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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. Revanandfriends

    Revanandfriends Getting sticky.

    Apr 25, 2019
    Likes Received:
    Always love airing family laundry to a massive crowd of people XD.
  2. Wickian

    Wickian Know what you're doing yet?

    Feb 2, 2017
    Likes Received:
    After looking at the post history I can see this author has made almost daily updates for over a year. Is he really a flesh and blood man like the rest of us?
  3. RainwithPromise

    RainwithPromise He Who Walks, Reads and Yearns

    Mar 12, 2020
    Likes Received:
    What chapter was this again? theres a bit too many to find the specific chapter.

    such a shame this ain't a NSFW work would've gotten a lot more attention and you make good smut :V oh well still enjoyed this one tho.
  4. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    I post two chapters a day except on Saturdays, where I technically post one but I tend to write it the day before and take the day off lol. One on this and one on one of my two YJ stories, or my ultimate marvel OC on Sundays.
  5. Threadmarks: chapter 329
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    I vaguely considered throwing fruit or something at Midknight as he returned to talk, but that was clearly beneath my dignity, and also I didn't have any fruit. Instead I just held Callie's hand as the armored bastard returned to his obnoxious soliloquy. "Now." He rumbled. "As I'm sure you know, today we will be selecting your primary opponents. In the spirit of fairness there will be a random selection rather than a structured match schedule."

    Callie's snort told me she agreed with my assessment that Midknight wasn't the type to care about fairness. My guess would be that he didn't want to get assassinated by some overzealous E-ranker from a higher rank planet because he fucked up their chances by putting them against a ringer.

    "If you will all look under your seats!" Boomed Midknight. "There should be an envelope. If you have more than one per team simply leave them be and they will randomly switch places until all contestants receive their assignments." Huh, considering we picked our own seats that actually did seem random. However, we were on a marble stadium style bench seat. There was no under to check.

    Looking down though, I could clearly see a stone tablet set snug into the bench. Levering my fingers into the seat I lifted it up and let Callie grab our envelope. The other groups nearby grabbed their own and began to open them. Our envelope was opened in a moment, and Callie checked the stiff white card inside. "Halls of the Nether." She announced. She flipped over the card. "Team captain: Selariam. Team members: Sennec, Vile, and, Runk." She stared at me blankly. "I...have no idea what any of these words mean."

    I was about to respond when Megan's voice cut in. "Wait, you guys are up against the Nether? From the sound of it you got the Screaming Specters too." She paused. "Huh, could have sworn those guys were dead."
    "They are." Said Sydney in puzzlement. "They're ghosts."

    Megan just glared at her sister. "That's not what I meant you smartass. Anyway, the Nether isn't from our planet, but it is from one of the others orbiting our star. We've had some dealing with nearby worlds a time or two. Selariam and his brothers all managed to find a spectral catalyst and synergize a ghostly racial trait. Energy attacks work better than physical damage for that group."

    "Noted." Said Callie with a smile. "Who did you guys end up drawing? It's not anyone we know is it? It would really suck for you all to end up fighting Lament's team in the first round of something."

    That got a snort from Megan. "Please, we're luck manipulators. Granted with all the Impact behind this tournament it's unlikely we'll be able to do much for the overall situation later, but with this many people involved things are pretty damn in flux. Tweaking our odds with all this still colliding fate to work with is just child's play."

    It was interesting to hear more about their ability, sadly, I didn't get to hear too much, because a booming voice cut us off. "Now." Said Midknight. "Since you all have received your battle assignments, we can discuss the rules of the tournament." Everyone settled down, even us, because as much fun as it would be to fuck with him at the moment, we needed to know the rules so we didn't get disqualified over something stupid.

    "First." Said the Unity Guild Master for the Rajak branch. "The rank limit. If, under any circumstances, anyone breaks through to F-rank during the course of the tournament, their entire team will be immediately ousted. Most of you are at the edge of F-rank, due to the requirements for entry into the Moonsong Glade. However, in order to make sure the contestants don't vary too wildly in strength, you've been required to put your breakthroughs on hold."

    We'd known that already, but it was nice to know what the consequences were if someone tried to actually break through. Not that I'd refuse to do it if needed, I'd keep my friends safe no matter what, but still, forewarned is forearmed. "Second." Continued Midknight. "The use of offensive F-rank artifacts is considered forbidden during the tournament. As the matches aren't designed to be fatal, defensive gear is permitted."

    That was a relief actually. Out armor was a huge benefit to keeping us safe during all this. "And finally." The armored man intoned. "Intentional killing will be cause for dismissal from the tournament."

    Where the other rules had been a net benefit to us, this one wasn't. Not because we were murder hungry lunatics, but because he'd said INTENTIONAL. Which meant it would be possible for someone to kill us and then claim after the fact that it was an accident. While Midknight couldn't do anything to me because of Zeke, that didn't mean none of the Unity could. Based on his petty personality as mentioned by Callie, I wouldn't be surprised if the Unity teams closest to him had orders to try to kill me.

    That might have been a bit paranoid, but he looked right fucking at me when he said it, so I was thinking not. Callie looked just as upset by the implication as I did, or moreso possibly. Where I was just cautious and annoyed, my girlfriend was so livid I was worried she'd literally burst into flames from anger.

    Pulling my hand out of hers and flexing my sore fingers, I put an arm around her and pulled her close. "Hey, don't let him get to you. He can't do shit to us directly, and I refuse to believe he has a team of G-rankers that'll be a threat." After all, we had Abel on our side, and I didn't think any of those assholes were Master Candidates. Our team would crush any of his people.

    "That's only helpful in the first eight rounds." She insisted. "The five single elimination rounds will give him plenty of chances to try something. I know you're plenty strong Shane, but the Unity is a big organization. Some of the fighters on this planet ARE dangerous, despite how low ranked it is. I bet you at least a decent chunk of the Titan Twenty make it to the single elimination rounds, and some of them are from the Unity."

    I pulled her into a hug. "Hey, I'll be fine. I'm a scary bastard. Plus don't we have a few more days at least before that? Maybe a week or two. That's plenty of time to get even stronger. Although I admit I'm a bit surprised. Like, this is a three star system right? Even if every star has a bunch of planets around it, lets say ten, that's still only thirty planets. How the hell are there twenty five hundred teams competing?"

    "Oh, that." Said Megan. "C-rank planets are much bigger than D-rank planets. Gralter is the weakest C-ranked planet orbiting our star, and like I said, we barely got an invite. We're really only psuedo C-rank, like this planet is psuedo D-rank. The real C-rank planets have much scarier forces, and plenty more of them. The strongest person on a psuedo C-rank planet is still D-rank, even if there are a lot of them. Real C-rank planets have ACTUAL C-rankers. Every force from places like that is able to send multiple teams to an event like this."

    That made sense in a way. I was guessing the true C-rank planets were the top of the food chain in a small star system like this one. Once we got into the wider cluster I imagined they would be much more common, with psuedo B-rank planets maybe even showing up. Regardless, Megan and Sydney's reveal about the Wave Warren and Slime Hall being the only contestants from their planet and Zeke's explanation of the star system had massively thrown off my estimate for how many people we'd be fighting.

    Granted, a large chunk of the contestants were probably from local forces. I imagine the bar was much lower for locals, especially since we hadn't had to take any tests or anything. Listening to Midknight go on about things though, most of the local forces were clearly just there to fill out numbers and make the main matches more exciting. Higher end teams like the ones from the Unity and the WCP factions would be the real competition from Callus, and the system forces probably didn't even care too much about them.

    Abel cleared his throat. "Stop getting in your own heads idiots. We aren't here to play patty cake, though to be fair I would absolutely crush at a patty cack tournament." I saw him pause, hands twitching, and I scooted away from him as I imagined massive hand images descending from the sky to crush his enemies in rapid succession. He shoot it off quick with an elbow from Mel though. "Oh, sorry. Point is we don't need to worry so much about this kind of thing. Our options have only ever been to win or lose. The strength of the enemy doesn't change that. Win or lose, just fight as hard for the former as you can."

    A bark of laughter sounded from behind us, and I turned to see Zeke grinning down at Abel. "I like this kid. He gets it. So many Ascendants get too caught up in nonsense. Move forward, don't hesitate, if something stops you then you were never going to make it all the way to begin with, but you gave it your all." It had been a long time since I saw Zeke so enthusiastic about anything. I think Abel reminded him quite a bit of himself, which looking back I could kind of see.

    Alexander nodded his agreement with my uncle's sentiments. "Exactly." He said to his own team. We'd met them all when he showed up, but they weren't really friendly or talkative, so they'd mostly been standing in the background watching silently. "Abigail, are you prepared for this fight? To put it all on the line even if your opponents are stronger than you are?"

    The tiny, tanned girl with blue streaked black hair and aqua eyes nodded gravely. "I am, my lord." Her tone was overly polite and formal. "For the moment however, I suggest we retreat from this place to strategize and talk amongst ourselves. So long as none of our number are pitted against each other, such a confluence should be quite advantageous, and as you can clearly see, the water darkness slowly swallows the skies."

    At all of our confused looks, Alexander just sighed. "She means it's going to rain." He paused, looking up. "Which actually is a good point. No roof on this place. Good call Abigail." He stood up, gesturing for us to follow. "If you'd all accompany me, I can pay for a meal while we talk. I assume we all have things to share about our enemies, or at least some of us do, and if any of us actually did get matched up we can simply decline to discuss such topics."

    Callie shrugged happily. "Works for me. I'm hungry anyway. Plus if you're treating uncle Alex I bet the place will be great. Can we bring the wolves?"

    Alex just chuckled. "I'm an E-ranker. You could bring a whole damn forest if I decided you should. The wolves will be fine. Though I don't think the bear will fit. Where is it by the way? I thought the two of them were bonded?" He gestured to Jessie.

    Our blonde teammate looked sullen. "I had to leave him home. They wouldn't let him into the meeting." Her scowl turned quickly into a sunny smile. "It's fine though, I can just bring him some food to go. I'm sure you wouldn't mind me getting some carryout." Alexander agreed easily, but it was my turn to chuckle. Poor bastard had never seen how much an F-ranked bear could eat clearly. Oh well, better him than me.
  6. Threadmarks: chapter 330
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    The place Alexander took us was HUGE. I was expecting something like one of the pubs we had been to before. Something with a bar and wooden tables and a seedy backroom feel. This new place though...it was really upscale. It reminded me a bit of Rantano's back in Valen, but not as obviously geared at mortals.

    The new place, Deva, was a much larger building for one. Where Rantano's was the size of a normal restaurant, Deva was, at least on the inside, almost as big as a sports field. I expected given the size they would need columns, but there were none. It was all a single uninterrupted space except the tables, which were only about a foot tall and surround by plush pillows with intricate designs of a dozen types.

    The ceiling was arched, but Despite it being so high up, it was easy to see the pictures painted on the surface of the domed structure. Gods and monsters battled among the clouds, hiding behind still images as they threw bolts of lightning and fire literally out of the painted surface and across the gap to the other side of the dome. The thing deities and demons would sometimes die, only to fade into a normal still image upon their demise, while one of the still images would awaken, some seeming to heal from fatal damage to begin their tiny war.

    Though the place was far from empty, the sheer size made it feel much more private than it was. Which was good because we had a HUGE party of people, and everyone needing to crowd around one huge table was already taxing to the space without trying to work around strangers. The wolves flopped down on the cushions nearest the door when we got to the table and the rest of us set up wherever we could get a spot with someone we wanted to sit with.

    "So." I said as I sat down. "That was bracing." I looked at Callie. "Sorry to say babe but your dad is every bit as big an asshole as I was expecting. Sucks you had to put up with him all those years."

    Alexander sighed. "Yes. Paul has gotten much worse. I truly wonder how much of that was early recursion before he built his reputation as a hero. Powers like ours are perceived a certain way. It's more than likely he was unduly influenced before he built his current image." He held up his hands quickly as if to forestall comment. "Not that it excuses him. Just...be careful about growing too fast. Recursion can become overwhelming if you get too much of it at once. Faster growth can make it harder to withstand."

    I hadnt known that actually, but it made plenty of sense. I suspected we wouldn't have that problem, however. Most of our points came from wishes which should dilute the effect quite a bit. We would still have plenty of recursion, but it should be easier to resist for us at least. Stats were the building blocks of an ability and a legend, them being the carriers for recursion was so simple in hindsight I felt like an absolute moron.

    Callie held up a hand. "I appreciate the support, guys, but let's just eat. I don't want to spend any more time thinking about that bastard than I have to." She grabbed for a menu on the table I hadn't even seen there. "So what does this place have. Anything good?"

    I smiled as I grabbed another menu, realizing they were stashing in small compartments just under the table. Scanning over it I noted dozens of dishes. "It would be more accurate to ask what they DON'T have. And the answer is not much. I'm in the mood for gumbo today I think. How about you guys?" The gumbo looked fantastic, and I was sure based on the pricing it would be made with high ranking ingredients.

    Our whole party went about ordering. Benny, Jessie, Abel, Zeke, Alexander, Abigail and her team, Lament and her team, Sydney, Megan, Cark, Melina. I was wincing internally for Alexander by the time we got to the wolves because this was going to cost him a fortune. The puppies got steaks, and Jessie ordered a HUGE to-go box of meat to be prepared right before we left for Randall. Alexander didn't even make a sound about the expenditure though, presumably he was much richer than the rest of us anyway.

    Once the food was coming, we turned to Sydney and Megan. "So, you mentioned knowing something about our opponents for the first round? I admit I've never fought ghosts before. If it's a racial trait did they give up their abilities when they made the shift?" I'd never been clear on that one. Some of the nonhumans I'd met were able to use jobs or abilities fine, and some seemed to have switched over to an ability based on their new species. Then again, there was nothing to say they didn't already have an ability like that which led to them picking it in the first place.

    "They have both." Said Megan flatly. "Though there are obviously some common powers between them as well. Things like intangibility. Other than that they have different tricks. Cold, sound, each one of them developed as a ghost uniquely, at least from what I heard. I don't know too much about them. As a D-rank force we never had much interaction with the Hall of Nether. I just know about them because all of them synergizing the same trait is considered odd."

    Callie cursed. "Damn. We'll need to do some research on them before the fight. But it's fine, that's more than we knew before. Now who did you guys end up with? I don't believe that with a group this big we won't be able to find answers to help out everyone here. This is a huge pool of potential information. So, who does everybody have to go up against?"

    I knew that Callie had two reasons for doing this, one was definitely to help our friends, but she could also gather valuable information on people we might have to fight in the future. Statistically not all of the teams here would win most likely. Some of them were shoe ins like the Spear Legion team, but some of them like Silent Dagger's team were local and not particularly strong. I was sure Alexander had taught them well, but with so many D-rank forces sending out fighters who wouldn't be well trained?

    Lament held up her card. "I got the Cave Spider Cult." She paused. "Actually saying that out loud it's kind of a weird coincidence, but there are so many forces in the Gloryfire System it's not surprising some of their names would be relevant. Anyway, they're a D-rank force who mainly use variations on spider transformation. Not a racial trait, but more like your Beast Lord Garden."

    MacGregor, who was with us for this little powwow (we'd been friendlier with him after he helped out in the auction fight) nodded. "Truth. The cultists are swift and dangerous, but should you avoid their projectiles they are no threat to one such as you. Do not allow them to bleed on you, however. Their blood is highly toxic and corrosive."

    Lament look unmoved by the information, but Wren nodded in appreciation. "Thanks." He turned to glare at his captain. "SOME of us worry about things like that. We appreciate the heads up." Lestri and Vector both nodded in appreciation, while Falken, who was sleeping on the table from all appearances, held out a lazy thumbs up without actually sitting up at all.

    That got a snicker from Megan. "We got matched up with the Dead Iron Brotherhood. No one I've heard of before, so they probably aren't from any of the planets near our star. Or they are and they're just super weak. I'm hoping for the latter, given the work we put in to tweak the drawing in our favor."

    Wren nodded at that. "Bit of column A bit of column B. The Dead Iron Brotherhood are only a D-rank force, and they're mainly defensive. They use a body transformation art to shift their bodies into metal. The TYPE of metal varies depending on the person, synergizing different abilities can change that kind of thing. They're a pain in the ass to wear down, but you two are fast enough that they shouldn't be a threat. Just a long annoying battle."

    I noticed that Megan didn't seem pleased with the news, and I had to hold back a snicker. Looked like her luck had come through in the most irritating way. Sloane spoke up next. "Sky Wolf Temple. Never heard of them before either. Not that I was expecting anything different. Anyone know what they can do?"

    Sadly it seemed no one did, but then, with twenty five hundred teams we were bound to see some unknowns, and our little alliance mainly spanned three or four planets. A few of the others spoke up, and some of them likewise had opponents we didn't know about. Despite the size of our current group, twenty five hundred teams was far too many, especially given how many planets were probably involved.

    Of course, some of them we were able to dig up more information on. The Burning Heaven Abyss was a well known D-rank force that both Lament and MacGregor had heard of. Cark was up against them, and upon finding out they used some kind of cold fire immediately started making countermeasures. After that we all kind of broke off into our individual groups to converse and try to come up with ideas.

    We discussed all the possible details. As we tried to figure out a countermeasure to the ghosts though, Jessie perked up. "Oh hey, what about that dagger?" We all looked at her blankly. "You know? The ghost stabbing one we got in the Necropolis. That thing was G-rank wasn't it? Whatever happened to that?" I blinked as I remembered it, then turned to look at Callie, who had handled the loot.

    "We still have it." She said with a shrug. "Zeke made it sound impressive, so I kept it when I sold off most of the other stuff. That's a great idea though Agria. They won't be expecting that I bet. I'll dig it up and bring it along." She cocked her head in thought. "Although, maybe we should give it to Apollyon." She glanced at Abel. "Think it would be helpful?"

    To my complete lack of surprise my teacher just shook his head. "Ragam isn't a weapon based art. I CAN use a dagger, but it won't be as effective as my fists. Besides I don't think my manifestations even count as physical attacks. I should be able to slap ghosts around just fine."

    Callie nodded. "Fair enough. We can do some training tonight. The first round is tomorrow, so we obviously need to warm up. The next one will probably be a few days later. They need time to hold all the matches. Twelve hundred and fifty fights isn't going to be quick."

    I groaned aloud at the idea of more training, but it was good natured. After some downtime I was up for some combat. Plus I really did want to be in peak form for this fight. Once we managed to win we would be going to one of the local parties, and as much as I didn't look forward to formal attire, I figured we'd have more chances to try some good food.

    As my gumbo arrived, I dug in, enjoying the delicious stew. I reached down to pet Jin as I ate, enjoying the sights and sounds of Deva with my friends as we talked over our next moves. Tomorrow would be the first fight of the tournament, and I was betting those ghosts had some interesting tricks up their sleeves. We would be ready either way. For now, things were pretty good.
  7. Verdthandi

    Verdthandi Getting out there.

    May 29, 2018
    Likes Received:
    Nice Chekhov’s gun! As always, looking forward to the upcoming shenanigans.
  8. BJJPanda

    BJJPanda I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Aug 18, 2020
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    Damn, it took a while to read everything start to finish, anyways a few comments and complaints.
    One, Shane bought a spatial ring in the early chapters and it is never mentioned again, this is even worse because in the auction he talked about spatial items.
    Two, the dialogue can sometimes feel like it written by a bot, in terms of unrealistic conversation, especially when it is slice of life dialogue or romantic that is a bit cliche, for example the "we kept a serious face but then burst laughing", people don't really do that and definitely so often, tbf the newer chapters have much better dialogue.
    Thirdly, Shane should start mixing skills, he has way too many useless one, maybe he could mix them and then sell them.
    Lasly, Shanes team should also learn Ragam, while it isn't his main style learning another martial art won't hurt, especially when has such a talented teacher right there to teach him

    Forgot to say this but I think when you have the time or motivation another story in this universe/setting would be cool. It doesn't need any interaction with this story, it could be a standalone, I just think exploring the universe you created and seeing other perspectives/how other ascendents who have nothing to do with mc grow would be cool, presumably they would be in one of the other factions like the Empire or Fairy kingdom
    Last edited: Apr 5, 2023
  9. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    One, Common misconception, Shane bought a half-assed barebones copy of a spatial ring that only ever holds one designated item and can't be used for anything else. It holds the contract that his dad sent to awaken his Wishmaster abilities early, which he no longer needs to access but still keeps safe by stashing it away. It was kind of a tease for future spatial items without giving access to them early on.

    Two...The dialogue being a bit stilted early on is fair, though it should be noted that my friends and I often do the whole "say something completely bullshit like its a legit thing and try to keep a straight face for as long as possible" thing. The romantic dialogue is supposed to be slightly cringy in places, mostly because Shane and Callie's relationship archetype is "that one couple that were sickeningly into each other freshman year of HS" lol, though they're growing out of that. Third, they're a bit busy atm, it's not out of the question but is unlikely.
    Verdthandi and BJJPanda like this.
  10. Threadmarks: chapter 331
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    The next day found us reporting to one of the WAY too many arenas in Rajak. "Seriously." I complained. "Why are there like three hundred of these places in town? Do people not DO anything else?" I knew they did, actually, because tons of Ascendants spent most of their day hunting monsters for various bounties or Academy points. There was zero reason for them to be so bored as to run off to a random Arena to mess around.

    Callie giggled at my annoyed tone. "Arenas are a time honored tradition among Ascendants. They give us an excuse to show off in front of a bunch of people, and they make money at the same time. Granted, places like this are way more regulated than arenas down in the WCP, but the Unity is still an organization for cultivators, and they'd be stupid not to take advantage. You need to make a name for yourself to get stronger, and for people outside of the major organizations this is the easiest way."

    "She's right." Chimed in Abel. "This is pretty much universal. Arenas are a valued commodity on almost every planet. They give poor and underexposed Ascendants a method of showing off and getting attention. More than one of the current E-rankers were arena-born. Hell, most of them scout their best talent from places like this. By that logic, do you honestly think in a city this size that three hundred arenas is a lot?"

    Now that he said it like that..."Huh. Now I'm wondering why there aren't more of them." Before either of them could speak I held up my hands. "It's just a figure of speech, I understand the concept of diminishing returns. Anyway, with twelve hundred and fifty fights spread over three hundred arenas the first round should only be four fights. If that's the case why the gap between the fight days?"

    Callie gestured around. "Buzz. This whole thing might be for selecting slots, but every one of these contestants is a possible recipient of a ton of renown. Most of the factions here are live streaming this back to their own planets and territories. Burning out the viewers with constant repetitive fights would be a waste. By have only one fight a day or so they can keep people excited and milk the most our of the attention."

    That actually made a lot of sense. I could understand why they would agree to it to. Under the assumption the others would do the same they could reap a ton of benefits. Sadly I couldn't learn more about how this would work because the announcer for the arena called our names. "Alright." Said Callie. "Everyone remember your roles. We practiced this last night." She drew the dagger we'd looted from the necropolis.

    We had practiced, and as we made our way down the tunnel leading to the arena proper, I went over the various strategies in my head, trying to make sure I could react with a moments notice. As we walked, I triggered Touch of Tears and Consecration of Flames as usual. If nothing else they would theoretically allow my cane to actually make contact with the ghosts.

    Once we stepped out onto the sand, the previously roaring crowd cut off completely. Looking up, I could see them still yelling in the stands, but their mouths weren't producing any sounds. Some kind of barrier maybe? It seemed to only cover the actual arena pit. Interesting. My eyes, which had been scanning the arena, finally fell onto the group of four beings standing across from us, clearly waiting for us to arrive.

    The one in the lead, who I assumed was Selariam, didn't look like much. Just a super pale guy with silver hair and delicate features. He was short, maybe five foot six, and his icy blue eyes were calm and analytical. "Hello." He said as we approached. "You must be our opponents. We represent the Halls of the Nether, a D-ranked force located on the planet Vakram. My name is Selariam, and these are my brothers, Sennec, Vile, and Runk. Might I have the honor of knowing what your faction is called?"

    I opened my mouth to answer, and quickly had to break off the response as my senses screamed at me that I was about to be attacked. It took me almost too long to realize I wasn't the one being targeted. I spun on my heel, lashing out at the air behind Callie with a Flurry of Blows enhanced smash of my cane. There was a crash as the head of my weapon met the blades of a huge double headed axe, and another figure faded into view.

    As he did, the largest of the four enemy combatants dissolved into silvery mist. I bared my teeth at him and triggered one of my fire attacks through my cane, releasing a giant burst of slightly corrosive flame. Granted, it wasn't as effective as actually using the skills synergized with the attack, but it was faster and much less of a strain. The massive bearded ghost warrior's eyes widened and he flickered backwards unnaturally as the wave of light green fire swallowed the space he'd been occupying.

    While I was distracted, the other three had attacked, but Selariam himself and the one I was pretty sure was Vile had both been intercepted by Abel, while Mel had snagged Sennec in a flame cage. That left Callie and I to do what we did best. I dashed forward, annoyed that our plans had been spoiled, but we'd made contingencies for a surprise attack (what kind of moron doesn't expect to be jump scared by a ghost?). I brought my cane down overhand at Runk's head, imbuing it with a triple stacked density shifted attack.

    As he backpedaled, a wall of darkness about a foot high sprouted behind his feet, and he tripped for a second before seeming to remember he didn't need to obey the laws of gravity and just...stopping, midair. A massive stockade of shadow jumped off the ground, clamping down around his hands and neck, and apparently shadow constructs counted as energy because he had to plant his feet to get the leverage to tear free.

    The second he did I triggered Sucking Mud, along with a shadow attack. Runk managed to tear free of the stockades within seconds, but by that time my tendrils had already caught his legs. The shadow imbued earth held him where I knew regular earth wouldn't, and Callie took advantage to split off into half a dozen clones and surround him, her armor making her own form just as deceptive to the eye as the shadow simulacra.

    Planting a foot, I spun out off front toe, letting my cane ride the axis of the spin the build up enough momentum as I synergized Balam and triggered another triple stack density shifted blow. Sadly, the brief period of confusion from our barrage had worn off and Runk was ready for me, catching the blow on his double headed axe with a grunt and using the force to catapult him out of the shadow mud.

    I saw his grip tighten as the blade of the axe cracked slightly under the force. Then he lunged forward to swing his axe at me, and I pulled up my cane to block, only to get bodied by one of Callie's clones before a swing from behind could take off my head. The ghostly form I'd been looking at faded into smoke as Runk appeared behind where I'd been standing, grinning nastily.

    Damn. This one was tougher than expected. I looked over to check on the others, and saw Selarium manifesting some kind of huge ghastly face that screamed at Abel, only for the thing to get belted in the mouth with a fist manifestation. I was pretty sure Selarium's was an ability, not a high Intermediate Skill. I climbed to my feet, groaning slightly as I glared at Runk.

    "Ok." I said testily. "That was uncalled for." I mean sure, that wouldn't have killed me with my armor, but still. I considered using my magma leg to finish things, but I knew it would mess me up. My head was twinging a bit already from the shadow swamp. Besides, I needed to stop relying so much on big finishing moves. I wouldn't be able to hold my own against stronger opponents if I let things turn into a competition of trump cards.

    I noted, interestingly, that Runk had avoided getting too close to Callie. i wondered if he could feel the spectral severer, because she'd put the thing away temporarily to avoid letting him see it, presumably waiting for a shot. Since that was our best bet against him I rushed forward to play distraction again, hurling myself up into a forward flip to smash an axe kick down on the bastard, imbuing it with yet another triple stacked density shift.

    As my foot slammed down on the axe, I had a second to think while I was in the air. Despite the numbed of exchanges, due to our speed and Perception, we had only been fighting for a short while. I considered trying to stall him and letting Abel take care of this, but dismissed the thought almost immediately. I'd be fighting solo soon enough, which meant it was imperative to sharped my one on one combat. My team wouldn't be there to bail me out later.

    Which is why, as he raised his axe to block the kick, I lashed out and triggered Cloud Step. Through a tricky bit of maneuvering I managed to bounce off a pair of Cloud Step spots in the air, and combined with Flurry of Blows and a triple stack density shift, along with Mercy Kill and Consecration of Flame and Touch of Tears (otherwise it wouldn't have even landed) I hammered a kick directly into the side of his head, completely bypassing his defense before he could even process was was happening. Though not before he could snap out a backhand to my ribs, bouncing me away from him.

    As he staggered, a storm of razor sharp shadow snowflakes burst out into a cloud of destruction, coming right up from his shadow to swallow him nearly whole, with only his legs being visible. There was a scream, and I got the vague impression of someone waving an axe frantically, but he was too obscured from view for me to keep track for long.

    Callie appeared next to me. "You ok?" She said unhappily, glaring at the ghostly fighter. "Because, that looked like a nasty hit." My ribs ached, mostly because that had been blunt force (and how much bullshit was it that they could use physical attacks fine but ours wouldn't work), but I wasn't too bad off. I triggered a scan heal heal burst combo, and since it was just bruising it wouldn't take too long to patch me up.

    I went to move forward, but she held up a hand to stop me. "Wait. I had an idea. We need a big finisher, and neither of our abilities does that well from range. My constructs can be large, but it makes them less solid, and your attacks are for close range mostly. Will you let me try something?" I could hear in her voice that what she was really asking was if I trusted her. I did, so I just nodded.

    Callie closed her eyes and held out a hand. Then I felt a PULL. Not like when I channeled skills into her, that was always directly physical, like with Abel's punch. This time she used the bond to LITERALLY synergize with my skills, and what's more, use my stored attacks. From the ground in front of her crawled a huge dragon construct, not unlike the wyvern we fought in the necropolis, though obviously smaller.

    She poured skills and attacks into it. Stone Limb, giving the whole thing solidity, Touch of Tears and Consecration of Flame imbuing it with poisoned flame, bolstering it with a fire attack, even adding Mercy Kill to give it a boost. By the time she was done, the massive black flaming magma dragon looked so terrifying that Runk froze as the cloud of snowflakes melted away.

    Callie swayed, clearly having taken most of the soul weight on herself for this, but was still aware enough to make it pounce. As it crashed down, ending the fight, I felt something click. Our bond had ranked up. We'd officially achieved Lesser Paired Dueling. All in all, I'd say this had been a good fight.
  11. BJJPanda

    BJJPanda I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Aug 18, 2020
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    His soul strength seems to fluctuate, sometimes it takes him a dozen moves before his head hurts and other times it takes only a couple. Also, he said no finishing moves and then pulled out the dragon
  12. Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Depends on a lot of factors. First of all how many changes he's making, firing off a bunch of Skills normally does almost nothing, but changing a move dramatically is a huge effort. Also stacking or modifying stored attacks gets extremely draining extremely fast.
    BJJPanda likes this.
  13. Threadmarks: chapter 332
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    "What the actual fuck was that?" Abel said as he strolled over. The two ghosts he'd been fighting appeared to be sprawled on the sand leaking some sort of mercurial substance I suspected was ghost blood. He didn't even notice though as he stared at the spot where the dark magma dragon that Callie and I had made with our Paired Dueling Skill faded into a cloud of darkness and green sparks.

    I smiled smugly, pulling Callie against me as she laughed at his expression. I held up a hand to high five her as she proudly proclaimed. "That was our first Skill used through the bond." I was pretty sure he knew that and just wanted us to have a chance to say it, but still, she sounded so proud I didn't want to interrupt.

    The dragon had been cool as shit. I was pretty sure I couldn't have managed it on my own either. While I could use shadow attacks, sustainable constructs weren't viable for me. But using my skills through the dragon meant Callie could still reinforce and control it, her Shadow Manipulation turning it from a big hunk of burning darkness to a dangerous weapon. The Stone Limb skill had also made it much more solid, even with only sand to work with.

    "Damn." Said Abel."I knew you made it to Lesser, but I didn't realize you were already at that level. Not bad. Be careful with that bond though. it's a big strain using it for Skills. As you may have noticed." He gestured to where Callie was practically hanging on my arm and I grimaced. Without waiting for her response I scooped her up with an arm under her legs. She squeaked in surprise and glared a bit, but I could see a little smirk on her face.

    This would normally be a bit over the top for public interaction, but after I'd felt how little strength she had in her legs I realized walking out of here was a pipe dream. Better the audience see me being a bit affectionate than see her showing weakness. Luckily the barrier prevented sound from escaping so no one had heard what he said. Callie waved theatrically to anyone as I carried her our, and when we got back to the waiting room I set her down on a bench.

    She seemed a bit out of it. I snapped my fingers in front of her a few times. "Hey, stay with me. You alright?" She was alive and conscious so she wasn't in any real danger, but being this loopy wasn't exactly a good thing. I didn't realize she'd overdone it so much. I wished Benny was here with his spiritual calming belt.

    "M'fine." She mumbled, waving me off. "Jus' tired." I sighed, picking her up again. I wasn't leaving her in here even if we had wanted to stick around and soak up some of the attention. We could see people at the after party. They should be pretty distracted anyway. They had a few exhibition fights for people who weren't in the tournament to entertain people since fights didn't last that long and one a day wasn't a reason for people to show up at this kind of place en mass.

    Getting her home was easy enough, we were back up in the house in Rajak Zeke had bought. The Pavilion was a bit too far of a trip for daily commute. Once we got back, I borrowed the effect of Benny's belt (I was definitely going to trade for a few charges of that after we got Callie up to the peak of G-rank) and helped her get back on her feet. Once her head cleared, the loopiness became pain, and she ended up curled on the couch groaning, which was what I'd been expecting.

    "Ow." She whimpered. "Is that what you feel like every time you overuse your soul strength? Because if it is I'm so sorry, and also you're an idiot." I laughed at that, plopping down next to her as I took off my mask. She winced again. "Ow. No, bad noise. Don't be so loud."

    I chuckled more softly, lowering my voice as I responded. "Sorry, but it's just funny to hear you yell at me about this when you bit my head off about testing the magma leg in person. But hey, at least you took my 'do something stupid' philosophy to heart." She glared at me venomously, but I just winked back. "It's fine, just don't do so much next time. Honestly I'm surprised you could stack so much on the construct as a rookie. I think it had something to do with using your ability as a base for the effects instead of a half assed Enchanting Skill."

    Sadly I couldn't grant wishes unless people made them, so mobilizing the wish power to act as a base for my DS Mastery wasn't feasible. That meant my soul had to be a lot stronger than most to get the effects, hence the unusual amount of pain I had to go through. She nodded, wincing at the action. "That sounds right. Still, you're not wrong about me overreaching." She gave me an embarrassed look. "I guess it's easier to get lost in the thrill of combat than I expected. I'm sorry I got so mad at you last time."

    "Don't be." I said gently. "You were right. Which means you actually did do something dumb this time. And not healthy dumb, like picking a fight with your childhood nemesis. Legit dumb. So it's my turn to tell you to be more careful. Messing with soul weight is dangerous. Soul damage could kill you or worse if you screw up using it. We can work out some training now that you can use my skills, and I'll work on learning to use yours."

    I was pretty sure I could use her ability (though she couldn't use mine I was positive, if it were that easy to gain access to the wish power plenty of people would have it) with some practice, and I was looking forward to learning that dark dragon construct thing. I could even most likely use her Shadow Manipulation Skill. "So." I said tiredly. "I think we made a good enough showing to hit one of the galas. Assuming we're still going. Your dad might be there and he could cause some trouble for us."

    She just snorted. "Don't be ridiculous. He wouldn't start a fight with his daughter at a formal event. I'm not bored enough to start one with him either. I vented plenty at the arena, and seriously messed with his plans anyway. As for the rest of what I owe him..." She looked at me worriedly. "I can just wait it out. We'll be E-rank before too long, and then we can kick his ass. Speaking of, given how high some of my stats are getting, I should get a really impressive upgrade when I synergize this time. Maybe not something like Jessie has, but still something great."

    I was looking forward to that too. Callie's stats were pretty damn concentrated at this point. She was right that she probably wouldn't get something as broken as Jessie's ability. I'd looked into it and breaking through with the percentage of Vitality she had was almost unheard of. Still, she would definitely get something pretty good. Not that I had any idea what that might be. Still, I could tell that the idea of waiting wasn't really ideal for her. I took her hand. "If you don't want to wait we can find a way to mess with him now. I was already planning to try to pressure him politically with my ability."

    She smiled at me sweetly. "Feel free. But leave any real revenge to me. I want to handle him myself. Once I break through to E-rank, especially if I manage to get more Impact before that, I'll be happy to show him how unhappy he's made me and mom over the years." Her sweet smile had turned sharp and feral, and I grinned back and kissed her softly.

    I noticed though, that she mentioned hurting him specifically and not killing him. I was glad. I hadn't thought she would take it that far, but given how much she hated him anything was on the table. I didn't think Callie, at least MY Callie, would survive killing her dad, no matter how much he deserved it. Hell, wanting to handle him herself was almost a way of protecting him. She wanted to kick his ass for everything he'd done, but she knew she personally would be willing to hold back and not take it too far.

    As much as I disliked him, what I wanted most was for her to be happy with how things ended. If she wanted to break both his legs and smack him around that was her prerogative. "So, we're going to one of the galas. I assume you have a specific one in mind?"

    Her mood, which had been souring talking about her father, brightened. "I talked to Celine about that quite a bit actually. We decided to go to the Mindbender's Ball. Solana the Mindbender is an E-ranked illusionist, and is known for throwing some of the best parties. The gala she's putting on for the visiting dignitaries should be absolutely amazing!"

    "Sounds good." I laughed. "You know I'm hopeless at parties. Just get me the clothes you want me to wear ahead of time and I'll be there. Well, and my mask of course." I looked at the wooden face covering with a complicated expression. It was powerful and useful and naturally protected me from attacks...but it was also creepy. "Man, I cannot get used to that whole defensive measures thing. I try not to think about it most of the time but..." I shuddered in revulsion remembering the sight of that guy getting EATEN.

    Callie grimaced. "Yeah, it wasn't pleasant to watch. But if it keeps you safe I can deal with a bit of creep factor. As for clothes...I'm sure we can find you something nice that won't clash with it. You won't need your armor at least. The gala will have intense security. Plus if anyone too strong shows up Zeke will be there too." She grinned conspiratorially. "I may or may not have already arranged for him to bring a date."

    Knowing she must mean she was having Stella flown over, I couldn't help but grin. It was always fun seeing my uncle off balance, and I suspected this would accomplish that. "What about Benny and Jessie?" I asked. "They can still come even though they aren't in the tournament right?" Also Randall, because seeing a bunch of famous people try not to react to a giant bear, possibly in clothes, sounded hilarious.

    Of course, since she knew me pretty well, Callie just rolled her eyes. "Yes to them, no to the bear. Don't think I didn't notice what you wanted to do. As much fun as that would be we're trying to make inroads with visiting factions, NOT make everyone below E-rank piss themselves. I'm already talking to Jessie about what we're all wearing to the ball, so don't worry about your clothes. Celine is obviously picking Benny's. We'll also be helping Cass decide what she's wearing, though Cark is picking his own stuff."

    I smirked at that. While it might seem presumptuous, in reality, they just knew us well enough to anticipate that none of us cared about formal wear or any of that other stuff. Letting them pick our outfits just meant we didn't need to do it. Well, Benny and I specifically. I knew Cark liked to make an impression, so him picking his own outfit made sense. "Alright." I said. "When is this ball anyway?" I wanted to make sure I was mentally prepared for this before we went, after all. I really hated parties.
  14. Threadmarks: chapter 333
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The Mindbender's Ball was apparently being held at the ballroom of a local hotel in the city. The Ventralia was an upscale hotel catering to visiting dignitaries and high ranking Unity and WCP personnel from other cities. Since most of the E-rankers were concentrated in Rajak, they mostly saw F-rank visitors, but considering these people were all influential local powerhouses, the place was still pretty swanky.

    As we gathered outside the place, I took in everyone's clothes, and I had to admit that our various politicos had a pretty good eye for fashion too. Even Cark looked upscale in a nicely tailored suit and waistcoat. Cass was wearing a ball gown that she looked thrilled to be in, while Jessie had on a floor length dress that looked like it was made from leaves. Given her power it might actually have BEEN made from leaves.

    Callie had decided to go with a black evening gown that looked like, but she had a shawl of roiling shadow over her shoulders and back. Her dark dress matched my own suit, which paired well with my dark wooden mask. Celine was dressed in an emerald green velvet dress, with Benny wearing a similarly colored suit that went shockingly well with his eyes. Zeke was in a rumpled but upscale looking suit of dark grey that went well with Stella's shimmering starlight silver dress. Melinda was there with Travis, looking regal in dark green silk, with Sloane trailing behind in black. We had more than a few nature inclined people in our group and it showed.

    Alexander hadn't come. I suspect he didn't want to be here without Amelia, and I didn't expect she had any interest in being at a party where her ex-husband and presumably his new wife would be in attendance. I knew Callie would prefer to avoid Annie as well, and I didn't expect her to approach us. She'd been keeping her distance like Callie clearly wanted ever since we moved out of the Unity building.

    Climbing out of the carriage outside the venue, I looked back at the thing in awe. "Ok, how the hell did you guys even find a carriage in this day and age? Especially such a nice one. Who the hell uses G-rank horses to pull a carriage." I looked apologetically at the driver. "No offense, it's a beautiful carriage, just the concept seems kind of old fashioned to me for some reason."

    He just shrugged. "You paid for a ride didn't ya?" I opened my mouth to retort but came up short because...I had no response to that.

    "Well played." I said with narrowed eyes, and he tipped his hat to me and gently spurred the horses to move along. "Alright." I said turning to the others. "So how do we go about making our entrance here." I shot Callie a sulky look, my voice whiny as I said. "We COULD have been escorted in by a giant bear in clothes. I still say it's not fair Melinda got to bring her companion and Jessie couldn't."

    Callie looked at me incredulously. "Travis is a weasel! He's the size of my forearm. Randall is a bear the size of a small bus." With my mask on she couldn't see my smirk, but she could hear my tone and knew I was just teasing. She played along because it amused her.

    "Yes dear." I said dramatically. Then I put an arm around her and pulled her close. "You look amazing by the way." I put on a faux haughty tone. "Not as amazing as me, but then, we all have our burdens to bear in life, and being drop dead gorgeous is clearly the heaviest of my responsibilities."

    She giggled and poked me in the ribs. "Talk to me about your magnificence when you can dress yourself, stud. I'm pretty sure you might have shown up wearing pants on your head if I hadn't picked out your suit." She gestured at Cark. "Why can't you and Clockwork be like Tony. He can pick his own clothes."

    I gasped in mortal offense. "How dare you. I am a very stylish individual. I have style...ish." That got another giggle. "Anyway, we should head in. Don't want to keep everyone waiting." I removed my arm from her shoulders and held out my elbow formally. "Shall we milady?"

    She actually curtsied in response (albeit pretty sarcastically) before taking my arm and leading me inside. The others trailed behind us. Benny and Celine caught up, looking like an elegant fancy couple. "So, Cel says this place is going to be crawling with local power players. Anyone we might know?"

    Callie nodded as we walked toward the entrance to the hotel. "Oh yeah. Several people we've met, a few we've heard mentioned. The Moravian is going to be here, which is huge, he rarely comes out of seclusion. The old man likes to spend his time alone from what I'm told. Duncan the Liar will be here, though I'd avoid him. He has a tendency to mess with people at functions like this, so unless you want to break your teeth biting into a diamond or something steer clear. He's the obnoxious blonde guy in the bright yellow doublet."

    She had her Stealth Skill active as she filled us in, to keep us from being overheard. But as we got close to entering she stopped talking anyway. She dropped the skill and smiled at the man guarding the door. "Nightstrike, here by invitation from The Nothing." I hadn't known we needed an invite, but it made sense. Alexander being able to get us in wasn't a surprise either, even without him being here.

    Realistically. Melinda was with us and could have just walked us through the front door herself, but since we were trying to make connections Callie decided to use Alexander's name. She figured since he wasn't hear we could actually talk to some people rather than spend the whole night listening to them suck up to Melinda. I kind of wished Abel and Mel had come, but Abel had decided the gala sounded boring and begged off, which was fair. Callie didn't push, she was team
    leader but this was more personal errand than team business.

    The door guard, a hulking beefy man with thinning hair and a neck as thick as my thigh, nodded and waved us through without a second thought. Walking into the building, we followed a trail of floating candles in elegant crystal sconces that bobbed in the air over a red carpet. Taking the path we arrived at a pair of open double doors where the party was being held, and when reached the entrance, we all stopped and gaped.

    A cosmos of rioting phenomena blazed dizzyingly over the room. More than just stars. Waves of fire, storms of lightning, swirling cascades of luminous water, mist, clouds, shimmering blobs of light and gel and a million other things wove an inexplicable tapestry through the darkness of space, transforming and combining and breaking apart into components again and again.

    The array of lights and colors that played across the dark marble of the floor seemed to be just on the edge of overwhelming without actually becoming too much to deal with, and as I watched I noticed the cascade of colors was passing through a cloud of nearly invisible white light that kept it from overpowering the crowd with the sheer spectacle without disturbing our ability to withstand it. Even with that softening though, it was easy for me to tell that this could be used as a mental attack if the caster was so inclined. Mindbender indeed.

    "Holy shit." Said Benny quietly. "You guys weren't kidding about this being a crazy party." Focusing past the light show (which was only possible because of the filter I suspected) we glanced down at the party itself. Among the guests floated cloaks full of nebulas, with dark hoods covered only by masks. They each had a pair of floating white gloves holding up trays of food and drinks as the circulated.

    The decorations and the help were only part of what made the place so amazing though. The guests were almost as impressive. Suits of living flame, dandelion dresses doublets made of stormclouds with real lightning striking out. I'd though we'd gone all out getting ready, but we'd dressed pretty conservatively compared to some of the wild fashion statements.

    Far from being upset, Callie clicked her tongue in amazement. "See." She said to Jessie, Celine, and Cark. "I told you it would have been a mistake to go big. No way we could have kept up. Better to let our reputation do the talking." As we stepped in, one of the cloaked nebulas floated over, extending a pair of trays in a way that told me those gloves were not attached to any arms.

    Mine had some mini quiches, and I snagged a few before tapping into Callie's ability via our bond for a second and condensing a plate from shadows. Damn, that was really convenient. It wasn't very sturdy, and it wouldn't last, but since it was so flimsy I barely had to strain my soul at all to make it, plus I could just disperse the thing when I finished eating. I made a second one for Callie, because I knew my girl well enough to know she'd want some of the quiches, and slid a few bacon and scallop mini quiches onto a plate for her.

    When I passed it over she smirked at me. "They do have plates you know? But this works better for me anyway. Thanks babe." She hopped up gracefully to give me a peck on the mask, just before my wooden face covering receded so I could actually eat, allowing me to return her grin.

    I popped a quiche into my mouth with a groan. Smoked gouda and pepperoni. Odd combo but very delicious. "This is great." I said as we headed out to mingle. "Wonder who did their catering." Popping another in my mouth I saw Callie had already eaten all of hers and dispersed the plate. I just chuckled. "Clearly you liked them too. So, who do we talk to first, this is your show. I don't know whats what here." The others had mostly broken off when we came in, with Jessie following Cark and Cass, and Sloane trailing Melinda, leaving just the two of us as Zeke and Stella were lost in the dance floor crowd.

    Callie looked around uncertainly. "I'm not sure honestly. Usually I had a reason to talk to people at those parties when I was younger." She bit her lip as she paused for thought. "Let's try someone our age we actually know. Maybe Cold Snap is around. His mom is E-rank, and he could make an introduction." I wasn't sure he would actually want to do that, but he hadn't seemed too hostile in the end so it couldn't hurt to ask, especially with the security here.

    As I turned to follow her into the crowd, I felt a twinge from my bond, meaning Callie had picked up something coming at my back. I sidestepped easily, and was shocked to see a pulled pork sandwich fly through the air where my head had been. "Hah!" Bellowed a voice from nearby. "As expected of my nemesis."

    I knew that voice, I closed my eyes silently and breathed out an exhalation of annoyance as I turned to see the crowd retreating as a familiar form strolled out, a blazer over his usually shirtless form. I should have figured this was coming. His dad WAS an E-ranker now. He shot me a challenging grin. "Bet you didn't expect to see me again so soon! Did you Solomon!" Callie stepped up next to me, and I felt her own annoyance through the bond as Punchin' Carl cornered me right next to the dance floor. Well, this should be fun.
  15. Threadmarks: chapter 334
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    I sighed dramatically at the sight of the other man. Hard to forget someone who threw a rope of sausage at your face during your first patrol. "Carl." I said, not even bothering to feign enthusiasm. "So good to...no, wait that isn't true. I see you you're here. Where's your buddy Stephen?"

    Carl sneered. "They wouldn't let him in because he wasn't wearing shoes." I hadn't considered that. He glared back at the foor. "They even tried to say I couldn't come in because I'm not wearing a shirt! Stupid. I obviously have this jacket on. That totally counts."

    Callie actually snickered a bit at that, and I gave her and I rolled my eyes because she really shouldn't encourage him. "I take it your old man is around here somewhere?" I ran my eyes over the room, because even in this crazy bedlam there was no possible way I could miss someone with a brightly colored spiked mohawk.

    "Nah, pops doesn't have time for parties like this. All these boring people doing boring stuff. He sent me to chat up some of these randoms before the tournament. Get the low down on what they can." I assumed he was also supposed to be making connections for if he managed to get off world, though having seen how strong some of the forces in the tournament were I judged the likelihood of that to infinitely approaching zero.

    Everyone around us was looking at Carl with an unhappy expression, presumably because he'd said that last thing pretty loud and people don't like being referred to as boring randoms. A long sigh came from off to the side as a girl stepped out of the crowd. A girl with brown hair and peaceful golden eyes, flanked by a pair of twins in suits each wearing a half mask. Joy. Serenity and her cronies. "Carl. I could swear that I told you not to openly insult anyone here."

    To my surprise, rather than sneering and gloating, she mostly just seemed exhausted. I almost felt bad for her, I wouldn't want to deal with Carl all day. She gave the two of us a soft smile. "My apologies for the crude manner of my companion's speech. It's wonderful to see you both again. You've certainly gotten much stronger." I expected some kind of animosity or anger, we'd killed a bunch of their people after all, but she seemed genuinely affable.

    Even Callie, who was used to hero and villain bullshit from her time in the Unity growing up, looked kind of off balance. "You don't...hate us? We kicked your asses and then ransomed you back to your faction." That wasn't a really political way to phrase that, but it was weird enough to see her being so friendly that it didn't seem too our of line.

    Serenity just shrugged. "That's life. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes. We knew the risks of trying something like that. We took a shot and failed. We're members of the Wish Curse Palace. Not to say we don't hold grudges, but you could have killed us or been quite a bit rougher than you were. We no longer have any need to be hostile, so why waste the energy?"

    That...staggered me. We'd killed their people, beaten them mercilessly (although, in retrospect, there had been a BIT of mercy) and sold them back to their bosses like used books, and they just...didn't care? Beat (at least I think it was Beat given the gloves) snickered at us. "You have a lot to learn about how things work downtown. Today's enemies are tomorrows allies. We don't have defined sides like the Unity does. Not to say I won't enjoy kicking your asses in the tournament if we run into you. You're not the only ones who had been getting stronger."

    Carl groaned. "This is so boring! Can we go? I wanna go punch some stuff." He looked at Serenity. "Also I didn't insult anybody. There people are all randoms to me, and someone has to be boring or how can anybody be awesome? Also, Solomon, I'm totally gonna punch you in the tournament. I'm way stronger than last time. You won't even know what hit you." He brought his fists together near his stomach in a flexing motion, and the jacket he wore ripped loudly across the shoulders.

    Serenity closed her eyes, from all appearances counting to ten, an exhaled slowly. "Carl...Fine. We can go." She fixed her gaze on us, her previously serene smile becoming sharp. "Just wanted to let you know there's no hard feelings, so when our team crushes you in the tournament you'll know it's nothing personal."

    She gestured for Beat and Sever to follow and grabbed Carl's arm, dragging him away into the crowd. I blinked. "Wait, CARL is their fourth team member? That's...how is he even strong enough?" I knew that Natalie had been working with the Jerks and Sanctuary Hall for a while, but helping Carl grind up that high since I'd last seen him was still impressive. I guess they'd probably maxed his elixir cap in each rank too though. Still, I'd crushed him the first time we fought.

    Clearly able to sense my disbelief, Callie chuckled. "You and Carl were H-rank the first time you fought. Or you were at least. Abilities at that rank are so low level they barely work. Almost no stats to fuel them. a high G-ranker isn't anything like they were at early H or I-rank. He might actually be pretty tough. Plus who knows what Skills he picked up on top of whatever his ability is."

    I knew M-jack's ability was some kind of animated animal tattoo conjuration. I wasn't sure if Carl inherited the same one, made his own ability similar through synergy, or just had some of those tattoos placed on him by his dad, but I'd heard that M-jack made sure his son was protected. If he was at our level maybe he could be a real threat, especially with back up like Beat, Sever, and Serenity.

    Callie sighed. "Their group will be tough for us. Serenity isn't quite a hard counter to Abel, but she's the closest I've seen. He can dominate one or two of the others in a fight against most groups, but against them...well we've already seen that she can keep him busy." Which I hadn't even considered. Abel was a monster, we'd seen him crush everyone he came up against like bugs. Serenity had managed to keep him busy solo, which hadn't seemed too scary at the time, but having experienced how strong he was firsthand, made her fucking terrifying.

    Seeing how troubled I was, Callie just smiled and reached down to squeeze my hand. "Hey, no worries. She's a bad match-up for Abel, but that doesn't make her invincible. We'll come up with some countermeasures for her ability. No power is impossible to beat. For now, let's hit the dance floor for a bit before we try to meet up with any more of the attendees. Won't do us any good to try to make connections all keyed up like this."

    I laughed and stepped back sweeping into a bow and holding out a hand for her. "Fair enough, then may I have this dance milady?"

    "Of course, kind sir." She said with an exaggerated curtsy, then took my hand, only to squeak when I spun her around and then caught her, the two of us stepped onto the dance floor, and as we did, for the first time I started paying attention to the music. There was a graceful serenity to the tune that I hadn't even noticed, in fact, it wasn't just an emotional reaction, I could feel a familiar sensation as I immersed myself in the sound of the instruments.

    "Is this?" I said, stopping. "Does this music replenish soul strength?" It took me a second to put my finger on it, but I finally realized what I was picking up.

    Callie paused too, her eyes widening. "It is. This is the same kind of sensation as Benny's spiritual calming belt. You can do that with music? That's amazing." It had to be an ability, but an ability like that must be insanely hard to come by. It might even be necessary to be born with it directly, but even if it wasn't the stat requirements and the skills needed to synergize it were definitely crazy.

    We danced for a while, and because I could, I decided to take advantage of the time to train a bit. The replenishment was a good opportunity, it would be a shame to miss it. With a pretty decent amount of effort, I triggered Cloud Step, but I used my soul strength to alter the skill, creating a single huge platform for Callie and I to step onto. Then, with a serious effort, I MOVED the platform, lifting us both up into the air so we were dancing above the crowd.

    This was an Ascendant party, so flying wasn't anything huge, it mostly just got a few laughs, but one or two of the other couples used their own abilities to join us in the air. I saw a few fire users flying above the crowd, and one or two people using wind and even a gravity ability or two. One pair of ladies were dancing above the crowd on what looked like a cloud of purple starlight, and I even saw Abel and Mel join the party, with my mentor using his spatial ability to eliminate the distance between his feet and the ground while still standing mid air.

    Dancing up here, we could see the riot of forces and stars right above us, and it was staggering to be up among the illusion the Mindbender had set up for this party. "Flashy entrance kid." Called my uncle's voice from behind us. I turned to see him and Stella, standing on a miniature galaxy courtesy of her cosmic witchcraft. I was pretty sure Zeke was powerful enough to just forcibly defy gravity with raw stats, I knew that really high ranking Ascendents (D-rankers and above) could fly regardless of ability, but he was keeping a low profile so he seemed content to let Stella do it.

    I shrugged. "Anything worth doing is worth doing big." I doubted this counted as a great deed or anything, but I was sure it would at least generate a bit of buzz for me in terms of making connections. Callie could definitely use it as an icebreaker.

    Zeke cracked up at that. "Well said kid, couldn't have phrased it better myself. Anyway, don't spend the whole night up here. With this Soul Soothing Song, you probably could, but you'd miss the food and the company." Zeke's way of telling me to start our mingling soon. I desperately wanted to stay up here, since the 'soul soothing song' was good training for me, but I knew as a candidate making connections was integral and it was something I needed to learn eventually.

    With a sigh I waved to the others as I let the Cloud Step platform lower to the ground. I wanted to ask Zeke about the music, but he was clearly busy so I just filed it away for later. As we touched down, Callie went up on her toes and planted a kiss on my mask, smiling up at me happily. "Thanks for the dance handsome." Then she dragged me over to one of the floating cloaks to get some food.

    We filled a few more shadow plates with hors d'oeuvres before looking around for the next target we needed to schmooze. We settled on Burning Fist, or Edgar as he preferred to be called informally, off in the distance, talking to Cark and Sage, with Saffron nearby. I should have guessed the relation from the names honestly, but I figured they might be cape monikers. With an internal shrug, I followed Callie over to talk to them. I had to admit, this really was turning out to be a hell of a party.
  16. Threadmarks: chapter 335
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Waking up the next morning, I was incredibly exhausted. Between helping Callie schmooze 'randoms' as Carl called them, and training (I absolutely wasn't going to waste a chance to train my soul strength nigh-limitlessly) my brain was fried, and I was still tired when I woke up. Not physically tired, since my Vitality was pretty high, but mentally tired. The process of constantly exhausting and refilling soul strength was a unique kind of exhausting I'd never experienced before.

    Still, I'd made considerable progress last night. I was pretty sure I could handle using Magma Leg without instantly exhausting my soul strength now, which was a huge boost to my abilities. Of course, the biggest harvest from last night was something we hadn't even known had happened until this morning. Once we woke up we found an envelope pinned to the door of the house with our next opponents listed inside.

    We would have been totally in the dark about who they were, except we'd been chatting up everyone last night and had
    managed to dig up quite a treasure trove of information on the other teams. The team from the Divine Stainless Temple had been precisely one of the teams we'd heard about.

    It wasn't actually a shock that they'd come up, because the main combatant of the Divine Stainless Temple used an extremely weird primary weapon, and his first round opponent complained endlessly about how stupid and ridiculous it was that he lost to a guy using a mop.

    "Ah shit." Benny said as he read it. "You guys are fighting mop guy? He's pretty strong right? Honestly, how does a person train mopping to a Beginner or even Intermediate Skill. And where the hell do you get a G-ranked mop from? I still say those Turtle Breath Monastery guys were just chumps."

    Abel, who had crashed with us at the house rather than head back to G-district, shook his head. "Nope. Their team leader was actually decent. You get a feel for martial arts aura. I'd say...Intermediate rank, probably somewhere in the middle. Not a stand out favorite, but still, pretty decent. Plus I haven't seen him fight but 'Turtle Breath' makes me think defensive art. Those guys are always a bitch to deal with."

    Jessie snickered from her spot at the counter. "So you're saying they got...cleaned up." We all groaned at the bad joke, though I secretly sidled over to give her a fist bump for the hilarious pun.

    Abel rolled his eyes. "I'm just saying not to underestimate him because his weapon is weird. Don't we have a guy on our team who can beat people stronger than him with video game Skills? Stupid to assume other people can't do interesting things with underwhelming Skills. Mopping is a new one on me, but I could see how it could be pretty useful in a fight. I mean, it's basically a net on a stick."

    "No." Said Callie. "That's a butterfly net, and it's already a thing, but I see your point. Also I really hope we don't ever have to fight someone who uses a butterfly net as a main weapon. I think mops are about the most ridiculous form of weaponry I can stomach."

    That set Jessie off on another round of giggles. "You guys clearly didn't hear about the team with the guy who fights with a mug." We all just looked at her, and she put both hands up. "Hey, I swear that's not a joke. Mug guy crushed his first round opponent. They were whining about it all night."

    Ignoring the ridiculousness of that, I turned to look at Callie. "I wasn't listening to any of the other stuff they said about the Stainless Temple." I grimaced. "Sorry, I was bored at that point, so I started training with Seek Hidden to pass the time. It doesn't have any outward signs so figured it would be ok." Naturally I needed to take best advantage of the music, and while dancing had helped using my other skills was useful too as long as I actively altered the skill during execution.

    She just smirked at me and patted my arm. "I know sweetie. I could tell. But don't worry, no one else could. You did a good job of pretending to be interested. If it wasn't for the bond I might not have noticed. But it's fine. I noted everything down. I know you aren't a fan of those kind of events and that you put plenty of effort into meeting people for most of the night."

    I just shrugged. I'd pick up people skills eventually. Unless...were there people Skills? Celine probably had some. It didn't matter. I had enough Skills to deal with trying to upgrade all the subskills for DS Mastery. "So." Callie continued. "The other members of the Divine Stainless Temple are decent, but nothing overwhelming. One of them can grow, which is interesting, and one of them can create swords. The last one just uses lightning blasts, but he teams up with sword guy mostly and they're pretty effective."

    "Wait." I said in surprise. "He can GROW? Like...make himself bigger? How does that even work? Does he gain more Impact with size? Less? Is there a limit?" I'd heard of a few impressive powers, but that one was kind of over the top even by Ascendant standards.

    She sighed. "Sadly, no one could say. I can pretty firmly say no to the first. That ability would be far beyond the scope of anything I've heard of. Even your ability isn't that broken. I don't know if he has relative Impact or if, like you said, it diminishes as he grows. There's obviously a limit, of course, since he has limited stats. I'm not sure if he has a stat multiplier when he gets bigger, but if not the power isn't that impressive. Just gives him better reach. Smart play would be to use it in small measures, making himself slightly larger. I'll look into it before we decide how to handle him."

    "That's a good idea." I said. "We have a few days until the next round anyway." Speaking of which, I called Callie to the training room, waving off the others, though they didn't try too hard to follow. When she got down there I grinned at her. "Not sure if I mentioned, but yesterday I officially hit a thousand points. I'm capped for G-rank. Which means my wishes going forward are all yours. Since I was getting all my points from the Beast Lord Garden, I'm even prepaid on my contract with them for quite a while."

    She squealed with joy. "Awesome! I was a little worried about that. Today and four more days, that'll put me at seventy-five points. What do you have left of the attacks I traded you before?"

    I could see how excited she was, but I was pretty curious. "What are you going to focus on endgame? I know you wanted to try to qualify for a stronger ability when you synergize by making sure one stat was much higher than the others. Still going for Perception?" That was her highest and her original specialty, as well as extremely important for anyone who fought with Stealth. It would even have benefits for her constructs, allowing her top make them more detailed and make better use of her Shadow Manipulation.

    She nodded. "I have a general idea what I'm doing, but yeah. As much as I love the extra Might, Perception is my bread and butter. I've been able to focus so hard on other stats because it was so high, but my fighting style is heavily influenced by my ability to move unseen and deceive the senses, not to mention find blind spots for my shadow attacks."

    "Speaking of which." I said with a frown. "I'm low. I can channel your ability through the bond as far as I know though, so attacks don't seem as useful. Any ideas for what you can use to pay?"

    She nodded. "I was thinking about that. The bond makes it tricky. My best idea was just to go out solo and make some money. I took a few missions while you were doing your thing with the Beast Lord Garden leading up to the first round. Nothing crazy, but enough to save up some chits." She passed me a small bag. Fifteen G-ranked chits. "I worked for them myself and not as part of the team, so they should still serve as payment, right?"

    I wasn't positive, but I suspected they would. As long as they were specifically hers and something she owned herself it should be fine. Team goods and stuff from the Pavilion was partially mine so it wouldn't work as payment, but money she went out and made on her own should be fine. I nodded to her, and she grinned. "Awesome, I wish for fifteen points of Perception. Paid for with fifteen chits of our same rank."

    Wish detected. Grant wish? I confirmed. The usual stat requirements rolled across my vision, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that I could actually queue up wishes like that. It made things much easier than listing them out one by one, especially if I got the payment all at the same time. Realistically though, it was just a minor timesaver. I still had to let the five wishes build and grant them individually.

    The chits worked fine thankfully, each of them contained more than enough Creation to be a viable payment, and they also weren't so valuable as to tip the scales the other way. Callie got all fifteen points dropped right into Perception, bringing it to two hundred thirty five points and her full total to nine hundred of a thousand. Callie gave a happy sigh once all the wishes were finished. "Man, it feels nice for my Perception to spike like that. I'm pretty excited for my breakthrough when the tournament ends."

    "You going to tell me about it?" I said with a laugh. "Or do I have to guess?" With Beginner rank Shadow Manipulation and a high concentration of Perception, I couldn't think of what she might unlock. Something related to infiltration probably, but she seemed to have a specific direction in mind. Given Jessie's Lifeweaver ability and how well if conformed to her future goals, I wasn't entirely certain that wouldn't affect things actually. We'd have to wait and see.

    "Nope." She grinned at me mischievously. "Not that I know for sure how it'll turn out. I know what I'm aiming for at least. You'll just have to wait and be surprised like the rest of them." I rolled my eyes at that but didn't really mind. I was excited to see what she would end up with.

    I kind of wished I could synergize my ability sometimes, but doing it at this point would be pure stupidity. The main benefit of the Wish power was fast growth, which in the end was the most impressive power you could have in a world like this. Stats decided everything, and getting more of them made all my other abilities much stronger. Once I reached a high enough level I could think about finally synergizing my ability to get something new.

    I suspected that given the massive jump in needed stats, once you reach A or B-rank being able to get even ten or twenty from stats wouldn't be a huge advantage, otherwise my old man would have held off on his own change until he became a god. I wasn't anywhere near strong enough for that to be an issue for me though. So for now I was destined to keep my ability unaltered. With my stockpile of attacks and modifiers from DS Mastery though, I refused to believe I wasn't one of the best at up front combat among candidates my level. I guessed I'd be finding out if I fought Natalie in the tournament. I was honestly looking forward to that.
  17. BJJPanda

    BJJPanda I trust you know where the happy button is?

    Aug 18, 2020
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    So he has already seen someone who can change size, the pavilion guy who dealt with the healers. Also, he has queued wishes before, can't remember when but he definitely has before, might have been one of his beast lord wishes but I am honestly not sure when
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 336
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    "This sucks." My girlfriend groaned as she slumped down on the couch. "I'm an Ascendant. A powerful G-ranker who is probably going to hit F-rank before I turn nineteen, and I have to WORK to make money to pay my own boyfriend. I became a superhero to avoid this kind of nonsense. I hate hunting monsters. I can't even bring you along to help because if we earn the money together it doesn't COUNT."

    I just snickered at her. "You're lucky I already confirmed that I could take cash for wishes. Not that it's surprising. I think that's where most of the WCP's startup funds came from. And honestly, you're ranking up much faster than anyone else our age could even dream of. Four days and you're already only five points from hitting three hundred perception, and forty points from the cap. Can you really complain?"

    She turned her head to glare at me, but there was no heat, it was just sulking. "I can complain about ANYTHING. And you're supposed to listen. I'm being petty, didn't you tell me to do more dumb things for myself? You're supposed to listen to me vent and say how bad you feel for me." I would have, but at seventy five G-ranked chits I was quickly saving up enough of a nest egg to replace my weapon. The cane was getting a bit old. Not that I'd do it during the tournament since they banned F-ranked offensive gear, but that just meant I could save more and get something really nice.

    "I do feel bad. I have to listen to you whine every day, it's a terrible feeling." Callie pouted and hurled a pillow at me, which I easily dodged, sticking my tongue out at her. "But honestly, it's fine. You're almost capped, and then you can just focus on training. Speaking of which, the big fight is tomorrow. Did you manage to dig up any more background on the others?"

    She scoffed. "With my copious free time? Do you know how much work I've been doing? Without a team I have to take smaller missions and making enough to pay off my stats is breaking my back." Then her face lit up. "So of course I did. In fact, I found out something absolutely huge."

    I rolled my eyes at the misdirect, but urged her to continue. She looked around dramatically, as if someone would be listening in while we sat in the living room of the house we shared with a B-ranker. "Apparently...mop guy is a Master Candidate."

    "Bullshit." I spat. "There's no possible way. Didn't Megan say they're stupid rare around here? I mean, I knew there would be some maybe showing up in the tournament, but there's no way the guy is at peak Intermediate in MOPPING." There were limits to how ridiculous Skills could get, and that stretched the limits for me. Like, how would you even train that? And what the fuck was his original ability?"

    Callie just shrugged. "So my sources say. Which is to say Celine. Which is to say the information hall at the Academy." She saw my horrified expression and giggled. "Oh calm down. We have our own Master Candidate to counter him." Her expression turned serious. "I admit though, I am a bit worried, so I already talked to Abel, and he's giving us special training today."

    I blanched. "SPECIAL training? Abel's training is already about as SPECIAL as I can take without dying. If it gets any more special they might not find all the pieces of me."

    "Yeah." She said with a wince. "I'm not looking forward to it either. But if it needs to be done it needs to be done. It's not like the other team will go any easier on us. And while Abel can keep him busy, going up against someone like that, there's no telling if he might manage to get a stray shot in on us."

    She stood up, holding out a hand. "Wait, NOW?" I grimaced. "I'm not mentally prepared. You mind if I go hide under my bed for a few hours?" Raising an eyebrow at me imperiously she just left her hand out. "Alright fine, I'm coming." I grabbed her hand made her physically pull my body off the couch as an expression of my discontent. She just rolled her eyes but didn't complain. If she could whine about nonsense I could to.

    In reality I wasn't...THAT worried. I knew he wouldn't really kill us. This would likely suck a lot. But if he thought it would make us safer I was all for it. We met him down in the training room, and found Mel sitting off to the side nursing a hot cup of tea...WITHOUT her mask. We just stared at her blankly. "I...what?" I said in confusion. I'd never seen Mel's face before, It was so jarring.

    She grinned at us. "Welcome to the team kids. For real. We were impressed with the last fight, and we figured since we're in this together we'd show a little sincerity." She jerked a thumb at Abel. "Drama king over there only takes his mask off when he's going to kick some serious ass, but mine I just leave on our of habit. So...hello." She waved casually. "I wouldn't let it distract you too much though. This is going to be rough enough as it is."

    Abel cracked his neck, starting to stretch and loosen his muscles in a way that utterly terrified me. Abel didn't stretch. Abel didn't need to prepare to fight anyone. This warm up implied he was taking us seriously. Deep down though, I felt a thrill of excitement. My teacher had always been a mysterious existence. We'd seen him get pissed and ruin someone's day, but we'd never seen him get serious. He'd never needed to.

    "This next fight." He said calmly. "Is going to be different than the last. I can't tell you that the opponent will be as strong as I am. But I can't tell you that he won't. I am not going to allow you two to participate in this fight until I'm satisfied that you can survive a battle with someone like me. This training is going to force you to adapt to combat on the Master Candidate level, at least enough to live through it. Are you willing?"

    He obviously had no plans whatsoever to let us continue if we said no, he'd just made that clear. I personally didn't want to though. I had plenty of heals in reserve to use, and I wanted to see what would happen. Still, I felt the need to at least ask. "Are you sure we can? We don't have any Intermediate Skills between the two of us."

    The solemn demeanor slipped as he rolled his eyes, looking to Mel in exasperation. "It's like they haven't ever heard a word we've said? Do I just have an ignorable voice? The first thing you should have learned at the Pavilion is that combat is more than Skills and stats. Sure, you two aren't at Intermediate, and that's going to hold you back. But battle isn't just numbers. I trained my Ragam to peak Intermediate because I love the art, but I was still a member of the Titan Twenty before I was a Master Candidate. I won't say I can train you to beat someone like me in a few days, but surviving should be doable."

    That little thrill had sparked and become an inferno. THIS. This was what I wanted. The reason I craved combat. There was still fear, I wasn't a moron, but the idea of being able to fight above my weight class, to be more than my stats. If I had a chance of walking further in the candidate race it would be like this. I had to evolve. To adapt. To learn. I nodded slowly at him, readying myself.

    I felt the fierce determination in my gut echoed in the bond as Callie took up her own stance. Abel grinned. "Now THAT'S what I like to see. You kids will bring a tear to this old man's eye. But don't think being proud means you don't get beaten. Spare the rod spoil the child and all that." Without an ounce of hesitation he unleashed a fist at us, the manifestation easily the size of a fucking bus.

    He'd chambered the punch from his hip, so while it wasn't overwhelmingly strong it was FAST. I panicked for a split second as it approached, freezing under the pressure, before forcefully dragging my attention to the attack. I grabbed Callie's hand, and she pulled up a shield in front of us. Rather than using my skills alone, we shared the burden, just like we'd been shown in that invocation, only much faster and easier. Stone Limb, modified, Consecration of Flame, modified.

    The dome of darkness hardened into black magma, and it stayed stable just long enough for me to trigger Cloud Step and Leaf on the Wind and drag Callie out of the way. We barely avoided the shattering earthen darkness. The pressure knocked us flying, and I hit the ground, already dragging her up to move again as another massive fist bore down on the two of us.

    We erected another shield, dodging again, and Abel clicked his tongue as he watched us madly scramble. "Your foundations are too unstable. I said earlier that Skills and stats are only part of the equation. Using soul strength to constantly toss out powerful moves to counter my casual punches is a good way to get exhausted to death. You might be able to survive an intentional attack, but if you need to mobilize that much power you'll get crushed by the first sneak attack."

    I panted as I palled Callie to her feet. "You're a Master Candidate using your fist manifestation. How the hell are we supposed to survive it without Skills?"

    He just shrugged. "Your business. I'm just saying that isn't sustainable. Skill use is fine, but you need to take your long term survivability into account. I'm not going to let up anytime soon. You've got dozens more of those to survive if you want to make it through this."

    With a grimace I adjusted my stance, I shot Callie a meaningful look and flicked my eyes at a spot, she seemed confused for a second before finally nodding. He mentioned that Skills were fine, but had specifically told us that using soul strength would wear us down. He was probably right, honestly, I'd built up more soul strength with my training, but even sharing the burden with Callie I couldn't keep doing that indefinitely.

    When he confirmed we were ready, he chambered another punch and a massive fist image hurtled out of the void right at us. Without a second thought, I hauled on Callie's arm, and used Balam to flip her over my head, creating a foothold for her with Cloud Step. She used her own Balam Skill the same way, using the step off point to pivot me, and the two of us floated out of the way on the still active Leaf on the Wind.

    Another fist fired out, and another Cloud Step allowed us to dodge it by a hair, but the third hit me in the shoulder and cracked my arm bones and several of my ribs. I triggered a heal burst and a scan heal together. Callie looked terrified and barely dragged me out of the way of the fourth blow, but I was already healing.

    Luckily Abel wasn't punching rapidfire or we'd both be dead. I was surprised Callie's safety wish hadn't triggered, so he must still be holding back, even if I couldn't tell. Finally he let up for a minute, letting us catch our breath. He didn't say anything, just waiting for us to be ok to go again. Once we reset our stances the training resumed. Gods this was going to be a long day.
  19. Threadmarks: chapter 337
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Abel stopped beating us early enough that I we were able to get a few hours of sleep. Our match was at eleven in the morning, so we had a bit of time to rest at least, but he wouldn't let me heal us until after we woke up. Aside from the natural healing of Vitality, he also knew the blast of energy from the heal burst would stop us from sleeping, and wanted us to maximize the amount of rest we got.

    I healed us up with one heal burst each while we scarfed down breakfast, and then the four of us headed for the arena again, the same one we fought at last time. When we arrived, it was just as packed as before. Just like last time there would be exhibition matches from those who couldn't enter the tournament (we'd kind of gotten in the back door because Natalie pulled strings) for everyone to watch after our fight, but we were the main event.

    Just like before, we waited to be called out and entered the arena, but unlike last time, Abel wasn't carefree and bored. He looked focused, keyed up to a razors edge, and he had a gleam in his eye that I'd only seen a few times. No, not the same gleam. I'd seen him enraged, interested, but this was something else. He was honing himself for battle, truly baring his fangs for the first time. Even against Serenity he hadn't been pressured. Her artifact had been enough to hold him back for a bit, but nothing more than that.

    As we stepped out onto the sand and saw the other team, I felt like his enthusiasm was infecting all of us. Like there was an invisible war drum beating in time to all four of our hearts, and I knew that the training yesterday was only the beginning. These people were strong, and this battle was for real stakes.

    There were four of them, of course. The one in the center was a tall skinny man with shaggy brown hair and a goatee. He had a long face and he was pale and almost sickly looking, being so thin that I could see the bones in his face. He leaned against a mop handle, with the head over his shoulder, and looked like a strong wind might blow him over. The other three members of the Divine Stainless Temple stood a bit back from him, as if giving him space to attack, but I could see that the three of them were experienced in teamwork.

    They stared at us for a moment after the battle was called to start, and then the one on the far and, an olive skinned man with long red hair, barreled forward, expanding as he did. He went from normal size (about five ten) to almost twenty feet tall. As he charged, a massive sword erupted from the sand to one side of him,called by the blue haired man with the single earring I knew was the sword summoner. It came up hilt first, and he grabbed it and swept it horizontally at us, even as the final member of their team, a very small man with a yellow ponytail, hurled a massive bolt of lightning at the shimmering blade.

    Whatever the sword was made of, it conducted the electricity flawlessly, and the sight of the massive electrified blade might have frozen me in place...yesterday. Now I just grabbed ahold of Callie's hand and put my other hand on Mel's shoulder, activating Leaf on the Wind in conjunction with a Cloud Step for each of us to get out of the way.

    Abel stayed behind, staring at the only unmoving member of the group, the mop wielding man, as he casually slapped out a hand to each side, one creating a fist image, and the other manifesting a palm that allowed the swing to arch over where he was standing with a simple window wiping motion. The spatial lubrication channeled through the image forced the sword up and over, cleanly sliding by our teacher.

    His fist though, never made contact. The blow aimed at the supersized team member was slapped aside by the image of a huge wooden pole as mop guy finally made his move. The pole wasn't the last of it either, as the other side of the mop spun up and a massive manifestation of the mop head appeared in front of us.

    I'd wondered how the hell someone could possible get mopping to Intermediate peak, but that terrifying attack told me absolutely everything I needed to know about the Skill. A fucking CANOPY of tightly woven wool strands appeared around us, each one winding itself like a striking snake to try to entrap and bind us from a different angle. Net on a stick indeed, this was absolutely horrifying, and I desperately tried to compensate for the attack with another Cloud Step, but I had nowhere to go.

    Another hand image appeared around us, spatial lubrication smoothing the way along our path and allowing us to glide through the world around the grasping chords. Rather than a single palm, this one traced a myriad of paths in the air with expertly twisting fingers, creating not just a spatial waterslide for us to ride, but a series of interception spacial streams the forcefully turned aside each strand.

    My eyes were wide as saucers as I saw what Abel was really capable of for the first time. The fine control, the speed and dexterity. It was like watching art. Knowing we had zero chance of interfering with those two, I Stepped again, bringing us down on the far side of the arena. Triggering a shadow clone, I sent it sprinting across the sand, then used it as a focal point to cast Sucking Mud.

    The clone slapped its hand down on the sand, and the experience of working with Callie through the bond enabled me to trigger the skill through the clone, but the thing burst because I put too much soul strength into it. Still, the skill worked, and the massive sword wielder's eyes widened as he began to sink into the already fairly unstable sand. A wave of swords burst up from the ground through the quicksand and another several arcs of lighting lit them up, but the other two team members couldn't take the time to follow up.

    From what I could tell the sword conjurer could manipulate his blades, and was currently doing so to help the gigantified guy lift the enormously heavy blade. The lightning caller had to keep a steady stream of electricity going into the weapon to keep it electrified. Landing finally from Abel's help, Callie and I split from Mel, who moved to attack the lightning caller because even without paying him paying attention we didn't have much of a counter for lightning.

    We both attacked the sword conjurer, and as we closed in he (unsurprisingly) conjured a pair of swords and came to meet us. Mop guy tried to intervene, but in a blink Abel was there in front of him. His fists blurred out, weaving and snaking through the air in bizarre arcs that wouldn't have been possible without his ability, and the sickly looking Master Candidate's expression became fierce as whirled his mop.

    Wooden staff knocking the punches askew and writhing mop head tangling up the strikes, I saw the spatial distortions melt under the threads of the mop, causing Abel to snarl. This would be mop guy's ability I guessed. Some kind of cleansing, amusingly enough. The images of fists and mop crashed together in the void above us, but Abel wasn't able to overpower the other warrior because he was still engaging the huge guy with his off hand.

    Turning to Callie, I indicated for her to protect me while I tried something, and she seamlessly stepped in without me needing to speak aloud. I stepped back and triggered another shadow clone. Utilizing all my necessary skills, I stacked poison fire, Afterburner, Mercy Kill, a Triple Stack tranq blow, and Kidney Blow on the clone, then, using the connection to Callie, I hauled on Beginner Shadow Manipulation.

    The soul weight of changing the composition of the clone from 'clone,' to 'giant knife' was nothing to sneeze at, but once I did, I snatched it up (barely able to carry the damn thing because of the size) and triggered Double Trouble. Appearing behind the giant, I slammed the oversized shadow blade infused with super augmented poison and tranquilizer into the massive form, which as I had hoped was MUCH more vulnerable.

    Impact couldn't be generated like that, which meant all of his was spread out over his body. It was why mop guy had protected him from Abel. He probably assumed we wouldn't be able to cause harm to him on a large enough scale to matter without Abel's Skill.

    He was wrong. The giant staggered as the G-ranked superboosted poison tore through his body, forced to shrink back down so his Impact would return to a more condensed state to resist it. That or he passed out from the tranq, either way he slumped over onto the sand, letting the giant sword fall to the ground and massively relieving the pressure on Abel, and letting me disperse my Sucking Mud.

    Unfortunately that freed up sword guy completely, and the massive sword thumped to the ground unmoving as he gestured to the wave of blades from earlier and hurled them right at me. Fortunately, I still had nine charges of Afterburner after that dagger. With the single greatest pull of soul strength I could manage, I triggered Stone Limb, and pulled the strength of the earth over my entire body, simultaneously using a triple stacked density shift on my whole form.

    Sand or not, the dirt beneath me was still earth, and G-ranked earth at that, and Afterburner's tripling effect was stacked on top of that. With the triple strength density shift combined with the triple strength stone limb, my entire body became a living statue too dense for any of the swords to penetrate, which combined with my F-ranked armor meant I took zero injury from the attack.

    My head was on fire, I was barely coherent at this point. The soul strength needed for this was at the very edges of what I was capable of, forcing stone limb to cover my whole body would have broken me before the night of the gala, but all that training had massively increased my tolerance, so I could just barely hold on.

    Feet digging into the sand from the weight, I would have probably been swallowed up even having dismissed Sucking Mud, except I still had Leaf on the Wind active and was able to offset some of it. I felt the sword barrage rain down on me, pinging off my skin like sleet. These were conjured weapons not high ranking crafted blades, and they were only as strong as the Creation and Might of the sword conjurer himself.

    He was so distracted by the attempt to avenge his buddy that he even ignored Callie to attack me, which was not at all wise. She pummeled him the second he dropped his guard, creating a heavy mace from shadows and beating him violently about the head and body, presumably in anger at seeing me get swallowed by a cloud of dangerous cutlery.

    Finally, there was a loud snap and the image of the mop above us vanished as Abel landed a strong hit on the mop handle and snapped it in two, breaking mop guy's momentum. Without his weapon the Master Candidate was helpless in front of my teacher. The whole fight had been so interconnected that once the first domino fell the pressure overwhelmed them and things ended within a minute or two. I let the Stone Skin (as I was calling it) skill fade as I slumped to the ground, barely conscious. I was grinning like a loon as I heard the announcer call the battle in our favor. We'd gotten our second win.
  20. Threadmarks: chapter 338
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    As soon as Mel finished taking down the lightning caller, Callie was at my side in a flash. "Solomon." She said worriedly. "Are you ok? Where are you hurt?" I was confused for a second, before I realized the bond was probably dumping an assload of agony from my brain into hers. She saw me get stabbed a few hundred times and then experience horrifying pain and assumed my defenses didn't hold up.

    I groaned as sat up slowly. My armor being F-rank would have protected me from the actual stabbing, but without the Stone Skin defenses the impact trauma of the blades would had beaten me to mush. That guy had WAY more Might than I did based on the speed those had been going. It made sense since swords are a physical object and need to be durable to be useful, but still, I was glad I'd made that call. I wouldn't have died, but it would have SUCKED.

    "I'm fine." I mumbled. "My head feels like a scrambled egg, but I'm fine. I overdrew my soul strength again." Afterburner was still going too, with another six attacks left, and once I used them I was pretty sure I would drop like a rock. I considered using a heal burst to try to ease the pain, but I was ninety percent sure it wouldn't work and might even make things worse.

    She frowned at me, but nodded with a sigh. "I get it. Sometimes risk is unavoidable. You weren't being reckless or anything, just desperate." She shot the sword conjurer a dirty look, though I don't think he noticed from where he was bleeding profusely and twitching on the sand.

    Standing up, she held out a hand to me, and I let her pull me to my feet. "I can't believe we won that." I said in shock. "Like...holy shit. They were WAY stronger than the last team." I'd been expecting another series of sectioned off individual battles, not that madness.

    Abel chuckled as he strolled over. "Damn right they were. That really got my blood pumping. Danny boy over there is the best fight I've had in quite some time, though I suspect Lament will be a bigger challenge." Despite the seriousness of his earlier demeanor Abel looked just as carefree and lackadaisical as usual. This had been fun for him but I could tell he hadn't been genuinely pushed. Not like we had.

    Mel rolled her eyes as she approached. "What he means to say is good job. That dagger move was a smart play Solomon. Your poison was much more effective on the big guy than I expected. Apollyon never would have been able to snap that mop fighting them two on one." Abel looked annoyed at that assessment, but didn't disagree.

    We turned to the other team, who were still gathering themselves. Callie smiled at them respectfully. "You guys fought a good fight. Almost got us." Her gaze flicked to the sword guy, chilling for a second, before warming back up to match her sunny expression.

    Danny the mop guy (and when the hell had Abel had a chance to learn his name?) nodded. "I didn't expect another Master Candidate, especially a local. I know the Spear Legion has one, and I heard the Primal Hatred Domain is supposed to have a guy who uses a gun of all things, but no one mentioned you." The incredulity about the gun user seemed a bit absurd from a guy who fought with a mop, but to be fair guns were not common Ascendant weapons, so I could kind of see it.

    I filed the information away anyway, and we spent the next minute or two making small talk before heading back to our own entrances. I was still holding back my Afterburner charges, but I knew that wasn't sustainable long term. I'd have to use them eventually, and it was straining my soul even more holding them in, but I'd have to deal with that when the bill came due. Once we were out of the pits, we headed up to meet with our friends, and everyone seemed incredibly enthused about the match.

    "That was fucking AWESOME." Crowed Benny. "That statue defense was amazing, when did you come up with that?" It had been inspired by him learning to use his abilities across his whole body, and by my own growth in soul strength actually, so I was glad he liked it.

    "About half a second before those swords hit me." I wasn't going to sugar coat how close that had been. "Still, won't be doing it too often. Combined with you density boost I was able to withstand a ton of damage, but it's a HUGE strain. More of a last resort, since being super durable is pointless if you can't move or black out from pain."

    He grimaced and put a hand on my shoulder, and I felt a cooling sensation roll over me, taking the edge off the blazing star of agony kindling in the back of my skull. I sighed with relief and did my best to soak up as much of the feeling as I could. "Anyway, glad you guys had fun watching. Pain aside I'm pretty proud of how we did, you think the other fighters noticed us?"

    Zeke, who was leaning back against the empty bench seat behind him, chuckled. "Oh yeah. They noticed. That was middling to decent in terms of this part of the universe. Of course, most of the credit goes to the punchy kid, but still, that'll turn some heads." His expression flattened into a serious frown. "But you should be careful, not all attention is good, and not all tournaments are fought in the pits."

    I wanted to tell him he was being paranoid, but Zeke knew Ascendant culture much better than I did. If he thought people might pull something, then they probably would. Callie nodded gratefully to him as she leaned against me, and I smiled softly at the realization that she was propping me up in case I fell over when the skill ended, while making it look like PDA.

    "Speaking of the tournament." I said uncertainly. "Do we know who our next opponent is going to be? I'm hoping we don't end up against one of the top teams like we did this time."

    Zeke snorted at that. "Top teams? Divine Stainless Temple is middle of the pack at best. They have a Master Candidate sure, but the other three were all absurdly weak. Plus, who told you that Master Candidates are the only ones who can be strong? Skills are important, but as you well know, some abilities are just stronger than others from the start."

    He didn't have to specify that he meant mine. But come to think of it he wasn't wrong. Serenity had been able to keep up with Abel. Maybe he could have overpowered hear if he went all out, but I'd seen him crush F-rankers without much trouble. For her to be able to hold him back naturally meant she was much stronger than I'd given her credit for.

    "D-rank factions." Zeke said seriously. "Are all led by Masters. Most of them have complete inheritances of
    complimentary Skills to help their descendants get as strong as possible. Not to the level of some of the inheritances from bigger factions, but synergizing powerful abilities wouldnt be hard." He nodded to Jessie. "With the right knowledge about the stat and Skill requirements of certain abilities making powers like hers is more than feasible."

    Which really put things into perspective because Jessie was a powerhouse for our rank. Honestly she was the strongest of the four of us within her area of specialization. I sighed. "Ok point taken. Still, can we ask about our opponent? Forewarned is forearmed. We waited for the note last time, but I never asked if we actually had to."

    Callie looked over to Abel and our mentor shrugged. "I can go ask about it at least. Might be a good idea to have the info. We only have two days until the next fight right?" Three hundred arenas and twelve hundred teams meant two fights a day for two days. That would bring Callie to the cap counting today's wishes, which would make me feel a lot better about going into whatever fight we had coming up.

    As he headed off, I turned to Callie. "When he gets back we should get out of here. Though I did forget to ask, how did the others do in their fights?" I was planning to go see them fight at some point, but I'd mostly been busy with wishes and training. Maybe we could see who had a fight tomorrow and drop in to take a look.

    She grimaced. "Silent Dagger and Beast Lord Garden lost their fights. Cark's team and the Twilight Order won and advanced to the next round. Sloane was pretty upset about it, and my uncle wasn't thrilled either."
    I winced at that. Realistically, some of our people wouldn't make it past the second round. In fact, it was probably impressive they all made it through the first. I hadn't actually checked in on their next opponents at the ball, and I felt like kind of a dick for not thinking of it.

    "Excuse me." It was kind of a surprise when our conversation was interrupted by a frail looking guy with baby blonde hair and blue eyes. "I was extremely impressed with your battle just then. I thought I'd come introduce myself." He held out a hand. "My name is Alec Brightwind. I'm a member of the Heavensong Tower. I was amazed by your performance just now. I actually wanted to invite you to a little gathering my Tower is holding for all the most promising teams."

    I deferred to Callie on this of course, since she was the leader and the one who dealt with political stuff. However, she didn't look convinced. Zeke had JUST told us to be careful about who we trusted, and this guy was so meek and inoffensive looking it made my teeth itch. He reminded me of Aiden. Not in terms of being a cultist or anything I didn't think, he didn't have that vibe, more that he was definitely a wold in sheeps clothing.

    My instincts were decent enough to pick up on Mordaunt, though I'd ignored them like a moron, but this guy didn't strike me as that kind of threat. He WAS a threat though, and Callie could see it too. Noticing her expression he held up both hands placatingly. "We don't have any nefarious intentions here. This is Rajak, there are dozens of powerful E-rankers keeping watch. It's better to make friends than enemies. Tournaments end, but friendships can last a lifetime."

    Callie seemed to weigh things for a bit before finally nodding. "Alright. When is it? If we have the time we'll make an appearance. You don't mind if we bring some friends right?" Going alone would be stupid. While Rajak (the normal city anyway) forbid things like higher ranked Ascendents killing lower, if we got mobbed by other G-rankers they might not bother to step in.

    He beamed. "Of course! It's in two days, right before the start of the third round." He pulled out a card and passed it over. The piece of cardstock had only an address printed on it. "Anyway, it's been nice talking to you, I have a few other teams to invite so I'll be going. I hope to see you there!" Cheerfully turning around, he strolled off into the crowd, stopping to talk to several other teams as he went.

    I watched him go uncertainly. That had been odd. I got a sense of extreme danger from that guy, but not malice. I had a feeling he was going to make it to the later rounds, and that we might be up against him in the future. The sense of oppression I felt from him was no less than what I felt from Lament, though it was...different. I was pretty sure that guy was going to be a tough opponent. I couldn't wait.
  21. Threadmarks: chapter 339
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The next day, we decided to come in and watch Lament and Wren's match. They were set up in a different arena, but they were in the second day's lineup, so were able to come watch their fight. Zeke actually came along too for some reason, and I was curious as to why. As we settled into wait for the match to start I decided to just ask. "So what made this fight interesting enough to check out with us?"

    Zeke turned to look at me with a smile. "Lament. Not many people manage to train their soul strength to that level out here in the boonies. There's three or four kids here who made it to the same point, and that's solid talent without any sort of heritage or guidance, though it isn't something you can do further up. At least not nearly as easily. There's a reason that even at G-rank they call them Master Candidates."

    The way he was talking made it sound like they'd hit some kind of standard. "Is there a method of gauging soul force comparatively? Like some kind of metric people can use?'

    That got me a grin. "See, that's the kind of question you should be asking." He was clearly pleased I'd brought this up. I was guessing it was basic cultivation info he was allowed to share, but only if I asked. "Yes. There is. Soul strength is gauged through color. I-rankers have an ivory soul. H-rankers are pink, G-rankers have a red soul, so on and so forth. To clarify, you're maybe ten percent into red. It's MUCH easier to train your soul at low levels, and the hammering method you and the others here use only really works well at red."

    "So Abel the others are at the peak of orange?" It made sense that since they were almost Experts they would be at the top of the orange soul strength bracket.

    Zeke just laughed. "What? No. They're BARELY orange. Listen, kid. Soul strength is incredibly important, for reasons that won't become apparent until you get much more powerful. Most people however, never cultivate soul strength. Despite that, even basic ass cultivators are able to rank their skills up to a single rank ahead. Intermediate at G-rank isn't impressive, not like PEAK Intermediate. Orange can take you to the peak of Intermediate, but it's impossible to break through to Expert without breaking through to F-rank unless your soul reaches yellow grade."

    "So they're at orange, barely, which means despite being right up against the barrier they can't push through that last little bit without WAY more effort than you'd expect?" I asked uncertainly. Abel had made it sound like his soul was just a drop away from strong enough, but it seemed like that drop was the difference of an ocean.

    He nodded. "Sure. And when they rank up that process happens naturally. The process of ranking up is a sublimation. The weight of your stats condense your being and you become heavier, your Impact rising. In the process your soul becomes tempered and categorically rises on rank."

    I frowned at that. "So there are ten ranks of soul strength, just like cultivation ranks?" Well, eleven but I wasn't counting gods because who knew how the hell you became one of those.

    "Not exactly." He said wryly. "But don't worry about that for now. As far as you're concerned there are ten for the moment. Tempering at red can be done through your current method, it's called hammering. Being able to hammer your soul to orange is no mean feat. All those kids are geniuses. Maybe not monster level existences, but they have a natural strength of heart that most people can't match. The soul gets harder to temper through hammering as it condenses, you're at maybe ten percent, like I said, but it's going to take you years to get to orange even with all your advantages."

    My displeasure at that must have been obvious, because he just laughed. Undeterred, I pressed on. "Ok, if hammering isn't the way to temper your soul, what is? Is it really something that only large clans can do?" I wasn't resigned to being relegated to a space hick for the rest of my life. All the powerful combat techniques in the world were useless without the soul strength to mobilize them.

    That seemed to be the right thing to ask. "No. Other people can d-" The symbol on his forehead flared, and he gritted his teeth, forcing his breathing to even out. "Shit. That's too much. Fine. There..." He stopped to think over his words. "There is a PLACE, where anyone can temper the soul. I can't tell you more. But I can tell you this. After your soul reaches Master rank it becomes too sublimated to change. Blue is when tempering stops."

    Something about that was important. He couldn't say what, but it was clear from the geas flaring that he'd been about to tell me something related to cultivation secrets that were outside the scope of the competition. I tried to puzzle it out, but Callie got it first.

    "It's important that we go to this place early. Probably during F-rank. You mentioned people able to support Skills two above their rank before. If we can only go up two ranks, then if we wait until we're E-ranked we can't go up two full ranks, we'd stop at blue." She caught the crux of it before I did.

    Zeke beamed. "I knew there was a reason I liked you." Then he winked. "Not that I can, of course, confirm the statement you just made. That would be beyond the scope of my role. But I feel a completely unrelated need to comment on your cleverness at this seemingly random time." His eyes flicked to the pit. "Anyway, enough talking about soul strength, your friends are coming out. I want to see what the spear girl can do. She and your little buddy are the most interesting two here."

    Lament, Falken, Wren, and Lestri came out onto the sand as a unit. Lament was in the lead, with Falken dragging behind. I didn't know what Falken could do, but I was pretty sure he was strong. Apart from Lament he seemed to be the strongest team member based on how the others acted. Not a Master Candidate most likely, but still powerful as hell. "Who the hell are they fighting by the way?" I asked Callie.

    "Blood Fiend Society." Said my girlfriend with a grimace. "Nasty bastards. Sacrificial abilities that can induce temporary berserk modes. Finding information about them was actually really easy, since they aren't exactly subtle. Of course, that's just their core heritage. How much each person uses their faction's unique Skills and methods and how much their rely on inborn abilities is up in the air, as we saw in our last fight."

    The other party did kind of look...Blood Fiend-ish. They all wore deep crimson robes and stylized demonic masks. Couldn't tell anything about their appearances except their eyes were red like fresh blood. As they stepped out, they glided over the sand, not literally, but with dramatic swooping strides that trailed their long robes across the ground. Sadly, the isolation barrier stopped us from hearing what was said, but judging by Lament's bored expression, it wasn't anything too interesting anyway.

    The society members spread out around the Spear Legion, taking up a four corners position, before two of them dashed in, transforming mid stride into some sort of slavering red furred beast. Lestri and Wren stepped in to deflect them. The larger brother whirling out his massive spear to keep them at range. Lestri used a rapid fire stabbing technique that relied on the spear sliding through his hand like a pool cue, driven by the grip he had on the base with his other palm.

    The other two members of the society raised their hands and called forth a storm of sanguine energy. Crimson fire and blood red lightning, that pooled together above their heads in a vortex. As that happened, the sand in the arena began to glow an ominous red, and energy started to flow out of it, siphoning up into the vortex. The more energy that fed into it the more terrifying it became, growing in size and ferocity even as the red sand dimmed.

    "What the fuck is THAT?" I asked in horror. That attack was much stronger than it should be coming from two G-rankers. At this point that vortex had firmly pushed into the realm of F-ranked attacks.

    Zeke whistled. "Crafty. They used the vortex invocation as a focus for a blood sacrifice art. That arena has had a LOT of blood shed in it over the years. It's baked into the ground at this point. Shouldn't be able to take all of it though. Even both their souls together shouldn't be able to handle that kind of pressure. I expect they're just about done with the buildup."

    True to his words, the siphon of sanguine energy cut off. Rather than charge it more, the two casters raised their hands and pushed, slowly forcing the cloud of roiling energy to shrink. They condensed the power slowly and steadily, and as it shrunk it started to shape itself. By the time they finished there was a giant head that resembled the creatures the first two had turned into.

    It became obvious that the two creatures were playing distraction for the casters, and I expected Lament and Falken to take the time to attack, but neither did. Lament just watched the huge head of bloody fire and lightning form in the air, and Falken appeared to be napping, held up only by his spear.

    The hooded figures threw their hands forward, and the head began to descend, its giant mouth opening in a soundless roar. Or soundless to us, based on the way the sand moved it wasn't soundless to the rest of them. Lament cracked her neck, smiling confidently, and started to spin her spear. One rotation, two, hand over hand as she whirled it in a slowly accelerating circle. The shaft of the weapon began to spark.

    Each pass made the electricity gather more densely, and after a minute or two the spear was a blue glowing blur in front of her. She'd closed her eyes as she did it, ignoring the descending head, but as that terrifying blood monster approached her eyes snapped open, and her grip CHANGED, the spin turning into a brutal upward thrust with every ounce of her body behind it.

    She grabbed low and dipped as she got under the blow, and the rising spear traveled from low to the ground up to full extension in a flash, ascending like a pillar of heaven. Above her head, the image of a colossal spear formed, driving upwards with all the momentum of a blue volcanic eruption. The spear manifestation smashed into the howling beast head, and impaled it right through, the spear rising past it and smashing headlong into the dome over the area, which rather than just block sound apparently protected the audience. The dome fucking CRACKED.

    Thankfully it didn't break, but the head did, exploding into a massive conflagration of bloody flame and blue and red lightning. The two casters clutched their heads and fell to their knees, and Falken's eyes snapped open, his spear snaking out as his form blurred, smashing into the monster Wren was fighting and sending it hurtling into the wall of the arena as Wren seamlessly turned to attack the one besieging his brother.

    Everyone just stared in wonder as the match came to an end within only a few minutes of starting. I'd certainly learned a lot. Firstly that Lament had a lightning ability, second that these people had been STRONG, even without a master candidate, and they'd been able to force her to, if not go all out, at least put in effort, and thirdly that Lament was way more terrifying than I had expected. I swallowed hard as I turned to look at Callie, muttering. "We...should probably train some more."
  22. Threadmarks: chapter 340
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    After we watched the match, we invited them to the party we'd heard about from the Heavensong Tower. Callie was sure after that showing, they would definitely get some attention. We agreed to meet up the next day for the party, and Callie made her wishes for the day, and again the next morning, paying me another thirty G-rank chits, and getting another thirty points of Perception, bringing me up to a full E-ranked chit worth of personal funds.

    We met up with them around sunset to head for the party, which was apparently formal dress, so I got another use out of that suit from the Gala. We drove to the address on the card together, and by the time we got there it was dark. Benny, Celine, Jessie, Abel, Mel, and the Spear Legion came, but this was a younger generation party so Zeke, Stella, and Melinda stayed home.

    "I'm starving." I announced as we headed into the nondescript building. "You guys think they'll have any decent food there?" The area of the party was eerie, we'd come to a back street where the lights were dim and there weren't many people. I'd have thought it was a trap except I could see a few other formally dressed people our age filtering into the building, so I guessed the people here just prized secrecy.

    Callie chuckled. "Probably. Formal parties usually have decent stuff. Canapes and the like. I hope they have crab puffs. The gala didn't and I really love those. They were basically the only good part of some the parties I went to as a kid."
    Benny rolled his eyes, faux-muttering to Celine. "These two, I swear. We're lucky Nightstrike is so obsessed with loot or I'd worry they would eat us out of house and home." When he caught us looking he stuck out his tongue at us, and I flipped him off.

    Deliberately raising my voice, I stage whispered to Callie. "Did you know that when Clockwork was a kid, he used to have a phobia? Specifically, he used to be terrified of owls."

    "They're creepy!" He rebutted with fervor. "What kind of mammal can turn its neck all the way around? You're the weird one for not being bothered. They swoop up mice and small animals and shit out whole skeletons. It's horrifying. They're like living nightmares."

    I cracked up at his defensiveness, but we didn't keep sniping. The bouncers at the door were well hidden, but when we got close enough they resolved from the shadows to block our way. Probably some kind of Stealth Skill. "Invitations?" The one on the left said blandly. I fished out the card and handed it to him, and he inspected it and then handed it back with a nod, ushering us in.

    The inside of the building was much more lavish than the plain exterior would suggest. This place was probably a hotel based on the decor, and a fairly upscale one, but most likely catering to more...discrete clientele. It made sense some of the shadier forces from the WCP or even among the visitors wouldn't want to stay in a noticeable spot. "Well." Said Jessie as she took it all in. "This is much less dramatic than the last party, but I feel more comfortable here I think."

    She wasn't wrong. "I get what you mean." I said contemplatively. "It's stuffier but less otherworldly. The lack of crazy illusions helps, but the lack of E-rankers also makes it feel less restrictive. We're among peers so I don't feel so stiff."

    "Well I'm glad to hear it." Said an amused voice. I jumped slightly as we all spun to se Alec, looking just as harmless and pleasant, with a bland smile in place as he virtually appeared out of nowhere. What a creepy guy. "I'm glad to see you could all make it." He smiled at Lament and co. "And you brought friends, the Spear Legion if I'm not mistaken. I heard about your showing in the second round, very impressive. Please, make yourselves at home, mingle and get something to eat. I'll be around if you need me."

    I expected him to stick to us and be a pain in the ass, but he just waved and melted into the crowd heading into a large ballroom. Not everyone was in the Ballroom though, there were sporadic groups in the halls and hanging around, people who felt more comfortable talking then dancing or shuffling around the edges of the more formal setting.

    Surprisingly, we ran into some old friends. Megan, Riley, Sydney, and their fourth team member, Sam, had noticed us walking around and come over to greet us. Megan, being the more gregarious, was the one to flag us down. "Hey guys. Good to see you. You guys got invited to this too huh? That Heavensong Tower sure has some pull to arrange this many guests across this many arenas."

    I hadn't considered that actually, but she was right. "I wonder how they booked this place." I said with interest. "It doesn't seem like it would be common knowledge. Interesting group of people. Anyway, what's their purpose for all this do you think? Like sure, getting information on other teams and making connections, but there were parties already happening where they could do that. Why throw their own?"

    Callie shrugged. "If I had to guess these are all the teams they consider a threat. Speaking of which." She turned to Megan and Sydney. "Congrats on passing your second round you two. Kind of wish we'd seen your fight, but maybe next time. Who did you end up against?"

    Megan grimaced. "Treepoem Grove. I don't want to talk about it. Suffice to say they were annoying to beat. Riley did most of the heavy lifting on this one, though we should be playing a bigger role as we move on. Heard from Sloane you all took on Divine Stainless Temple and even beat a Master Candidate. Damn impressive."

    Another voice cut in. "Divine Stainless Temple?" We turned to see a few teenagers around our own age in incredibly upscale looking clothes. The one at the front, a girl with short black hair and a bright smile, held out a hand as we noticed her. "Oh, sorry to interrupt. I'm Laura, from the Solemn Vow Guild. If you guys just took on Divine Stainless Temple you must be the team from the Starchaser Pavilion."

    Callie took her hand, looking slightly uncertain. With our Master Candidate going against another it made sense they would have heard of us, but the timing on that introduction had been a little too coincidental. Like they'd been waiting for us. I hadn't heard of them, but Callie either had or was pretending to make them feel better, because she took Laura's hand with a smile of realization. "Oh, Solemn Vow. I've heard of you all."

    Laura looked pleased. "I'm glad, because we're going to be facing each other sooner rather than later. I have it on good authority that you're going to be our next opponents. I couldn't believe my luck when I heard you mention Divine Stainless Temple."

    I couldn't believe her luck either. Literally. I didn't believe for a second that her 'bumping into us' was a coincidence. Callie didn't tense externally, but I felt a burst of suspicion over the bond. "Well isn't that funny. I guess we're in luck too, getting to meet our future opponent so early. We didn't even find out who our fight would be against yet. And we checked."

    Abel had come up basically empty handed looking around. He'd been given a date and time but not told the enemy. Presumably they were waiting until the last minute because so many teams had been so prepared. Which gave rise to the obvious question, how had these people known who they were fighting when no one else did?

    Laura just smiled disarmingly. "Ah, well you know, we've always been good at making friends. We'd love to be friends with you all too actually. You seem like impressive people. It can be so uncomfortable navigating situations like this. Don't want there to be any hard feelings between the teams after the matches. I feel like if we form a good rapport now, even if you were to end up losing we could still be friendly. We could even try to cheer you up. I'm always generous with my friends."

    That...had been an attempt to get us to throw the match. I wasn't the most politically savvy person around, but even I had enough sense to see that they wanted us to fold. Callie's demeanor cooled, her smile becoming forced. I personally didn't begrudge them the attempt, but it seemed like the unfairness of trying to bribe us had upset my girlfriend. Not that I thought we should take the deal, but you don't know if you don't ask. I didn't blame them for trying.

    "That's kind of you." Said Callie frigidly. "But I think we have our hands full at the moment. We already have quite a few friends. Maybe we can make some time to get to know you after the tournament. Don't worry about hard feelings on our end though. We don't plan to lose, so it shouldn't be an issue."

    Laura seemed more amused than offended, putting both hands up in surrender. "No problem, just something to think about. I know that you probably have high hopes for this tournament, but I wouldn't count your chickens before they hatch. Certain parties have a vested interest in making sure the proceedings happen in a specific way. Teams like you and I are just boats on the current. Best to know when to dock and get off the water."

    That had sounded threatening in terms of words used, but her tone was almost...apologetic. Like we weren't the only ones in a bind here. Someone was pushing certain teams to give up in order to get their personal picks through the rounds. My immediate thought was that it was the Cult, but not everything could be because of them right? Then again Pietro's presence showed they weren't even trying to be subtle about their involvement in the tournament, so maybe it was them.

    With a cheerful nod, Laura turned and strolled away, her lackeys going with her. I turned to Callie. "What the hell was that?" I was sure she'd caught more about what had just happened then I had.

    I felt a tug as she resonated her Stealth Skill to prevent anyone from hearing us. "That." She said grimly. "Was a complication. Solemn Vow is a Guild, which is a type of organization most common in the Empire. With Pietro showing up, it means that at least two factions have teams in the tournament. How they managed to get them entered I have no clue, but it seems like the factions involved are starting to apply pressure."

    "Wouldn't that be against the rules?" I knew they were pretty open about interference in the WCP, but the Unity usually put on a more upright face.

    She just shrugged. "Maybe. They tried to bribe us first, the threat was potentially just a warning. It's possible it wasn't even coming from them, they might have been trying to clue us in to the Cult's policy of doing the same. This system borders Cult territory, so there's no way they don't have other teams in the lineup. The Empire probably does too. We need to talk to Zeke and my uncle. This just got a lot more complicated."

    This tournament was a much bigger deal than expected. I knew getting Impact in advance was huge, but this was more attention than I'd expected for something so low stakes. I could see how Natalie had been drawn here. In fact. "Let me get in touch with my cousin. I haven't talked to her since things started, and I think we're due for a sit down." I wanted to know what the fuck was going on. Because I was pretty sure this was more dangerous than I'd been told.
  23. Threadmarks: chapter 341
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    We didn't stay too long at the party. We chatted up a few random people, made some connections, but we were both still worried about what we'd learned. Benny and Jessie had fun, and Abel and Mel gathered a decent amount of attention just by being themselves. Still, the whole night was mostly a blur to me.

    I texted Natalie about a meeting after the party, but I was more concerned about Callie. Through our whole relationship and even before, she seemed so...unflappable. She was right there with me ready to jump into danger, and I was right there with her. But finding out that the Empire and the Cult might both be involved here had scared her. I could feel it through the bond, the creeping taint of fear.

    She was quiet the rest of the night, and finally when we got home she broke. "I think we should quit the tournament." I'd been expecting a talk about her worries, some kind of request for us to be careful, but to actually quit...I just stared at her uncomprehendingly.

    "Cal." I started. "I know this is getting a little dicey, but we always knew things would get dangerous. We still have Zeke watching our backs-"

    "Until we break through." She cut me off. "Then E-rankers are fair game to come after us, and we'd be helpless." We were in her room, and she stood up and started to pace. "The Cult stuff isn't your fault, Shane. I get that. I'd never blame you for your parents baggage, and I'm here for it all. Just like you're her for mine. But the Empire...We're fucking G-rankers Shane. We aren't supposed to be fucking with things like this."

    Her voice was high and panicked and my stomached clench as I felt her fear. I stood up and stopped her, putting my hands on her shoulder. "Whoa. Hey, calm down. We can talk this over. If you really think its best to quit I'm in for it. You're the boss, and more than that we're partners. But this is a chance we might never get again, and it can help us move forward in our goals so much. Are you really willing to just bow out?"

    "What goals?" She shouted. Throwing her hands up. "Why are you even doing this Shane? Any of this? Is it just for the fun? For the adventure? I want to surpass my dad, Jessie wants to bring back her brother, Benny is looking after you, even if he'd never admit it. Why do you even want to be the Wishmaster?" She was shaking, her eyes burning as she stared at me. "Is this just a game? Is that it? It has to be more than that."

    It occurred to me that her being constantly onboard and my bond with her giving me a bit of an inkling what she was feeling had made me WAY too confident that I knew what Callie was thinking. "How long have you been worried about this?" I asked her quietly. She flushed and looked away, and I groaned. "Damn it Callie, what did I say about trying to be perfect. If you wanted to know whats going on in my head why not just ask?"

    Not that I knew really. Was this just a game? Was I doing this purely for the adventure? I wasn't sure honestly, but I'd have thought about it if she asked. I wouldn't have brushed her off. How long had she been worrying herself sick over this? She looked away. "You're always there for me. Helping when I need it. It didn't feel right, questioning you like that. Like I was implying you didn't care. But the Empire...this is getting out of hand Shane. So, I won't say we need to drop out, if you can tell me why."

    I sighed, thinking. I'd asked myself this question. The answer I came up with, just doing what I wanted and having fun, sounded stupid, and silly, and immature. But thinking about it, that wasn't right anyway. If it had just been that I'd have been fine dropping out. But I wanted to keep going. I wanted to win. Wanted to go to the Moonsong Glade and continue to grow, not because it would be fun, or exciting, but because...

    "It's what I want." I said with certainty. She looked at me, confused. "Moving here. My dad wanted that. Becoming a candidate, my dad wanted that. Maybe. I think. The point is all my choices up to now haven't been. It's my 'destiny' or my 'bloodline' or whatever the fuck. The Cult hates me because of my mom, the WCP supports me because of my dad. But they're not here. It's just me. It's my choice. I want to get stronger. I want to do it my way. Because I want to and for no other reason. Because it's my life."

    I ran my hands over my face. "But it's your life too. All of yours." I said quietly. "I won't push this if you think it's getting too dangerous. We can still grow and get stronger without winning. I have a contract with Natalie, but it was for an alliance, not a commitment to definitely do all of the tournament. If you think it's too dangerous we can pull out." I'd pushed Callie to make decision more geared to her own interests, I'd be a massive hypocrite if I ignored her request to pull back for our own safety.

    Callie didn't say anything for a minute, she just stared at me, then she blew out a breath. "I can't exactly fault you for wanting to be your own person. Not given my motivations for all of this. How long have you felt like this? Why didn't YOU tell ME?"

    I shrugged. "I'm not introspective. I didn't really realize it until it came time to quit. But this is important to me." I looked her in the eye. "It's just not as important to me as you. This is your call. That's not fair in some ways, but I can't be objective here. If you think this is too dangerous then we call it quits."

    "No." She said firmly. "You have a reason for wanting to go ahead. It might not be one most people would get, but I do. We continue." She held up a finger. "BUT. If the Empire or the Cult start putting overt pressure on us directly we bail. I'm willing to see this through as long as we aren't getting in the way of their plans too much. I'm not sure how willing they are to interfere in things under the noses of the other forces. Having the WCP and Unity around might be enough to keep them in check, but if it's not-"

    I grinned at her, wrapping my arms around her and kissing her soundly. "Of course. If things get to that point we're out. We can talk to Natalie too. She might have some kind of insurance set up to keep them off her back. She knew about this way before I did and I suspect she has a better handle on the situation than us." Natalie wasn't any more in touch with the family than I was as far as I knew, but she was older and had been doing this longer. She most likely had way more connections than I did, and I doubted she'd have jumped into the middle of a fight between factions if she knew it would kill her.

    I stepped away from Callie, happy to see she seemed to be more relaxed after I mentioned Natalie. She had a point though. When it was just the Cult we were dealing with a specific force with reason to harm me, but we had countermeasures for that and other options to pressure them. If there were multiple factions fighting over the winner of this we had to be careful or we'd get crushed by accident without even knowing how we died.

    It meant a lot to me that she was willing to take the risks here now that she knew what it meant to me, and I swore to myself that if it looked like things were getting out of hand we would take a step back. My teams lives were more important than any amount of self assurance.

    "We should tell the others too." I said after we both sat down. "I'm glad you have my back here, but it doesn't seem right to go into this kind of danger without letting them know. When we were just in the tournament they weren't really involved, but if we piss off a faction and they come after us they'll target Benny and Jessie too." I paused. "Well, and maybe Abel and Mel, but those two can take care of themselves. We'll tell them too of course, but I doubt they'll care. Abel will probably think it's cool."

    Callie chuckled at that. "You aren't wrong. But yeah, I think telling them is the right choice. Knowing the two of them I doubt it'll change much. Jessie needs your help to have any real shot at bringing back her brother, and Benny won't let you go into something like this alone." She held up a hand to forestall my comment. "Yes, I know you have me, but you know what I mean. He's got your back."

    He did. Always had really. As for Jessie...I felt bad that she might get sucked into this out of some kind of obligation. Callie was right though. Most people in the system would probably never make it past E-rank. The further out from the larger factions you went the harder it was to rank up. Jessie had an amazing power, but that wouldn't be enough to get as high as she needed.

    I would do everything I could to help her of course, even if she decided to back out, but she was also fiercely loyal. She wouldn't take my help and abandon me. I was just glad she had Randall to watch her back. Her combat capabilities weren't nearly as impressive as Benny's, despite all her power. Having the big bear as backup made her much safer, especially if he kept growing and eventually ranked up to E-rank.

    Despite everything though, I felt...different. Knowing more about my reasons for doing this was cathartic. It sounded stupid for someone to do something without knowing why, but people lied to themselves all the time. I guess it took real pressure for me to finally understand what was making me tick. Granted, I wasn't sure going on a universe spanning adventure because I wanted to make my own decisions was exactly reasonable, but it was probably better than aimless drifting.

    As for what I wanted to do in the long term with that freedom...who knew? I didn't have a plan for now, but being able to not have a plan was pretty nice. I'd help my friends as best I could. I had a few goals in mind though. I wanted to find my mom once we left the planet. I'd never met her, and I'd really like to see what she was like. Finding my dad at some point would be nice, though whether it was to give him a hug or punch him in the throat I couldn't say. Maybe both.

    There was a buzz on my finger and I confirmed that Natalie had gotten my message and was responding to me. She couldn't meet up tonight and tomorrow was the next round matches, but we made plans to meet the next day to talk about our next moves. In the meantime, I didn't have much time to think things over. I was a bit busy trying to figure out countermeasures to the Solemn Vow Guild. After all, tomorrow was the next fight, and this whole thing was kind of moot if we lost.
  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 342
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Callie didn't use her wishes the next morning, we decided to wait. Not that we would be able to use them during the tournament with everyone watching, but better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them. We got to the arena early so we could prepare and ask around for more details on the Solemn Vow Guild, because what we had on them so far wasn't much.

    As far as we could tell Laura was the captain, no surprise since she'd done most of the talking. As for abilities...nothing. One of them had some kind of transportation ability, and they worked in concert, but apparently the visual aspects of the power were so confusing no one in the audience had any clue what was actually happening.

    Something about broken glass and teleportation, but no one was really sure, and the others hadn't used any obvious powers. There had just been a lot of movement and blood and then it had been over. Whatever they could do, they didn't fuck around.

    We'd come in early to try to get some more leads, but their first two opponents had been so thoroughly outmatched they hadn't needed to show anything. So as we stepped out onto the sand, we were all pretty grim faced at the battle ahead. Well...Callie and I were. Mel was wearing a full face mask and Abel mostly just looked intrigued.

    Laura greeted us with a friendly smile when we stepped out, her teammates all lined up behind her in single file. A short dark skinned girl with green eyes and a stoic expression, a tall, pall redheaded guy with freckles and a bushy beard, and an olive skinned guy with a bright smile and wavy dark hair. "Hey there." The team leader said warmly. "Good to see you again. I take it you decided to stick with your original plan? I respect the guts honestly. We aren't going to hold back on you though, I hope you know that?"

    Callie seemed relieved by that. We'd expected Laura to be condescending or rude about us deciding to fight. Not that we cared, but her not being too pushy meant at this point in the tournament things hadn't gotten too serious and they could afford to ignore us. Well, that or they were super cocky and thought we would definitely lose. Either way we'd take it.
    Before she could respond though, Abel apparently got bored of the banter and threw a punch at the enemy team.

    The fist was the size of a bus, but to my shock, it didn't land. Not because they dodged or anything, but because as it hit the air in front of them the space SHATTERED, exploding outward in a cascade of silvery shards.

    Mel and Abel both dodged as I grabbed Calli, Leaf on the Wind and Cloud Step getting us clear of the space shards as they tore the air apart, eventually stopping to float in place in a giant web of fragments that looked like nothing so much as a suspended explosion that had stopped mid blast, except without the blast force and with mirror shards instead of shrapnel.

    "Huh." Said Abel. "That's...new." Even he sounded impressed.

    Laura, whose eyes were now reflective silver all the way through the sclera, grinned at us. "Oh you haven't seen anything yet. Charlie, Olivia?" The green eyed girl and the guy with wavy hair each reached out to touch a shard. The ones in the air flashed twice before Laura said. "Blaine." In a tone like a judge declaring the final verdict of an death row inmate.
    Blaine, the red haired guy, spun on a heel and threw a punch containing a mass of condensed black energy at the closest shard. The thing flashed, as did the rest of them and then a fucking TORRENT of black energy blasts began to explode from every one of the shards.

    I cursed and Callie and I danced back, using our synergy and my Cloud Steps to dodge most of the blasts as I activated the overlay for both of us. I still took one in the should and one in the thigh, while she got hit in the ribs, but despite feeling like we'd been shot we pressed on and dodged the rest. The actual energy broke on our armor thankfully, because based on what it was doing to the sand I didn't think I'd have enjoyed taking a blast like that to unprotected flesh.

    One of these matches we would meet someone like me with armor piercing powers and I wasn't looking forward to it. For the moment we dashed behind Abel, who had been using spatial lubrication to divert the attacks and protect himself and Mel.

    Laura clicked her tongue. "I wasn't sure from the reports on the last match, but that confirms it. Spatial manipulation AND a Master Candidate? Nasty combo." She nodded at Callie and I genially. "Impressive moves by the way, him I expected to get away, but the two of you were definitely a surprise. You should be proud of managing to avoid our invocation. Not a lot of teams have the coordination we do."

    Callie grunted. "Thanks so much, that means a lot to my cracked ribs." I frowned and put a hand on her lower back subtly, triggering a heal burst for each of us. My thigh and should, which had been killing me, felt much better. She gestured at the shards. "Invocation huh? I'm guessing the spatial breakage is your ability, then probably some kind of teleportation layered with some kind of bilocation ability to mix with it so every attack comes out of all of them at once?"

    Laura clapped slowly, an impressed look on her face. "VERY nice. Yeah pretty much. You're in the ballpark at least, I won't be stupid enough to confirm or deny the exact mechanics, but knowing the basics of how it works won't make dodging any easier." She shot Abel a pitying look. "Pretty sure your heavy won't be able to throw punches when he's on the defense. Looks like this isn't going so well for you."

    She didn't sound mocking, just matter of fact, which actually made it feel MORE like she was mocking us. I considered how I could take her out and break the effect, but my only real shot at that would be to use Double Trouble to get behind her, and then I'd be standing right in front of all her friends and that would just be asking to get crushed.

    I triggered one of my Stealth charges, covering up my voice as I asked Abel. "Ok, this seems like a space thing, any chance you know how to stop it?"

    He shook his head as he watched them carefully. "No, it's a mishmash of abilities. I could probably move the shards, but I'd have to basically do it one at a time, and there's no way they'd give me breathing room for that. The whole superposition thing is probably a two way street though. Since anything that happens to one of them happens to all of them, if we can damage one it should break them all."

    Which meant our best bet here was probably Mel. I turned to our red masked teammate. "With Abel out of commission on defense, do you think if I juice up your orb with a few stacks of powerups you could smash one of those shards?" I was already going over which abilities would give her the best edge.

    She nodded. "Sure, single target attack drills are part of my training. Flexibility is key, but being able to condense all my flames into the smallest area and land a single blow is and important part of controlling my powers. It'll backlash through the shards most likely though." She glanced at Abel. "I'm sure they have defensive measures for that kind of thing, but can you stop the resulting explosion from seriously injuring us?"

    He waved her off with a snort, and, question answered, I reached out to put my hand on the orb we'd gotten her. Touch of Tears, Mercy Kill, one of Cark's flame attacks, Consecration of Flames. I stopped there because I was pretty sure if I'd used Afterburner or some of my other abilities it would be overkill. Even so, imbuing that kind of power into the orb was easier than imbuing it into a person since my ability recognized objects. It didn't take much soul strength.

    Mel raised her orb wielding hand toward the nearest shard and growled with effort. I could practically see the space around the orb warp for a second, and then a pinprick of light, like a firefly, lit the air. The light got brighter, and brighter, growing slightly but maintaining it's basic size. It was green, and so bright it hurt to look at. Mel groaned with the strain. "Could use a highway."

    Abel flicked a finger casually, and a massive manifestation of the digit appeared in the air, swiping the space between Mel's condensed star of fire and the nearest shard. She pushed it forward with a snarl of effort and the thing hit the lubricated space, going from a slow crawl to flashing across the space almost too fast to see. The whole combination had taken us a split second to pull off, and Mel being behind Abel the star hadn't been visible from a distance until it was too late.

    Laura's eyes widened in horror and she punched out with her own fist, shattering more space and whirling her hands to bring the shards together into a mosaic dome of warped reality. The others reacted pretty quickly, I'd give them that. When their boss started moving they all dived under the defensive barrier. Just as they covered up the star hit one of the shards.

    I saw a blaze of energy in every single one of them, like a supernova being unleashed in a thousand mirrors, and they all blew apart at the same time. Green flame ripped the intervening space inside the field apart as Abel cursed, folding his hands over us and interlacing his fingers to create a defensive manifestation. We'd MASSIVELY underestimate the amount of generated force though.

    Callie raised a barrier inside the construct and pulled on the bond, using Stone Limb on the small dome where it cam in contact with the sand. Abel snarled in pain and I saw his hands actually catch fire, which I didn't know could happen, and I put a hand on his shoulder, triggering a heal burst.

    We dropped the defenses, looking around at the devastation in the arena. Solemn Vow were all alive, thankfully. With the force I'd been worried, but the blast had torn apart their shield and seriously messed them up. They were burned and battered from the backlash, as well as still being poisoned. I was just glad that hadn't killed them by accident.

    "Wow." I said, looking around at all the melted sand. "That was...flashy. Note to self, maybe avoid mixing random power interactions outside of controlled circumstances." Mel had predicted backlash but that had been...impressive. We walked over to them carefully, taking our time to crunch across the sand, making sure not to get sucker punched or anything.

    They didn't try it. They were all heavily poisoned, the toxic fire having seeped into their bodies at multiple points. We turned to the crowd and Callie raised a fist, and the announcer called it once they didn't move for a bit. Luckily we could still hear them even through the isolation. Once they did I reached out and switched off the skill, eliminating the poison. They all slumped onto the sand from where they'd been writhing in pain, Vitality already getting to work on the damage, though VERY slowly. Laura grinned up at us. "Ok. Ow. Good fight." Callie laughed and offered her a hand to help her up.
  25. Threadmarks: chapter 343
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Our meeting with Natalie was later that night, after their own match, so we said our goodbyes to Laura and her team. She seemed to be excited to find a powerful opponent or potential ally and insisted on getting Callie's scan ring number. Despite the rough first meeting, she was so enthusiastic about it that Callie couldn't bring herself to turn down the contact details. She also invited us to another party, but we took a pass on that one for tonight given the meeting and all the ones we'd been to lately.

    After she got Callie's details, her smile slipped a bit though. "You should be careful. We aren't the only group hoping to guide how the tournament will progress. If you run into some of the others next round...well, let's just say they won't be as personable as us. You also need to be on alert. We got our fighting assignment early through back channels, and we aren't the only ones. There are people inside the Unity who are less concerned with victory than a payday."

    That was unsettling, but not unexpected. We hadn't known for sure where they got their information, but a traitor had been one of the more likely options. Unfortunately our ability to address that was limited, given who was in charge over there. I doubted Midknight would listen to us even if he cared. Which was pretty up in the air.

    We thanked the others and left, and after we did I triggered Stealth so I could ask Callie a question. "What are the chances you could get us a meeting with someone high up in the Unity who isn't friendly with your dad? You said he's always fighting with some of the other E-rankers to maintain control right? Could we get in touch with one of those?"
    Midknight was a dick, and if he had it out for us there was no rule saying we couldn't back his enemies. I had a contract with Melinda and the Beast Lord Garden, but they didn't use all my wishes or anything. I'd have to recheck the terms but I was pretty sure the exclusivity clause in there was specific to the WCP.

    Callie looked contemplative. "That...might work. It depends what we offer them and how much they dislike him. I never really checked into his enemies, that would have meant getting involved in all his political nonsense after he left and I was pretty outspoken about wanting no part of his life, but I bet Uncle Alex would know."

    I nodded, at least we had a secondary plan at the moment. We headed home right away to get ready for our meeting with Natalie, with Callie planning to do some research before we left. She did get a chance to make her last day's wishes, finally bringing herself to the cap at three hundred thirty five perception and me to a hundred fifteen G-ranked chits. It also marked a breakthrough for my own Wish granting as I was finally able to give four points on her final wish. Which meant I probably could have done it earlier, but hey, live and learn.

    With two three point wishes and one four point wish that left two more for the day, which I used on Benny, topping up two of my triple strength density shifted attacks. He put those eight points in Focus, which balanced it with Might. Benny had decided to do a combination of Focus for Inventing and Might for usage as his model for stat distribution. It might not be as over the top as Jessie's full Vitality allotment, but splitting most of his points between the two should still open up some interesting possibilities.

    Callie, in the meantime, planned to started Skill training hard, making sure her Shadow Manipulation broke through to Intermediate before she ranked up and had to synergize it. She was at the upper edge of Beginner, but the jump to Intermediate wasn't so easy to manage, so she still had quite a bit of work to do. Though given our plans for the night she'd elected to wait until the next day to begin since we had a few days before our next match anyway.

    After a few hours we finally headed out to the meeting, with Natalie insisting we meet in G-district at the pavilion. Our ability to move undetected was much greater in the WCP, especially in lower end districts where we were less likely to run into over the top abilities or people with absurd Perception. When we arrived, my cousin was sitting in Mel's office, feet up on the desk as her two henchpeople loomed on either side of the door. I'd never heard either of them speak, they just kind of...imposed. But they were pretty decent at being imposing.

    Natalie was looking extra relaxed, sipping for a tall thin glass with a wild looking straw and an umbrella. We didn't have those here so I wasn't sure where she'd gotten it. Her eyes lit up when she saw me, and she took an extra large slurp before putting it down on the desk. "Baby cousin!" She said with a beaming grin. "Look at you. Fourth round already. I'm so proud. I knew teaming up with you was a good idea. Congrats on the victory against the Empire's B-team. Even that much is impressive."

    My stomach sank as she said that. Solemn Vow had been strong, if they were the B-team...well it explained why the Empire hadn't tried to put the squeeze on us harder. Speaking of. "So you knew the Empire was involved? Because we didn't. That would have been good information to have."

    She shrugged. "Not really our business. Faction bullshit is for the big dogs. They can't pressure us with anyone too strong so we might as well not worry about it. Besides, the Empire won't go overboard. You have more to worry about from the Cult. Heard you whacked one of their little dictators. Good on you by the way. No one really likes them. They aren't unique to the cult of course, but their structure makes useless arrogant fops more likely to spring up."

    "Not the Empire?" I'd have figured nobility would be a sure way to make sure nepotism ran rampant. Granted, I wasn't in a position to throw stones, but still, it was a surprise.

    She snorted out a laugh. "Gods no. Nobility is rank based. That's their whole cultivation system. Not that there aren't absolute bastards there, it comes with the territory, but useless up and coming nobles get killed off for resources long before they can before strong enough to be a problem. I won't go into details, it involves the way the Empire farms renown, but suffice to say people are very motivated over there."

    "Fine." I said waving that off for another time. "But what about their F-rankers? They can send them after us and our guardians can't do anything about it. Isn't that a huge loophole?" I'd been wondering why they did the two rank buffer up to this point, but I couldn't exactly ask Zeke. Natalie might have some workaround though, and I could take care of some of my worries.

    To my surprise she laughed again. "It isn't a loophole. They leave us vulnerable to people one rank higher because it tests our resourcefulness. Guardians are WCP resources to keep us from getting swatted like flies by high rankers, but they don't want us to get complacent. While WCP resources we don't pay for can't be used to protect us from F-rankers, our personal forces CAN. Allies too."

    Callie made a sound of understanding. "That makes sense. It's all part of the test. With the wish ability, being able to recruit F-rankers and even E-rankers should be a snap. That's why the guardian's duties end at D-rank right? Because by that point they should be established enough to protect themselves."

    "I like this one." Said Natalie approvingly. "She's much smarter than you, hold onto her." I flipped her off and she just cackled at me before responding to Callie. "Pretty much. It can be hard to build up momentum at the lower ranks since newbies have no rep. From what I could find, there was a big problem with candidates getting murdered early into the process to prevent more wishmasters from being added to the WCP. The guardian system was an answer to that."
    "Where's yours by the way?" I'd never met Natalie's guardian and I was a bit curious.

    She shrugged. "Who knows. She's a C-ranker so she has enough Perception to listen into anything that happens on this planet. Not like she needs to babysit me directly. I'm sure your own guardian is entertaining himself too. Probably has a few contingencies to keep you from getting randomly butchered though."

    I shuddered at the thought of my mask eating that guy. She had no idea. "So we should be making contacts with some of the stronger locals in case we need them to deal with faction pressure?" That was pretty much what we'd been looking at doing anyway. We already had three E-rankers on our side who could step in if any F-rank pressure came our way. I hadn't really considered what a deterrent that was, but it would be hugely useful to us since Zeke could handle the E-ranked threats.

    In my head I'd made the mistake of matching E-rankers against E-rankers, falling into the same trap most of the people on Callus did by noticing how much more powerful higher ranked and more centralized warriors would be. But even the faction geniuses who could fight up a rank would be mostly able to contend with very early E-rankers, and all of our allies were in the late E-rank coming up on D.

    But the WCP wouldn't be enough. I looked at Callie, and found her looking back at me. She nodded, and I could feel through the bond that she agreed with me, we needed more than ever to make sure that we got one of the higher ranking Unity members on our side. With the WCP being an outside faction, involving them would give Midknight a chance to move against us, and while our E-rankers could handle themselves easily against our enemies, if the Unity E-rankers ganged up on our people Zeke wouldn't be free to intervene when we weren't in direct danger.

    Natalie seemed to sense the tension, and gave me a reassuring smile. "Hey, chill. It's not a big deal yet. We're early enough out that no one is going to be exerting their full pressure. Just watch out for potential assassins and you should be good. The Cult are vindictive and not to be screwed with. Especially if you get matched with one of their teams. An Impact advantage is priceless at lower levels. It makes people your own rank substantially less dangerous to you, and that advantage sticks around for the rest of your life."

    It would definitely do a lot to alleviate the danger of the early phases of a rank, where your stats couldn't keep up with all the more powerful Ascendants who had been there for a while.

    This had been more reassuring than I'd expected, and I was able to put some longstanding fears to rest. My biggest need here was to do what I had been doing from the start. Making alliances and using my ability to gain favors. I was still pretty annoyed to be stuck at G-rank for the next few weeks, since I'd be losing lots of potential points, but I'd make do. It would be tight getting my friends to F-rank in time for the Moonsong Glade, though on the upside they would be able to rank up as soon as they hit the cap because they weren't in the tournament themselves.

    We thanked Natalie and headed home, already making plans for where to go from here. I was worried about those assassins, and I wanted to make sure we were prepared. We decided to try to get a meeting with one of the Unity higher ups tomorrow. Now we just had to pick who we would approach.
  26. Threadmarks: chapter 344
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    Getting a meeting with an E-ranked member of the Unity was surprisingly easy. I'd expected to have to go through channels and maybe bribe some people, but we managed to get something on the books without any trouble once they realized who Callie was. Apparently her well known hatred for her dad as well as the whole scene at the opening ceremonies was more than enough to get us in the door.

    Despite the ease, we still had to work around their schedules, so we had a few hours to kill before going for Benny to get his wishes in. We had to space them out because of how much they took out of him, but we got them all done. One triple strength tranq blow, two triple strength density shifted blows, and two spider leg attacks, bringing me to a flat ten in each, for twenty points (my new daily max). He had all the points added to Focus, bringing him up to a hundred thirty three points in that stat, making it his highest,at least until he could even up Might.

    "I still think I should go with you." Said my friend belligerently. "I've been getting left out of everything lately, it's total bullshit. Jessie and I can still be useful, even if we aren't in the tournament."

    I sighed. "Yeah, I know man. But this isn't tournament business really. I mean, it kind of is, but it's mostly Callie's family stuff. I'm only going for moral support and because my ability might be an asset we can leverage. Nobody is downplaying what you and Jessie can do, hell without you I'm pretty sure Rahm would have killed me, but this isn't a place you can help. I know it sucks, but that's what all the stat gains are for right? Just work on your soul strength, now that we actually know what the hell we're aiming for with that it'll be much easier to keep track of."

    He grimaced. "Don't remind me. Eight percent into red after all the training I've done. Honestly it's soul crushing. I thought I'd already overtaken you. Not to mention neither of us is even close to breaking orange like Abel has. Is Zeke sure about those measurements?"

    "Not really." I said with a shrug. "He was ballparking it. Not like he has a skill for soul reading or something, he says he can just kind of tell from experience. There's a special piece of gear you can get that measures the soul, but they're expensive and hard to get. For the moment we just have to deal with the estimates. As for catching up..." I shrugged. "I've been training hard for months on this, it's obvious that you would be a bit behind. Coming that close to catching up after just a week or two shows how much of a bullshit advantage you have with that belt."

    That at least got a smirk. Before he could say something annoying though, Callie's voice cut through the house. "Shane! What's the hold up? We've got to go. We have a meeting with Frostbite. She was more than willing to meet once I got ahold of her and she found out who I was, but I still had to actually reach her. I got in touch with Cold Snap and he agreed to put us through....for a fee. so we can't miss the appointment. We might not be able to get another one."

    That didn't shock me. Cold Snap was a mercenary asshole. If he hadn't been he wouldn't have worked with Aiden in the first place. But since he wasn't the one doing the actual brainwashing, and because we couldn't afford to have TWO E-rank Unity executives planning for enemies (not to mention that he actually fought with us against Aiden) we'd mostly let things lie. Given how we met it was actually surprising he was even willing to go that far.

    I sighed and nodded to Benny. "Alright man, looks like we're out. Don't worry too much about all the politics, just focus on your training. I have a feeling we're going to need all the soul strength we can get."

    Jessie was driving us to the meeting, though she was just dropping us off and coming back later. As we drove there we sat in silence for a while. Eventually Callie shot me a concerned look. "He's worried about you. I mean, we all are, but you two are close right? It must be hard for him to see you in so much danger and not be able to help."

    "Honestly I'm almost glad for it." I admitted. "Seeing you in so much danger already terrifies me. Having one less person to worry about is kind of a relief." She snickered at that, and I shot her an apologetic smile. "Makes me wanting to do this even stupider doesn't it?"

    She just shrugged. "It's fine, I knew you weren't too bright when we got together. At least you're pretty to look at." Jessie, who was pretending not to listen from the front seat, tried unsuccessfully to muffle her giggles at that, but I just rolled my eyes.

    "No respect." I grumbled. "But seriously, it just feels different. You've had your whole life to train for this, it's easier to put my faith in your abilities. But Benny...he's Benny. My best friend. It's not that I don't have faith in him, it's just...different."

    She smiled at me as she reached out to squeeze my hand. "I get it. You grow up with someone, it's hard not to remember their flaws. Doesn't mean you don't love them, just means you don't have them up on a pedestal. I don't begrudge you some worry, Shane. You don't need to explain yourself to me."

    It was hard not to feel guilty anyway. Like I should be just as reluctant to let her be part of this. Which made me feel like an asshole for pulling her into it anyway. But that wasn't a productive line of thought so I decided to focus on what would be useful right now. "So..." I said, changing the subject. "Tell me about Frostbite. I assume you did some research into her. This is going to be your show for the most part."

    She smiled fondly at me. "I know it is. And yes, I did plenty of research. There's a lot out there on her. Like I mentioned Frostbite is famous for being a pretty biased person. She takes care of her own first and everyone else second. In some ways that isn't ideal, but it makes her an excellent person to be in an alliance with. If she decides to take your side, she follows through. Not sure if that's recursion or just her way of maintaining her reputation, but either way it's good for us."

    "Assuming we can actually get her to commit to working with us." I pointed out. "No guarantee's she'll be willing. She's one of your dads rivals?"

    Callie snorted at that. "There are more than a few of them. But yes, she's definitely up there on the list. His tendency to try to promote his own people to positions of power our of paranoia is inconvenient to someone like her. Part of taking care of her own subordinates is helping them accrue power, and the old man doesn't share well. Add in the fact that she's considered pretty powerful among the top brass, and she's too much of a threat for him to ignore."

    "How does that even work in the Unity?" I asked. "Like in the WCP people like that try to undermine and kill each other by proxy, but the Unity has an image to maintain, how do they act against each other?"

    This whole thing was kind of a headache for me, I was glad this meeting was mainly Callie's thing. I was just going to be a bargaining chip if we needed it. "Politics." She said tiredly. "There are a lot of ways to compromise someone's power base, I won't get into it now, we don't have the time. But she'll still step in personally if needed, which is what we're looking for. We need insurance against enemy F-rankers without dragging the WCP into a regional war."

    I nodded in acknowledgement. I knew that already, but if she needed to talk things out to remain calm I was happy to listen. I could feel her anxiety through the bond, a bit of repetition was the least she deserved. "So where is this meeting anyway? I forgot to ask." I hadn't really cared to be honest. Callie would have mentioned if we were walking into something dangerous, and I preferred the surprise if I could get it.

    "It's called the crystal palace." Callie said, her tone shifting to something a bit more excited. "Frostbite built it herself out of specialized ice. Never melts, not too slippery. It's supposed to be absolutely gorgeous. It's a huge tourist attraction. Unlike the WCP the Unity E-rankers tend to be spread out throughout the city, each one with their own territory to manage and control. Keeps them out of each other's hair."

    That was probably a better system in some ways, but I could see why the WCP wouldn't use it. Because of the existence of the deeds, no one actually owned territory in the WCP. You could lease it, but in the end the WCP was the true ruler. Without the restrictions placed by the Unity and their own reputations, letting the E-rankers establish their own territory was more likely to cause frequent bloody battles among civilians. While the WCP wouldn't care as much about what people thought about their methods, that would be a waste and prevent the rise of lower rankers.

    I knew that renown among Ascendants was more powerful than renown from mortals, so raising plenty of low rankers to feed the machine was important. It was natural for the WCP to make sure they had a place to grow. Hell, that was the whole point of planets like this wasn't it? Lots of mortals to feed the low rankers, and once you outgrew that you headed up to a higher ranked spot.

    Shaking my head, I tried to focus, I got existential when I was nervous, and I really was nervous about this. Despite this being Callie's meeting to succeed or fail in, I wanted this first one to work out. The longer we waited the more danger we were in. Not to mention Callie would feel so much better knowing she secured us aid on her own merits if we didn't need it. Her having a way to fight back against her dad and the other dangers in our lives would mean a lot to her, I could sense that easily.

    As the car finally came to a stop, I checked my mask and hopped out. Turning to Jessie as I did, I said. "Alright head out. We'll be done in probably an hour, you have any places nearby to hang while you wait?"

    She waved me off. "There's a plant nursery I wanted to check out about ten minutes from here. I looked it up when Nightstrike gave me the address. Go to your meeting. I trust you guys to do your best for us." As I turned to leave she said. "Hey." I froze, focusing back on her. "Benny does too. And you should trust him more. None of us are the same people we were when this started. That's kind of the point."

    Her voice wasn't reproving or condescending, just matter of fact, but I slumped a bit all the same. "Yeah, you're right. I'll...I'll keep it in mind. See you in a while." I shut the door and the car lifted off the ground, speeding away and leaving us alone in front of the crystal palace. "Alright." I said nervously. "Let's go meet the ice queen."
  27. Threadmarks: chapter 345
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    The crystal palace was...palatial. The whole place looked like a massive crystalline castle. Some of the ice was frosted, and some was clear as glass, and the combination created an effect like windows and walls in what was essentially one big ass piece of carved unmelting ice. It wasn't just ice either, looking close I could see what looked like millions of tiny runes around the edges. This thing was enchanted, and judging by the scale, it must be absurdly high level material.

    "Does she have a stockpile of high ranked materials or something?" I said curiously. "Because this is E-ranked ice. You said she created this right? She didn't make ALL of it did she?" I wasn't surprised that she'd made something her own rank, but this place was absolutely massive. Being able to create an ice castle on this scale and then enchant it...Frostbite must have a ludicrously high Creation stat, even for an E-ranker.

    Callie just shrugged. "Hard to say. Obviously 'she built the giant ice castle herself with her bare hands' is a much better story. You have to question everything you hear about Ascendants, especially high rankers. They're masters of media manipulation. Nine out of ten things you hear about them could be bullshit. Of course, that tenth thing is the one that'll kill you if you assume it isn't true, so you can't dismiss anything outright."

    I raised an eyebrow at her dryly. "Wow. That's so helpful. Don't believe anything you hear. But don't not believe it either. Because it could be true. Or false. Any other wisdom to drop on me."

    She smiled at me sweetly. "Yeah, don't make fun of your girlfriend if you don't want to sleep on the couch for the next two weeks." She winked to let me know she was teasing and then the smile melted off her face. "But seriously, just...be careful. All the E-rankers we've met have been either allies or constrained by circumstances. Frostbite is too when it comes to dealing with you, but if she decides to take out Midknights daughter..."

    "I'd throw myself in the way and let my mask swallow her whole." I said icily. "Not to mention that small scale faction war or not, Alexander would fucking murder her if she hurt you. Frostbite is an E-ranker at the top of one of the biggest organizations on this planet. I refuse to believe she'd stupid and reckless enough not to know the consequences of killing either of us. Plus if she was going to off us it would be stupid to invite us here to do it. Make more sense to assassinate us somewhere unrelated to her. Blame it on one of the visiting factions."

    Callie's jaw dropped as she looked at me and I shrugged. "I've been putting lots of thought into possible assassination strategies. I don't want to get backstabbed by some cultist because I wasn't paying attention, and you have too much on your mind for it to be fair to expect you to do it alone. Politics might be beyond me, but figuring out ways someone could kill us I can totally do."

    She smiled and stood up on her toes to kiss my mask, then pulled back slightly with a grimace and kissed the side of my jaw. I snickered at the reaction. "Yeah, I would prefer you avoid kissing the mask too. After I saw it eat someone I haven't been able to look at it the same way." Granted, I could still WEAR it, mostly because the security was more important than the creep factor, but things had definitely changed in the way I viewed the thing.

    Chuckling lightly, Callie looped her arm in mine and we headed to the massive double doors of the palace. She reached up and rapped three times on the opaque ice. The boom that shook the area was much deeper and more resonant than expected, like she'd been knocking on a sheet of metal. After a minute or two the door slid open to reveal a small pale woman with bright blue hair and icy eyes. Her blue lips quirked up in a smile as she saw us.

    "Can I help you?" The F-ranker said in a melodic voice. Her frozen blue eyes seemed to crack and shift around the irises, like there was a snowstorm or a pair of crashing glaciers being projected through a pair of wheel shaped viewing screens. She was so pale it literally almost hurt to look at her and it took me a second to notice that her ears, behind which she'd swept her long hair, were pointed like Celine's. Some kind of ice elf maybe?

    Callie smiled, holding out a hand. "Yes, I'm Nightstrike, this is Solomon. We're her to see Frostbite. She should be expecting us?"

    Her lips curved up in a paradoxically warm smile. "Of course." She said in a voice like the wind through a forest of icicles. "My name is Rime. I'm Frostbite's personal valet." She stepped back, swinging open the door with a gentle tap of her fingers. As she did, we were able to see that she was much taller than she'd looked before, having been leaning out the door. I'd have put her at six feet, though the silver heels under her shining silver dress might have been throwing me off.

    Her blue hair was held back by an icy crown and was lost in a bloom of white fur draped over her shoulders that spilled down her back to very nearly sweep the floor. Some kind of thick pelted animal, and not a small one. She gestured us past her and we both nodded out thanks as we entered.

    "This is a lovely building." Callie said politely. Clearly not sure what to say to the woman when we'd spent so much time focusing on how to address Frostbite.

    "Yes." Said Rime happily. "It is." We...had no response to that, and we both decided it might be better to just shut up.
    We mounted a set of spiral stairs along the perimeter of the building and began to ascend. The external steps led us along the outside edge of an absolutely massive space inside the castle. Along the edge of the space were balconies that acted as floors, leading out into the external parts of the castle away from the towering hall. Crystalline walkways threaded between the balconies and across the vast open expanse, reminding me of nothing so much as that crystal spider web back in the cave in Doomtown.

    The sun reflected through the icy canopy above us was diffuse in most places because of the opaque ice, but there were a few clear spots like skylights that shone beams of startling light down into the atrium, each beam hitting the walkways and scattering into prismatic rainbow cascades that crisscrossed the open space.

    "This..." Said Callie breathlessly. "This is amazing. Now I see why they call it the crystal palace. You live here? It must be wonderful getting to see this every day."

    Rime shrugged. "You get used to it. It's still pretty, but it starts to lose some of its impact after the five thousandth viewing. Though I admit, I imagine it loses its appeal much slower than an office building, so I suppose I'm still lucky in that regard."

    She stopped talking again, but we weren't in the mood to gape silently now that we had the ball rolling. "So do you know Cold Snap?" I asked politely.

    That drew a snort from the F-ranker. "I changed his diapers as a baby, so yes. That explains how you got this meeting. Frostbite isn't usually so accessible to the younger generation." She shot a sideways glance at Callie. "You might have managed it just from the sheer amusement of your little display at the opening ceremonies. Though admittedly it probably wouldn't have been so quick."

    So she knew who we were. She could have saved us the intro at the beginning, but then again, I suppose that was just basic politeness. Finally after minutes of walking, we approached the top of the massive atrium. As we climbed, the balconies began to take up more of the space as the castle narrowed, the catwalks and empty rainbow filled nothingness condensing until finally we stepped off the stairs onto a large floor with only a relatively large hole in the center you could look down from.

    Rime led us across the floor, which alternated opaque and crystalline squares in a DEEPLY unsettling and yet incredibly majestic way, then stopped in front of a huge pair of double doors carved from what I was pretty sure was black permafrost. I looked around. "Is there like...nobody else here? Because this place is a total ghost town from what I've seen. Seems weird to have a castle this big with no people."

    The blue haired woman rolled her eyes. "Of course there is. They're in other parts of the palace, on the floors and in their offices. The steps and catwalks are transport, people don't spend time lingering on there. The prismatics can be disorienting with long term exposure, even for Ascendants." She raised a hand and rapped three times on the black door. "Wait here until the doors open then go inside. She'll arrange for someone to pick you up on the way out..." She paused. "Or throw you out the window. Probably not though. She hasn't done that in months."

    With that last very unsettling statement she turned and strolled away, seemingly unbothered by the idea that we may be thrown from the top of a castle...or possible just fucking with us. I took hold of Callie's hand just in case, readying Leaf on the Wind. Better safe than sorry I always said.

    Callie smiled at me wryly, and I felt through the bond that she was just as sure that had been a joke, and just as disturbed by the possibility that it wasn't. We stood there like that, waiting, for a few minutes, before the doors creaked slowly open, allowing us inside.

    We stepped in, and my break was taken away by the sheer majesty of the room we entered. The scale wasn't as grand as the main hall or its prismatic walkways, but the DETAIL of the icy carving here was staggering. It was a large room with a vaulted ceiling, and every single inch of it was absolutely perfectly carved.

    Furniture was shaded various colors of blue and purple and black that somehow seemed like a full spectrum with shading, a fireplace sat to one side of the room, a lifelike crystalline carving of flames so realistic it looked like they were leaping affixed to the center as light danced through the facets, causing it to glow with a rainbow radiance, and in the back behind a large black desk of shiny ice, sat Frostbite.

    With all the grandiose pageantry I'd expected her to be flashy and dramatic, but she just looked...normal. A pretty girl who seemed only a bit older than us with a cornsilk blonde ponytail and bright blue eyes, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. Her one nod to her Ascendant identity was a long snow white trench coat she wore draped over her shoulders, her arms not even in the sleeves. To cap off the image, as she watched us calmly she popped a huge pink bubble noisily, slurping the gum back up to continue chewing it.

    She looked interested, if not terribly enthused by our presence, and I saw her flip a folder closed on the desk as she stared at us. She seemed to mull over what to say to us for a minute before she finally opened her mouth and said something. So." Said the E-rank executive of one of dominant faction of this entire planet. "You guys want some ice cream or something? It's home made."
  28. Threadmarks: chapter 346
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    "Man that is good." Callie said as she practically slurped the spoon clean after finishing her dish of butter pecan. "You weren't kidding about the homemade thing huh? I have to say though, this isn't what I imagined you being like, I figured you'd be more..."

    Frostbite grinned. "You thought I'd be a megalomaniacal ice queen who sits up in her tower planning how to screw everyone else over to get the biggest advantage possible?" At Callie's blush, the woman laughed. "Hey, no judgement, if I had a dad like yours I'd have figured the same thing. Honestly, in some ways you aren't off the mark. I'm more than capable of being a bit cold blooded to get my way. I figure I owe you two though, so no harm in being approachable."

    That got my attention. "Owe us?" I asked curiously. "How so? I mean, we're here to ask for a favor and..." I looked over to see Callie glaring and cleared my throat. "I'm going to stop talking now."

    That had been a fuckup. Callie was supposed to do the talking. I'd gotten wrapped up in her pace and started being casual. I hoped I hadn't given away anything important. Still, it seemed weird to me that she would consider herself owing US a favor.

    "My son." Said the blonde woman with a smile. "Is a fucking idiot. He's useless and arrogant and often stupid. He makes bad decisions on impulse and hardly does anything right...and I love him more than anything in this world. You could have killed him for what he pulled. I got it out of him later, and I honestly wouldn't have blamed you. But you didn't and I owe you for that. So yes. I took this meeting and I'm treating you like potential allies. Because you deserve it. And because watching Midknight try not to lose his damn mind in front of all those people was the highlight of my year."

    That got a genuine smile from Callie. "I enjoyed it too. Probably too much. Which is kind of why we're here, we wanted to talk to you about-"

    "Protection." Said Frostbite matter of factly. "Wasn't exactly brain surgery figuring out that much sweetie. Your pals from the WCP are limited in what they can do without potentially kicking off quite a bit of trouble. Your boy toy here is basically bulletproof when it comes to the big wigs, but mid ranking execs are still a threat based on our observations, and I assume you want some insurance in case those threats apply pressure."

    To my surprise, Callie sighed in relief. I guessed that she figured since Frostbite knew why we were here and accepted the meeting anyway she might be amenable to our terms. Sadly, it wasn't going to be that easy. "My question." Said the blonde as she ate a bite of rocky road. "Is what's in it for me? I like you kids, but that's personal. This is business. I don't give out alliances for being swell folks. What benefits are you gonna bring me?"

    "That's fair." Admitted my girlfriend. "There are the obvious benefits, of course. Destabilizing my dad's regime for one. You're competitors, and not only would recruiting me to your side make him look week, it would give you an excuse to rub that weakness in his face and gloat over his helplessness as you did it."

    Frostbite took another bite of ice cream, smirking at Callie as she did. "You know, I knew I was going to like you. That sounds hilarious." Her smile dropped. "But I don't make business decisions based on amusement. Get to the point or get lost. You're become less impressive by the second." The tonal shift from warm interest to icy indifference was jarring, to say the least. I could see what she'd meant earlier about being willing to make harsh calls.

    Callie wasn't bothered though, her own smile curled up wickedly, and I got the impression through the bond that she'd been waiting for that exact response. "Oh by all means. We're willing to offer similar terms to the ones we set with the Beast Lord Garden. Similar, though not nearly as generous. After all, you weren't the first person on board."

    She reached into her jacket and pulled out a rolled up piece of paper, specifically, the contract we'd signed with Melinda. I hadn't realized she was bringing that, but I didn't much mind. She handed the paper to an amused looking Frostbite, who unrolled it casually, then glanced over it. Her condescending smile froze, and her eyes widened, flicking back up to Callie, then to me.

    "Well...that makes WAY too much sense." She slapped the papers down on the desk with a scowl. "I knew you got in good with the puppy huggers, but I didn't know the details. The WCP doesn't share with us much, especially not about things like this. They more than anyone know about the necessity of keeping this kind of thing quiet. You realize that the Unity is going to be MUCH less airtight? If you sign on with me people will find out about this." That comment was aimed at me, not Callie.

    I nodded. "It was going to happen eventually. I'm confident that my guardian can handle anyone who causes a problem, at least as far as people on your level or higher. Below that I'd need to rely on you and our other allies. As long as we have you as an excuse though, Callie says that even if Melinda or The Nothing have to make a move, it'll be considered inter-faction jockeying, since they'll technically be under your aegis."

    "This is true." She admitted. "But you mentioned being less generous with me than with the puppy huggers. How much less? Getting a favor from a candidate is useful, but not useful as wishes, and I'm assuming you aren't willing to sign up for any long term deals in that regard given your participation in the tournament and presumably you hope in the trip to the Moonsong Glade?"

    That was true. I was working on getting up the cash for a buyout on the contract with the Beast Lord Garden. I'd prepaid plenty for wishes, but we didn't have the option of staying here forever. Luckily, since I wasn't an idiot I'd made sure to leave an out in the contract, though if I did it the right way we could maintain our current relationship for a certain number of wishes per year, which was what I was aiming for. I didn't foresee much problem with it, no one sane would give up access to wishes for no reason.

    Callie took back over negotiations, we'd talked over what was plausible for us here, and come to a hard line that would let us accomplish our goals and still give them something to work with. "We're willing to offer a flat rate. The biggest benefit to wishes is increased cultivation, though of course you aren't obligated to wish for anything specific. We're willing to offer you exclusive access for twenty five wishes, provided you pay for the wishes in G-ranked elixirs."

    Given the time crunch, we were going to be absurdly tight on getting Jessie and Benny to F-rank before we left for the Moonsong Glade, provided we made it. In the worst case we could approach Natalie to double their growth rate, but payment for her would be steep. Since neither of them had used any of their elixir allotment for G-rank, they had a hundred stats worth of bottled growth available, and if we could get that as payment for something we had to put up anyway it was a win win.

    Clearly Frostbite knew how wishes worked too, since she didn't try to negotiate an out for the payment. The actual contract would be wishes for protection, but that wouldn't do anything to mitigate prices, since we were leveraging scarcity rather than the actual wishes to be granted.

    I'd coached Callie on some of the finer points of the contract, and she requisitioned a piece of paper and a pen and got to work outlining terms, letting Frostbite weigh in on what to nix and what was appropriate. Despite going through the motions, I was pretty sure Frostbite was hooked already though. Callie was just giving her a good deal to make sure she thought of us as actual allies.

    The E-ranker knew it too, and she seemed warmer as the two of them worked, even pointing out a few loopholes I'd missed in the wording. Despite my experience and training, my Focus was presumably MUCH lower than hers, so I wasn't shocked she picked up a few threads I missed.

    Finally, the two of them finished writing up the contract, Frostbite gave it a final once over, had us do the same, and once we agreed the terms were fair we all signed it. "So." I said once that was done. "I have to ask. Are you planning to use your wishes on Cold Snap? Having him boosted to F-rank so early would be a coup for your force, since you would be on track to have another E-ranker in your....what is your force called? I don't know how the Unity works in terms of subfactions."

    She smirked at that. "Fimbulwinter. And yes we can have our own subforces. But no, my son will not be receiving a boost. I wouldn't trust him with that much power so quickly. He has more than enough time to grow into his rank the natural way. Rime would be a more likely target for my usage of wishes. You can grant wishes to higher level Ascendants right?"

    I blinked at that. "I...think so?" I paused. "No I know I can, but they might not be as effective." I wasn't sure I'd ever granted a wish to a higher ranked cultivator before. I was positive it would work of course, but considering how much easier I'd found it to grant them to lower ranked people there was a good chance the efficiency would be reduced. I could do four points of stats to someone my rank, but chances were good it would be much less at F-rank. It had just never really come up.

    She nodded, clearly unsurprised. "That's fine. Worst case I'll focus on grinding up some more of my G-rankers, having more F-ranked hall members would be a big boost to my capabilities too, and I know some of mine are pretty close. Anyway we can look into it later. For now, I suspect you have more to say. You don't seem to have relaxed after signing the contract."

    Callie nodded. "That's true. Now that we've entered an alliance officially, we had something we wanted to bring to your attention." It was a risk mentioning the leak to Frostbite before we had any insurance. If it had been her she might have tried to silence us. Now that we were in the same boat though, even if it was her we could just promise to keep our moths shut about it.

    My girlfriend explained the problem, mentioning the Solemn Vow Guild and noting how easily they'd gotten our information. Frostbite looked more annoyed than worried. "Sadly problems like that aren't uncommon for Ascendant organizations, even big ones like the factions. Most of the people working the tournament signed confidentiality contracts, but those always have loopholes, and there are people with Oathbreaking abilities you can hire to get around even the ones that don't. I'll look into it, but I wouldn't expect miracles. Your best bet would be approaching it from the other side."

    At our confused looks, she gave us a wolfish smile. "The Unity isn't a brokerage organization. Even if someone has the info, they wouldn't have the channels to actually sell it, and unless they were idiots they wouldn't just wander up to random factions and offer them insider information for cash. I'd look into middlemen in the WCP if I were you." I grinned under my mask. I'd been hoping she could just GIVE us the name of the leak but that...that I could definitely work with.
  29. Threadmarks: chapter 347
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
    Likes Received:
    With the new lead from Frostbite, we officially had options looking for the leak. If we'd had to search in Rajak proper among the Unity directly things might have been dicey, protection or not, but since this was WCP business we had more options for people to watch our back. On top of that, as per the protection clause of our contract, Frostbite had an F-ranker follow along with us in case we needed backup, specifically, she sent Rime along.

    I was pretty touched she dispatched her most powerful F-rank to keep an eye on us, though I knew at least some of that was because she wanted Rime to make some of the wishes. The F-ranker had brought along a large amount of valuable elixirs as per our deal, and I would be able to grant her wishes without compromising our efforts to boost my friends to F-rank before we left. Though Benny and Jessie had both informed me that they'd finally been seeing some reputation gain from the fight in the auction, with Benny getting another twenty five points of Might (presumably from swinging around that giant ass hammer) and Jessie getting twenty points of Vitality.

    I was glad to see they were benefiting, I'd thought it was odd we hadn't seen any renown from that mess, but from what I could tell people had kept it under wraps for a while and it took time for rumors to disseminate. I knew sometimes great deeds were only counted after the incident was considered over in the minds of those involved too, like the scavenger hunt, so maybe that had something to do with it. It just kind of sucked Callie and I didn't benefit, having already capped our stats at the peak of G-rank.

    We brought Rime back to the house, introduced her to everyone, and then consulted the resident WCP expert, Zeke. "So." I asked my uncle as we all settled in. "Who should I talk to around here to find a middleman for brokering information? I know wishes aren't great for finding secrets, but we act as go betweens on enough stuff that I'm sure we have specific protocols for where to find those kinds of people. Or can you not tell me that?"

    He shook his head. "No, that I'm free to share. You'll need to pay for the actual information as per the rules, but directing you to where you can purchase those services isn't an issue. Let's see..." He stroked his five o' clock shadow furred chin. "I would say you should talk to Duncan the Liar. From what I've heard, he's in everyone's business."

    "The compulsive liar is a reliable source of information?" I asked in confusion. "Isn't that a bit...counterintuitive?"
    He shrugged. "If you can get him to talk. Believable lies come from a place of truth. You need to understand something in order to obscure it. If anyone would know it would be him, even if he isn't the broker, he should have an idea of who is. Provided you can motivate him."

    "I'm surprised you knew that, honestly. Rajak wasn't your city, and you've just been kind of hanging around since we got here. I know you didn't want to take over this branch, so why the research?" Not that I was complaining of course, this was pretty useful to me. Still, it made me wonder if his senses were just so monstrous that he passively picked up secrets from all over the planet or something.

    My uncle just shrugged. "I got a dossier from the branch head, Facade, when I arrived. He included a brief introduction to all the E-rankers within the WCP, and most of the power players in the Unity in town. I suspect he was trying to make sure I wouldn't have a reason to go poking around for information if a question came up. He's good at managing problems before they come up, it's how he's managed to remain in power so long."

    I remembered Callie having mentioned Facade. He was supposedly a party animal without much real skill who relief on his lieutenants to do most of the actual work, but we'd both pretty much guessed that was as much of a cover story as his name suggested. Seemed like Zeke actually had a bit of respect for him, based on his grudgingly appreciative tone, and that said more in his favor than any number of rumors.

    "Alright." I said with a sigh. "So...how do we meet Duncan the Liar? I didn't hear anything about him having a faction. Is he in the E-district? Can you BE in E-district if you don't have a faction? Those buildings are huge, are there people who just hang out alone in there?" I hadn't spent much time in E-district, and I was honestly curious about how the most upscale part of the Rajak WCP functioned.

    Sadly, based on his sigh, the knowledge I sought was not to be. "Nah." He said with a wave. "He spends most of his time in the dark districts, the higher end ones, but there are ways to get in touch and arrange meetings. Has to be since according to the dossier he moves around WAY more than necessary."

    He pulled out a piece of paper from...somewhere, maybe a spatial artifact? Not a ring, but I remembered him saying he carried a ton of stuff on him., Regardless, he started scribbling out instructions from memory before he passed them to me. "The locker in question is in the terminal, so you won't even need to go down into the WCP. Just write out a note to the specifications and then slip it into the front slot."

    I briefly considered asking why he hadn't just written the note, but I realized the reason was obvious. He couldn't interfere in my business. He was able to tell me how to arrange the meeting, but getting a note from a B-ranker would have basically obligated Duncan to show up, which would be direct action on Zeke's part.

    Callie had been showing Rime around while Zeke and I talked, but after he confirmed the contact method for Duncan, I went to find her and the two of us, plus Rime herself, headed for the station with the entrance to the WCP. We let Rime drive, which went fine, and I added another reliable driver to my mental checklist. Benny hadn't ever learned to drive a shuttle, much like I hadn't, and Callie would kill us all, so it was nice to have a new option for transport when Jessie was busy.

    Arriving at the place, I saw Rime look around in interest. Callie noticed it too because her immediate response was to ask our F-ranked protector. "Have you never been here before?" It seemed crazy to me that someone could live IN Rajak and never visit the WCP, but thinking about it there was at least some logic there. The WCP and the Unity were competitors, and the Palace was almost another city compared to Rajak proper. We hadn't done much exploration of the world above, given my connections to the forces beneath us, but someone like Rime wouldn't have that. This would be enemy territory.

    The F-ranker's blue hair cascaded as she shook her head. "Never had a reason. It's...interesting. Some of the lower ranks from the academy and such spend time below, but I've been part of Fimbulwinter since I was a child, and the boss lady doesn't send us down here. Too dangerous she says."

    "You'll be fine with us." I assured her. "We're sticking to the mixed rank areas anyway, and between our identity and our connections, the E-rankers down here won't mess with us. Assuming no one gangs up on you most F-rankers shouldn't be a problem right?" She was high up in her rank from what I understood, and being Frostbite's second meant she was probably pretty scary on top of that.

    Rime seemed taken in by the food kiosks, venders, and various other interesting attractions inside the massive stone building that was the entrance to the WCP. As per our instructions though, we ignored the tourist attractions and followed the tile floor back into the depths of the building, past all the canisters and away from the people. We turned off into a side hallway that shrunk down from the huge open area to a claustrophobic mashup of two walls so close together I had to turn sideways to walk down it, emerging from THAT into a dark and somewhat cramped low ceilinged room.

    The dim room was, as we'd been told it would be, full to the brim with squat, dark metal lockers. "Alright." I said, checking the paper. "We're looking for...Z34962." Closing my eyes with a sigh, I asked unhappily. "Can one of you guys please tell me that the plates on the closest lockers don't start with the letter A?"

    Callie leaned over to peer at one of the plates on the lockers. "A00032. Sorry sweetie." I sighed in defeat. That was just great. This began our journey through the locker hall, constantly checking the plates as we went. Duncan the Liar was either a huge dick or extremely paranoid, possibly both.

    When we finally got to the locker in question, I pulled out a sheet of paper with the prepared directions, folded it around one and a half F-ranked chits (bringing my personal coffers down to exactly one E-ranked chit, or one hundred G-ranked chits) and then proceeded to spin the wheel on the lockers door in a series of very exacting and complicated patterns. A rune lit up on the metal after the third spin, and I slipped the paper through the slot on the front, jumping as a loud bang shook the door.

    "Did it...work?" Said Callie cautiously. I consulted the paper, going over several of the addenda on the note. There were a few details on confirmation, and...got it, the bang on the door was a good sign. Probably.

    "It did." I confirmed. "Or a giant energy chicken is about to burst out of the locker and try to eat us. But the note says that would have happened about thirty seconds after the bang, and since it hasn't it seems like we're all good. Now...we wait." Duncan would get our message and show up to talk to us, though how he would manage that I had no idea, the note just said to wait here.

    Rime looked annoyed. "Of COURSE the first time I come to the WCP I have to spend the whole visit in a cramped locker depository. Does it say how long it will take for him to arrive?"

    "Oh." Said an amused voice from behind us. "Not long. I would imagine." We all froze, having completely missed anyone appearing until the voice spoke up. We turned slowly to find a foppish, brown haired man with a scraggly goatee and predatory amber eyes leaning against the inside of one of the lockers, which was open as he stared at us.

    The yellow doublet and tights were the same as I'd been told about at the gala, and his hands toyed with a brass flute as he watched us. I felt like a bug under a microscope. Even knowing that he was E-rank and I was protected didn't blunt the edge of danger I felt from him. Like he was insane and capable of anything.

    Of course, given his title, it was hard to say how much of that was a real impression and how much he'd purposefully cultivated the feeling to put people off their game. As 'the Liar' I expected Perception was his bread and butter, and aside from stealth, I supposed Perception would be excellent for giving false impressions like that. Either way, he was here now. He held up a familiar folded piece of paper, sans money. "I heard you were looking for some information." Well, that was a good start. Probably.
  30. Threadmarks: chapter 348
    Malcolm Tent

    Malcolm Tent Well worn.

    Oct 16, 2020
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    "I was under the impression." I said to the E-ranker who had casually plopped down on a bench. "That we'd paid for your services with that little...deposit earlier. So what do you mean you're CHARGING us for the information we want?" I'd expected once he accepted payment he'd just show up and tell us what we wanted, but the yellow clad sneak seemed completely unmotivated to reveal anything. In fact I think he was basking in our frustrations.

    The grin the crept onto his face was even more annoying than the idea of paying twice. "Oh, no no. You paid for me to come and LISTEN to you. One and a half F-rank chits isn't enough to pay for my SERVICES. It just got you this audience to impress me." He put a hand to one side of his mouth, stage whispering. "It isn't going well." He closed his eyes and put the brass flute to his mouth, fingers flying as he played a particularly catchy sting, seemingly ignoring us completely.

    That was a problem. Because while I personally was safe from Duncan, and I doubted he'd be stupid enough to attack the others since as a person who specialized in Perception and gathering intel there was no way he didn't know who I was, we couldn't do shit to him either. Maybe down the line, but I doubted "I'll beat you up someday" was a decent motivator. So I only had one real option.

    "You want a wish." I said flatly. He probably wanted more than one, but if I kept making long term contracts I'd never get off this fucking planet. Plus I couldn't afford the delay in stat gains for my friends. So I'd offer one, and if he pushed I'd deal with it.

    To my surprise, Duncan the Liar just came out and admitted it. "Wouldn't say no. But it wouldn't be for now. I know enough about the Wish power to know that your ability to affect an E-ranker would be laughable. I'll wait until after the tournament, but I want it in writing before we move forward."

    I cocked my head at him. "I'm pretty shocked you just came out and said that. Shouldn't you have slowly maneuvered me into your web with deception?" I was half joking, but still it seemed off to me.

    He just shook his head. "People make that assumption quite a bit. But no, not really. See, I'm not a compulsive liar. I lie often and with ease, but I tell the truth just as frequently. Lying loses its effectiveness if you never say anything true. If every word out of my mouth was false, everyone would just know I meant the opposite of what I said. No, I do tell the truth, and sometimes I lie, and sometimes I do both at once, because the truth from a liar can be even less believable than fiction."

    That...had been a really long convoluted way of telling me absolutely fucking nothing about him. Which I suspected was his entire point. I really disliked cryptic bullshit. I got enough of that from Zeke courtesy of my dad's bullshit geas. "You understand." I said archly. "That I can't just give you blanket promise to grant you a wish after I rank up without knowing what it is."

    My issue was less with the wish and more with the open ended nature of 'after you rank up'. It would be easy enough for him to wait and cash that in later. And I had no interest in being dragged back here when I was higher ranked because of some old marker.

    I could have and would have covered all that in the contract, but since he was being so up front I figured I'd do the same. He grinned at me. "Oh no, that's fine. I can include provisions for when exactly I'll make the wish." He didnt mention limitations on content, but he didn't need to. His limitations would be the same as everyone elses. What my stats were capable of accomplishing.

    Slipping out a blank piece of paper I started writing. With over a hundred Focus and Perception my handwriting was excellent and I could write pretty damn fast, so it didn't take long to dot my I's and cross my T's. Duncan looked it over and nodded, filling in the last bit of info, an exact date for the wish.

    I let Callie look over it before I signed. We were partners and while she wasn't quite as well trained in contracts she was smart and careful. I valued her opinion. She smiled softly at me as she took the paper, scanning through it for a minute or two in a way that told me she was taking her time and doing multiple read throughs before handing it back.

    "Alright." I said as I signed. "Now, we were told you're the guy to see about information. We need you to help us locate someone who has been selling it. We suspect they used a middle man from the WCP but the person themselves is Unity. If you don't know them I'm sure you can find out."

    I'd been careful not to mention specifics in the information request, lest it be intercepted or Duncan decide to warn whoever it was before coming to see us. Still, he didn't seem too surprised by the request. Granted, it was possible he was just hiding signs of that surprise with his excellent lying skills, but who could say?

    He nodded thoughtfully. "I can help with that information. Honestly you're lucky we did it this way. I'd probably have turned you down if we hadn't already signed the contract. I don't owe them anything, but burning primary sources isn't beneficial to a broker. Do you just want the source or do you need the middle man too? Because one of those will be much more annoying for me."

    He was hinting that he might need to dissolve the contract (we had provisions for that on both sides in case of extenuating circumstances) if I went after the middle man. Luckily I didn't need to. "Just the source is fine." I said firmly.
    Honestly depending on who it was, we might not even be able to do anything to them in the short term. Rime and Frostbite both seemed unhappy (if resigned) about the leak, so if it wasn't someone related to Fimbulwinter we might be able to use them to take care of it, but they hadn't been able to make any promises.

    Duncan nodded approvingly. I expected him to just give us a name, but the unusual E-ranker turned his amber gaze away from use, and, staring off into the distance, started speaking. "I've always been enamored with information you know. Not just its acquisition, but it's application. Whether by virtue of its absence or presence, truth changes many things about the world. Learning the truth of others lets me know my own, and you can't lie to other people properly if you're lying to yourself."

    Despite the apparent non sequitur, I didn't interrupt and Callie followed my lead. Duncan kept talking. "I started learning other people's truths, and met other people on the same grand quest. I've met many people like that over the years. Some of them hungry for knowledge, some of them desperate to learn more about the reality of this storybook world, to see past the lies that even the universe tells us."

    "The person you are looking for." He said firmly. "Is not one of those people. He doesn't want to learn more truths, or see past the facade. He wants power. This insults me. Lies are art, they are a delicate and subtle manipulation of minds of others for the purpose of shaping your world. They are not commodities."

    I had to admit, this was not what I had expected of the guy everyone hated, who someone had recently turned into a fish. "I didn't expect you to be so...philosophical." I said carefully.

    Duncan's stoic and distant expression cracked, becoming a manic grin. "Maybe I'm not? Maybe I just like playing with baby cultivators. I can smell confusion on you like cheap cologne." He waved his hand dismissively. "No matter. Believe or don't. No business of mine. I've decided that I dislike this person, and so I will hand them over to you. Take that as you will. You're looking for an F-ranker who works at the Unity building. He goes by the name Kalway."

    Callie and I both looked at Rime, who shrugged. "No clue. Name doesn't ring a bell. If he works at the main building he's probably not entirely unconnected though. I'll look into him and get back to you."

    Nodding, I turned back to Duncan and...blinked. Nothing. There was no one on the bench. The locker he'd come out of was still open, but there was nothing in there that might explain his disappearance. When I looked back down, I noticed a note where he'd been sitting and picked it up. Opening the page, I unfolded it, to find a picture of me unfolding a picutre of me unfolding a picture. Which then exploded. Into confetti. Sharp confetti.

    Luckily my armor and mask took all the cutting edges, though the locker next to us wasn't so lucky. Calli and Rime were behind me and therefore untouched. I sighed. "Now I get why people don't like him."

    Callie leaned over next to the locker, giving a deep sniff. "Especially since I'm pretty sure these are poisoned. Nothing super dangerous, I think just a mild paralytic. Though I wonder why he would bother-" There was a puff and about two hundred pounds of glitter dropped from above us, scatting across all three of our bodies. "Ah. Keep us in place. Well...that worked I guess."

    I didn't see any particular reason for that little prank, other than amusement. Callie was right though, that was pretty decent motivation for turning him into a fish. I turned to Rime. "So, you said you can look into Kalway? If Frostbite can plug the leak before we get too much further in we can possibly avoid a lot of trouble."

    Callie nodded. "Especially if she makes a production of it. If other locals see her crack down hard on someone leaking tournament info they'll be much less likely to try it."

    The F-ranker sighed. "Which I'm sure would be her intent, but it depends on who the guy is. There are certain factions in the Unity that make dealing with things like this...tricky. Some of the executives claim priority on their own subordinates and will give them a slap on the wrist instead of actually punishing them. They consider it a blow to their own reputation for their subordinates to be held accountable."

    "Isn't Frostbite like...INFAMOUS for that?" I asked carefully. I'd heard Frostbite was incredibly biased against her own people, which, granted, was nice since that was US now.

    Rime grinned at me. "Yeah, like that. So we might not be able to pin it on him in an obvious way. Of course, some of the executives are more...objective. Really depends who he works under. Or if he's just rank and file his ass is grass. I'll get into it."

    "Sounds good." Callie said dryly. "Meanwhile lets get out of here. I want to go home and wash all this damn glitter off. We can use Stealth to leave." I nodded, and we each put a hand on Rime's shoulder, getting ready to help her out as we left, before stopping.

    I closed my eyes and sighed. "Ah. That would be why he used glitter. All that excess light shifting around makes Stealth MUCH harder. Ok. " I triggered one of my stored up Stealth charges, synergizing it with my own Stealth skill, and Callie added hers in, and we were barely able to make it to the parking lot without being noticed. Yeah. Definitely understood the impulse to turn him into a fish.