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

chapter 484
When the golden light faded, I was standing alone in a dark stone hall. The room expanded out in every direction, and along the walls I could see portraits and furniture and sconces with candles. The floor of the hall had a long strip of red carpet running down it, and upon turning around I found myself standing in front of a throne. The golden chair had a single white cushion each on the base and the back, lined with golden leaves.

Figuring this had to do with the trial, I tried to approach, but as I walked toward it the space between the throne and me seemed to elongate. The red carpet gave the illusion of an endless path, and that illusion was definitely fulfilled when I tried to get closer. So I turned and walked the other way, and managed to make my way to the door out of the hall with ease. When I pushed it open, I saw the hallway was heavily shadowed, lacking the light from the crystal chandelier I hadn't noticed in the chamber.

Once I stepped out, the door slammed shut behind me of its own accord, and I glanced around carefully, just to make sure I wasn't about to get eaten or something.

I wasn't too worried right now. After my recent soul tempering experience I just didn't have the emotional capacity to feel fear in this situation. I'd already been through worse recently, and all my fear would have been just another aspect of my fear of loneliness. I was perfectly comfortable walking these halls by myself. Possibly too comfortable, not that there was much I could do about that.

The knowledge that I SHOULD be afraid was at least enough to motivate me to be extra vigilant. As I strolled down the stone corridor, I kept an eye out for anything that might be a threat. I passed a few slit windows letting cold moonlight into the hallway, but I didn't see any objects or people until I reached the first large room in the hallway. When I did, I stumbled on a strange sight.

A lone suit of armor standing in the middle of the room, facing the entrance I'd just used. The armor was pitch black plate mail, and it held a huge halberd. I could see orange fire rolling behind the visor, like eldritch eyes watching me, and as I entered the room, the head very slightly shifted to focus on me.

My cheerful fearlessness was somewhat muted under an understandable bit of caution. The last time I'd seen an orange glowing thing here it had been a jellyfish that wanted to eat my soul. Still, the slam of the door behind me made it clear the only way out was through. Through an ominous suit of armor. Joy.

I spun up my staff, and figured this was a good chance to train up Belial a bit. I shifted into my first stance, my view filling with arrows as my body shifted into toxic magma stone.

Rather than just attack all out though, I took the time to really feel out my situation. There were lots of arrows that showed me possible attacks, even the gold ones that guided me down the path of the Fatewalker were numerous, but more than that, they weren't specific. They showed me where to attack but not how, and I'd been thinking over the first form and how I could improve it.

Activating state of grace and ripple running, I glided forward, staff slowly rotating as I came. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. I repeated something I'd heard at the pavilion in my head. I'd been so excited to bust out my new move last time I'd completely ignored how to best use it. I'd been too focused on the form part of the staff form and ignored the staff part.

Each of my Goetia forms should and would function as an independent style. Because they had different abilities (or would eventually). Belial was toxic and destructive, but it showed its usefulness in lots of little attacks rather than a single large one. I stepped off the air, surprised to see the Ripple Running platform beging to crackle as I left a toxic stain in the air under my foot.

Pushing off the platform my staff licked out, deceptively lazy in its arc, and without any particular force behind it. The attack only grazed the armor before I stepped again on the air, bouncing off a spot on the opposite side and repeating. I leapt casually and lightly around the armor, tapping and grazing it as I went, enjoying the sight of my demonic corruption (what I'd decided to call Belial's toxic energy) slowly covering the dark metal.

As a Path attack, Belial was much more destructive than the normal toxic fire I used, and much harder to get rid of. Granted, the armor was pretty much a solid hunk of metal, so it didn't show too much obvious sign of wear, but it was still being damaged.

By never committing too much to any one attack and staying mobile, I was able to move quickly and easily. The armor tried to spear me on the pike head of his halberd and when he missed he switched to wide swings, but he couldn't lay a hand on me.

As the fight progressed, I could hear the groans and creaks begin to issue from the armor as my corrosion slowly chewed through the metal. My Fatewalker Path guided me towards the most deadly striking areas, and I learned more about my staff form as I worked, dismantling the armor and sending it to its final fate.

I saw the change in the arrows as things ended, before the armor even gave out, and landed lightly behind it, dismissing Belial without even looking as the plate of the armor finally gave out and the whole suit collapsed to the ground in a noisy heap.

To my surprise, once it dropped, the fire inside didn't go out, it swirled through the air above me and then dove into my soul body. I felt myself become stronger, my soul purifying and reaching further along the path to yellow. Of course, this far in it was only a slight bump, only a percent, but I understood what was going on.

If my guess was right, the trials were set up in such a way that they alternated between pure power gain and soul refinement. The first trial let us gain power as we went, then the second forced us to face complete solitude. The third trial was clearly more in the vein of the first. An opportunity to grow more powerful.

Once the armor was destroyed, the archway behind it lit up on either side, clearly welcoming me to move on. I left my staff out just in case, wishing it was the actual E-rank Stygian Branch instead of a shoddy F-ranked knock off. When I reached the next room, I stopped inside and winced at what I saw.

Armors. Plural. Two of them. Beating one hadn't been too difficult, but beating two meant turning my back on one at any given time. Still, this would be a great opportunity to train Belial more, and it wasn't like I could just ignore the chance to improve my soul.

Triggering Belial again, I studied the arrows in front of me. Based on what happened last time, the armors wouldn't attack until I did. The mess off arrows was complicated and difficult to sort through. Not because I was short on option but because I had too many. Same as last time, I needed to find a road through this that both corresponded to Belial's form and allowed me to walk further in my Path.

I studied a few different moves I could make, and once I picked the best one, I triggered State of Grace and Ripple Running again. Light and subtle. I also internalized more of what Willow taught me. Her use of leverage was perfect for Belial. Dashing forward, I stepped off the air, once and then twice.

The first step took me toward the armor on the right, the second took me clear of the blow from the left armor that it aimed at me as I came in. I sailed gently over the attack as it slammed into and shattered the corruption hanging in the air where I'd stepped, then pushed off a third time. As the right hand armor swung it's halberd around, my staff licked out and smacked gently into a spot about three quarters of the way up the haft.

My attack hit the halberd at a balance point, diverting it away, and slid down the length of the weapon as it was deflected down into the left hand armor. There was a crash as the right armor's corrupted weapon split the shoulder plate on the left armor, spreading my attack through the metal.

The left armor gave an impression of fury as it began raining down attacks on me, and the right hand armor pulled its weapon free and resumed the attack as well.

I moved like a dancer, following the arrows I felt lined up best with my Path. I felt my soul almost glow as the Path took me forward. I wasn't just walking the road of fate, I was guiding it. This was the exact link between my form and Path that I needed to maximize my growth.

Between the Ripple Running platforms, my staff, and the overlay, I moved through the attacks like a fish through water. My staff flicked out lazily a dozen times, not enough to do serious damage even with the corruption, but it didn't need to be. By hitting the exact right spots, I could change the fate of a blow, redirecting it from myself towards another enemy. The corruption built in their weapons as they tore each other apart from the inside, all while trying to kill me.

This was what Belial was for. Crowds. Tearing an enemy unit apart with its own attacks. I landed my last blow and the two armors finally collapsed. The two waves of orange flame consumed me, both of them stronger this time because I was still on my Path. Another five percent soul progress total filled my body, and I exhaled with relish.

I didn't bother dismissing Belial this time, just kept it active as I walked to the next room, and when I found the expected three suits of armor, I just attacked them directly. Three was harder, and I deduced that I was starting to reach my limit with Belial for the moment. I needed to train.

In order to take full advantage, I slowed down a bit, getting a better handle on my timing and speed as I worked on my newest form. The Ripple Running steps were added in, used as land mines in the air to corrupt weapons. Every move became a step in the Path, ever little twitch shifted the tides of fate, and I felt almost invincible under the effects of Belial.

Not that I was. I knew that the feeling was just a side effect of being in ideal conditions. Multiple slightly weaker enemies was pretty much heaven for me right now. Belial made me an army buster if I was willing to put in the time. Sadly, it wouldn't be nearly as useful against single opponents. Sure, a bunch of light taps would add up, but anyone sufficiently powerful would just muscle me.

After I finished the three and got ANOTHER five percent progress toward my soul. I moved on, but the next room wasn't just some random hall filled with armor. This one was a more open space with multiple doors. Through all but one of the four passageways came a person, myself and two others. When I saw them, I sighed deeply. I'd been hoping for more armors, but these weren't them, or even people I knew. Well, time to see what the others had to say.
chapter 485
The two strangers in the room looked as wary of me as I was of them. Of course, I was made of green magma and the ground was smoking and bubbling under my feet, so I couldn't really blame them for being a bit unsettled. "So." I said cheerfully. "I'm guessing we beat each other with sticks now?" I held up my staff. "Because I feel like if that's where this is going, I have sort of a home field advantage."

One of the other two guys, a short dark haired man with incredibly wide shoulders, a goatee, and huge muscles, laughed at that. "Well you're certainly direct. I like that in a...whatever you are. No need for things to escalate, Mr. Poisonous Lava Monster."

"That's Doctor Poisonous Lava Monster, thank you very much." I said with a grin. "I didn't spend six years in Poisonous Lava Monster medical school to be called Mr." Seeing that they weren't attacking, I chuckled and dropped Belial. I could bring it back up nearly instantly, and it seemed like these guys might not want to fight. Still, I made sure my overlay remained active.

He sighed with relief. "I'll be honest. I feel way more comfortable talking to you when you don't look a modern art piece someone pulled out of a toxic waste dump. I'm Vinnie, by the way. Vincent Barder to my enemies."

"Solomon." I said with a wave. "Wish Curse Palace. Which faction are you with?" I glanced at the other guy, a tall blonde man with telltale pointed ears. "Either of you, actually. I'm a candidate, so I'm not really too familiar with the larger factions outside the six. Don't be offended if I've never heard of you."

The blonde smiled slightly. "I'm from the Ostwallen family. We're elven nobility in the Faerieland. My grandfather, Bartholomew Ostwallen, is part of the Queen's council. My name is Simon."

Vinnie nodded. "Heard of you. The Barder family are Imperial. My gramps is a king. The WCP huh? I didn't realize they sent anyone this time. Lot of Churchies, a few Cultists, and the usual mix of Empire and Faerieland, but the Palace having people here is pretty interesting."

"Not to be like...indelicate, or anything. But does this mean we're not going to fight? Because if so, I'd love to sit down while we talk." Using Belial didn't strain my soul too much, but it was still effort to maintain. Some downtime would be appreciated, and might take the edge of my headache. It was so mild I barely noticed it, but it was definitely there. Plus I could learn some more about the other contestants.

Simon laughed and gestured to the center of the room. "Why not. This isn't a race like the first trial. And it's not like we can get the gold key fragments. I'm not sure who got first in the first two trials, but last I heard, Adrian of the Fist God Temple got the second silver fragment. Personally, I think that for those of us who don't already have an Azure Soul Body, it's more beneficial to take our time and get as much as we can out of the trials."

Despite having claimed the first two key fragments, I nodded. He was right. I was in no rush. If anyone wanted to assemble the gold key they'd need to go through me anyway. It seemed like people couldn't tell who had a key piece, and neither of these guys felt confident in getting to the end. I left the overlay up to warn me in case of attacks, but I headed to the center of the room and sat down in a chair I pulled from my spatial ring.

Weirdly enough, the chair came out just fine. Apparently everything here was made of the same of simulated material. It was pretty damned realistic, and I could barely tell it wasn't a real chair. I hadn't expected our spatial rings would be mimicked by the temple too.

The others grabbed their own chairs and sat down. Since we were hanging out, I decided to provide snacks. I had some jerky in my ring, and a few bottles of craft soda from back on Callus I'd been holding onto. Sadly my stock of Black Cherry was gone, but I had a few bottles of melon soda. I passed one to each of them with some jerky, and they both nodded their appreciation.

My food and drink were pretty low level, so I wasn't expecting them to flip out, and they didn't but both seemed at least pleasantly surprised. "This is pretty good jerky." Said Vinnie as he snacked. "Desert will be on me." He withdrew a small table and some plates, and then started cutting slices of cake for us both.

"So." I said as we ate. "This Adrian guy. He famous? I've never heard of him, but like I said, I'm a candidate so I'm a bit out of the loop."

Simon nodded. "He's a Master ranked boxer. Fist god boxing is pretty famous in terms of unarmed martial arts, and Adrian is considered the most talented student the temple master has ever had. He already has an Azure Soul Body. The Temple is part of the Empire, and rumor has it the temple master is friends with one of the princes. He got his student access to their heritage."

I whistled. "Lucky bastard. What's with the Fist god thing? Is the Fist god one of the vanished gods or something? You'd think the other factions wouldn't approve of that kind of naming sense."

"Nah." Said Vinnie with a wave. "There's no actual Fist god. It's some philosophical bullshit. Anyway, the six don't care who or what you worship. They don't allow new gods to show up, but it takes a lot to get to that level. It's not something that's quiet or easy to accomplish. There's even more than a few Demigods around."

I hadn't know there WERE Demigods, but I didn't want to sound too ignorant of common sense stuff. I'd ask Zeke or Killian about Demigods later. "So." I asked the others. "If this isn't a race, what is it exactly?" I hadn't seen any signs of a test or task besides beating armors. Which was nice, but if there was some overarching goal I'd rather know what it is.

"Pretty straight forward." Said Vinnie. "Just fight and progress. The key is hidden somewhere among the armors. There's no specific end point. Once someone finds it the door to the next trial will open behind the throne. We just have to backtrack once that happens. It might be a while though." He gestured around. "As you can see, there's not always a fight in every room. They tend to be randomized numbers, though the deeper you go the more there are. The first few were one, two, and three for me."

I nodded. "Same. So we just keep fighting until it ends. What about rooms like this?" I glanced uneasily at them. "Are we expected to fight?"

Simon shook his head. "No expected to. Some people will. I'd be on your guard. Of course, some people will simply sit and talk, exchange information and such. The trial isn't just about winning. Like I said, it's also about growing. Most of us are people without the connections to access the heritages that let people like Adrian reach Master so early."

I felt a bit relieved. They'd told me they wouldn't attack, and the overlay was bearing that out so far, but paranoia was a healthy thing in my world. It was nice to be able to make actual friends in here though, even casual ones. "So, Simon. I have a friend from the Faerieland, she's an elf too. She can control trees and stuff, I guess she's a wood elf noble? Are you the same kind of elf?"

He shook his head. "I'm a high elf. We tend to be born with light based abilities. Often healing or other types of support roles. We get along well with the Red Revenant church, actually. Quite a few of my relatives have entered the clergy. I don't know many wood elves, but I know several prominent families of them number among the council."

I nodded. "Of course. I met a Naiad too. Apparently those are rare around where Celine's family hangs their hat. You ever run into any?" I hadn't known about other variations of elves until I met Anna-Marie, and I was interested in how many there might be, but I wanted to feel out Simon's reaction. 'List all the different kinds of elf' seemed like it might be an annoying conversation for him.

He seemed surprised though, when I mentioned meeting a Naiad. "Really? That's a shock. They're incredibly rare. I think aside from dark elves, sea elves are the least commonly seen among our peoples. There's actually several variations of them. Naiads tend to be more comfortable in shallower waters. They're also called river elves and lake elves."

Before we could get too deep into the elfy stuff, Vinnie cut us off. "We can talk about that later. Have you seen anyone here that might be a problem later on? I haven't run into anyone that stuck around, but it's nice to be forewarned about running into some nutcase."

"I don't know anyone involved." I said with a laugh. "I did meet a guy in a weird black bandana mask and armor. He tried to kick the shit out of me and my girlfriend, but we ended up throwing him off one of those islands back in the first trial."
Vinnie looked amused. "Sounds like Kelix. He's with the Robber Barons. They're a thief faction, roaming pirate fleet and all that. He's a tricky guy to deal with. More power to you for the win. I'd watch out for him though. Robber Barons are notorious for being vindictive assholes. He'll definitely have it out of you if he made it this far."

I just shrugged. "Let him try. It's not like I die in real life if I die here. Not much point staying in the trials if I'm going to back out at the slightest sign of fake danger."

That got a barking laugh from Vinnie. "Well said. If you get got, you weren't meant to be here to begin with. Might as well give it your all and see how far you make it." Finishing up his cake, he put his chair away and stood up, stretching. "In the meantime, I think it's time for me be to hitting the road. It was great meeting you guys, glad it was under these circumstances."

He turned and headed in the direction Simon had come from, and the elf smiled as he saw me cock my head. "The rooms are different for each of us. Except multiple entry rooms like this where we can meet." He paused. "I wonder if this is the trial trying to get us to interact more peacefully? Or hey, maybe it's just trying to confuse us. I'll be going. See you soon."
He headed out the door I came in through, which left me with two options. The one Simon came from or the one on the opposite side of the hall that was left over. As I walked toward the door, I let Belial take me, my face splitting into a grin as I drew my staff.

It felt good. Being the hunter. Being able to stand on my own two feet and challenge anything that came my way. After the trial of solitude, I was able to just enjoy the journey more than I had been before. I didn't feel so conflicted or lost. Of course, I did miss my friends, but I'd see them when I saw them. Until then, I had training to do, and the more armor I destroyed the stronger my soul got. I spun up my staff as I stepped through the door I'd chosen. Time to play can opener.
So where is his soul rn?
I meant percentage wise
Ah, it has been a few chapters since that was mentioned, and I'm bad with numbers, so I usually just ignore them until they're presented to me. 64 was the last number we were given, +1 for first Armour, +5 for the next two, +5 for the next three gets us to 75%. So 75% in addition to whatever happened in the previous trial, whether that was a quality or adjustment or something isn't outright stated but it seems like it was more reflective than outright upgrading.
chapter 486
My next two rooms were cakewalks. The more armors added in, the easier the group was to take apart. My danger sense combined with my overlay made the mid combat portions of my Belial form incredibly simple, and the more I trained them the more I honed those reflexive moves. I realized after I finished the third, however (which was a bit more challenging) that I'd run into a slight problem. My soul had finished its refinement in orange, but I had no clue how to break through to yellow.

After my experience in the forest, I felt like my soul had sublimated, but apparently whatever had happened wasn't the necessary trigger to jump to the next rank. I sat for a while in my third room, meditating on the potential methods I could think of to break through. Unfortunately, it wasn't a problem I felt particularly equipped to handle. It was like trying to flex a muscle you didn't know you had. You could think about it all you wanted, but the actual mechanics were just...a mystery.

I sat like that for about an hour, eventually getting bored and deciding that there was no way to break through here. At the very least, I could still train my Belial form. I'd been getting substantially better with it. As a technical subskill of DS Mastery, it was folded into that Skill, and I was pretty thrilled with the progress. I'd even started work on my second form, though it was still in development.

Eventually though, I acknowledged that I needed to move on, and stood up to head through the door to the next chamber. As I entered, two others stepped inside. I was preparing to meet some new people, but to my shock, I found that I knew both of them. Sadly, only one of them was a friend.

"You!" Shouted Kellix, the masked man from the first trial. Apparently falling off the island didn't kill you. After he yelled, he drew his rapier and lunged at me, blurring across the room to try to kill me. Sadly for him, a massive fist manifestation hit him like an oncoming bus and slammed him bodily into the now closed door he'd come out of.

I nodded casually to the other figure. "Hey Abel." My mentor was looking as amused as ever, and waved at me as he strolled over. I found my eyes drawn to the seriously injured form of Kellix, bashed literally THROUGH the door. "Damn. You didn't pull that punch, did you?"

Abel shrugged. "Reflex. Years of people screaming 'you!' at me in an accusatory manner. By the time I figured out he was pointing at you and not me it was already over. Environmental conditioning."

That drew a sharp laugh from me. "Why do I not find that hard to believe. Surprised you aren't with Mel. You guys split up for the duration too?" Their teamwork was even better than mine and Callie's. I wasn't sure why Abel would feel the need to split up, unless it was just to enjoy himself rampaging solo.

"I hit a wall." He said with a shrug. "Peak of yellow, about to break into green. Breaking the second soul shackle is much harder than the first though. Now I understand why you need access to a heritage or this temple to break through more than one."

I nodded. "I wanted to ask you about the first...soul shackle? Are we good to talk, or do we have to worry about this idiot attacking us from behind?" I pointed to the damaged but still functional body of Kellix. We can just kill him before he picks himself up if you want."

Abel chuckled and shook his head. "Nah. He won't bother us again." He let his Path leak out, bloodlust and violence permeating the air. "Will you?" Kellix made a low whining sound and jerked his head side to side. "See." Abel said, jerking his thumb toward the immobile form. "What a great guy. Plus the more we leave alive the more fun we get to have later. Elimination games are so boring."

"That sounds more like you." I laughed. I was impressed again by his Path. That weird oppression he used. I wondered if that was unique to his path or if I could learn it too. That was a bit personal though. I decided to stick with the more important question as we sat down. Or at least the more urgent. "So, what can you tell me about the soul shackle? I knew there was a barrier of some kind, but not what it does or how to get past it."

He shrugged. "The soul shackle is hard to explain. The body is connected to the soul. When you rank up, your soul goes along with it. You know this, it's why I'm at the peak of yellow. But the body's connection to the soul isn't all positive. It uplifts but also limits. You have three soul shackles. The first shackle binds the mind. Break the heart shackle and your soul can ascend to the next rank. The heart shackle is different for everyone, so I can't give you specifics."

"How did you learn all this?" I asked incredulously. "Aren't you from the same backwater I am?"

He snorted. "Sure, which is why I spent the three months on the ship when I wasn't training asking around about soul refinement. I'd already broken the mind shackle, and it was a...weird experience. I'd hoped learning more about souls would help me understand what I went through."

I blinked at that. "Oh. That...makes sense. Now I feel stupid, I should have done that. What about the other two shackles. I imagine the second shackle is what lets you get your soul to the required two levels above. What about the third? What do you become if you break the third shackle?"

"A corpse." He said with a snicker. "Mind, heart, and self. The shackles tether your soul to your body. Break one and you can reach the next level of soul refinement, break two and you go two above, break the third and your soul loses its connection to your body and floats away. You become an empty shell. Luckily, you have to actively try to break shackles, and no one is stupid enough to make the attempt on number three."

That made sense, but it didn't answer the biggest question. "How did you break your mind shackle though? How am I supposed to break it? And why can you only break the first one without the temple?"

For probably the first time since I'd met him, Abel hesitated. He seemed almost afraid to speak. "I can't say much. It might make breaking it harder for you. But I can tell you something that will explain the why of your last question. The mind shackle is a binding you place on yourself, and the heart shackle is a binding placed on you by others. Internal and external. You can overcome the influence you have on your own thoughts, but overcoming the place others have in your heart is different. I'm guessing you got that during the second trial."

I nodded slowly, considering his point. "You're right. I could see how that would be different. So, you said everyone's is different. What was your mind shackle?"

"Fear." He said bluntly. "Fear of failure. I used to be much different. I was always talented, and strong, but for a long time the constant expectation of victory spurred me forward. I probably would have ended up becoming an Adamant myself if I'd stayed on that path. But when I spent all that time on my own, leaving behind everyone else...there wasn't much I could call that but losing."

He looked unusually philosophical as he continued. "I was depressed for a long time. Pinned under the weight of guilt and the fear that I would let someone down again, but eventually, I came to realize that losing wasn't the end of the world. Hell, it was the best part of fighting. Losing means you found something you can't beat. It means you have something that challenges you to grow."

That explained so much about Abel. But part of me also worried about it. "That sounds like a big change. Almost like you lost an important part of yourself. Are you sure we're SUPPOSED to break the soul shackles?"

"Ascending is the process of releasing your humanity, kid." He said with a smile. "You can't get something for nothing. Not even in a world like this. Ascendants are both more and less than the humans we used to be. You need to give up a part of yourself to progress. Sure, you could ignore the shackles, get stuck at S-rank and try to hold onto who you were. But here's the thing. People change. The you who was here yesterday is dead. And today's you is going to die too. You can't stop that, and clinging to who you are won't change it."

Zeke had told me something similar once. I understood their point, and I agreed with them mostly. That fear of evolving was natural. I'd changed too much too fast. It made sense that there was still parts of the old me left. But the problem was that I didn't know what my mind shackle was. A restraint I imposed on myself? That could be so many things.
"Do you regret it?" I asked quietly. "Losing that part of yourself. Losing more of your humanity? Faster than you had to I mean."

He just shook his head. "You're focusing too much on the past. Let me put it to you this way. The soul Ascends as we do.
To rise in power and quality, it sheds parts of what it was. Well, sublimates them, but they get crushed by the sublimation, so sheds still works in a sense. When a person ranks up, their being becomes much bigger in a sense, and stats are used to fill that in. It's why only strong willed people overcome recursion, the core of their being has to be strong enough not to get diluted and swallowed up."

"I know that part." I said in annoyance. "What does that have to do with anything?"

Abel rolled his eyes. "The soul of a higher ranked Ascendant isn't like the soul of a lower ranked. It changes. Which means to sublimate your soul early, you need to undergo that change early. You need to sever part of what makes you what you are so you can become something else. You don't break the shackle to rank up, you rank up because you break the shackle."

Put that way, it seemed less...scary. It was something I'd be doing eventually. Refusing to break it wouldn't make me more human, it would just put off the change. I blinked. "Wait, is that why we need to complete going up two ranks before we hit Master?"

"Yup." He said with a shrug. "Something weird happens at Master rank, the shackles become part of your soul. You can't break them anymore. Not sure what exactly. Something to do with Paths I expect. Who knows what ranking up to D-rank actually requires. Anyway. I should be moving on kid, and so should you. I kind of want to see if I run into anyone stronger than me."

I laughed at that then stood and headed for the next room. Personally I wanted to run into my sister more than anything. I had a lot I still wanted to know about her. Maybe talking to her would help me break my mind shackle, but even if it didn't I was still buzzing with excitement. As I stepped into the next room, I froze. Ten suits of armor, nine of them black one of them glowing a brilliant gold. I rolled my eyes at the temple. "Subtle." And then the fight was on.
chapter 487
The fight with the gold armor started off the same as the others, but quickly devolved. First off, though all of the armors came at me at once, when they got in close, the dark ones split off to surround me while the gold one attacked me head on. The armor had a massive spiked golden mace, and despite being bigger than the others, it seemed to be much faster.

State of Grace, Ripple Running. I bounded out of the way, letting my danger sense tip me off and using my staff as a pole vault to leap over the crowd of armor trying to literally axe murder me. As I came up, my staff shot out behind me, slightly shifting the course of multiple halberds as they attacked, redirecting and infecting.

As each weapon slammed into the gold armor, they left behind a slight groove in the metal and the usual corrosive damage. Despite that though, the damage was barely spreading. The golden material of the armor was just exponentially more durable than the rest of them. It might only be F-rank, but it was clearly an impressive metal. F-rank copper and F-rank titanium were not the same level of hardness, and this stuff was definitely high end.

I could feel the Impact from the gold armor, and it felt like a normal thirty two points rather than some obscene value like forty. My extra three points of Impact gave me a serious advantage against mediocre F-rankers, but this armor didn't seem particularly inconvenienced when I struck out with a few probing shots. Which meant I had to focus on using the other suits of armor. Their Might seemed much higher than mine.

Still, this was going to call for something a bit more...delicate. I triggered Moonlit Night, flooding the room with concealing fog. Moonlit Night actually wasn't perfectly suited to the Belial form. Belial was all about misdirection and feints, and Moonlit Night was pure stealth. You can't misdirect someone who can't see or hear you.

Luckily, I could tweak my skills, especially give my beefy new soul, so allowing sound to filter through the fog was easy enough. I stalked forward, keeping low, and as I drew close to goldie I let the but of my staff drag the ground slightly, creating a low scraping noise.

The armors pounced on me like wolves, all their halberds headed for me. Sadly for them, I'd picked this spot on purpose. I was already low, and slipping under the attacks was easy. I ended up on my back on the ground, and my staff flicked out, hitting balance points and centers of gravity on the axes as I imbued them with corrosion yet again. They all slammed into the gold suit.

This time, however, the armors couldn't see what they were hitting. They felt the impact and went crazy, wailing on the gold suit full force, desperately trying to kill it with repeated blows. The gold armor didn't seem thrilled with this little development, and it swung its massive mace in a wide arc, trying to destroy its attackers.

Which it did. Or one of them at least. Sadly as I was at my limit the orange flame joining with me from its death didn't improve me. It DID, however, have a similar refreshing effect to the islands in the first trial. Doing so much was a slight strain, but now even that was gone. I felt energized and alert, it was like the soul version of Jessie's life force infusion.
The killing blow on the armor had apparently tipped goldie off though, because it stopped attacking, slamming its mace down on the ground in some sort of signal that had the rest of them breaking off to circle again.

I didn't think the same trick would work again, but luckily, I had other tricks. It's easy to ignore fake danger, and much harder to ignore real danger. I rushed one of the closest armors and attacks, my staff flashing out in a blur to tag a series of spots on the dark metal. Feeling that I was actually attacking it repeatedly and presumably noticing the weapon was not a halberd or mace, the armor reacted on instinct, coming after me.

My overlay did its job. I saw the incoming the arrows, and combined with my danger sense I was able to nimbly avoid every blow as it frantically came toward me. I made sure to make noise as I moved, though only loud enough to be picked up close by. As it committed more and more, I slowly led it to the next suit, and, with a particularly well timed dodge, let the armor hit one of the other suits.

The dark armor stumbled, slamming into another who was pretty close, and all three came after me. Ripple Running let me step off the air, leaping over them and landing silently off to one side before making a noise and letting them all realize where I was. A stampede of metal rushed me, just as I'd expected, and the three of them slammed right into another two armors I'd positioned behind me, even as I jumped over their heads again.

Meanwhile, goldie was carefully monitoring its surroundings, trying to find me without hitting its teammates. Not that it was having much success, but the complete stillness was almost jarring.

I continued my game of cats and mouse, drawing the last three into the melee, and between the stealth and the damage from the corrosive weapons, I started to worry I might accidentally kill some more of them before I could finish the boss. I started leading them toward goldie, preparing to engage it in combat.

As I got close, the armor seemed to sense me, a massive swing of the mace aimed right at my skull. Luckily my danger sense warned me well before the attack would have landed, and I could see fine anyway, I slipped under it and the blow slapped one of the halberds, knocking its wielder into the crowd of other armors and eliciting an enraged reaction (as much as armor can be enraged) from the one who had been hit.

They swarmed at me, and at goldie behind me, but I slid under the golden armor, out between its legs, and came up behind it. As they all attacked, I lashed out with a series of light taps on the weapons, reinforcing the corrosion, but also using some of my stored triple strength density shifted attacks. I had ten of them from various wishes over the three month break, and there were eight of the armors left, and another ten in reserve.

Every single one of the halberds smashed into goldie like a freight train, not just the density of the weapons, but the multiple stacks of corrosion from Belial were augmented. Rents and tears in the metal were torn open from eight directions as the attacks landed, ripping holes all over the gleaming golden armor.

I was pumped. This was all going according to plan...until it wasn't. With the sound of tearing metal, the faceplate of the golden armor tore open, a jagged rent like metal teeth revealing itself as it threw back its head and roared in outrage. It hefted its club and the object began to glow with golden light as it brought it swinging around in a flurry of terrifying smashes.

Being close by to arrange the hits, I was in the strike zone, I used Pit of Despair, creating a ten foot circle of fine dust that I dropped into, avoiding the strikes. Partway down I stepped off one of my Ripple Running platforms and catapulted myself up and out, another attack was coming at me unintentionally, but I slammed my staff down on another platform and vaulted over it midair.

Landing about twenty feet away, I made sure to make noise. The golden armor roared again, ignoring the eight suits of crushed armor he'd left behind, and turned to come after me. It dropped right into the pit, roaring and thrashing as the eight orange flames merged with me, repairing some of the damage done by maintaining so many different skills on top of Belial.

The monster was covered in tears and rents and its whole body was being invaded by corrosion energy, but it kept thrashing, trying to stay above the dust as the substance pouring into the empty armor, dragging it down. I groaned in annoyance. No more patsies, which meant Belial was going to be way less effective. My next form was going to be based on single combat.

I hauled back, slamming the staff down on his head, unleashing the simulated death energy (much less effective without the rank advantage) along with a triple stacked density boost and a gravity attack from Alden. I was running low on those, and couldn't get more, but despite being a rank below me, the combination with the empowering boost gave it enough kick to push the armor further down.

Once its arms were partly submerged, I cancelled Pit of Despair, and left the thing literally fused into the ground. Its elbows were stuck, meaning no arm movement, and it snarled at me impotently as it struggled to get free. Didn't work. I wasn't sure what these floors were made of, but it was sturdy as fuck without some sort of skill to soften it up like I had.

I considered using Flurry of Blows, but since it couldn't move, in the end I just settled on beating it viciously about the head and shoulder with my staff. Took me about eighty whacks to get the job done, but eventually the corrosion built up enough to let me cave in the helmet, and it FINALLY died.

The rush of orange fire this time came with a third golden key piece, and I let my Belial form fade away in relief as my soul was healed and soothed. I was doing quite a few things at once just then, and it was really taking a toll. Reaching out, I grabbed the key piece, completely unsurprised when it merged into my body. I let out a sigh of relief, but I was surprised out of my state of relaxation by an odd noise.

As all the armors vanished and the floors repaired themselves, the doors on both sides of the room opened up. More than that, two NEW doors appeared on either side of me. I could see other rooms through them. Empty rooms in some cases, and in some rooms with people in them. Turning on my heel, I thanked the gods State of Grace didn't run out until the timer ended.

I sprinted through the door I'd come through, remembering which way I'd taken through each room. I actually didn't know why I was running. Everyone else was running, I could see them, but I had the key fragments, so getting there earlier wasn't a huge advantage. Even if someone else got the next one I could just take it off their corpse at the end. Still, it was fun, so I kept sprinting, at least until I came to the first junction room where I'd met Simon and Vinnie.

When I arrived there, I froze. A familiar head of black and white hair was in front of me. As she heard me enter, my sister turned to look and spotted me. She stared back, neither of sure what to do, until some asshole on a green hoodie bolted through the door next to her, shoved her aside and screamed "Victory to the mountebanks!" At the top of his lungs as he dove through the door we'd both been headed to.

Neither of us knew what to do for a second, but finally we broke down laughing as I walked up to her and put out a hand. "So...this seems like an ALMOST decent place to talk without being overheard. Might be a good idea to give it a few minutes though." I said with a grin. "After that...I have some questions." And they were a long time coming.
chapter 488
Once everyone had gone, I started talking first. I used Stealth just in case, but we could see the rooms for quite a ways around, and I didn't notice anyone. "So." I said casually. "I'm guessing do you know who I am? Did you know right away or...?"

Chelsea sighed. "Not right away. All the pictures mom has of you are old. You don't look exactly like dad either. The resemblance is there, but the bones in your face are softer, more like mom. I figured it out when you told me your name." She swallowed hard. "It's nice to meet you, Shane."

"You too." I said. My voice rough with emotion. "Are we twins? I didn't even know you existed until recently, but we should be around the same age, right?"

She nodded, smiling slightly. Reaching into a pocket, she pulled out a word and beaten up picture. She passed it to me, and I almost dropped it as a wave of...something, tore through me. Frustration, sadness, rage, love, longing, and about a hundred other things trampled each other for the honor of gut punching me as I looked down at a picture of my family. My WHOLE family.

Dad stood behind us, looking somber, while mom crouched down holding us both up. We were too young to really stand on our own, so it was hard to clearly identify us. Well, me anyway. I just looked like a blonde kid. Chelsea was pretty noticeable, given her black and white hair color.

I passed it back. "I guess so. You can keep it, I won't be able to take it out of here anyway. Soul stuff. Do you mind if we sit down? This is really a lot."

"Of course." She said quickly, seeming as nervous as I did. She pulled out a pair of chairs, setting them down in a corner, out of the way of all the doors. "So...how was it? Living with dad? I never met him really. Not that I remember at least. He doesn't come around. Grandpa doesn't like him."

"Shocker." I said with a smirk. "He's a devil now, and I somehow doubt the Radiant Pope approves of his daughter being married to a literal creature of darkness. What's he like Anyway? I've heard some crazy things. Does he treat you ok? You and mom?"

She snorted. "Mom has grandpa wrapped around her little finger. She's his only daughter, and one of his most impressive children. Not to mention all our uncles were from his first marriage. Mom is his only kid with his current wife." She trailed off at that, like there was something she wasn't saying. "The point is, mom and I are treated very well. Some of the stories about grandpa are blown out of proportion."

I didn't mention the whole 'killing a planet' legend. I was sure she'd heard it, and she knew the guy better than me. I had a million other questions, but in the end, I was only able to come up with one. Everything I wanted to ask just dissolved on my tongue, and I ended up blurting out. "Why did mom leave?"

Chelsea looked away. "Because of me. I was born with two abilities. I'm sure you've heard of it happening?"

"Yeah, Aidan, the current Wishmaster has two." I said with a nod. "Why is that a reason to leave? I would think dad would have been thrilled, hell, mom too. Having two abilities is pretty great."

She shook her head. "There's something wrong with one of them. I can't really go into it. But I shouldn't have one of the abilities I do, and if someone found out they might come after me, and you. At least, if they knew who my dad was. By taking me away and raising me on my own, they were able to pretend it was some big secret. It was to protect me, and also to protect you."

"I don't understand." I said in frustration. "How does being born with an ability matter? How did they even know? And what about dad?"

She looked away guiltily. "They knew because of a wish. And the ability I was born with is a bloodline. I wasn't supposed to have it, and its existence gave away some kind of family secret. I can't say more, please don't ask. I'm begging. As for dad. When he found out mom had to go, he was furious apparently. I was too young to remember any of it, but from what mom said, he refused to let her leave."

"That seems to have worked out well." I spat. "Seems like he really stood his ground there."

"She made a wish." Said Chelsea sadly. "As a way to keep the secret. That's how she got her second ability. She thought having it would make it easier to explain mine. It wouldn't have worked, probably, but she paid with the most valuable thing that she had. Your ability. Kept under lock and key until your eighteenth birthday. Another layer of separation between us."

My head was spinning. I'd always wondered about the strange way I'd gotten my ability. Most people just developed it, but mine came in a scroll on my birthday. Mom had done that? Dad had helped? I could have been an early bloomer like Callie. I could have been a fucking B-ranker like Zeke by now. Whose bloodline ability did Chelsea have that prompted all this? I didn't know nearly enough about bloodlines to figure it out.

Plus...she'd asked me not to try. She wanted me to let it go. Despite how PISSED I was at mom and dad (less so at mom than I had been, though that didn't let dad off the hook for the way I grew up) I didn't blame Chelsea for any of it, and I could tell from her face that she expected me to.

You'd think that would have made it harder, in some ways. To just...drop it. But it didn't. The realizations from the forest came back to me. Mom and dad weren't here, but that didn't change the impact they had on me. Neither would finding out the truth. It might hurt my sister though, and she didn't deserve it. This wasn't her fault. I leaned forward awkwardly in my chair and hugged her.

Chelsea stiffened at the contact, clearly expecting me to be upset and lashing out, but once she realized what was happening she hugged me back. "Family secret bullshit or not, you got something wrong. This didn't happen because of you. It happened TO you. None of this was your fault." I pulled away. "Now, tell me a bit more about your life. I want to know what growing up as the Radiant Princess is like."

I still had so many emotions tangled up inside. I was still reeling. And honestly, I should have been angry. That she got the childhood I didn't, that she was with mom being adored and fussed over while I was stuck on some backwater nowhere hellhole. But...I wasn't. Any of those things. Forget dad. I'd had Zeke growing up. And Benny. I loved my life, and I didn't need to fantasize about growing up being pampered by strangers.

She groaned at the nickname, chuckling wetly as she wiped her eyes. "Please don't call me that. it's so lame. But really, it's not as crazy as you might be thinking. Mom keeps me out of the limelight when possible. Which can be hard. It's why I had to come to the trial to begin with. She didn't want me using the Church's heritage in case something about my second power leaked."

"How is she?" I finally asked. I'd been avoiding it, but I couldn't help myself. I hadn't seen my mother for so long that my only memory of her was a single glimpse of her face.

"Quiet." She said sadly. "She misses you. A lot. Part of the contract she signed with dad is that she can't seek you out. She did it that way on purpose, so that she wouldn't be tempted and put both of us in danger. She hates herself for it though. I still catch her crying sometimes."

Contract. She'd said wish before, which made me think it was both. My dad was a wish devil, after all, he granted wishes through contracts now. That was basically ALL I knew about him these days. "Does that mean I can't see her?"

"Nope." She beamed at me. "Contract says she can't seek you out, doesn't say anything about the other way around. I think she'd love to see you. We'd have to be a bit creative about it, and it would have to be after the trials. If you want to see her, I mean." Her smile wilted. "I'd understand if you didn't."

"I do." I stated firmly. "I still have questions, but even if she can't or won't answer them...she's still my mom. Knowing she did all this to keep us safe makes it a lot easier to deal with."

Her smile this time was enough to light up the room. "Well, what about you? I noticed you came here with friends." Her tone took on a teasing lilt. "And a girl. It must be serious if you're traveling together. You going to bring her with you to meet mom?"

"Probably." I said without flinching. "I've met hers. And yeah, it's pretty serious. My friends are all from my home planet.
Mom ever tell you anything about Callus?" I wasn't actually sure mom had BEEN to Callus, actually. My memory of her didn't come with context or location details. It was possible it had been before I'd moved to the psuedo-D ranked planet.
Chelsea shook her head. "Not that I remember. I's love to hear about it though. Mom said you were raised by dad's best friend?"

I couldn't help the laugh that bubbled forth as I tried to think of how to describe Zeke. "Yeah. He's...he's a hard guy to explain. But he's taken care of me my whole life, and always been there when I needed him. I think you'd like the old drunk. What about your protector? I heard he's a big shot for his level, but he's been keeping his rank down so he can stick around and protect you."

"Callen has his own reasons for remaining at F-rank." She giggled. "But he's definitely kept me safe for most of my life. He's my guard for places higher ranking Ascendants can't go. You'd be surprised how often that comes up." She gestured off into the temple. "He's around somewhere. We got separated in the second trial, of course. I'm sure he's looking for me everywhere, but it's a big place and there are a lot of people."

I shrugged. "Not a huge issue though, right? If you die in here you just get kicked out. It's a safe place for you to do some exploring on your own. What's the power you can use, by the way, since the other one is a secret."

She held up a hand, and an ivory, crystalline flame flickered into existence. It looked weird, like an animated opal statue of fire. "Purifying flame." She said proudly. "It's grandpa's bloodline, though he uses it a bit weird, so most people don't know that." I was kind of curious what that even meant, but I decided there'd be time for that later.

I changed the subject, asking her more about her childhood, and she asked about mine again. I shared stories, embarrassing incidents, and just stupid things I'd done, and she did the same. We got to know each other, sitting there in that stone room and catching up with our lives. The rest of them got further ahead in the next trial, but I didn't care. i was finally getting to know my sister, learning more about my family, and that was plenty for me.
chapter 489
I wanted to stay and talk more with Chelsea, but as much fun as it was, the few hours I took catching up with her was the most either of us were willing to spend. We were here for the trials, at the end of the day, and that meant we needed to get going.We walked together to the portal, at least. After a quick hug and a promise to talk more later, we each stepped through the doorway behind the throne.

As expected, we were separated in the next trial. If my conjectures earlier were correct, then they were alternating soul refinement resources with trials aimed at helping people break soul shackles. Of course, I doubted this could continue. They were trials, and chances were good we'd be up against each other within the next few trials.

When the telltale gold light faded, I found myself standing somewhere completely new. Not in a castle of dark stone, but in a maze, the likes of which I'd never seen before. The maze seemed to be made of mirrors, but the mirrors, at least from the angle I was at now, had no reflections in them. As I stepped forward past one, I saw myself enter the image next to me.

Oddly though, the image of me wasn't wearing my current armor, he was wearing white robes with golden trim. He had a circlet on his brow set with a beautiful blue sapphire, and his expression was pious and kind of snooty. As I watched. He stepped out of the mirror gracefully, offering me a jaunty wave. "Oh, hello. It's nice to meet you. I'm Shane Anders. Are you participating in this trial too?"

As he spoke, I finally got the download from the temple about the rules for this trial, and what was going on became obnoxiously clear. The Heart Demon Maze. The reflections represented weaknesses and blind spots in my psyche. This particular trial would have been much more help with my heart shackle than my mind shackle, but it should help me refine myself either way.

"Hi." I said awkwardly. "I don't suppose you know why you're here?" I would have felt terrible just assaulting someone who didn't mean me harm, even an egotistical version of me obviously raised by my mother, with a somehow exponentially more punchable face than my own despite being nearly identical to me.

He sighed heavily. "I do. We're going to have to do battle. It's a shame. I don't have anything against you personally. I do need to get through this trial though, and you won't be harmed physically by your demise here. I'll try not to-" His words were cut off by my staff flashing through the space his head had just been occupying as I shifted into Belial and triggered State of Grace, Flurry of Blows, and Ripple Running.

The staff passed in front of his nose, and I kept the motion going as I made a full rotation, using the force of my body to speed up the already much faster attack. Other me scowled. "Well that's not very polite. I was still speaking. His eyes began to glow with unearthly blue radiance as his hands came to life with white fire. Familiar white fire. Flames of purification. Of course.

This was the version of me who inherited my grandfathers power from my mom. Who grew up in the Church with her. Did he have a second power like Chelsea? I'd find out. But at the moment I had to stay alive. A dozen strikes and sweeps licked out, my staff moving deceptively gently but fast as I could go, like I was dancing or something.

An impression probably helped by other me's flawless dodges and deflections. Not only did my corrosion not infect him, where his flame hit my staff it started burning away the strength of Belial. After a few exchanges I was the one on the back foot, dodging as the tempo slowly shifted to him attacking me.

My overlay really shined here. Not literally, I couldn't manage to find a Path here for attacking. Apparently there was no version of this fight that conformed to Fate, which I guess made sense. I pushed off the air with Ripple Running, vanishing as he struck out with purifying flame, and grinned as he caught some corruption to the chest from the platform I'd used to push off.

Other me hissed, slamming his purifying hand into his chest, and as he did, I triggered Moonlit Night. Fog filled the mirrored corridor, cloaking me in stealth. His face (my face I supposed) smoothed out after a minute, his purifying flame eradicating the demonic corruption. "That was very clever." He complimented earnestly. "Corrupting the air and drawing my focus so you could catch me with a mine."

I gritted my teeth. That sounded so patronizing coming from him. Or maybe I was just pissed off at his existence. This version of me seemed almost...better. Even without my wish power (which I hadn't been able to use since entering here, I was pretty sure there was some time shenanigans going on in the temple) he'd made it further than I had. He was seemingly on the high end of F-rank, while I was only coming up on the midpoint, and I...

My mind froze. I got it now. The maze wasn't built specifically for fights. I mean, it was good training and in some situations it would probably be important, but the point of it was to overcome flaws in my mind and heart. Flaws like this one. Ever since I'd first heard about Chelsea I'd wondered what would have happened if mom had taken me. Would I be stronger? Better? Happier?

It was no effort at all to let Moonlit Night and Belial drop. This version of me hadn't attacked, he'd said he would, but he'd mostly just waited patiently. I stared at him. "I don't want to be you." I said firmly. "I like my life. My friends. Zeke. I wouldn't trade them for some fancy robes and time with my mommy. I could beat you if we kept fighting, but more importantly...I don't think you're as happy as I am."

I blinked and he was gone. I was looking in a mirror at myself, eyes behind a blank wooden mask. A second later the mirror cracked, and the image of me as I was vanished, the reflective surface replaced with a blank wall of golden bricks. I felt...lighter. Stronger. Like a piece of me that was broken had been fixed. I felt a lot of things honestly, and it was hard to pin down a specific emotion in the maelstrom.

Rather than continue, I sat down and closed my eyes, thinking through what I'd come to terms with. The Heart Demon Maze was meant to help cleanse your flaws, if I hadn't come here as an orange it would have been mainly aimed at my heart lock, but since I had, I got to face off with the demons I had in my own head. My internal limitations.

Figuring out the limits you imposed on yourself was a bitch and a half as far as I could tell. I had some ideas, but for the moment I just needed to take this one step at a time. Exhaling loudly, I stood up, brushed off my pants, and then stepped forward into view of the next mirror.

This time, the version of me that stepped out of the mirror WAS wearing my mask. He was also wearing much different clothes. A pitch black three piece suit with a black shirt and tie. The tie had the WCP logo stitched into it with gold thread. He nodded to me coldly as he emerged. "The test continues, I see. What version of myself do I face now? I don't see any obvious clues to which weakness I need to eradicate here."

So he thought he was taking the test. Interesting, but ultimately irrelevant. "I suppose we should chat then." I said casually. "Try to figure out a bit about each other." Fighting wasn't my go to this time. I needed to understand, to figure out what this guy represented.

"What's in that for me?" He laughed frostily. "I could just kill you and advance. I hardly think a conversation with a figment of my imagination is worth my time.

I rolled my eyes. "Don't be insipid. If we were going to fight we'd have started by now. Quit your posturing so we can get this shit done."

He shrugged. "I should have expected myself to be smart enough to see through that. Fine. My name is Shane Wyndham. Son of Elijah. I assume you're the same? Your clothes lead me to believe you're not exactly proud of our illustrious heritage. Shame our father didn't impress the importance of family onto you. I suppose even he isn't infallible, as much as he likes to pretend otherwise."

It hit me then. Not all of these versions of me needed to be real possibilities. The last one hadn't been. If there was a version of me raised by mom, there was a version raised by dad. This was the REAL Wyndham inside me. The part of me that expected that I could have been a real power player if dad had stayed with me and taught me properly.

"You grew up with the family?" I said, unable to help my curiosity. "What was that like? You must be pretty strong." He was F-rank, but clearly much further along than I was. Just like the last one.

"Strength is irrelevant." He scoffed. "It's just a facet of power. I HAVE power. Some I get from our father. Some from my own wit. But it belongs to me. And you..." I could HEAR the sneer behind the mask. "You're weak. Empty. Too soft to do what needs to be done to achieve our goals. You sicken me."

"Right back at'cha." I laughed. "Do you care about ANYONE but yourself? Or did dad teach you all his bad habits. Abandoning people you care about. Pushing away your loved ones. Why even bother using your own name. Might as well call yourself Eli jr."

He straightened menacingly. "How DARE you? Our father taught me everything I needed to survive. To thrive. I have power, wealth, influence. What do you have?"

I snorted. "A personality. Also friends, and a girlfriend. I'm assuming you have none of those things. You're just a rich selfish prick with too high an opinion of himself." I laughed at myself. Both of me. "I can't believe part of me wished to be like you. I had enough trouble shaking off dad's bullshit when he was barely around. I don't hate him, I'm not even as mad at him anymore after hearing some of his reasons, and honestly, I'm glad he left."

The other me froze, then stepped back into the mirror and became my mirror image before the mirror once again cracked and vanished. I just smiled. I loved my dad. Even after everything. I didn't LIKE him very much, but I loved him. But I also thought he was an asshole. I didn't want to be like him. To live up to his expectations. Or even to make him proud. I didn't need to do any of that.

My father was an absentee deadbeat with a god complex. He didn't deserve my anger. My resentment. Or the space he took up in my mind. Mom had to leave, for whatever reason, but dad didn't. He chose to abandon me because of the way the family did things. And I was glad he did. I was glad both of them did. I wouldn't be who I was without their choices.

Zeke hadn't just raised me to be like him. He'd raised me to be ME. I'd never realized what a gift it was for him not to try to impose his morality and judgement on me. Call him absent or neglectful if you wanted, but Zeke had taught me the most important lesson anyone had ever taken the time to teach me. How to be true to who I was. With that realization, I took a deep breath, and stepped forward. On to the next me.
Chapter 490
There were so many things about myself that I had never wanted to confront. So many dreams, hopes, and nightmares that I just stuffed in a box in the back of my head so I didn't have to think about them. As I progressed through the maze, I faced them all. Some of them broke my heart (the me who had never met Benny and had become a terrified shell with no one to lean on), some of them scared me (the me who had joined the Black Sorrow Cult out of rebellion against my parents), and some just left me feeling empty.

But as I progressed down the path, the slight notion I had about what my mind lock was began to develop. Each new version of me brought me closer to the inevitable confrontation I knew was coming. Of course, it was also a maze, so I hit a few dead ends, but eventually I figured it out through the tried and true method of picking a direction and sticking to it.

After several hours of facing my demons, I reached near the end of the maze. Only two more mirrors to go. Approaching the second to last version of myself. I watched him step from the mirror gracefully. Raising an eyebrow at me as he did. No mask, no costume. This version of me was a powerful cultivator, sure, but he wasn't a heroic cultivator. He was a more...direct sort of Ascendant.

He raked his eyes over me slowly, clicking his tongue in disappointment. "The trappings of mediocrity." He drawled. "Playing hero, playing human. You rely too much on your humanity, ignoring the power you could have. Resisting the desire to destroy your enemies out of base sentiment. It's pathetic, really."

"Why is nearly every version of me an unbearable jackass." I wondered aloud. "Like none of me are cool? I guess I need to know your schtick. Are you the me of christmas future? The person I turn into if I decide to throw away my ties to the Unity and just be a lone wolf?" I didn't have any clues to who he might be, so I figured I'd just ask. He seemed smarmy and self absorbed enough to just tell me outright to be honest.

With a snort, he turned his back on me. Unconcerned with me as he studied out surroundings. "Thrown away? I never had any ties to those simpletons. Children playing dressup, focusing on everything but the true business of cultivation. Not that I can blame them I suppose. Their incomplete cultivation style may be fast, but its obviously deeply flawed. It's no wonder they're all madmen or con artists."

That was when it clicked. "You're me as a full cultivator. No heroic inclinations, just the same brutal pragmatism I hear everyone else try to endorse." I looked him over. Trying to see signs of something I knew wouldn't leave any. He just looked like, but more of a dick.

The smarmy smirk didn't help that impression. "Brutal pragmatism?" He mocked. "You're speaking only of reality. The world as it is. Accepting the way the universe works is nothing to be ashamed of. One must do what is necessary to advance. Killing enemies, stealing from others, exploiting the weak. These things are human nature. There's only a finite amount of power in the world, in order to accrue it you must seize it from others."

"Whatever asshole." I scoffed. "You're not the first to say that kind of thing to me. I've found the opposite to be true though. My friends are what keep me grounded. Keep me going. They give me the drive to move forward and be what I need to be. People like you just consume to try to fill the pit in your soul, but I've got an actual reason to fight, and I'll take that any day."

As I spoke, I realized that every word of it was true. This was how I felt. There had always been a part of me that had desperately wanted to embrace the way a real cultivator did things. That though I was only half assing it and that was why I progressed so slow. I wasn't proud of that part, but it had been there. Seeing what my life would be like as that kind of person though, letting it go was the easiest thing in the world.

Power without people to share it with was empty. This version of me had basically gone full recursion, just using the Job system as a buffer to prevent obvious insanity. When I had that realization, other me froze, and then stepped back into the mirror, showing my own image once again as the glass cracked and faded away.

I turned to the last mirror. And then there was one. The last flaw the maze had found in me. Not that I thought I was perfect now, but based on what I'd been feeling, at the very least this should be the one to help me break through my mind shackle. I stepped up to the mirror, looking into the glass to see what horror I'd have to deal with now.

As I faced the final test the maze had for me, I expected something dramatic and dangerous, but to my surprise, the me that stepped out of the mirror looked...normal. He waved to me casually. "Oh, hey man. Nice duds. You look like a character from this game I like to play."

"Doom Sovereign?" I asked with amusement. "Because that's way closer to the truth than you might think." I wondered what he thought he was doing here. The rest of them had been undergoing tests like I was, but this version of me wasn't an Ascendant as far as I could tell. He was just a regular person. Not an inkling of Impact came from the slightly shorter me.

It was the height that tipped me off. I'd traded Callie for an inch of height during a wish back on Callus. This Shane was six foot three, like I had been for most of my life. All the little details combined made it clear what I was looking at here. This was me if I'd never began cultivating.

In a way, this was more intoxicating than any of the other possibilities. This wasn't some alternate life where I didn't have any of my loved ones or had some radically different viewpoint. This was me as I had been not too long ago. Happy, at peace with myself.

This part of me was more insidious than some dark undercurrent wishing for power. This version of me was all about regret. What if I'd never left Callus. Never abandoned my home there. What if Benny and I had stayed and lived our lives. No danger, no craziness. Just me as I had been.

But the rest of the maze had already worn the shine off that apple. I'd seen myself dark, seen myself, cold, seen myself miserable, happy, strong, weak. I'd seen what I'd have been with my mom, with my dad, raising myself unsupervised. Every version of me had been a choice, a possible ending for my story that I hadn't decided to write. This one was no different.

Not just because this version of me didn't have Callie (though it definitely factored) but I knew I didn't want this because it was just one more thing I was supposed to hope for. That had been the theme here. I always wanted what everyone else wanted me to want. Trying to live up to expectations, trying to be what I thought I should.

It wasn't my heart shackle, as much as it sounded external, because the pressure didn't come from outside. It was my own. I wasn't trying to live up to anyone's expectations, I was trying to live up to what I thought their expectations WOULD be. An impossible benchmark none of them would ever set. I wanted to be perfect, to prove myself to EVERYONE, and to myself in the process.

I stared at the other me, feeling myself...change. Grow. Not into a yellow soul, but in a way I couldn't define, sublimating and straining at the shackle. I was on the right track. But I wasn't quite there. I cocked my head at the normal me. "So...don't you ever want more? Want to be someone else? Or are you happy where you are."

He shrugged. "That's the trick isn't it? The one we play on ourselves? Wanting this ineffable far off thing. This perfect future. But if we spend all our time chasing the sunset, we trip over the things under our feet. Who cares what I'm going to be? Having goals is fine, but they don't just happen. You can commit to a thousand long term plans, but that doesn't matter if you aren't taking the steps to reach them."

I blinked at that. "What do you mean? You're saying my goals are all pointless? Because I AM trying to reach them. It's all I've been doing lately."

"I know." He said with a laugh. "But have you actually been getting any closer? Confusing advancement with progress is just standing still on an escalator. All this training. All this work. Have you been doing what you need to do to move forward?"

It was hard not to real my eyes at the quippy philosophical bullshit, but I did see his point. "Hurry up and wait." I said with a grimace. "Instead of constantly trying to make my life something far off and perfect, I should be taking the steps needed to make it as close to that as it can be right now. Not a long delayed journey as the same person where I magically transform at the end. A step by step transformation where I'm a different person each day."

He snapped and pointed at me, the other finger going to his nose. "Bingo! You'd already mostly figured it out anyway. You need to say it the right way though. You're almost through, and you know it. There's a few thoughts there. You need to put it all together."

"Be myself." I said with a snort. "All of it comes down to that. Be the me that I am in the moment. Not for my loved ones, or for the expectations of others, or to put myself in a better position. Reputation, renown, recursion. It's all secondary. The main person that decides how my story unfolds is me. I need to take control of my own life and steer my destiny. I made that realization partway when I decided to change my family, but I never followed it all the way through."

"You got it." Grinned the other me. "Not that I'm saying you need to be a contrary asshole and never do anything anyone wants. Just that in the end, no matter how it seems. You're the one who decides the path you take. Even if the direction is sometimes laid out for you, you're the one who walks it. After all, you can always take a hard left turn into the wilderness, right?"

I felt the shackle give way. A chain binding my spirit fractured and my entire sense of self...changed. Evolved. I became more than I had ever been as my soul ascended to yellow. I felt... clean. Free. Unleashed. I hadn't noticed the restriction of being at the peak of orange until it was gone, but now I just felt like I was more.

"Who are you?" I asked the me standing in front of the last mirror. "Are you really just a possible version of me? None of the others seemed quite this self aware."

He just shrugged as he stepped back into the mirror. "I'm just a maybe. No need to think about it too much." As he stepped inside, the mirror cracked, and a fragment of silver metal flew forward to float in front of me. I guessed the wait time talking to Chelsea had cost me the gold. I let it merge into me so I could save it for Callie, and then turned to the golden glowing door. On to the next trial. Whatever that may be.
chapter 491
When I materialized in the next trial, everything felt different. My mind was sharper, I could hear better, it wasn't that I felt like I'd grown so much as my stats were more in tune with my body now. More a part of me. It was a tough feeling to explain, but definitely a pleasant one overall. Of course, it was also distracting, which is why I didn't notice the person standing in front of me.

"Oh shit!" I yelped, as I jumped nearly out of my skin. The guy across from me did the same, and I sighed in relief when I realized that he didn't seem hostile. Still, I eased a hand to my staff, looking suspiciously at the man in a strange yellow furred three piece suit with brown fur cuffs. His head had a flat topped brown fur hat with yellow ears poking out of it, and his eyes were feline and predatory, though they seemed more wary than aggressive at the moment.

He nodded to me. Blinking once in the time most people would have done so five or six times. "Hello." He said in a rough and slightly sibilant voice. "My name is Felix."

"I bet it is." I said as I slowly calmed down. "Can I...help you? Were you waiting for something? Wait, what are we even do-" And that was when the information for this particular trial dropped into my head. Trial number five, the trial of unity. The soul wasn't built to be solitary. While inner surety and a powerful will were needed to refine it, it was also necessary to form bonds with others. That was what the heart shackle was all about, after all.

The trial of unity wasn't a partner thing. It was a proxy war. All the remaining participants would be split up into fortresses. Each fortress would be given flags with numbers on them. Capturing a flag from the other team would reward soul refinement based on the recipient's level. I blinked at Felix. "Ah, just got it. Team one or team two?"

"Team two." He said succinctly. "Yourself?"

"Same." I said with a relieved breath. "You have any idea where the fortress is? I don't think sticking around out here in the wild will be a good idea. Someone is bound to try to pick off stragglers."

Felix nodded. "Lone prey is weakest." He agreed cheerfully. "Retreat to the den." He turned and headed in a seemingly random direction without really answering my question. Still, I figured following him would be a better idea than wandering off. I also wondered how he was here at all. I'd assumed that Fist God guy was the one who got the golden fragment last time. Was it Felix? Or did the arrivals get randomized. I could see other figures moving in the distance.

Something was going on with time in here for sure, because despite being like a day or two so far, I didn't need to sleep, or eat, and I couldn't feel my wishes refreshing for the day. Maybe time wasn't moving at all in here. In which case the temple could have screwed with our sense of it?

Regardless of what was happening, we made our way to fortress two without much delay, arriving at the gate within about forty minutes. I kept my eyes peeled for enemies, but we made it safely. The fortress, as it turned out, was a massive stone structure with an ACTUAL drawbridge. "Hello the gate!" I bellowed. I'd always wanted to say that.

"Shane?" Squealed a happy, familiar voice. "You're on team two?" I laughed as Bethy poked her head out from the parapet. "This is gonna be awesome! Gabe ended up on team one I think, and I saw Benny and Jessie over there too! You've got me on your team though, and we're gonna totally crush them!"

"What about Callie?" I asked as the gate came down. I'd stepped out of the way with Felix. When it reached about halfway Bethy jumped off the parapet and landed on it, screaming with joy as she rode the falling gate the rest of the way down. When it thumped into the earth, she jumped off and sprinted over to us. I grinned. "I was about to come up there, you know?"

She shrugged happily. "This was faster." She turned to Felix with a big smile. "Hi I'm-" Her eyes went wide. "KITTY!" I cursed and hurled myself forward to catch her before she tackled him, but I was too slow, even in here. She wrapped her arms around the yellow suited man, cackling in glee, and I pinched the bridge of my nose in amused frustration.

"Well I think everyone saw THAT coming." Drawled the most beautiful voice I'd ever heard in my life. I turned to find my girlfriend giggling as she leaned against the open parapet.

"Cal." I grinned at her. Stepping forward, I swept her up into a tight hug. She just laughed, burying her face in my neck, and we held each other for a while. As much as it had only been a short time since I'd seen her, it felt like much longer. Between the forest and the maze, time had sort of lost all meaning, but I'd changed quite a bit since we'd last been together. Just because I was fine without her didn't mean I wasn't happy to see her.

She laughed and held onto me until I put her down. There was something different about her. She seemed relaxed and at peace in a way she hadn't before. Having gone through the same thing myself I could easily recognize the signs. "You hit yellow didn't you?"

"Yup. You too?" I'd gone through several waves of armors at a hundred percent, unable to advance because of my shackle, so catching up didn't seem too weird. At my nod she grinned. "I also progressed my Path a bit. I've been work on it since my enlightenment after the Glade. It's actually progressed to a usable extent. Really helped me get through the castle. Those armor suits were sturdy."

Callie had way more Might than me, but those things had definitely been durable as hell. I'd have figured she'd have more trouble with them. Her Path must be pretty combat applicable. I was really looking forward to seeing it. Turning to Bethy, I asked. "So...do we have any details about how this is supposed to go?" Having been here longer I was hopeful she might have a better grasp on what was happening.

The information download covered the very basics, but the actual context of the trial was something we'd need to learn on the fly. She nodded. "Yeah, a bit. You know about the flags, but it seems like this is going to be a longer trial than the others. The general consensus is that there will PROBABLY be seven of them. The last three are probably going to take a bit longer, because the weaklings have been eliminated and we're down to serious contenders."

Between the forest and the maze, I could see how lots of people would have given up. There was an option to just leave if you couldn't take it, though I knew it wasn't something I'd ever exercise. If this was going to be a long drawn out battle some of the details made sense. If there was just one flag it would be kind of pointless. It sounded like we might be attacking each fortress in waves.

Felix, who had extricated himself from Bethy's vise like grip, headed through the draw bridge, and I laughed and grabbed Callie's hand. "He's got the right idea, we really should go inside." Even at the actual entrance to the second fortress we were making targets of ourselves sitting around like this. "Anyway, Bethy, tell us about our teammates. Anyone we know in here?"

She shrugged. "I don't know who you know. We got the broody guy from the platform, the one whose grandpa is a pope. Also a stabby guy who seems kind of crazy, and a punchy guy who doesn't talk much. He seems pretty strong though. I think at least two of them are Masters." I exhaled in relief. Masters on our team were bound to make things easier. Especially if that punchy guy was the Adrian person Vinnie and Simon mentioned. Speaking of whom...

"I was actually wondering if two friends of mine came through." I said brightly. "One of them is a kind of stuck up elf guy? And the other one is short and super buff with a goatee."

Bethy made a thoughtful sound. "They do sound familiar. I'm not sure if I saw them here or in one of the trials though. Most people were avoiding me except the really strong ones. I might have gotten a little bitey during the first trial and I think I scared some people off." She sounded pretty disappointed, and I remembered how hard she worked to control her vampire side better.

Callie pulled away from me, walking over to throw an arm around the diminutive vampiress. "Their loss. You're awesome, and having you on our team is going to be amazing. Everyone else better watch out, or they won't make it past round five. Now, why don't you show us around this place."

Sufficiently distracted from her woes, Bethy sprang into action dragging Callie up a set of stone steps to show her around the fortress. I nodded to Felix, who had been standing in the shadow of a nearby wall. "Sorry about her. She's a sweetheart, just...enthusiastic." I would have explained more about Bethy, but before I had a chance there was a shudder in the ground beneath us and the sky went black.

A yellow light blazed up inside the fortress, coming from a bell tower like structure in the middle, where I could see a glowing golden flag with a big number two on it. "Incoming!" Bellowed someone out of sight of me. "We have a wave starting. Defenders to the walls, anyone who wants to try their hand at flag snatching I'd get the hell out there before we're swarmed."

My eyes widening, I bent my legs and jumped clear up to the walls. I didn't have time for stairs. I bolted in the direction Callie and Bethy had gone, finding them pretty quickly. "Cal." I said, coming into view of my girlfriend. "Can you carry us out past the attackers once they arrive? If we can leapfrog them we can hit their fortress with a light guard."

She glanced out over the wall, sidestepping an arrow as she peeked from behind a crenellation. I followed her lead, noting the massive crowd of Ascendants. Counting them off, I could see hundreds of them just outside. Including the defenders on the other side and our own teammates, there must be almost a thousand of us left in this round. I wish I'd taken the time to find out how many there had been to start. I spotted Abel and Mel out among the crowd, as well as Nat, Valk, and Nathaniel, the pope spawn kid that had been hitting on my sister. I made a mental not to take him out early if I got a chance, just because he had a hateable face.

Callie nodded. "I can jump us past them. They're only less than a mile thick, that's within my range. You'll have to be ready to get us moving when we land though. I'm going to be reeling from the effort." Once she got my agreement, she turned to watch the attackers pile in. "Bethy." She said over her shoulder. "You coming with us on this raid?"

The vampire shook her head. "Nah, I think I'll go out and fight." She winked at us, then gestured down to her shadow. "In fact, I think I'll let my cats out to play, they've been cooped up since they got here." Her eyes gleamed a bloody red as she grinned toothily down at the crowd of attackers. "Donuts, Poptarts...go for a walk." The last thing I saw as Callie pulled me into her shadow was the two Night Pride being unleashed on the horde of challengers. Sucked to be them.
chapter 492
We appeared on the opposite side of the horde of siegers. I looked behind us just in time to see a pair of dark shapes fall on the attackers. "Huh." I said as I had a thought. "How did she get them in here? Does her shadow count as part of her soul? Or are they counted as weapons?"

Callie just giggled. "I think it's best not to question the things Bethy does. That's a good way to drive ourselves crazy." She whistled as they fell upon the other team. "Seems like she trained them though. Or maybe they're just acting on their natural instincts."

"Oh gods!" Someone screamed. "That one is wearing his face like a hat!"

We both winced. "Ok." I said. "Even in soul bodies, that just seems excessive. Why don't we go and let them handle this. They're probably just picking off the week anyway." We turned to head toward the yellow glow in the distance, when a dozen Ascendants stepped from the dark forest to bar our way.

"Stragglers." Grimaced Callie. Then her face lit up. "I have an idea. How about we see who can take out more of them faster. I've improved a lot on the way here."

Drawing my staff, I let Belial roll over me. "Sounds like fun. And...go." I darted forward, ignoring the squawk of indignation from Callie for starting without warning her. My overlay unfolded in front of me, and as they surrounded me, my staff licked out, changing the paths of weapons as I nimbly evaded strikes through a combination of the overlay and Danger Sense.

Three, four, five they tore into each other, my staff slamming down on them in finishers as their attacks tripped each other up. Behind them though, I watch flashes of darkness explode as Callie blurred from shadow to shadow, slashes of pitch black bisecting people and space alike as she bounced around.

Before I could finish my sixth attacker, she'd killed seven of them. As she materialized again, she grinned at me. "My new Path. The Path of the Abyss focuses on world destroying darkness encroaching on all things. All my blows carry the taint of entropy."

I whistled. "Pretty damned impressive. No wonder you took at all the armors in the last trial."

She shrugged with a giggle. "I guess. I have a Might advantage though. Even then, I had to really push to win that. If that had been a bigger crowd you'd have won. Is that your new staff art? The way you made them, tear each other apart was amazing."

"Ok." I said with a laugh. "Patting each other on the back is fun, but we should probably get going before we hit another group. Plus we'll need to bypass the defenses to get the flag. Since you're teleporting us in you can take this one, ok?" Her new Path was absolutely fascinating, and I couldn't wait to see what she could do with it as she got stronger.

Grabbing my hand, Callie pulled us back into the shadows. Apparently she'd done a half jump the first time, trying to save herself some strain, which was why we'd run into the stragglers. Still, I saw her logic, and I'd felt her desire to do it through the bond and hadn't said anything, so I couldn't complain.

The bond being back was...amazing. It had been suppressed since split up, it made being apart easier, but now that we were back together I could feel Callie again all the time. Going through the forest had cured my dependence, but the feeling of being wrapped in the constant love and acceptance of the person you care about most in the world was pretty transcendent even if you weren't addicted to it, especially after you'd been missing it.

I could feel that she'd missed it too, though the emotions had changed a bit since our souls were upgraded. In fact, as I focused on the difference, I felt something shift slightly, Callie and I both coming to a hard stop as the bond changed. Beginner paired duelling. That Skill had been at Lesser for a while, but apparently the separate evolutions of our soul had elevated it to the next rank.

Once that finished, the two of us took off towards the fortress again, Callie hiding us with the darkness, infusing it with Stealth to keep us hidden as she drew it around us like a cloak. A bit of Seek Hidden to avoid any patrols or last minute additions and we reached the fortress together in pretty good time, standing outside the stone walls and scanning the battlements for defenders.

Still under Stealth, I leaned down to murmur to Callie. "Ok, so what's the plan for getting up there. Can you teleport us in? Or is it too much carrying me? If it is, I might have a plan."

"Two of us isn't a problem over short distances, but keeping up Stealth, finding a good spot to emerge, and moving us up as well as forward is going to leave me pretty out of it." She sounded worried, but I'd expected that. I told her my plan, which she thought was a little out there, but since we were in an illusionary soul space where neither of us could die, she eventually agreed to it.

As she vanished into the dark, I charged out into an empty space. We weren't the only ones from team two besieging the fortress, but Callie had taken us around the others and into an empty area opposite the attackers from our side. As I ran out, I triggered State of Grace and Ripple Running, bouncing off the air twice as I sailed up onto the wall. I probably could have free jumped it like I had back at our fortress, but if I did that they wouldn't have as much time to notice me.

Belial was already coating me as I hit the parapet, bellowing as loud as I could. "I AM INVINCIBLE!" I wasn't obviously. But everyone within a hundred feet noticed me and swarmed in my direction. All the stragglers came for me as predicted, and my Danger Sense triggered, letting me know I was under attack. I dropped bonelessly to avoid what appeared to be a purple flaming crow bar, planting my staff to vault back up to my feet as someone tried to stomp on my head.

I rolled sideways to avoid a smash from a colossal bronze hammer, and someone threw a smoking green ferret at me that I deflected with my staff. This plan had seemed simple and easy to accomplish, but when I'd been planning how to execute it, I'd missed a key detail. Belial worked best in open spaces, and I was standing on a fifteen foot wide section of wall as a score of dangerous Ascendants attacked me en masse.

Of course, most of them were on the other side fending off the attackers from team two, so there wasn't enough to drown me in bodies, but between the limited space and me underestimating how many would be back here I was barely hanging on by the skin of my teeth.

Trouble or not, the plan WAS working though. No one noticed the shadows shift near the base of the bell tower except for me, and since I was wearing a mask that was literally just wood, they couldn't exactly follow my eyeline.

Following my Path arrows, I deflected a crossbow bolt slightly, knocking it off course into the hammer guy, distracting him enough for me to jump, bounce off a Ripple running platform, and then do a smashing drop kick onto the side of the hammer, knocking it off course to hit the ferret, which exploded into a cloud of green smoke.

My mask filtered the poison from entering my lungs, and you can't actually poison toxic magma anyway, so I was free to trigger my Moonlit Night skill, overlapping the cloud with stealth fog as effectively tied them all down. Inside the fog, I could see perfectly fine, while they were all isolated, and I tweaked it enough for noise to get through as I started lashing out to tap and prod the forms around me, inciting them to attack.

I managed to kill ten of them before they wised up to what was happening and started to run, several of them still poisoned by both the cloud and my attacks, and limping or stumbling from wounds they left on each other. I dropped off the wall, heading for the central area and leaping up to land on the bell tower like structure just as Callie grabbed the flag.
There was a torrent of yellow energy as a beam of condensed soul power slammed down on her, breaking the dark sky as she was imbued with a powerful boost.

Screams of outrage started echoing around the fortress, and I grimaced as I grabbed her hand. "Honey, we've got to go, please tell me you can jump us."

Callie was breathing fast and heavy. "Yeah, I just need a second. So much soul energy. I think I got a solid ten percent off that flag. My soul is acclimating. Buy me a second."

I grimaced. Ten percent of an orange soul and ten percent of a yellow soul were VERY different things. Even though soul refinement got harder as you progressed, there was still a big difference in levels. A ten percent bump at yellow was huge. Unfortunately, the enemy forces were all closing in. I spotted Benny and Jessie approaching, Nat next to them, and all ready to throw down with us if need be.

I triggered Pit of Despair, and the platform below us vanished as we dropped through it into the hollow tower structure below in a shower of fine dust. I kicked off a Ripple Running platform as I grabbed Callie around the waist, landing on a staircase. "Any time now love." I said anxiously as I watched someone punch through the stone wall at the base of the tower. The whole structure shook.

Finally Callie's eyes snapped open, and she grabbed me, shoving us both back into the shadows. We emerged about a mile and a half away from the fortress, and she pushed me into a crevice between some rocks as she tried not to pass out. Even with the soul boost, that was a hell of a jump. "Keep watch." She wheezed. I could tell she was recovering fast off the excess soul energy in her body, so I peeked out of the rock formation to look around.

No one was nearby, so I slumped against the nearest boulder, letting out a sigh of relief. "We're good. Just recover as quick as you can and we can bail. You doing ok? That was a hell of a jump."

"Fine." She groaned. "Sorry for the close call. Luckily I got a bit of information when I claimed the flag." At my questioning look, she grinned. "Hint for the victor. Next flag isn't going to be in a fortress. It'll be hidden in the area behind it. That'll happen on both sides, so they'll have to look same as we will. I suspect underground or in a cave, so the light doesn't give it away."

That WAS good news. If we were the only ones who knew it meant we had a serious advantage. Her expression didn't seem particularly enthused about it though. "Ok, guessing the good news came with bad? What did I miss?"

She grimaced. "I saw your sister over there while I was grabbing the flag. She was on the other side warding off the defenders. I'm guessing next time we'll need to deal with her directly, along with probably the rest of our team."

"Alright." I said with a groan. "Then we need to get back and share our info with the others. We're going to need a hunting party for the next flag. At least if we expect to win." And I did want to win. I also wanted the next flag. That ten percent bump was too good to pass up.
chapter 493
After recovering a bit, Callie jumped us through the shadows back to the fortress. Because she could find shadows for hopping to, she was able to keep us out of sight easily enough, and when we finally got back, let us bypass any remaining siege forces.

"Oh hey!" Said Bethy as we reappeared. "You guys are back! Did one of you get the flag?" She glanced over us like she could sense our souls, focusing really hard on our faces. After a minute of staring and squinting she pouted. "I can't tell. You guys are so sneaky."

I burst out laughing. "I don't think you not being able to tell if our souls are stronger is a sign of sneakiness. I think you just don't have the ability to do that."

She shook her head. "I don't think that's it. Daddy always says I can do anything I set my mind to. I think you guys are just sneaky." I opened my mouth to retort, but realized that she actually DID sometimes do crazy shit that she shouldn't be able to do. Still, I was pretty sure she just couldn't do this. Souls were pretty esoteric, and sensing someone else's probably wasn't possible at her level.

Realizing I was getting sucked into her crazy mental rhythm, I shook it off, focusing back on what we'd learned. "Anyway, we're here because Callie DID get the flag, and she got a clue for the next one. It's not going to be in the fortress." I gestured off the wall, into the surrounding trees to where we could see mountains and streams and various other wilderness style nonsense.

I'd ceased to be impressed by the temple's ability to create random stuff after the sky island trial. At the moment, it was more inconvenient than amazing. Still, Bethy seemed excited. "Oh! We could go look for it early right? Form a forest investigation team." Putting on a serious look, she summoned her cats and struck a pose. "Bethany Lark, forest detective! Taking a bite out of injustice!" She bared her fangs at us, and I had to stifle a chuckle at her antics.

"Is there...like, justice in the forest?" Questioned Callie hesitantly. "I mean, it's mostly animals and plants, I feel like justice as a concept is sort of outside the meta."

"Well, I mean, survival of the fittest." I shrugged. "That seems like forest justice. But you can't really bite survival of the fittest, if anything you'd just be disproving your entire conceptual model. Unless this is supposed to be an irony thing. That might work."

Bethy groaned. "You're overthinking this. I'm not making a philosophical statement. I just want to have some fun with my cats and be awesome. Obviously the forest doesn't have detectives." She stomped her foot in annoyance. "I wish Tracey and Ada were here. They would have played along."

I put both hands up in surrender. "Sorry. We didn't mean to be buzzkills. We'd love to have your help investigating the forest Bethy."

She pouted. "I guess. I don't know if I even feel like it anymore. You guys are no fun." She sulked for a few seconds and then her face lit up. "Ok I'm over it! Let's go look for the flag. Should we ask one of the others to come with us. That Adrian guy maybe. I don't like that other guy. Bloody Billy I think his name was. He gives me a bad vibe."

"What about the big blonde guy who was guarding Chelsea?" I asked, looking around. "Callen? I haven't seen him around anywhere, and I doubt he got bounced this early. Do you think he's in our fortress?" A lot of people had ended up on the other team. I was wondering exactly how strong Adrian was, to offset so many powerful fighters, or was it even balanced at all. Maybe it was just random.

"Should we wait to actually start looking?" Asked Callie. "Because if the flag isn't out there yet we might waste our time and overshoot. If we pass it and end up deep in the woods or something when the next flag rush happens we'll be screwed. Also, when IS the next flag rush? The rules weren't clear about time frame. The first one hit pretty early, but who knows how long it'll take until the next."

I considered her point. "I think looking around is a good plan. At the very least we might get a better feel for the area. Sure, we might pass the flag and end up far away, but we could just easily stay here and find out it popped up on the other side of the forest. The more information we can gather the easier the search will be."

Seek Hidden was also an option, but if the flag was underground it would make things harder. Seek Hidden wasn't optimized for that kind of thing, that was why I had my mining divination skill, even if I'd turned it into something else. It would help get us a direction though, at the very least.

Callie mulled over my points. "Ok, that's fair. Let's head out and look around. We can take note of any areas the flag might be hard to find. Not to mention the flag might already be placed and just not...active? I don't know what term I'd use there."

I hadn't considered that. Maybe she was right, the flag had already been placed in the bell towers before the first rush after all. Bethy was bouncing with excitement. "Let's GO!" She leapt up onto the battlement. "I'll send the kitties out to scout ahead. "Poptarts, Donuts, GO FORTH!" She pointed imperiously out into the forest.

The shadow cats materialized and then dove out into the woods. I chuckled at her enthusiasm and hopped up on the battlement myself before stepping off. Callie followed me after and I caught her in a princess carry effortlessly, though I groaned and stumbled around like she was heavy just to mess with her. She rolled her eyes, appearing not to take the bait, but I tripped over a shadow after putting her down before I even got three feet.

She blinked innocently at my glare, but I caught a hint of a smirk when I turned around. Rolling my eyes, I headed off into the jungle, paying extra attention to my Danger Sense, and triggering Seek Hidden on enemies just in case one tried to sneak up on us.

Bethy and Callie both vanished from behind me, Bethy into a swarm of bats and Callie into the shadows, leading me to follow the trail blazed by the cats carefully, trying to be as Stealthy as possible without an actual Stealth skill. My Moonlit Night wasn't optimized for searches like this, but even if I couldn't use Stealth abilities directly, careful foot placement and deliberate movement made surprisingly little sound.

In the distance I could see small red dots. With my soul's improvement came an enhanced range with Seek Hidden, and human beings were large enough for me to pick up at this point. It made avoiding enemies much easier. "Shane." Whispered Bathy's voice from somewhere nearby. "Poptarts found a cave to the left." Apparently her bats could talk.

Turning left, I silently made my forward until I came to a small brook between a pair of large hills. The brook was shallow, babbling lightly. At the bottom I could see wet rocks and tightly packed mud leading to a small cave set back into a larger hill that rose behind the two others. Stepping into the brook, I strode through the ankle deep waters, my boots well made enough to keep my feet dry as I approached the cave.

Upon entry, I found Poptarts (probably, who could tell those things apart) crouching in the shadows, waiting for us, and when I arrived Callie emerged next to him. We headed down further into the tunnel to get a bit deeper. Donuts appeared and Bethy manifested in a surge of bats. I used Seek Hidden, checking to see if the flag was here. It wasn't nearby, but off in the distance I saw a tiny speck of red.

"It's not here, but it IS underground." I said as I knelt to get a better vantage point. "I don't think we can access it from here, but I have a direction for us." I pointed off to the northwest.

Keeping Seek Hidden active, we retreated from the cave, climbing one of the hills as we headed in the direction where I had seen the flag. I lost sight of it once we got back to ground level, but I kept the skill active just in case, so we'd have a heads up when we got close.

I was so focused on tracking, I neglected to search for enemies, but my Danger Sense was more than up to the task of alerting me to their presence. As it triggered, I stepped off the air with Ripple Running, shouting a warning to the others as a volley of arrows hit the dirt where I'd been standing.

"Nice reflexes." Called a familiar voice as a tall blonde man with pointed ears emerged from behind a tree. Simon grinned at me. "Sorry about this, Shane. We're on different teams now."

My Danger Sense went off again, and I hurled myself sideways as a colossal spiked mace smashed into the earth where I'd just been. The mace had somehow grown to about column size, and as I watched it shrunk down enough to reveal a chain on the end, which was used to pull it back.

Vinnie caught it easily, giving it some more slack as he lazily spun the mace beside him. From behind him emerged Kellix. I frowned at the masked man. "Did Abel not kill you?" I tried to remember and realized we'd left him smashed but alive in the third trial. "Don't suppose you're so grateful to be alive that you're willing to let us leave once as a sign of gratitude?"

He drew his rapier with a sneer. "Maybe the ladies. I hesitate to stain my blade with the blood of such lovely creatures." He offered them what I assume he thought was a charming smile. "Would either of you like to change companions? You could travel with us, I assure we'd keep you safe."

"Gross." Sneered Callie. "And no, I don't want to help you murder my boyfriend so you can 'protect me'." She looked at Bethy. "How about you, Beth. Any interesting in switching teams?"

Bethy giggled. "No, but maybe we could keep him. He's funny." Kellix beamed, until she continued. "He's so weak, but he thinks he can protect us." I realized with a start that we were alone with them. Three on three. I didn't see the cats anywhere. A quick Seek Hidden revealed their barely corporeal forms slinking through the shadows of some nearby trees.

"I'm standing right here." Said Kellix indignantly. "And gorgeous or not, I'm not going to let you talk down to me. I'll take care of you both now, and hopefully you'll get over it after we leave. It's a trial after all. Don't take it to heAAARGGH."

His little monologue was cut off as one of the cats fell from a tree manifesting as it hit him, while the other emerged from his shadow to sink its teeth into the back of one of his knees. I winced as I watched him viciously torn apart, and Bethy just clicked her tongue. "Probably for the best." She said lightly. "I could never date a man who doesn't get along with my cats."

Vinnie and Simon had both freaked out and retreated as their third team member was butchered, and they watched us warily. Before we could encircle them though, another familiar voice rang through the clearing. "Looks like you boys could use a hand." A form stepped from the shadow of a nearby tree clarifying itself into Abel, who gave us all a cheerful wave. "Mind if I cut in and make this three on three again?" I swallowed hard. This...might be a problem.
chapter 494
Abel." I said with a nod. "Surprised we ran into you. I thought you'd be resting up for the next assault." Without the clue Callie had gotten when she got the flag, I hadn't expected much competition before the next round started, but it seemed like some people had wanted to move out and eliminate the competition a bit. I probably should have expected that from Abel.

He shrugged. "I'm less worried about making it further now. I broke my heart shackle in the maze. I mean, I'm hoping to fill out my soul a bit in green, but even if I get bounced I can still make it all the way to the peak of green eventually. That was basically all I needed here."

I cursed. "Seriously? Lucky bastard." I paused, thinking over what I knew about him. "Oh you asshole, you're walking around looking for someone to fight to the death in here aren't you?" That was just classic him. Finish up your business and then go out in a blaze of gory.

His grin was answer enough, but Abel had no problem confirming it. "I mean, we all have a free pass to live through anything. It would be crazy NOT to take advantage, don't you think?"

"I do think you're crazy." I said drily. "But what makes you think I'M crazy enough to accept a challenge like that, instead of dropping you in a hole and leaving, or tag teaming you with Callie? I have options here beyond just doing what you want."

He shrugged. "I'd accept a two on one fight. But I don't think you'll do that. See, I think you remember how close you came to beating me last time. I think you want another shot at taking me down, and being in here provides us with the perfect chance to do that without actually taking too big of a risk. So, am I right? Do you want the chance to beat me once and for all? With your progression speed if you take me out I'll have trouble catching up again."

My fists clenched. I...really wanted that. I wanted to beat Abel, to take the spot of strongest member of our team from him. I'd been SO close last time. I'd almost had him. And I'd grown so much. I could beat him, I was sure of it.

"Idiots." Scoffed Callie as she stepped from the shadows. "You realize this is only the fifth trial right? What if we need him for something later?" She glared at Abel. "And YOU stop being a selfish dick and only thinking of yourself. You're part of a team, AND your girlfriend is in here. There's no reason you can't have your big showdown in the last trial, once we've sorted out all the details."

I deflated. She was right. Fighting to the death this early was a bad tactical call. As leader, it was my job to avoid that. I had to do what was best for my team.

Abel looked annoyed. "I guess..." He bit out grudgingly. "But I still want to test my new soul strength. How about this? If you take one punch from me at full power. Just one. I'll defect. Switch to team two and help you both get as many flags as I can. Hell, I'll even play double agent and lure the others away from you if you need it. You'll both be in charge."

That...was a really tempting offer. I just had to survive an attack. Abel was strong, but I wasn't a weakling either. Fighting him would have involved tanking a hit too. And I did want to see if I could take him on with his new soul level. "Deal." I said decisively. I glanced at Callie. "If we didn't humor him he'd probably have chased us down until we had to try to kill him anyway."

She shrugged. "He's a lunatic. No argument here." She pointed past him. "But what about the two of them? They heard this whole conversation. Couldn't they go and tell everyon-"

There was a flash and a fist slammed into Vinnie and Simon from the side, pulverizing them. Abel rolled his wrist. "Nope. No danger now." I winced. Damn, that was a shitty way to go. I felt kind of bad for them. Still, they HAD been on the other team, and they could always come into the temple outside the trials and try to break their shackles then.

"Alright, so what are the terms here?" I asked my mentor. "I assume there are conditions? Even ones as simple as 'don't team up with Callie."

He just laughed. "No conditions. Do what you want. Personally I think it'll mean more if you tank it yourself, but hey, that's just me." He adjusted his footing. "Just so you know, I'm not holding back. This is going to be the strongest punch I can throw. You'd better get ready."

Despite being in critical danger, I still felt a thrill of excitement there. In my last fight with Abel, I may have come close to winning, but he'd shown that he hadn't gone all out. This would be my chance to see if I could take everything he could dish out. I kind of wished I had a defensive stance. I put that on my list of stances to develop, third after an explosive single combat stance like the one I'd been tinkering with in my head.

I gestured to Callie to step back. Whatever happened, this was going to be a fucking mess. I also mentally noted the direction of the flag. This should be a pretty quick exchange, and I didn't want to lose track since we wanted to get back on the road right after if we were going to get there before the next round probably.

Triggering Belial, I made sure my body was fully magma. It was probably my most durable state at the moment, even if I hadn't designed it with that in mind. Mountain stance, triple strength density shift. I felt myself become heavier and stronger, the durability of my body becoming massively higher as my density shifted, creating an immovable statue-like state I could use to tank anything.

Well, probably not anything. But I was insanely durable. My whole body being magma made the density shift a comprehensive full body effect, and a damn impressive once. Stacked with Mountain Stance it meant I was almost tense times more durable right now than I was in my normal Belial form, which included Stone Limb as a base and was already pretty damned sturdy.

Adjusting his feet, Abel pulled back his fist, preparing to strike. Above him, an image of a person condensed. A full body manifestation. The image began to move, taking on a series of poses, Ragam stances, a powerful series of buildup movements to prepare a strike, but in reverse.

As the image moved, the air behind it blurred, spatial lubrication linking them together. The further along the stances he got, the thinner the spatial warping, becoming weaker and weaker until the image stopped in a specific pose. In front of it a series of differently posed images, like a stop motion animation, and linking the first one to Abel, a trail of spatial lubrication.

"Are you ready." Gritted my mentor. "Because I can't guarantee this wont kill you. You'd better be prepared to tank this."
I was gaping. The sheer soul weight of what he was doing had to be immense, he was essentially using Ragam ten times simultaneously and his ability on top of it. Of course, I wasn't exactly doing nothing either. Still, my defense wouldn't be enough, I had to meet his attack with my own or I was going to get fucking shattered. As I nodded to him, I prepared the strongest strike I could.

Not being able to move my feet because of mountain stance was rough, but it wasn't the end of the world. I wasn't using the attack to cancel the blow, just to leverage it, like I'd learned to do. I triggered my overlay, ignoring the impending doom Danger Sense was warning of, and I prepared to deflect. Mercy Kill, Afterburner, Flurry of Blows, and I thre in a gravity attack just for good measure.

I launched that attack just before Abel did, and I was glad I had, because when he released his, I was scared out of my fucking mind. As he threw his fist, the lubricated space snapped taught like a rubber band. The last posed figured blurred into the next, which blurred into the next even faster, picking up speed as the figures traced out the attack in order, combining this wind up attack with cicada stacking step and with his lubrication ability to enhance the already devastating blow.

As the image hit the last figure, all the power was dragged down through the lubrication tether, a dozen plus times the power of Abel's normal all out attack channeling through his body as he launched the most devastating punch I'd ever seen from someone our level.

No wonder he'd needed to hit green for that, I was pretty sure his soul would have shattered otherwise. The fist came right at me, somehow everywhere and nowhere, the space around me used as a medium to transmit the power of the attack in a way that, without my overlay, I'd NEVER had been able to track coming at me. The sheer power of the blow was making my head split as Danger Sense wailed in warning, but I forced myself to focus.

My already launched attack was heading for the intersection point where the blow would land, and I tried to process the feeling that his fist was both normal and the size of a fucking train. My overlay showed me the one tiny potential sliver of a chance I had, but I needed to use Seek Hidden to narrow down which of the potential attack paths that were being shown was the one that would actually work.

As my blow landed, it hit the train sized fist presence at JUST the right angle to move it SLIGHTLY to the left of me (the opposite side from Callie). Even with an absolutely flawless deflection, the small fraction of the damage from the blow drove my feet into the ground to the knees, and only the perfect compatibility of my Path with the redirection made it possible to even pull that off.

My body cracked. Like...all of it. Downside of being made of magma, but it didn't collapse. I triggered my heal burst, grateful it worked in here. Abel lowered his fist, breathing hard, and grinned at me. His nose was leaking blood and it dripped onto his teeth as he bared them at me in respect. "Damn kid. Not bad." His eyes went over my shoulder, and I turned slowly taking in the attack he'd thrown after I redirected.

My corruption had been infused into the blow itself, and that had obviously enhanced things, but still, the sheer damage I'd just avoided taking made me lightheaded. Abel's fist had DESTROYED a mountain. Punched through it like a fucking subway tunnel, drilling so far in that it had come out the other side and continued into the sky.

As I watched, the corruption continued to eat away at the stone, until the entire fucking mountain (a small one, granted) collapsed under its own weight. Callie raised a hand, letting the stones hit and then drop through shadow portals instead of smashing us, and I just stared in terror at the amount of destruction we'd just unleashed.

"So." Said Abel as he shuffled over to stand next to me, clearly exhausted. "What's the plan from here boss?" I rolled my eyes, reaching out and triggering another heal burst as I put my hand on his shoulder. I didn't really feel like talking to him right now.
chapter 495
"Are you morons done?" Came my girlfriend's slightly shaken but still acid voice. She'd intercepted all those rocks, shifting them away from us, and had used plenty of power doing it, so she wasn't in the best mood. "Because you just blew up a MOUNTAIN and there's no way everyone in this damned trial didn't notice it. So we need to leave before hordes of them show up to kill us all."

I groaned, stumbling forward. My whole body had cracked under that attack, but the healing burst I'd used was mending me way too slowly. It wasn't made for a magma body. I let Belial drop, and then almost fell over as I realized what a terrible fucking idea that had been.

My arm was shattered, my shoulder blade and collar bone were cracked, and every rib on the left side of my body was fractured. Not to mention my hip was broken, my leg had been snapped and I was just generally wrecked on my left side. Forget a train, I felt like I got hip checked by a collapsing star. Callie appeared next to me, catching me under my good arm.

Abel whistled. "Damn kid. You look rough. Kudos for keeping it together enough to stay in the temple at all. You going to be alright?"

Grunting, I tried to nod, then realized it was probably going to kill me to move my neck that much, so I just gave him a thumbs up with my free hand. "Yes. You bastard. Callie's right though, we better get out of here. It'll take hours for my bones to heal, and I don't want us to get caught."

I wasn't even sure how the hell heal burst was working. I was a soul fragment right now. The Ruined Soul Temple was...weird. I looked longingly toward the flag, but Callie just shook her head. "Don't even think about it. I think we need to miss this one. We don't even know when the round will start anyway, or how long until the one after. Maybe taking a few hours to rest will be a good choice."

"I know." I sighed as she helped me through the trees, away from the site of our little exchange. "Sorry I got us mixed up in that, but I really think having Abel on our side will make a huge difference going forward."

She sighed. "It probably will. Tactically it was the right choice, but that doesn't mean I like seeing you get hurt."

"See." I said with a sigh. "Now that you're stronger than me again you're totally patronizing me. I can't even shatter fully half of the bones in my body without you nagging me." I winked at her to make it clear I was teasing, and was pleased to actually get a giggle for my trouble.

She put on a serious look. "I guess I'm just controlling like that. It's part of my devious master plan to completely do away with all the fun you have. Today its life threatening injuries in meaningless battles, tomorrow who knows? Maybe I'll make you cut out red meat."

We both dissolved in peals of laughter, quickly cut off by howling wracking screams from me as I remembered that laughing makes extensive use of the torso and neck.

Callie's joking expression faded to concern as she held me through the fits of agony until my body stopped feeling like a wafer cookie someone fed through a woodchipper.

"Come on." Said Abel from behind us. "I know a place nearby we can hole up. Found it just before I found you. We'll have to negotiate with the shitbag squirrel that lives there, but I'm sure one of us has something it wants." He muttered something uncomplimentary about the squirrels parentage, and I wondered what the thing had done to leave such a negative impression after what had to be a very short meeting.

He led us down a side path, through a copse of trees, and down a small hill into a little crevasse where we found a hole leading into the base of a very short buy VERY wide tree. We stopped at the base, and within seconds, a pair of huge red eyes opened in the darkness.

A chittering sound came from the dark. Abel scowled. "No I didn't bring any acorns you asshole. My friends and I need a place to lie low."

I blinked at him, then looked over to Callie. "Can...can he speak squirrel?" I whispered in Stealth.

She shrugged, which caused a wave of pain to rip through my shoulder as it tilted, but I bit back the curse. "Who knows with him."

Despite the stealth, Abel seemed to know what we were saying. He shrugged as he looked back at us. "This thing is a total monster. It follows the Path of Blood like I do, and I can SORT of understand its intentions. This kind of thing is usually only a factor in battle, but I'm not going to look a gift squirrel in the mouth. Anyway, it says it wants fruit. F-rank or above."

I blinked at him. "Exactly where the fuck do you think I'd have gotten F-ranked fruit? Also, can it even eat shit in here? We're all SOULS. How is it even hungry?" Actually, how had I been eating earlier. This whole temple gave me a huge fucking headache.

"Don't think about it too hard." He chuckled. "You don't have any fruit? I know what a foodie you are. I'm surprised you're not holding."

I chuckled guiltily. "I mean...I HAVE fruit. But it's all G-rank. I don't carry F-rank food. I'm not a good enough cook to make proper use of it anyway. Realistically I don't make the best use of G-ranked food either, but at least I can put in the work to come close. Will it accept G-ranked fruit or nuts?"

He turned back to the red eyes. After a second, he scowled. "That's absurd. Why would he even have that much?" He paused. "Because he's not a fucking squirrel. We don't stockpile food for the winter." His expression became a scowl. "How is that speciesist? That's a notable thing that squirrels do!"

Callie groaned in annoyance. "As funny as this would normally be, my boyfriend's left side is currently the next best thing to a tube of toothpaste full of drywall screws, so can we please hurry it up? What exactly does it need to let us in? Someone might come through here soon. I have some fruit too, how much does it want?"

Abel rolled his eyes. "Your body weights. It wants you to hand over your entire weight in comparably ranked fruit." He shot a dirty look back into the cave. "You just try and eat us, you overgrown guinea pig. I just blew up a mountain over there, let's see you live in a hole in the ground instead of your cozy little tree."

Shoving him aside, Callie stepped forward, leaving behind a shadow clone to hold me up. It was a smooth shift, and I was pretty damned impressed. She came within about a hundred feet of the tree and bowed slightly. "Mr. Squirrel, can you understand me?"

Abel paused before nodding. "It can. It can't speak but it knows human language." He frowned. "It's weird that this thing is here. What is going on with this temple?"

"Shut up an translate." Growled Callie. She looked back at the cave. "We're willing to hand over all the fruits and nuts we have on us. It might be a simple offering, but I know that such a majestic and powerful creature must have an equally broad heart."

There was a chuffing sound, and the darkness shifted as a MASSIVE russet squirrel emerged from the hole. It towered over Callie, chest puffed out, before eventually nodding. Turning around it knelt down, and Callie looked at me uncertainly before shrugging and climbing up onto its back. It's huge fluffy tail came up and wrapped around her snugly before the squirrel scampered off down the hole.

"Thanks." I called sourly. "I'll just walk. You furry asshole."

Abel threw his hands up in triumph. "See!" He shouted. "I TOLD you! We should probably go though, who knows if its coming back, and it did kind of run off with your girlfriend."

I shrugged. "Callie can teleport, it's not like she would be there if she didn't want to. But yeah, come on. You want to help me with the walk, this shadow clone isn't exactly intelligent, and this IS kind of your fault to begin with. Playing walking stick is the least you could do."

"In point of fact." He said dryly. "The least I can do is nothing. Also don' you actually HAVE a walking stick?"
Scowling at him, I gestured vaguely with my destroyed arm. "Yes, but I can't fucking USE it right now because you injured me too badly, now shut up and help me walk."

He did, slipping under my arm as he helped me hobble into the hole in the ground. As I walked, I was able to get a better look at the burrow. The walls were made from twisting tree roots that seemed to have grown into a passage, the roots were thick and gnarled and looked incredibly sturdy.

Something seemed different about this trial. The first few had seemed...isolated. Like we were in special small worlds made just for this purpose. This place though, it seemed almost like a complete world. I'd tried looking off into the distance and I could see land for miles and miles.

Was this trial different than the rest? What was the temple and how was it here? Were we really just soul fragments being rendered in some kind of magic virtual environment? The more I saw of this place, the more confusing it got. What was the Ruined Soul Temple really? Where had it come from?

After about ten minutes walking down a very steep tunnel, we entered a large wooden room. The walls were lined with acorns, fruits, and nuts of various kinds, and when we arrived I found Callie reclining on the soft looking bushy tail of the squirrel and feeding it an apple. She waved as I came in and I rolled my eyes as I looked around and found nothing to sit on at all.

Luckily I still had my own chair, and removed it from my ring to take a seat, with some help from Abel. The heal burst was still working, but it seemed like it would take a while for me to heal so I reclined in my seat and closed my eyes, considering taking a nap.

The next round hadn't started yet, but it was only a matter of time, and while we'd sat this one out, who knew if someone would stumble on our hiding spot soon. Of course, we did have the squirrel to chase them off, but who knew how effective the furry bastard would be.

I needed to rest and recover as best I could and get ready for future rounds, having Abel with us was a big advantage, but eventually we'd be up against someone strong, if not here, in the later trials. I also wondered about Gabriel, would he leave after he broke his soul shackles? The Adamant couldn't afford to lose, and he was unlikely to survive staying here until the end.

All of these things swirled around in my head as I drifted off, and more. I'd worry about that when I woke up and wasn't in so much pain. As I started to fall asleep, I let my mind drift to potential second stances and combinations that could produce powerful attacks. I had some ideas that would really blow the competition away, I couldn't wait to try them out later in the trials. For now though, Belial still needed polishing. So much work to do here, but damn if I wasn't having a blast.
I'd be quite amused if the whole temple had a second "level" to it that people had been missing for centuries because they're That kind of ascendant.
chapter 496
Waking up, I felt a pleasant buzzing in my head. The buzzing was substantially less jarring than half my body feeling like trail mix bouncing around in a blender though, so I considered it a net improvement. As I opened my eyes, I found Callie at my side, smiling gently. "Hey sweetie, how are you feeling?"

I rolled my arm in its socket to double check, and then nodded in relief. "I'm good. Between the heal burst and the nap I was able to fix up all the bones I cracked. Not sure if that's because they're not real bones or just proves that sleep is the best medicine, but either way, I'm good as new."

"That's very sweet." Drawled Abel. "But if you two are done, we've missed two rounds of this trial waiting for sleeping bratty fritters away all our time, and I kind of want to get going."

I flipped him off. "A. shut up, this is all your fault, and B. you work for me now, so shut up again we leave when I say we leave." My tone was firm, but after a minute of sitting around without any idea what to say next, I sighed and stood up. "And shut up a third time because I guess we should get going."

My mentor snickered, and I rolled my eyes as we headed for the exit. The squirrel, which had been napping happily in the center of the wooden tree room, snapped upright. It's eyes locked on Callie, and it bolted across the tree to hurl itself dramatically in front of the exit, spreading its arms to block her way.

She made a sad sound. "Awww, I know buddy. I wish I could stay too, but we need to find the flags." She leaned her head on my shoulder. "I named him Biscuit, because it seemed like something Bethy would do, but now I'm all attached, can we please bring him with us?"

"He's not real though." I said uncertainly. "Like we'll be leaving him behind when we exit the trial. Wouldn't it be better to make it a clean break now?"

The squirrel sneered at me (which is impressive for a squirrel) and glared menacingly, red eyes flashing. Abel chimed in helpfully. "It says you're not real. Your whole family isn't real. And then it devolved into a bunch of insults that I don't want to translate because they're graphic and weirdly specific."

"My life would be way less complicated if my family wasn't real." I muttered. "But fine, he can come with us."

The squirrel cheered, then ran a circle around is with dizzying speed and crouched down in front of Callie. She giggled and climbed on his back and he took off up the root tunnel. "Nah, we're fine." I called. "Again." Abel and I shared a sympathetic look. "Man, that squirrel is an asshole."

When we made it to the surface, the squirrel was waiting for us, hopping from foot to foot excitedly in a way that made me almost feel bad for calling it names. Despite the glowing red eyes and palpable bloodlust, it was actually pretty cute.
I looked around for a bit before realizing I was being an idiot. Glancing at Callie, I asked. "So...quick question. How long between rounds and how long since the last one?"

Snickering, Callie lounged back on Biscuit's fuzzy tail. "About four hours between the first one and the second, and six between the second and third. The third round just ended a bit ago, so we have probably eight hours until the next. We should head back to the fortress and check in. We've been gone for ages so I bet Bethy is worried." She paused. "Actually...where is Bethy?"

I froze. She'd been with us when Abel showed up. She'd killed Kellix, but then once the fight started she'd just vanished. "I...don't know? Do you think she just kept going and got the flag for the second round? She had a good heading. Honestly I hope so. If we didn't get it I'd prefer her to one of the others."

Things had been so crazy I hadn't had a chance to take stock of who was with us. Between the fight and all the damage, we'd all been kind of distracted. I felt kind of bad, Bethy had been with us and we'd just lost track of her. Still, she was basically a monster, and she had her cats. The chances of her being injured or killed in here by anything less than a concerted attack by several powerful Ascendants were slim.

"Let's look for her back at the fortress." I said sheepishly. "Abel, when we get there, you can stay outside with Biscuit. I'd prefer not to get you killed before we can get any use out of you."

A normal person would have been offended, but he just shrugged. Once we settled that, I used Seek Hidden to orient us toward the fortress and we all set off as a group, doing our best to make good time. Being outside like this made us vulnerable to any random patrols, and I was pretty sure after realizing the flags were all over the place, there would be plenty of those.

We had a short window of time because the round had recently ended, so it was best to get to cover within that time period. Luckily, we were all pretty damned fast, and going all out we made it back to the fortress within a half hour or so. We'd traveled further than I expected, and I made a note to watch that in the future. Without Seek Hidden I'd have been screwed finding a way back.

When we arrived, we were greeted by the giddy form of Bethy hopping off a stump. I was about to mention how convenient it was that she found a good place to sit right near the entrance to the fortress, but after looking over to the side I realized she'd ripped the tree pretty much in half to make herself a seat.

Bouncing to her feet, she clapped excitedly. "You guys aren't dead! That's great. I was just telling Poptarts that it would be so boring in here without you. Donuts was out looking for you all, but I guess I can call him back now. Ever since I broke my mind shackle I've been able to let him wander way further away."

Considering Donuts was a living creature who had only been stuffed into her shadow recently I tried not to think too hard about that. Or the fact that she'd broken her first shackle, which I hadn't known. "Bethy." I said with a smile. "Glad you're ok too. Where did you go?"

"Oh I saw you guys making new friends and figured it would be better to do my own thing. " She said with a shrug. "Good thing too, because I totally got the next flag!" She glanced at Abel. "And you brought back that guy. With you. Hey...you. Glad to have you onboard."

Abel just gaped at her. "What? What do you mean new- do you not KNOW me?" He sounded genuinely offended. "I'm Abel. Appolyon. Shane's mentor, a Master Candidate and one of the toughest people in his group."

She looked at him quizzically. "That doesn't ring a bell. Are you sure we've met? Apple did you say your name is?"

"ABEL!" He shouted, more agitated than I'd pretty much ever seen him. "You KNOW my name isn't apple. You're an F-ranker!"

She gave him a sympathetic smile. "Don't be sad Adelle. I meet a lot of people. I'm sure you'll do something impressive enough to warrant my attention soon. You just have to try your best. Oh! Gabe could teach you how to be more impressive! Do you know Gabe?"

I honestly couldn't tell if she was fucking with him at this point, but I was having too much trouble not dissolving into gales of laughter to interrupt. Callie looked just as amused, so we both watched out mentor try to resist pulling his hair out in outrage.

Honestly, if she was doing this on purpose it was brilliant. I wished I'd thought of it, except we couldn't have pulled it off. Deciding we had bigger problems, I took pity on him and stepped between them. "You can get to know Axel later Bethy." I couldn't resist getting his name wrong just to rub it in. "But we were hoping to head inside to talk. He's team one, though he's defected, so he's going to stay out here with-"

I had just enough time to realize how close I was standing and that I'd just brought her attention to Biscuit when her eyes locked on the giant squirrel and my ear drums were shredded by the high pitched squeal of. "SQUIRREL!" As she blurred across the clearing to hurl herself onto the big fuzzy animal.

Touching my face, I found actual blood coming from my ear canals and sighed. I didn't trigger a heal burst because I was really low until I could meet up with Jessie. It was minor damage. I could still hear. Kind of.

"Bethy!" I called (probably too loud). She didn't respond, too busy nuzzling Biscuit and cooing to the giant squirrel in a baby voice. "BETHY!" Her head jerked up, expression guilty as she refocused. "Thank you. Now as I was saying, Biscuit."
I winced as another squeal tore the air. Yup, I could definitely still hear. "BISCUIT!" I derailed any more cuteness overload. "Will be staying out here with Abel for a while."

She sat up sulkily, brushing fur off her dress. "Awww, I wanted to play with him. Well, we at least have until whoever that is gets here right?"

I choked back a laugh as Abel made a strangled sound, but I caught a flash of mischief in her eyes when he did. She WAS doing it on purpose, though gods knew why. I decided not to give her away, because his reaction was hilarious. "Anyway." I continued. "We wanted to go in, can you take us to see those two guys you mentioned that are running things? I'm hoping they have a map or something. Adrian and the one with the edgy name."

"Bloody Billy." She snickered. "It IS dumb. But don't say that to him. He smells..." She trailed off, her eyes becoming troubled. "Wrong. Off. Like he's been bathing in a lake of blood. He's also strong, and he shouldn't be. He entered without a faction that I know about. Daddy says anyone who manages to slip in between the big factions is either very scary or very lucky. Usually both. He keeps to himself though, and isn't really in charge."

She'd completely left her ditzy spaz impression behind, and her formal tone made it clear that she was being deathly serious. I nodded gratefully, and her face brightened back to its usual guileless grin. Abel had been right back in the glad. She scared the shit out of me too. I kept forgetting that for some reason.

After saying our goodbyes to Abel, who decided to station himself off the path in a clearing (he insisted it wasn't hiding, and that he just wanted to avoid any unnecessary fights with teammates) and we filed into the fortress again.

Since this wasn't the beginning or end of a wave we had plenty of company. I saw a few familiar faces. The emo guy who had been talking to my sister, Chelsea's bodyguard Callen, and a few others I recognized from the temple outside. Bethy led us into the depths of the building, toward the middle tower where the flag had been on the other stronghold.

She took us inside, and then down into an office below ground, where a short, tanned guy with messy hair who looked about two years younger than me was talking to a tall dark skinned man with plate armor and amber eyes. When we entered, they both looked up, taking us all in. "So." I said into the silence. "Who do you have to kill to get a map around here?"
chapter 497
The look on Adrian's (I assumed he was the smaller guy based on his aura) face when he saw Bethy walk into the office was akin the the face of a mouse seeing a snake slither into it's den. Probably. I'd never seen that, but he looked wary and a little afraid. "Oh." He said flatly. "You're back. I see you found your friends."

"Yup." Chirped the vampire excitedly. "And now we're here to steal all your maps!" She said it with such enthusiasm and conviction it took me a second to realize WHAT she'd just said, and my eyes widened in panic as I rushed to contradict her.

"Whoa!" I said, seeing the two tense up for battle. "We are NOT here to do that. We're here to ask to LOOK at the maps. We're all on the same side here. We're not going to attack anyone or rob them." I said the last part emphatically, glaring at our vampire friend.

She scoffed. "That's boring. No wonder I ignored it. Are you sure we can't just take them? These guys talk too much. Plus they're bossy."

Adrian glared at. "We aren't bossy, we're part of an alliance. One which you agreed to join when we let you into the fortress." His voice was tightly controlled and barely restraining his obvious fury, but he was clearly unwilling to fight Bethy, which was probably very wise.

She just shrugged. "I didn't know it was going to be a boring alliance. I thought we were gonna go on like, adventures and find cute animals. Maybe murder some people I don't like. You know, fun things you do with friends. Your alliance is all stuffy rules and annoying jobs." She screwed up her face in a faux serious expression. " You're all like 'protect the gate Bethy, repel the invaders Bethy, don't eat that guy Bethy, he's on our side' It's super gross."

Despite not wanting to turn into an uber monster when she used her powers, it was sometimes hard to remember that Bethy, even in her normal non bloodlusty mode, was still an apex predator. She had no issues killing and eating other people. I frowned at her. "Can you even eat people here? Like...we're all soul fragments."

She rolled her eyes. "Duh. Vampirism isn't just physical. Otherwise we couldn't drain people's stats. I tuned out most of the explanation but daddy says the people in this place are like...diet Ascendants. I get way less from eating them, but they still taste ok." She grimaced. "Except devils. Devils taste like sulfur. Super disgusting. But they taste bad anywhere, so that's not a surprise."

I'd never considered that humans might have different tastes. Shaking my head to clear it, I refocused. Bethy tended to suck you into her tempo. "Maps. Right." I repeated as I turned back to Adrian. "We were hoping to get access to your maps. We just want to design a search route to maximize our results." I lied. I was going to use Seek Hidden on the map to find the next flag if possible. I wouldn't be sharing that though.

He looked suspicious, but without an understanding of how my abilities worked he had know way of knowing about my divination. It was totally obvious that I was a candidate and people knew I could grant wishes. While they might know I had some attack abilities and weird magic tricks, stuff like divination was almost always a main ability, with Skills based on the concept being rare and hard to acquire. Me having one would be pretty out of the realm of expectation.

"You'll be staying to help with the next wave I assume?" Adrian said suspiciously. "We have scout teams looking, as well as several rapid deployment teams on standby. As soon as the flag shows itself we'll be sending out a force to defend it. The same will undoubtedly go for the other side. We need as many viable warriors as possible." His eyes flicked to Bethy. "Which means you can't EAT any more of them."

She sniffed in annoyance. "That guy was so rude. Daddy says that when prey mouths of to a predator it means it has flawed instincts. It's better to thin out those kind of idiots. They can't be used for much except cannon fodder anyway."
"He just said he didn't like cats!" Hissed Adrian. "How is that rude?"

She rolled her eyes. "He said it in front of Donuts! My cats are very sensitive. How would you like it if I said I didn't like humans?"

He threw up his hands. "Your cats are INVISIBLE most of the time? How was he supposed to know it was there?"
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "We'll watch her, and try to prevent her from...consuming any more team members. But we want to get a headstart on our search route, so can you let us access the maps?"

The taller man nodded. "Just let them into the map room Adrian. Bella made those maps for a reason. It'll be safer if they know the terrain, and the more of us that make it through each wave, the better we'll all fare. If you're that worried why not send Callen with them?"

Adrian nodded thoughtfully. He shot Bethy an annoyed look. "You're lucky Travis is a more reasonable person than I am. I'll ASK Callen. If he agrees to go with them then I'll let them into the map room." When Travis started to respond, Adrian cut him off with a sharp gesture. "No. Just because we're on a team here doesn't mean we're really allies. Cooperation is fine, but I don't trust any of them."

Bethy, to my surprise, shifted herself slightly to the side, putting her between the Fist God Temple initiate and us. I was wondering why she seemed to be baiting him, and I'd pretty much figured it out. Bethy was a threat, and by pushing she was putting up a strong front, making him think she wasn't worried, while also establishing herself as a non threat. Too high maintenance to attack but too crazy to be dangerous. It was a line I was pretty sure she tried to tow most of the time.

Travis nodded, heading up the steps to the tower. After a minute or two, he came back with Callen, the huge bearded blonde man looked bored, and when he saw Adrian waiting he gave him a shallow nod. "I was taking a nap." Grunted my sister's bodyguard. "What do you want? And don't expect me to do anything strenuous. I spend almost all my time guarding the young lady, now that we're on opposite sides I can finally take a break."

As he spoke, I took the time to look him over. He was wearing worn plate armor that I could tell at a glance was enchanted. It was F-rank, of course, because nothing higher would be emulated here, but the dense script I could see engraved on the metal told me it was probably on the higher end of F-rank. On his back I could see an absolutely colossal sword, large enough that the hilt stuck high up over his head and the tip nearly scraped the ground.

The sword appeared to be wrapped in enchanted bandages as well as sheathed, and I got a really weird feeling from it. It didn't seem like any weapon I'd ever come across, more like a person in the shape of a sword. I dismissed the feeling, deciding to focus on the here and now.

Adrian glared at the big man, his own modest height made even more eyecatching by being seated and towered over by the giant. "We want you to escort a team. If you do, we'll offer you first crack at enemy flag when we discover it."

Callen rolled his eyes. "Oh joy." He drawled. "Just what I always wanted." His voice was surprisingly soft for such a big man, but still firm enough to tell me this wasn't anyone to mess with. He noticed me staring and turned to look at me quizzically. "Oh." He said with interest. "It's you. You made quite an impression on the young lady."

I wasn't sure if he was playing dumb or actually didn't know who I was, but I wasn't going to complain if it got us map access. Plus Chelsea had told me plenty of stories involving Callen, and aside from being a decent guy, he was apparently TERRIFYING. It would be nice to have him around if Gabriel showed up.

Speaking of, I was wondering how he was going to handle this competition. As an Adamant, he wasn't able to lose, but that might only be in combat. If not, he might need to bail before the last trial, whatever the hell that might be. He hadn't seemed worried about it though, so he probably had some kind of plan. He knew his Path better than I did, after all, so there was no point in second guessing.

Callen looked us all over for a minute before sighing. "Alright, fine. I'll babysit them. It's not like it's not my main job anyway. But only until the next round. once that passes I'm going back to my nap. I'm not too far off an Azure Soul-Body anyway. I only need a few of those flags. Plus it'll be good for the young lady to try to fight for a few."

That was a good point, actually. I wanted my sister to get some resources too. She couldn't use her faction's heritage because of her top secret second power, so this was a big opportunity for her. I wondered if she'd broken her mind shackle yet.

Once Callen agreed, Adrian grudgingly allowed us past him and into a small walk on closet type room. Inside the room was a series of small mechanical objects covered in gears and propellers, all sitting around a large table layered with various maps. Next to the map table sat a small girl in overalls with pigtails.

"Bella, I presume?" I asked the tiny tinkerer. Her face was covered with a huge pair of goggles, but she didn't seem surprised by my interruption, ignoring me other than a small nod. She was holding a pair of small thin tools, one was a tiny maneuverable claw and the other was a pencil thin welding torch.

There was a spark and a yelp and she jerked back the claw, cursing up a storm. "Shit. That's one fried." She whirled on me. "Don't you know it's rude to interrupt a girl when she's working? What the hell do you want?"
"Maps." I said dryly. "Since this is a map room, we came here to look at maps."

She brandished her claw stick thing at me. "Don't you mouth off to me you big ox. What are you dressed as anyway? The world's most fashion challenged tree? Are you a dryad or are you just so ugly you have to cover your face so you don't scare all the children?"

Rolling my eyes and letting the dig pass, I gestured to the table. "Ok, which maps are which?" I needed to have some heading or even if I found the right map I wouldn't be able to track down the flag. Maybe I should learn a cartography Skill? Maps seemed to be an excellent loophole for my Seek Hidden skill.

Sighing, she walked over to the table, pulling a few papers out. "This is the fortress, this is the enemy fortress, this the lake to the north. This place is weirdly huge so I haven't mapped even close to all of it, but this should be enough for now, from what we've seen the flags are sticking close, though they might be further out as the rounds progress." She rolled up a few papers and threw them at me. "Now go look at your maps somewhere else, there's not enough room in here for ugly tree brutes." Then she hurried us out of the room, slamming the door behind us.

Turning to Adrian, I chuckled lightly. "So, do you have a table we can use to check these maps out?" He glared at me, clearly having hoped to be rid of us, and then pointed to the corner of the room. I nodded my thanks and gestured for the others to follow. I wanted to get this done and get on the road. We had a flag to find.
chapter 498
It took me about twenty minutes of shuffling to locate a clue on the maps. Sadly, Eye of Revelation wasn't optimized for that kind of thing, so the section of map we got was...less specific than I'd hoped. Still we got a decent idea of where we were headed, even if it was much further than expected. The flags were pushing outward in ever expanding line away from the fortresses on either side.

The expansion actually added another dimension to the trial. You couldn't look for the enemy's flag and be back in time to protect yours. It split the teams into defenders and attackers and forced the sides to interact with their opposites. Once we found the spot, we headed back out to meet with Abel and Biscuit. Bethy insisted on riding the giant squirrel with Callie, so Abel, Callen, and I were left walking.

Travel to the spot indicated took a few hours, with our group needing to take several detours. The animals here weren't exactly hostile, but they also weren't NOT hostile, and I didn't want to deal with more of them than necessary, so I used Eye of Revelation liberally to avoid running into any.

Callen seemed a bit aloof at first, not cold or distant but just uninterested in us, but after a while of me chatting with Abel he got bored enough to join in. "So." He said casually. "You seem interested in the church. Any particular reason?"
I shrugged. "Nothing specific. I do my best to learn as much as I can about other factions. It's classic ABN. Always be Networking. You know how us WCP'ers are." I still didn't know what he knew about my relationship with mom and Chelsea, so I kept it to vague and reasonable explanations.

He didn't seem convinced, but was used to people currying favor with my sister apparently, because he moved on. We tossed questions back and forth, basic stuff about our factions that didn't reveal much of anything even when answered. Finally though, something I'd noticed made me curious enough to actually pry.

"So..." I said slowly. "You're a swordsman right?" He nodded. "Well you have that big ass blade on your back all wrapped up, but then I noticed another one at your hip that looks way more worn in. Why carry the big one if you don't use it. It actually feels kind of weird. Not like a normal magic weapon."

That seemed to peak his interest. "Most people don't spot that." He said approvingly. "Yeah, it's not a normal weapon. Have you ever heard of sword raising?"

We both shook our heads. After all, there was a ton of random shit out there in the universe, we couldn't be expected to know everything. No matter how many people I had on my team, sometimes we would run into situations beyond our understanding. That was just life.

"Well, it's hard to explain." He said, trailing off for a bit. "There are some people who practice sword arts that are based on drawing their sword. Have you heard of those?" I nodded, because sword drawing arts were pretty basic. "Well the logic is that the sword, when drawn, leaves the sheath and the drawing process can enable you to move faster than a normal strike."

I made a noise of understanding. "I get the basic concept. Is sword raising related?"

"It's similar." He said, waggling a hand. "Basically, the logic is that your sword can gain power in its sheath. Drawing it releases that power, which is the basis of quick draw in some styles. However, some people take it further. They pour energy into a sword over time, saving it up to release it all on their draw. Sometimes weeks, months, even years. This is called sword nurturing, and it lets you erupt with a ton of power all at once, but its limited because its one and done."

"So you're saving up your blade for one massive blow?" I said, gesturing to the wrapped blade on his back. "Is that what the bandages are about?"

"Yes and no." He said with a laugh. "It is related, but sword raising is different than sword nurturing. Sword raising isn't about saving up your sword energy for an extra strong hit, it's about saving it up until there's a qualitative change. Never drawing the sword, pouring power into it over years, over a whole lifetime. As my renown grows, so does my sword, I share my stats with it, my legend. The bandages have my blood on them, linking us together."

I blinked at that. "Never drawing your sword? Then what's the point? What kind of qualitative change can you see from that?"

He just smiled. "Depends how long you wait. It's been decades now, I carry this sword everywhere. It's a part of me. The longer I wait, the bigger the change. Experiencing a sword strike of a higher level will pave my way into a higher rank. The more I raise the sword, the bigger the feedback. If I keep it until, say, A-rank, my outburst will let me potentially kill an S-ranker. The stats will pour back into me, raising my own level, and the feat of strength will cause my reputation to soar."

"So...you're saving up the attack for a longer time and you're going to wait until its so over the top you can blow everyone's minds?" I asked with a laugh.

"Basically." He agreed. "But like I said, the sword is also a container for stats. When I finally unsheathe it all those stats will pour back into me. If I hit any bottlenecks or my reputation stagnates, I can use it to break past my limits and continue growing. Granted, it takes me longer to make my way through lower levels, but it'll all be worth it later in life."

That explained why he stuck around F-rank. Not just to protect Chelsea, but also because he was technically cultivating for two (or one and a half, I didn't know the ratio). It was an interesting concept, and I could see how it would pay off big, but it was also the kind of thing that pretty much nobody but the high crusader or whatever of the Red Revenant Church could pull off.

Well...and me. I briefly entertained the idea of trying to raise my staff, but it wasn't sheathed and I wasn't sure of the mechanics, plus I needed it, if I stopped using it I'd be screwed.

As I mulled things over, we came to the area the map had indicated...and froze. "Well shit." I spat, as I stared down into the small valley at the not currently active flag. It was easy to spot because of the twenty or so people surrounding it. People whom I recognized as team one Ascendants.

Chelsea was down there, and so was Mel. I didn't see Gabriel, Jessie, or Benny, thankfully. I turned to Abel. "Did you...like, tell Mel you were defecting?"

He shrugged. "She'll figure it out. She always says I should be more spontaneous." He paused. "Or to stop being spontaneous. It's one of the two. Either way, I'm sure she'll be fine. Although she can definitely tell we're here. The bond makes hiding kind of redundant."

"Shit." I cursed. "Has she told anyone yet? Is she going to?" We might still manage to pull something off if we had the element of surprise, but if they knew we were up here we'd get mobbed. My Belial form was excellent for crowds, but it worked better on weaker or stupider enemies. Slower worked too. Stronger human fighters would be tough for me. Sure we had some heavies, but twenty on five wasn't great odds. Every one of these people were elites of the younger generation, many of them having already broken their mind and possibly heart shackles.

He shook his head. "Doesn't seem like it. She might not be able to tell exactly how close I am. She has to know I'm nearby, but given how long she's probably been sensing me for a while. Why, you want to ambush them?"

I nodded. "Not quite yet. Wait until the round starts. The darkening sky will give Callie more options, and they'll be so distracted we can take a few out and hopefully scatter the rest. Callen, exactly how strong ARE you? Can you take Nathaniel?" I pointed out the redhead that had been flirting with my sister, he was standing behind her like a puppy, chattering nonstop and ignoring her obvious antipathy.

Gripping the short sword at his waist, he nodded. "I can. But it'll take up most of my attention. The brat may be obnoxious, but he's genuinely gifted with flame. The Judgement Pope has poured quite a bit of resources into the boy. Between him and the young lady, I'll be effectively neutralized for a period of time."

I nodded, not asking him if he was ok fighting Chelsea. He had his own plans, and he clearly didn't want to share. Holding her off was already plenty. Unfortunately, I'd forgotten about Nathaniel and Chelsea's complimentary purification power. I'd been planning to use Moonlit Night to submerge the valley, but if they could just burn it away it wouldn't work.

"Alright." I said with a sigh. "Callie, I want you to teleport into the middle of them and try to kill a few when I give the signal. I'll try Moonlit Night. It should give you some cover. Chelsea and Nathaniel can probably burn it away, but the energy for that doesn't come from nowhere, and Moonlit Night has a wide coverage. Callen, once they become visible, you hit them."

Turning to Abel, I nodded at the crowd. "I have a plan involving Mel, so I just need you to crush as many of them as you can in the shortest time. Just like Callen, you should wait until the fog drops to attack. You can play decoy, can't you?"

"You're the boss." He chuckled. "I don't need to be here too badly anymore. I already broke my second shackle."

Callen cleared his throat. "I wouldn't be so sure of that. The Azure Soul-Body isn't exactly a normal step. The temple will help you condense it once you reach peak green. You're a Master Candidate, I can tell. Do you know why you didn't form a soul-body when you reached the peak or orange? Or yellow? Because it's a special state. You can break through to Master rank at the peak of green if you have the accumulation but the Azure Soul-Body is necessary to achieve godhood."

I wanted to ask about that. I was sort of vague on what godhood required, and he seemed to know, but in the end that wasn't why we were here. I'd been told not to pry into that stuff. Not just Zeke, but Killian had also told me that knowing that kind of thing too early could screw up my path. I decided to trust them.

Shaking off the curiosity, I turned back to Abel. "You heard him. Don't die. We'll try not to kill Mel or Chelsea either. If we off enough of the others they'll probably run away. No point in staying if they can't defend the flag. Just prepare as well as you can without...big billboard sized yoga poses. When the dark comes, we need to be ready to strike."

He nodded and I sat down to wait. Mel seemed to be scanning the edge of the valley, but Abel might have been right about her uncertainty. She knew he was close, but not how close. If she raised the alarm they might lose some protectors while they looked for us. After about thirty minutes, the eight hours between rounds two and three elapsed, and the sky went black. Grinning, I knelt down and called for the Moonlit Night. As the valley filled with fog, panicked voices could be heard. It was time to hunt.
What is the benefit of defending? It seems like everyone would just go for flags since defending mainly just means helping others get ahead while risking yourself
What is the benefit of defending? It seems like everyone would just go for flags since defending mainly just means helping others get ahead while risking yourself

There's a benefit for being on the winning team that'll become obvious at the beginning of the next round. Shane just didn't bother to dig into the rules much to find out lol.
chapter 499
Our signal to begin was the darkening of the sky. The glow of the flag cast shadows across the valley, and I used the bond to make sure Callie could see through the fog easily as Moonlit Night consumed the space below us, covering the entire group below us in a thick blanket of stealth.

I triggered State of Grace, nodding to the others as Callie melted into the dark. Bethy flicked her fingers and her cats melted into the mist, circling around. I grimaced as I felt a strange tearing pain through my connection to the fog. Below us, I saw entire sections of it begin to burn away as Nathaniel and my sister started pouring their flame into it. Chelsea's flame burned through it far less quickly, but both of them were opening up space.

"Callen." I murmured, tapping his shoulder and connecting him to the skill. He nodded, bent his knees, and hurled himself up into the air.

As he came down, he slammed directly into the flame Nathaniel was using to clear the fog feet first, and where his feet hit, cracks formed in the flickering white fire. Callen stopped like he'd landed on rock, then his foot lashed out from where he stood midair on the fire and smashed Nathaniel in the face.

The red haired papal descendant screamed in agony, blood gushing down his face, and Chelsea turned on him, focusing her fire into a column of shimmering white. Callen drew his short sword and lazily flicked it to one side, slashing the column in two and splitting it before it hit him.

With that kind of strength and power he was obviously capable of crushing the two of them easily. The fact that he was starting a fight meant that my guess about his intentions was right. He was more concerned with Chelsea's growth than anything. I assumed he was starting a fight so she didn't get too dependent on him. I wondered what his Path was, because that fire stomping thing didn't seem like a skill, but I was quickly distracted by Abel landing on the other side of the flag and wading in, fists smashing into anyone in range.

Stepping forward a few times, I kicked off the air with Ripple Running, landing gently in front of Mel. I let the fog between us thin so she could see me as I brought up my staff, my body already in my Belial form. "Mel." I said cheerfully. "Good to see you. Fancy meeting you in this ominous foggy valley." Just for effect I let Nathaniels screams tear through the fog behind her, making her jump.

"Very nice." She chuckled. "I love the ambiance. Of course, you realize that it doesn't matter? You're here, alone, and unless Callie is about to jump out of my shadow and backstab me, you're not winning this fight. I realize I'm lower profile than my lunatic boyfriend, but don't forget I trained you too. I'm not someone you can just knock aside."

I shrugged. "I'm not the same person you trained. Not really. I've been through quite a bit here. I've learned and grown more than a little. So, go ahead and show me what you've got. I promise I can take it."

Raising her hand, Mel curled her fingers, each of them sparking with a candle flame, then she opened her hand, leaving the five flickering flames dancing on her palm in midair like golden fireflies. "I've picked up some tricks too. Here, watch." She waved her hand expansively and the five flames shot out into the fog, stopping in various points around me. Then she blurred forward, hands coated with gold fire, and lashed out with a punch.

My staff came up to deflect, guiding the punch to the side as I stepped out of the way to let it flow past me. It was a flawless move, nearly perfectly in line with my overlay, which was why I was so surprised when my back hit one of the dancing candle flames and it ignited into a massive explosion of heat and pressure.

My danger sense was what saved me. I triggered Mountain Stance even as the flame touched me, and the defensive energy let me tank the blast, if only because my body was lava rock right now. Still, my feet dug into the ground, and I was forced to tank another blow as my Danger Sense triggered a second time when Mel's foot smashed into my ribs in a brutal spin kick.

"Ouch." I panted. "Ok, that was pretty clever. You know my overlay works by focusing on possible attacks from the person I'm using it on. You used the little flame wisps to create multiple points of attack to confuse the issue."

If my overlay tracked every possible attack or motion anyone could make around me it would be so much input the ability would be useless. The overlay worked best on one person, though it could be used on two or three if I split my focus. That said, I hadn't know those wisps were counted as attackers, so I hadn't done that.

Luckily for me, my actual strategy had also worked though. Her punch that I'd deflected had released a flame burst as well, and my staff had corrupted it as it was deflected, blasting toxic flame off into the fog. No one had been hit, but it was proof of concept at least.

She shook out her hand. "You've gotten a lot more precise with your hits. That caught the bone in my wrist perfectly. I take it this lava golem form is new? It's certainly very interesting. Did your poison get stronger?"

I spun my staff slowly, keeping it ready for an attack. I left my feet planted and stayed in Mountain Stance. It would be a problem if I hit another one of those mines when she attacked me next. Staying still and tripling my defense seemed like my best move. "It is. Part of my Path." Explaining Goetia to her would be complicated, as would explaining the way it's control and manipulation aspects worked with my Fatewalker build.

Finding ways for my Path to harmonize with my skillset was the whole point of the staff art, so I felt it was working out well so far. I'd come closer and closer to quantifying exactly what about my first form made it synergize with the Fatewalker build and the Path of the Doom Sovereign in general.

For Belial it was obvious. Control. Belial demonstrated the manipulations of fate, the path that others took during battle and how as the Fatewalker I could reshape those paths. I was still working on the connection for my next form. Belial had shown me the elements needed to make one, and I had some ideas, but for the moment I only had the one.

Obviously done with her waiting, Mel blurred forward again. I'd shifted the fog to dampen her sight again. She had a rough idea where I was, but only based on where I had been a minute ago. Being Might focused (as all fire Ascendants were) she was faster than me, but State of Grace and the fog combined with Danger Sense and the overlay let me counter the speed difference.

I shifted in place, leaving my feet on the ground, and redirected her kick toward one of the floating candle lights. Her leg was corrupted by Belial, and when it hit the floating flame, it detonated, corrupting the explosion and consuming her in a ball of green fire.

When it cleared, she was standing gingerly on her other leg, the one she'd been leading with burned and unusable. She glared off into the fog. Just to make sure my plan would work, I shifted the fog to allow sound again and scuffed my foot loudly. "Ok, that was annoying. Those aren't supposed to detonate for me. Might be dangerous to attack head on even if I COULD move." She raised her hands, conjuring a pair of golden flame serpents. "Guess we'll try range."

Then she started to HURL the things at me. I grinned, because I'd been waiting for this. Between Danger Sense and the Overlay, I saw them coming from feet away, and I began to move. My staff spun, hitting the snakes at the perfect angle to offset and deflect them, each one corrupted by toxic green flames as I knocked them off course and sent them shooting into the fog.

One hit a large man with an axe, another a smaller woman with pigtails, and a tall woman with short hair and a larger sword. Snake after snake flew at me, and since I could see and she couldn't and I'd cut the sound to her again as she attacked, she had no clue I was using all the Might to take out her own teammates, just putting a little english on it and sending it slamming into an enemy.

While I worked, I checked in on the others. Abel was terrorizing a large group, Callie was sneak attacking a trio of people in sequence to draw attacks and try to get them to attack each other. They were all deeply injured, those black slashes of abyss energy or whatever doing some serious damage where they hit.

Chelsea and Nathaniel were getting demolished, and the redhead was cradling a broken arm and trying not to stand on a knee that looked crooked as my sister hurled waves of powerful white flame at her body guard to keep him at bay.
I was yanked away from the distraction by the feeling of a fucking fire snake biting into my calf. I glanced down and realized that there was a hole melted into the ground. She'd been using the barrage as a sonar to map where I was and wasn't.

Cursing, I smacked the damned thing away. Mel laughed. "I felt that. Where did it get you? All I got was fangs in meat."
Slipping to the side, I circled around her silently. I had taken out easily a dozen of the team one bystanders, and leaving Mel around would be a problem. When it came down to it though...I didn't want to actually kill Mel. This was a rare opportunity for her, and the further she went the better she could make her soul. Still it wasn't like I could just leave her here to attack us.

I summoned a shadow clone. Then lashed out with my staff, using the two times multiplier from stealth attacks in Moonlit Night to my advantage as I shattered both her elbow. I used Mercy Kill, then smashed in her knee from the side, and had my clone pick her up and throw her over its shoulder. I pointed randomly. "Run in that direction until you fall apart or something kills you." It saluted me, then took off.

Breaking all her limbs might have been a bit harsh, but at least she would live, and she'd heal from that...eventually. Once the poison wore off. And he limbs healed. So...hours. Oh well. I turned to help the others. I caught sight of Chelsea retreating under the cover of a series of blasts from Nathaniel, who looked like he was going to actually stay behind and die for her. That was kind of nice.

I waited for her to get clear, then left him to Callen as I checked on who we had left to kill. Once I confirmed everyone with them was either dead or gone, I headed over and grabbed the flag as I let the fog dissolve. Grabbing it, I felt a massive rush of soul energy, and all the wear of the battle just melted away as my soul progressed a full ten percent of the way into yellow. The next flag probably wouldn't be as much, maybe five percent, but still that was fast for yellow. I just hoped I could break my second shackle in time to hit green while I was here. For now though, I decided to go check on the others.

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