won, but it's always a blast." I could see how they would be able to afford thousand to one odds under those conditions. It was probably a huge draw. Quite a spectacle.

    Mordaunt chuckled, somehow audible despite all the noise around us. "I'd be happy to let you watch my spin. There's only a one in ten thousand chance of triggering a rainbow wheel spin on a winning bet, or at least so I was told when we began." Abel nodded enthusiastically and I shrugged. It sounded like a fun time and it wasn't like it would cost anything. We'd obviously stick around.

    Mordaunt turned to the woman. "Forty six, red." She just picked a random number and color combination, not that I imagined there was a much better way. With seven potential colors on each number the chance of hitting was absurdly low. No way they could afford to pay so much out unless the odds were freakishly slim.

    Before the woman could spin though, we heard a new voice cut through the din. A haughty sneering tone that boomed across the space around us. "Why am I not surprised the abominations are engaged in such depravity. I suspected I'd find you here, monster maker." We all turned to take in the hulking form of the blonde haired man in the brown robes, sneering through his bushy beard. The game was forgotten as Mordaunt turned to face Macgregor, and two of the outsider factions squared off against each other. Why did I think this was going to get messy?
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 290
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Since we weren't the ones spinning the rainbow wheel, I wasn't too worried about missing out. I doubted Mordaunt would allow them to screw her over anyway, but this was clearly much more interesting. Macgregor was clearly here to start trouble. To her credit, the Darkling Institute elite didn't seem too pressured by the big monk. She just shot him a charming smile. "Macgregor, always good to see you. Were you looking for me for some reason?"

    The big monk (seriously, he was wearing roughspun brown robes tied with a rope and everything) sneered down at her. "You know why I'm here witch. The Moonsong Glade entry slots will belong to the Twilight Order. Your abominable freakshow has one chance to withdraw."

    Mordaunt's charming smile turned sharp. "Or...what? Are you going to fight me Macgregor? Going to kill the monster maker?" She casually tilted her head, calling over her shoulder. "Rahm darling, be a dear and protect your mistress." The massive bandaged form of her attendant blurred forward so fast I had trouble tracking it, appearing in front of her without hesitation.

    His speed wasn't the all time fastest thing I'd ever seen, but he was also HUGE. He was at least as fast as Sloane with her wings out. When he appeared in front of Mordaunt, he let both arms hang loosely at his sides, ready to engage as he straightened his back, glaring down at the blonde monk. Rahm was at least seven and a half feet, and made even the monk, who was taller than I was, seem small.

    Macgregor sneered harder. He was pretty good at that. Lots of practice probably, but he made the sneer really obvious even through the thick beard. "You think I fear your creature, witch?" I watched his hands start to glow with an uncomfortably white light, but before he could act, a smaller man with plain features and dark hair who I hadn't even noticed in his shadow stepped up and put a hand on his arm.

    To my surprise, rather than just dismiss the other monk, Macgregor actually backed down. I found that odd based on what I'd seen from him so far, but it HAD only been a minute or two. Mordaunt smirked. "As your minder no doubt reminded you, this is a D-ranked planet. If we start trouble we'll be forced to deal with the Unity or gods forbid the Wish Curse Palace themselves. Even you rabid animals can't possibly be that stupid. Present company excepted." She said the last part with a sickly sweet smile and Macgregor's hands started to glow brighter before flickering out a moment later.

    "Fine." He hissed between clenched teeth. "Then accompany me outside so we might solve this once and for all. It should be no problem if you have as much confidence in your creature as you claim." It was easy to hear the goading in his tone, and apparently I wasn't the only one who thought so.

    Mordaunt just snorted. "Do you think everyone is as predictable and stupid as the lot of you. I'm not going to fight you, I have no reason to risk that. I won't follow you outside because you said mean things about me either. I'm going to stay here and gamble. You're free to stay and enjoy a few games, assuming you know what that word even means," She turned her back on him, facing the rainbow wheel again and pretty much dismissing him wordlessly from her notice. I snickered at the expression on his face, but kept it internal so he didn't notice.

    "Coward." Macgregor bit out. "Fine. I suppose it isn't necessary anyway. A sniveling wretch like you won't be an obstacle in the tournament. I can take care of your monstrosity another time. You'd best watch yourself in the future. If we catch you outside we'll destroy you as surely as you deserve." He turned, his fucking robe actually snapping dramatically as he strode purposefully from the casino.

    "Well." I said in confusion. "That was...pointless. Did he really track you down just to snipe at you and then leave?" I could have sworn he wanted to actually fight, but he'd retreated way too easily. This whole thing seemed like a waste of time in every conceivable way.

    Mordaunt rolled her eyes. "He'd have fought me here if he could have, but since I wouldn't accept the challenge he decided to try to recursion lock me. Enough people hear about the fight and start talking about it like it's definitely going to happen and both of us will start making decisions that skew us toward eventual combat. It's not foolproof or anything, you can still avoid it, but the more the story grows the harder it is to stay away from it. Fucking monks." She waved at the woman behind the table. "Go ahead and spin it."

    She did, and the ball landed on forty six blue, with a shrug Mordaunt turned away from the table. "Shame. But oh well. I'm done playing anyway. I'd much rather focus on making some local friends. I take it you're all going to be entering the tournament as well?" Her eyes skimmed over us all clinically, seeming to memorize as much about us as she possibly could.

    Abel glanced longingly at the wheel, then sighed and nodded, gesturing for us to follow as he led us off to a side room where we could sit and talk. The room was much calmer, with no crazy lights or furniture. Just leather chairs and a nice fireplace with a flame already crackling. We slumped down into the chairs. I was kind of glad to be away from the dizzying background.

    "So." Callie said, getting to the real reason we'd followed Mordaunt in here. "What's the deal with you and Macgregor?" Given we'd be fighting these people, there was no way we were leaving information on the table. The more we knew about the outsider forces the better.

    "Oh, that." Mordaunt sniffed derisively. "The Twilight Order are holier than thou busybodies. Just because we use human parts in our experiments they get all bent out of shape. Our corpses are all ethically sourced from donations and criminals. It's not like we just snatch people off the street." She paused. "Well, except for that one guy, but we kicked him out as soon as we noticed he was doing it."

    That was...kind of unsettling. I hadn't considered where they might be getting the parts. If people were donating though that was their business. The criminal thing was...murky, but it wasn't like I could do much about what their local government decided to allow. Still it made me a bit wary of Mordaunt. The Darkling Institute already seemed a bit shady to me, and hearing this made them seem even more suspect.

    They were Conglomerate citizens though, so at least I knew they were under a Unity branch. I could call Stella and have her kick it up the chain. She might get a bit of extra prestige for reporting it, and I was sure she had connections in the Unity aside from Midknight. Callie's dad didn't strike me as someone who would care much about ethics or worry how the Institute was doing things.

    Callie looked a bit unsettled too, but we could still get some information. "So why are you down here if you aren't looking to fight. Doomtown isn't exactly safe. You could find some nicer places to relax if you were looking for entertainment." Thinking about it she wasn't wrong. We were down here to start fights mostly, and get information. If Macgregor had challenged us we'd probably have accepted.

    Mordaunt's smile was mysterious this time. "Well, I guess I can let you know. We're here for the Walking Silence Auction. The Institute is using the influx of forces from all over the star system to put on a bit of an exhibition. They've been stockpiling stuff for months in preparation. Even we haven't been able to get access to some of the premium goods. It's going to be held in Doomtown since the red zones are open for violence but this one is limited to prevent any overpowered participants."

    I perked up at that. Auctions could be fun from what I'd heard. I'd never been to a proper Ascendant auction. "Really? What kind of stuff will they have." I paused for a second in distaste. "It's not all going to be body parts is it?" I was definitely interested, but there was no reason to go if we couldn't get anything useful.

    Luckily Mordaunt just waved off my concerns. "Of course not. No point in waiting to hold a large scale auction when we're the only customers. There will be some experimental materials, but also plenty of artifacts and medicines for people to pick up. I'm sure you could find something you like. Do you want to come along? I have some guest spots and I'd be happy to bring you four with me?"

    That seemed weird to me. "Ok, but..why? You don't know us, and inviting random strangers to your Institute's super high profile event seems...weird." I looked at the others. "This isn't just me right? Like this whole thing is super suspicious." I tried not to get in the way when we were planning things out, Callie had a good head on her shoulders, but this girl gave me the creeps. She'd been nice enough so far, but the casual talk of body parts just rubbed me the wrong way.

    To my surprise though, the question seemed to amuse her. "Oh it's totally suspicious. But I'm mostly doing it for the same reason you're having this conversation right now. I need more information on the local landscape and you all are obviously locals. Silver mask over there is clearly comfortable here, and if he has info that I can use it's worth burning some invitation slots I wasn't going to use anyway."

    Callie shot me a questioning look. I was guessing since I'd had the objection she wanted to make sure I was satisfied with the explanation. I wasn't really, but it was the same kind of political nonsense I heard from everyone else, so it was probably legit. I gave her a subtle nod and she turned a beaming smile on Mordaunt. "We'd love to come along. I take it the event isn't going to be for a few days at least?"

    Mordaunt seemed amused by our dynamic, but I got the feeling she was amused by most things. Another check on the list of reasons she bothered me. Ultimately though, I was probably biased. Having an undead with her kind of bugged me given our time in the necropolis, and that wasn't really fair. I wasn't in a hurry to trust her, but if Callie wanted to go to the auction I was down with that. Some gear for our friends would really help them out.

    We'd need to boost them up during the tournament to be ready for the trip to Moonsong Glade if we managed to win, and better gear meant they could show off a bunch in public for compounding gains. We talked for another fifteen minutes about local nonsense, us trying to avoid giving away too much and her trying to pry, but eventually we ran dry. Seeing that all of the business stuff was out of the way Mordaunt popped to her feet. "Well, I'm bored now. How about we go out and do some more gambling. We can talk about boring stuff later."

    She hurried out of the room with all the focus of a toddler on a sugar high, and we all just shrugged and followed along. We could try to get more information from her later, but for now, we HAD come here to have fun. I wanted to check out that betting table, I was hoping we could pick up a prop bet for our rematch with Wren. I was looking forward to seeing what he could do with his ability in use, and if I could make some money while I did, all the better.
  19. Threadmarks: chapter 291
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    After we left the casino, Abel and Mel brought us deeper into Doomtown. In the inner reaches of the city, the lights weren't quite as red, bleached out by streetlamps glowing a blinding white. I noticed as we walked that the place seemed much more relaxed here. Not completely safe, but at the very least people seemed less likely to jump and kill us. I was so surprised by the shift in atmosphere I had to bring it up. "What's the deal with this place? It seems so much quieter and more restful than the rest of the town."

    Abel chuckled. "This is Sunshine boulevard. It's...not exactly a neutral zone, but open conflict is discouraged. Be careful of eating anything you didn't see prepared in front of you, but you're not likely to get stabbed from behind. Even the outsiders probably won't start anything direct here. Of course, there are stealthier methods of killing and those are still more than possible, but there's far less benefit to that unless you build a rep for it over time. This is one of the few places where it's safe to sleep down here."

    That was something I'd been wondering about. "So we're staying down here for the whole two weeks? Admittedly walking back up those damn tunnels every night sounds annoying. Do you guys have some old friend around here we can stay with or something?" I gestured behind me to where Sloane was leading the Beast Lord crew. "Because I'll be honest, I don't think we're going to fit in someone's spare room."

    "Not at all." Said Mel. "We don't really know anyone who hangs out in places like Sunshine Boulevard. We DO know of a pretty reputable inn around here though. Even we need somewhere to sleep. We never spent enough time here to get to know the owners or anything, but the Blue Robin Tavern has rooms for rent and is pretty much the closest thing to guaranteed safety in Doomtown."

    The dark stone buildings were the same design as the rest of the town as we walked, but the change in lighting made them seem much different. The red lighting had given the buildings a squat, devilish appearance, but in the much lighter (albeit still pink tinged) light from the mixed streetlights and overhead illumination of the city, the stone seemed sturdy and reliable, and all the buildings seemed just a bit taller, even if I knew they weren't.

    What was more, as we walked down Sunshine Boulevard I could see bright green ivy climbing up the stone walls, artfully spread across the outside of the buildings in beautiful patterns that I was positive weren't natural. Callie smiled happily at the relaxing view and leaned against me, seemingly losing herself in the laid back atmosphere. Despite that I could feel just a bit of tension in her shoulder where it pressed against my side. She might seem relaxed but she was smarter than to let her guard down completely here.

    After walking for about twenty minutes we stopped at a building that looked similar to but not exactly like the others. It was made of the same black stone, and had the same ivy, but it was much larger than any of the nearby structures. At two stories and twice as wide the Blue Robin Inn (there was a sign above the front door) stood out starkly from everything around it. The owners had clearly put a lot of time and effort into building it up.

    Abel clicked his tongue. "Ugh. It's all boring and idyllic. I forgot how lame this place was. Aside from someone trying to slip me shadeviper venom in a glass of beer once I've never had any fun at this place. They even cook the food right in front of you so people don't have to worry as much."

    Patting him on the shoulder, Mel said gently. "Yes, but most people like that sweetie. Besides, don't pretend you never enjoy any downtime, you ran that sausage cart for years, are you telling me you got regular assassination attempts on you during that whole time?"

    "Well no." Complained Abel. "But that's not the same. This is Doomtown. It's like going to an amusement park and not getting on the rides. Attempted murder is part of the fun. I'm not here for a peaceful meal and a nice rest." He sighed. "Still, I guess the kids could use the break." He turned to us. "Plus this place is a great location to farm intel. People come from all over Doomtown to stay here, so it's got a good cross section of potential sources."

    Callie perked up a bit at that, but I was pretty ambivalent. I was getting bored with constantly trying to squeeze information out of everyone. I knew it was important, but it just didn't really amuse me much. "Do they have anything interesting to do here?" I knew fighting was a no go, but there had to be SOME form of entertainment.

    "Of course." Mel said reassuringly. "Don't listen to him. Even I'm not as battle crazy as he is. There are a bunch of things to do. They even have a special pool table that weights your stats a lot like our obstacle course. Beating more powerful Ascendants is always fun. You can bet on the outcomes but you don't have to."

    That DID sound like fun actually. I had enjoyed playing pool sometimes as a mortal, though I hadn't been in ages. It made me think of Benny. His dad and grandfather both played when they were young and he was kind of raised to it. I went with him and his father a few times and I'd really enjoyed it. "Sounds like a blast. I'll give it a try when we get in there." I glanced at Callie. "Want to try a game?"

    She shook her head. "Nah. I want to ask around about some of the local players more. You go ahead, we can meet up go get something to eat after." I shrugged. That was fair. We spent a lot of time together but it wasn't like we were attached at the hip. I could find someone else to play a game with.

    I turned to Abel. "You down for a game of pool? If you're going to sit around and sulk about not fighting anyway might as well enjoy yourself while you're at it."

    "That doesn't sound too bad." He mused aloud. "I don't hate EVERYTHING about this place. The food and drink is solid. You can even get Moontear Brandy here. Granted, it's stupid expensive, but it's just about the best F-rank drink you can find on Callus. I haven't had any in ages." He shot Mel a pleading glance. "You think I could get the kid a glass of the good stuff? To celebrate how far he's gotten in training."

    Mel's voice as she responded was icy. "No, Abel. You can not buy yourself and one of our students a snifter of brandy that costs eight E-ranked chits per glass. We'd have to clean out the whole pavilion. If it wasn't so expensive, why do you think the Robin would still have that bottle after all these years? You're the only person I've heard of crazy enough to buy a glass of it."

    "It's not like I didn't share." Sulked Abel. "I let you have a sip didn't I?" Despite his tone, my brain was still frozen on the price. I'd bought a fucking CAR that could FLY for less than an F-ranked chit. In fact, I had very little understanding of what Ascendant money was actually worth. I mean, I knew each level of chit was worth ten times the lower levels, but I hadn't really seen much about what that entailed.

    I should probably get a better grip on how the economy worked given my position of power in the Pavilion. Sure, I had other people for that, but it wasn't like I would always have people like Mel around. The prices for things as far as I'd seen were pretty arbitrary, but a lot of that could be explained by massive variance in quality of goods and materials. I'd have to look into what a standard unit of currency even was. My massive windfalls and quick jumps between ranks had kind of skewed my understanding of how money worked.

    Despite his obvious unhappiness Abel didn't dwell on things. He strolled up to the Blue Robin's front in and rapped on it a few times. The door opened to show a squat, dark skinned man with broad shoulders and blonde hair, a permanent scowl etched on his features. "Why are there so many of ye?" He said, in a thick accent that reminded me quite a bit of Alden. "We don't have the rooms for ye each to get one."

    His steel grey eyes bored into us harshly, as if we were offending him by even standing here when there were clearly too many of us. Mel put up both hands placatingly. "Not a problem. We only need..." She turned to look at us. "Four?" Sloane nodded, unbothered by sharing a room with some of her initiates. We obviously wouldn't stuff twelve people in a room together, but six was less of a problem. "Yeah, we'll take four rooms. Do you have enough openings?"

    The scowling man narrowed his eyes like he thought she was trying to trick her way past, but slowly turned his gaze to the side, clearly reading something. "Aye." He said grudgingly. "We can accommodate ye for four rooms. We're close to capacity, but we have that many rooms. I'll remind ye that this is a neutral location and that troublemakers will be punished. We have an F-ranker standing watch, so no funny business. We have enough trouble with some of the outsiders here for that blasted tournament."

    We all gave serious nods and the man stared hard at us for a minute before stepping back, opening the door. Once we were inside Abel leaned in to murmur to Mel. "Wow. This place is way less friendly than I remember. Last time we were here they had a pixie at the door. She was much more welcoming."

    The small, broad shouldered man spun and smacked a palm into the wall. "No complaining! Or ye'll sleep on the street!" Abel shut up, but not without a quiet snicker that I was sure the man had heard. Still, my teacher wasn't wrong, this guy wasn't exactly a customer service elite.

    Once we were inside we split up. Abel and I headed for the pool table, Callie and Mel for the bar, Sloane to figure out the distribution of rooms for her crew. I was happy to see that they had a nice selection of custom cues available to use, and all of them seemed incredibly sturdy and well made. Sure enough though, as soon as we picked them up, we felt ourselves become restricted, our bodies and minds slowing down to nearly mortal levels. I knew our Impact would remain untouched, it took more than some random table to suppress that stat, so we weren't in any danger, this would just make the game more fair.

    There was a sign up sheet to one side of the table with some names I couldn't read on it, and we wrote ours down. We were signed up for a game of doubles since the place was so busy, single player games were scheduled for later in the night. We wouldn't get to play against each other but that was fine, this was mostly just for amusement and to kill time. When we arrived at the table though, I froze in place, a familiar pair of amber eyes meeting mine from across the surface. "Well." Said Wren, of the Spear Legion. "This is certainly a quicker meeting than I was expecting. Do you think this counts as a rematch?"
  20. Threadmarks: chapter 291
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    I'd like to say I was surprised to see Wren. But after even a split second of thinking, I'm kind of not. Weird coincidences are part and parcel of being an Ascendant, at least in my experience. Whether it was because I was guided to exciting things by my Fantasy stat or some kind of grand recursive effect of all mortals idealizing the nonsense we go through, I'd probably never know, but if something could go weird, it would go weird.

    Still, in terms of surprises this one wasn't too bad. Wren was a big scary badass with a giant spear (which he wasn't carrying) but he seemed like an ok guy for the most part. I'd shattered his ankle with poison fire and he'd just seemed excited for the rematch. Which...I guess was now? I grinned at him. "Sure, but only because I want a chance to dunk on you again before the tournament. I'm a big believer in the rule of threes."

    He barked out a laugh. "Cocky little shit aren't you? But I don't mind. You and your partner earned that much. Your level or coordination isn't something I expected from a couple backwater natives." His eyes flicked to Abel. "Though it looks like you have a new companion." The laughter faded from his face as his eyes bored into Abel. "You...are very dangerous. You remind me of Lament. I'm not sure why, but I trust my instincts."

    I leaned in between them. "This is my mentor, Apollyon. But no more talking about that. You don't want me to think you're fishing for information do you?" He snorted at that, dragging his eyes away, and I gestured to the table. "Now, I believe a rematch was mentioned? Do you want to break or should I?" I didn't fancy trying to find a new place to sleep if they got into a dust up and destroyed half of this room. I had seen Abel fight, and if I didn't know he was human I'd have suspected someone summoned him from the elemental plane of property damage.

    Wren grinned wryly. "Going right for the throat eh? Fine. You can break. Winner should get first shot." He shot me a wink. "Just be sure to keep that in mind for our next fight after I beat your ass at pool." He gestured down to the table where I quickly racked the balls and then set up to take my shot. Pausing I turned to look at Abel, but he just waved me on, and I took a shot.

    The break was clean. I was working with mortal stats so no crazy perfect shot that sunk all the balls, but I managed to get at least one in. "Solids." I proclaimed smugly, then set up for a second shot. I felt like showing off, so I hit a double bank off the far corner and tapped in another solid, a green this time. My third shot, sadly, ended the streak, but at least I didn't scratch.

    Abel strolled up to stand next to me as Wren lined up his own shot. I hadn't left him with much. "That was better than I expected. Most Ascendants are useless if you strip away their stats. You play this when you were mortal?"
    "Yeah, Clockwork's dad used to take us when I was younger. I'm not as good as he is, but I do ok. It's a fun game." My reminiscing was cut short by a perfect triple bank from Wren as he smoothly deposited a solid ball in one of the pockets. He lined up and pulled off three more shots in quick succession and I winced.

    Wren was a master martial artist. He spent all his time working with a spear. I wouldn't say that a spear and a pool cue are the same thing, but control of of point of impact and things like that were ingrained in him even without his stats. He couldn't mobilize his Skills without stats to use, not past the Minor level anyway, but he still had the knowledge and control that gave him those Skills in the first place.

    I expected him to completely clean us up, but luckily he was distracted for a second by an argument off to one side and scratched. I exhaled with relief. It was odd not having the same level of Focus as usual, even for me. My brain didn't feel sluggish or anything, but my thoughts were definitely more scattered. Focus gave raw processing power but it also helped concentration, and clearly Wren wasn't any more used to losing that than I was.

    Without any hesitation I passed the cue to Abel. I might not be a master of bodily control with a genius grasp on physical movement, but he was. He grinned at me smugly. "Don't feel too bad. You are pretty good. I hadn't really counted on the crossover either. Damn weapons masters. Let me give it a shot." He winked and walked over to the table. He started pacing around it, looking at angles and setting up shots he never took.

    After a minute or two Wren started looking annoyed, but didn't say anything specifically. Abel finally stopped, picking a specific spot and lining it up, then snapped off a single stroke. I watched in shock as cur ball rocketed across the table, knocking off nearly every single ball. The solids left headed right for the pockets, and the few that couldn't be directly hit were banked or knocked on course by the stripes, which were all knocked away by the solids themselves if they were too close to the hole.

    Abel waited for a minute for the balls to all fall in and the eight ball came to a slow stop right on the rim of the pocket, with the cue ball about a foot away and lined up clearly. My teacher grinned over at Wren and said. "Eight ball, corner pocket." The leisurely tapped it in without much effort. He turned to me and his grin widened. "Fun fact. Learning to manipulate space makes you REALLY good at geometry and angles. Even without stats."

    I hadn't considered that. I'd been paying attention to Abel's martial skills, but the stuff he did with his spatial lubrication must require an insane amount of spatial awareness. Some of that must be Focus, but the skills would be there anyway. I grinned at Wren. "Well, looks like we won. We gonna do a rematch? Or do you want to get a drink or something?"
    Despite not being a big drinker, I didn't mind a bit of alcohol in a social setting. I'd ended up drinking some beer recently, and assuming I didn't get something high ranking and expensive my Vitality made it impossible to get drunk. I didn't LOVE the taste, but if I didn't need to worry about getting tipsy because I couldn't hold my booze and acting like an idiot there was no reason not to be polite.

    Plus I knew from Callie's fishbowl thing that there were drinks that didn't taste as bad. Luckily for me, lower ranked drinks would be cheaper anyway, so this was a win win as far as I was concerned. Wren looked annoyed, but he blew out a breath. "Fine. But nothing crazy. I can see your buddy looking all shifty, and I am NOT paying for Moontear Brandy. Even I don't have the money to throw around to buy a round of that stuff. And even if I did I wouldn't do it for a lost game of pool with no stakes."

    I snickered at Abel's curse of annoyance, and then held up a hand. "Why don't we play a few more friendly games. No need to put reputation on the line this time, no rematch. But maybe me and your buddy there can do some shooting." I gestured at the smaller man with shaggy blue hair and a goatee the same color. I held out a hand. "Sorry, got caught up with Wren there, didn't catch your name."

    He grabbed my hand and shook. "Vector. And don't sweat it. None of us expect to be first priority when any of the bosses are in the room. Wren is huge and Lament is...Lament." I cocked my head in confusion and Vector just gave a rueful chuckle. "You'll see when you meet her. It's hard to describe." He sizes up Abel. "For Wren to mention a similar vibe from you is interesting. I don't feel it myself."

    Wren shook his head. "He's more restrained, but there's a sort of...aura of violence that people develop when they're competent enough in combat. It's not really an Ascendant thing. Mortals can have it too. It's sort of a surety of movement and purpose. Lament's is aggressive, like she's ten seconds from butchering you. His is more...smug. It kind of makes me want to punch him in the face."

    Despite the hostile comment, his tone is more introspective than anything, as if he's trying to talk out a puzzle. I had to suppress a snicker as Abel held up both hands in a 'what the hell?' gesture. "Anyway." I said decisively, cutting off a potential fight that Wren would definitely lose. "I'd love to play against Vector a bit. I refuse to believe both of you have managed to translate your spear mastery into perfect pool cue use."

    We played another four games. Vector and I both shot, and I won two while he won two, but it became obvious that once I shook the rust off regular rules wouldn't work, since you could keep taking shots when you sunk one and we were both hitting ever shot. We started swapping back and forth, which dragged the games out, but it kind of stopped being fun because of how good we were.

    Eventually we decided to abandon the pool table, heading to the bar for a drink, and we ran into Callie and Mel up there when we arrived. Callie was happily enjoying something brightly colored in an oddly shaped glass. I suspected more Ascendants drank for taste than inebriation given how high their Vitality was. Clearly some of them had interest in getting drunk given the high ranked liquor I'd seen and heard of, but if you were drinking something that physically couldn't get you buzzed, there didn't see a reason not to make sure it was tasty.

    When they saw us Callie started calling me, waving wildly to get my attention. She stopped when she realized what she was doing and where and leaned back against the bar, nonchalantly beckoning us like she hadn't done anything a second ago. When we got close though she grinned. "Oh wow, what a coincidence. Wren, good to see you. I should have guessed you might be staying her when they mentioned the outsider factions."

    Wren chuckled. "Yeah, not many viable accommodations down here. Surprised to see you around though. Locals and all. Anyway, luckily you have a drink already, I owe your partner some libations after losing to him and his buddy at pool." He rapped on the wood surface of the bar. "Hey, barkeep. Pair of drinks for my friends. Put whatever they get on my tab, but no top shelf stuff."

    The taciturn woman behind the bar with shaved head and a nose ring nodded solemnly, raising an eyebrow over one copper colored eye at the two of us. I ordered a milkshake, which got a small huff of laughter, and Abel ordered a brandy, the non wallet destroying kind. She brought us our drinks and we settled in to enjoy.

    We ended up staying up to talk to Wren and Vector for quite a while, learning more about the Spear Legion. Not information gathering or anything, but just the normal getting to know you stuff you talk to new friends about. What it was like there, what they did for fun, etc. They were both pretty chill guys, and I felt pretty relaxed as we headed to bed after a night just hanging out. Of course, that was just for the night. Tomorrow we would need to figure out our next move, but so far, I was enjoying my time down here in Doomtown.
  21. Threadmarks: chapter 293
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The next day we didn't end up going to some gambling den or fighting pit. Instead, Abel brought us out to a corner of Doomtown where a large cavern lake sat, and paid a guy in a small shack a few chits to rent us a boat. As he was doing this, Wren, Vector, Sloane, the other Beast Lord Initiates, Callie and I all stood off to one side looking confused. I glanced over at Mel. "Is this...fishing? Is he taking us fishing? Because honestly I didn't think he'd scheduled leisure activities. Like...I guess the inn, but that's more necessity than anything."

    I'd kind of started talking myself into the idea when Mel started to snicker. "Yes and no. Riot Bay IS a fishing spot, but it isn't the kind that you go to when you want to relax. This place is going to be good training." She stepped meaningfully away. "For you. I'm not going into that fucking lake again for as long as I live. It's wet and it smells awful. Enjoy your training though kids, here comes Apollyon with the boat keys!"

    Sure enough, Abel was on his way over with a few pairs of keys. He held up one, tossing the others to Wren and Sloane. He addressed the latter casually. "I'm not buying boats for all your minions. You can all squeeze into one or some of them can stay with Mel. I don't really care. I'd recommend not packing in too tight though. Room to move is key in Riot Bay." He gestured to the boats docked at the shore, all of which were surprisingly roomy.

    He pointed to me and Callie. "You two are with me. Mostly because I want to watch you flounder." He snickered at his own joke, or at least I assumed it was a joke since we were next to a lake, and then turned and strolled away. Before he got too far he turned his head, calling over his shoulder. "Big man, you and your buddy should be fine on your own, but probably stick close to our boat if you can. Worst case I can probably get over to save you if you need it."

    Wren glared at him, muttering under his breath. "I don't even know what the hell is out there but I already want to kill it just to prove to that asshole I can." He paused. "Probably not the most sensible instinct, but oh well." With a shrug he headed for the shore, clicking the fob on his boat keys. There was a loud chirp like a car door unlocking and one of the boats shuddered slightly. He nodded to us. "See you both out there I guess...probably."

    Heading for the boats, he dragged Vector along. Abel was already aboard what I assumed was our boat. I turned to Sloane, who was bringing Beric and Croll and leaving all the randoms behind. "You have any idea what this is about? Because whatever it is I have a bad feeling about it." I did too, but I didn't bother saying so since it wouldn't change anything. If Abel thought this was something that would be helpful to use, we'd do it.

    With a nonchalant shrug I informed her I had no clue, and we separated from her and the other two to meet Abel on the boat. Climbing aboard, I could see further out into the lake, and I couldn't help but be struck by the beauty. The water of the lake was a flowing, opaque liquid, like the kind of thing you would find in some kinds of glow tubes. Still, despite that common imagery, there was something hypnotic about the swirl of the softly glowing blue substance. Looking back, I could see it rolling up and down the black sand beach to the side of the boat, and the image was hypnotic.

    Callie smiled out at the lake, eyes closed as she inhaled deeply. "Ok. This is really nice. Kind of curious how it's going to try to kill us, but for the moment I'm enjoying the trip." I chuckled at that, not able to disagree on either count, and slipped a hand into hers. Asfter a minute or two staring off into the distance though, we heard a loud noise as Abel cleared his throat.

    "hey." He said lazily. "It's nice that you two are bonding, but I need some help to steer this thing. A ship this size can't be crewed by one person." He paused. "Well, I guess it COULD if I was willing to actually work at it, but I'm not, so you're going to help." He pointed me over to the jutting spear of wood in the middle of the deck. "Solomon, go unfurl the lightsail. There's no wind down here, but the ships use an insubstantial energy screen that harvests the light from the lake."

    Walking over, it took me a second to find the controls, but they were surprisingly uncomplicated. I pressed the button, and missed what he told Callie to do as I stared in awe at the sheet of glowing blue energy. It unfurled along the length of the mast, and I could see it pulse slightly brighter every few seconds as it absorbed the energy. Abel walked over to check on the thing. Knocking on the mast, he nodded amiably. "Good, still works. These things are discount transportation at best. They cost almost nothing to maintain, so they're profitable as hell, but they do break down regularly."

    Shaking off the sight of the pulsing energy screen, I turned to Abel, who kicked the deck and stood by, watching a podiom rise from the wood. One it was up he fiddled with the controls a bit and we began to smoothly glide through the water, going from stationary on the beach to mid motion so suddenly I had trouble isolating when the motion began. "Alright." I say, tired of waiting. "What the hell are we doing here?"

    Abel just chuckles, not bothering to take his eyes from the distant skyline...lakeline? Caveline? From the horizon. "We're here for the Riot Tide." He said casually. "It's an excellent training tool. Basically, when we reach the deeper parts of the lake, we'll stay put. After an hour or so, the tide will come in. A wave of lake water will carry hundreds of fish right over the surface of the boat. we should be able to stay planted fine, but the fish will pummel everything on deck."

    He pointed down into the opaque water. "You can't see them, but they're pretty big. They're all G-rank...well, mostly. The F-ranked ones only come up deeper into the lake, they're too big for the smaller waves here to lift. Anyway the value of the fish varies based on color. They come fast and hard, and your job is to punch them out as they attack and then grab the tails to chuck them into a basket you'll keep at your side. The fish change color as they climb higher up G-rank, with red being the lowest and purple being the highest."

    That sounded...insane. "So you want us to what? Catch a bunch of fish? How exactly will this help us progress?" I could see how this would be fun, but it didn't seem like any kind of training. I wouldn't complain if we were just screwing around, but I definitely didn't want to miss the point and lose out on valuable training if it was there. I came down here to improve, and I wasn't really confident yet we could achieve decent results in the tournament.

    "Good question." Abel said approvingly. "The answer is simple. You're being graded. I'll be assigning points based on the fish you catch. Minus two for red, minus one for orange. Yellows are nothing. Green is one point, blue is two. Purple is three but those are stupid rare so I wouldn't hold my breath. This exercise is to help you judge the danger of incoming attacks at your partner without looking. It'll help with recognizing feints and things like that. Plus we can cook or sell the fish. They taste great."

    Huh, that was fair enough. I could see the usefulness, plus I hadn't really had a chance to work with fish in the kitchen much. Might be fun to take some home to make fish tacos for Callie or something. I turned to see her smirking with anticipation and rolled my eyes. It was nice to know I could read her so well at least. "Alright." I said, getting into the idea. "What do we need to do to get ready. You said we shouldn't get washed off the boat? I don't know exactly what that stuff is but I'd prefer not to fall in."

    "Good call." Said Abel blandly. "If you swim too deep you can run into the F-rank fish, they're mean bastards. Plus you can drown, but that's rare. Because of our higher Might we can condense way more air into our lungs on a strong inhale, plus Vitality makes oxygen use more efficient. Anyway, don't fall in, yes. I could come save you, but it would be annoying and I might not find you before you got fish slapped to death. If you DO fall in, make sure to swim for the surface as fast as you can, if you can figure out what direction that is without being able to see anyway." I winced as I imagined getting sucked in upside down and swimming for the bottom by mistake. That would be bad.

    The next hour passed without much drama. I'd expected this place to be crazy even outside the Riot Tide. Riot Bay didn't exactly sound like a scenic get away, but to my surprise, it was pretty much exactly that. Staring off into the distance the swirling blue lake water was like a glowing pane of opaque crystal, flat and smooth for as far out as I could see. Despite that, the swirl of the glowing substance created a sort of shifting effect that varied the glow from spot to spot. It was almost hypnotic to watch.

    Still, despite the beauty, it was hard to relax and take it in. We were about to be literally pelted with fish. I wasn't sure what that would be like but it was bound to be unpleasant. It was impossible not to constantly brace for an attack from all sides, which made the faux serenity of our surroundings even worse. This was the calm before the storm, and we all damn well knew it. I could see Wren and Sloane's boats nearby, scything through the lake water, leaving barely any distortion in the surface.

    My first clue that something was coming was Abel. He'd been sitting back looking bored for most of the time we'd been out here. Between one breath and the next though, his eyes snapped open, focusing sharply on the surface of the water. He crossed the distance to the railing of the ship in a blink, looking down into the water as if to confirm something, then nodded. Turning back he walked over and opened a hatch, pulling out a series of heavy looking braided metal baskets. He dropped one next to each of us, then walked to the other side of the ship and dropped the third next to himself.

    "Alright." He said solemnly. "We're about to get hit. Plant your feet, try not to move around too much. I put your baskets close enough together to let you cover each others backs. No weapons and no poison fire or any of that shit. If you ruin the fish it defeats the purpose. Stun them and toss them in the basket, it's enchanted to keep them in stasis. Any questions?" We both indicated we had none and his solemn expression melted into his usual anticipatory grin. "Good." He pointed off into the distance where the shape of a cresting wave could be seen rolling across the surface of the lake. "Because it's about to start."
  22. Threadmarks: chapter 294
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The massive tide of blue liquid hit the ship like...well, a tidal wave. Our feet were planted on the deck firmly as the wall of water rushed at us, and I could easily see the dark forms of writhing fish riding the wave like some nightmarish parody of birds on the wing. I could vaguely make out the shapes of Callie and Abel at other points on the ship, the hunched forms of a heavy basket near each of them. Callie was especially close by since we were working together.

    I could see the fish wriggling as they approached, and I knew that they were all G-ranked monsters of various levels. Still, there was no reason to freak out about it. I stopped, took a deep breath, and braced myself as the lake water slammed into me. My mask made it simple to breathe, though I suspected my Impact would have helped even if I hadn't been wearing it since Callie and Abel didn't have the same protection. Still, even without suffocating, getting hit with a wall of water was disorienting as hell.

    Letting myself drift in my combat trance, I let me senses unfocus, taking in everything and nothing all at once, straining to pay attention to my instincts. I felt a slight twinge and stepped out to take up position at Callie's back, lashing out with a quick punch and immobilizing a fish headed for my girlfriend. I grabbed its tail in the same motion, turning to hurl it into my basket with a triumphant grin...until I realized the damn thing was red.

    Sadly it was too late to intercept the fish, and it dropped into my basket, subtracting two points from my already negative value. I shook off the unhappiness, drifting back out of focus and started countering more of the fish attacking Callie, even as she did the same for me. I knocked out a flat dozen of the things, but they kept being swept away by the water before I could grab them because I was pausing to note what color they were.

    I tried to sense some fundamental difference about them, but despite how much I focused I was completely unable to distinguish between one fish and another. Then I switch to knocking them out and grabbing them, then checking them before I threw them in, and had moderate success with that. I ended up using one of the fish as a bludgeon as I reached for the next, not being able to leave Callie undefended long enough to check each one.

    That worked a bit, but not fast or practically enough. This was a test from Abel, and that lunatic wasn't one to give a task without some ulterior motive. There was a trick to this fucking exercise, there had to be. He'd said it was to sense the power of incoming attacks so we could react more efficiently, or something like that. I could see the logic. Blocking low level attacks would waste energy when they would be incapable of hurting Callie anyway. I needed some way to tell.

    I closed my eyes, letting my senses fade, and focused on one that I rarely had a chance to use. The sense that stemmed from Fantasy. This was the sense that picked up on odd or interesting things and subconsciously steered Ascendants toward them. Despite not needing any more craziness, I was at a loss for how to do this, so I figured some mysterious sense I didn't understand might work better.

    It didn't. I got slapped in the face by a fish I tried to catch. At the very least it didn't get to Callie. I was starting to get frustrated. I could use seek hidden, but there'd be no point. Abel didn't have that Skill which meant that it wasn't the answer I needed to find.

    Suddenly I felt a slight twinge coming from a sense I hadn't really thought to use. The sense that let me measure Impact. I wasn't really sure what that sense actually WAS, but at the very least I knew how it worked. I could feel the weight of a person or artifact's soul. However, paying closer attention, I was able to pick up that despite all being G-ranked, not all these fish felt the same.

    Maybe it was the increased soul strength from all the training, maybe it was the crazy environment, but I could feel DIFFERENCES in those fish. They all had 12 Impact, sure. But the weight of them varied infinitesimally. This one was heavier, that one was lighter. It seemed soul weight varied based on more factors than just Impact if you knew how to look for it. I was sure that this was the key to working out how to do this little exercise.

    Keeping mt eyes closed, I tried to reach out with that same, ineffable muscle I used to change a Skill. My soul, or at least the part of it I was able to use. I pushed my sense of Impact further, harder. I needed to go deeper into these impressions. I could feel the fish coming, just like before, but with my focus on sensing the variations, I could also feel the strength of each fish differed slightly.

    I lashed out with a punch at a fish, ignoring a weaker on right next to it as it bounced off Callie's coat. The one I punched I grabbed the tail of and tossed it into the basket, and seeing a flash of green as it dropped in. I almost cheered. Green was good, much better than red. It meant I had been able to sense the difference. I tried another fish, then another, carefully picking each one based on my feeling of how heavy they seemed vs the ones around them.

    Some were losers, oranges, yellows. Some were greens, and I even got a purple. But as I went on, I became consistently more skilled at picking them, getting better and better results as I fine tuned this new sense.

    I could see why I hadn't improved this before too. This environment was perfect for this kind of training. Lots of hostile monsters that were too strong but were still variable levels of our own rank to compare to each other. In the past even when we'd been in fights with G-ranked people or monsters there hadn't been this many coming this quickly.

    Feeling my pulse pounding I lashed out faster and faster, losing myself in the process as I slowly honed this new sense. Sadly, while I appeared to be doing well, Callie wasn't picking this up. Possibly because of her lack of experience with exercising her soul. In fact this detection method acted like a very mild form of soul strengthening exercise itself from what I could tell. I was feeling that telltale strain in my head, though it was MUCH more mild than when using a Skill.

    That made this even more valuable for her to learn because it would give her a way to work her soul without devolving into a gibbering pain blind mess or passing out like sometimes happened when I went too far. In order for that to happen though I had to actually let her know what to do.

    While Abel's whole 'learn by doing' teaching method did work most of the time, Abel wasn't perfect. I didn't think telling her how it worked would sabotage anything, plus he hadn't told me not to mention it. Hoping we were close enough for her to hear me through the waterfall-esque blast of liquid force I waited until there was an opening and bellowed. "CALLIE!" There was no response so I waited a minute before trying again, screaming her name at the top of my lungs.

    When she finally noticed, she was smart enough not to turn to me completely and ignore the fish, she just stepped back to be nearer to me and cocked her head to the aide so her ear was facing me. Knowing she would be straining all that Perception to hear me, and all her Focus to filter out the water sounds, I scaled back my screaming to a dull roar. "Try sensing their Impact! You can kind of feel a difference in their conceptual weight even without any of them being higher than twelve!"

    I tried to think of a better way to describe it, but I came up short. I trusted that she would be able to detect what I mean once she had an idea where to look. With that done I went back to fighting. I got hit a bunch more by the fish, but my armor tanked pretty much all of it, and after a few minutes Callie got a better feel for at least the extremes of the weight scale, mostly letting reds and oranges through to tag me.

    My own basket had been slowly filling with greens and blues since I started detecting everything, and even the odd purple. They WERE rare, but over the course of the next few hours we got attacked by THOUSANDS of fish, and I managed to identify and catch six purples. When the water finally receded it took me a second to process. We'd been in there for so long I couldn't keep track of time.

    Being soaking wet and sore didn't help. While my armor was F-rank and more than up to protecting me from random fish, as I'd noted before blunt force tended to transfer through a bit. With G-rank fish that wasn't much, but tens of thousands of hits over hours started to add up, even with my Vitality offsetting it a bit. I groaned, slumping back onto the deck with a thump. "Ow. Why is it that every single time we train with you we end the day in pain and nearly unable to move?"

    The comment was aimed at Abel, though I couldn't turn my head to look at him. My Vitality would repair the damage eventually, but they were made by G-rank opponents, so the conceptual weight of the attacks impeded the process somewhat. I heard Callie groan weakly from off to the side. "Yeah, and you couldn't have given us a hint or something? I'm starting to think you're just a sadistic asshole."

    Abel stepped into view, standing between us so I could see him without turning my neck, he had a hand to his chest and was looking mortified. "JUST a sadistic asshole? I'll have you know my sadism and assholishness are merely two of my many endearing qualities. But seriously, stop whining. That was a nice workout, but nothing too bad. I'll let you both recover back at the inn though. You certainly earned it."

    I groaned at the excitement and cheer in his voice. "How much money did you just make off our suffering? Also you know you're sharing that right? Because no way in hell did we go through that for nothing." Come to think of it, Abel looked like he was in much better shape than we were. "How many fish did you even catch? Or did you just hide behind something and let us do all the work?" I doubted it, that wasn't his style, but I was annoyed and venting a bit.

    Abel just snickered. "Hide? Kid I was rerouting about half of your incoming tide with spatial lubrication. Between that and my increased skill, I caught easily three times as many fish as you did, and most of them were higher end ones too. I actually got fifteen purples this time. It was a pretty good day." Ignoring my shocked silence, he reached down and picked me up easily, throwing an arm over his shoulder before heading to grab Callie.

    He carried us over to the mast to let us lean against the post. "Now. While I WILL be letting you take home a portion of the money, it won't be more than a quarter each." He said casually. "So sit back and enjoy the ride. I'll be handling the ship as we head back. Think of it as payment." If I could have moved I'd have attacked him as he turned around and walked away laughing. Since I couldn't, I just glared at him really hard. What a bastard.
  23. Threadmarks: chapter 295
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    By the time we got back to the shore, I was at least able to stand. I was still sore as hell, but my Vitality had patched me up enough that my muscles worked at least. Callie looked just as bruised and uncomfortable, but she also looked just as ecstatic as I felt. Despite the annoyance at Abel and the physical discomfort and pain, it felt GOOD to get stronger. To learn to be better and improve in a measurable way.

    And measure we did. After we got back to shore Abel carried the big metal baskets off the ship for us and we emptied them out on the black rocky beach, counting our haul and the number of points. I'd managed fifty total, while Callie had gotten forty eight. Abel, though he wasn't competing, made sure to assure us he had broken triple digits, and that both of together had failed to even approach his number. The asshole.

    Still as I stared down at the fish, I could see why these things were so sought after. They were beautiful. The scales were vivid and every bit as breathtaking as the colors of a rainbow. They were also all still, apparently immobilized by the stasis field long enough to suffocate. I had thought it kept them alive, but apparently I'd mistaken the point of the baskets, the devices being more to keep them fresh than anything else.

    As I stared down at them, I heard a crunch off to the side and turned to see a bedraggled Wren and Vector jumping down and trekking over to stand next to us. They had obviously heard the little introductory speech Abel had given us, not a surprise on such an open expanse of water with two G-rankers. They still looked annoyed as hell as they glared at my mentor. "You know." Wren snarled. "You could have WARNED us."

    Abel gave a derisive snort. "I didn't warn my own disciples." He said dismissively. "Why would I warn you two? Besides, it's good training. Don't tell me a pair of Ascendants from cluster level forces cant handle a little light rain and some relaxing fishing." We all turned and stared at him in mute horror as he described the... watery apocalypse we had just gone through as 'some relaxing fishing'. That took a serious amount of skills in bullshit to say with a straight face. Or at least what we could see of it.

    Sloane, who had walked up in squelching wet boots, was glaring too. "Well, that's certainly kind of you. Be assured that I will return that kindness at the first possible opportunity. With interest." With that she stomped past us, storming over to presumably get a chance of clothes from her minions. The effect was ruined by the watery squelch of her feet as she trudged across the beach.

    "Alright." I said, drawing attention back to the matter at ham. "What do we do with these fish? Where do we sell them, and for how much?"

    Before he could answer, a new voice pipes up. "Hey dudes." We all turn to see the guy from the shack where Abel rented the boats standing off to one side. "Bodacious catch bros. That's a tubular multiplicity of aquatic lifeforms. Might you be interested in parting with your superfluence of fishy findings?"

    I blinked at him. So did everyone else. None of us had a fucking clue what he'd just said. The man's scruffy brown hair and goatee, combined with his blank stare, made him seem like kind of a lazy, sleepy person. His speech on the other hand was confusing and in some places I was pretty sure made up. I wasn't a dictionary, but superfluence didn't seem like a real word to me.

    Looking at him more closely, I tried to take in his outfit. Baggy tan shorts with too many pockets, a short sleeve t-shirt with an open short sleeve button up, and a series of metallic jewelry on his fingers and hanging from a black chord around his neck. He also wore a surplus of varied leather bracelets with metal buckles and pins on them. Abel grinned at him. "Dale! You're just in time. We were just talking about what to do with the fish. You willing to pay full rate for them? They're pretty fresh, and it'll save me some time."

    Dale guffawed. "Most obviously my compatriot. I have an abundance of most radical funds to disperse for the purpose of acquiring such a delectable piscine assortment. To my eternal sorrow though, the monetary equivalency you speak of has mutated in the time since your previous embarkment. One credit of H-rank as a base for a red is a more efficacious offering to begin our fiscal negotiations."

    The big dopey smile hadn't changed, but I caught a gleam of craftiness in his eye, and Abel's smile turned into a scowl. "The fuck you say. Don't pull that wasted philosopher bullshit on me you money grubbing layabout. I haven't been gone THAT long. Two and a half per red as a base. I'm not a moron, I did check prices before coming here. I'm not one of those stupid tourists you fleece."

    Putting up both hands, Dale's eyebrows rose in alarm without his eyes actually opening from their lazy half lidded state. "Whoa! Your accusations of malfeasance are farcical. But alas, I am no match for such a puissant practitioner of the pugilistic arts. Spare me your erupting wrath, your monetary offer is most acceptable for such a close personal friend. Our historical dealings are more than enough to justify such an expenditure."

    Abel rolled his eyes. "Oh stop it Dale. I forgot how quickly that gets old. Just talk like a normal person, there's no one around to hear anyway."

    Dale's relaxed smile twisted into an annoyed scowl. "Hey man, why you gotta' fuck up my aesthetic? If the tourists hear me talking like this they'll be way more on guard. I've spent years cultivating my image. The combination of dazed moron and confusing linguistic savant really puts people at ease. If you fuck this up for me I'm gonna be pissed, I have a business to run."

    Mel snorted. "I can't believe it still works after all this time." She said wryly. "You'd have thought after all the people you've ripped off someone would have warned the others."

    The dopey grin returned. "I'm not sure as the the bamboozling you might be reference, lady fair. I am simply a harmless and hapless proprietor of seafaring wares who chooses to invest in the local community through the occasional acquisition of delicious carp-tacular treats."

    "Those are salmon." Mel said dryly. "But point taken. That really is convincing. No clue how you keep it up all the time. Though it explains why you haven't ranked up. People pretty much dismiss you out of hand."

    Dale just shrugged, resuming a normal speech pattern instead of his lazy far off drawl. "I do good business here. No reason to rock the boat, so to speak." He looked at us. "You guys keep this quiet will you? I'd normally stay in character even after being caught out, but annoying Abel is never a healthy thing to do." He glared at the silver masked man. "Not to mention there's no point since he's decided to screw me on pricing."

    That got an eye roll from my teacher. "Oh please. You've been ripping off tourists for too long. Two point five is a solid baseline. The multipliers for color variants aren't even that high, except the purple at six, but there's less than twenty of those. Gods know you'll sell the damn things at a mark up anyway. What do you charge after prep, like five?"

    "They're paying for labor." Dale said self-righteously. "It costs to keep my chef on retainer. Not to mention I have to pay for processing to make sure the scales are treated right. Those things sell for a decent amount in bulk, not to mention the organs and bones can be crushed up to make a pretty high end plant fertilizer."

    Abel looked over to us. "This. This is why I call him a money grubber. Despite his laid back appearance this miser can't let a single chit slip through his fingers." He waved away the line of thought, literally swatting the air like the whole conversation was an annoying fly. "Whatever." He pointed at Sloane and Wren. "You two, dump your catch. This is as close to market value as you'll get, and he won't pay nearly this much after I'm gone."

    They both did so quickly, ignoring the annoyed scowl from Dale. Abel looked back at the shack owner. "Well? What are you waiting for, an engraved invitation? Count them up. The longer they're out of stasis the worse condition they're in, and I'm not taking a pay cut because you're a slow starter." Dale muttered something vaguely insulting that even I couldn't hear and walked over to start counting up the fish as Wren and Sloane dumped theirs on the beach.

    Abel turned to us. "This was a decent haul. Two point five as a base for the reds is a solid payout. It means twenty five for each purple. That alone is going to be a pretty serious bump. I think people have been too distracted to come fish lately, because looking at the full haul laid out like this its easy to see its denser than normal. I wasn't expecting any decent payout from this, just some pocket money, but based on what I'm seeing this is going to come out to about fifteen F-rank chits."

    "Why H-rank chits as a base though?" I asked cautiously. "If they're G-ranked monsters?" If we got paid in E-ranked chits instead it would obviously be much more lucrative. I wasn't expecting that to happen, but I might as well find out why that didn't happen.

    He waved the question off. "H-rank tends to be base currency here, even for higher level Ascendants. The economy on a backwater planet like this is pretty limited as a whole. There's only so many chits floating around. I doubt anyone on Callus has any D-ranked chits, even if they have enough E-ranked chits to trade for them. Once you get past a certain point scarcity plays a role. Not to mention these fish are pretty common. Nobody would make any money paying out G-rank chits for catching the. Just like no one is paying G-rank chits to eat them. Five H's probably."

    That was a wrinkle I hadn't considered in terms of economy. The whole money thing scaled kind of hard after the first few ranks, but if H-ranked chits were the standard of currency that would definitely drag it down a bit. Sort of like the equivalent of a credit for local Ascendants. Abel rolled his eyes. "Ponder economics later kid." He said with minor annoyance coloring his tone. "If I know Dale he's going to want us to help him carry them over as part of the fee."

    Sure enough, Dale came over and insisted we help move everything. It wasn't much work, but it was wet and annoying. Eventually though, we got them all transported and he handed over fifteen F-ranked chits, three of which went to Wren and Sloane, who hadn't had nearly the haul we had even if their catch had looked impressive. Lots of reds.

    With that done, we headed off the beach, walking back toward the city proper. Wren checked a scan ring for the time and looked over at us. "Well, that was time consuming. We're doing dinner with the rest of the legion if you want to tag along? I'm sure Lament would be happy to meet some challengers, even if our escorts won't let her fight you. She has problems holding back when she gets excited, so we want to save some mystery for the tournament." Callie answered for us, immediately accepting, and I just grinned in anticipation. Seemed like I was finally going to meet the Spear Legion's ringer.
  24. Threadmarks: chapter 296
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    In the end we got six of the twelve remaining F-ranked chits to split between us, and left Dale's with everyone else heading to dinner with Wren and Vector. They had arranged a meal with the rest of the Spear Legion, but I was confused about where. "So wait." I said, perplexed. "They aren't staying at the Blue Robin with you? I figured they were in their rooms or just not around. Why aren't they sharing accommodations with you guys?"

    I said they, but it was more like she, since Lament was the one we were all most interested in. Wren just shrugged. "The Robin is one of the safest places in Doomtown, but Lament doesn't really care about that. Our handler is E-ranked, and got special dispensation to come down here, though he can't act except in self defense. The two of them decided to stay in one of the more...exciting areas. Some of the Doomtown hotels run by the local forces have interesting games and activities if you're willing to accept the possibility of death every time you turn around."

    Mel groaned. "She's staying at the Chaotic Wombat, isn't she?" I turned my eyes to her, confused by the statement. She shrugged. "The Wombat is infamous. Abel went once, though I never bothered. The Wombat has a gimmick where every person who enters is stamped with a marking. Once every twenty four hours, at a random time, the markings all light up green. One person has a red marking and everyone else is supposed to attack them. The person who kills them gets ten F-ranked chits, and if they survive they get ten E-ranked chits, though to my knowledge it's only happened three times."

    Abel grinned. "Oh yeah, the Wombat is a blast. Since the rooms are all in various wings and levels the whole mess turns into kind of a scavenger hunt. I was kind of hoping to get picked as sacrifice when I went, but it ended up being this annoying F-ranker named Kamahl. His ability was changing the size of things after touching them. He did it on a delay so he would throw like, rocks at you and they would turn into boulders. He was only early F-rank, or he wouldn't have been down here, but he still didn't last too long. I think one of Silent Dagger's people got him."

    "That's horrible." Callie said, appalled. "Who would even go somewhere like that? Does everyone die when they get picked?" She looked horrified by the casual nature of the violence, and I didn't blame her. It was horrible that there were places you could die just for going. Hell, even knowing how lawless and awful Doomtown was supposed to be, the whole macabre nature of the game was just unconscionable.

    Seeming to sense how upset she was, Mel put both hands up placatingly. "Not at all. Plenty of people escape. Usually the ones who get killed are unlikable. Your friends are free to intervene even if you get picked, and most people's do. You just don't get the payout if you leave the premises. The sacrifice lasts for three hours, and if you leave it's considered a forfeit." She patted Callie's shoulder to console her. "It's really not that bad."

    It was easy to forget Mel and Abel weren't Unity. The WCP seemed like a quirky but stable place most of the time, but there was a reason it was considered a black market underground force. Then again, based on what Zeke had said it was probable that other factions might not be much better. The Black Sorrow Cult seemed like a pretty horrible environment based on their ruthless use of sleepers. Maybe the universe was just kind of a shithole. It was something to think about when we finally got off this planet. Being an Ascendant wasn't all wine and roses. Monsters weren't necessarily the biggest dangers.

    With the knowledge that we could have friends step in though, I wasn't QUITE as opposed to going. Abel chuckled at the indecision. "It's fine kid. It's still early for dinner, and while it IS random when they do the sacrifice, it's usually when there are plenty of people around. It's what..." He checked his scan ring. "Five PM? Most people won't be eating for a few more hours. We'll be gone before they start the festivities."

    I was sort of ambivalent here. With Abel and Mel, not to mention Wren, we should be fine even if one of us got picked, and if it wasn't likely to even happen, it might be safe enough. The sacrifice could happen at any time during a twenty four hour period, and it could happen to only one person. That made the chances of being there and being picked vanishingly small if we were only there for a short time. In the end, I just left the decision up to Callie, cocking my head at her so she knew it was her call.

    She bit her lip, looking indecisive. In the end though, we came here for the danger, so we could improve. If we avoided dangerous situations we might as well have stayed up in G-district. I could see that same realization show up on her face. She nodded grudgingly. "Ok. Fine. But I want to make it clear that if the sacrifice DOES happen while we're there, even if we aren't picked we're not participating. I'm not hunting and killing another person for fun. That's awful. If possible I even want to help them. Is that ok with all of you? If not we'll skip it."

    I beamed at her. I was so proud of her for coming to that conclusion. I don't think I would have thought to specify everyone help whoever got picked. To my surprise Abel just shrugged. "Sure. Sounds like a party. I prefer odds to be against me anyway. Still don't think it's likely to happen, but if it does I'm down to play defense."

    We all rolled our eyes, because that was the most Abel answer possible and we probably should have expected it. Mel, to my surprise, also nodded though. "That's doable. I'll be honest, it's been a long time since I worried about that kind of thing. It's so common down here there doesn't seem to be a point most days. Still, if that's what you feel you have to do kid, we're behind you."

    Callie looked poleaxed. "But...you're teaching us. Shouldn't you demand we toughen up and do what you think is best? Don't you think I'm being naive?" She sounded so confused at the concept of her teachers not forcing her to follow their example it broke my heard. I was pretty sure I had a guess at why.

    Either Mel didn't figure it out or was too nice to bring up because she just laughed. "No. We're not trying to turn you into us. You kids are talented and you've helped us out, so we're giving you some lessons and a hand with this. Plus we might benefit, but we aren't you. Trying to brainwash someone into doing what you would do isn't teaching. You're ultimately Unity members, and doing things their way isn't always wrong. Sure, it might seem a little naive to us sometimes, but being naive is fine as long as you're smart about it."

    Based on the shine in her eyes Callie looked ready to cry for a second, but she shook it off. "Thanks. I guess I didn't realize the baggage I had about teachers." She gave a steady nod. "Yeah. Like I said. If someone gets picked, we help them. Even if it isn't to our benefit. I won't stand by while someone gets hurt for no reason." Her voice strengthened as she repeated her decision, steel in her tone.

    Wren cleared his throat. "So...we ARE going? As for the sacrifice you won't need to worry about us if you get picked. Lament isn't one to gang up on others. It's beneath her dignity, and she wouldn't let any of the rest of us pile on either. Though if she does get selected probably don't try to help. She would be more annoyed at you for getting in her way than anything else."

    With that decided we headed back into the city, following Abel to the Chaotic Wombat. He was the only one of us who had been there, so he took the lead. once again we walked through Doomtown, and as we moved the streets around us subtly changed. Unlike Sunshine Avenue, the red light in this new area didn't fade, it got just deepened to a darker color. Not just dimmer, but more scarlet somehow.

    Abel took in a deep, happy breath. "Ah, Damnation Row. Been years since I've even thought about this place. If Doomtown could be said to have a 'bad part of town' it would be here. Most of the city is anarchy, but the Row is always just a little worse. Don't you just love the smell or complete mayhem in the afternoon?"

    As we walked, the stone facades of the buildings became more dilapidated and worn down. I wondered in passing what all the other buildings were. We passed dozens of them everywhere we went, and they couldn't all be casinos and fighting clubs or whatever. On second thought though I kind of didn't want to know. Considering how messed up the stuff we had already seen was, I had a feel random back alley businesses might be even worse.

    When we finally came to a stop, I was a bit underwhelmed. All the other places we'd been had stood out from the outside, been taller or more ostentatious than most of these places. This one was just one of a parade of squat stone buildings. I looked over at Abel, my tone disbelieving as I said. "Really? This is the Chaotic Wombat? How can you even tell? It looks so...average. You'd think they would put up a sign around here or something at least. We could've walked right past this place and never noticed."

    It was hard not to be disappointed at the lackluster exterior. I wasn't exactly looking forward to our visit, but this place seemed significant if nothing else. Abel just shrugged. "The Wombat isn't really a standout kind of place. Most of the places we took you were important or well known. The Wombat is the kind of place that only desperate or stupid people go." He paused, getting a strange look. "Or...you know. Really confident warriors who aren't afraid of death."

    Mel choked back a snicker at her boyfriend calling himself an idiot by mistake and cut in. "Yeah, plenty of places don't bother to make their location easily noticeable. Damnation Row is the kind of place where successful businesses get raided. Of course, they STILL get raided by neighbors and customers sometimes, but keeping the outside nondescript stops random tourists from paying attention and joining in."

    We all approached the door, but Abel stepped up ahead to pound on the dark metal. A hatch on the door at eye level slid aside. "What?" Snapped a hostile voice. I was starting to feel like no one in the WCP knew how to hire someone to watch their fucking door. Was a hello too much to ask for?

    Abel just glared. "Let me the fuck in, that's what. You think anyone would come stand outside this shithole for no reason? Like I picked this one building to ask to use the bathroom out of this whole gods forsaken street? We're here to ride the Wombat, now let us in." I had to stifle a chuckle at the ridiculous password, but it seemed to work because after a few clicks the door swung open and the man let us in. As we entered he took out a stamp pad and placed a tiny mark that looked like an animal head on each of our hands. I REALLY hoped we weren't here when they changed color.
  25. Threadmarks: chapter 297
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The inside of the Chaotic Wombat was...weird. I'd seen a lot of places, and even lived in a pretty unusual location myself. The orange dyed house we had up in Rajak proper was strange to look at the first time. Still, the Wombat took the cake, or rather...it was made of it.

    Which is to say, the whole place was covered in what looked like candy. The chairs were made of peppermint sticks, the tables slabs of chocolate, the chandeliers were rock candy, and the various doorknobs and other things were all individual types of sweets. Despite her worry over an attack, Callie went ramrod stiff when we walked inside, her wide eyes raking over the bounty of delicious treats.

    Abel, noticing her expression, snickered slightly. "Yeah, I was wondering how you would all react. The OWNER of the Wombat has Intermediate Candy Making Skill. Most of this stuff is higher ranked food, like H-rank maybe. Even two points of Impact can make a serious durability difference, and it makes this kind of thing much more viable. Of course, any of us could smash through this with zero difficulty, but then again, we'd be just as able to smash through normal mortal wood or even some metals. Plus I'm sure you can figure out the other benefit."

    "Renown." I said without blinking. "This would definitely generate plenty of buzz. It's kind of weird, but in an interesting way..." I looked over at my drooling girlfriend, with a worried frown. "If we eat some of this will we get attacked or something?" This place was clearly crazy, the last thing we needed was for Callie to break off a piece of rock candy from a wall sconce and get us mobbed or something.

    Hearing my question, Callie snapped out of her stupor and looked at me sheepishly. "What?" She said with an unconvincing laugh. "That's crazy. What kind of moron would just randomly start taking bites out of furniture." Her eyes locked on a nearby chocolate fountain made of what looked like waffle cone. "No matter how delicious it looks."

    With an amused snort Mel patted her on the shoulder. "Best to avoid that stuff. This is the CHAOTIC Wombat, remember. They lace the candy with psychadelics and other strange things. You never know what eating it will do. The food you buy is fine, or else no one would buy it, but the rest of this stuff is eater beware. It's not a bad gimmick all things considered. But since we're here for a dinner, there's no need to invite trouble."

    Callie looked much less interested after hearing that, shying away from one of the nearby pieces of furniture. As we walked further in, Wren noticed something off in the corner of his eye and turned to wave over at a table. "Oh, hey, Lestri! Vec, there they are, come on." He hurried off in the direction he'd been staring, leaving the rest of us to follow. Sloane, Beric, and Croll, were all sticking close to Abel and Mel, which seemed wise, so I followed after.

    We'd decided not to bring the others, having them head back to the Robin, because if things did get crazy, mediocre combatants would be most likely to be picked off around the edges. Keeping our group to only real elites would make it more likely for us all to remain safe.

    As we reached the table, Wren clasped hands with a short, red haired man with sides of his head shaved. He waved us over. "Hey guys, come meet my brother Lestri. He's on our team too." Looking closer, I could see that the two of them had the same amber eyes.

    It was easy to see the similarities, from the olive skin tone to the red hair, but the most shocking difference was their size. Wren was a massive towering man, but Lestri looked like he was only a few inches taller than Callie. Five foot four or five maybe? Still, he was corded with muscle in a sinuous way that made me think of a coiled snake. I had a feeling he would be pretty damn fast.

    One thing I had picked up over time was that being small wasn't necessarily a disadvantage for Ascendants. One point of Might translated into a thousand pounds of lifting force, but that was a static value. Someone with a hand the size of a coaster would be able to concentrate that force more effectively than someone with a hand the size of a dinner plate. With the same physical parameters, smaller people tended to hit harder. Of course, they had to sacrifice range to do it, so it wasn't like bigger combatants didn't have their advantages, but it just went to show not to underestimate anyone.

    Lestri raised an eyebrow. "Oh, these are the locals that kicked your ass earlier huh? Interesting to see you met up with them again." He scrunched his nose. "Also why in the gods names do you smell like fish? It's faint, but pretty unpleasant." He sniffed a bit, realizing that Wren's hands were the culprit, then pulled out some sort of sanitizing hand rub from the pouch at his waist and handed it to his much larger brother.

    Rolling his eyes, Wren took the bottle and rubbed the contents on his hands, holding them up so his brother could smell them before the smaller man nodded. Lestri shot us a small grin. "Sorry, my brother can get a bit focused and forget things so I tend to mother him a bit. Would you believe he's the younger one?" He shot Wren an annoyed glare. "I have no clue what our mother fed him to make him get so big, or why it didn't work on me. Anyway, do all of you want any?" He held out the bottle.

    Seeing as his brother had just used it in front of us none of us were worried about poison or anything, and our hands DID smell bad (the impact spots on our armor had been washed clean by the water pressure, but our hands were soaked in small amounts of fish blood and smashed into the things for hours) so we decided to take him up on it. There was a pleasant tingle from the liquid and it smelled sort of pine fresh. I liked it. It also cleaned our hands INCREDIBLY quickly.

    Once that was done we handed the mostly empty bottle back, and turned back to the table. There were two more people there. A small, quiet looking girl with platinum blonde hair, dark eyes, and pale skin, and a tall man with bulging biceps wearing a carved wooden mask that looked like a grinning skull. Wren gestured to them. "That's Lament, and that's our handler Master Saiten. Lament is our top contender for the tournament."

    The E-ranked handler was as intimidating as I'd expected. He reminded me a bit of Abel, but his aura of violence was much more condensed. Every move he made was dangerous and it almost felt like he was constantly resonating with his Spear Mastery Skill. I swallowed hard at the realization the title Wren had just used might not be a formal political title. It might be literal. Abel, of course, just outright asked. "Wait, when you say Master..."

    Saiten chuckled, a deep, rumbling sound from behind his mask. "Indeed. I have achieved the Master rank with my Spear Skill. Or course, the Skill is now simply, Master of the Spear. Master Spear Mastery would be nonsense. Once you reach the Master rank the naming conventions for Skills tend to change. Weapon masteries tend to just be called 'Master of' whatever weapon you specialize in. Though for more utility based Skills the names can differ."

    I swallowed hard. Master level. I had no clue what that would require, but it was damn impressive. It also implied that Saiten might be close to ranking up to D-rank if his Spear Skill was the only one synergized with his ability. The sole requirement for an ability to rank up, aside from stats, was for all component Skills to reach that level first.

    Of course, whether he was a peak E-ranker or not was mostly irrelevant to us. Any level of E-ranker could swat all of us like a fly. We all gave him our most formal greetings and he nodded courteously before summarily ignoring us completely to focus on eating. The wooden skull mask lacked a jaw so he wasn't impeded by it as he dug into the food. Judging by the gusto he ate with it must be good.

    A waiter approached the table, wearing a crazy candy hat and suit, and passed out menus. I winced a bit at the prices, but Wren just told us to order whatever we wanted within reason. They had a discretionary fund from the Legion for the tournament, and anything they didn't spend would be confiscated on their return.

    Since Mel had mentioned that they held the purchased food to a standard (probably how they justified the absurd prices on the menus) I wasn't too worried about getting something poisoned or that kind of thing. I scanned the menu before picking out a really delicious looking sausage gumbo. Callie got a pot pie, Abel a steak, Mel lasagna, and Sloane and her two friends all ordered clam chowder for some reason. I mean, I liked clam chowder, but it seemed weird for them to get it as a group. Maybe it was some kind of solidarity thing?

    As they left, Lament finally focused her gaze on one of us. Specifically, Abel. She raised an eyebrow in challenge. "So, you're one of the local elites. The rest of them don't give me much of a feeling of pressure, but I can tell you and red mask there are different." She chucked her chin at Mel, but never took her eyes off our mentor. "I take it I'll be facing you int he big tournament?"

    I saw her hand clench around the edge of table reflexively, like she was gripping a spear haft. Abel grinned back. "I'm happy to oblige you any time. Tournament or not. Feel free to attack me right where we sit." His tone was relaxed, almost bored as he spoke, but I could see a manic glint in his eye that mirror that frenzy I'd seen from him when he smashed the F-ranker from Sanctuary Hall.

    Lament started to stand in anticipation, but a crushing weight smashed down on all of us, driving her back down into her seat and the rest of us harder into ours. With a lackadaisical smile, Saiten clicked his tongue. "Now children. No need to get so excited. We'll have plenty of time to battle when the tournament begins. For the moment I think we should all just relax and enjoy our dinners. Don't you?"

    I'd felt worse, of course. The metaphysical weight Zeke had dropped on us the one time he decided to show off still made me shudder in remembered helplessness. This weight, in contrast, was much more...condensed. It wasn't nearly as strong, even in a much smaller area (the waiters and nearby diners seemed unaffected) but there was intent here. Saiten was TRYING to restrain us, while Zeke had just been...existing nearby. I was pretty sure based on this Zeke hadn't even fully unleashed his Impact, because a concentrated effort like this from him would probably have killed us.

    He eased up and we all just sat there, panting slightly. We could have moved but it would have been a massive effort. Callie smiled. "Th-thank you, Master Saiten. No need for us to let things become unpleasant. This is just a nice, relaxing dinner among friends." Which, of course, was when all the lights went out at the same time. In the darkness, points of green light flared up all around the room as stamps began to glow. Well...almost all the stamps were green. I followed the red glow to the illuminated and frightened face of a young looking girl wearing a pair of rabbit ears at the next table. The sacrifice had begun, and it wasn't one of us, but we would still need to help. Damn it. This was going to suck.
  26. Threadmarks: chapter 298
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    With all the glows from the hand stamps and the Perception we all had, it was effortless to see in the darkened restaurant. It was sort of surreal, with the shifting glows moving along with the hands of the people nearby. Still, despite the minor confusion, we were all well trained and ready to act. Even as several dozen customers tried to mob the rabbit eared girl, they were met with a fist the size of a train car that managed to appear between them and their target without damaging the intervening space at all.

    As the first responders were sent flying, Abel stood happily from the table, cracking his neck as he started walking slowly toward the girl and her companions. Mel rolled her eyes, rising herself and flooding the room with light as a nimbus of golden flame blazed into existence around her arms. Despite being older and stronger, the two of them hadn't even hesitated to listen to Callie's declaration about protecting the sacrifice.

    Of course, Abel was just a battle crazy lunatic, but Mel was a rational human being most of the time, which meant she really took Callie's words as leader to heart. I, of course, stood up and slipped my cane from its sheath under my coat. I activated my Touch of Tears and Consecration of Flame as I trailed behind my mentors, Callie, Sloane, Beric, and Croll followed behind. The Spear Legion members stayed sitting for the moment, which was better than having to fight them all.

    Abel made it to the girl with the rabbit ears without much trouble, after his first attack everyone was waiting to see what happened. They weren't sure what had happened, and no one here was stupid enough to risk their lives for some F-ranked chits. When he got within range, Abel grinned at the girl. "Young lady! You have an excellent sense of style! Your ears are adorable. I don't suppose you'd be interested in doing a little business?"

    The girl, a pale, tiny girl with blood red hair and wide, stormcloud grey eyes, swallowed hard. "I...I-don't know what you mean sir. Thank you for the help though. What kind of business did you mean?" She glanced nervously at her friends, who all wore various types of rabbit themed accessories. To my surprise, THEY did not look worried. Most of them looked confident and ready to fight.

    Wren, who had somehow appeared behind us when I'd been distracted, leaned in to murmur. "They're with the Wave Warren. Not the strongest group in the system, but definitely impressive. That's Sydney Whispervale. She's one of their ringers for the tournament. Don't underestimate her."

    Due to everyone's high Perception, every person in the room heard him, and Abel cocked his head in interest. "I was going to offer to protect you for a cut, but it sounds like you might not need it, and my team leader said we have to help anyway. How about if we can escort you out of this place you buy me and my friends a drink and we call it even?" His wide, innocent smile made me want to roll my eyes. He was still trying to scam someone into buying that brandy.

    Sydney bit her lip. "Well...I guess that doesn't sound too bad. If you really help us then there's no reason not to say thank you." She twisted a lock of hair around her finger worriedly. "Oh I should never have come here. I never should have listened to Megan. She said there was no way I would get picked, and everyone was so excited to try the food." She'd stopped looking at Abel and begun to mutter to herself worriedly under her breath, seemingly castigating herself for every decision that had led her to the point.

    "Hey!" Callie said, after a minute."It's ok." She looked almost panicked at how badly the girl was spiraling in what was possibly the literal worst place for it. "We're here to help you. We can all just leave. I'm assuming you don't want to stay to try to win the money?"

    With wide eyes, Sydney shook her head rapidly, her red hair whipping back and forth and her rabbit ears coming loose. She reached up and had to fix them, looking embarrassed. I was pretty much dumbstruck. How was this girl the secret weapon of a system level force? How was this girl allowed to come DOWN here? She was so...meek and harmless. "Of course not." She said anxiously. "I just want to leave." She looked at the others. "Can we just leave?"

    One of the men in a black coat with a rabbits paw pinned to the lapel sighed heavily. "Of course, Miss Sydney. Miss Megan wouldn't have sent us to accompany you if we weren't supposed to offer our protection. We can leave immediately." He turned to us. "We appreciate your help, though if you attempt to backstab us I'm afraid you're going to suffer for it extensively." There was no threat in his voice, just a calm statement of fact.

    A nearby patron of the Wombat, finally fed up with us ignoring them, piped up. "Hey! We aren't just going to let you take her and leave." A chorus of agreements rang out. His eyes pinned Sydney gleefully. "Sorry girly." he said, stepping menacingly forward. "But in your next life, you should be more careful exactly where you g-" Without warning, the mans eyes flashed steel grey, and he rolled his ankle, stumbling into the man next to him, who had drawn a wicked looking knife.

    The knife drove into the mans side, and he growled, turning his own brown eyes on the person he'd bumped into, fury written on his face. He hauled back and punched the other man, fist shifting in magma as it crashed into the hapless knife wielder. Knife guy's friends decided to join in, and magma guy apparently had a group of his own. Within seconds, a miniature gang war had erupted inside the Wombat.

    I blinked at the wilting form of Sydney. The grey flash in his eyes had looked just like hers. Whatever that had been, I was pretty sure she had done it. Not that it was hard to puzzle out with the physical manifestation as a clue. Ascendants didn't trip often, as a rule. Sydney clearly had some sort of ability that could effect enemies. Based on how spectacularly everything went wrong, I was kind of guessing it was bad luck.

    Now wasn't the time to think about that though, because while the two groups had started fighting, their agitation had set off the rest of the people in the Wombat, who had all started to surge forward. Some attacked directly, some circled looking for an opening, but they still came at us all the same.

    Letting myself shift into my combat trance, I slipped up next to Callie and neatly deflected a blow from some kind of fleshy tentacle. Callie slammed a hand into the ground, putting up a dome of condensed darkness to intercept a wave of icicles even as what looked like a swarm of purple energy bats tried to swarm over us. Mel turned the things to ash without a second glance, freeing us up, and Callie dropped the shield just as I swept out a Mercy Kill infused strike at the kneecap of one of the attackers as they clashed against a member of the Wave Warren.

    The man, a red dressed guy with a winged cap and aviator goggles, howled in pain as he whirled his hands, conjuring a pair of whirling tornadoes to push us back. I used Sucking Mud, shaping the attack with my soul to hold us less deeply in exchange for speed, and the wind broke over our armor as the scarf wearing Warren cultivator snapped out a kick with a leg that had suddenly become a bladed hook, opening the red clad man's throat from the side.

    More power to him, he didn't pass out or drop from blood loss though, smashing his coat against the wound to staunch the bleeding and using his wind to hurl himself away. I really needed to put some time into coming up with proper counters to the elements. A vast majority of Ascendants had some sort of element based power, especially after getting the chance to synergize.

    I didn't have a chance to get lost in thought as usual though, I was forced to burn a triple stack density shifted attack, along with a Mercy Kill, to smash aside some kind of weird chain ball construct with huge jagged teeth that tried to bite into Callie from behind. The blade legged Warren cultivator bounded up into the air in a low arc, lashing out with a kick that took off the summoners arm at the elbow, causing him to jerk the ball construct back to defend himself.

    There wasn't time to do more than nod gratefully at him before the crowd surged between us, and we backed up to try to group tighter with Abel and Mel, who had surrounded Sydney along with a pair of her guards and were beating back the crowd, Abel whooping with joy in the rush of battle. With our mentors at our back, we were SLIGHTLY more secure, but not nearly as much as expected. This was fucking lunacy, people weren't just attacking Sydney and her guards, I could see several Ascendants backstabbing and attacking random people in the chaos, using the action as cover for murder.

    Trying to give myself a bit of room, I reached for my power, triggering a clone and a density shifted triple strength attack at the same time. I felt my head go slightly fuzzy as more soul weight than I could really handle slammed down on me, but I managed to hold up under the strain until it passed. Of course, the clones were much weaker and more fragile than I was to begin with, but with the addition of the triple strength and density shifting, the one I managed to construct was about half as durable and strong as I was.

    The clone dove forward into a crowd of G-rankers, lashing out with the most brutal attacks he could manage with all the Skills and stats he had to bear. He broke a few limbs and managed to tie up several of them long enough for Callie to smash them with a bulldozer made of shadow while they were off balance, sending them flying, though not doing much to hurt them. The cloud of gelatinous acid crawling across the floor took care of that when they landed in it, and though they didn't die, they were in FAR too much pain for it to matter at the moment, at least based on the searing skin.

    Unfortunately, while we were holding the line for the moment, we were also being worn down. Abel and Mel were guarding Sydney as instructed, but that meant they weren't clearing a path out of here. We were getting penned in and this was going to get worse and worse for us.

    Despite the mess, it had only been about a minute since this all started, and I was already almost dead on my feet. We needed some sort of backup. Wren was helping, decimating anyone who came close with his spear, and Vector was doing the same. I saw Lestri flash between a pair of combatants, taking a limb from each in one swirl of his own long spear. Almost at the same time as I glanced over to the table to check what Lament was doing, the Spear Legion's ace finally acted.

    A spear. The size of a fucking bus, flashed through the air, parting the crowd with a brutal cleave, taking limbs and even heads off multiple enemies and opening up a path to the door. I was in shock. That spear move had reminded me so much of Abel's fist attack, and I'd always thought that was just his ability. Thinking back though, Abel had mentioned being peak Intermediate in his own combat Skill. Something to look into later. Lament looked almost bored as she strolled away from the table, casting a derisive glare at the gathered enemies. "Noisy." She sneered.

    From the huge bloody hole in the crowd stepped another figure, one I hadn't seen before. A man in bright yellow clothes and a top hat, with a sad face painted across his features. He shot her a grin, an incredibly odd thing to see on someone with a painted on sad face. "Well now. That was certainly dramatic." He flicked his hand and a shining golden whip unfurled in the air beside him. "Want to try it again?" Apparently this mess wasn't over. Based on the figures stepping up behind him, it was just beginning.
  27. Threadmarks: chapter 299
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    I immediately turned to Abel. "Wow, that guy seems tough." I said excitedly. "Who is he?" Lament was supposed to be on Abel's level, or close to it, so this guy must be some local bighshot, or maybe one of the outsiders I hadn't heard about yet. If it was the former, Abel probably knew who he was.

    My mentor gave me an irritated look. "How the hell should I know?" He just shrugged. "I'm not a population directory. Looks decent, not sure if he's local or not, but if he is he's not someone I recognize. You can't expect me to know everything and everyone." He sounded genuinely annoyed by the assumption, but I didn't take it to heart. I had know way of knowing what he did and didn't know.

    Luckily, while he might be ignorant, Sloane wasn't. "Laughing Jack. His dad is Pierrot. Luckily he didn't inherit his dad's creepy puppet making ability. He uses some kind of sunlight ability, and that whip is magic. He has a skill for it too. All in all he's pretty scary, though I'm surprised to see him down here. I've met him at a few social functions Melinda took me too, and he's not really one for slumming it."

    That sounded interesting, but if Abel hadn't heard of him I doubted he was on the same level as Lament. Abel made it sound like a peak Intermediate combat Skill was something that you pretty much wouldn't see somewhere like Callus. Speaking of which. "Hey, what did she just do by the way? That spear thing? It looked like what you do, but I thought that was your ability?"

    To my surprise, rather than blowing it off or snapping off an easy answer, Abel ruminated for a minute. Finally he held up a hand and waggled it back and forth. "It is and isn't. My ability is definitely powerful and often used in conjunction with my combat Skill, but the effect you're talking about is called a manifestation." He sounded like he was being careful about what he said, which was fair, this conversation was happening in public. "A lot of weapon masteries gain the ability when they hit Intermediate. My combat style is a combination of those two factors, with my spatial lubrication ability providing flexibility and options to a powerful Skill."

    "Oh." I said blankly. "So that wasn't even her ability? Just the Skill part of her combat style? Because that's terrifying, she tore through that whole line of people like they weren't even there. Could you do that without using your ability?" If he could, he'd been holding back against us more than I'd thought in training. No wonder he crushed us so thoroughly even without Skills. Reaching peak Intermediate must mean his martial arts were at an absurd level of competence.

    For the first time since I'd met him, Abel seemed...uncomfortable. "Probably." He finally answered. "But I avoid displays like that. Being terrifying and competent is great, but you can push it too far. If I start demonstrating Skills at that level without consideration, some E-rank might decide to take offense and come deal with me." He looked annoyed by the idea, and I could definitely understand. I hadn't come into contact with that kind of suppression yet, mostly because of a combination of my background, Zeke, and the utility of my ability.

    For someone like Abel though, being able to reach the peak of an Intermediate Skill was a big deal. It meant he was most likely going to become an Expert as soon as he hit F-rank, and was potentially able to become a Master at E-rank like Master Saiten. I wasn't sure how rare that was, but chances were good it wasn't common. None of the other E-rankers would want a Master martial artist around at their rank.

    It seemed like leaving for the dungeon was the best possible outcome for Abel, because once he hit F-rank people were going to start taking note of him. At G-rank the Impact suppression would make him basically a non-issue for them, but that wouldn't be the case forever.

    I didn't have time to worry about that though. As we'd been talking Lament had exchanged a few words with laughing Jack, whose minions had fanned out behind him to block her path. The spearwoman didn't seem particularly bothered. Wren, however, looked upset, and stepped up to murmur something in her ear that I couldn't hear. Probably used a stealth Skill.

    She grimaced but nodded, then stepped forward and vanished in a blur, appearing right in front of Laughing Jack to smash down with her spear. Wren exhaled in relief. "Ok. Good. She knows not to reveal too much. She could swat him like a fly with her Spear Mastery, but it would give away too much before the tournament. I asked her to keep it low key."
    Low key was apparently fast and violent, but not super fancy. Instead of the fluid, snakelike spearmanship I'd seen from Wren. Unlike the bigger man, Lament didn't appear to be using a spear at all right now. From what I could tell, she was pretty much planning on beating the other man with her spear like a bat. Unfortunately, holding back so much meant she wasn't able to one sidedly crush him. As she lashed out Jack flicked his whip up, coiling it into a sort of tunnel.

    The blow landed, and the whirling whip dispersed the impact of the blow down its length, bleeding off the damage. Abel hissed. "Ouch. Whips are always a pain in the ass. She could demolish him, but if she's not using her Spear Mastery Skill, that's going to be a pain in the ass. I wonder what her ability is?"

    Despite his words, he didn't seem worried. He just took up a position in front of Sydney to make sure none of the onlookers tried some shit while we were all watching the show. As we watched, Lament probed laughing jack a few times. Despite not using her Skill or martial arts, she was clearly incredibly experienced handling a spear. Her grasp on controlling the force was extreme, even when she was just waving it around sloppily.

    Laughing Jack looked serious now under his sad face makeup. His whip spun up in concentric circles, each one bleeding off the force of a strike, but despite the swirling endless river of golden metal that was his whip rotating quickly, each blow was forceful enough to offset his rhythm and he was slowly shifting to the back foot. "What are you idiots waiting for?" He shouted in panic. "Attack her!"

    His minions who had grouped up behind him seemed surprised by the plea for help, but not afraid. A ghostly skeletal energy hand smashed down on Lament as a pair of snakes made of stone leapt from the ground. The third member of his group summoned a series of tiny, fluffy white clouds that tried to get in close to wrap around Lament's spear, spewing lightning bolts as they did so.

    Lament barely noticed. Even as she sidestepped the smash from the skeletal hand she flicked out her spear in a slash, spinning it through the motion without even slowing down and cleaving through one of the clouds as she brought the spear up and over to bisect a snake. Two quick flicks destroyed the other one and another cloud, and she speared the last cloud with a single thrust aimed at Laughing Jack's throat.

    The yellow clothed man eeped and flicked up his whip, and even as he did, the thing roared to life with golden sunfire. I felt a slight stir from Lament as she briefly engaged the slightest hint of her Intermediate Skill, and as her spear hit the whip there was a colossal crash as Laughing Jack was sent soaring through the front of the Wombat, smashing the stone as he went through in a way that couldn't possibly be comfortable.

    I just...gaped. I'd been in sieges and battles, but those had mostly been lower rank. The Bone Wyvern aside, the abilities I was seeing down here were far above what I was used to. I'd know that as people ranked up and could synergize more Skills, powers would become more unique and varied, but there were some seriously scary attacks being thrown around in this fight.

    Still, I wasn't a rookie. I was hardly going to just gape. I stepped back to fall into position closer to Callie, Abel, and Mel. Lament gave everyone else a hard look, but no one was stupid enough to pick a fight after what she'd just done. Not when a huge chunk of them were trying to reattach limbs from that spear manifestation. She turned to us. "Seems like this isn't a great place to eat after all. Oh well, the pre-dinner warmup was nice. You guys know anywhere near here I can get a steak?"

    Her glare pinned the surrounding crowd. "Unless someone else wants to give it a try? I'd be happy to give you the same treatment as your little friends over there." She whirled her spear in a lazy, ponderous circle, slow enough that the light really had a chance to glint off the edge of the spearhead, highlighting how sharp it was in an extremely threatening fashion. None of them chose to do so, most stepping back to get further out of her range.

    We all looked to Abel, who didn't look offended at being the go-to choice this time. "Nah. Not near here." He said apologetically. "Not a ton of high end restaurants down here. Doomtown isn't conducive to fine dining. The Raving Baby is pretty much the best eatery I know of down here. There are some pretty decent places in G-district if you're up for a long walk, but I don't think it's worth it."

    Neither did I, considering how delicious those Enchiladas were. "Do you guys like Enchiladas? " I asked hopefully."Because we know where to get the best Enchiladas you've ever had." Aside from being free, the taste had been haunting my dreams since we went yesterday. I was already drooling at the thought of wolfing down some more, and Callie looked just as excited. Even Sloane and her minions looked ravenous at the idea of going back to Owen's place for another all we could eat buffet.

    Lament just shrugged. "Sure, why not. I can always get a decent steak somewhere else." Wren just shrugged in acceptance when she looked at him, and Lestri and Saiten seemed ambivalent. I was surprised. Lament seemed much more relaxed and laid back than I had expected, at least once she got past her little threat display with Abel...and the whole stabbing a dozen people with a single spear thrust thing. Maybe my standards for laid back people had become a bit lax.

    Sydney, who was the last person we checked with, was excited to try the Enchiladas, and asked if she could invite her sister Megan. Since we were trying to learn more about the external forces in the star system anyway, we agreed of course, and we all made our way through the crowd to the exit, ignoring the dozens of dissatisfied G-rankers glaring after us.

    I half expected them to attack us, but they didn't. The situation here was much more complex than it looked. Rather than all of them vs. us, this was more like a team free-for-all. If they attacked, their enemies might attack them while they were distracted, not to mention Lament and Abel had both demonstrated terrifying levels of skill and power, so some of them would probably die. No one wanted to be first on the chopping block if that happened, which lead to a sort of universal hesitation. As we finally exited, the stamps on our hands winked out, and I heard a collective groan from outside. Hah. Served those bastards right.
  28. Threadmarks: chapter 300
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Owen was not happy to see us again. He didn't bitch too much though. We introduced him to Sydney, Lestri, and Lament, and given he was still gathering information on outsiders for the tournament, he seemed at least partially mollified. I briefly felt bad for not telling her about it, but then realized anyone with any common sense would be aware that the locals would be gathering intel, as evidenced by how much Lament had held back during her fight.

    After we sat down, we were joined by Sydney's sister, Megan. Who was...much different. Where Sydney was tiny and shy with red hair. Megan was a tall blonde who looked like she could do some serious fighting. She wasn't as muscular as Lament, who was built like a seasoned warrior despite being slim, but still, she was in better shape than I was. With bright blue eyes and a big cheerful grin, Megan was as outgoing as her sister was hesitant to engage.

    She had her own cadre of attendants, and had them sit as a second table with all of Sydney's guards and most of Sloane's crew, though Owen refused to feed all of them for free. Lament covered their meal since the dinner thing had been her idea, and Megan jumped right into conversation. "So, I heard you helped Syd out of a jam. I really appreciate that." She laughed wryly, scratching the back of her head in embarrassment. "I...might have been wrong about the Chaotic Wombat. But come on, what are the chances of her getting picked?"

    I was pretty sure that was what everyone thought, but Sydney just shook her head. "It's fine, sis. I'm just glad to make some new friends." She took a bite of her enchilada with a delighted moan. "Also, the food there couldn't possibly have been as good as this. What is in this rice?" She chewed for a minute with her eyes closed, savoring the food, before swallowing. "Sorry. Anyway, Miss. Lament was it? Thank you for the meal, and that was some impressive fighting. That spear manifestation was so amazing. Are you a Master Candidate?"

    At the rest of our blank looks (those of us whose faces were visible), Wren chimed in. "Mastery is a qualitative jump in skill requirement, especially for weapon Skills. D-rank is considered a watershed for the higher ranks. People who reach the peak of the level above their own in a weapon Skill are considered prodigies who are much more likely to rank up to Master. Like Lament will be able to step into Expert pretty much the second she ranks up to F-rank. That gives her the whole rank to prepare for the jump to Master at E-rank. Master Candidates are considered elite in star system forces. Though in the wider cluster it's less uncommon."

    "But wait." I said in confusion. "Don't you need to reach Master to reach D-rank at all?" Abilities ranked up when people did. So Master being a dividing like was kind of odd. If that was the case then D-rank would be much less common wouldn't it? Though thinking about it, I'd never met a D-ranker, so maybe it WAS less common. D-ranked planets (which couldn't support a D-ranker as far as I knew, just a multitude of E-rankers) were treated as pretty low ranked planets after all.

    Wren didn't look surprised by my confusion. "Most people synergize some kind of Skill into their ability. People who use only their inborn power are rare. Hitting Master, or any higher rank, in a Skill is much different than hitting it with an ability. An ability is part of you, and grows as you do. It doesn't require any conditions or knowledge to rank up. Skills get more difficult as you go on. Weapon and martial Skills in general tend to be tough to reach Master in. Crafting Skills too. Of course, you have people born with a weapon Skill who can do it easily. Those are Naturals, and like people born with one of the three major crafting Skills, they're considered extremely valuable."

    I hadn't even considered that actually. My own Wish ability didn't have any requirements aside from stats to rank up. Benny and the others had synergized, and needed Skill ranks to break through. But if someone had something like Inventing or Enchanting as their natural ability, then they would rank up easily like me, and I could only assume those ranks would come with the knowledge and skills necessary to put them to use. Considering how tough it was to rank up Enchanting that was a scary thought. It also made me a lot more wary of Mad Scientists in general.

    Callie seemed enthralled. "So if someone was born with a Spear Mastery ability, they would just grow in technique as they ranked up, without needing to learn or upgrade any Skills? That sounds amazing. But doesn't that mean that they can't do what Lament did and rank their weapon Skill up past their current rank? Like someone with an inborn Spear Mastery could get to Master easily, but only at D-rank, right?"

    "Exactly." Cut in Lament. "Naturals are tied to their rank. In the early ranks that's a huge disadvantage, because ranking up a Skill to Lesser or Beginner is substantially easier than reaching a higher Ascendant rank. Being a natural comes with downsides too." She gave a self satisfied smirk, her tone smug. "I much prefer the way I do it. I won't have an problems reaching Master, will I Master Saiten?"

    The spear master just chuckled. "No, Lament. I don't suppose you will. But don't get a big head. There are people out there stronger than Master Candidates. Especially in the main systems of the five factions. Some of the larger clans and faction leadership have specialized training regimens for soul strength so extraordinary their descendants can breach the one rank barrier safely. There are F-ranked Masters your age in some parts of the universe."

    Even Abel seemed taken aback by that. "That's insane. What kind of soul strength would you need in order to survive being two full ranks ahead in a Skill? That's not a temporary thing, you would have to live with that for years probably." He shuddered. "Even the thought of trying to breach Intermediate right now makes me want to vomit. My soul is already pressured just maintaining peak Intermediate. Is it even possible to beat someone like that?"

    Saiten just shrugged. "Sure. There are all kinds of terrifying abilities out there. Some racial traits have absurd benefits, and there are jobs that give access to power far outside the norm. Early Mastery is terrifying, but the right kind of stat modifiers and Skills can make up for it. Not to mention just being higher rank. Still, those kinds of people are considered treasures even in big families and sects. You aren't likely to meet one all the way out here. Even things like Moonglow Dew aren't necessarily enough to rouse their interest."

    At least that meant we wouldn't be fighting a monster like that. A Master Candidate like Abel or Lament was scary enough. Speaking of which, Megan seemed to have picked up on my mentor's slip. "Wait, back up. You're a Master Candidate too? Aren't you local? That's WAY more impressive. I've never seen a Master Candidate on a D-ranked planet before." She paused. "Which, ok, I haven't been to many D ranked planets. But still. That's pretty badass." She turned to Mel quizzically. "How about you? Are you a Master Candidate too?"

    Our red masked teacher just shrugged. "My Fire Manipulation Skill is at Intermediate, but it just broke through a while ago. Plus Manipulation Skills are a huge pain in the ass to rank up. I'm not to worried about it though. We mostly focus on combat standards and integration. Apollyon just ranked his martial arts Skill up because he had a few years with nothing to do but train." She shot him a sharp glare at that, which he pretended not to notice as he dug into his Enchiladas with gusto.

    "What about you guys?" I interrupted, trying to save my mentor. "Tell us more about the Wave Warren. We won't ask about combat specifics given we might be fighting you in the tournament, but we love hearing about the forces in the star system. You mentioned not having been to D-rank planets before, does that mean you've mostly been on C-ranked planets?"

    She nodded happily. "Oh yeah. Wave Warren is based on a C-ranked planet. Granted, we aren't a C-ranked force or anything, the Warren Master is a D-ranker. But we do ok. We're not the only people from Gralter that are here either. Slime Hall managed to get invited too." She grimaced. "Damn summoners. Dealing with them is so gross. It's just the two of us from our planet though. We found out about this through back channels, and managed to keep it MOSTLY quiet."

    "Slime Hall?" Callie asked with a grimace. "That sounds unpleasant. I don't know much about summoners, they aren't super common here, though I know they exist. Honestly before today I had only seen one or two. It's a pretty Fantasy heavy ability isn't it? You don't see many of those at G-rank."

    That explained it. I'd been wondering where the summoners I'd seen came from. If they formed the ability through synergy at a higher level, or if they needed lots of Fantasy to be viable, they might not have been in combat much up to this point. I knew that some stats could be more easily gained through alternative routes than fights and patrols. Granted, Might was an important stat especially at low ranks, and we could still gain other stats by making an impression, but other careers like artists and pop singers provided good returns on some of the more elusive stats.

    Callie had mentioned that her dad actually tried to convince her to be a pop star when she was younger. She and her mom had both put their foot down about it, and her ballet lessons had been a compromise. He figured some more artistry in her combat would help generate Fantasy, which to be fair it might have done, especially in combination with all the crazy shadow antics.

    "Yeah. They summon slimes." Said Megan flatly. "Usually elemental ones, though some of them have weird trick slimes. The Slime Creation Skill is surprisingly easy to pick up at the Minor level from what I'm told. And synergy with a few other Skills makes Slime Summoning. Most of them synergize THAT with other inborn abilities to enable them to summon unique and more powerful slimes. They're a giant pain in the ass. Sometimes literally. One of their team members summons giant slimes."

    This was the first time I'd heard about someone making a Skill as interesting as summoning from scratch. I knew you could learn Skills like that. Some people could teach them because they were born with an ability and took on a job, which turned that ability into a skill. I assumed you had to be able to teach those, but this seemed like a completely different thing. Kind of like a heritage a clan would have, albeit on a much smaller scale.

    She went on to describe more about Slime Hall, how Wave Warren had been neighbors and competitors with them for years, and how the two of them had found out about the Moonsong Glade opening from the same source and greed to keep it secret. If some of the C-ranked forces on their planet had shown up it would have made this whole tournament infinitely harder, so I couldn't disagree with logic on that one.

    We all traded stories and ate Enchiladas together, getting to know the visiting forces, and it was actually pretty nice. Sydney was shy, but extremely bubbly once you got her to open up, and Megan was pretty much a wrecking ball in terms of personality, which meant she got on well with Lament, Abel, and Callie, who were all pretty outspoken. When we finished eating, we offered to show Sydney and Megan to the Blue Robin, where they could get a better sleep. All in all it wasn't a bad night. I hoped the next day could be as peaceful, I wanted to get as much relaxing as possible done before that damn auction. Sadly, I didn't think that was in the cards. Abel was bound to have something crazy planned.
    Last edited: Feb 22, 2023
  29. Threadmarks: chapter 301
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Before we went to sleep, I did all five wishes. I traded fifteen points of various stats for fifteen points of Fantasy. The summoners today had made a big impression, and I was interested in gaining the ability to do that kind of thing. I'd been saving my wishes for the end of the day lately, just to make sure I didn't need them for some emergency. Doomtown wasn't exactly safe most of the time, so it seemed prudent not to waste them.

    At eight ninety seven, I was only three points shy of nine hundred, and I decided it was time to finally ask Abel and the others about ranking up. Or rather, about NOT ranking up. I cornered my mentor at the pool table, playing a game with Wren. "Hey boss man, was hoping we could talk. I'm coming up on a thousand points, and I wanted to know if I need to do anything specific to not rank up. Like...do I just not accept? Will that hurt me? I'm guessing you've been denying a rank up for a while. Is there some secret to it?"

    He scratched his shot with a curse. "Fuck! Damn it, hold on." Wren snickered something under his breath, but Abel caught it. "Fuck you that counts. I was distracted. Put the fucking ball back where it was. I need to go have a discussion with my disciple. I have perfect spatial awareness by the way, even with my stats suppressed, so I'll know if you move it." He turned back to me, aggravation in his eyes. "Come on, lets go talk somewhere less crowded. None of this is really earthshaking info, but it's better shared in private."

    Leading me back down the hall to mine and Callie's room, he kicked the door shut. "First of all." He said, turning around. "Good on you for bothering to ask ahead of time. Short answer is no. There is no penalty for suppressing rank, with the exception of being unable to gain more stats. All the stats you COULD have gotten are lost, which is why most people avoid it, but it doesn't hurt you or anything. I have been suppressing my rank, as has Mel. I did it partly for training and partly not to get attention, and she did it partly for training and partly for me."

    He gave a wry snort. "Silly girl. I'd never have asked that. But she did it anyway." He sounded distant and almost sad for a second, but then shook it off. "Never you mind, it worked out in the end. Point is no, you won't be hurt by suppressing your rank. People do it all the time. Not just Mel and I, there are more than a few E-rankers who engage in the practice. How the hell do you think Moravian isn't at D-rank despite being over three millennia old? Do you know how famous he is?"

    "Wait." I said, holding up a hand. "The Moravian is suppressing his rank? I thought he was just stuck because this planet can't support a D-ranker? Like there isn't enough renown for one to rank up, right?" That clashed with what I had been told badly, though to be fair Cark had much less of a reason to know details about this kind of thing than Abel.

    "No." Abel said slowly. "As in, it PHYSICALLY can't support a D-ranker. This is a theoretically a D-ranked planet, but that's only because of the number of E-rankers here. It's more accurately a psuedo D-rank planet. As in, it hasn't reached D-rank yet. If one of the E-rankers tried to break through to D-rank, it would trigger the planet to attempt a rank up to compensate for the Impact increase. You know, I assume, what happens when someone ranks up without a proper foundation?"

    I winced at the image. "Their soul collapses. I didn't know the whole rank thing was literal. Does that mean the planet is a dungeon then? Callie told me that places with Impact are dungeons." This conversation was a lot more complicated than I had been expecting.

    Abel looked like he was starting to get annoyed. "No!"He snapped. Then he groaned. "Just...no. Dungeons are more concentrated. A planet's Impact is spread over a massive surface area, so it barely has an effect. Most higher ranked planets actually get bigger to compensate. There are Dungeon Worlds, small planets with a high rank, but they're incredibly valuable and are usually used as training grounds or heartworlds for big factions and clans."

    I held up both hands placatingly. "Sorry, I don't mean to get so off track. Just one more question?" He sighed but nodded. "So why don't the E-rankers just go somewhere else to rank up and then come back? Then they would be in charge of the planet right? None of the ones who stayed would be strong enough. Or does the planet literally not support D-rankers on its surface?" I knew that wasn't the case, because Zeke was B-ranked, so there had to be some reason.

    Shaking his head, Abel confirmed my theory. "No. Higher ranked people go where they want. It's complicated. D-rank is a watershed, like we mentioned earlier. The rank up to D is supposed to be...dramatic. I don't know the details, I've never seen one. Besides that the Unity runs this planet. If people were leaving to rank up and coming back it would fuck the distribution of power, so it isn't allowed. The WCP discourages that kind of thing too. It robs higher ranked planets of power concentration. When you leave a planet, you aren't banned from coming back or anything, but it's expected you won't be returning to live there."

    Considering what I knew about renown being exponentially weighted as you ranked up, that made sense. Higher ranked planets were renown farms, so they would definitely want powerful people there in droves. The important thing was I'd gotten my answer, even if it came with about a dozen more questions. I nodded. "Alright, I'll suppress my rank up then, at least until after the tournament. If we do the rank up right after we shouldn't lose out on the points from the tournament itself right?"

    "Right." He agreed. "No way any of the other entrants would have agreed to participate if they had to miss out on a big windfall like that. They'll probably have some kind of ceremony for the winners and let the ones who can rank up on the spot for the prestige bump. Most people joining up will be peak of G-rank about to Ascend. That's why there are a relatively low number of forces here. They needed a team that fit the conditions and was also strong enough to be a contender. Of course, not ALL of them are peak of G-rank. The prestige from the tournament will help some get there, which is why there's a wait time between the tournament and the glade opening."

    That was something I'd been worried about up to this point, so it was good to have assurances. The whole planet thing was also way more complicated than expected. I'd known about the size difference, since supermassive planets had much stronger gravity to offset Might. But the Impact thing was interesting, and I wondered exactly how that effected Ascendants on the surface of that world. I also wondered if it meant Zeke was stronger here, or if he was just so much more powerful than this place that he barely noticed.

    Abel chuckled at my silence, clapping me on the shoulder. "Don't worry so much about it kid. We're a long way from having to worry about things like Ascending to D-rank or how powerful people are on other planets. Take care of the problems you have before you start new ones. We have to get through the next two weeks, as well as the tournament itself, and THEN we're going to be competing with the winners of the tournaments from all the other systems in the cluster for the resources in the Moonsong Glade."

    That set me to snickering. "Yeah, I guess I'm just borrowing trouble at this point huh? We have so much more to focus on." I shot him a suspicious glare, not that he saw it behind my mask. "Speaking of trouble, what exactly are we doing tomorrow? I get the feeling Sydney and Megan will be coming along, plus their entourage, and probably Wren. We've picked up quite a few passengers in our time here. I'm assuming your have something suitably awful planned we can all do together?"

    Aside from spending time with new friends, which was nice, we'd also be seeing them in whatever situation Abel put us all in, and presumably learning more about their abilities before the tournament. "Awful?" Said Abel innocently. "I'd never force you all to do something awful. All of my activities are fun team-building exercises. Like tomorrow we're going white water rafting! It's going to be a blast!"

    "Hold on." I said in confusion. "There's a RIVER down here?" The lake I...kind of got? I guess? Just Ascendant nonsense, but a river seemed weirder to me somehow. "But...where does it come from? Like I get Ascendants do crazy things and it's stupid to question how there can be a river but not freak out about forests and oceans and pocket dimensions that can implode. But...rapids need power? What fuels them?"

    Instead of mocking me, Abel just burst out laughing. "Yeah. Everyone has those moments where they go 'how the fuck?' even with all the crazy things they've seen. The rapids aren't actually some crazy spell or anything though. The water pressure comes from Riot Bay actually."

    "Wait." I said, my blood running cold. "Like...giant hate fish attacking us Riot Bay? Are there FISH in the river? Because I don't want to worry about getting smashed by carp or something again. The Bay was stressful and awful." I shuddered. "Also the smell was terrible. Plus that was just an exercise in differentiating levels of Impact on the same rank. Money aside how would doing it again even help us?"

    Abel just rolled his eyes. "Don't freak out about it. There's no fish in the river. The rapids are just where all that force and energy ends up when the lake settles down again. Since there are tons of parts of the Bay that are getting those waves even when you can't see them, the rapids are always going. But don't worry. I promise there are no fish in the rapids. Hell, I can promise you nothing lives in those rapids at all."

    Something about the way he said that made me worry even more, but I recognized the smug glint in his eyes. My teacher wouldn't tell us any more about this trip, because he wanted it to be an unpleasant surprise. "Alright. Fine. Well, if we're going to be doing something crazy tomorrow, I'd better get some sleep." I turned and started to head out, but stopped, looking back over my shoulder. "Also, just saying up front that if there's a fee for this insane trip, you can cover it. We made plenty of money for you last time."

    As I opened the door to leave, I suddenly stopped again. "Wait...why the fuck am I leaving." I turned back to my now smirking mentor. "This is my room. Get out." I had to bite back a scowl as he burst out laughing at my stupid mistake, slapping me on the shoulder on the way out.

    "I gotta admit kid." He said as he walked away. "You can be a bit serious sometimes. But you're always good for a laugh." I just sighed and rolled my eyes as I closed my door. I could do without being his comedic relief, but hey, at least the job came with combat training. I doubted I'd be where I was without Abel. Still...I was totally going to push his ass in the water tomorrow once I made sure it wasn't like a murder river or something. If only that wasn't such a strong possibility.
  30. Threadmarks: chapter 302
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    Despite the news of some dangerous river stunt the next day, I actually slept ok. I may have been getting used to living in a state of perpetual peril. Not that I would ever say that to Abel. He would probably use it as an excuse to double my training intensity or something. Still, it was hard to be worried or upset curled up with my girlfriend after a day getting to know new people and protecting strangers from crowds of Ascendants trying to kill them.

    Yesterday's entire ordeal had been...fun. No one had actually died that I had seen, though I hadn't exactly stuck around to check on the people Lament cut up. It had all just been one big adventure. And Callie was right, it felt GOOD to be on the right side and know it. The WCP was so murky most of the time I'd kind of lost the feeling of just helping people. Hell. maybe I never had it. Even at the Unity I'd been running from crisis to crisis rather than taking time to just do some good.

    Not that I was planning to devote myself to helping the helpless full time or anything. But Callie had reminded me that being an effective Wishmaster Candidate and being a good person didn't have to be mutually exclusive. Hell, I'd probably MADE some alliances helping Sydney out. It was a model I could keep in mind going forward. Just because the WCP existed in a grey area didn't mean I had to. Not all the time.

    So it was with a weirdly cheerful demeanor that I hopped out of bed the next morning, ignoring my girlfriend's enraged hiss as she was exposed to sunlight. After an obligatory vampire joke and a quick kiss I was off to get ready, meeting up with everyone in the dining room off the front entrance.

    While at night the room seemed to be some kind of gathering hall, with the pool tables in use and some darts games, during the day it was used to serve meals buffet style. They had a whole breakfast laid out in chafing dishes. To my surprise, Sydney and Megan had managed to get a room. I'd thought the Robin was full, but maybe they paid to get someone bumped or something.

    They waved enthusiastically when they saw us, while Wren just sat at the table, eating some waffles and sipping orange juice with a stoic expression. Lament, Lestri, and Saiten had actually already showed up (unless they bunked with Wren at least) and were enjoying some eggs with Sydney and Megan. I fixed myself a plate of steak and eggs and plopped down across from them. "Hey guys. Morning. How's the food?" Despite asking I didn't wait and dug right in. It wasn't bad. The steak was a bit overdone, but not like shoe leather or anything, just more pink than red.

    Sydney, who was clearly a morning person, took a long sip of coffee and chirped. "Oh we don't have any plans. Megan was probably going to go out looking for trouble again, and I wanted to check out the Unceasing Stairs. They sounded pretty cool, if a bit confusing." She shot a pout at the black coated man I only now realized was sitting next to her, the same on who had threatened us back at the Wombat. "Unfortunately Riley says that the place is dangerous, and that the rumors I heard were probably meant to lure gullible tourists on so people could attack them."

    The dark haired man with the scruffy cheeks gave a long suffering sigh. "Yes, well it is traditionally a poor decision to announce how much you have to spend in areas such as these before asking for directions. If those young men had been any more obviously drooling over the potential windfall you represented their eyes would have been replaced with chits." he glanced to me with a frown. "I suspect your new friend may have another potential location to visit in any case."

    I just shrugged. "You got me. Nightstrike and I had so much fun hanging out with your guys we figured we would invite everyone along on the trip we have planned today. Be warned, Apollyon planned it, so there's about an eighty percent chance that it involves potential dismemberment. Still, he says we're going white water rafting, and that sounds like fun to me at least." I glanced at Wren. "You guys are invited too of course, though after the fish incident I wouldn't take it to heart if you declined."

    Lament cut in with a laugh. "He told us about that. It sounds fun. Your teacher seems like an interesting guy. I'll accept on Wren's behalf. Boy needs to toughen his spine a bit, and Lestri was complaining about missing out on the fun anyway." She shot a glance to Saiten. "Am I to assume you won't be participating Master?"

    The big man shook his head. "Not on your life. I doubt anything your pugilist could arrange would be any significant threat to my person, but I don't particularly enjoy being wet. I'll most likely follow along on land, just in case you run across someone too high ranked to be reliably countered." Ah, so he really was like her version of Zeke. Considering Doomtown was closed to E-rankers I doubted he had reason to worry, but they weren't from around here, so being a bit wary was the smart call.

    That made me wonder exactly what Zeke would DO if I was ever attacked. I knew that despite not being nearby Zeke was able to keep track of me easily. If nothing else, stats in the B-ranks were potentially in the tens of millions. He probably had enough Perception to be listening to this conversation from the literal polar opposite spot on the planet. I also suspected my mask might have some kind of Perception or conditional defensive enchantment on it.

    Part of me hoped I'd never have to find out, but a deeper part really hoped I got to at least witness him cutting lose someday. Seeing what a B-ranker could do would be eye opening at the very least. I was jarred from my thoughts as a plate smacked down next to me, a rumpled and glaring Callie sitting down to my right. "Coffee." She growled. I smirked slightly as I got up to go get her some.

    I made it like she preferred, then dropped it on the table in front of her with a thud. She took a long pull, closed her eyes, and let it seep into her bloodstream. Callie's morning demeanor, as usual, relied heavily on how she woke up. Getting roused early tended to make her grumpy. Coffee helped. After a few seconds to get her head straight she was fine though. The extra morning sulk was partially a factor of her trying to do things for herself and be a bit selfish like I asked, even if she never said it.

    "So." She said, after polishing off the whole mug. "What were we talking about? My brain just switched on a minute ago and it had to boot first." I snickered at that, grabbing her plate and heading to the buffet to fill it up with things I knew she would like while she talked to the others. I didn't feel like rehashing, so it seemed faster. Speaking of hash, there was some corned beef hash I hadn't noticed, as well as biscuits and gravy and I added some eggs before bringing the plate back and setting it in front of her.

    She almost swooned at the smell. "Thanks honey, you're the best." She never took her eyes from the plate, but gave me a perfunctory peck on the mask before she assaulted her breakfast like it had sworn vengeance on her family line. Since everyone had already seen Callie eat yesterday, they understood that as long as you kept your appendages away from her mouth she was safe enough to eat with, and didn't stare at her devouring her food with relish (not literally, thank the gods, I'd have left the table).

    "Anyway." Said Sydney. "I was just telling Nightstrike that rafting sounds like a lot of fun! I doubt even Riley would complain about it, the big worrier." She stuck her tongue out at the somber, formal man, and he gave a small smile. Sydney had warmed up to us all immensely over last night's bonding, and it was jarring to see what a big difference that made in terms of our interactions. She reminded me a lot of Jessie now, actually, though still less outspoken and a bit more timid.

    Megan nodded. "Rafting sounds like more fun than trolling for a fight. At least in this town. Half the idiots I met yesterday were garbage in combat anyway. If I was included in the invite I'm in. We can pay our way, and pay for our people too." She nodded to Riley and the five other rabbit themed attendants. "We brought two teams for this. Kind of like your friends over there brought three." She nodded over at Sloane, who had just come into the room with her own posse.

    I almost literally smacked myself in the face with my palm. Of COURSE Sloane brought twelve people to form three teams. Why not triple your odds. Hell, Melinda was an E-ranker. She probably knew about the tournament before I did. I wouldn't be surprised if she'd sent along the twelve of them specifically so I could get them ready for the tournament in the first place. I felt like an idiot for not considering it before.

    The only thing that made me feel a bit better was that Callie looked as shocked as I did. It was a little petty, but it was nice to know I wasn't the only one thrown in the deep end with all this. She was way more suited to political maneuvering than I was, but she was still learning, same as I was. Seeming to pick up on my amusement she just rolled her eyes, mimicking Sydney's earlier gesture and sticking her tongue out at me.

    We all finished up breakfast, with Mel and Abel being the last to arrive and eat, and then Abel hopped to his feet excitedly. "Alright." He said with gusto. "Since we're all finished, which of you are planning to come along on our little excursion? I'm assuming the kid told you all about it and invited you. He prefers to share the pain." That got an uneasy chuckle from a few of the minions, and a middle finger from me, which my teacher just laughed off without acknowledging it verbally.

    Everyone who was interested held up a hand, letting him know who was coming. He nodded in satisfaction. "Oh good. None of you are trying to weasel out of it. I knew I liked you for a reason." He clapped his hands together. "Well then, let's get going. It's a bit of a walk to the river, and we want to get there early before all the boats are gone. They run out sometimes and we'd need to wait for the next day for them to get new ones."

    With that, he turned on his heel and strolled out of the room without another word. I got another ominous feeling from that last statement, but once again it mostly just confirmed what I knew. This would be dangerous or life threatening in some way, that wasn't news. The others gave me exasperated smiles for the most part, but we all got up and followed after him once we paid for our meals. As we left, I couldn't help but look forward to the coming day. This had been a lot of fun so far, even the dangerous parts. I had no reason to believe this next activity wouldn't be the same.