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

chapter 500
I was in a fantastic mood as we gathered around a big tree in the middle of the valley. "That was awesome." I said happily. "We totally crushed them. That new Path of yours is pretty scary, Cal." I glanced over at my mentor. "And Abel you were really killing it with the cannon fodder. I didn't kill Mel, by the way. I figured it was an opportunity for her to be here. She still had plenty of soul refinement she can get from this place. I did break her arms and legs though."

He shrugged. "It's just a soul fragment, she'll get over it. Besides, I saw the fight, she was trying to burn your face off. Speaking of, how is your leg? I thought I saw her get you."

I glanced down to see my still smouldering calf emitting a faint whiff of smoke. "Huh. I'm buzzing on soul energy, didn't even notice that was still there." I triggered a heal burst. I only had one left, and getting more would be tough until this all ended. Still, it beat limping around on a badly burned calf once I could feel it again. I wondered if the soul refinement energy felt different because I was a soul myself right now.

"Ok, so we need to get ready to move." I said with a laugh. "Everyone rest up and we can get started looking for the next flag. I don't know what the next two trials will be, but I want to be prepared."

Callen raised an eyebrow at me. "You don't?" He asked incredulously. "Because they're always the same. The first five are variable, but the last two trials are the soul crushing stairs and the twelve palaces."

I froze, wheeling around to look at him. "Ok, apart from that first one sounding extremely unfortunate, I thought all the trials were random. No one mentioned the last two being stable things to me before now?" Killian or Zeke should have said something.

He shrugged. "Most people don't mention it. Five of the seven are random, knowing what the last two will be doesn't mean much in terms of strategy. That's how people know about the keys though. The twelve palaces at the end are MOSTLY accessible to anyone. The first second and third palaces though, the highest ones, those are sealed by the keys. The rewards that you can gain from this are in the palaces."

It occurred to me that I hadn't considered how people seemed to know more about the keys than I did in some cases. They'd been mentioned, but their use would have to apply to some static portion of the trials. I could see their point though, knowing that the last trial was a set of palaces (and it was a trial so there had to be more to it) didn't help me at all.

Bethy looked annoyed. "Daddy didn't tell me anything either. He's so mean, he was just gonna let me run off and get into trouble without knowing everything. I'm gonna feed all his shoes to my cats. Last time he was mean to me I threw all his capes into the planet's core. He got so mad." She giggled at the mental image.

"Didn't you say your dad ATE one of your siblings for being annoying?" I asked Bethy incredulously. "Aren't you worried he'll get mad and...punish you?"

She snorted. "Please. I'm daddy's favorite, and mommy is his strongest bride. He would never do anything to me. Besides, he likes that I'm not scared of him. All my brothers and sisters are ass-kissers, daddy says I'm his only child with a backbone. My oldest brother Lucas was pretty offended when he heard that, he's daddy's main war general. It's his own fault though, he never stands up to him."

I suspected the possibility of being murdered and eaten had something to do with that, but her family stuff was none of my business. I shouldn't have broken my rule about not asking her things like that. It was my own fault. "So...the soul crushing stair sounds...horrible. What is it?"

Callen seemed as relieved as I was to change the subject, apparently Bethy's disturbing nature even applied to people like him. "Well, you know how the prizes are things like new abilities, or bloodlines or skills or whatever you're interested in? In order to have those effects, you have to be physically here to be altered. At the moment we're only here in soul form. The trials prepare the soul to act as a bridge between the real world and this place."

"So our bodies are going to be pulled in for real?" I asked in confusion. "Won't we be stuck...wherever we are? That seems risky."

"Not at all." He said, waving his hand. "Just as a fragment makes its way here while our bodies stay behind, the transfer leaves a fragment behind there as an anchor. The soul crushing stair draws in the body, using the circles we're sitting on as a ritual. Each step on the stair takes you through an emotion. The emotions become stronger the higher you walk, and the body is slowly shifted between locations."

It was a bit confusing, but I basically understood. Every step was like progress on a loading bar, and once the download was complete my body would be here and my ghost or whatever would be left sitting in the circle to hold my place. "What about the landings, what do they do?"

"Same thing the islands did in the first trial." He said with a shrug. "The stair isn't just danger, it's opportunity. The faster you can walk, the more you can endure and the faster you can refine your soul. It's the reason for the purifying trials leading up to now. Those vary, but they're always there. The more you've purified your mind and heart the faster you can walk. Anyone who can't even pass those trials would just collapse and shatter on the stair."

I shook my head in amazement. "Who the hell made this place? Creating some kind of virtual space and pulling a person inside for real? Could the gods make something like this? Is that what all the heritages I hear about actually are?"

"An attempt." He confirmed. "But no, not the same. We don't know who made the Ruined Soul Temple. At least I've never heard of anyone knowing. All I know is that the place is mysterious and very old. It predates anyone still living that I know of. The gods are the oldest beings I'm aware of, for the most part, so if anyone DOES know it would definitely be them. If you do find out, I'd love to know myself."

Blinking in shock, I just stared at him. "It's just...here? Do you think one of the vanished gods made it?" I knew they were old as hell and could do weird things. It wouldn't be a shock for this to be some ancient divine ruin the gods had taken over when they tossed the rest of the divinities out.

"Doubtful." He said with a sigh. "The gods have been unable to create a proper replica of this place. The heritages of the various divine factions and S-rank families are TECHNICALLY soul cultivation methods, but they're frightfully slow and not nearly as thorough. Don't assume that everyone who goes in can break their shackles, or that they can manage it anywhere near as easily as here when they do. The soul is a mystery, even to the gods, and the ability to purify and refine it is one they haven't mastered."

Come to think of it, I'd never tried granting a wish to empower the soul, and no one had brought it up. I think some part of me just instinctually understood that my power was different from the soul. They interacted, but they weren't the same. If anything, that seemed to be what the Path was. A medium that allowed the soul and stats to interact. My soul refined much faster while on my Path. What part would that play in later ranks?

Callie cut in. "So, these emotions. What exactly are they? And are we supposed to like...throw them away? Because I don't really like the idea of abandoning my emotions."

Callen chuckled. "No. You don't abandon them. The trial is to experience them to the highest level without abandoning yourself. There are seven stages, and each one puts an obstacle in your path. Greed, hate, delusion, vanity, confusion, doubt, and sloth. Each emotion will try to temp or scare you off the steps, make you turn back, and if you do, the spirit body shatters and you're ejected from the trials."

I sighed in relief. Callie had been dead on, I didn't want to be an emotionless robot, but resisting those emotions sounded fine. I could see how the forest and the maze would prepare someone for that, actually. Speaking of Callie, she was waiting eagerly to hear what I had to say. As the last person to get a flag, I had a hint for the next one, which would give us a head start on finding it.

"Anyway, good information to have, but I need to find more flags if possible. Even if some people break their shackles on those steps, they still need the soul energy to complete their refinement, and I doubt the stairs will take me through one and a half soul ranks." I wanted to get as much done here as possible. Plus I wanted the next key fragment. I still had to fight Adrian for the one I missed in the maze (assuming it was him) but the more I got directly the better.

"Well..." My girlfriend said, nudging me in the ribs. "What was the clue? I hope something more specific than 'in a cave or underground'. Mine was pretty damned lazy."

I grimaced, sighing before admitting. "It's by water." Callie clapped her hand to her head in exasperation, and I hurried to add. "I mean...running water? Probably? Could be a river. Or a waterfall. Granted it's not exactly a map like we had for this one, but given the welcoming committee here, it's probably smart just to head for the next flag from here. They get further out, and running all the way back only to run all the way out here and then further would be stupid."

Granted, it might not be along a straight line, hell it almost definitely wasn't, but it would be past where we were now by a decent amount. And the water clue mixed with my Eye of Revelation would give us a much better chance of finding it that any other teams. Probably. And I wanted to find it. It and every other flag possible before the end of this.

Knowing what was coming later, I was pretty set on beefing up my soul as much as possible. I wanted to face those steps with the strongest resolve I could muster, because I had a feeling I'd need every ounce of wherewithal I had. They don't call a place the soul crushing stairs because it's a pleasant day out with your pals. Just the thought of having to endure the extremes of emotion Callen mentioned was already making me nervous.

With a sigh, everyone got ready to move, having healed up where they were injured, or in the case of my leg, at least becoming mobile. Then I used Eye of Revelation to find the nearest river. Finding something huge like that was easier than locating a small flag in a big forest.

Weirdly, despite the soul pain and everything coming, something else was bothering me. The fact that no one knew where this place came from added another layer of weird to what we'd been through. I glanced over at Biscuit, where Bethy and Callie were riding on the back of the squirrel. Was he really just a construct? A soul shard of some random squirrel? Or was something else going on here I hadn't considered yet. Because if it was the latter I needed to be on guard. That kind of thing rarely worked out well for me.
 
chapter 501
The next flag wasn't as hard to find as we expected, but it did still take a few hours. We beat everyone else this time though, so we were the ones lying in wait. The flag was in a small cave behind a waterfall, and without the light it was pretty tough to spot. To make sure we had an advantage this time, Callie decided to bust out her trap Skill, constructing a series of dangerous defenses out of sight from materials she had in her ring.

"So, what are the chances we can keep this place clear enough for one of us to grab the flag when things kick off?" I asked Abel as we watched Bethy chase Biscuit around a large tree nearby. The squirrel seemed to be having a blast. Callen was lying by the pond napping again , so it was just my mentor and I.

He shrugged. "Maybe good. Or maybe bad and we're about to be ass deep in attackers. With all the traps chances aren't bad that we can hold them off. Nobody expects traps." He paused. "Well, not on such short notice. We'll see how it goes."
Before I could respond, Callen sat bolt upright. About ten seconds later my Danger Sense started screaming at me. I whipped around, Eye of Revelation at the ready, searching for the threat, but all I saw coming through the trees was a single person.

He wasn't anyone I'd seen before, a small guy, pale, covered from the neck down in bloody bandages and wearing a pair of baggy black pants. He had on a long coat with no arms, like a vest that hung to his ankles, and his wild red eyes were darting back and forth over a bandana with a skeleton grin that was wrapped around the bottom of his face. Bethy stopped, turning to stare at him sharply, with probably the most unfriendly expression I'd ever seen on her.

"Huh. Guess I found it." He chuckled giddily. Eyes still darting around. Callie hadn't set up the traps on that side of the clearing yet, so he strolled in unimpeded, but Callen got to his feet. "You aren't welcome here Billy. This is our flag. Get lost." His voice was tenser than I'd expected, and I shifted my grip on my staff, preparing for any sudden attacks as I activated my Overlay.

Billy's eyebrows drooped as if he was pouting. "Awww. That's mean. I was just here looking around for someone to hang out with. Is this not a public forest? I can't go here just because you say so?"

Abel was staring at Billy. Hard. "Don't underestimate him." My mentor murmured to me. "He reeks of blood. Oceans of it. And not the blood of combat. Blood of pain and helplessness and savage eagerness." My mentor sounded angry. "His path is disgusting. It delights in suffering and prolonged death."

While many people might assume Abel being on a Path of Blood made him a gleeful killer, that wasn't the case. My mentor liked to shed blood in worthy combat. Not just his enemy either, his own worked just as well. But while Abel was a gladiator, it sounded like this guy was just a serial killed. We all went on high alert.

Billy's eyes flicked lazily to to Abel. "Oh, someone noticed. I didn't expect another Bloodwalker here. Your aura is a little clean for me, but you've clearly done some damage. How fun. Do you want to compare notes? I could teach you a few things about the Path of Blood."

Paths were innumerable. Every one was unique and applied to each person differently. My DS Path pretty well demonstrated that, but I hadn't known (even if in retrospect it was obvious) that two people walking the same Path could walk it so differently. Unless you skipped steps like me, then you had to kind of align yourself with your path so it would harmonize.

"You need to go." Said Callen grimly. "I won't start a fight if you don't, but if you do, you stand no chance. I could kill you myself, nevermind with all this backup." It was a solid threat, but it also worried me. If it was really that easy Callen wouldn't have offered to let him leave. With the big man, Abel, me, Callie, and Bethy all together, the thought that he was still wary of this guy worried me.

Billy giggled madly. "Are you sure?" He reached into a pocket and drew out a warped looking bottle full of a dark red sludge that seemed to writhe and boil. In the liquid, screaming faces appeared, and as I saw it my Danger Sense went off so hard I nearly blacked out.

To my shock, Callen stepped back, hand going to his sword. His REAL sword. The one on his back that he wasn't ever supposed to draw. "Where did you get that? That stuff isn't supposed to exist anymore."

"What is it?" I asked cautiously as we all got a lot more tense. Billy seemed thrilled be the reaction, practically dancing as he casually tossed and caught the bottle, staring right at Callen. The big man looked genuinely afraid, which was weird because we weren't even really here.

He swallowed hard. "Lamentation Liquid. It was a product created by the Blood Murder Palace. I've seen samples before, but it was mostly destroyed. It's a consumable made from the souls of sacrificed Ascendants. Using the soul isn't taboo or anything, but Lamentation Liquid isn't like most methods of soul capture. Souls are sacrosanct, and barely understood.
People who catch them use them for energy, but when they're done they get released and go on to their afterlife."

"And that stuff...doesn't?" I Asked grimly. Zeke made masks out of souls, but from the sound of it this stuff was worse.
A look of revulsion crossed his face. "That stuff is made from spirits tormented after death to the point of of sublimation. It can erode and corrupt a soul if it touches you. I don't know why one of Hatescream's lackeys would bring it in here in the first place, but it WOULD work on these soul avatars, and we might never recover."

"Oh please." Cackled Billy. "You think I brought this here for you? This is to open the stove..." He stopped, eyes flicking around. "Oops! Spoilers! Think fast." He hurled an orb of red blood at Callen, then turned and, without saying another word, bolted into the forest, laughing maniacally all the way.

Callen cursed, releasing the big sword and drawing the one on his hip, slashing the orb in half and deflecting the two halves off to the sides. Each half splashed against the dirt nearby and began to erode the ground, hissing and bubble. Callen dropped his sword with a curse as it began to corrode and rust, melting the ground where it had landed.

Kneeling down, he stared at the thing for a bit, before cursing and taking out a new one to strap to his hip. "Lucky for me I buy these by the dozen because they break so often. That blood attack seems to be some sort of hyper corrosive. We got lucky, Blood Murder Palace's most well known ability was substantially stronger."

I swallowed as I stared at the hissing substance. "Ok, what the actual fuck just happened? That guy found us pretty easy. I get that was Bloody Billy or whatever, but what did you mean about the Lamentation Liquid being a product from Blood Murder Palace? Also what the hell is 'the stove' and why does he want to open it?"

Callen glared at me. "How the hell should I know? How old do I look to you? I was born well after Blood Murder Palace fell. I only know about the Lamentation Liquid at all because I've seen people who were damaged by it. In the physical world, it's considered dangerous but not the end of the world, but here...I don't know what it would do, but it wouldn't be nice."

"Why did he even show it to us?" Cut in Callie as she materialized from the darkness beneath a tree. "I mean, he could have just run. Was that some kind of secret plan to leak us information?"

The big man shook his head. "Doubtful. He probably just decided that we were going to kill him and pulled it out to deter us."

"Why would he assume that?" She asked.

"Probably because I was going to kill him." Replied Callen slowly. "The liquid was the only thing that deterred me. He's a maniac, and while I wasn't going to start anything in the fortress because of Adrian's teamwork nonsense, this would have been an excellent choice to get him out of the way. Whatever he's doing here, it must be important if he's desperate enough to stay alive that he would leak being a member of the BMP. They STILL have a kill on sight order. From EVERYONE."

I sighed, pinching my nose. "Great. That means whatever he's doing is probably really bad. We need to find someone who had done research on this place and figure out what the stove is. Because whatever it is, I somehow doubt he's going to throw that bottle into it or onto it or whatever because it needs a new coat of paint."

My Danger Sense had gone haywire looking at that stuff. I didn't know all the details but it was clearly extremely dangerous to me. Since I was made of soul fragments and so was most of the rest of this place, I somehow doubted it would be less damaging to anything else. Even if it was, there was no way it was a coincidence that this guy had come HERE with it.

"This isn't going to be another vanished god situation is it?" Complained Callie. "Because we barely survived the last one. I know I got a lot of perks, but you almost got murdered by an evil goddess. I don't feel like it was worth the stress. Is that Hatescream guy coming back?"

"No." Said Callen firmly. "Definitely not. I heard a bit about the Suvaya incident. She was destroyed, and her return was complex and incredibly involved. The Moonsong Glade was an out of the way Dungeon that opened irregularly. It wasn't too important. Anything related to Hatescream would be relevant. He was the oldest of the six when he was alive, and killing him was a nightmare from what I heard. Black Sorrow and the lord Revenant actually COOPERATED for that."

I wondered exactly why the six seemed so focused on keeping other gods from rising up? Was it just to maintain their positions? Or was there something else going on. "Well, it doesn't matter. If this is a god thing we'll figure it out eventually, for now it's just one lunatic with toxic soul acid that we need to track down. First thing after this wave we should head back to the fortress and alert the others. It'll be harder for him to move around if everyone is hunting him."

Everyone nodded. Even Bethy seemed serious about this. "Daddy was around when those Blood Murder guys were alive. He killed a whole bunch of them, and they came after him a few times. If this guy is one of them I want to kill him too." She wrinkled her nose. "I'll pass on eating him though. His blood is all gross and burny."

"Alright. Callie try to get as many traps setup as you can." I said to my girlfriend as I stared worriedly out into the forest.
"I need another one of these flags at least, but once we get it done we can head back. I don't want to leave it too long, but we have plenty of rounds until this ends and if he could reach the 'stove' from here, he wouldn't have been screwing around looking for flags." I really hoped this wasn't another terrible calamity. I was getting sick of those.
 
chapter 502
The next few days were hectic. Well, they felt like days, with the weird timeshift in this place (or whatever was causing it) I hadn't regained access to my wishes. Still, I'd been doing some serious work on my forms, both Belial and the new one I had in development, and I felt stronger than ever. I managed to snag another flag, Gabriel got one, while Adrian got the last two, but he hit two flags after me, allowing me to just barely eke out a victory and collect the gold key piece.

I wanted Callie to take one, but she refused, making it clear that she was worried about what was coming and that since I had far less in the way of stats she wanted me to maintain my soul advantage. After the seventh round we all received a message from the temple in our heads, letting us know that after another ten hours the soul crushing stairs would open directly into this level.

Based on what we'd been told about the stairs being a passage between illusion and reality, it made sense we'd walk them ourselves instead of some portal door leading us to the base, but the unique nature of the transition had side effects I hadn't anticipated.

First, the key pieces were soul artifacts, and since we would be making the shift to the physical along the steps, once we boarded the stair all the key fragments would manifest in reality. It would make all the key holders targets, gold, silver, and bronze. It would also give me a chance to pass the silver to Callie, but we were expecting to be attacked at each of the ten levels.

So here we were, gathered in a dark field (after Bethy and Callie said their tearful goodbyes to Biscuit) waiting for the stair to descend. Now that the competition had ended, the teams had mostly scattered, and the different factions had split off to their original groups. Benny and Jessie came to join us, along with Gabriel, Chelsea, Nat, Perit, and Valk. My sister looked a bit sullen, probably at not getting any of the flags.

The teamwork thing had been unnecessary, but it had worked for Adrian at least. He'd gotten the silver key fragment this time, and probably at least one other time too. He'd have at least one gold fragment and probably one or two silver, which meant I was bound to fight him during the climb. "You guys get caught up on what the stairs entail?" I asked Benny, Jessie, and Gabriel.

The crusader nodded. "We did. I'd been planning to drop out, but since there are going to be twelve temples, I can just focus on conquering one myself. Sadly I suspect most of the competition will be cleared out in the key fights."

"That's not the biggest worry." I said firmly. "Keep an eye out for Bloody Billy. We still don't know what he's upto, and no one was able to find him. He doesn't seem exactly stable, so having the patience to drop out of the race and wait on the stairs descent instead of trying for the flags means he must be really committed to this plan."

Glancing around, I studied the crowd of Ascendants. At the end of the fifth trial, we were currently looking at around two hundred people remaining, but I didn't see Billy among them. He had to be nearby, the stair was the only possible way to the temples.

Callie took my hand, squeezing it reassuringly. "It'll be fine. Just keep that Eye of Revelation peeled. If he gets close you'll notice him. I doubt we'll see him this early though. Chances are good he'll wait until the last second to rush the steps. While attacks are definitely on the table, I'm betting on the steps themselves it'll be a bit tough to concentrate on fighting, what with the whole emotional and mental torture thing we'll all be going through.

I cursed. "We're going to get ambushed on the fucking platforms. I guess our best bet is to absorb the energy in shifts. Let the others fend off any attacks, then switch on the next platform. There are ten of them, so we'll all get five platforms of uninterrupted absorption, as opposed to just a tiny bit from each of them." I glanced at my sister and cousin. "You guys down to play body guard if we trade off?"

Chelsea looked uncertain, but eventually nodded. "We could do that. It does seem like the smartest move. This might be our last chance to get some more soul refinement and break our last shackle all at once. The heart shackle needs to be broken before we leave, and we'll need to focus on digesting what we learn from passing each section if we want to have the best chance."

That was true. I suspected the amount you gained from the stair varied from person to person. TIme to heal and focus and prepare would be integral to passing the next section after completing a tough one. Bethy squealed with excitement. "Oh, this is going to be so much fun! I love ambushes, there's so much strategy and preparation involved. I hope Billy tries to get us. I'll let my kitties eat him all up!"

I laughed at that. "Speaking of the animals, Randall and the cats, are they going to be going through the same tempering we are? Because I'll be honest, I'd rather not be standing next to a bear the size of a bus as it's tormented by unfamiliar and alien emotions."

Jessie glanced over at her ursine companion. "That does sound bad. Buddy, we might want to think about sending you back out before the stair." She paused. "No I don't think you're a teddy bear. I know you can fight and aren't just for hugs." She rolled her eyes. "No I love your hugs. Wait...honey? Where the hell did you get the idea to ask for honey? What do you mean you saw it in a book? You can't even read!"

Our resident vampire burst into a fit of giggles, throwing herself onto the bear's giant fluffy back. "Awww, it's ok buddy. I'll hug you. You're the biggest softest fuzzy wuzzy I've ever seen, yes you are." She cooed to the bear as the grabbed on and squeezed him tightly.

"Pretty sure he's suffocating." Said Benny dryly. "Either that or he's taken up interpretive dance. If it's the latter, I feel like it needs work. His moves are a little spastic.

Bethy rolled her eyes. "Don't be silly. Randall loves my hugs. Don't you buddy?" The weakly jerking bear wheezed slightly, and Bethy let him go with a sheepish grin. "Sorry buddy. But you're a big boy, and you've been in F-rank for ages. I figured you could handle a simple hug."

The bear threw both front paws up in an offended 'what the hell?' manner and Jessie burst out laughing. Bethy just pouted. I decided to steer the conversation away from the subject, and back our original topic. "I think sending Randall back might not be a bad plan. I'm not even sure how he got this far. How did he get through the maze and the forest?"

Jessie just shrugged. "He came with me. We're bonded, and I don't think the temple counts him as a separate entity." She paused, rolling her eyes and glancing at the bear. "Yeah, I'll lodge a complaint. That said, this next part will be rough, and you don't have the BEST temper." Randall reared back in outrage, throwing back his head and roaring his disagreement. Jessie just raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, that showed me."

The big bear chuffed, looking away in a clear indication that he didn't want to talk about this anymore. Jessie walked up to give him a hug of her own, laying her head on his side. "I'm sorry bud. You know I want to bring you with me, but I don't want to put you through something like this. You're not equipped to handle this. I don't think you've even broken your mind shackle. If animals CAN break the mind shackle."

He grumbled but eventually nodded somberly. Jessie gave him a peck on the nose then closed her eyes. Randall gave her one last sad look, then dissolved into golden sparks. Callie stepped up and put an arm around the shoulder of our forlorn healer. "It's ok sweety. He'll barely notice it. We think there's some kind of time speed up happening in here. He won't even notice you're gone."

The smaller blonde sniffed lightly. "I know. But I get so worried about the big goon. And I'm so used to having him around. He's big and cute and funny and he always makes my day better."

Callie's eyes fell on me, giving me a soft smile. "I've been there. Got one of those myself. Albeit slightly less hairy. So...why don't you introduce the others to Callen and...Chelsea was it?" She gave my sister a warm smile, extending her hand. "I'm Shane's girlfriend, Calliope. It's really nice to meet you. You can call me Callie, or Nightstrike, which is my cape name." When Chelsea reached out to take her hand, she pulled my twin sister into a tight hug before letting her go.

Chelsea, for her part, looking kind of dazed. Nat stepped forward. "And I'm Shane's cousin Natalie." Nat actually did shake hands. "On his dad's side." My sister's eyes lit up as she realized she was talking to another family member, and she shook back enthusiastically. I introduced the others, giving her the cliff notes on who they were.

She seemed a little shy, but happy to be there."I'm Chelsea Anders. It's really nice to meet you all. Thank you for being so welcoming." My friends had clearly picked up my vibe and decided to go with it, trusting that if I was happy to include her it must be for a reason. Callie was the only one who knew the circumstances of my mom leaving me behind, I'd told her in the woods, so the others were just following my lead, for which I was grateful.

Sadly, the whole first meeting between my sister and friends, was going to have to wait, because we were all interrupted by the sudden darkening of the sky above. Much like when the flags lit up, the sky had gone black, but unlike before, this didn't seem quite as pointless. Before it had been an aesthetic choice almost, but as the cold wind whipped the air around us into a frenzy and the dark clouds moved in, all I could think was 'shit is about to go down'.

In the darkness, a pinpoint of light appeared, a golden spark almost like a star, and as we watched, it began to expand. Around the descending light, the clouds that had rolled in swirled in circles, creating a guiding tunnel for what it could now be seen was a slowly growing golden staircase.

I felt a sense of pressure just looking at it, and as it got closer, my knees bent slightly, soaking up the increased force on all of us. As it slammed into the ground at last, there was a loud boom that shook the earth beneath our feet. Suddenly, after a second, the pressure lessened. On me. And Callie and Callen. A few others too, and it took me a second to realize that it was giving the members of the winning team an advantage.

Which was exactly when a bandaged form blurred out from between a group of suppressed members of the other team and set foot on the stairs. He took a step, then another, then another, and around the fifth step slowed down to a crawl. The rest of us bolted for the stairs, hoping to catch up, and the race to the top was on. Of course, that was hardly the biggest issue. No, that would be the fact that above Billy's head, four pieces of bronze key had materialized. I had the sneaking suspicion that him getting any of the keys would be bad. We needed to catch up.
 
chapter 503
The first level of the steps was pretty simple to start out. Greed. I set my foot down on the first step and suddenly became hyperfocused on...wanting. I wanted the keys above people's heads (four pieces of gold and two pieces of silver manifested over me, but I was a bit distracted), I wanted their weapons, their money, and anything else I could see. Luckily it was a pretty mild want, so I took another step.

The need to take intensified slightly, but was still easy to ignore, I stepped up again toward Billy, only to almost get blindsided by a large purple fist. My Danger Sense warned my in time, but it was close. My staff flashed out, slamming into the instep of my attacker, then kicking him down the steps as I moved up again.

Much like Billy, once I got a few steps up, THAT'S when I started slowing down. This particular section was absolutely diabolical, because the greed in question was the greed for everything but victory. The more people mounted the steps, the more you had to focus on, and the more people who focused on you.

The really strong people were able to stay focused, people like Gabe and Adrian and Abel. But random people who weren't as disciplined had turned the extremely wide golden steps into a free for all. I was far enough towards the front that there were only a few people to contend with, but the others had lagged behind me as I ran and were embroiled on the mess.

I saw Benny going blow for blow with some transformed apelike creature, the steps cracking slightly under him enough to make me realize he was density shifting his whole body consistently. I hadn't asked about what benefits breaking his mind shackle had had, or even if he'd managed it (though it seemed like he had) but he'd clearly become much stronger since getting here, his soul allowing him to put all the new stats to good use.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a flash of silver, and it took me a second to realize it was Callie, using the shadows of the people on the glowing steps as weapons, slashes of dangerous dark energy from her Abyssal Path tearing through her enemies. I turned slightly, my diagonal path set to intersect with hers.

Based on my current count, there were a hundred steps in the greed section. Every one drove me more and more mad for external objects, desperate to loot, steal, and plunder. I would have given in, honestly, but I saw Callie, and I focused on her. I had her in my life, and that was worth more than any theft. I didn't want to take, I wanted to give. Both pieces of this silver key to go with the one she already had.

She also had a bronze fragment, and I didn't want Billy to attack her for it. After about fifteen steps, I finally caught up with her. Reaching up, I snagged both silver pieces and shoved them toward her. The floating piece above her head seemed to attract them like magnets and suddenly she had three floating over her, same as I did. Up ahead I saw Adrian with one gold, three silver, and one bronze.

I debated fighting him for them, but I saw Callie freeze when she hit step twenty. Her eyes began to flicker around, and I cursed internally. My loot goblin girlfriend was exactly the wrong person to get through this.

My hand snaked out and grabbed hers, startling her slightly. "What do you need?" I asked firmly. She looked confused. "I'll get it for you. Any of it. You don't need to take anything. I'm here, just fight it and tell me what you need and I'll make it happen." She stared at me blankly. I just shrugged. "It's not greed if its for someone else. I don't want to see you fail before we even get to the first platform."

We were stopped on step twenty. We'd pulled ahead, but the rest were starting to catch up as the weak were weeded out enough to thin the crowd. It helped that these stairs were a ridiculously wide, but we'd all been pretty concentrated. Billy and Adrian were both far ahead, apparently when you're a serial killer who wants to watch the world burn, you're shockingly inured to material wants. Adrian I was pretty sure was just really disciplined.

Callie took a long, deep breath and exhaled through her nose. "I...I'm good. I promise. I'm with you. That's all I need." She squeezed my hand, smiling sweetly at me, and we took another step. The pressure redoubled, but somehow, it was barely noticeable. Not because of the bond, but because somehow, greed just felt...pointless. I was happy, she was happy, and we were together. What more could I want?"

Sadly our little moment outside time was interrupted by my danger sense and I swept her off her feet by her hand, spinning her out like we were dancing as a crackling ball of red lightning split the air where she'd just been. I turned and SPAT, using my Steam Arrow, and infusing it with Touch of Tears. It hit the tall woman with the braided hair who had thrown the orb and she screamed, toppling over and clutching her face.

There was a slight scuffle as she tumbled down the steps and then she stopped making sounds, apparently crushed under the careless feet of the rioting masses. I saw a huge vine reach up and snag someone about to jump Benny from behind, drawing my gaze as Jessie bodily hurled them off the side of the steps to presumably their death.

"You alright?" I asked Callie, who had started getting squirrely again when we got distracted. I paused. "Actually. Do you feel different? Because I feel different." I glanced down at myself and noticed nothing until I got to my staff. The Stygian Branch was now...heavier. Conceptually. The Impact difference was fading as both the staff and I slowly became more real. It wasn't E-rank yet, but it was a stronger F.

Callie shook her head sharply. "I do. It's not helping. This is the realification process huh?"

"I'm positive that isn't a word." I chuckled. "But yes, I think the conversion has- whoa!" I yanked her hand again, another spin whirling her out of the way of a charging figure shrouded in clouds of dark red smoke. My Danger Sense tipped me off early enough to plant my staff in front of his feet. He hit the staff, tripped, and slammed his face into the step in front of us. I brought the staff around like a bat and smashed it into his damaged face as he wobbled to his feet, sending him tumbling into the crowd.

Callie winced. "Ok, I think our plan to do the platforms in shifts will need reworking. We're together so we can take turns, but the group got separated, so the others will have to fend for themselves."

"At least they won't have too much trouble." I chuckled, glancing back down. "The extra soul strength is clearly making Benny hell on wheels, and her spiking Might stat has Jessie in a good place too. Those vines are durable and strong as hell. When we get up there, you can absorb the energy from the platform, I'll do the next one." She opened her mouth to argue and I cut her off. "No buts!" I said firmly. "You gave me the last flag. It's your turn."

She beamed at me, taking a long, slow breath. "Alright, I'm good to start moving again. Thanks for distracting me."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." I said with dignity. "But stay focused on me. We're a quarter of the way up." I squeezed her hand tighter and we started to climb. It was a terrible sensation. My teeth were chattering, my skin was tingling, I felt a compulsive need to take, take, take. The only thing that kept me grounded was Callie's hand in mine as we walked.

I could feel through the bond that she was doing just as badly. We'd passed the point where we could just focus through it halfway up. I was pretty sure rushing was making it worse, but we needed to get to the top fast enough to catch Billy. The bond kepy us both grounded, and by the time we hit step seventy five, we were basically leaning into the sensations as hard as we could to avoid the draw of the steps.

By the time we finished the last step, I collapsed to the ground in pain, heaving an gasping, Callie beside me doing the same. The constant twitch and cramp and jerk of muscles as we fought our own bodies was agonizing. I wished I had enough heal bursts to use but I was low. The energy from the platform helped, we were still mostly soul, and it poured into me for a minute, knitting my injuries together until I could focus enough to stand.

Callie was still shuddering, and I left her to absorb the soul refinement energy. I'd only taken enough to set me right, but I'd said I'd guard her and I would. The second we stepped off the stairs I felt the blare of my Danger Sense. I'd expected to be attacked, but nothing had happened yet, so I glanced around and was relatively unsurprised to find Adrian standing there, waiting for me.

"You know, Billy is getting away." I gestured over his shoulder where the murderous lunatic we'd been chasing had mounted the next set of steps.

He smiled placidly. "I don't care. I'm not here for him. I'm here for that key. You can give it to me or I can take it. I'll even trade you the silver, your girl has most of it already. You can come in second place. No reason to get you both booted out of here early."

I laughed at that. "You know, I don't care too much either. I'm a bit worried, but honestly, I'm not going to fight you because I need to catch him. That's a problem for future Shane. No, I just want to see if I can beat you. Everyone has been talking you up, so afraid of big bad Adrian from the Fist God Temple."

This was going to need to happen eventually, and I didn't feel like running. One on one, me vs him. I wanted that. Wanted to win, and I wanted to test out my new single combat Goetia form. So I did. I reached down into my DS Mastery. I triggered Consecration of Flames, Afterburner, and Mercy Kill. Flames infused my body, filling me up, not transforming me, but boosting and enhancing me as those skills all merged together.

My hair was flame, my eyes were flame, and my breath came out as puffs of steam as my muscles tensed and flexed. For the final touch, I triggered Marked for Death, imbuing the ability to destroy defenses into the fire, and the bright flickering flames turned dark and ominous as the energy became geared toward destruction.

I spun up my staff, the dark wood blazing on both ends with black flames as I prepared to fight. Adrian raised an eyebrow. "I head your schtick was green magma. This seems different."

Baring my teeth at him, I triggered State of Grace, Flurry of Blows, and Ripple Running, readying myself to attack as I adjusted to the previously theoretical melding of my fire skills. "Yeah, this is new. Hope you like it, you're the first person I'm showing it to." Stepping off the ground, I blurred forward, thrusting out with the staff and concentrating all my force into a sharp brutal jab at his foot. He dodged and the platform groaned as the impact blew a hole in it. "Goetia staff art: second form." I intoned with a grin. "Mephistopheles."
 
Great chapter! Are you taking writing inspiration from Shonen series? You give us a new form and a cliffhanger, the anticipation is killing me!
 
Great chapter! Are you taking writing inspiration from Shonen series? You give us a new form and a cliffhanger, the anticipation is killing me!

More that I wanted to give the new form a full chapter to shine lol. Shoehorning it in at the end didn't seem fair but I still wanted to introduce it.
 
More that I wanted to give the new form a full chapter to shine lol. Shoehorning it in at the end didn't seem fair but I still wanted to introduce it.
Honestly it's a very prevalent writing technique. The real problem comes when cliffhangers are overused with little impact or point to them. Your use of cliffhangers is well done.
 
chapter 504
Leverage. It was an important part of staff combat. Maybe the most important part, at least based on what Willow taught me. But as much as leverage could do in a fight, Goetia wasn't some single faceted stick swinging style. It was a manifestation of my potential. It was a way to connect my Path and my combat style into a single unifying force.

Which meant leverage wasn't all I needed. Leverage worked well as a principal for Belial, but for Mephistopheles it didn't fit. This was my offensive style, the whole point of it was focus, packing as much damage into the smallest area possible. I.E the end of the staff.

I held the Stygian Branch with on hand wrapped loosely around it as a guide and one at the back gripping tight as I shoved it forward like a pool cue. Back and forth, a torrent of staves appeared in front of me, powerful black flames on the tip leaving scores of lines in the air as I peppered Adrian with attacks.

The smaller man was every bit as impressive as I'd been told. His fists flashed out in a blur, deflecting and offsetting my attacks as he adjust his body. Every punch was short and sharp, crushing my momentum and stopping my attacks before they landed. His fists glowed as he punched, white energy coating them and offsetting most of the damage.

Backing off, I cursed. The whole thrusting stab concept was fine, but it wouldn't work against someone like this, it was too limited. Adrian was shaking out his hands warily as he circled me. "That was actually painful. I can feel a Path in those attacks, and a dense one. Achieving a Solid Path without Mastery is rare." He flashed forward, fists blurring as he came at me.

Unlike Abel, Adrian didn't go in for the large images or the fancy windup. Short brutal punches, economy of motion, close attacks with no time to react. Those were his weapons of choice. He was in my guard within seconds, hammering punches into my chest and ribs, and throwing the occasional uppercut at my jaw. I triggered Mountain Stance as he came in, which soaked most of the damage, but I quickly realized my new form was falling apart.

When I figured that out, that was when I knew how to fix it. I attacked. Staff forms weren't just about the staff. Forms were ways to use my entire body and all my powers. I hammered out my own punch into his face, black flame congealing on my fist, and as he backed up, I slammed down my staff at his foot, forcing him back. I'd been too narrow minded. Focused damage didn't just mean thrusting attacks.

I'd been enlightened by his combat style, short, sharp blows of pretty much any kind had the power I was looking for. I was using close combat too, but the big difference was reach. My staff and wingspan made short attacks substantially more versatile. Aside from that, I'd backed off. Mephistopheles was a guardbreaker, pure unrelenting force, and that meant momentum.

Ruthlessly aiming for every possible weak spot, I followed him, sticking to the now retreating Master like glue. Belial was the about control, dictating someone's fate, but Mephistopheles was about crushing it. Dominate the enemy, conquer their destiny. I slammed my staff into Adrian's knee, then my elbow into his nose. My shoulder check sent him stumbling back as the bottom of my staff smashed down on his ankle.

Snarling, he slammed his other foot down, sticking in place to arrest some of my momentum and threw himself at me, trying to cancel my advance with his own. The fight devolved into a pure slugging match. I'd dropped Mountain Stance, it didn't work while advancing, and defense would be counterintuitive to this form. This was an assault, a knock down drag out brawl.

Every part of me was a weapon, black flames exploding on contact as I struck out. I felt bones fracture under Adrian's Master level punches, but I ignored that. They weren't real bones, what did it matter. I smashed my mask into his face, hooked my staff behind his back and held on, pinning him in close as I drove my knee up into his chest repeatedly, then stomped down on his own knee as he blocked.

The pain was excruciating, but I was having the time of my life. I didn't care about tactics, or prediction, or any of that. Despite that, I was more in tune with my Path than I'd ever been. Crush the enemy, stomp his fate into dirt. I cackled madly, and Adrian met my laugh with a grin of his own. He was burned and bleeding and beaten, but he neither gave nor asked for quarter.

I lashed out at his knee with my staff, shifting my grip to maneuver in tight quarters, and when he dodged, I slammed the butt of it up into the bottom of his chin at an angle, pouring the black flames into the attack. His head snapped back and he stumbled away, leaving me to follow and batter him with hits.

My physical power was boosted in this form, Afterburner being a part of the form itself rather than a temporary boost meant I was just multiple times stronger, combined with the boost from Mercy Kill and the defense breaking from Marked for Death I was putting out the most brutal offense I was capable of, something pretty close to the absolute limits of F-rank.

The damage was adding up, but I didn't care. I roared with excitement as I attacked, feeling bones crack under the blows from staff, feet, and elbows. Adrian had committed to short range combat, and Mephistopheles was pure destruction. I'd created it for this exact purpose. Single target battle with explosive damage. Master or not, up against a Solid Path like mine in its element he couldn't keep up.

When the drop came, I was ready. His shoulder dipped, and I came in with brutal swing that put all my momentum behind it, pouring power in as my staff smashed into his head, caving it in and dispersing the spirit construct completely. I dropped to my knees, not needing to even catch myself as the key fragments shifted to me. The gold ones clicked together, forming a solid key that hung above me majestically.

Callie rushed over, her absorption forgotten. "Shane!" Mephistopheles was fading now, the adrenaline and power gone and between the broken everything and the drain from Afterburner being part of the form, I was barely mobile. I triggered my heal burst with a scan heal, my last charge of the former, and groaned as I felt the energy flood me and get to work. "That was crazy, are you alright?"

I just chuckled. "Yeah, I'm fine Cal. Well, no, I'm horrifically injured. My organs feel like speed bags. But I'm alive and probably going to stay that way. Kind of lost my head there for a second. The new staff form floods me with destructive energy, kind of lost myself in the aggression." Which was new. Belial didn't affect my thinking at all, probably because it was a weaker form. I'd have to do some training with Mephistopheles.

"Grab the silver key fragments." I said with a wince as I tried to sit up. "You're still short of the full key, but you only have one more piece to get and we need to take out Billy anyway. Once you do that get back to absorbing before more people get here "

"But you..." She trailed off, gazing worriedly down at me. Then she nodded. "Ok, if you think you're all good then I believe you."

I chuckled. "I'm a mess, but I'll heal. After that showing I don't think anyone who noticed will try me easily either. Honestly I should already be healed, but becoming more physical means the damage isn't healing as well I guess, either that or Master level damage sticks around longer."

That was probably it. While I waited for my injuries to heal I got back to my feet and leaned on my staff. Even without an active attempt to absorb it, the soul energy from the platform WAS helping though. I may be more physical but I was still at least partially soul, and it seemed to be boosting the healing.

I needed to get in touch with Jessie. Hell, I needed more wishes to trade for healing charges. Not having access to them was forcing me to put a lot of emphasis on my combat skills, which was good, but it would be nice to have access to my trump cards again.

While I watched and waited I did a bit of musing on my Path so far. Path of the Doom Sovereign. The form that took was the Fatewalker because of my build. The Diviner, the Monk, the Rogue. There were multiple ways to embody my Path.
Belial was control, very Roguelike, while Mephistopheles was more of a Monk kind of thing. Direct combat and martial power. The loss of control wasn't what I wanted there. I needed to practice with that a bit soon. I looked over my shoulder at Billy, who was already halfway up the damned steps. I wanted to catch him, but I was in no condition, and I wasn't willing to screw over Callie.

This advancement would be good for her. I concentrated on my own soul, and I could feel it being repaired by the combination of the strain and the runoff from the platform. It wouldn't push me too far ahead without me trying to draw it in, but just the soul weight I'd endured would probably get me up to forty percent of yellow, maybe a percent or two higher.

Finally, Callie let out a long breath and got to her feet. "I think that's the most I'm going to be able to process right now. I could keep going, but it would only be draining energy the others could use when they get here. That seems like a bad call no matter how I look at it. Forget our friends, if we suck this thing dry we'll have people on our asses much faster than we would if they stopped to absorb."

I hadn't known you could fill up on soul energy, but I supposed it made sense. If you could run out you could overfill. I guessed we just hadn't run into a situation yet in the trials where we'd gotten enough for it to be an issue. "Alright, we move on then." I held out a hand. "Want to go together again? We did pretty well last time."

She smiled softly at me, leaning up to kiss the cheek of my mask. "No. I know you're trying to break your heart shackle. Support will make that harder. I should work on mine too. I'm not scared of anything when I'm with you, but that's not exactly a pro in this case. You got me through the section I probably would have lost it at, I can go it on my own from here."

"Alright." I chuckled. "I'll wait for you up there if I get to the next platform first."

She sniffed imperiously. "Why do you think you'll get there first? I think it's clear that I'm one most likely to get through this quickly. You'll be eating my dust."

"You? Preparing food?" I asked with a grin. "Now I know you're delusional. Did that last staircase cause permanent damage somehow? You might want to sit this out." Her outraged scoff was too over the top to be realistic, but I smiled at the back and forth anyway. It felt good to bicker a bit with her before we moved on to the really rough stuff. Sadly, we saw people coming up behind us (sadly not our friends) and we had to stop putting it off. Separately, but at the same time, we stepped onto the soul crushing stair's second section.
 
chapter 505
The next section was something a bit confusing for me. Hate. Stepping onto it, I felt a bit thrown by the sensation. I wasn't a hateful person. I disliked people, was annoyed by people, even got violently angry at people, but hate...I'd only hated one or two people. Pietro, the brat from the Black Sorrow Cult. Aiden, for what he'd done to Cass and the other kids. Even then I hadn't dwelled on it.

But as I took the next step, the sensation grew. I hated. Hated so many things. I hated the feel of air on my skin, hated the weight of my armor, hated the creak of the leather as I took a step. Hate hate hate. It was deeply unsettling. I couldn't imagine being this kind of person, the kind of person who felt this disgusted at each and every experience in their life, who looked at the world like this.

Most of all, I hated the idea of continuing. I wanted to stop, wanted to go back, wanted to give up and stop feeling like this. I paused, breathing deeply as I tried to come to terms with the sick churning awfulness in my gut. I'd assumed hate would come with anger, but this was so much worse. This sort of infected rotting emptiness inside me, like nothing would ever make me happy again.

I glanced across the stairs, my eyes landing on Callie, though, and suddenly, the burden lessened. My girl. There was no way to feel the way I felt looking at her and that creeping nothingness at the same time. It was like someone lit a candle in the abyss that had been consuming my gut, and the light was driving away all that darkness. Not completely, I still felt it around the edges, but it helped. Helped remind me who I was.

Despite that, I forced myself to look away after I was stable. Love helped more than I could say, but I needed to get through this. I needed to be able to survive this kind of experience on my own. That was why we'd come up onto the steps separately. To show we had what it took.

I stepped again, and then again, resuming my climb. I was already ten steps up, but it was getting harder. The disgust and loathing were back, growing inside me, and as it grew worse I started to worry. It felt like it was hollowing me out, consuming me. If I kept going there might be nothing left of me.

That feeling got worse as I stepped, but I ignored it. Pain, misery, this was all temporary. I could take anything for a little while, I knew it would pass, the clouds would part and the sun would come out again. The positive imagery sadly faded after a few more steps. The shine came off the apple, but I focused on the practical facts. I was going to make it. This feeling was awful, but I'd get through it. It couldn't do anything to me I didn't let it.

Emotions can be tough to deal with. Even if you know what you're feeling isn't rational or logical, that doesn't make it go away. Pain is pain, hurt is hurt. But people can adapt, they can adjust. I stopped at step twenty five, ready to just about collapse. I focused on the sensations hurting me. I felt the pain, the hate, the disgust. Then I felt it again. And again. And again.

I beat myself over the head with it, forced myself to live in that terrible loathing. The more I experienced it, the less it hurt. It had less power over me as I got used to it. Then I took another step, and did the same thing again. The tricky part wasn't becoming accustomed to it, it was not letting it change me as I did.

Making that hate a part of me was awful, adapting felt like it was bringing me closer and closer to the worst version of myself. Terrible thoughts about everyone I loved, about people who didn't deserve it, started to seep into my head. Questioning their intentions, why I needed them, whether they were waiting to betray me. I felt like my heart was a raw open wound weeping with infection.

Still I walked on. Every step made life worse. The world was disgusting. I felt like I was moving through sandpaper and razor wire. I was halfway up now, and the thought that it would keep getting worse made me want to die, but I kept going. My emotions were a mess, every positive thing I had ever experienced seemed sinister and awful.

So I focused on things that weren't positive. Things that were just true. My strength, my effort, the pain I'd been through. I needed a reason to keep going, and I forced myself to make power that reason. Strength for the sake of strength felt hollow most of the time, but right now hollow was what I needed. It was safe, and selfish, and I couldn't hate it. I needed so badly not to hate something.

That helped, the focus on pragmatic power growth, for the moment. But it made me reevaluate myself in so many ways, these steps stripped you bare one emotion at a time, they showed you things about yourself you'd never see normally. I could feel myself becoming more real too, more parts of me becoming solid and factual.

I looked around in shock as I got to the seventy fifth step, I didn't see anyone but Callie, who wasn't paying attention to me, nearby. There were others but they were further down. Unlike the greed steps, they weren't tearing into each other like I'd expected, they were just trying to move forward, and they were going a lot slower than before. The hate steps were harder for most people I think, and it was definitely showing. I turned back, focusing on moving forward again.

Focusing on the top of the steps, I looked for Billy. He'd already passed the section and started the next. Looking at him actually kind of helped, because all the hate focused on him and that drove me forward somewhat. Fuck that guy. But it didn't last, I had to bring my mind back to the neutral place I'd found in my path to power to continue, letting the hate wash off me like water off a ducks back.

Finally, after what seemed like forever, I stepped onto the second platform, looking back to make sure I was alone before sitting down to pull in soul energy. I was still damaged from the fight, and the destabilizing influence of the steps didn't help so I had some mending to do before I started improving my soul past where it was.

I used that as an opportunity to smooth over the jagged edges of the emotional damage. The hate was gone, but the influence it had on me persisted. Callie was behind me, and made it up to the platform to stand guard over me, but I ignored her as I focused on myself. Let go of the disgust, the fear, the despair that the hatred had ground into me, let myself feel happiness again, feel joy.

Hate was so much more destructive than greed, at least to me. I slowly sifted through my memories, rediscovering the good, finding my loved ones, the happy times in my life, reminding myself of who and what I was. The soul crushing stair was aptly named. These emotions it forced on us were poison, a creeping destructive venom of our own making that would twist and warp us if we let it.

The feeling of becoming real as it happened just pushed it deeper, made it matter more. These platforms were necessary to find yourself after and remember what you're supposed to be like. Oddly, I felt more like me when I was done than I ever had. I had a new perspective on my life, on my heart and the way I saw things. I felt like I'd touched even more deeply on my heart shackle, though I still didn't know what it was in a way I could articulate.

Stripping yourself down and rebuilding yourself let you remove the poisons that were already there. The few bits of hate that had been in me before had been sanded down, made smooth and simple by the experience. I could think about Aiden, and about Pietro, without getting angry or agitated. They were truly behind me.

Once that was past, I started pulling in the energy from the platform, siphoning it into me. It spilled into my soul, infusing and filling me. Maybe because I was partially real at this point, it felt different. More profound. It started at the bottom of my feet and slowly rose, washing through my muscles and bones, reinforcing the me inside my skin without affecting my body at all.

This was my first time experiencing the soul refinement energy of the Ruined Soul Temple with my physical form, or at least part of it. After probably twenty minutes though, my body reached saturation. Just like with Callie on the first platform the energy had filled my body to the brim. I could still take more in but most of it would just overflow, there would barely be an effect.

Feeling the energy, I could understand how the stairs worked. The damage I'd been undergoing from the emotions of the soul crushing steps was a type of sublimation, and the process would use up the energy, transforming it into refinement. It was much more effective than just bashing my soul up and using the energy to patch the damage.

I opened my eyes, glancing at Callie, who was standing guard nearby. "Hey." I said softly. She jumped, whirling around from where she'd been eyeing a few people who had just arrived. "You want to take a turn? I imagine you've been pulling a little, but you need to fill up before the next section if you want the full effect of the steps."

She waved me off. "Nah, it's fine. I don't think we're expected to fill up completely. I still have leftover energy from the first platform. I can fill up on the next one again and be fine." She grimaced. "What is the next one anyway? That was...bad. It wasn't as insidious for me as the first section, but it made me feel sick."

Climbing to my feet, I held out a hand and pulled Callie tight against me. "I know. I felt it too. It was a really unpleasant sensation. Next section is Delusion, and I have absolutely no clue what that even entails. Getting lost in heartbreaking daydreams? Who knows. I'm kind of worried about that one too."

"It'll be ok." She said with a soft smile. "We'll be fine. This is how we get stronger. Before you know it we'll have broken out second shackle and be on our way to an Azure soul body. I'm thinking of trying to train my Shadow Manipulation to Master level. I have to keep it ahead of my ability to rank up now that I've synergized anyway, and having a Master rank Skill would be pretty neat."

I grinned. "It would, or you could try to go the Path route like I did, and turn your Path into a Skill." I wasn't sure how hard it would be, but it would give her a good leg up on reaching D-rank.

"We'll see." She giggled. "The point is, we'll be fine and we're looking out for each other. Now, let's split up again and walk up another flight of stairs terrified and alone." I could tell from her flippant tone that she was trying to be lighthearted, but I could feel her worry through the bond. Still, I nodded to her gently, gave her hand a squeeze, then dropped it. We still had five more flights to go. Time to get moving.
 
chapter 506
The next four sections were hellish. Delusion, vanity, confusion, doubt. Each flight seemed to inundate me with awful sensation and then rip it out, stripping away the bits of it that remained insides. Each time I came away a bit stronger, if raw, and each time I felt myself get closer and closer to the truth of my second shackle. When we finally reached the last platform, I could feel the weight of my full presence, of my staff, and of the changes that had been made.

I was here. Really here, not as a fragment, and I was...different. I'd reached the peak of yellow, to my shock, but the shackle held me fast, containing my soul so it was incapable of breaking through and sublimating as I needed it to. It was an uncomfortable sensation, different than the mind shackle had been. The heart shackle was external, and it felt more restrictive, more uncomfortable.

Callie stood next to me, shaking slightly and with a glazed look on her face. She's had it just as bad if not worse. If nothing else though, we'd outpaced the others, and pulled pretty far ahead. This platform had been my turn, but since we'd hit our limits for growth, I'd only needed to absorb enough to heal. Callie had done the same and now we were facing the last set of steps together.

Sloth didn't seem like quite as much trouble as the rest, but...I was tired. Even before stepping foot on the first stair I was weary to an extent I'd never come close to before. Emotionally, physically, mentally, I was just drained. Empty. I'd FELT so much. Endured so much. Every step was harder to take, even the shift between emotions didn't matter anymore. The walk had seemed so endless and I was so run down.

The only reason I could keep going was the bond. Was Callie. The reason we'd pulled so far ahead was that the rest of them had to stop, and rest, and recover. But we hadn't. We'd kept going. Partly to prove to ourselves we could. Partly to prove it to each other. Partly to make sure neither of us had to continue alone, and partly to try to catch up to Billy.

We'd almost got him at the confusion platform. But we'd been so out of it that the fight had barely made sense. We'd attacked together, but whatever madness was in him made him more resistant to the emotions on the soul crushing stairs. We'd been winning, and even managed to snag his key shards, but he'd pulled out that damned vial of lamentation liquid and the whole stair began to shake.

He'd used the distraction to snatch the last bronze piece, completing his key, and ran off while we were trying to process what was happening. Being still confused and addled from the steps hadn't helped.

His behavior mystified me honestly. Why did he need a key? What was the stove? I pushed down those thoughts. I didn't need them right now. Couldn't take them. This next set of steps was going to be...hell. "Are you ready for this?" I asked Callie quietly. My voice was hoarse and tired. "We can go together?"

I made that offer every time, and every time she said no. I only made it so she'd know I was here if she needed me, I didn't want her to take me up on it. But...this time she almost did. She hesitated, dwelling on the option, and I could feel her desire to take my hand, to take comfort in my presence after our trials.

The things we'd gone through on these steps...soul crushing was right. I could barely function. I felt like I'd lived a hundred lives. Awful lives. This place really was crushing my soul, grinding it into dust and recasting it, smoothing out all the rough edges.

Finally, she shook her head. "No." She said firmly. "This is the last one. I know this is hard, but we can do this." She sounded like she was trying to convince herself more than me, but with each word, her tone became firmer. She smiled at me. "You can do this. I believe in you. And I know you believe in me."

Nodding to each other, we turned and faced the last one hundred steps. The people who created this were sadistic geniuses. Sloth being the last flight of stairs had seemed like almost a relief a minute ago. How could Sloth compare to Hate, or Confusion? But it capitalized on every ounce of weariness. The more I thought about it the more worried I got. So...I stopped thinking.

I just stepped. The first step was barely noticeable. I felt the notion pop into my head that maybe this was too much trouble, maybe I should just stay on the platform, recover a bit before I went. I pushed past it, recognizing that for what it was. Doubt had been a bit like that. Not as insidious in some ways, though worse in others. Doubt had probably been the most terrible of the first six.

Still walking, I went to the second step, then the third. The desire to turn back became stronger, more extreme. Why was I doing this? Why was I doing any of this? I should just go home. I was so tired. I wasn't giving up. There would be time later for adventures. I just needed a rest. I'd already made so much progress.

My foot froze on the tenth step. Why WAS I moving forward? Was it for me? I'd already learned that I needed to be myself, to stop trying to please everyone. Was I really doing that? Was pressing myself to get stronger really for me? Was this part of my heart shackle? Was I just giving in? I was so fucking tired. Every step was a lead weight crashing down on my head, blurring my vision and sapping my will.

I looked at Callie, swaying on her feet but advancing, fighting with every ounce of her soul to move forward. I could see, could FEEL how exhausted she was, but she just kept going. For me. For herself. For her mom. I grinned. Who cared about a little tiredness. If I let her get too far ahead I wouldn't be able to catch her if she slipped. Why was I focusing so hard on my reasons for doing this. I only needed the reason right in front of my face.

Be myself. That didn't mean be a selfish bastard motivated be my own desires and not care about anybody else. I took another step, and that sensation became clearer. The heart shackle had been bothering me for a while, and it wasn't until this moment I could really put the reason into words.

The heart lock was external. It was about the way other people weighed on me, about how they made me change. The mind shackle was from within, it was all about me, but the heart shackle meant confronting the effect others had on me, and breaking that...would it make those parts of me go away? Would it turn me into the same kind of arrogant jackass I'd seen other cultivators become? Would it destroy the things that made me happy?

And as I took another step, somehow reaching the halfway point without even noticing, I realized that THAT was my heart shackle. The fear of losing my attachment to the people I cared about. Being myself was an easy thing to commit to, because I just needed to block out all the nonsense, but this was something a bit more...elusive.

Because if I just decided to let that go, what was the difference between that and my fear coming true. My connections might not make me HUMAN exactly, I wasn't sure how close I was to that anymore, but they made me, well, me. If I unburdened myself of all connection I'd become the exact monster I was scared of becoming. Did that mean that the heart shackle was one I couldn't break?

The thought rang in my head like a bell. After finding it and having been planning to break it for so long, I could feel the damned thing jangling like it was about to snap. On the upside I wasn't tired. But...was my sudden desire to back away from this part of the Sloth flight's influence on me?

I forced myself to examine my thought processes. I knew what the shackle was. I needed to let go of that fear to break it. If I let go of the fear I'd be fullfill-wait. No. Letting go of the fear didn't mean letting go of my connections. That was a false equivalency. This whole experience was about facing down and accepting things without throwing them away. The ability to feel hate, and greed, and, sloth, and not be ruled by them.

Couldn't I do the same thing with my fear? This wasn't the same thing as the fear of loneliness I'd had to overcome in the forest. This was about what I was scared I'd become if I let go of my friends and loved ones. Even in the forest, the conclusion I'd come to was that if they went away, the effect they had on me would remain. I'd still be the same person.

And that had led me to my mind shackle, that I needed to be myself. That I needed to do what I did for me as well as for them. Now I needed to come to terms with my fear of losing those ties they left behind, but I didn't need to actually lose them. Not all my realizations had to come with some big sweeping change, wasn't that what being myself meant. Accepting who and what I was?

I was afraid of becoming a monster. I was afraid of leaving behind the bonds that kept me grounded. And that...was fine. I was me, and I decided what was important to me. That fear was a part of me but it didn't control me. I focused on it as I stepped forward again. On my dread, and I let the Sloth really smash it down on me. The thoughts about giving up, about how it was too much, wouldn't go away.

But I didn't want them to. I was going to overcome my fear the same way I'd overcome all the other emotions. I would get past it without actually severing those bonds. So I experienced it full blast. I lived in it. I felt the terror in every single cell of my body. It made me sick, and terrified, and I was shaking, but I pushed through.

I imagined losing Callie. Not the way I had in the forest, but losing what she'd made me. The one thing I'd clung to to get through that dark wood. Then the others, losing every single bit of change, not even being what I was before I got my powers, because I wouldn't have had Benny. It made me ill, I didn't want to think about it. But I did anyway. I forced myself to relive those sensations.

They mixed with the Sloth, they made it worse, but I couldn't stop, couldn't give up. I knew the desire to give in and turn back wasn't really me, and somehow that made it easier to ignore. I wasn't weak, the stair was trying to push me down, but I wouldn't let it.

Finally, my foot hit the platform, and there was a shattering sensation rocking my body as my soul sublimated again, the energy already at its limits carrying me from yellow into green. I felt...reborn. Spiritually. Physically I felt like shit, mostly because I was now completely present in this place. This was me, the real me, with all my stuff and all my flaws. A me that had officially reached green. Turning back, I glanced down at the stairs to wait for Callie. Once she arrived, we'd take a beat to rest, and then head off after Billy. There was no time to lose.
 
chapter 507
Breaking my second shackle was...odd. I felt strange. Like there had been a lot of little gaps in me that were gone now. The sublimation that elevated my soul to green had further refined it, made it seamless, stronger. Of course, I still had one more in store, eventually. The condensation of my Azure Soul Body. That was a ways away though. I had to completely refine my soul through green first.

Callie had slowed down, but as I watched, something about her changed. She stepped onto the platform and her posture shifted, altering the impression she gave. I felt through the bond when she changed as I had. Her soul was still her, of course, but it was...MORE her. Somehow. She grinned and raced over to throw herself into my arms, clinging to me as we both nearly collapsed against each other for support.

Billy was gone. I knew where, at least, whichever temple the bronze key opened. For the moment though, we were all but useless, and he'd gotten here ahead of us. We needed to rest. We spent about twenty minutes on the platform, both of us absorbing the energy since there was no one close enough to ambush us. This was the last one, so we wanted to get as much out of it as possible.

"So." I said as we sat and gathered ourselves. "What was your heart shackle, if you don't mind me asking. I felt you break it but I didn't get the whole picture."

"You." She said bluntly. "The further we go, the more we see, the more I worry I won't be able to keep up. You've shown me all these amazing things, and I love being with you, but I'm scared you'll leave me behind, and I've been constantly fighting with that."

I nodded. "I've felt some of that. Through the bond I mean. And YOU'VE felt how stupid it is to even think it right?"
Her smile lit up the whole platform. "I have. It didn't help. The idea that you would leave me behind, that I needed to keep up. That was the shackle. Because...you won't. I know you. I can feel what you feel most of the time. You love me and you won't leave. It took a lot to break that. It helps that I have my own thing that makes me special now, granted. Being a godslayer will probably help me keep up."

"Not to mention this whole experience." I pointed out. "We're at green now. Even if we don't manage to get to the Azure Soul Body we're still at the same level as some of the most powerful juniors across the factions. We're going to be on track to really hit the scene with a bang when we get to some of the more central galaxies."

She nodded. "That too. All in all, it was a lot of little stuff that let me break it. It's hard to put it into words, which I'm sure you get having experienced it."

I lapsed into silence. She was right, words fell short, and we knew each other well enough not to need them. I took her hand in mine and we just sat, recovering, relaxing, being together. Eventually though, we reached our limits and we both god a good ten percent of the way into green.

Standing, I turned in the opposite directions of the stair, finally ready to take in the temples. I'd purposefully help back, forcing myself to be careful about looking lest I get excited and want to cut our recovery short. It had been a good idea, because they were all fucking amazing. Past the steps was a sea of clouds, thick and white and almost solid looking. Actually, they WERE solid, because as looked closer I could see the buildings sitting ON the clouds.

The temples were far apart mostly. Evenly spaced in a circle around a central point. The only exception were three unusually large buildings, built in a triangle around some kind of central courtyard I couldn't see. I felt a pull from the golden key I was holding, leading me towards the most ostentatious temple.

"Ok, so he got the bronze key, I'm guessing he was trying to get to whatever is in that courtyard." I said as Callie and I cautiously stepped onto the clouds. I had a hand on her arm, ready to step off the air if necessary, but the clouds only gave a bit under our weight, more like a bouncy floor than any sort of dangerous drop.

"If that's true we'll need to split up and enter from either temple." She said with a nod. "Aside from the keys being made like that, it'll give us the best chance to catch him."

Approaching the trio of buildings, we stopped a small distance away, where we would need to separate. I pulled my mask off, leaning down to kiss her softly. "Be safe, ok? If you get there first don't attack without me. And I'll do the same. Whatever he's doing PROBABLY isn't good, but chances are whatever it is won't be enough to cause problems with all the guardians outside. The whole system is full of A and B-rankers."

She giggled. "Are you reminding me or yourself. You look terrified." Her own voice was a little rough, and I felt her unease through the bond but chose to say nothing. She gave me one more kiss, then turned and headed for the temple where I assumed her silver key would be inserted.

Left alone, I readied the gold key and headed for the door it was pulling me toward. I wasn't sure what would be IN the temple, but I admit I was looking forward to it. I already had plans for what I wanted, and while it might not be anything too crazy, I was sure it would help me going forward. I'd been planning what to do since Zeke had mentioned some of the options, after all.

Approaching the temple (subtemple? we were in a temple already so I wasn't sure), I took in the facade. White marble trimmed in gold. Not overdone, but still ostentatious. The door at the entrance was circular, and made of an overlapping mass of golden gears, all locked into place together to create an impassable barrier. in the center was one extra shiny gear with a small hole the exact shape of the key I was holding set in the middle.

Glancing around and half expecting some kind of monster or minion to jump out and attack me, I took the whole piece in with interest. This thing was immaculately built, gorgeously refined, and seemed to be balanced absolutely flawlessly. I kind of wished Benny was here to see it. Since he wasn't though, I withdrew the key from the pouch I'd stored it in after it formed and slipped it into the lock, giving it a light turn until it clicked.

The gear turned, and the ones beside it began to spin. One gear turned another turned another, and each one began to make a sound. A symphony of golden wheels spinning in synchronized, hypnotic harmony. As the gears spun away, they all shifted along each other, whirling up and around or down and back, stripping away the barrier in front of the entrance to the temple until the door became an archway, admitting me into a brightly lit temple.

Inside the archway I was surprised to find green grass instead of hard floors. A peaceful meadow extended the length of the room, and in the center sat a crystalline lake, smooth as glass. A series of stones led to the center, where a small island sat, a single tiny hut adorning the sugar sand, in front of which sat a rocking chair.

I stepped onto the grass, and even through my shoes I could feel the soft, luxurious give of the grass. It was heavenly. I could even smell a mixture of flowers and cool refreshing water (somehow, even though water doesn't really smell like a thing, I could smell it) carried on the breeze that there shouldn't have even been inside a building. All in all, I gave it a nine out of ten for comfort.

That impression was somewhat dampened by the slam of gears crashing together as I turned to see the door resealing itself, but I got over that quick. Shrugging, I turned back to the lake, heading across the meadow. Along the way I saw cute little animals like rabbits and birds flitting about, they looked adorable and I wanted to pet them, but they were all shockingly E-ranked, and I didn't have a death wish.

When I reached the lake I took a step out onto the first stone, and I immediately felt a weight slam down on me. I wobbled but got my footing, looking around for some kind of trap. It wasn't one though, not that they would need one with the super animals hopping around. The little singing bluebird I'd just seen flutter by could probably kill every person in the damned temple.

After it became clear this wasn't a trap, I realized it had to be a test. That was fine, I'd already absorbed plenty of energy when I topped up earlier, I had soul refinement to spare. Unlike the stairs though, this wasn't an emotion or a sensation. This was just...weight. Pure soul weight.

Grimacing, I steadied myself, took a deep breath, and hopped to the next rock. I grunted as I landed, this felt like trying to jump wearing a car strapped to my back. The previously idyllic and scenic rock path had transformed into an agonizing obstacle. I tried to feel for my bond with Callie, but I got nothing. I was isolated. Having gotten close I could see a figure in the rocking chair that hadn't been there before. Specifically, MY figure.

Of course it would be me. I shook off the surprise. This whole place was designed to keep you off balance. On the upside I could make some progress in green with the leftover soul refinement energy from the platform, and work on my willpower too. It was a win win. Unless I fell into the water. I wasn't sure what the hell would happen, but somehow I didn't think it was going to be idyllic or scenic in the least.

I jumped again. And again. It was...hard. But it wasn't difficult. Without the emotional turmoil it was almost fun, like a tough workout. One step at a time, one hop, then the next. I was dripping sweat by the time I was halfway, but I felt more complete at the same time.

My soul had been upgraded, sublimated, but there was still some dissonance between my new abilities and my usage of my soul. The soul could alter skills, could adjust them, but the actual act of alteration required control. With all the power I'd gotten my soul was overpowered. I was wasting effort when I did things, shoving power into actions to make them work. This pressure was helping me refine that control, gain precision.

Now I knew why this was here. It wasn't a test. It was a reward. A helping hand along the path for anyone who was willing to take it, provided they got to the temple. I wondered if the silver and bronze subtemples had them. Maybe Callie was on one right now.

With that in mind, the rest of it was, while exhausting, mentally much easier. This was something I WANTED to do, not something I was forced to do. When I finally arrived I collapsed to the sand, panting and wheezing with effort. It took me a few minutes to recover, mostly thanks to the energy from the platform. Finally, I was done and I stood up, climbing to my feet and striding forward to stand in front of myself. "Ok asshole." I told me. "I have some questions."
 
chapter 508
"Hello me." Said the me in the chair. "It's so nice to see you again. You could be a bit more polite you know. Our mama didn't raise us to be rude." He paused. "Although, I guess she didn't raise us at all, so maybe bad manners were inevitable." He grinned at me, face unadorned with the mask I wore constantly.

I sighed. This was the version of me from the end of the maze. The one I'd spoken to before breaking my mind shackle. "How are you here?" I asked in annoyance. "The maze was before we became real. Now we are and this isn't an illusion anymore. That's why the whole second ability thing is even possible. You don't exist, so how is it possible for you to be in a real place?"

"Real-ish." He said, waggling his hand. "We're still not fully in the physical world. Sort of an in between. Like that big squirrel you met was a real being interfacing with this place, just like you are. Well not JUST like you are, he's been here much longer."

I blinked. "Interfacing from WHERE, exactly?" I said hesitantly. "What IS this place? What is the stove? What's the point of all this."

He rolled his eyes. "It's a trial, moron. What do you think it's for. It's to pick candidates." At my shocked look he huffed out a laugh. "Not candidates like you. This place far predates the Wishmaster. THIS is the stove." He said gesturing around us. "The Soul Simmering Stove. The last of a hundred such locations where people came from all over the Aetherbright Empire to compete to enter the Royal Academy."

"Ok..." I said suspiciously. "And I feel like if it was this easy to figure that out someone would know it by now. So why the hell are you telling me this?"

"Because the stove is in danger." He said grimly. "That bottle the Bloodspawn brought in here can damage it. He's hoping to use it to trigger the matriculation function of the trial. One of the reasons for the transfer of consciousness to reality is a partial step to mass transport. If he triggers the matriculation you'll all be sent to the Academy directly. That isn't supposed to happen, but the Liquid Lamentation will corrupt the stove and force the transfer."

That explained Billy's plan. I was still confused though. If the temple could transport people to the Empire, why did the Imperials take part. Why didn't the other factions know about it? "Why is he trying to teleport us all to the Empire? What does that have to with the Blood Murder Palace?"

The other me sighed. "Not THE Empire. I told you most of these are gone. The Soul Simmering Stove is a relic from a time before the current factions. The Aetherbright Empire has fallen, the capital and the rest of the cities have fallen, they're all lost. But the Royal Academy is still accessible. There are things there that shouldn't fall into mortal hands. Especially not murderous hands like those."

"So don't let him through." I said in exasperation. "You've got me here and you're talking to me. You clearly have some sort of influence. Also what even are you?"

He shrugged. "You could call me a fragment of the stove's consciousness. Or yours. Or both. The point is that I'm talking to you because I CAN'T stop him. The purpose of the stove is to test. He passed, which means he's eligible to move on. Most people who come here have no idea the stove exists, so they never continue to the final room. If they DO know however, they're free to enter."

"So you need me to take care of him. Stop him from dumping that stuff into the stove?" I looked around worriedly. "What if he's already there? What if Callie is? I have to get going!"

He waved me down. "There are final tests and opportunities in each temple. Yours was the most straightforward, seeing as this is the prime temple. The other two will take some time. Enough for me to offer you your reward. You'll need to be as strong as possible to beat him. If you force his hand he might use that...abominable substance."

I'd been so sucked in by all this craziness that I'd almost forgotten the reward. "Ah, right. So...I have options I take it?"
"A few." He said with a nod. "The trials were meant to prepare students of the Academy for acceptance. The victors were given powerful gifts to help them excel in their studies. Weapons, medicines, armor. These are all available to you as the champion of the trial."

"I heard I can get a second ability?" I asked eagerly. Aiden, the current Wishmaster, had crushed my dad and taken the WCP by storm with his second ability. My sister had one as well, and it was so powerful it had split my family in two. My mother had one, and she was the strongest A-ranker in service to one of the popes of the Red Revenant Church. A second ability meant an unassailable advantage.

"The Dual Soul Talent." Said the other me. "That is one of the options. I see you have a Solid Path already. A Dual Soul Talent would indeed prepare you for the next step in advance. In order to prepare to advance to B-rank you need your Path fully attuned to your soul. Under normal circumstances that would require you to relinquish your Wish ability and synergize it with you Doom Sovereign Path."

That was the next step? But he said prepare to break through to B-rank, not actually do it. It seemed like this was just a half step. It was fine though, he was right. If I did that I'd lose my Wish ability, it would become something new and I'd have my candidacy stripped. "But if I get a second ability I can have both unaltered right? That's what I want!"

He nodded. "I understand. But in order to remold your soul to accommodate a second ability you've got to reshape it during sublimation. Not a partial sublimation either. You've broken both shackles, so you're close, but I'll need to forcibly push your soul refinement to the level of the Azure Soul Body to receive your final sublimation. The process will be agonizing, indescribably painful. There are some who go insane from the pain. Death may be a preferable alternative."

I'd been in pain before. Horrible pain, but I knew that pain of the soul was something different. Every soul related pain I'd felt was exponentially worse than their physical counterparts. The soul wasn't restrained by things like nerves and neurons. It wasn't physical. Pain could far surpass the limits the brain could endure and keep going, and there was no passing out to escape it.

Swallowing hard, I tried to focus on something other than the literal soulshattering agony I was about to go through. "How does the Azure Soul Body work anyway? Someone told me that you need to be in here to reach it? Does that mean the rest of my friends are going to be stuck at the peak of green when they get there, even after breaking both shackles?"

Obviously knowing what I was doing, the other me shook his head. "No. A heritage is required to prepare for the final sublimation, but you don't need to be inside to achieve it. The biggest requirement is spirit cleansing. You've all been absorbing Sanctified Soul Matter since you got here. It was considered something of a hidden benefit for attempting the trials."

The trials weren't an everyday thing, so I supposed it was possible no one had noticed, but I figured it was more likely the few people who had broken both shackles here just hadn't mentioned it to anyone. Knowledge was power after all. Still, it was nice to know that everyone would be able to reach that point.

"Of course." Continued the other me. "Sanctified Soul Matter is a bit more...forceful than completing the transition here in a semi spiritual state. It's part of how I'm going to rush you through. I'm going to pour more inside until you approach the peak of green and then combust it. It'll purify and sublimate your soul, and I'll reforge it while it's in a malleable state. The others won't go through quite as much pain, since the Matter will combust on its own when they reach the peak, but it WILL be painful all the same."

I glared at other me. "And how exactly was telling me that fucking helpful, you unbearable sadist?"

He shrugged. "You needed to know so you weren't blindsided. Plus, this way you know you won't suffer alone?" He cocked his head at that, as if curious, and when I didn't respond he shrugged. "Oh well, this was already much closer to human than I can usually pull off. I was bound to lose it at some point. Now take off that mask or this wont work."

I did, and he turned, walking into the hut, and came out with a basin. "Alright, anything else to ask before I do this? Once your reward has been granted I'll be gone. You'll have to exit either the way you came, or into the central manifestation chamber of the stove, the door on the other side of the hut." I opened my mouth to respond, and he grabbed my head and shoved it down into the basin of bright golden liquid. The last thing I heard from him was. "That was rhetorical."

When my face hit the liquid I expected it to be hot. It wasn't, just sort of warm and pleasant, at least against my face. When I inhaled, it poured into my nose, eyes and ears. I started to struggle, but the other me held me down, and as the Sanctified Soul Matter made its way into my body, I felt it ignite.

Explosion. Combustion. Cataclysm. Every single one of these terms implied some sort of earthshattering blast, and every one of them fell short of the sensation. It was like a billion stars going supernova, and every single one of them was a part of me. I was burned, battered, shattered, crushed, put back together and melted down. Every single sensation was pain, indescribable pain.

And it kept getting BIGGER. More agony, more suffering, more than I could imagine or conceive or withstand. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go crazy just to get away from it, but I couldn't even do that. It was never ending, all encompassing, it was the beginning and the end of my existence, all I'd ever been or ever would be.

Memories, truths, secrets, everything about me was scoured clean, ripped away and burned to ash. And then it got WORSE. After the scouring was a second blast, another sensation stacked on top and I couldn't think or experience anything but pain pain pain. Something reached into me and started to twist, tear, warp everything that I was, everything that was left in the torment was being changed.

Then the stars started to go out. One by one they extinguished, and I realized each one had been pain. A billion unbearable agonies stacked on top of each other, and it was completely outside of my ability to even go mad from the pain. As they went out, I regained my senses, regained my mind and hopes and dreams and senses.

I realized that nothing was holding my head anymore, that the basing was empty, and I stumbled back, toppling into the sand, screaming still as I tried to remember what it felt like not to hurt.

Finally it faded away, and I was alone, lying on the beach, gasping and panting as I stared unseeingly up into the ceiling of the room, which I now realized had become a tapestry of black dotted with lights. Night. Reaching down into myself, I touched my now Azure soul. It stung to the touch, but when I did, I could feel it. In the same place where my Wish usually resided. My Path of the Doom Sovereign. And despite the pain, despite the urgency, despite everything...I started to laugh.
 
Tbh the Azure Soul Transformation felt a bit underwhelming, I was expecting it to be a bit longer
 
chapter 509
Obviously the first thing I did when I woke up was to check on my abilities. I wanted to see what it looked like having two of them, hell, I wanted to see what it FELT like. I closed my eyes, reaching into myself and willing those purple flames to fill my vision.

Wishmaster candidate status. F-rank. Ability: Intermediate Wish- Six times a day grant an Intermediate wish in return for proper compensation. Wish must be feasibly achievable by the candidate's own efforts within a three day period with current statistics.
Second Ability: Intermediate Path of the Doom Sovereign- A Solid Path toward a great destiny.


Might-975
Impact-35
Fantasy-500
Vitality-720
Focus-720
Perception-704
Creation-554
Progress to next rank:4208/10000
Soul strength- Azure Soul Body


Stored:7 shadow attacks, 7 shadow jump, 10 Stealth charges, 0 fire attacks, 10 triple strenth tranq blows (ten in reserve), 0 triple strength density shifted attacks (nine in reserve). 10 spider leg attacks (ten in reserve), 0 heal bursts, 3 gravity attacks, 2 shadow clone, 21 scan heals (I-rank ability so Shane can hold more)

Pet- Wolf named Jin

Skills:Intermediate Path of the Doom Sovereign, Minor Valtek Mastery, Lesser Cooking Mastery, Lesser Inventing Mastery, Beginner Balam Mastery, Minor Piano Mastery, Minor Guitar Mastery, Minor First Aid Mastery,Beginner Paired Dueling

DS Subskills. Monk: Stone Limb, Moonlit Night, Consecration of Flame, Ripple Running, State of Grace, Steam Arrow, Afterburner, Pit of Despair, Mountain Stance.

Rogue: Mercy Kill, Double Trouble, Touch of Tears, Flurry of Blows, Heavy hands, Marked for Death
Diviner: Overlay, Song of the Soil, Rythym of the Wild, Eye of Revelation, Danger Sense


Goetia Staff Art: First form- Belial. Touch of Tears, Stone Limb, Consecration of Flames
Second Form- Mephistopheles. Consecration of Flame, Afterburner, Mercy Kill, Marked for Death.


I felt...the same. Or maybe not? The Path of the Doom Sovereign felt more like a part of me now. Like every movement was more attuned to the steps I needed to take, but it also wasn't. I also felt a sense of rejection, like I was doing something wrong. Nothing severe enough to make me worry about my abilities, but just a sense of wrongness. I also didn't feel the need to use my overlay anymore. I still could, but I felt like my fate sense and my Fatewalker Path were more in tune.

The whole thing was deeply confusing and more than a little irritating, but I shoved it all away as I stood up to stretch and move, seeing how my body responded. No issues. I felt like my DS Mastery would be more flexible and easier to alter at least. That would make creating my future staff forms easier. Maybe I could even teach them to someone. Like Callie. At that thought my brain slammed to a halt.

I leapt to my feet, searching for any sign of the other me, but as he'd said, he was gone. Shaking my head to clear it, I bolted for the hut, slamming the door open and blurring through the small wooden room to the archway on the other side. I threw myself through it, golden light washing over me, and when the light cleared, I found myself standing in a large marble room.

At the center of the room was a roaring golden brazier flickering with equally golden fire. It reminded me somewhat of the one out at the external temple, but it seemed...smaller. Less important at least.

When I entered, I spotted Callie already there. She was standing opposite Billy, holes in her coat and burns on her arms and legs. The shadows of her costume were only partly obscuring her, and she was holding up one arm with a dagger in her hand, the rest of her riddled with damage and burns. They stood a few feet away from a bag lying on the ground, it looked like it belonged to Billy, but Callie was obviously trying to keep him away from it.

I felt our bond snap back into place and breathed a sigh of relief as I confirmed she was ok, and mostly winning. Billy had drawn a wicked looking knife and carved up his arms, blood was spitting and hissing all over the place. I slowly rounded the circular room, making sure not to make a sound as I signalled Callie not to look at me. I was tapping the bond to use her Stealth Skill, so it wasn't a tough message to get across.

Callie understood my plan, and started to draw his attention. "Hey asshole, you done already?" She taunted, flicking her hand and sending a barrage of shadow blades toward him. They speared him through, but began to break down from his acidic blood.

He cackled. "Don't be stupid. I've got plenty more blood, plus I have to drain all of yours. We're not even close to done." He started waving his arms in a frantic cascade of flailing limbs, flicking blood all over. Callie cursed and started to weave back and forth, doing her best not to get hit by any more, but I saw drops land on her, corroding her skin, clothes, and the darkness around her. I wanted so bad to help, but I stuck to the plan. Ending this was the best way to help her.

Exhaling, I triggered Mephistopheles as I drew my staff. Single target damage was the name of the game, and Mephistopheles was perfect for assassination. Lining up a strike, I wound up with my whole body like a cobra as Callie attacked to distract him.

I expected him to dodge at the last second, to conveniently notice the attack or somehow evade. I expected pretty much everything except for my staff hitting his back dead center and BLOWING a huge fucking hole in his torso, sending him pitching forward, barely catching himself on his hands and knees.

Grimacing, I slowly circled around him, keeping an eye out for traps. He grasped, choking up dark blood as he tried to get to his feet. "Well." I said blandly. "That was...easier than expected. Good work honey, guess you softened him up."

Callie grinned at me. "Well, that fight was closer than I liked. He had me on the ropes before you got here." She frowned. "Actually, I'm surprised he didn't notice you sneaking up on him. I'd have expected him to..." She froze, her eyes snapping to where I'd heard Billy trying to get up repeatedly. And failing. Except he wasn't failing. He was using his blood to slide towards the bag.

He grinned a triumphant, blood grin, managing to snag the bag and and pull out the bottle. I flicked out my staff to deflect it, expecting him to throw it into the brazier, but instead he tossed it back like a shot, his body going taught as he started to scream, blackness running through his veins and climbing across his body.

My eyes widened in panic as I slammed my staff down hard on the ground between him and Callie as he went from lying down to a blur of motion nearly instantly. The explosion of black flame tore at his face before dissolving into the air as it met black creeping darkness and went up in a hiss of evil looking steam. I grabbed Callie and stepped on air, dragging her away before he was able to right himself.

Letting out a wheezing, raspy chuckle, Billy grinned at us from where he stood as his chest began to knit itself back together. His eyes were filled with blood, seas of blackish red as he giggled madly. "I have to admit." He said gleefully. "This feels better than I ever expected. They told me to avoid this little ploy unless I had no other choice. Told me it would consume me body and soul."

"It looks like they were right." I said warily. "I thought you needed that bottle to complete your little plan. Won't you be in trouble with whoever you work for? How will you trigger the transportation protocol now?"

He flicked a wrist, and another rain of droplets flicked out at us. Having seen what that stuff had been doing to him, I grabbed Callie and shoved off the air again, shoving us clear before the blood hit the ground. Instead of steaming or hissing, the blood just...consumed. It ate a hole clear through the marble on impact, a section of stone in the shape of the drops vanishing, leaving behind a series of deep droplet sized holes.

"You think I can't spring the trap because I don't have the Lamentation Liquid?" He laughed. "I AM the Lamentation Liquid now. It's burning me up, using my poisoned blood for fuel. All hail Bloody Billy! Lord of Lamentation!" He squealed with childlike glee and spun in a circle, blood flying all over the place as we tried desperately to avoid it. A drop hit me and ate right through my armor chewing clear through my flesh and bone and leaving a hole in my arm.

"Shane!" Yelped Callie as she dragged me away from him. We hid behind the brazier, watching him. Her eyes flashed with rage and violence as she started to pull on the shadows, but I held her back. Sensing my question, she relaxed slightly. "But you need to think this through Billy." She called to him. "If you die who will complete your mission. You've got to be heading for the Royal Academy for a reason. Who will accomplish you goal once you're gone. You're the only one who can do it."

Her voice was cajoling, trying to lure him into a false sense of security, but it didn't seem to work. He leapt at us, clearing the flames and landing precariously on the gilt edge of the brazier. He balanced on his toes, grinning down at us both as he leaned forward. "The only one?" He cocked his head in confusion. "Who exactly told you I was the only one? You think they sent me alone?"

My blood froze. Billy wasn't in charge here. We'd known that academically, but he was the one who was making all the noise. We'd assumed, I'd assumed, that he was some fringe lunatic acting on his own. I hadn't even considered that he might be acting on orders, and when he'd mentioned it I hadn't considered what it might mean. There were others here, hiding, waiting.

I reached up frantically to grab for him, realizing too late what he was doing. "Billy! No! Tell us who they are. Please. You have to tell us! Who are you working with?"

He jerked back, overbalancing on the edge of the brazier and tipping backwards, cackling madly. "Wait and see!" He crowed. "You won't know them until they get you! That's half the fun!" As the screamed the last, his whole body was swallowed by the flame, consumed in an instant. The flame began to gutter, to snap and pop and spark. In the middle of it I saw creeping darkness begin to boil out, contaminating the golden fire, filling the brazier slowly.

Within a minute, the black energy had dyed the flame and was seeping out into the brazier itself, dying the gold a fathomless midnight black. As I watched, the thing began to turn, the floor beneath it lighting up with now visible symbols as it rotated, clicking into place as the fire inside erupted into a dark column, burning through the ceiling as it expanded into a massive pillar of flame.

I dove for Callie, grabbing hold of her, locking my staff behind her back to hold her in place as I pulled her close. The pillar had begin to waver, flickering and jumping, and I could sense something coming. My Danger Sense was screaming, had been screaming since I came into the room. With one last wail inside my head the pillar began to expand, exploding outward. The black flame consumed Callie and I and I pulled her against me, determined not to get separated by the space shifting flame. Then everything disappeared in darkness.
 
chapter 510
My head was pounding as I woke up. That was a pretty common thing for me when waking from unconsciousness, but this time it felt different. Or rather, it felt normal. I reached for my ability and for the first time since I entered the trials I felt my wish power respond. Six wishes. Apparently I'd been unconscious for longer than expected, at least depending on how fast time passed while I was in the trials, but whatever the case, I had my wishes back.

Which was going to make this situation easier, but also not. I needed Callie to make the wishes, but we could find our group and then...what? We couldn't trust anyone. The Blood Murder Palace was here. They'd come for something and I couldn't imagine we'd be in a good spot when they found it.

Pushing down the panic I looked around. Finding Callie nearby I headed over to shake her awake. "Cal." I whispered, shaking her. "Come on. Wake up." I glanced around. All I could see around us was...trees. Familiar trees. Not individually, but the type of tree seemed similar to something I'd seemed before.

Then it clicked. The fortress trial. The trees here were the same as the ones back there. Figuring I could keep an eye on Callie from above, I made sure she was comfortable and mostly uninjured (thank you scan heal) at least aside from minor burns from her fight with Billy, and then made my way over to a nearby tree and started to climb.
State of Grace helped me make the trip up easily, and when I got to the top I started looking around, hoping to identify any landmarks.

I saw nothing. At least nothing specific. The fortresses weren't in sight, nor was the mountain Abel and I wrecked, but still, looking out over the forest, the layout was the same. I remembered Biscuit the squirrel and how realistic he'd been. Maybe he was a real creature accessing the trial from the other side. I tried my Eye of Revelation to locate him, but he must have been too far away if he was here.

The one thing I DID manage to spot hadn't been in the trial. A massive white stone building towering into the sky, backlit by the startling blue sky. The Royal Academy, I was sure. I didn't see anything else nearby, but with how absurd Ascendant construction could get, maybe the Academy was inside some kind of pocket dimension.

Stepping off the branch, I floated down to the ground, glancing worriedly around to try to see anyone who might be nearby. I checked on Callie again. Her wounds weren't too threatening, but apparently they were stress enough to monopolize her Vitality. I cursed myself for running out of heal bursts, we needed to find Jessie soon.

We needed to find ANYONE we knew. Who knew where the other Blood Murder Palace initiates were hiding, or what the hell they had planned. I doubted Billy killed himself so the BMP crowd could retrieve Hatescream's 'world's greatest butcher' coffee mug. If they went through all this trouble, there was a reason. A bad reason if I had to guess. More importantly, they were dangerous unknown people mixed in among my allies.

Any of my friends could be in danger right now, and have no idea. I glanced worriedly down at Callie, reaching to shake her again, when she finally started to stir. "Owwww." She groaned, sitting up slowly and clutching her head. I helped her sit up.

"Are you ok?" I asked worriedly. "You're not too badly injured, but you scared the piss out of me passing out like that. What happened?"

She groaned again. "Soul strain." She grimaced. "My reward was a Skill upgrade. Shadow Manipulation Mastery to Intermediate. I thought it would help prepare me for dealing with Billy, but the upgrade pushed my soul hard. Cranked me up to fifty percent of green and left me a little fragile. Trying to USE that Skill during the fight, at least as much as I had, was a bit much."

So she hadn't been pushed to an Azure Soul Body. Apparently that sublimation had fixed up some damage too. Good to know. I sighed, pulling her against me. "Fair enough, take it easy for a bit. No need to get too excited about all this. We can figure things out in a minute, but right now, your recovery is the most important thing."

Chuckling, she snuggled into my embrace. "I'm in enough pain that I'm going to let myself believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary. But once my head is on straight we'll need to figure out a plan."

We sat there for a while, letting our mental states recover. I was still somewhat reeling from the pain earlier, so it was a good idea for me to let myself recover a bit too. Finally though, after about an hour, Callie bestirred herself with a sigh. "That's about all we can afford for now. Tell me what's going on."

I recounted my experience on the treetop and told her my suspicions about the place, and she seemed almost excited. "Biscuit is here? Maybe we can find him!" She was practically bouncing with excitement and I had to stifle a laugh at her glee. Good to see she wasn't too caught up in the details. It was a good attitude to have. Still, we had other priorities.

"We'll get to that." I said with a worried frown. "But we need to find the others first. We can use wishes to track them down probably, though I can't give you any suggestions on method. Once we're together we can find Biscuit and worry about what to do about the Blood Murder Palace assholes. We need to stop them from doing whatever they're here to do. I'm positive it's not a good thing, whatever it is."

"Probably not." She sighed. "You're right, we need to find the others. Who first though?"

I glanced at her wounds. "Jessie." I said firmly. "With any luck she'll be with Benny and we can kill two birds with one stone. Plus the others have more combat potential and are less likely to get ambushed. Plus giant bear in the woods seems pretty useful."

She nodded. "Right." Holding out a hand, she said clearly. "I wish that I had a compass that could lead us to Jessie. I'll pay with..." She flicked her hand and a bag of chits appeared. "Five H-ranked chits."

Wish detected. Grant wish?

I confirmed, and was relieved when the wish went through, giving me the necessary stats, thankfully well within my reach. I felt the familiar buzz of static across my skin as the wish built, and it shocked me how big a relief it was. Spending so long in the trial had really made me appreciate how useful my ability was. It was such a relief to have solutions to problems again.

The time inside had also been a gift though. Proof that I could handle myself without wishes, and not only that, confirmation that I could become strong in my own way. I'd gotten a second ability, albeit one with incredibly vague wording in terms of explanation. I'd already accomplished something my dad never had, making myself powerful enough to move on without losing my qualifications to become the Wishmaster. No wonder Aiden had won the contest last time.

Finally the purple electricity burst out from me, condensing into a spot of dense electricity, resolving into a small bronze compass with a needle that didn't point north. Callie grinned happily, snagging five chits and tossing them to me lightly. With my Might and Perception I picked them all out of the air one by one with ease, dropping them into my ring.

Offering her my arm, I chuckled. "Shall we?" She grinned and grabbed my arm and we set off in the direction the compass pointed.

And then my Danger Sense went haywire. I grabbed her, hurling both of us aside as a throat tearing roar rattled the leaves from the trees. A massive scaled paw slammed down on the dirt where we'd bin, and I followed it up to a...thing. An ugly thing. It was fifteen feet tall, and looked like a humanoid wolf almost. Rather than fur, it was covered in sickly green scales. Its arms were long and distended, the knuckles of its razor taloned hands dragging the ground as it stalked, and its head had a rack of long, sharp dark antlers, from which I could see a noxious green liquid dripping.

"What the fuck is THAT?" I said in appalled voice. I'd seen weird shit before, but most of it followed some kind of logic. The mantis centaurs had been fucking gross, but not as disgusting as this thing"

Callie was backing away, dragging me with her. "How the fuck should I know! Whatever it is though, it's definitely not friendly! Run!" She bolted in the opposite direction, and I trailed after her, we barely avoided the monster as at lashed out with its too long arms, its claws raking the trees.

Judging by the burning gouges in the wood and the blackening of the bark around the damaged areas, those antlers weren't the only part of the monster that was venomous. I glanced back at it, triggering Pit of Despair as we ran, and the forest floor vanished under it as it dropped into the hole. Sadly, the hole was ten feet deep, which meant its antlered head was still above the ground and then some.

I let the skill drop, the ground resolidifying, and it roared in rage, its head whipping around as it chomped and gnashed its teeth. Not that we stayed to watch, because fuck that noise. We booked it around the long way, following the compass and taking off towards Jessie, leaving behind the roaring of the creature as we did.

"That was fucking terrifying." I panted breathlessly as we ran. "I hope we never have to see one of those things again."
"Yeah." Said Callie uneasily. "It's just..." She trailed off, looking around anxiously. I could feel her fear through the bond as we fled, and I wasn't sure what she had to be so afraid of.

I glanced at her in concern. "What? What is it? That thing is going to take a minute to get free, and we'll be well out of tracking range hopefully. I'm sure it'll run into something else to distract it before it catches our trail." I paused. "Though we should definitely use stealth once we're a bit further away. Really ensure our escape. Is that what you were thinking?"

She shook her head." No. It's not that. It's just...that thing's head shape, the way it carried itself. It kind of reminded me of a wolf."

I chuckled. "Ah, yeah I saw that too. It was definitely a weird looking bastard that's for sure. But why focus on that one aspect? Whatever that thing was, it had a little bit of everything in there. Why does the fact that it looked like it was part wolf matter."

There was another twinge in my Danger Sense, and this time Callie felt it through the bond and yanked me aside as the claws lashed through where I'd been standing. I heard another monstrous howl, and then from the other side of the clearing a third, and then a fourth, and I paled as I realized what Callie had been saying.

"Because." My girlfriend said grimly as she drew a pair of dark daggers and took up a fighting stance. "Wolves hunt in packs." From the darkness, half a dozen looming green scaled forms resolved themselves, envenomed horns scraping the boughs and branches of trees as the emerged surprisingly quietly from the shadows. I reached back to draw my staff with a grimace. I was really starting to fucking hate the woods.
 
So Callie now sounds like my pawn from Dragon's Dogma in my head forever after this chapter. Wolves hunt in packs Arisen
 
chapter 511
"Alright." I said as the...things, began to encircle us. "Just a bit closer. You ready?" Callie and I were more than in sync, with the bond in place we were basically sharing a brain. She knew what kind of tactics I used, even without knowing my stances perfectly. She nodded silently, a smile on her face. The wolf lizard stag things drew closer and closer until they finally got within range.

I didn't need to announce it was time. Callie felt my surge of adrenaline and immediately dropped into the shadows even as I triggered Moonlit Night. Belial came seconds later, and I stepped off the air as the monsters all lunged at me,roaring their desire to rend me limb from limb.

Soaring over their heads, my staff licked out rapidly, guiding the heads with slight pressure on the antlers, steering them all to crash into each other. Belial's corruption infused their horns, but it didn't seem to do much sadly. They clashed in the center of the encirclement, going down in a tangle of limbs and horns and teeth as they ripped and bit at each other, desperate to kill something.

Callie appeared low beneath one slunk close to the ground, a dagger slashing up, leaving a tear in the air behind it as her Path of the Abyss split the very space it tore through. She was already gone when the beast tried to retaliate, ignoring its own organs spilling from its split abdomen.

Two of the ones on either side seemed to smell it and lunged, riding it to the ground and beginning to savage the monster, uncaring that it was one of their brethren. I circled the outside, lashing out at joints and gangly, misshapen limbs. I wasn't getting in the center of that clusterfuck, so Belial's guiding abilities were a bit diminished.

On the upside, it seemed almost easy to direct attacks that I COULD reach, my fate sense showing me the path now that my Fatewalker Path was part of me. I felt almost invincible, which of course was when things went horribly wrong.

I dipped back from one of the monsters after a quick jab to move its footing, and one of the others picked that moment to snap sideways and managed to dig its teeth into my leg. My leg which was currently made of corrosive evil magma, but still my leg, and I had to muffle a scream as it dug its teeth in.

Despite being made of molten rock, I could still feel, specifically, I could feel the fucking venom being injected into my body and somehow mixing with and empowering my own. Suddenly it felt like battery acid was running through my veins, and my leg started to fucking MELT. I screamed and bashed at the monster with my staff, shoving my staff into its jaws to try to lever them open, but I couldn't fucking get it off me.

My other leg collapsed, and I was left clawing at the ground trying to drag my body free of the monster's jaws. This was so stupid. It hadn't even known I was there. It was wild with pain and just lashing out at the air around it fruitlessly and got lucky. Black crept in around my vision I felt like I was about to pass out, and then, suddenly, a hand grabbed mine.

Callie's fingers closed around my hand and hauled, dragging me away from the monster. My leg was torn mostly open by teeth, but honestly I was glad, it let some of the enhanced venom spill out. The monster wasn't immune, its face was melting as it tried to dig in, gnashing its teeth in my fucking thigh and not finding purchase. With a sickening wrench Callie got me free, getting me clear of the fog as quick as she could.

"Oh gods." I rasped as I got out. "Oh gods the pain. I need to turn back so I can heal this." I started to dismiss the skill, but to my shock, Callie somehow blocked me from doing it through the bond.

She grabbed my face, her hands beginning to be corrupted, and looked me in the eyes. "No! Don't do that. Shane, listen to me, your leg is basically a pile of scrap right now. If you solidify it's going to be stuck like that, and you might lose it. Stay in your magma state, we'll bind the wound so the magma is back in there. It's just rock, it can mend. You can't make your leg flesh."

That was true. I hadn't been thinking clearly, but if I went solid I'd black out. I had no healing charges. I paused. I did have scan heals. I cast one. It did almost literally nothing healing wise, being an I-rank ability, but it DID give me an idea of what needed to be done.

"The magma is recovering. Wrap it and let it heal like that. Don't put anything back in. The venom supercharged the corrosion, anything you put in will melt. Hell, the regenerating magma will melt, but it'll also dilute the shit as it comes in. You need to go back in there and make sure they all die. I can't but if we ignore them the skill will end and we'll be fucked. We only have a few minutes of time on this one."

She grimaced, but did as I said, binding the wound quickly before turning to glare at me. "Fine. I'll go, but you don't move. Stay here and recover. I'll be right back." She stepped back, vanishing into the shadows.

I groaned, leaning back. This was agonizing. Not soul sublimation second ability agonizing, but pretty fucking brutal. I'd say maybe above the shield incident. It was nice to know my life experience gave me the ability to make an itemized list of the times I'd been in soulshattering agony. I was clearly doing something right. I rolled over a bit, dragging myself toward a tree so I could sit up and lean against it.

Despite being unable to stand, I wasn't out of the fight. I could still see through the fog and watch Callie's back from where I was. My Danger Sense could be shared through the bond tooI watched my girlfriend resolve from the shadows and lash out with her abyssally infused daggers, tearing a large gash open on the flank of one of the monsters. I spotted another moving for her, and she sensed my alarm, Danger Sense giving her an impression of where it would be coming from.

She rolled smoothly sideways, down onto a shoulder and then back up as one of the monsters somehow dove through her location. They were detecting her somehow, I wasn't sure how, but I needed to distract them. I triggered Pit of Despair in the center of the encirclement where there were several of the things tearing at each other. One dropped right in, and two slipped as the ground disintegrated, felling backwards onto it.

Envenomed horns drove into the chest of one beast, while another's claws opened the eye of the first one. The long linbs stuck out past the edge of the Pit, tagging and enraging the others. Combined with the stealth that was still partially working, Callie was able to slowly pick them off, until they were all dead and I was able to drop the fog bank. We stared at the multitude of grotesque forms in disgust.

"This was our worst date ever." Callie said bluntly. "Remind me never to agree to a romantic getaway in the forest in the future."

I groaned, dragging myself up the tree. "I'd rather take one of those bites to the eye socket than willingly enter a forest for any reason beyond great personal profit or potential catastrophic injury, so I think you're safe." I paused. "Should I be taking you on romantic getaways? We do a lot of traveling. That counts right?"

"Nothing where something tries to eat my face is romantic." She said sweetly. "So that majority of our trips don't count."
I was actually kind of offended by that. "What about the spider cave? That was romantic. You got all that loot and there was a pretty spider web."

"Nope." She said popping the P. "Not romantic. Scenic, but not romantic." She smiled fondly at me. "It's ok honey, you're just not a candy and flowers kind of guy. We do other things. Fun things. Not every girl wants a romantic boat rider under the starlight."

I narrowed my eyes at her. "That was an oddly specific example. Are you hinting at something? Because if you want to go on a boat ride we can do that. I bet we could find a lake nearby. Probably even one where nothing will try to eat your face. Which I'm against by the way. I like your face quite a bit. Wish I could have Zeke make you a mask to protect it, but given your reaction to what mine can do I assume that's off the table."

She grimaced. "Off the table, out of the dining room, it's not even allowed near the house. No people eating masks for me."
"Well I'll try to be more romantic. Find moments for us to have time together outside crises and combat." I said softly. "You deserve that." I went silent, and after a minute of not talking to me she gave me a suspicious glance. "Sorry, I'm trying to think of a segue that will make asking you to collect the corpses of the lizard wolf monsters so we can get back to looking for Jessie."

She pinched the bridge of her nose. "Why do I keep you around again?" Despite the words, I could feel her genuine fondness and adoration through the bond, as she could feel mine. Having an empathic connection with your significant other was a great life hack for avoiding misunderstandings. Even if it was also sometimes inconvenient when a pretty girl walked by.

Grumbling, she walked around the clearing, snagging the bodies and storing them in her ring. Magical creatures and monsters could be parted out and sold or used for crafting. I also wanted to try and get some of that venom for my Belial form. It had an interesting reaction to my corrosion, and I wanted to see if I could build a tolerance and maybe even integrate it into my ability.

It wasn't something I'd ever tried before, but if it worked it would be a huge boost to my destructive potential in that form. Once those were collected, Callie came over and offered me her shoulder, which I draped myself over and used as a crutch so I could walk. I was still in Belial form, but her coat was F-rank, and I was able to hold back enough to prevent the corrosion from leaching through it too quickly.

We had to stop a few times so she could purge it, but eventually we seemed to get on the trail of a group of people the compass led us toward, hopefully where Jessie was, and we got into a good rhythm trying to catch up. State of Grace was a huge help for our progress, otherwise I wasn't sure we could have caught them.

Eventually though we came upon a small clearing where someone had made camp, and as we approached we called out for our friends. There was a small pause before Benny and Jessie poked their heads out, followed surprisingly by Callen, and I breathed a long sigh of relief. "Oh thank the gods you're alright." I breathed happily.

Benny bolted forward to check on me as Randall emerged from the trees on the other side of the clearing, having confirmed we were the ones coming near. I stopped my best friend as he approached, and he looked me over worriedly. "Holy shit man, what the hell happened? Also where ARE we?" Right. They didn't know about the academy transport protocol. Guess I had some explaining to do. Oddly, I couldn't bring myself to mind too much.
 
chapter 512
t didn't take long to fill in the others, and once I was done catching them up we all sat in silence as they digested everything. Benny was the first to say anything. "Why." He groaned. "Does everything we do end up going wrong in the most catastrophic possible fashion."

Callen chuckled. "Those who carry the blood of gods tend to have even more interesting lives than most. But your fate sense would guide you toward dramatic action in any case."

"I knew this was Shane's fault somehow." He said with a sigh. "Whatever, we have to find the others. Celine and I got separated in the fight, and I haven't seen Nat in a while. If there are traitors out there we need to warn them. Another one of those message delivery wishes should do it. How many wishes do you have left today? Actually can you even grant wishes in here?"

I nodded. "I can now. Once we got here I got access again. Well...after I woke up anyway. We only used one so far. Callie wished for a compass to find Jessie. Speaking of which, whatever you wish for, I hope she can be the one to do it, because I desperately need a top up on heal bursts." While I couldn't tell people WHAT to wish for without possibly compromising the fairness of the wish, I could make requests for how I wanted to be paid, and heals were top of my list.

My blonde friend sighed. "Yeah, it's been a while. Sorry I didn't even think about it. You spent months working with Benny and we never had a chance to replenish your supply."

"That's not on you." I said firmly. "I should have considered that I was running low before we came in here. Anyway, who are we looking for next?" I didn't make any suggestions, not wanting to ruin the wish, but Jessie was smart enough to come to the same conclusion I had.

"I wish I had a compass to lead me to where Celine was." She smiled at Benny. "You've been trying way too hard not to talk about her. You normally don't shut up about the girl when she's not around. I know you must be crazy worried. I'll pay with ten charges of heal bursts."

Wish detected. Grant wish?

I exhaled in relief, allowing the familiar electricity to build on my skin as I confirmed the wish. There was the usual sensation of compounding power, then an explosion of purple lightning as another compass manifested, this one greenish gold with leaves all over it. I dropped it in Jessie's hand, feeling the power feedback from where the electricity touched her, refilling my stockpile of heals.

With that done, I was feeling a lot more secure. I'd also refilled from my reserves of triple strength density shifts when I saw Benny, and while I had none leftover, my stockpile had grown to nine. Jessie tossed the compass to my friend, who looked absolutely overjoyed to have a lead on his lady love. I smiled, putting a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, don't worry about Celine. This is the forest, she's probably in a way better position than any of us."

He laughed at that. "True. This is her home turf. She'd been improving just like the rest of us too. She doesn't advertise, but she's been working hard. Training, wishes from Nat. In here she managed break both shackles." He paused. "I mean, we all did, actually. Those steps were no fucking joke. But she had a lot to deal with. I think hers were weighing her down more than most."

Walking over, I gestured for him to follow. We left the others to prepare to break camp while he and I sat down. I didn't need to talk. He had something to get off his chest, and I knew Benny well enough to know that sometimes I needed to shut up and listen.

"What she did to me." He finally said. "To all of us. I forgave her, eventually. Rather than lose her, which would have been worse. But she never forgave herself. As she got closer to me, to Callie and Jessie. The guilt got worse. She was having trouble sleeping. Wasn't eating. It was killing her. I think that's what the whole training thing on the ship was about for me more than anything. I couldn't stand seeing her hurting but I couldn't help."

I blinked at him in shock. "But I didn't even..."

"Notice?" He laughed. "News flash Shane, you're not exactly Mr. Sensitivity. You do ok with Callie, because you're basically plugged into her brain, but I wouldn't call you an overly empathetic person in general." His hands went up as I opened my mouth to respond. "That's not a dig, man. It's just a fact. Your life is nuts, and you get wrapped up in your own stuff. Plus she didn't want you guys to know. She's trained to conceal that kind of shit too, so that made it harder to tell."

I let out a breath. "Damn. But the trials helped? She's...better? She got past it?" I'd been so focused on my own emotional journey and Callie's I'd completely ignored my other friends. What they must have gone through.

"She's getting there." He chuckled. "She came to terms with some things about herself in the maze, and on the steps, that knocked her for a loop. I wasn't there to see the aftermath for too long before we got separated. But I do think this was good for her. I won't tell you what her shackles were. Nobody deserves to have info like that spilled behind their back, maybe someday she'll tell you herself."

Noticing the tone of his voice, I raised an eyebrow. "And what about yours? You gonna tell me what they were? What you needed to free yourself from?" My voice was gentle, trying to make it clear through tone alone that I wouldn't push.

"I...I kind of got swept up in all this." He admitted. "Back when it started, it was exciting. An adventure. But as we went along I started to get left behind. I wasn't your best friend anymore, I was just a tagalong. I wasn't even your sidekick, because you spent all your time with Callie." His eyes widened, as if he'd said something he hadn't meant to. "Not that I don't like Callie. But for a long time it was just you and me."

I blinked at him in surprise. "I didn't know it bothered you." I said slowly. "You seemed fine. You had Celine, and you and Jessie are close and-"

"And they're not my best friend." He said bluntly. He laughed bitterly. "But how selfish is that? With all this crazy shit happening, how much of an asshole would I be to throw a fit because we don't hang out as much anymore. I think that's part of why I jumped into things with Celine so quick. Not that I don't love her. I do. I just...I wanted what you had, I wanted someone to share things with."

I swallowed hard. He was right. I'd been totally ignoring him, so caught up in all the nonsense and craziness. "I didn't mean to." I said quietly. "You're still my best friend, you know that."

"I do." He said. "But I needed to get there on my own. My mind shackle was thinking I wasn't good enough to keep up, and my heart shackle was understanding that just because we're not always together now doesn't mean we aren't still close. Honestly I'm glad you didn't notice. Obliviousness or no, I needed to face this myself to get past it. Same with Celine. I can tell you want to blame yourself for missing it, but don't."

"How the hell can I not?" I snapped, suddenly irrationally angry. Not at him, but at me. I didn't let it control me though. I'd felt worse on the stairs. This was just a quick spike of temper. My voice smoothed out. "I'm the leader." I said more reasonably. "I'm supposed to take care of you guys."

He laughed at that. "In battle maybe." He said sadly. "But you can't solve all our problems for us Shane. Not even with your powers. Wishes can't fix everything. And they shouldn't. Pain makes people stronger. Problems define us. I'm not upset you didn't notice how unhappy I was, because I didn't WANT you to notice. And despite you knowing me better than anyone I know you too. I know how to hide my issues from you better than anybody else. That's the downside to about a decade of friendship."

That wasn't what I wanted to hear. It was fair, and he wasn't wrong, but I hated it. Did I just have to give up on helping my friends. On fixing things for them? Was my power even worth anything if it couldn't do that?

"Oh don't throw a pity party." He snorted in annoyance. "I recognize that brooding silence. Your powers help with the big things. I'm not saying you can't do anything for us. Look at Jessie. After she lost her brother she was...devastated. She put on a brave face, but I don't know if she'd have ever recovered. You gave her the most important gift in the world. You gave her hope. Hope she can see him again, hope she can fix things and be happy again."

I shrugged. "Anyone would have done that. Hell, any candidate could have made her the same promise, and probably followed through faster."

"But they didn't." He retorted. "Why would they? She was nobody. Still is in the grand scheme of things. Sure she's useful at our level, but do you think the Wishmaster gives a shit about some F-ranker? Do you think your dad does? Not a chance. But you do. You care. You're a fucking walking miracle to her. That girl hero worships you. Why do you think she tries so hard to keep everyone happy and functional. To try to take pressure off you."

My eyes widened as I stared at him in shock. "She...she does? I mean I knew she always plays peacemaker, but I figured she just didn't like conflict. She did that when Callie was in charge too."

He rolled his eyes. "Because you adore that girl. The slightest smile from Callie brightens your whole day, and anyone with two working eyes knows it at a glance. Don't get me wrong, Jessie loves her like a sister, but a lot of what she does to keep up all sane and happy she does out of gratitude. Because she doesn't think she can ever repay you for what you're doing for her. Not that she'd ever tell you. She doesn't want to put any pressure on you."

I glanced at Jessie where she was laughing and chatting with Callie as they packed up the tent that I could only assume had been in one of their spatial rings. I wondered what her shackles had been. She and Benny had both hit green (twenty five and twenty percent respectively), so she must have broken them.

But hearing how much she worried about me, and how much she was keeping to herself, I decided not to ask her. If she wanted to share she would, but I wouldn't push. I was happy she'd gotten past them. All of the things I'd learned churned in my head, and I felt...helpless. Which I knew was Benny's point when he told me not to be so self pitying. I sighed, looking to my friend. "Fine. I'll let you deal with your own problems. But you have to ask me if you need help. Promise me."

He smiled at me then, a beaming grin that showed me just how much he was worrying over me. "Promise." He clapped me on the shoulder, standing up and then offering me his hand. "If it means anything though...I'm happy. Getting past my problems was a big step for me and now...now I can just enjoy this awesome life. It's not perfect, but it's pretty fucking amazing." I laughed as I let him pull me to my feet. He wasn't wrong about that.
 
chapter 513
After my heart to heart with Benny, we headed out to look for Celine. I half expected the compass to lead us toward the academy itself, but thankfully we were drawn diagonally past it. It seemed that barring people who were incredibly close or touching the power had scattered everyone when it brought us here.

"So, we were way ahead." I said to Benny as we stomped through the forest. "We didn't see what was happening on the steps very well. I saw a brawl break out and kind of lost you all in the commotion. I caught the odd glimpse or two but I'm not sure what happened to everyone. Did you see what happened to any of the others?"

"Gabe and Bethy made it off the steps before the teleportation." He said with a shrug. "I didn't see where they went since I didn't, but I'm betting they were heading for the palaces. I was surprised because I thought Gabe was going to bow out, but it seems like once he heard what was going on with the Blood Murder Palace, he decided to stay. Of course, he didn't know all this nonsense about their being others hidden among us."

I nodded. "I'm a bit worried too. I want to try to get a message to them somehow." That was a hint, if only because I couldn't come out and say it.

Luckily Benny knew me well. "Right. Message." He frowned a bit. "I wish a message would be distributed to all our friends, invisible to the BMP assholes, letting them know what's going on and where we're gonna be. In return I'll pay with eleven triple strength density shifted attacks."

Wish detected. Grant wish?

That was a relief on two fronts, and I sighed happily as I got the tenth attack, the rest being deferred for later use. The explosion of purple electricity that ran through me and burst up into the sky in a pillar of lightning wouldn't be visible to anyone else except Nat either, most likely, so that was nice too.

I was considering trying to merge some of those stockpiled attacks into my next stance. I used them constantly, and having my own accessible version, even if it was limited, would be damned useful. Not to mention I was eyeing a defensive form next, and the density shift would help immensely. That was something to worry about later though, because as we continued along the path the compass led through, my Danger Sense began to twinge.

Stopping, I held up my hand, bidding everyone to sit still as I used Eye of Revelation to scan for enemies. I didn't see any, but I could FEEL something watching us. Callie moved up next to me, daggers drawn. "Can you see them?" She murmured? I can try to scout through the shadows if you can't, I'd just need you to cover me."

"Do it." I murmured, triggering Mountain Stance and Belial before stepping in front of her. She knelt down, fingers ghosting into the darkness as she reached out for the shadows nearby.

Within seconds an arrow flashed out of the dark, triggering my Danger Sense. My staff came up, smoothly redirecting the path with a tap and sending it flying harmlessly into the forest, only to lash out six more times as another half dozen arrows rained down at where Callie stood.

Randall stood up on his back paws and let out a bonerattling roar as he tried to defend Jessie, who had been riding on his back and who was currently gripping his fur for deal life.

"Enough." Called a voice I found familiar. A thin, lithe form stepped into the clearing, slit pupiled eyes locked on me as he waited for me to move. "The ambush failed, no need to remain hidden."

I sighed in annoyance. "Hello Felix." I said grimly. "I take it you're one of the Blood Murder Palace initiates. Or is this just your garden variety murder attempt out of ambition." The odd cat man seemed slightly more menacing than he had last time I'd met him. Cats are capricious and VERY ruthless. They were also excellent predators,

"The Palace isn't you enemy, candidate." He said in an aloof voice. "The Wishmaster is a mercenary, and always was. Our lord won't hold a grudge for a transaction. You need not involve yourself. If you remove your faction from our path, your consideration will be noted when the dark one returns."

Grimacing, I shook my head. "Such a short speech and so very many things I find deeply upsetting. For one, I don't feel like I'm alone in doubting the word of someone who called themselves Hatescream. Second of all, your use of the future tense implies he isn't around yet, and I don't want to deal with ANOTHER resurrected god. I can only assume you came for something that could accomplish that?"

He shrugged. "Your understanding of our goals holds no meaning. We are here. We are many. We will succeed. Kill me if you like, kill my whole group, kill until the soil squelches red underfoot. You cannot stop us."

My staff lashed out to the side, slapping the back of Benny's knee as a form exploded from an overhanging branch to try to attack him. A pair of black lines cleaved the air as Callie stood, having noticed the attack when I did and already positioned herself to follow up on my movement.

"Oh no." I said dryly. "A surprise attack from the ambush party we already discovered trying to surprise attack us. How unexpected. I expected better from a catman Felix. Aren't you guys supposed to be apex predators when it comes to creatures your own size?"

He shook his head. "I'd hoped to reach an accord with you, Shane. Wishmaster candidates make troublesome enemies. One way or another, I need to prevent you from assuming that role."

Narrowing my eyes, I triggered Pit of Despair under his feet. Flawlessly shifting his weight somehow, he backflipped off the falling ground into a handspring, then bounded off his hands and vanished into the trees. "Callie." I said simply, and she nodded, stepping back into a shadow and dropping out of sight. A hide and seek fight in a shadowy forest with my girlfriend was a bad position to be in.

From the trees emerged several robed figures, clearly working for or with Felix, and all armed with dangerous looking weapons made of what looked like congealed blood. With a grin, I triggered Moonlit Night, covering the forest around us with fog, then stepped off the air with Ripple Running, lashing out with my staff to strike the ground as I sailed over them, using State of Grace and the staff to pole vault myself up higher.

When the staff hit the ground I let the sound echo through the fog, drawing attacks from all the robed guys in range as they got a sound to act as a guidepost.

Sadly for those idiots I was already gone, and I bounced off the air again to maintain my position above them as my staff licked out to guide the attacks they were using so they injured each other. My corruption climbed their weapons and their bodies as the struck each other, and when I landed nearby I was able to neatly sweep their legs out, depositing them on the ground.

I turned to look for the others, and realized that they were already done with their opponents. Callie had altered the skill through the bond so they could see, which I totally would have thought of if I'd had a second.

Speaking of my girlfriend, she appeared from the darkness under a nearby tree, her arm clutched to her body. The OTHER arm, held a yellow clad leg I recognized as Felix's. She scowled and waved it at me when she felt me looking.
"Slippery bastard. Gave up a leg to get away. I caught him in a shadow trap, but he lopped it off and ran. Apparently he can actually turn INTO a cat. Also cats can move pretty quick on three paws."

"He got out of your range?" I asked. If she could have tracked him she probably would have, though it might have just been too dangerous to risk it.

Sighing, she slumped down against a tree, casually waving a hand to bind up all the extremely injured robed guys. I hadn't killed any of them because this wasn't a trial anymore. Benny, who had been helping Jessie and Callen secure their prisoners, jerked to attention as he noticed something. "Guys!" he called, holding up the compass. "The needle is moving. That means Celine close for the vector to change over a short arc of movement."

I glanced over in the direction he pointed, and I could vaguely make out a quartet of figures walking toward us through the woods. Squinting, I recognized who it was, and laughed aloud. "She's with Nat." I said with a grin. "She must have seen that wish earlier and used it to track us down." I'd been thinking she might be able to spot it, given the size and intensity of the power.

"We got your message." Called my cousin as she approached. "Could you BE any more loud and obvious? If there's any other candidates I'm betting they're on the way too. You really have no concept of subtle."

Rolling my eyes, I stepped up to hug her as Benny, Callie, and Jessie did the same to Celine, Perit and Valk. "It worked didn't it? Bad plans that work aren't bad. They're just 'unexpected'. It's good to see you guys though. That really cuts down on who we need to find. Abel, Mel, Chelsea. Gabe and Bethy. All of them total monsters and warned about the enemy forces thanks to that message."

"I feel more sympathy for the enemy if they try to target Bethy." Giggled Callie. "I'd rather deal with your average E-ranker than be her enemy."

With a laugh, I gestured them to follow. "Lets keep walking to get a bit further from the wish sign, just in case. Once we're clear I'll make us something to eat. After that...well, Benny's wish was for the message to tell them where we were going, it didn't specify at that moment." I glanced at my cousin. "What did it tell you guys?"

Nat shrugged. "Gave us a heading from where we were at the time. We didn't use it though, I just followed the column of purple lightning. Based on direction I think it was pointing us to the building." She gestured toward the Academy, and I groaned in annoyance.

"Of course it was." I said flatly. "Because we'd obviously end up there eventually, and that's probably where we would have met up. Whatever. We'll head for the Academy then." Benny and Callen had stacked the bound prisoners on Randall so we could keep them with us, so they'd be coming along unfortunately. I resolved to watch them closely. Who knew what might be in that place.

Callie lit up. "I bet there's all sorts of treasures leftover from the Aetherbright Empire. That's probably why they're here, to find some powerful magical item. We could find it first and keep it! Or sell it! Or..." She trailed off sheepishly. "Not the point, sorry. I was just a little excited by the promise of potential loot." She gave me an embarrassed grin.

I just shrugged. "I know you well enough to expect it. But I also know you well enough to know you can focus when the situation demands it. I trust your loot goblin tendencies not to cause us any problems." We chatted for a while, still walking, until my Danger Sense was completely silent, then I cut some branches and used Consecration of Flames to create a fire.

As I pulled out ingredients and pots I considered our next move. Once we got to the Academy we'd need to figure out a next step. We couldn't exactly just stumble blindly around. Once we found our friends it would be time to work on either getting out of here or stopping the BMP guys. I suppose only time would tell which. Though I had some questions for our prisoners once I finished cooking. Maybe they could tell me why this was all happening.
 
chapter 514
As per usual, the distance to the Academy was further than expected, because the building was cartoonishly large. I had to assume there were a LOT of students at the place back when the Aetherbright Empire still existed, considering the trials, their scale, and the fact that there had been a LOT more of them back in the day. Still, they'd clearly been a fan of open concept design for their internal floorplan, because the building was absolutely massive even on the outside.

I felt confident assuming the place was spatially expanded, and I'd have been shocked if the interior wasn't the size of a damned city.

As we got closer, we kept a look out for any of the others. Nat, Celine, Valk, and Perit filled us in on everything that had gone down for them since the staircase, including what had happened ON the staircase, and I'd already filled them in on the current situation vis-a-vis the Academy and the Blood Murder Palace.

We walked for a few hours, not running, though it would have been infinitely faster, but moving slowly and deliberately in case of ambush from the Blood Murder Palace initiates. When we were about three quarters of the way to the building, I stopped, holding up a hand. I felt something weird. Not my Danger Sense, but something different. I realized it was my fate sense. Since DS Mastery became part of me and my Fatewalker Path got integrated, that sense had been acting up, but this was the first time I'd felt it do something like this.

Guided by instinct, I triggered my overlay, and blinked in confusion at the arrows filling my vision. Somehow I knew these weren't for attacks, this was some kind of synergy between my fate sense and my overlay. This was real divination in accordance with my Fatewalker Path.

I studied the arrows. Some were white, some were black, some were gold. The gold ones were the least prevalent, and I was pretty sure they would lead us to our friends.

One of them was pointing into the forest, and it was fairly thick, which based on the impressions I was getting meant the target was close by. I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Shane?" Asked Callie cautiously. "What is it? I can feel your reaction kind of, but you see confused."

"One sec." I said, holding up a hand. "We need to take a detour." I gestured for them to be quiet, and tapped into Callie's stealth Skill through the bond, leading the way slowly as I snuck through the forest, about five minutes in, I heard a series of crashes and breaking branches, followed by a lot of screaming, and we all stepped out of the way as four robed figures came barreling out of the trees, screeching in pain.

From behind them I heard a familiar bell like laugh as a crazed voice shrieked. "ATTACK MY MINIONS! DESTROY THE ENEMY!" I sighed, putting my hand to my mask as I finally caught sight of the wave of creatures following them. At first I couldn't figure out what they are, but at a closer look, I realized I was watching an army of flying squirrels swooping down on the robed figures, spitting what appeared to be exploding acorns.

Behind them, Standing on a tree branch with her hands on her hips, laughing maniacally, was Bethy. Because of course she was. She stepped off the tree, landing in a graceful crouch, and strolled happily through the woods after her apparent victims. Several of the squirrels landed on her shoulders, snuggling against her as she laughed.

Unfortunately for the initiates, they were distracted by Bethy herself, and neglected to watch out in front of them. I watched two dark shapes snatch the ones on the outermost edges of the group and vanish, and when the remaining two noticed they froze, spinning around in terror.

Rolling my eyes, I triggered Pit of Despair, and both of them plummeted into a pit of ultra fine dust, struggling to get out as the squirrels bombarded them with waves of those explosive acorns.

"Shane!" Squealed Bethy happily. "Callie! I found you guys. This place is so cool isn't it? Look at all my new friends!" She threw open her arms, gesturing to the squirrel army now perching on trees, staring down at us with terrifyingly focused eyes.

"Hey Bethy." Laughed my girlfriend. "How exactly did you manage to tame an army of flying squirrels. There's no shadow thing going on, and I didn't know you had native animal training powers."

"Well when I met your buddy biscuit." Bethy said excitedly. "I came to a realization. Squirrels are just bats without wings! But these squirrels HAVE wings, so they're obviously bats. I'm a vampire and vampires control bats all the time. So I asked them if they wanted to become my flying rodent army, and they said yes! I talked to them when I was bats, so now I can talk to them all the time and we're best friends! Plus at night I'm going to have them all curl up on top of me like a living blanket!"

I blinked at the influx of weirdness. "Um...ok." I said. "I don't think flying squirrels and bats are the same kind of animal, but that aside, what the hell was up with the acorns."

I glanced at the pit, noting that apparently poptarts and donuts had come back for the initiates. I winced. That might have been on me. I probably should have been watching them. Bethy wasn't bloodthirsty (at least in the metaphorical sense) but she had zero chill when angry. She would absolutely kill them, and probably already had.

She grabbed my attention by holding up a fistful of seething red acorns. "Oh these? They're so cool right? The squirrels showed them to me. They use them as weapons when bigger creatures try to attack their nests. I had to beat up a big red tree to get them, but it was totally worth it because they're so pretty when they explode!"

That did sound useful. Though I had to wonder how strong that tree had been. Bethy tended to just do whatever and ignore inconvenient things like 'reality' and 'power differentials'.

Once we got everyone together, we started heading toward the Academy building again. We'd gotten most of our group, but we still needed to find my sister and Gabriel, assuming he was here. We needed to get together and figure out how to leave. Stopping the BMP assholes was important, but we had no reliable method of exiting this place and that was going to be a long term problem.

My only real solace was in the fact that I still had my wishes left. Four for the day, after the one to find Jessie, and the one to find Celine. If we got everything settled maybe we could use them to reverse the transportation protocol, or open a portal, or even just teleport us home. I suspected the last would be prohibitively expensive, but it was worth trying.

After another hour of walking and catching up, we all came top an abrupt halt as we came to a massive hole in the ground. Specifically,it was a sort of circular canyon around the perimeter of the building, sort of like a moat.

"Huh." I said as I stared across it. "You don't see that every day." The moat was absolutely full of floating pieces of wood and debris. Among the damaged materials I could see pieces of bridge, house, and even in a few spots, some sort of wooden combat wagons or siege engines, or at least what was left of them.

Pulling a rock from my spatial ring, I tossed it at one of the nearest pieces. The rock made contact, there was a flash of light as a sort of energy field surrounding the debris dissolved, and then, after about a minute, the thing dropped right out of the sky, plummeting into the chasm below, which was so deep I literally couldn't see the bottom.

"Some kind of test?" Said Callie cautiously. "That was there long enough to act as a foothold. Maybe we're supposed to jump from piece to piece."

I glowered at the bottomless pit in front of us. "I'm not sure. This feels like something that happened after the Academy fell. Why would a test use debris from the actual destruction of the school itself. I think it probably used to do something else."

Abel nodded. "That piece of debris dropped faster than it should have. That wasn't a freefall, it got sucked into the hole." He glanced at me. "If there's something going on here kid, you'd be the best person to get past it. Between your lightness skill and your Eye of Revelation, you should be able to find us the proper path. Assuming there is one."

Which there had to be. Because if not we couldn't get there, find the others, or probably even escape. Who knew what would happen if the BMP assholes made it over there before us. We had no real choice but to try to make this happen. Letting out a long breath, I turned to the others. "Alright. I can try, but if we're doing this we need to make sure we all have the best chance of survival. That means tying ourselves together."

If the magic in the pit had been different, I'd have said we needed to split up so as to give each person the best possible chance, but there was a finite number of debris pieces, and if using one exhausted the magic, then there was a very real chance of one or more of us getting caught on the other side without a path. If we were tied together we'd be able to try to mitigate that possibility.

"Right." Said Benny proudly. "I've got this." He snapped his fingers, and a truly absurd amount of rope slammed down on the ground in a huge pile.

I blinked at it. "See, I feel like Callie bought rope before the bazaar, so I get why she would have it, but why do YOU have what appears to be all the rope. Like...in the universe. What could we possibly need that much rope to accomplish? Were you planning to steal the whole Academy building and drag it behind us?"

He sneered at. "I'll have you know that I MADE this rope." He said proudly. "I created it with my inventing, or at least the beginning of it. Then I added to it over time. It's woven from a special grass I stocked up on back in the Moonsong Glade. I deducted it from the herb sales we did when you weren't looking." At my glare, he just shrugged. "It was grass, it wasn't worth much anyway."

"So what does this magical special rope DO exactly?" I asked skeptically. "Is it some kind of anti gravity rope?"

He shook his head. "Nope. It's sticky." I blinked at him. "The roped adheres to people unless personally removed by the owner. It'll make it impossible for any of us to fall. It's PERFECT!" He seemed extremely excited that this strange rope he'd been working on for an obviously long time was going to come in handy. I had to admit it wasn't a completely ridiculous idea. It wouldn't hurt at least.

"Not that this isn't fascinating." Said Callie. "But whatever the rope does we're using it now. Because we aren't the only one trying to cross this moat." She pointed, and I glanced down the edge of the abyss to see groups of other people emerging from the woods to gather around the edges. Farther down, almost out of sight, I saw a familiar yellow clad figure missing part of a leg. Felix. We had to get a move on, or we were going to be stick here forever.
 
Didn't Benny have an extendable rope equipped? Or was that replaced at some point?
 

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