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

chapter 515
The rope was more useful than expected, honestly. I could feel it grip tightly when it was wrapped around my waist, and knowing it wouldn't come off even if the knot came undone was kind of comforting. Of course, the people trying to cross made it hard to focus on that comfort.

Once the rope was affixed, I triggered State of Grace and Ripple Running. After checking with everyone, I got a running start and leapt out over the chasm, my foot slamming down on one of the pieces of debris. My overlay snapped into focus, and I stared ahead, using it to confirm which direction to go. Some of the arrows were gold (only a few), and some were black, but there were no white arrows.

I wasn't sure exactly what those indicated, but I was guessing good, bad, and neutral. I didn't waste any time jumping to the next piece, then the one after, following the golden arrow showing my the proper path. Behind me, I heard the others trying to leap as fast as possible after me, desperately aiming to keep up before the first one dropped.

Sadly, it wasn't to be. There was a jerk on the line, and I had to steady myself to hold on as the floor went out from under one of us. I turned my head briefly to see Jessie hanging over the chasm, being dragged down into the dark by some unseen force. Abel, who was ahead of her, had his rope around his midsection and was trying to drag her back up, while holding up a trail of lubricated space behind him.

Cursing, he leapt to the next step, making her swing helplessly, but was forced to leave her there and keep going lest he fall in with her. To her credit, my tiny blonde friend wasn't shrieking or begging to be pulled up, though she had her eyes closed and was muttering something I couldn't hear.

Abel continued on, and I was forced to turn away so I could keep going blazing the trail. We were about halfway across at this point, but the delay to check on them cost me valuable time, and Callie, who was right behind me, had already caught up to my platform, so I was forced to grab her hand and jump with her to the next one once I found it. Abel continued to make good time, even dragging Jessie, and was consistently releasing his spatial power as he went.

One of the big issues with crossing was Randall. And I DID mean big. The huge bear was much to large to drag the way we were doing for Jessie, OR to fit on the platforms. Abel was creating a lubricated space tunnel like he used in combat to move nearly instantly between two points. He was making a path for Randall so the big bear didn't have to be left behind on the other side of the moat.

Picking out the right target with my overlay, I leapt again, Callie with me, but my Danger Sense suddenly triggered midair. My foot slammed down on nothing as I used the already triggered Ripple Running for the first time, shoving myself sideways and pushing Callie out of the way of a nasty looking barbed arrow as it flashed through where her head had been.

Whipping my own around, I caught sight of a distant hooded figure drawing back a massive compound bow, another dangerous looking arrow on the string.

I considered my options. I could stop that person, or I could avoid the shots. If I stopped them in circumstances like this I was pretty sure they would die, but I wasn't confident they would shoot at me next time and not one of the others.

Grimacing at the necessity, I triggered Pit of Despair on the piece of debris beneath their feet. The platform dissolved into dust beneath them and they plummeted through into the depths of the chasm below, barely having time to scream.
Landing on the next platform, I kicked off again, noting that a lot of the other robed figures were steering clear of me now. I wasn't complaining, it just meant less people I had to kill.

Despite them shooting at us, I regretted having to take out the bowman. If it had just been me I might have chosen to dodge, but with Jessie's life LITERALLY on the line and Callie hand in hand with me, I couldn't afford to take chances. There'd been no other option.

Finally, we reached the other side of the chasm, everyone managing to make it to the safety of hard packed dirt. When Abel arrived, the rest of us grabbed his rope and hauled Jessie up, while he used his spatial passage to pull Randall over while he could still hold it. The big bear cam streaking across, landing next to us, and Jessie flung her arms around him and squeezed in relief and happiness, clearly releasing some of the tension accrued from her time dangling on a string.

"Everyone ok?" I asked lightly, my tone belying the fact that I had just straight up murdered someone. It wasn't my first kill, but somehow dropping the ground out from under someone at range seemed more...ruthless, than killing someone who was all up in your face trying to crush your skull.

Callie reached down and took my hand, squeezing it tightly as she smiled up at me. "We're all fine. Thanks to you. You saved my ass out there."

Forcing a chuckle, I just shrugged. "It's fine, you'll be saving mine soon enough I'm sure. You know how I get into trouble. We should get going and try to find the others. I'm hoping Mel found Chelsea or Gabe, the thought of the three of them out solo worries me, even if my sister can take care of herself and Gabe is a total monster."

To be fair, Mel was pretty scary too, but she wasn't at the same level as the other two in my head. Chelsea was a straight up monster in combat, at least based on what I'd seen of her. She could keep up with a Master and go toe to toe with Callen, who scared the shit out of me, and who Gabe really respected. Mel was strong, but she didn't play at that level. She also wasn't as big a target though, so maybe that was ok.

Bethy bounced in place. "Oh! I can look for them!" She reached up for the dark shawl she was wearing over her current black ballgown (who knew when she'd changed) and whirled it up and around her head. Darkness flew from the shawl as she screamed. "FLY MY MINIONS! FIND ME MY QUARRY!" And a fucking TORRENT of flying squirrels spilled from the dark, swooping out over the nearby forest and spreading in every direction.

"Did you...turn them into that shawl?" I asked, noticing the thing was gone.

She shrugged. "I can turn me into bats, and we already decided they were bats, so I can obviously turn them into stuff too. Plus that shawl was super cute right?" She glanced down at herself. "It goes perfectly with this dress. I totally want to show Tracey and Ada. Or Gabe." She pouted. "That big jerk. He's never around to appreciate my outfits anymore. I hope my tree bats find him."

My melancholy and guilt receded slightly, blown apart by Bethy's absurdity, as I tried and failed to stop from cracking up at her antics. Callie was nodding. "Magic squirrel clothes are definitely cool. I wonder if you could use that power on Biscuit."

Bethy looked skeptical. "He doesn't have wings though. He's like a land bat." She paused thoughtfully. "I guess I could be land bats if I wanted. Which means I can tame land bats. Maybe I could teach him to have wings? That seems more useful." She looked down at her feet. "Poptarts, Donuts, come out for mommy, I'm going to teach you how to fly. We can use this big hole."

"NO!" Shouted every person in the group as she turned to the chasm. She jumped, giving us all a hurt look. "I mean...we don't have time for that." I said desperately. "You should do it somewhere else. When we aren't busy."

"I guess." She said sulkily. "Fine, you two can stay in. I'll teach you to fly later. It's going to be fun." She got a pensive look on her face. "If I can give you wings then you'd basically be bats. Does that mean I could turn into a swarm of tiny winged kitties? That sounds so cute!"

I almost cut her off, but honestly I kind of wanted to see that. I was going to convince her to try, but Callie elbowed me in the ribs, glaring at me for getting off track. I cleared my throat. "Right, that sounds like an interesting question for later. For now can you like...contact the squirrels? See through their eyes or something?"

She just snorted. "Of course. What kind of vampire can't use their familiars to view things from a distance. Hold on a sec." Her eyes began to blaze a creepy red and she stared off into the middle distance, clearly looking at something none of us could see.

Off in the distance I could see the gliding forms of squirrels swooping back and forth, some circling, some flying away. It took maybe fifteen minutes before Bethy squealed with delight, jumping up and down and clapping in excitement. "I found one! No wait, two. That red mask girl who is always hanging out with Axel. She's with the girl with the cool black and white hair!"

"Chelsea and Mel?" I asked in surprise. Apparently Mel had found and grouped up with my sister, which was a great outcome for both of them. "Do you see Gabe?"

She shook her head slowly. "I'll keep looking. They're about ten miles that way." She pointed diagonally through the forest. Apparently they'd managed the crossing.

"I'll take Callen and Callie and go meet up with them." I said firmly. "Abel, stay with the others, we can move faster in a small group, and Chelsea will be more comfortable if Callen comes. We'll be right back, but if anything happens have Randall roar as loud as he can and we can turn around."

My mentor snorted. "I can babysit a bunch of teenagers and a bear. Besides the vampire is here, so if I need backup I should be fine." He glared at her in annoyance. "Assuming she notices my pleas for help, since she can't seem to remember my NAME!"

"Sorry, what did you say Andrew?" Bethy said politely. "I got distracted. But don't worry Shane. I'll make sure everyone is ok, and Alex can help me out if I need it."

Abel gritted his teeth, glaring at her. "You're obviously doing this on purpose! Those weren't even the same name."

Bethy gave him a sympathetic look. "It's ok Andy, I'm sure you'll do something memorable soon. Just keep trying to be interesting. I believe in you." I had to physically step between them because I was worried Abel would fling himself at her and try to choke the life out of her, and Bethy wasn't someone Abel could afford to piss of, no matter how hilariously she was baiting him.

After making sure my teacher wasn't going to take a swing at the vampire princess, I bid my goodbyes to everyone along with Callie and my sister's bodyguard and we headed of in the direction Bethy had pointed us. I wanted to get the group back together as quickly as humanly possible. Whatever the BMP assholes were planning, I doubted it was pleasant, and if we wanted to get out of here alive I was pretty sure stopping them was our best bet. And we needed to do it soon.
chapter 516
We found my sister and Mel without too much trouble, but sadly that was where the convenience ended. Apparently the lizard wolf things were native to this area, because a pack of them had surrounded Chelsea and Mel and seemed to be trying to tear them apart.

Mel had a huge circle of fire around the two of them, golden flames pushing them back, and she was letting one or two of them through at a time to pick them off. Chelsea was fighting them off when they got in close, her purification flame letting her cleanse their obnoxious venom. I hadn't had much chance to start my innoculation with everything going down, but I put it back on my mental list.

"Callen, can you take care of that grouping?" I asked the big man. "I'll work with Callie to pick off the rest, but there's about five of them there that'll be easier to take down quickly with brute force.
I'd fought the bastards before, and I knew exactly how long killing them with Belial would take, not to mention Mel's fine would make it all but impossible to use Moonlit Night.

Callen nodded, drawing his shorter sword and striding forward. I gave him a second to engage then turned to Callie. "Can you get into the shadows with all this light? With both of us playing distraction you should be able to pop out and cut them apart with your Path."

"Fire isn't a stable lightsource." She said with a nod. "It flickers, which means shadows happen between those movements. I can get to them. What about you? What will you be doing? It'll be hard to sneak up on them when things are like this. And Belial won't work as well if they aren't grouped up."

I chuckled, withdrawing my staff, choked up on it to give myself plenty of room, and took a few long steps as I triggered Mephistopheles. As I shifted into my single combat form, I swung my staff like a baseball bat, letting the black flame gather on the end and then explode out, blasting the nearest lizard thing forward and straight into Mel's golden circle of fire.

It screamed as it pitched through, catching fire and hitting the ground inside the circle rolling and shrieking until Chelsea turned and stomped on its head, smashing it under her boot.

I waved cheerfully. "Hey there! Need a hand?" Callen had hit his group, and the others had all turned to look at me as intended, several stray creatures beginning to prowl towards me carefully. I snickered, setting my stance and triggered my overlay. It gave me plenty of idea of where attacks would come from, especially combined with my Danger Sense. They wouldn't have a hope of sneaking up on me.

There was a flash of danger from behind and I picked up on it easily, sidestepping and swinging my staff in the same two handed grip, shifting slightly to make sure I got a good angle for smashing the bastard right past me into the flames.

My black armor piercing fire was catching on impact and burning through their defenses, scales being eaten up. When the second one hit the gold fire it went up even faster, the flames combining with my own in an odd way and basically turning the damned thing to ash on contact. I blinked, staring down at the staff, and so did all the others. I tried to replay what I'd done, and I realized I'd managed to time the explosion of my flame to a flare up in the circle.

The two fires at their peak had mixed, which was interesting. I was glad it hadn't just gone unstable and exploded like the interaction between the flames of Purification and Enshrining Darkness.

As the explosion distracted a bunch of the creatures, I saw Callie emerge from the dark behind one, daggers flashing as lines of black cleaved the air. Her Abyssal Path was interesting, though I still didn't understand the details of it. Whatever it did, it was destructive, and the space itself (or lack of it) seemed to cleave through the flesh of the monsters with ease.

Her blades took the head of one and opened another's guts, letting its intestines spill onto the ground before she vanished again. Just like last time, the disembowled one attracted the ferocious hunger of one of the nearby monsters who jumped on it, feeding noisily. The struggle knocked them both into the fire, rolling through the flames releasing an unearthly scream.

Callen had already hacked his way through two of them and had just caught the horns of a third and picked it up by the horns to physically beat a fourth with its flailing body.

"Mel." I yelled. "Drop the circle!" She did, and as it came several of the things rushed my sister and friend at the same time. "Callie!" I yelled, knowing my girl had felt my intent when I said that. We couldn't read each other's minds, but we knew how the other fought well enough that it was close.

The monsters charged them, bearing down on the two girls, and as soon as their shadows covered the forms of Mel and my sister, Callie slipped through the shadows, grabbing them and dragging them through. The last five or so monsters collided horn to horn in a giant pile, and I trigger Pit of Despair as they piled up, most of them sinking into the pit of dust.

"Chelsea, Mel, concentrate your power on my staff!" I said as the girls stepped from the dark. I held it up, both hands gripped at the base, focusing my black flame into it. The girls pushed their own flame into the weapon, appearing at my side and putting a hand on each shoulder. My Azure Soul Body was easily able to hold the invocation together, and the three kinds of flames mixed into on crystalline glasslike fire.

Smashing it down on the pile of stacked monsters, I released the blast all at once, a pinpoint explosion in line with Mephistopheles. The crystalline fire created and explosion, consuming every inch of exposed flesh and expanding into a sphere before retreating as quick as it came and leaving behind melted crystal bones.

"Huh." Said my sister in a shocked tone. "That happened." She paused. "HOW did that happen? Invocations aside, different alignments of fire don't really mix like that. Purification flame in particular doesn't mix well with most things. I'm not sure what that gold flame is exactly, but the black fire you were using seemed...deadly. It doesn't seem like something my flame would play nice with."

I frowned, I'd been wondering about that myself. I'd seen from Zeke that some powers didn't mix, and she was right, death was a big aspect of my hellfire. Or at least destruction. "I think because Afterburner is part of that stance." I said after mulling it over. "My meta skill for power enhancement. It makes up part of the flames and it works on everything. I guess it makes my flames compatible with other flames? Not sure if it works on non flame attacks but whatever the case, I don't hate how this turned out."

Chelsea snickered. "It's certainly a pretty pile of melted crystal bones." She leaned down, kicking the ground near the bones. "Actually I think you glassed the whole pit. The bones dumped a bunch of heat and melted all the fine sand. Think we can take it with us?"

"Probably not." I said with a laugh. "I'd love to, it's awesome and I could totally put it in my room or something, but prying out a ten feet wide, ten foot deep chunk of F-ranked crystal full of crystal F-ranked bones sounds like way more of a time suck than we have time for."

I turned to Mel. "Thanks for the assist by the way. Sorry about...beating you mercilessly to within an inch of your life."
She shrugged. "It wasn't real anyway. I'm not thrilled about it, but it's not like I haven't been through worse." She glanced around slowly. "What about Abel? He still around here? Because I'm NOT happy he switched sides, and he's got a lot of groveling to do to make it up to me."

"Do you really think he's the groveling type?" I asked in amusement. I couldn't see Abel doing that.
"Well...maybe not groveling." She said smugly. "But he'll make it up to me. Every time I get mad at him he gets all sheepish and tries to make it up to me by fighting anything that annoys me. It's rarely successful, but watching him try to earn my forgiveness amuses me."

Callie giggled. "I should make you do that kind of thing when you make me mad." She said to me wickedly. "I bet you'd jump through all the hoops."

"No." I said bluntly. "I'll just stop cooking you dinner." She flinched back in horror and it was my turn to laugh. "See, I already have a way to make it up to you when I'm stupid. Now come on, let's get back to the others before Bethy successfully baits Abel into attacking her and turns him into a wombat or something."

"Can she do that?" Mel asked worriedly. "I didn't know transformation like that was part of her powers."

I shrugged. "If she decides a wombat is a type of bat? Probably. Who fucking knows what her powers are. Regardless, that fight would go poorly for him."

She obviously agreed, because she and Chelsea were ready to go quickly enough and then we all headed back to the main group. Despite her annoyance at him, Mel still hugged Abel close when she saw him. Fight or not, they had to take the reunions where they got them. Not to mention their bond was at least as developed as ours. She probably wasn't that mad, and could feel his reasons for what he'd done.

Everyone greeted our wayward friends, said hello to Chelsea again and then turned to me to figure out the plan. "Ok, Gabe is the last party member missing, and we'll have to find him later. For now we're together and he's strong enough to handle himself. We need to focus on the Academy building." I said firmly. "Specifically we need to find out exactly what the hell the BMP are HERE for."

"We still don't know?" Said Chelsea worriedly. "Any chance we could wish for the information?"

I shrugged. "Doubtful, secrets are the most expensive thing you can wish for, and the higher the level a secret, the more it costs. I'm pretty sure they're looking for a way to revive Hatescream, so that secret will be a doozie. Or hell, that could have been a misdirect, who even knows?"

My sister turned to stare worriedly at the building. "That's not good. Hatescream was...scary, from what I've heard. The other gods worked together to put him down. His ability was dangerous and he use forbidden rituals and methods to create powerful underlings. It took five gods to kill him last time. The Wishmaster, The Revenant, The Emperor, The Faerie Queen, and even Black Sorrow. All working in tandem, it's barely ever happened before."

It reminded me of the whole thing with Suvaya. Why exactly did the gods feel the need to destroy other deities. Were they just a threat? Or was there some other reason. Would Black Sorrow and the Red Revenant really work together for something as simple as paranoia?

Whatever the case, she was right. We needed to stop the Blood Murder Palace initiates from achieving their goal whatever it was. And the only way for the to happen was to find it first. I'd have to use my divination to try to track it down. Which meant we had to actually enter the Academy. "Alright." I said grimly. "I suppose we'd better get going then. We have to beat them there."
chapter 517
We made the rest of the trek in decent time, with Bethy using her army of flying squirrels to run recon. Jessie was indescribably jealous and kept trying to convince the vampire girl to give her one, but to no avail. They were all hers and she wasn't willing to share.

When we reached the entrance though, we ran into kind of an issue. Namely, the big ass door blocking our way. Inside the door I could see a smaller door, but it was pretty much unopenable and a solid pice of the larger barrier, so our only real option was opening the bigger door, which was about a hundred feet tall and made of some kind of E-ranked metal that weighed a LOT.

The weight, from what I could see, was conceptual mostly, but there was definitely some real heft to it, and even with Randall putting his all into it we couldn't get the thing to budge.

"Who builds a door like this?" I complained, kicking the damned thing hard enough that my toe ached. "Like, what is this? A school for giants? How are we supposed to even get inside?" I walked over and tried to pry open the small door inside the big one, doing my best to slip my fingers under the metal, but to no avail. "Why even PUT a smaller door here if it isn't going to open?"

"I think it's meant to be an exit only." Said Chelsea, stepping up next to me. "The smaller one at least. The bigger door seems like some kind of test maybe? Calliope tried to shadow jump past it but it didn't work, so that implies it's meant to be opened as is. It's just so damned huge though, it'll be hard to get any leverage."

I blinked. Leverage. "Hold on a second." I said, scrambling over to the edge of the massive entryway. The divide in the door had some overlap, but there was definitely a gap. I reached up onto my back, pulling free my stygian branch. Slotting my staff into the gap, I retreated to the other end and PUSHED. The door groaned slightly, and barely, JUST barely, moved outward.

My staff was E-rank too, but it was a higher end material than this door. Which meant it could offset some of the Impact through the use of the leverage abilities I'd been learning. I put both hands to the staff, calling the others to come help. Bethy, Chelsea, Callen, Callie, Mel, and Abel all lined up along the length of the weapon, hands gripping the wooden shaft with just enough room.

Triggering Mephistopheles, I looked down the line. "Alright guys. On the count of three. Mel, Chelsea, channel your flames into the staff, I want to use them to try to blow the door open as we push. Ready?" At their nods I began to count. "One." I flooded the staff with power, building as much black flame up in the end as possible. "Two." I felt the two more types of flame join me. "Three."

Releasing the flame all at once, I also triggered the death energy buildup in my staff, empowering the whole attack in a way that wouldn't have worked without the staff being used as the channel. All of us heaved with every ounce of Might we had, and an exponential force surged through the staff and into the door as I roared, releasing the channeled energy to amplify the force of the shove.

The was an explosion of blue glowing glasslike flame as the door was shoved hard, groaning as it was force open about three feet wide.

I turned, as did the others, catching it where it was and planting our feet. I jammed in my staff as a block, and triggered Mountain Stance to amplify my defense so it wouldn't push me back. The others gave it their all, with Randall squeezing his paws into the gap to halt the closing, and between all of us we BARELY managed to bring it to a complete stop.

"Go!" I roared, and the others filed past us, slipping behind where we stood to enter. "Abel!" I yelled. "Get Randall." My mentor nodded, turning and swinging a hand, creating a tunnel of lubricated space so the huge beast could slip through the small door gap without getting stuck. As soon as those two were gone, the door began to close. "Everyone in!" I bellow as I tried as hard as I could to prevent the door from picking up speed.

Callen, Chelsea, and Mel all dove inside, and Callie grabbed me as she entered, yanking me out of the way of the door as it slammed closed with a massive nearly subaudible boom, rattling my bones as I slumped onto the floor. "Damn." I gasped, barely able to breathe. "That was...a lot. Give me a minute. That took it out of me. Everyone else ok though? No fingers or toes left outside the door?"

Benny snickered. "I think you might have dropped your dignity, but other than that we're fine." Celine jabbed him in the ribs and he gasped. "Ow! Honey I was just kidding with him."

She rolled her eyes. "There's a time and a place Benicio. He just helped save our lives. Or at least get into this place with..." She paused. "Now that I'm looking around I'm suddenly a bit less grateful. How exactly is the preferable to being out in the nice open forest?"

"Celine, you're my friend, so I'll say this nicely." I said in a sympathetic tone. "We all hate the forest now. The woods are awful and we never want to go back."

Callie kicked me in the shin, glaring. "How was that NICELY? Celine, don't listen to him. We don't hate the forest. We just...don't want set foot in that leafy green hell for the rest of our lives...wow." She glanced at me. "My bad, you were right, I hate it way too much to softball it."

Our newfound hatred of the forest aside, Celine wasn't wrong. The inside of this place wasn't too much better. Glancing around, I could barely see for more than a few feet, so I called over to Mel. "Hey, toss out some fire for us? I want to light this place up a bit so we can see where we are." What I could see in the small bubble of light cast by the fire Chelsea and she were still holding wasn't painting a pleasant picture.

When she tossed out the fire, we got a much better view as floating fireballs lit up the various locations around the room. What I saw was mostly more of the ruin that had been visible close by.

Everything was gone except the bones. Columns were there, but the trim had been pried up, the floor was bare and scraped clean, appearing to have been pried up, and the walls were empty, with only a few holes where I was pretty sure fixtures used to be.

"Wow." Said Benny with a laugh. "They took everything but the kitchen sink, huh?" Then he paused, squinting across the massive entryway. "Actually I think that hole in the floor used to be a fountain. Chances are good they took the sink too if they took that. Damn, what the hell happened to this place?"

None of us had an answer. The Aetherbright Empire predated all of our factions as far as I knew. Knowing a bit about the BMP was one thing, they were contemporaries of the various organizations we belonged to. But this place...nothing. I opened my Eye of Revelation, scanning the room for any clues or hidden panels.

Whatever the others were here for, we needed to beat them to it. They wouldn't have come here without a way home at least, and if we got to their target first we could use it as leverage. That was a last resort, because I didn't want them getting what they were aiming for, but if I had to pick between Hatescream returning or being stuck here forever with most of my loved ones I'd pick the former.

I scanned for secret passages first. Worst case I didn't find anything, but if there was one it might lead to somewhere the looters hadn't gotten to. That would be somewhere to start.

After five minutes of walking around looking, I stopped in front of one of the stripped down columns. Kneeling, I put a shoulder against the bottom right hand section of the column opposite the wall and PUSHED. There was a low grinding and the section was pushed in a few inches, before a section the size of a reasonably tall person swung away from the column, revealing a spiral staircase that was comfortable enough for us to walk through one at a time.

Callie whistled. "Honey, have I mentioned lately how useful you are?" She said with a laugh. "Because I can't help but marvel at how convenient it is having some of your skills on hand."

I rolled my eyes, but she leaned up to kiss my mask to let me know she was kidding. "As nice as that is, I think it might be best to send the cats up. We have no clue what's at the top of these steps. It could be some kind of monster. Or worse, it could be another fucking test." I was getting sick of the constant traps and assessments around here. I knew it was supposed to be a school but I did NOT approve of their methods.

Bethy giggled. "Oh I can send them up if you want. Donuts has been dying to go for a walk. He's been on thin ice singe back in the dungeon when he warned all those other kitties." She let out a piercing whistle that made the rest of us flinch, hard. "Donuts!" She barked. Her shadow twisted, and the vague form of a cat emerged from it...a cat with wings.

"IT WORKED!" She squealed with delight. "Which means I can do this!" She threw out her arms, dissolving into a cloud of flying furry forms...but not bats. A horde of small black kittens with bat wings swarmed around us, licking us with sandpapery tongues and snuggling against us happily as they flew by.

Despite the urgency of the situation, even I couldn't really complain though. It was just so cute. Jessie squealed with delight, scooping two of them up and squeezing them tight as Callie grabbed one to snuggle with. Benny, who was a cat person at heart, snagged on too, though he tried to play it cool as he cuddled it. Donuts, seeming to have made piece with his crazy owner, waited a minute for further instructions then rolled his eyes and slunk up the stairs.

After a few minutes the cats swarmed back together, congealing into a maniacally laughing Bethy with her arms raised in triumph. "I DID IT!" She crowed. "I am no longer your AVERAGE vampire princess. I have become meow powerful than you can possibly imagine." She froze, snapping her teeth together. "I...ignore that. I did it on purpose. Actually nothing happened. Don't bring it up."

She started muttering to herself, flinching every time she inserted meow into sentences under her breath, and the rest of us just decided to ignore her. We waited fifteen minutes before Donuts came back down. "So?" I asked the vampire. "What's up there?"

She recalled the cat into her shadow, listening intently, head cocked and ear towards the dark. "He says...medicine? Big pots with no fish. Weird smelling plants." She shot her shadow a suspicious look. "Spit that out." There was a pause and then a mouth opened in the dark, hacking up a small ball of plant matter with a burp. She picked it up, grimacing. "This isn't cat nip." She scolded the cat. "It's nightshade. But it does explain what's up there. I think we might be right under an old alchemy lab." Well, that was worth checking out at least.
chapter 518
Once we'd confirmed there was nothing in the room upstairs dangerous to anyone but urban foragers we all climbed the steps to explore the alchemy lab. When we stepped out into the room, the first thing that struck me was the smell. Floral, a bit medicinal at times, but more than anything...almost electric. I felt my skin buzzing from the fumes alone, and my head might have started fogging without my mask, judging by the slightly woozy look on Jessie's face.

Granted, that might have been shock at the variety and appearance of the plants up here, because the first thing we stumbled on were a series of planter boxes filled with hundreds of types of valuable herbs and, if my nose didn't deceive me, some spices.

"They're so...beautiful." Breathed our healer. Which they were, and there were more than a few flowers mixed in. Jessie had grown up around flowers, and developed her original ability in horticulture. Her appreciation for pretty plants was well documented.

Callie stepped forward, glancing down at the label plaques at the base of each plant. "Interesting." She remarked. "A box for each stat. No Impact plants, obviously. If they had those they're probably either gone or kept somewhere substantially more secure than what appears to be a classroom. Still, an impressive selection, even if all of them are F-rank."

F-rank was also the standard for the tests, so it was probably the lowest level of student they accepted here. Maybe because that was the time when getting your Azure Soul Body was easiest. I knew it was possible to do it earlier, but being stronger when you did the trials was probably helpful. They were aimed more at the soul than anything, but I wasn't sure G-ranked me could have managed some of the things we'd had to do.

"What makes you think it's a classroom?" Asked Benny. "I'd have guessed plant nursery or something. Maybe a greenhouse?"

"The rank of the plants." I answered for her. "All the lowest level. Plus if you look back there you can see tables covered with cauldrons, alembics, boilers. All sorts of alchemy shit that I don't know the name or function of. Actually, do YOU know what that stuff is?" I pointed back to the tables I'd just mentioned. "Maybe from your Inventing knowledge?"

Spotting them, he walked towards the back of the room with interest. "Huh. One or two things. That's an evaporator, an essence extractor, and that's a malfas contextualizer." At my blank look he just chuckled. "They're tools for removing specific elements or qualities to add to inventions to try to steer your results. They're also used heavily in Alchemy, which has much more concrete formuli involved."

I knew it was possible for Mad Scientists to exert some small amount of control at lower ranks, and that by synergizing skills or mutating abilities you could even get to the point where you could exert actual control over what you made, albeit in exchange for a decrease in power and capability. Part of the strength of Inventing came from the unpredictability. The mass perception that anything could come from a Mad Scientist's projects removed the limiters on the ability. The more control you exerted the less powerful your Inventions could be.

Benny had done some work learning to guide his Inventions before realizing he got stronger items if he let things take their course. It sounded like the tools in question were a bit of a loophole though, altering the ingredients beforehand to maximize your chances of whatever random item was created being a specific type.

"Can I take these?" Asked my best friend greedily. "Because I could get some use out of this stuff for sure."

Celine smiled placidly. "Of course, even more time you'll be spending tinkering with your toys. That sounds lovely." Her voice was casual, but I noticed Benny's eyes snap to her as he chuckled awkwardly. I was reminded that she'd been less than thrilled by the hardcore nonstop training for months on end during the trip here, and that adding another thing to his plate was bound to cause friction.

He smiled awkwardly at her. "Sorry Cel. I swear, I'm cutting back on training for a while. It's Jessie's turn to put her nose to the grindstone."

We all looked over to where Jessie had picked up a hoe and was trying to use it to pry the flower boxes off the tables. She looked up in surprise. "Huh?" When she saw our gazes she shrugged. "I can't fit the tables in my ring, and the connectors are making it impossible to take the plants. I need to get them off of here so I can ste- I mean, so I can relocate these poor neglected plants."

Randall, who hadn't been able to fit up the stairway in the column, wasn't around to tear them loose, so I could understand needing to pry them up. I chuckled. "Carry on. You got a place to put them when you get them? And can we put still living things in our rings?"

She nodded. "We can, though not sentient things. Also the temporal slowdown in the rings doesn't apply to lifeforce, so the second they go in they start to die. I did some tests on it with other plants. As long as you don't leave them in there for more than a day without life energy they're fine. I can recharge them with my healing every day until we get out, and then find a place to plant them on the Necromedes until we get..." She paused. "Where are we going after this?"

I laughed at that. "I'm still wondering if there'll BE and after this. Even odds we all get murdered here and never see our loved ones again." I glanced over at my girlfriend, who was glowering at me. "Although I'm sure that won't happen and everything will be fine." I tacked on belatedly.

Rolling her eyes, my girlfriend snorted. "Nice backpedal. But yeah, things aren't great right now. Do you see any signs that this place is what the BMP are looking for?"

"Well for a minute I thought it might be that box in the corner marked 'secret god resurrecting potion' but that seemed to obvious." At her glare I just shrugged. "What? You don't think I'd tell you if I saw some sort of clue to why we're all here? My eye of revelation isn't picking up any secret doors or passages. My overlay has about five golden arrows showing right now, so I don't know which might be which."

One of them was probably leading to Gabriel, as for the other four, who knew. She rolled her eyes, but I saw her lips twitch a bit, and I could feel her amusement. She knew I was just messing with her through the bond anyway.

"Eeeek!" Squeaked Jessie from behind us. We all whirled as a crash sounded out, finding out healer on her back with a planted box on top of her. It had broken on her costume without hurting her much, but she was covered in dirt and a long stalk of green with purple bell shaped flowers was wrapping itself around her neck.

Benny walked over, grabbed the stalk, and pulled. The thing snapped in half, one half still around her neck and the other lashing up to grab HIS neck. Pulling out my staff, I whacked it against the plants one after another, the life energy being sucked away enough to make them let go and fall to the ground. Jessie scrambled free of the dirt, spitting and grimacing as she put distance between herself and the plant.

"Ok first of all." I said with repressed humor in my voice. "Did you just SAY eek when that thing grabbed you? And second of all what was that?"

She leaned down to pick up the plaque, which had fallen into the dirt, and held it up for me. "Choking violet. Might focused. I didn't realize it was so literal. Apparently the anchors that keep them on the tables also prevent them from doing things like...well, that. Also I didn't say eek. I said...Zeke. Like your uncle. Because...I was hoping he would save me. Because he's so powerful. But I forgot he wasn't here."

Bethy gave her a pitying look. "Jessie. Even I know that's a terrible lie. And I believe most stuff. Do you want me to have Poptarts follow you around for a while until we can join back up with Randall?"

My friend's shoulders slumped. "Yes." She said sulkily. "Speaking of, Abel, can't you bring him up now?"

"Nope." Said my mentor with a shake of his head. "Not until we get into a hallway or something. So we should move on from this room and figure out where we're going."

Sighing, I gestured to the tables. "Lets see if we can figure out how to take the plants without them trying to murder us. These could be useful later. We should really find an Alchemist actually. Anyone here know Alchemy?" That just got head shakes from everybody.

Once we decided that, we all looked around to find the most harmless sounding plant, and then worked together to try to sever the link between it and the table. My Enchanting was way out of date and I didn't know this style anyway, but luckily Nat was here and my cousin knew a bit about this kind of thing. She studied the runes carefully, tracing them with her fingers until she finally located one and jammed a knife in it.

Jessie tried again to lift the box of dirt and plants and it came up easily. She squealed in joy, storing it in her ring, and then the two of them started cleaning the whole place out even as Celine helped Benny take all the equipment.

After that, we searched the room for documents or any kind of books or maps. I used Eye of Revelation to speed things up, and to my delight I actually found a book hidden behind a wall panel. We pulled it out, and I couldn't read a word of it, but Chelsea, being more versed in older languages, was able to decipher some.

She flipped through the book for a while before slamming it shut. "Ok, this is a journal from the person who taught this class. Sadly no convenient mentions of secret weapons, but the person DID make an offhand reference to a vault in the headmaster's office. I can't say for sure that's where the thing we're looking for will be, but it seems like as good a place to start as ever."

"That's awesome!" I crowed in excitement. That was a hugely lucky break. "You did it Chelsea." My smile dropped as I saw her frown. "You don't seem like you did it though. You seem worried."

She flipped the book back open to the last page. Due to her high Focus she'd skimmed it unbelievably fast, but I think she wanted to recite this part aloud just to make sure we got the point. "The school has fallen." She said grimly. "The enemy are at the gates. Even now they invade our halls, perverting the sanctity of our most noble place of learning. Their greed will be their undoing. Soon we will be gone. But death...death will remain."

I froze, looking down at the book. "I don't suppose the word for death translates into something else? Something happy? Maybe puppies? Could it be puppies that remain?"

She shook her head. "Whatever killed the people who ran this place, they didn't want it to get what it wanted. They left safeguards. Something is in here with us, and it doesn't want us here. I'm not sure how many of them are still here, or how strong they might still be, but I don't think we should take it for granted. We should get Randall up here soon. We can't leave him alone. None of us should be alone." I swallowed hard but nodded. She was right. The Blood Murder Palace had brought us to a bad place, and I hoped we would all make it through.
chapter 519
"So...there's something evil in the hallways?" I said rhetorically. "That's just fantastic. Are we even sure whatever the security system was went off? Because they robbed this place down to the studs. I feel like they would have been interrupted or something."

Chelsea shrugged. "I just read you what it said. I have no clue about the details. It's not like there was a post script saying 'p.s. the evil monsters we unleashed will be in hallway five at six P.M on the third monday of every month, oh, and they're allergic to peanut butter'. I'm running on very little info just like you. The question is what to do with the info we have? Are we still going out there?"

I blew out a breath. "I mean, we have to don't we? We need to find whatever they're looking for. Anything in the rest of the book about that?"

"Not that I saw." She said with a grimace. "I can go over it again. My Focus made skimming fast and easy, but I might be able to try to parse it for data points. I didn't see any obvious references to anything specific though. Just the reference to the headmaster's vault."

Benny groaned. "Man, why is everyone dead. Usually we'd have met someone who could give us the down low on everything. Someone involved who can tell us what happened."

My eyes widened. "Wait...what if we COULD do that?" I was starting to form the beginnings of a plan. A crazy and potentially suicidal plan, but a plan nonetheless. It would be risky, but if wanted information it might be the best chance we had. I turned to Bethy. "You can control and talk to animals you...what, enthrall?"

"Thralls are people." She said sternly. "Animals are familiars. But yeah, I can understand what they're saying for the most part. It's not really talking like humans do it. More like images. But with context and emotions. Why do you ask?"

"There's...something, out there." I pointed to the halls. "Something dangerous and terrible that wiped out everything that was here before. But whatever it is, it's a living thing. Hell, it might not even be the SAME living thing, maybe it's a descendant. Whichever monster or beast they let loose out there, it's the only thing we know of that might have some clue of what's going on or why. At the very least it knows its way around."

Jessie, being our resident monster tamer, got it first. "You want her to tame the thing." She said in shock. "But we don't even know what it IS."

"So we cheat." Callie said with a grin. She always understood me best. "We can use wishes to prepare some traps and restraints. We might not be able to wish for the information on what we're dealing with, but we can wish for the right kind of items to counter it. Then Jessie can do her thing, use lifeforce to tame it. Once it's restrained and docile Bethy can...familiarize it. However it works."

The vampire girl bit her lip. "Maybe. I don't know if I'll have any kind of innate advantage. My cats are Night Pride, shadow demons. I have some sway over the dark, so that helps." Her voice wasn't as bright and cheerful as usual, more analytical. Bethy in her serious mode was a rare sight. "But if you have it bound somehow and Jessie uses her lifeweaving...I think I should be able to tame a powerful F-rank creature."

"If it's E-rank we're fucked anyway." I said with a shrug. "We'd probably already be dead. Actually, if they had anti-invader protocols, why ARE we still alive? Any high ranked monster would have already killed us."

Chelsea frowned, tipping back her head and closing her eyes. "Spatial sanctions." She said simply. "Not uncommon in training and combat academies. Stops the higher ranks from picking fights with the newbies. The space here is structure to break if anyone past a certain point exerts any Impact here." She opened the book again, flipping through. "Got it. This is the freshman academy. This part of the building is cut off from the more powerful places."

"That's good though, isn't it?" I asked hopefully. "The headmaster isn't a freshman, or an F-ranker, so his office will be in a higher level area. The Blood Murder Palace initiates will get murdered by the defenses or whatever when they step into a higher level area."

She shook her head. "Spokes on a wheel from what I can tell. The headmaster needed to be accessible to everyone. The different classes surround the central office, and you can access it from any of them. Once they get in...well if the monsters from the other areas break past the defenses they'd be waiting in there, but without anyone to open the place it's unlikely."

"Ok. So we need to get through the defenses in the freshman section of the academy, which will be limited to F-rank threats, but probably REALLY scary ones. And when we do its possible there will be horrible monsters of an even HIGHER level. Fingers crossed the defenses on that office are still holding. But getting there means we need something to counter the monsters or whatever that are here."

"Well, then I wish we had a collar that could contain the type of monster that lives here." Callie said vaguely. "I'll pay with ten shadow travel charges."

Wish detected. Grant wish?

I confirmed, gleefully noting that I could afford it. I wasn't sure how specific 'contain' really was, but she'd been aiming for doable not perfect. I felt the electricity build in my hands, gathering before a charge exploded out, congealing into a massive pitch black iron collar with symbols carved all over it.

Three wishes left. I glanced around. "Ok, so we have something that can counter it. Probably. Anyone know what this IS?" I'd never seen anything like it.

Chelsea, luckily, had. "I recognize the runework at least. Give me a minute. It's not something I studied, more like something I saw in a book once." At my raised eyebrow she shrugged. "The Holy Dominion is fairly boring, especially when you're avoiding dozens of suitors. I mostly spend my time in the library when I'm home."

"Well, always nice to be well read." I said with a chuckle. "Especially when it saves me from getting my face ripped off. If you recognize any of the symbols, that'll be usable."

"Well that one means dog." She said, pointing to the one closest to the hinge. "And that one means hot punishment place."
We all blinked at her. "Hot...punishment place?" I asked slowly. "No context or...like there's not one word for it? Because that's not helpful."

She threw up her hands. "I'm not a linguist! I told you I saw it in a book. Something about a hot place where people are punished. That's where the dog lives. If you need more than that I suggest consulting a whatever language this is dictionary, instead of someone who noticed the symbols on a fucking pot in a reliquary text."

"So...not to interrupt." Said Callie slowly. "But do you think maybe the symbol means 'hell'? Because like...that's a hot place where bad people go."

"That would make sense." Said Chelsea thoughtfully. "So a dog from hell?" She froze, her head slumping. "Oh. I'm an idiot. Hellhound. The collar is made to contain a hellhound. Wait shit, they summoned HELLHOUNDS?" Her voice went up into a squeak as she started looking around in fear.

That didn't seem promising. "What exactly are hellhounds? Aside from, I guess, hounds from hell? But is that even a real place?"

"There are supposedly several hells, most of them defunct or belonging to vanished gods." She said with a grimace. "It's hard to tell what's legend and what's fact. Hellhounds though, are demonic animals that can be summoned with access to the right rituals. Summoned from WHERE I have no clue, because we don't have the rituals, but they're incredibly dangerous and nearly impossible to kill without a strong advantage in Impact."

I looked down at the collar. "Ok, that sounds...bad. But the collar will help right? Like it should suppress the hellhound so we can capture it?" I glanced at Bethy. "Are you sure it's even safe to try?"

Sadly, it didn't matter, because Bethy was staring at the thing with figurative stars in her eyes. I saw her open her mouth, and I knew what was going to come out immediately. My hands blurred up to my ears just fast enough to block them off as she squealed. "PUPPY!"

"Gods woman." Barked Abel with a wince. "You could break glass with that shriek. Warn us next time." He glared at me. "Or YOU could have warned us."

I shrugged. "No time, I could only save myself. Your sacrifice is appreciated. Axel." He snarled at me, and I ducked behind Callie as he made a lung, cackling like a madman. My girlfriend just rolled her eyes at us both. "So." I said getting us back on track. "Will this collar be enough? Can we get more collars?"

"Probably wouldn't do much. Necks are only so big." Said Callie with a shrug. "We might be able to do something else though. I wish for a hellhound lure that will keep the monster's attention, but only works on one creature at a time." She pursed her lips, thinking for a minute before saying. "I'll give ten shadow clone charges."

Wish detected. Grant wish?

I grinned. I was at seven shadow teleports and two shadow clone charges, so ten of each brought me up to max along with seven and two reserve charges respectively. As the power gathered in my hand again, I wondered what kind of ancient artifact we'd get this time. Some kind of incense maybe? As the purple lightning coalesced though, my jaw dropped.

A bone. A large yellowed bone with carvings all over it, but still, it looked like the kind of bone you'd get at a pet store. We all stared at the thing in surprise. "Oh. Well, ok. That's...cute?" Jessie said questioningly. "Nah, I got nothing. That's a weird looking artifact. You sure it'll do the job?"

I scowled at her. "Hey, do I come over when you're healing people and ask if you're sure they'll get better. My wishes are top quality. Sometimes they're too expensive, but they ALWAYS work."

"Yes, honey." Said Callie consolingly. "Customer satisfaction guaranteed. Now shut up and throw the magic bone out the door so we can catch the damned devil dog." I snickered at her patronizing tone, mostly because I knew she was doing it to mask the worry I could feel from the bond. I shrugged, walked to the exit of the room, jerked the door open, and hurled the bone at the wall across the hall.

"Soups on!" I bellowed. Then slammed the door shut, peeking out through a slatted viewing port on the door. "Alright, now we wait." I said, staring intently at the bone. I didn't want to risk the Hellhound grabbing it and running off. I only had one wish left today.

Before I even finished my last word though, something hit the door at top speed, smashing into the dark wood and making it buckle before bouncing off and landing on the bone with ferocious glee, digging in and tearing at the hard material with razor sharp obsidian teeth set into a mouth that glowed with a sullen red light.

"It's here." I murmured under my breath, as the rest of my friends gathered around me at the door. I waited for it to get REALLY into the bone, then I triggered pit of despair, dropping the hound into a ten foot hole made of dust...and right out the bottom into the floor below. "OH SHIT!" I yelped, darting through the door and heading for the hole as a familiar roar came from below us. Apparently Randall had met the hellhound. It didn't sound like they were getting along.

I waited for it to get REALLY into the bone, then I triggered pit of despair, dropping the hound into a ten foot hole made of dust...and right out the bottom into the floor below.
Shane, you impulsive dummy, don't make pit traps in unfamiliar buildings. That only ever leads to trouble.

Loving the story as always!
chapter 520
"You dropped it on my BEAR!" Shouted Jessie as we bolted out the door. "Randall! Hold on sweetie, I'm coming." She leapt into the hole without a second thought, and I was right behind her, but there was someone else who was faster. Abel blurred past me, spatial lubrication letting him slide through the hall and down the hole so quickly even my vision could barely track it.

Grabbing Jessie, I dropped into the hole, stepping off air with Ripple Running, State of Grace slowing us down. As she landed, safely, I let her go, and shifted into Mephistopheles as I tossed her the collar. "We've got him, charge that thing up with your most subversive life force."

Slamming the butt of my staff down, I vaulted across the empty entryway, hurling myself toward the Hellhound as Abel smashed into the side of its head. Randall was torn up, but he'd held out for the few second we took to get there. He might not be some crazy uber powerful demon beast, but he was a bear the size of a fucking bus, and he was coming up quick on the peak of F-rank.

Abel's punch had been enough to jerk the hound's head to the side, but not stop it. I slammed my staff right into its exposed eye, dumping in all the hellfire I could muster.

The Hellhound howled, jerking back and stumbling away, eye burning. Mephistopheles used Marked for Death as part of its base, so defenses could be bypassed. The thing might normally be tanky as hell (pun intended) but my hit was doing SOMETHING at least. "Ok." I growled to myself. "Let's try this again." I triggered Pit of Despair. This time, thankfully, it didn't drop into another floor. It just dropped into the dust. I made a mental note not to use that skill when I'd gone up stairs, at least not to its full depth. I felt Callie prepare to subdue it through the bond. "Jessie! NOW!"

A sea of darkness leapt up, wrapping the hound from snout to tail, though it was already starting to break down as I watched. Jessie didn't need to be told twice. Leaping forward, she snapped the collar around its neck, the dark metal device snapping shut as the symbols carved into it glowed a bright vital green. The hound howled, tearing free and throwing her aside, where she was caught by Nat.

"Everyone stay back!" I yelled as I backed away from the thing where it was struggling. It was free, but every time it tried to move, sparks of green would come off it, causing it to yip and snap. "Bethy, you're about up here. You ready to do your part?" The glow of the magma from the hound's mouth was starting to dim slightly, which seemed like a good sign, but that didn't make it much less terrifying.

Seeing it like this in the middle of the room gave me a new appreciation for the thing. It stood about five feet at the shoulders, close cropped ears and lean features, kind of like a hunting dog. Its eyes (or eye right now) blazed a deep ruby red and its obsidian teeth shone in the residual glow from its mouth.

As I watched, its snapping became less and less frequent, and when it finally ceased attacking enough to be vulnerable, Bethy charged forward with a triumphant squeal of. "PUPPY!" And hurled herself onto its back. Its non injured eye went wide, and it started to buck and shake, but Bethy held onto the collar, riding its back like a bronco at a rodeo, shrieking with delight.

As we watched, the ground began to change, black grass sprouting, tombstones rising from the dirt. Above them a red sky unfolded, black clouds partially covering a bloody moon. With almost no warning, Bethy's legs clamped down as she leaned sideways, planted a hand on the grass, and flipped the struggling animal up and over, slamming it back first into the ground.

She blurred forward, leaping on top of the Hellhound, and like a striking viper, sunk her fangs into its throat just above the collar. It struggled, but she quickly pulled back, slashing open an arm and dripping the blood into its mouth before she grabbed it around the neck in a chokehold and held it still.

The dog was terrified, bucking and fighting, but Bethy's eyes glowed bright red as she made shushing noises, muttering softly to the animal that it was alright.

When it calmed down, she rolled off of it, looking down at her dress with a pout. "What a bad boy, you made mommy all messy. Oh well, it was our first time meeting, so I'll let it slide." She looked down at the cowering dog and scratched behind his ears. "Who's mommy's good boy? Who is it? You are! Yes you are!" To my shock the Hellhound's tail actually started to wag, the great beast straightening up.

Callie stepped up next to her. "I uh...brought his bone?" She said uncertainly, passing the lure to Bethy, who nodded happily. "So can he tell us anything?"

"I've named him Luggage!" She pronounced. Apparently breakfast foods were cat names. "And yes, he can tell us all sorts of things. But he's shy right now. I'm going to have to patch him up, since mean old Shane put one of his eyes out. Jessie can you heal Luggage?"

Our healer was currently patching up her bear, who was mostly done bleeding. She glared at the vampire, then at the whining dog, and sighed. "I guess. Randall is ok anyway. Mostly superficial wounds. Have..." She grimaced saying the name. "Luggage, come over and wait by me. I'll patch him up next."

Bethy clapped happily, tossing the bone lure casually. "Luggage, go play with your toy while you wait." The dog's head jerked up, and then he blurred across the room to snap up the bone excitedly before lying down to gnaw on it.

"Alright. So...that was easier than expected." I said cheerfully. "Sorry about Randall, Jessie. Is he doing ok?"

She sighed, nodding as she stood up. "I have him patched. I know you didn't mean it and he's fine so it's water under the bridge." Walking over to the hound, she knelt down and placed a hand on his flank. He growled slightly, but Bethy cleared her throat and he settled down. "Wow, his fur is so soft." Said Jessie as she channeled power into him, smiling softly.

The Hellhound had a glossy black coat that seemed to actively suck in light around it, and it made the demon dog hard to spot unless you knew where to look or it was in action. It was interesting that it was soft, for some reason I'd assumed it would be like barbed wire or something. Something durable and defensive.

Once she finished up the healing, Bethy was at the dog's side in a snap, rubbing her face on his fur. "Oh, you're feeling all better now aren't you? Did Auntie Jessie fix you all up?" She gave us a serious glance. "Dog's need more affection than cats. Donuts and Poptarts are too independent for cuddles, but Luggage is a good boy, aren't you?" She cooed to the hellhound a bit more, and its tail started wagging again.

"That's nice to know." I said slowly. "But we're in the market for some other information. To start with, why don't you tell us about the Hellhounds. Is Luggage the only one?"

She cocked her head, listening as the dog made snuffling grunting sounds, and then shook it quickly, hair bouncing. "Nope. He says there's a whole litter of them. Thirteen total, counting him. He's the youngest. Apparently all his brothers and sisters are bigger too."

I sighed in defeat. "Of course they are. Of course we ended up catching the runt of the litter." A deep growl echoed out from the hound and I cleared my throat, holding up my hands defensively. "Sorry, man. No offense."

"Did mean old Uncle Shane make my baby sad?" Bethy cooed to the massive infernal killing machine. "It's ok, you're mommy's good boy. Now, do you think you could show us a way to the headmaster's office without running into any of your siblings?" She paused for a bit as the dog snuffled. "I..." She looked at us. "How would you describe a specific location to a dog?"

I paused. "Shit. That's a really good point." I said quietly. "Ummm...oh, ask him if there are places where some of his siblings can't go?" She looked at him expectantly, and he snuffled, which she translated with a nod. "Ok, well is there a place in the MIDDLE of all those places where ALL of them can go?"

She listened for a minute. "Apparently he calls it...well, I can't translate that, but the closest approximation is 'bad place with mean things that don't smell good'." She paused again. "Or possibly 'mean place where smell is bad' I think he might be saying his sense of smell doesn't work in the headmaster's office. But yes, he knows where that is. He says he knows a smelly path that dogs don't like."

Callie sighed. "Well that sounds promising. But presumably smelling bad beats getting eaten alive by a pack of Hellhounds, or at least as many as can get to us in the F-ranked section."

I nodded. "Abel, can you get Randall up through that hole if I give you a boost? I figure it'll be easier than trying to get him through that tiny ass stairwell. Straight line rather than a spiral at least." I glanced at Jessie. "He's good to be moved now, right?"

She nodded. "Definitely. The hallways up there are big enough too thankfully. Though I really need to find some kind of bear shrinking artifact. Maybe I can wish for it. It'll be so convenient." She stopped, frowning at the bear. "No I'm not trying to turn you into a teddy bear. Well, yes, obviously I'm going to cuddle you to sleep when you're tiny, what does that have to do with anything?" She threw her hands up. "You're a BEAR, you don't even have a reputation!"

I nodded to Abel, who snickered as he walked over to where the bear sat. "Come on huggles." He snickered. "Let's get your giant ass up to the second floor."

Reaching out, he manifested the massive hand of his Ragam, then grabbed up the bear and shoved forward. The hand closed around the animal, space rippling and shifting as Randall started to fucking SHRINK so he could fit through the opening. I blinked in shock as Abel kicked off the wall, slipping through after him. "I didn't know he could do that." I said blankly. "Did you guys know he could do that?"

I'd seen him do a lot of crazy shit, but shrinking was new. Everyone else looked just as shocked. We all made sure we had what we needed and then headed back to the spiral staircase, which was easier than going through the hole in the floor. When we got to the top, we found Abel and Randall lounging insouciantly, obviously trying to look cool.

"Good work Abner." Said Bethy cheering as she and Luggage ambled past the spot they were resting. "You're the best pet mover ever. I'm totally gonna remember this. I'm so happy for you, you finally found something you're good at!" She sounded so genuine that if I hadn't known she was almost definitely fucking with him, I never would have guessed.

Abel's face turned purple with rage, and he sputtered as she walked past. I stepped up next to him as he stood, patting him on the shoulder. "Don't feel too bad." I said with a reassuring smile. "Didn't you notice?" At his blank look I nodded after her. "She got two letters right this time." That was when I lost my composure and started laughing. It felt good to get some of the tension out.
chapter 521
I grimaced down at the small river of glowing green sludge. "Why is this here?" I asked the others as we stood in the dark cramped tunnel. The entrance was at the back of a closet that Luggage led us to, and after climbing down through the floor, we found ourselves in a weird sort of toxic catacomb.

"Who knows." Said Jessie with a shrug. "But Randall isn't going to fit in this tunnel, so I think it's about time for that wish." I grimaced. I wanted to save my last wish for an emergency, but we did still have Nat with us, and we couldn't leave Randall behind again, not with a big hole in the floor and Hellhounds on the loose, and especially not upstairs in the very hallways said devil dogs were guarding. At my nod, Jessie said clearly. "I wish I had an artifact that would let me shrink Randall and then return him to the proper size unharmed as many times as I wanted."

Wish detected. Grant wish?

"Looks like I have the juice for that. Probably some space warping effect like Abel used. Anyway, I need some payment if I want to grant it." I shrugged. "What do you have for me?"

"I was going to offer ten reserve heals." She said casually. "I mean, it's not creative, but you do need them. You're full up right now, but you go through them fast. Another ten free once you run up your current tab should be more than enough to afford an artifact like that."

Confirming the wish, I was pleased to see she was right. The power gathered and then exploded out, creating a small necklace in the shape of a gold circle with a crystal star shining in the center. I passed it to her, not getting a charge this time since my heals were currently full. Reserves were useful as hell when I found myself in need with no wishes to trade, which like it or not might very well end up happening pretty soon.

Jessie laughed delightedly as she took it, and the star crystal sparked once. She blinked, eyes going hazy, and then grinned at me. "Looks like this one comes with instructions. Granted, it's not complicated to use." She turned, climbing up out of the tunnel, and I followed. She pointed the necklace at Randall, then flicked the star inside the circle, which began to spin. As the image of the bear changed, Randall himself began to shrink, until he was only a little guy about the size of a breadbox.

Bethy squealed with excitement, clapping in enthusiasm as she watched the bear shrink, then snatched him up, squeezing him tight. "He's so CUTE!" She crowed. "I wanna borrow it. I can use it on Luggage, and Donuts, and Poptarts and I'll have super tiny little mini animals to carry around and put on my shoulders. Or I can turn into swarm of bat kitties and carry them all!"

"Not the time Bethy." I said firmly. "Also doesn't work for anyone but them. Specificity helps cut down on cost."

She pouted, but I didn't bother arguing with her about it, just turned and climbed back into the reeking glowing tunnel. "Well, we're ready to go now." I said, grimacing at the scent. It was worse after getting to leave for a while and come back. I wished my sense of smell would stop working, but it didn't seem likely.

"So, I vote we don't TOUCH that stuff." Rasped Benny. "I'm not sure what it is, but very few things that glow and smell this bad are a part of a healthy breakfast."

I nodded. "I'm more curious why they felt the need to make this sewer tunnel. This shouldn't fit between the floors. We punched through the ground outside that alchemy lab without any trouble, it was like four feet thick. Someone purposefully put this here to guide...whatever that shit is. And judging from the direction it's flowing, it's not going TO the vault."

Chelsea nodded. "It seems like some kind of runoff? But what exactly makes this kind of byproduct? Is it part of the defenses? Is the air conditioning filter worn out? Who the hell knows?"

"I really wish we could gather information with wishes." Cursed Nat. "That stupid secret price imbalance is the most inconvenient thing. We could try anyway? Spam a lot of very general questions and see if anything sticks. Couldn't hurt to have more info."

I shrugged. "We walk and talk. We don't wan-" My voice cut off as I triggered Belial, blurring forward with my staff flashing out to deflect an attack from...something. Something vaguely familiar. It dove back into the channel when it saw me, and I waited for any sign of further attack, but it was gone. "Ok, did anyone else see that? Because I might be crazy, but that looked like-"

"The things from the woods." Said Callie with a grimace. "Except mutated. Its antlers looked like blades, and I think it had a fish tail instead of back legs."

"Oh come on!" I yelled at the muck. "How is that even a thing? Who looked at those fucking monsters and thought, 'hey, lets make them way worse'. That is just...deeply unpleasant." I sighed. "Alright, well it seems like they're ambush predators, and that they don't work well on land. Let me take the lead and stay on the other side of me. Belial and my staff combined make me a solid counter to these things."

Not as solid as if I'd had time to fully acclimate myself to their venom, but who knew if they even had the same stuff. We started forward, the Hellhound hanging back looking miserable and snuffling to his vampire. This little sewer system wasn't exactly a maze, but there WERE turns, and he kept us seemingly on the right path. We had a few more scares with the muck monsters, but when they realized I could sense their ambushes they stopped bothering.

I was a bit worried about it actually. Ambushes from dangerous monsters made sense, but these things backing off was odd if they were security beasts. Which meant they probably weren't. These weren't like the Hellhounds that were left here on purpose with orders. They were just here. So where had they come from? Did it have something to do with the runoff? What exactly was IN that vault?

As we continued, Bethy pulled back. "Luggage says the smell is getting worse. He says this a bad place, and his nose is starting to not work."

"Is there any way for you to put him...somewhere? Like with the cats?" I asked, shooting the poor hound a concerned frown. Tried to kill us or not, he was pretty cute dog, and he was helping. I didn't want him to suffer for no reason when we were probably getting close. It looked like a straight shot from here anyway.

She bit her lip in thought. "Maybe? I can't keep him in my shadow. He doesn't work like that. But I used my domain to catch him. I might be able to put him inside for a while. I won't have access to my domain while he's in there though. And I might be a little distracted."

"It's your call." I shrugged. "But if he's suffering that bad it might be best for him."

After thinking for a moment, she nodded. "You're right." She got down on her knees to face the hound, listening to his snuffled directions, before kissing him on the top of the head and scratching behind her ears. Her eyes started to glow that unearthly red, black grass beginning to sprout from the stone beneath her heeled boots. Then, after a second, the grass faded, as did the form of the dog.

Bethy stood, eyes glowing still, and sighed. "Alright, he said it's straight down the pathway. We're almost there. Good idea Shane."

"It's nothing, glad he's ok." Bethy's crazy might be rubbing off on me, or he might remind me of Jin, who was back on the Necromedes who knew how far away, but I thought the Hellhound was kind of cool. We continued down the passage, and I felt more than a few brief hints of danger before the creatures noticed me and backed off. They were testing me, checking to see if I could still see them coming.

Finally, we came to the end of the tunnel, where a waterfall of green muck poured from a brass grate in the top of the tunnel. On either side of the canal, set into the dark stone, were a pair of brass ladders marked with a myriad of delicately carved symbols. Before anyone could step forward, I held up a hand. "Chelsea, can you take a crack at deciphering these? Maybe Nat can help. I don't want anyone touching the ladder until we know what the symbols do."

Something about this place was off. The vault was supposed to have the item that the Blood Murder Palace needed, not...this. Toxic waste? Something was wrong with this vault, and I wanted to know exactly what that ladder and the spellwork strewn hatch above it led to before anyone of us touched it.

They nodded, stepping forward as Callie leaned in next to me. "What is it?" She asked quietly, stealth muffling her voice to keep it from anyone but me.

"I'm not sure...it's-" I cut myself off as I thought of something. Triggering my overlay, I pushed with my Eye of Revelation, shifting the context slightly and..."There's no safe way forward." I said with a grimace. "A few neutral, but no gold arrows. None of the ways we can enter that place are good for us."

She scowled. "We have to go forward though. We have no way back. Whatever is in that vault is our only leverage if we can't figure something out. And if we CAN we don't want them to have it."

"I know." I said tensely. "But I don't want to lead us into a trap either. Maybe if they figure out what the ladder does and why it's there, we can find a safe way to proceed. Just because none of our current options are any good doesn't mean we can't make our own way."

Chelsea called out to us after a minute or two. "I think we got something." We headed over to stand with her, and she pointed at a few symbols. "It's some kind of filtration system. I don't know why they need it, but this whole thing is cyclical. At least based on the enchantments. It pumps this stuff through the entire surrounding area, and the soil and wildlife leeches...something, out of it, making it safe to use. Then they do something to it up there and it becomes tainted."

"Is the hatch safe to use?" Several of the white arrows pointed up, so I suspected it was at least survivable.

"Maybe?" She said uncertainly. "Nothing is supposed to go up this ladder. Things come down it to do maintenance on this place, but going up isn't what it was designed for. In fact, climbing DOWN it is supposed to filter some of whatever is infecting this muck."

Looking around, I took in the place around us. Staying down here was a bad idea. I was sure this stuff was going to do something to us if we lingered, and going up seemed like it might be worst, but we needed to do it. "Chelsea, can your flames of purification cleanse the area around us and on the other side of the hatch? Just for a minute so we can get through there and hopefully to somewhere safe?" She looked uncertain, but I had a plan. Holding out my hand, I triggered Afterburner. "Well then how about I give you a boost."
chapter 522
It took about an hour to successfully purify all the ambient...whatever it was, and then do the same through the hatch. Luckily, brass doesn't exactly insulate heat, so Chelsea was actually able to leak the flames through the metal by superheating it. It took probably four times as long as it should have because of that, but eventually my overlay informed of a gold arrow, and after sending through a shadow clone, Callie confirmed it was safe.

Once that was done, we turned the hatch (took a few minutes for me to figure out the combination, thank you Eye of Revelation) and then we climbed out into...something.

A room. Round and flowing with green muck. At least, the outer ring was green. In the center, a waterfall of black liquid poured into a massive tank, under which hung a hugely complicated array of spellworked tubes and vessels. The tubes ran the liquid through various glowing filters and enchanted sieves, condensing and refining it until it came out in the form of thirteen taps, each dripping a few drops into ANOTHER tank, which dripped even more densely different colored drops onto a glowing green skull.

The skull was pulsing with a sullen rhythm, and as the liquid hit, steam leapt up, siphoned from the air into a series of tubes that further refined it, all that vapor being collected yet another series of arrays and tubes that seemed to lead out of the room.

All the excess liquid that didn't steam ran off in rivulets into an empty pipe below the skull, and it glowed a familiar and toxic looking green. The runoff after all was said and done looked to be very nearly the same amount that was going in, somehow. Whatever was being extracted didn't effect the physical amount of liquid used, and whatever that runoff was it was dangerous.

"Come on." Grimaced Chelsea. Her hands were alight with white flame. "We can't be in here. My flame isn't able to keep purifying whatever THAT is. That skull is a horrible thing and we need to get away from it."

Nodding, we helped her to the door at the far end of the chamber, under where the tubes let out. It took me a minute to get the thing open, but once we were out, it slammed shut on its own and my sister slumped against me, exhausted. "Alright, well that was...weird." I said. "As far as I can tell, that's some sort of...reactor? Experiment chamber? Is that the vault the guy mentioned? Because the only thing in there is that skull."

"Speaking of, what IS that skull?" Asked Benny. "And what the hell was it doing. Every one of those filters was made of a rare and expensive mystical material, and the enchantments on those things were DENSE. The process that stuff is undergoing is incredibly complicated and I couldn't BEGIN to follow that level of sophistication, but whatever they're making, it's got to be expensive and dangerous."

I shrugged. "Look around this place. Maybe we can figure it out." Outside the 'vault' was a normal looking office. Well, mostly. Along the ceiling hidden tubes could barely be made out coming from the chamber with the skull. The tubes were woven into a large and complicated spellwork diagram, all of it concentrated on a brass cone shaped device the came down at the very center of the room.

The vapor from the room was collected, run through the device and condensed into liquid, and finally, about every ten minutes or so, a single drop would fall from the needle tip of it into a black shining chalice on a plinth in the middle of the room.

Around it though, were bookshelves, and a desk and a bunch of odds and ends that looked headmaster-y. We all split up, looking through the bookshelves and the desk, though Callie went over them with her trap Skill and Chelsea and Nat checked them for enchantments first. I also used my overlay to direct people toward the most relevant places rather than just blindly checking.

Finally, we got lucky. "Got something." Said Chelsea excitedly as she pushed up on the bottom of an extended drawer on the desk. When she did, a panel slid back, revealing a neat little stack of papers and books in a cubby that was too small for them. Pulling one out, she opened it, grinning in triumph. "Hah! This is Avarian. I can read this." She frowned. "Well I can read Cersik, which is a derivative of Avarian, albeit influenced by Rallish. But I'll muddle through."

"How many languages do you KNOW, exactly?" I said, impressed at the depth of her studies. It really MUST be boring in the Holy Dominion.

She shrugged. "I'm fluent in forty seven, conversational in another sixty. There's enough crossover that learning new ones is usually easy with the knowledge base I've got. Grandpa has an absurdly broad library, but almost none of the books are in universal common. I had to learn to translate or get pigeonholed to a tiny section of the library, and the librarian is a sweet old man who likes to lecture."

"Damn." I said with a whistle. "Your Focus must be pretty high. I had you pegged for a Might focus, given the flames."
"Understandable." She said with a smile. "And my stats do lean that way. I'm kind of an even split of Might and Focus. I also have a few research Skills that boost my learning and studying efficiency. Miles the librarian is chock full of those, and he's taught me more than a few."

I gestured to the book. "So, since you can read it, what does it say? I'm not sure what it is we need to take. I'm leaning toward the cup, but the skull might also be the target. I'd say we should take both, but I REALLY don't want to touch any part of that ritual before we know what it does, especially not the part that seems to be poisoning the entire countryside somehow."

Nodding, my sister gestured for Callen to drag over a chair and sat down as we continued to comb the room for...anything. When I couldn't find shit, I called everyone over to give Chelsea a chance to work while we had a meeting about what the hell was going on.

"So..." I asked lamely. "Anyone have any fucking idea what this place is? Aside from a nightmare."

Nat shook her head. "Nope. I had Valk do a battery of wish questions, just to see if we could dredge anything up, while you and Chelsea were purifying the space in that room so we could get through. Pretty much just yes or no on some random shit. Yes the thing they want is here, yes they know what it is. More misses than hits. I still have a few left in case of emergency, since SOMEONE didn't save any."

My cousin's glare rolled right off me. I just shrugged. "That's why we have two of us right? Besides, I made sure to use them all for important things. Never enough wishes in the day."

Benny rolled his eyes. "Oh boo hoo, my nearly omnipotent wishgranting power has too many limitations. Why don't assholes try life without the cheatcodes and see if you're still complaining. I'll take limited wishes over nothing any day of the week."

"I DID try that. Ass." I sneered. "Why don't you try not being a dumbass."

"Why don't YOU try shutting the fuck up?" He snapped back. But was interrupted by Abel smacking us upside the head one at a time.

He rolled his eyes when we both shot him our glares. "Why don't you both shut up, and anyone who has productive ideas can talk. I'm getting a headache listening to your squabbling. You're like a pair of crying babies, the both of you."

"Abacus is right." Said Bethy seriously. "We need to focus on what's happening."

Abel whirled on her. "That one isn't even a NAME!" He shouted, throwing his hands up in the air. "And I don't see you contributing."

She shrugged. "I got us here didn't I? Luggage was our guide, and now we're standing in the center of it all, before anyone else." Her face pinched in worry. "But...I wonder where Gabe is. He's all alone out there, and who knows who he's run into."

"He'll be fine." Said Callie firmly. "He's the toughest person in the whole group. The faster we figure out what's going on, the faster we can track him down and make sure he's safe." She turned to call over. "Chelsea, any idea what those books are yet?"

My sister looked annoyed, but not at Callie. She didn't look up as she called back. "Yes! They're research notes, but I'm having a lot of trouble with the Avarian. Turns out while it IS a Cersik proto language, they completely changed the syntax. I know what these words MEAN, but not what order they're supposed to be in. Just from the first few pages though, I've picked out a few words."

"Such as?" I asked hopefully. Maybe there were directions to what we needed, or even a fucking description.

"Nothing good." She said with a grimace. "Mostly just really obscure notation protocols, but there were a few disturbing little tidbits. The word vivisection comes up several times, for instance. Like I said, still sorting context, but to be fair, I don't think I've ever seen vivisection pop up in any story with a happy ending. Plus the ominous green skull with the horrific mutating aura of toxic death seems like a red flag."

I nodded. "Alright, keep at it, we just need to finish bef-" And of COURSE, before I even finished that sentence, something massive and powerful hit the door. Everyone's heads jerked up, and we all got into position in front of Chelsea, preparing for whatever was coming.

There was another crash and the door to the room was smashed open (on closer examination they'd just rattled the crossbar out from in front of it, the actual door seemed to be made of pretty tough material) and a fucking SEA of robed figures poured in.

Drawing my staff, I shifted into Belial, while everyone else got ready to fight. From beyond the robed figures I head a rhythmic clack. The BMP assholes moved aside, revealing a limping Felix, with one leg missing and using a cane to get around. His face was as blank and neutral as ever as he approached, stopping in front of us. "Well. Good to see you all again. It seems you've beaten us here."

"Yes." I said gravely. "We've already gotten our hands on...that chair." I pointed at Chelsea. "It's got unmatched lumbar support. Truly a fearsome weapon. We're willing to give it to you if you show us how to leave."

That actually got a smile. "Ah, I see you're hoping I'll monologue and reveal our master plan to you."

I shrugged. "I mean, I figure I have a decent chance. You murdery types love to talk. That Billy guy didn't shut the hell up. So, you going to give me the play by play? Tell me how you plan to bring back Hatescream? That is your plan right? Raise up your crazy murder god?"

Felix stared at me in confusion, tilting his head. I expected a villainous gloating session. Instead he just looked perplexed. "Raise up Hatescream? You think we had to come all the way here, to risk so much just to resurrect a dead god?" He smiled at me gently. "You've misunderstood Shane. We aren't hear to resurrect Hatescream. Or to get something that will allow us to do so. We're here to acquire something that will let us raise a half DOZEN of them." I blinked. That...was way worse than I was expecting.
chapter 523
"What the actual fuck does THAT mean?" I snapped, staring at the other man with hostility. "First of all, HOW would you do that? Second of all WHY would you do that? Hatescream I get, he's your boss, but most of the vanished gods have been gone for ages. Why would you want them back hogging your boss's spotlight? Hell, how do you know you could even get them to play nice."

Felix shrugged. "We naturally have our own methods of ensuring such things. As for the how...I assume you have a basic idea."

I grimaced. "The shit in that cup. The weird ritual liquid leaking off the skull. What IS that skull anyway. If you're here for the liquid I assume you know?" I felt deeply uncomfortable being around that thing earlier. Sure it was enchanted, but it was more than just enchantment. Something was WRONG with it. My Danger Sense was going off like crazy when we were near it, though that might have been the poison muck.

He shook his head. "I'm afraid not. Lord Hatescream knew of this place, and left record for accessing it. This particular plan has been in motion for many years."

"So why now?" I asked. "Why wait all this time and do it at this exact moment. I refuse to believe my luck is that bad."
Another smile graced his lips, this one more mocking. "Do you know what 'the shit in that cup' is, Shane? What it's capable of doing?"

"It's spiritually reactive biomass." Said Chelsea grimly from behind us. "Of some kind. It eats material and then uses the fuel to create physical mass matching the attributes of the last spiritual influence it came into contact with." She held up the book. "But that's just the end goal of the experiment. It was on the first page. WHY would you need something like that? What would you even do with it?"

"Why, feed it, of course." Said Felix with a laugh. "It's why we waited. See, the Sanctophage material, the name of that substance, requires physical mass of a similar type to be useful. It has to eat something similar to the spiritual input to create the matter." My blood ran cold, and he grinned at me, shedding his aloof pretense, eyes shining with fanatical glee. "I see you figured it out."

"Suvaya." I said hoarsely. "You needed the flesh of a god to use this stuff. The guy who bought that mountain was one of you."

He nodded eagerly. "Of course. Lord Hatescream was a power in his own right. His adherents do not simply belong to dregs and niche organizations. We needed the biomass to fuel the conversion. Once we had that, all we had to do was recover the Sanctophage and not only would our lord return to us, but he would bring along all his friends. Vanished gods whose fragments and spiritual essence he secretly collected over all those years."

"That's not how it works!" Snapped Benny. "I studied that ritual. Mass only helps. The physical body is the least important part. Those spiritual fragments need STATS. Impact. Without the ritual how would you feed one, much less a half dozen?"

I thought back to the description Callen gave me of the substance Billy was carrying. "Lamentation liquid." I said in horror. "You've been ritually sacrificing people to gather that disgusting muck and using it to nurture the spirit shards. You feed it the remains of tortured souls to grow stronger, then feed the biomass to the Sanctophage and let each fragment inhabit the thing so they can make a suitable body."

"The conversion rate is admittedly less than ideal." He said with a shrug. "We require an absurd number of materials. Luckily, there are always places to acquire scraps. The Black Sorrow Cult does a brisk trade in heretics and blasphemers. It's taken us centuries to collect them all, but we had patience. Just as our lord did. He foresaw this day. From the moment he realized how strong the others were growing, he knew he would never be able to achieve his goals."

I tried to follow what he was saying. "So you're saying that since he couldn't beat them, he ENGINEERED his own death to throw off suspicion while he gathered his resources? That's...that's fucking insane."

"SILENCE!" Roared the catlike man. "How dare you question him! The patience, the cunning, the sheer determination required to concoct such a scheme. They're beyond what your petty mortal mind can comprehend. But still. Your willpower and improvisation are impressive. We could allow you and yours to live. Simply hand us the Sanctophage. With it, my lord and his brothers and sisters will rise, they will take back the universe from the six, and we will know paradise in the mortal world."

I stared at him, taking in his peaceful, fanatical expression. "Wow, you are like, completely, bugfuckeringly insane. He's a MURDER god. Or did I get that wrong? Who the hell wants to live in a universe ruled by a guy who thinks 'Blood Murder Palace' is a catchy name for his crew?" I looked at the others. "Is this just me here? Like if you guys think we should do it I guess we can discuss."

Callie rolled her eyes. "I'm pretty firmly in the no column on this one hon'." The others all piped up, nodding and agreeing with her statement.

"You heard the lady." I said, jerking my thumb at my girlfriend. "We're going to opt out of your crazy murder society, thanks so much."

"Fools." He spat, hackles rising like an actual fucking cat. "To spit on HIS generosity. Very well. Then I see no need for your nonsense. Kill them. Kill them all and take the Sanctophage. Kill them if you have to die in the process. We must complete our mission."

With that, the wave of cloaked figures blurred forward, and we were all lost in a sea of violence. My staff flicked up, lashing out to begin deflecting the attacks of the hooded figures into each other, but my eyes went wide as the closest one fucking WRAPPED himself around my staff.

The green corrosion of Belial crept over him, but he just ignored it, weighing down my staff as he slowly died. I was so thrown off by it that I didn't have a chance to dodge the second one as he hit me head on, with two more piling atop us. I panicked, but still had options. I used a shadow jump, sliding into the dark and then stepping out a few feet aeay to take in the scene of the rest of my people.

Chaos. We were all used to fighting rational, sane humans. Even cultists CARED if they died. Sure, the brainwashed sleepers would tank hits like that, but they were also dull and kind of slow in terms of reactions. These guys were living thinking humans who gave no fucks if they survived as long as they could accomplish their goals.

Bethy was under attack from all sides, ten of them having circled her and holding her down. My sister and Callen were penned in the same way, and Abel was on the ground, several of them on top of him until he slipped out with lubricated space and pulped a head, looking genuinely pissed. I looked around for Felix as I saw Nat and her friends grouped around a now full sized Randall who barely fit in the large office, batting away the others.

I caught a flash of yellow heading for the cup and dashed after him...and then I wasn't. I was across the room, throwing myself aside to avoid a punch from Abel that might have actually killed me. He blinked, confused, as did as. Looking around, I saw a hooded figure where I'd been throw itself in front of an attack from Mel that was aimed at Felix, before she vanished, appearing behind Chelsea and barely avoiding getting bisected by Callen.

"Fuck." I snapped. "Everybody careful! They have a translocator!" I'd heard of the ability, like teleportation but it worked on other things instead.

Spatial abilities were a bitch to deal with. I saw a few binding powers at work, starting to slow down Randall, a couple of poison users Chelsea was offsetting, and various elemental and energy based tricks, but the translocator wasn't obvious. I couldn't figure out which one was doing it. The fucking hoods made them impossible to tell apart even with my Perception and Eye of Revelation. Something about the cloaks was blocking it. Like the one Nat had when I met her.

"Back off." Snarled Callie as she stepped from the shadows, swinging an attack at Felix. Nat and the others had managed to slip Perit through their encirclement and she was winding around the pedestal to line up a shot. Felix ignored Callie, shifting into a cat and blurring forward as she sprang at him to attack.

I saw what was going to happen before it did. Pattern recognition, fate sense, or maybe a lucky guess, but I knew. Felix's paw touched the cup on the pedestal, and he was gone. Callie landed a second later, both her black daggers thudding home. One in Perit's back, and one in her throat. She stared up at Callie in shock as my girlfriend looked on in horror. Felix had appeared on the other side of the pedestal, retaking human form to catch the falling cup, then stashing it in a ring.

The pedestal began to glow, red lines pulsing as they emanated from the center. Felix bolted out the open door as it slammed shut, having already been moving before the defenses activated.

The floor started to glow, and I felt heat begin to build. My eyes wide, I blurred forward, grabbing Callie and yelling for the others. She wouldn't let go of Perit's body, even Vitality wouldn't fix that, and she was definitely dead, but Callie just clung to her in panicked desperation.

I didn't have time to fight her on it. I had my Eye of Revelation active, looking for any space that didn't have the sewer system below it. The thing was spatially expanded, so it didn't cover the whole floor, just most of it. I found a section of now glowing stone that didn't have anything under it and I dragged Callie over to it.

Jessie shrank down the bear again, and the others helped fend off the figures so they could all make a retreat after she did it. They were still attacking, desperate to slow us down. I was almost hyperventilating, but I forced myself to calm down. Perit was dead, that was bad, but I was in charge, and if we didn't live no one would mourn her. I had to keep it together.

When the rest of them arrived, I triggered Pit of Despair. And nothing happened. I stared at the ground in rage. We needed out of here, but the floors of this office weren't random hallway floors. They were clearly warded against things like this. Smart call but REALLY unfortunate for us since my feet were starting to burn.

Wait...burn, defenses. I shifted into Mephistopheles. Nat was beside me, shaking her friend, crying as she cradled the body, and I tried so fucking hard not to look. Not to imagine that was me holding Benny, or Jessie, or Callie. Not to let my heart break for my cousin.

I raised my staff, which had absorbed a shocking amount of life force from that crazy fucking initiate who decided to play pencil topper. Then I focused Pit of Despair into it, shoving in as much of my super destructive armor breaking black flame as I could while I did. I slammed the staff down, releasing the attack, the death energy stored, and the flames all at once.

The floor beneath us flashed black, and I felt like it became a bit less stable. I slammed it down again. Pit of Despiar. Pit of Despair. Pit of Despair. The ground collapsed under us, the black flame mixing with whatever flame enchantment apparently destabilizing the structure enough for the attack to finally work. All I could see as we plummeted into darkness was hooded figures bursting into flames as the floors finally got hot enough, and all I heard was my cousin sobbing for her friend.
Welp, there's a second person for Jessie to bring back. Time for a moment of silence for the fallen and then move to stop the nutty cultists.

Thanks for the chapter!
chapter 524
As we hit the ground, we could still hear screams from above. Everyone was freaking out, but despite that, the person I was most worried about was Callie. Horror, guilt, self loathing, pain. Feeling a heart break in real time was an absolute nightmare. Perit hadn't been super close to either of us, but Nat was, and the tall blonde woman had still been part of the group. "Oh gods." She whimpered. "Oh gods what did I do?"

I was at her side in a second, catching her hands as I shouted out. "Chelsea, lights please." A blinding white flame coalesced on my sisters hands and flooded the room with light. Callie was crying, tracks running through the makeup on her eyes and trailing over her mask, mixing with the dust on her face. "Callie." She didn't respond. "Cal! Honey, it's ok. It wasn't you. It was the translocator."

Nat was sobbing over her friend's corpse. I let go of my girlfriend and walked over to check on my cousin. "Natalie." I said quietly, kneeling down and putting my hands on her. "Nat I know this is horrible, but we need to store her body. I've never done a resurrection wish before, but I imagine the less decomp the better. If we put her in one of our spatial rings it'll probably make it easier to bring her back."

She let out a ragged laugh, a hollow, empty sound. "Bring her back? Do you know how much that costs? Do you know how high rank the wish GRANTER needs to be? Never mind the payment. And it scales. Perit was a high F-ranker. It's not like bringing back a mortal."

I nodded in sympathy. "I know. Jessie has been trying to get her brother back. But it IS doable. I checked and the wish is valid, just outside my abilities."

"You're not thinking this through." She snapped. "This will ruin her life. Of course I'll bring her back, but think about what she's losing. People lose interest when a story stops. Any reputation she's got, any chance to get stronger, it'll be gone. Valk and I will be way higher rank than she is, and we'll have left her behind. Assuming we can even do it at all. What if we die? Then we wait what? Ten years for you to maybe bring me back? Death isn't something casual you can just shrug off."

I put up both hands, not missing Jessie's worried expression, but not having time for it. "I get that." I said soothingly. "But we CAN bring her back. Most people don't get that option. And you can help her when we do. Grant her wishes to grind up her stats. Fast track her."

She took a long breath. "I appreciate that Shane." She said, exhaling deeply and trying to calm her trembling voice. Tears still rolled down her face. "But that only works up to the edge of E-rank. Paths are soul bullshit, and you can't wish for them. Help forming one maybe, but not past that. You're right though." She waved a hand and the body vanished. "Better condition should make it easier."

Callie bolted over, eyes wild, and grabbed her hands. "Nat! Oh my gods, and Valk! I'm so, so, so sorry!" She flinched, eyes losing focus. "What am I saying? Who says that? Sorry I killed your friend? Like that even means anything. I'm a monster."

She burst into a fresh wave of tears, but Nat reached out and put a hand over her mouth. "Enough." She said finally. "It's...awful. Gods is this awful. But I saw what happened clear as day. It wasn't you. It was that catty fuck and his bullshit teleporter. If he wasn't probably dead I swear-"

Callen cleared his throat. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but he probably isn't. Some of those robed assholes were stuck in the hall, chances are good he swapped with one."

"I thought translocators can only affect other objects?" I asked carefully. "Is it possible for him to do that?"

He nodded. "It is. Low level translocators struggle with the ability because it requires a large amount of Fantasy. Don't ask me why."

Valk, who had been standing to one side, stone faced and staring at his partner, spoke up, voice raw. "As terrible as this is, we do need to keep moving. I'm not sure where that bastard was going with that cup, but chances are good he needs to get back to the temple. Or somehow teleport out somewhere else. Who knows. Wherever he's going, we should be following. We need to get that cup back, or at least find a way out." He glanced at Nat's hand. "Or we'll never bring anyone back."

"Agreed." I said solemnly. "Anyone have any clue where we ARE?" I scanned the huge room we ended up in. It probably shouldn't have fit in the first floor, but then, when had that ever stopped Ascendant architecture. The room was full of pillars, and between them I could see tables. Long wooden tables wounds tight with dense green vines that almost seemed to be moving in the flickering light.

Oh, nope, they were ACTUALLY moving. Awesome. Jessie frowned at them. "Those aren't...right. They've mutated. The energy inside them isn't life force. Not really. It's like that gross green stuff coming off the skull. I can feel it twisting them, making them stronger in an awful way. We need to leave."

"Don't have to tell me twice." I said with a nod. "Chels, can you make a hole? Fire plus purify equals bad for plants plus abomination energy. I can pump you up if needed."

She reached out with her white flame and poured it on the nearest vine. There were some under us, we'd just been insulated by all the dust from the floor above. As the fire touched the plants, an unearthly scream echoed up, seeming to break in multiple registers at once. It sounded like nails on several chalkboards of varying distances. I couldn't help but wince.

"I got it." She said stonily. "These things will be cake." Raising her hands, she focused, and twin torrents of white fire like a flame thrower started to spew forth. She aimed them at the plants in the aisle near us, towards the closest door, and then slowly began to burn away those horrible plants, ignoring the screams.

I wasn't sure about the exact stat requirements, but judging by the sweat starting to drip down her brow it was hardly easy. She moved down the aisle, step by step, hands like flamethrowers as she burned away the obstacles before us. Callen was at her back, sword drawn, waiting and watching for any possible threat. As she did that, I took the time to walk over and put my arm around Callie.

My girlfriend was a strong person. The strongest I'd ever met, in a lot of ways. She was also a kind person, one who cared about doing the right thing. Killing an innocent person, much less a friend and someone that was loved by other people she cared about. It was anathema to her. It was just about the worst thing Felix could have done.

And FUCK Felix. I didn't care about gods or murder cults. I was going to kill him for this. For making the person I loved most feel THIS. I could feel the emotions through the bond, like a fucking parasite eating away at her until nothing was left, and there wasn't shit I could do about it. How do you fix something like that? How do you unring that bell?

She stopped, pulling me to a halt and looked at me, hands reaching up to cup my face. Or my mask I guess, but wither way. "Don't." She said softly. "I can't feel that too, baby. I can't take your heart breaking while mine does. I'll be ok. It's awful, but I have a way to fix it. I'll help you get strong so Nat can wish her back. Just like Jessie is. I believe in you. I know you can do this."

"I can FEEL you suffering." I said plaintively. "I can't just ignore that. Ignore you. How am I supposed to not hurt when you hurt?"

She chuckled wetly. "By letting me do this myself. I'm sorry, but knowing how much this hurts you is making it worse. I'm alright, I have something to focus on, but I think we need to close the bond until we get out of here. Just so we can both function, because the feedback is going to make us useless."

"Well can we at least beat Felix into a bleeding weeping mess and kick him into a ravine?" I asked hopefully.

Her face hardened. "We can kick him into TWO ravines." I wasn't actually sure what that meant, but she sounded like she had ideas. As ominous as that sounded, I was glad she was focusing on anger instead of guilt. I felt her rage before she closed down, and it was frankly a relief compared to what I'd been getting from her before. And then...it was all gone. Knowing she was hurting made losing contact all the worse, but I pushed it aside.

I half expected to be jumped by evil plants, but whatever the things were that were slithering around they weren't smart enough to ambush thankfully. Chelsea burned us a path to the door, and when we opened it, we slipped out into the hallway, ready to follow after Felix.

Before we did though, I forced everyone to stop. "Alright guys. This...this was bad. I know we're all tired. Scared. Hurt. I know this is a shit situation. But we have to keep going. We have to find Felix, because he HAS to have a way home with that thing. But I just want you guys to know, I'm GOING to get us out of this. No one else dies. So we do this careful, and we do it smart. First thing we need is to get out of here." No arguments at that, which surprised me. But I guessed they were pretty shaken up. "Callie, I want you checking for traps. Shadow clones, trap Skill, the works."

She looked at me suspiciously, probably wondering if I was giving her busy work...but she WAS the one with the trap Skill, so after a second she got to work. Chelsea was leaning against the wall looking worn out, sweat matting her hair. "I'm...gonna need a minute." She said, panting. "That was a lot. Whatever that energy is its bad news. It took some serious effort to purify it."

"You're fine." I said with a smile. "Callie needs time to do her thing anyway, rest up. I'll get Jessie over here to give you some juice. We have a healer for a reason."

I waved over the blonde, who was looking a bit pale. This whole thing was probably bringing up a lot of shit she was trying to push down. "Hey Jess, can you top my sister off. She's feeling a bit wiped." I saw Callen's eyes widen a bit, and realized he didn't know. Oops. Seemed like a bad time to worry about that kind of thing though. Hopefully he could be trusted, but if not we might all die anyway.

"Sure thing Shane." She said weakly. She stepped over, laying her hands on Chelsea, and green light poured out from her hands. I nodded to her gratefully and then went to stand next to Callie as she scanned the hallway. I didn't say anything, just took her hand and laced my fingers in hers. Even with the bond shut I got an echo of gratitude that she pushed over to me, and it made me smile. We'd get through this. Together. I just wished I could figure out how.
chapter 525
We got out of the Academy again with minimal incident, thanks mostly to Luggage. While he didn't really venture downstairs much, the hound had an in depth feel for the school building, and was able to lead us around several traps he recognized. Callie showed him with love and affection after each victory, and I smiled internally at her mood. I think she was missing her own hound in her upset state, but I couldn't tell because the bond was closed.

Once we hit the outside, I triggered Eye of Revelation, trying to narrow down a trail, and once I found one, we hurried off after Felix and his cloak squad.

Once we got outside, we ran into...a lot of people. Some were fighting, some were dead, and some were trying to escape into the building. I froze when I saw the bedlam. "Shit." I snapped, looking around. "This is going to make following them nearly impossible. We need to get through. Abel, Randall, Jessie?"

My mentor grinned, stepping up to put hands on the other two. Closing his eyes, he focuses, and the image of a colossal glowing green bear appears above him, glaring down at the battling Ascendants. The bear threw back its head and roared. and everyone cleared back except the hooded figures. Nat stepped forward with Valk, all but snarling at them.
"Which one of you bastards is a translocator?"

Unsurprisingly, no one stepped forward at first, but after a minute, one figure emerged from the rest. Pushing back his hood, the dark haired man with the brown eyes smiled at us, a small scar splitting his face from forehead to upper lip. "I'm afraid that isn't my gift." He said in a soft voice. "But I'd be happy to show you what I can do." Reaching behind him, he withdrew a COLOSSAL two handed sword, blade as thick as my bicep and as long as I was tall.

Before my cousin could respond, a hand fell on her shoulder. "Don't." Said Callen as he stepped past her. "You can't beat him. You're Albert, right? the Lord of the Sword? I've heard of you. An independent sword master who managed to reach the peak of Expert. I didn't know you were one of THEM." He sneered the word.

Albert shrugged. "My lord is an honest and forthright lord. Can you say the same? Is the Red Revenant the kind of god who speaks truth to his followers? Or speaks to them at all?"

"Sophistry." Scoffed Callen. "Your god is a god of murder and bloodshed. He's a monster. As are his followers."

The tall, lithe man barked out a laugh. "Now whose a sophist? We're swordsmen. I know you too, Callen. High Crusader of the Red Church. Rubrum Gloria, yes? Tell me, where does all that red really come from. Does it spill from your enemies? From those you consider unclean? How many have met their end by your blade? But because your god likes to play pretend and act like he's friendly my murders are wrong and yours are holy? There's a reason your church are all considered hypocrites."

"Shut your mouth!" Snapped Chelsea from beside me. "Callen isn't like that. He protects me. He only uses his sword in defense."

Albert grinned at her, and his expression made my hands tighten on my staff. "Is that so? Is she right Callen? Has your blade on tasted the blood of those who attacked first? That's quite a trick. If it's true though, I doubt you could be considered a problem. With no natural drive for victory, can you even call yourself a swordsman? Not to mention you give up so much power raising that sword. Maybe-"

He was cut off by a blur as the big blonde man appeared in front of him, short sword drawn from the hip and already heading for his throat.

Albert just stepped back, casually catching the blade on the hilt of his massive claymore and twisting. Callen leaned back, the sword sweeping through the space his neck had just been occupying. Albert kicked out hard at Callen's knee, but the larger man rolled sideways to escape, disengaging.

The dark haired man guffawed. "Was that it?" He started to swing his blade slowly around him, cracking joints and working his muscles. "I have to say I'm a bit underwhelmed."

Callen stared at him, then resheathed his sword. Snapping his fingers, another appeared from his ring. This one
was...ugly. It was huge and made of jagged black metal. Not like someone was making a serrated edge, but like it had been broken. The metal was pitted and worn, and the hilt was covered in thorns that drove into his palm.

"That's a bit better." Albert crowed. "Honestly, do people really think you can generate enough fear to raise a blade like that with just a run of the mill sword? That's the one you use to make an impression isn't it? I can almost hear the screams coming off that monster. The question is, how well can you use it."

The big blonde didn't look away, but he called out to us. "I'll deal with Albert. You go ahead. I can catch up when I'm done." He blurred forward, massive black sword arcing up from below, only to be deflected by the big claymore. Stepping in, he smashed his forehead into Albert's face, driving the man back, then hauled his blade up and over for a downward chop.

Albert might have been an asshole, but he wasn't a weak one. He sidestepped, his sword flashing out, and Callen's came to meet him. Flashes of silver against black accompanied the ring of metal on metal as they dueled, like silver lightnings in a black metal storm.

My sister grabbed my arm. "You heard him." She said. "Callen knows what he's doing." Calling to any of the distant non cloaked figures, she yelled out. "We're tracking their leader, he might know how to get us home. If anyone doesn't want to be stuck here forever, help us take care of the hooded guys so we can pick up the trail before he's gone." The people looked relieved, I saw Travis, who had been Adrian's second in command, call out to his friends, and then set on the nearest crowd of cloaks.

We headed for the woods where the trail had been leading, but we were intercepted by another crowd of the BMP assholes. "Ugh." I groaned. "Why are there so fucking MANY of you? Are you bastards multiplying or something?" I could have sworn there weren't even this many people left in the last two trials.

"Maybe." Grinned one in the front. He looked pretty weird even for an Ascendant. Pale with pitch black eyes and no sclera. His teeth were cast iron and flat, like they were made to grind bones, and his hair was limp and seemingly flat to his skull, soaked with some viscous green fluid. "Maybe we're just better than you thought. Or maybe you didn't want to believe there were so many of us. That our lord was so beloved."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh, sure. He's up there on everybody's list of 'best guys ever'. Can you guys stop pretending to be anything but fringe lunatics? You're not convincing anybody and its really slowing this down." Shifting into Mephistopheles, I positioned myself to attack. We were going to need to make this quick.

Before I could though, I felt the ground shudder. No, not shudder. I felt the ground quake. With the repetitive slams of a very large animal RUNNING at top speed. From behind the hooded figures, I caught sight of a shining lance, a familiar blonde haired blue eyed form, and beneath him, a MASSIVE furry body, with a plush bushy tail. Gabriel hit the crowd at top speed, bellowing "RUBRUM GLORIA!", and the majority dove out of the way. Iron teeth took a lance to the chest, though it just sent him flying rather than spearing him.

Gabriel pulled to a stop, grinning down at us. "Somebody call for the cavalry?" He hoisted his lance up over his shoulder heroically.

"Don't cavalry usually ride HORSES?" I asked pointedly. "You're here on a giant...holy shit is that Biscuit?"

The big squirrel snorted and Abel sighed. "He says yes, and your mother is a horse. He also says hi to-" He was cut off with a squeal as Bethy and Callie both hurled themselves as the big rodent, cuddling into its side. Gabriel looked kind of put out when he saw Bethy wasn't paying attention to his heroic rescue, and I had to hide my smile. The two seemed to have bonded over their three month trip.

I was thrilled to see Callie so excited after her previous shell shocked state. She was clearly thrilled to see her furry friend again, having never expected him to be real or to show up outside the...trial.

"Wait." I said, freezing. "Benny do you have any sort of rough map sketched for this place?" He nodded and handed it to me. "How about the earlier one. The trial we met Biscuit in." He raised a brow but pulled out the map we'd picked up down there. Laying them both against the obviously annoyed squirrel, I compared them.

He grinned at me. "They're the same. Or near enough. The academy building is obviously missing, but the layouts are similar."

I pointed along a line from where we were. "Yup. And THIS is where the stairs descended. It's also where Felix seems to be headed. So if we're talking as above so below, to the point where the trial seems to have used the spirits of real creatures, at least the native ones, then there might be an exit there. We're heading in the right direction at least."
Which begged the question though, why didn't we see the wolfhornigators in the trial. Did it have to do with that skull and the mutation energy? Were they just not part of the trial?

"Oh, hey Gabe!" Said Bethy brightly, breaking me out of my thoughts. "I didn't see you there. Did you come in with Biscuit?" We all gave her disbelieving looks she seemed to miss, though Abel clapped the crushed crusader on the shoulder, giving him a sympathetic nod. "Can we catch a ride with you, we're chasing down this three legged kitty guy. He's not cute though, not like my cats. He's a dick. Oh! And I got a new puppy. And I can turn into kittens!"

Taking all that in stride in a way only someone whose sense of shock has been completely destroyed by prolonged contact to our bubbly vampire could, he just nodded along. "Sounds like fun. I'm sure Biscuit will carry some of you. But I'm not sure he's willing to haul everyone."

"He's not." Said Abel in annoyed voice. "He won't carry me, Callen, or Shane. He's says we smell like herring, and I DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS!" He bellowed at the smug looking squirrel. "Because I don't eat fish. But FINE. We can run to keep up. Happy." Biscuit chittered sadistically, and Abel sneered at him. "That was a rhetorical question you nut mongering tree rat."

Biscuit just snorted, looking away smugly as most of our group climbed on his back, including, amusingly, Jessie holding a shrunken Randall. Once they were on board we gave Gabe a heading (he was riding a starlight saddle with reins that I was pretty sure was a partial power manifestation) and then we took off in the direction we needed to go. I heard fighting behind me, and looked back to see Callen still fighting off Albert while Travis and his friends cleaned up stragglers.

I wasn't sure if we could get them to the exit in time, assuming there WAS an exit there. I was pinning a lot on a random similarity, but it was all the plan we had past following Felix through some strange portal that would only lead back to the trials if he was a fucking idiot. We'd have to see, because whether it worked or not, I doubted is was going to be as easy as it seemed. It never was.
Chapter 526
There was, predictably, NOT a giant set of stairs sitting in empty space when we reached the site on the map. But there was something. A squat, dark building of matte black stone in a big clearing. And of course, surrounding the building was a fucking army of dark cloaked figures. Once again I was stumped by how they had so many here. There were only two hundred or so people by the end of fifth trial, and even if they all got brought over, they couldn't ALL be BMP.

"Ok, so the place is crawling with people." I said in annoyance as we stared out from the treeline. "I'm hoping that we can catch Felix in there, but if it's an exit chances are good he's already gone."

Benny's eyes went wide from where he stood next to me. "Shit, should we go after him? If he destroys it behind him we might be stuck. It would make sense to follow him through." He looked back into the distance. "And what about the others? Callen and Travis and them. Are we leaving them?"

"Nope." I said firmly. "And we're not following him either. Wherever that thing is aimed, it isn't going to be the same place we came in. I don't care how diabolical your plan is, dropping into the middle of all those A-rankers is suicide. Each and every force who had people in the trial is probably rabid with fury over us vanishing. If they pop up, they'll be under suspicion at least. Especially coming without any of us. Too big a chance someone will search them and take the cup."

Callie nodded. "He'll probably have a secondary exit point. Maybe another one of the temples. They might not function any more but they could have gotten the teleportation points working. They were able to subvert the one here, so clearly they know how it works."

"If there's a way out in that building, we need to hit them as he goes through. Stop him if we can, but the big priority is making sure none of them can wreck it behind him." I said firmly. "As much as I want to stop the rise of a bunch of evil gods, our priority is not being stuck here to be eaten by wolfhornigators."

Callie sighed, pinching her nose. "We aren't calling them wolfhornigators. That's a ridiculous name. They're...lizardwolfdeer, shit that's harder than it seems." She'd been feeling a lot better since we met up with Biscuit, cuddling the big squirrel, distracting herself from the guilt, but she only managed to joke around for a second before she remembered what she'd done and shot a guilty glance at Nat.

For her part, my cousin wasn't paying attention to Callie. She was staring daggers at the hooded figures. It was clear she blamed the translocator for Perit's death (as she should) probably at least partly to avoid focusing that anger on a friend. I knew that had to be hard, but I thought it was probably the healthiest way to go about it.

"Anyway." I said, getting us back on track. "We need to figure out some way to get eyes in there. Bethy, can you send in one of your flying squirrels to canvas the place? They'd be perfect for recon here. We need to get eyes on Felix if he's still there. If not...well fingers crossed we can cobble together a fix for whatever they did to the teleporter after he left, assuming there's enough left TO fix."

She nodded, closing her eyes, and when she opened they were glowing red. She flicked a hand and a squirrel appeared, sitting on her palm...as she sat on a squirrel. My life was so weird sometimes.

As the squirrel went in, Chelsea spoke up. "I'm concerned. This next bit...fighting is great most of the time. But we just can't waste the minutes mixing it up. We need to take them out fast even if it's only temporary. Otherwise there's too big a chance they'll destroy the thing, whatever it might be. That's assuming there's even anything in there. Lot of maybe's here."

"Agreed." I said with a sigh. "But we're in a time crunch. And I'd rather flail around half assed and have a chance of pulling something out of a hat then wait and lose our shot. We're working off ten different assumptions on this one, but I'm willing to be an ass if it means we get home. If we fuck it up we're in no worse a situation than we would be from just not trying."

Callie squeezed my hand. "You're right. But so is she, at least about needing to take them out fast. This isn't the time for an all out brawl. We shouldn't engage them at all if possible, and if we have to, we need to wrap them up fast in traps."

She had a point. Normally, I'd have asked her to take some of them out subtly. Pick off the stragglers with a knife in the back. She was our best infiltrator by far. But at the moment I just couldn't bring myself to mention it. Not knowing how awful she felt about killing Perit. So I turned to our next best hope. "Hey Bethy you hear me still?" She nodded absently. "Alright, once your squirrel gets back can you slip in and off a few of them. Try to thin the herd?"

Bethy didn't want to be a monster. But her definition of that word was pretty specific. Monsters killed innocents for no reason. Annoying Bethy was a reason, and these guys had gone well past that. She paused for a second, eyes remote and glowing red. "Sure. I can take out the ones that let their guard down. But it won't be all of them, not if I don't want to be noticed."

"We'll take care of that." I said in relief. "Don't move yet though. Tell me about the inside. Is there an exit in there? Is Felix still around?"

Still staring distractedly, Bethy nodded. "I see him. He's standing in front of some sort of huge box made of black marble. It's covered with symbols, and there are a bunch of dials on it. He's messing with one of them. There's a big glowing portal on top of the box, and as he flips the dial the portal is changing. He's moving it slowly though, sometimes stuff comes out and the others attack it before it can hurt him. Every couple of turns he keeps dumping more Lamentation Liquid on it."

"Perfect!" I said in excitement. "That's exactly what we need. I'm guessing the portal is some kind of maintenance thing for the testing sites. He must be looking for the right one. I guess his crazy juice wears off quick. That means it'll probably take a bit."

I considered what we needed. I had a vague idea of how to do this. "Gabe. Take Biscuit and Abel back and help the others. Get them here as quick as possible. Here's hoping there's enough of that liquid left to get us home. Callie, you're with me. I have an idea for a trap setup that should do the trick, but it's going to be tough."

We needed to take them out either all at once or too fast to react. Which meant we needed some way to get the drop on them. Callie nodded, following me off to one side as I tasked Mel with keeping an eye out and the others with watching her. Once we were a bit back from the treeline I looked down, concentrated, and triggered Pit of Despair. Callie squeaked as we fell, but I grabbed her, triggering Ripple running to stop our fall.

Once I had a stable footing, I dipped a hand into the pit and dumped all the dust into my spatial ring. I let us drop, and we were standing at the bottom of a ten foot pit. Then I did it again. When we were twenty feet down, I triggered Eye of Revelation and Song of the Soil. "Alright, follow my lead here." I said as I knelt and put a hand against the tunnel. "I'm going to use Pit of Despair horizontally. I need you to reinforce the tunnel with shadows before I remove the dust."

"Alright." She said pensively. "Not sure what you're going for, but I'm game." I triggered the skill and she reinforced it, then I drained the dust. I sculpted the pit this time, doubling the distance by halving the diameter. Twenty feet deep but only five across. Then I repeated. Following Song of the Soil, I led us to just short of the building, and I created a couple tunnels to allow movement underneath the clearing.

Then, hunching down quite a bit (damned tunnels were so short) I looked at Callie. "Ok, step two of the plan. I'm going to make more pits. Not all the way up though. Just to a few inches short of the surface. Then I need you to reinforce the ground there. Not enough to hold up under a person's weight. Just enough so that the grass doesn't collapse."

Her eyes brightened. "Pitfall traps. Nice. I can do that. It's getting strenuous to hold so many constructs, but I didn't get all that soul work in for nothing. I can make a few of these." Once I got her go ahead, I made a series of pits, each one reaching up to about two inches shy of the surface, and when she reinforced them, I absorbed all the sand. I wasn't sure what was going to happen to it when it came back out, but that was a problem for future me.

Once we had a line of the things stretched out in front of the building, I let out a deep breath. "Ok Cal. Here's the not so nice part. I need spikes. Big sharp fucking things lining the bottoms. All pointed straight up."

She flinched. "I...Shane that's not...look. I don't mind killing them. Even after Perit. ESPECIALLY after Perit. But pitfalls are so dangerous. Anyone can fall into them. What if one of our friends drops in. I don't think I could take something like that happening again."

"And it won't." I said soothingly. "I'm the one on bait detail for this. That's the plan. You'll see, I know exactly what to do, and since I know they're there it'll be zero danger for me." I reached out and grabbed her hand. "I know this is a lot." I said softly. "You're hurting. And it's not fair. I should be giving you time to grieve, to work through what you're feeling. But in order to give you that we need to get home. And that means I need you to be strong for me for just a little bit longer."

She swallowed hard, closing her eyes and squeezing my hand. "I can do that." She murmured. "I keep seeing her face Shane. The look in her eyes as the light faded. The hurt and the confusion. We weren't that close, but she was still one of ours, you know? One of our people. I'm supposed to protect them. We all protect each other. And I killed her."

"You did not." I said firmly. "I mean that. But I know I won't convince you. So dedicate yourself to making amends. Helping me bring her back. And protecting those that are left."

Nodding slowly, she opened her eyes. "I can do that. I'll keep the rest of our friends safe. Even if it means killing all those hooded assholes to the last man." She waved a hand, and a wave of darkness flooded the floor of the pit nearest us, spiking up into large jagged spikes.

"Perfect." I complimented her with a grin. "And just to add a bit of zing." I snapped my fingers, pulling out some of the wolfhornigator venom. "A bit of special sauce." I smeared a bit onto each spike, and then we moved on to do the other pits. These assholes wouldn't know what hit them.
chapter 527
I wanted to fight these people. Badly. They'd killed my friend, broke my girlfriend's heart, and were just generally dicking in a variety of ways. But...sometimes violence wasn't the answer. Well, sometimes COMMITTING violence wasn't the answer. Them experiencing violence definitely was, hence the deadly traps full of sharp, poisoned spikes.

But the main thing I was taking from this was that sometimes the best thing for the team isn't hitting things with a big stick. Of course, I didn't need to share this wisdom with the enemy. "Hey assholes!" I called to the guards. "I'ma hit you with this stick!" I'd used the bond to stealth my way over here, coming around behind them and barely managing to avoid being caught thanks to abusing my State of Grace, and finally gotten into position.

As one would expect, they didn't take the threat well, and they charged me en masse. There were shouts from inside and several more of them came out. Luckily, insane murder cultists don't have much self control, and are unsurprisingly easy to bait.

Triggering Moonlit Night, I flexed the skill, letting myself remain visible to them, but tweaking it so that they couldn't see anything past me, and then I started to run. State of Grace was still active, so my speed was at a premium, and I bolted off to the side, cackling madly and spitting the occasional Steam Arrow behind me to stir them up. I needed them all focused on me completely.

I led them out and around, not hitting the line of traps horizontally otherwise there'd be a pileup, but not hitting them vertically because tricks aside, no line of people would continuously run into a series of pitfalls. I'd found a bit of a sweet spot. A diagonal that would maximize the number of them who went down and how fast. When I reached the first pit, I flexed the skill again, thickening the fog over the pits and between each of them.

They could se me, but they couldn't see down, or each other. I used Ripple Running, and then I hit the first pit. I stepped onto thin air, the first of them behind me, and his screams were swallowed up by the fog.

Now, as an Ascendant, he may have had some way to counter the fall, but I was banking on three simple things. FIrst, surprise. He didn't know the fall was coming, and it wasn't long. Second, a short fall wouldn't be anything much for an Ascendant to deal with so while it would be shocking it wouldn't be urgent, and third, the venom, which was VERY toxic, as shown by my Belial form's inability to resist it completely.

As expected, I saw the hooded figure hit the spikes, but wasn't able to stop and enjoy the view. Rather than keep going and hope they all slipped in, as a second one dropped in after him, I swerved out. The pursuers readjusted, since they could see me, and since they couldn't see each other, they only saw normal terrain.

This kind of fine control of so many details would have been beyond me before the Temple. I could switch up some factors, turn out the lights, turn them on, but detailed crowd control on this level was straining even my soul a bit, and would have been impossible without my Azure Soul Body.

One by one they dropped in, none of them noticing what was happening as they impaled themselves in the pits. There had been two dozen of the bastards total at the start, and by the time I finished there were only four left. Sadly I'd run out of pits, but while we didn't have time for a long drawn out battle, we DID have time to gang up on and kill a quarter of assholes with vastly superior numbers.

I allowed my friends to see through the fog, and kept the hoods isolated as they got in position, and we took them apart. These guys were murdering assholes, it was in the name, and they had already killed one of us. We didn't hold back. Randall bit one clean in half from ambush, Luggage tore one apart. Bethy walked up and snapped ones neck while Callie held him and Benny tranqued one to distract him will Abel created a giant manifestation of his hand and crushed the guy like a beer can.

No powers to deal with, no attacks. The whole process took less than five minutes, and when I cleared the fog, we were all standing in a field of bodies.

Some of them were still alive, twitching on the spikes like butterflies on a card, and I stared down at the carnage with a sick feeling in my gut. I hated this. I didn't become an Ascendant for THIS. But sometimes you had to what needed doing. While I wasn't one of those 'kill em' all' cultivators, some people WERE. Some people needed to be stopped permanently, and hesitating could get my friends killed. HAD gotten my friend killed.

It was a hard lesson. That just because I didn't want to become like that, didn't mean I would never have to make that call. This was worse than just killing them in battle though. Tricking them to their deaths had saved us time and bloodshed, but it felt more...wrong.

Callie stepped up, and I felt her open the bond again, flooding me with feelings of love and acceptance and...admiration. For making the hard call when she was still reeling. For being the leader when they needed me. It soothed the disgust I felt for myself. "Come on." I said with a shudder. "Let's get set up for our push into the building. Bethy, we need layouts and a detailed description of who is left and where. Have the others arrived yet?"

She nodded. "Gabe just got back with Callen, they're in the forest with Jessie patching up the stragglers. Albert got away. Travis lost two of his, but there's still five left, and they picked up another dozen stragglers. We THINK we killed their multiplier. They had one filling out their ranks to look imposing. The translocator wasn't there though. Whoever they are they're dangerous, and we would have noticed if they were around. They're either dead or inside with Felix."

Great. Because THAT was what I needed. Still, it was good info, and I nodded, turning to Bethy who was describing a layout to Benny as her eyes glowed. He was drawing up a smallscale map, which I was figuring could only help planning this last entry. Her eyes glowed red, but she didn't look directly at anyone. "Shane!" She called. "He's still going. He's running low on the Lamentation Liquid I think though. We should hurry."

We'd need to use that stuff probably, unless we could decipher the enchantments, which was unlikely given how old and powerful they must be. "Alright. Show me what we've got."

Benny strolled over, proudly holding out his map. He was getting good at those. I wondered if it was considered part of Inventing or if he'd gotten a Cartography Skill. Now wasn't the time for that though. Kneeling down, he set the map on the ground so he had a flat surface. "Alright, it's small, but we do have some approach options."

He pointed at a hallway in the front. "Basic access, going in the front. I'd advise against it. Felix has four of them left with him, and we have to assume one of them is the translocator. Our best bet is to take them all out at the same time, try to prevent any of them from getting a shot off. We have the numbers, but if we do that we're going to be cutting it close. I wish we had a way to time the portal, even though..."

My head snapped up. "We do!" I glanced at Nat. "I wish that the portal would settle on the right exit as soon as we take down Felix." If we did it that way, I'd be able to ensure he was done for without worrying about screwing up our way home. "As for payment...Felix was the one responsible for Perit's death. Can I make his defeat a condition of the wish on both ends?"

Nat's eyes bore a hole in me. "Yes." She said coldly. "But I don't want him defeated. Kill him. I want his life as your payment." With a nod, she took my hand, the familiar purple electricity running through me. While we weren't REALLY supposed to do this as allied candidates, I was pretty sure the whole 'six new gods might come into being' thing counted as exigent circumstances. As for the price...

I'd already made piece with the bloodshed, and Felix was not a good guy. If it meant getting my people home, I'd do it. "Alright, so we need to hit them all at once. That opens up the front entrance as a means of access again, but we need someone strong on that. The rest of them will be distracted, but you need to be able to move fast and put them down hard. Is Callen in any state for that?" I asked my sister, who had been watching the proceedings with a slightly worried frown.

"He can make it work." She said solemnly. "I can hit them from this passage." She pointed to a back tunnel that come off in the next room. "I have some serious instantaneous damage potential. And this lets out near where she marked one of the sentries."

I nodded. "Bethy, you turn into an army of winged cats, so you can use the vent your squirrel has been entering through. You're on one of the two closest to the portal. Probably that one of them is the translocator, so hit HARD and fast. No mercy. If he sees you he could swap you right through the rotating portal as it changes. You'd be screwed."

Abel nodded. "I can go through the vents too. Spatial lubrication. I'll hit the other one with Mel. We should be able to take him down without being noticed in the chaos. I take it you're on Felix?"

"Well I have to be." I said wryly. "His life is payment for that wish. Don't worry. I won't give him time to run. Just have everyone else on standby ready to hit the portal. If anyone gets left behind...they're unlikely to get out of here anytime soon." Being stuck in this shithole sounded like pure awful to me.

Benny cleared his throat. "I'm going to help with Felix. I've been on the bench most of this trip, and I spend months training for this shit. Celine can stay with Jessie and the others, but I'm with you on this." I glanced at Callie, who was looking at me resolutely. Three of us then. I should have known she wouldn't let me do this without her. We were partners after all.

"Fine." I said with a sigh. "So me, you, and Callie. Let's catch everyone else up on the plan and get in position. We don't have much time to do this. The wish won't matter if we don't manage to time it right. We have to put Felix down so we can get gone. That means we're moving out in ten or fifteen minutes, tops. I know its tight but talk fast."

We also needed to warn the higher rankers. Even if this didn't work, they might have backup plans for raising the other gods. This was just a single team from a huge organization, and as much as it would be nice to assume that stopping them would save the universe, it seemed unlikely they wouldn't have any redundancies after so long planning. Hell the whole god flesh thing was unexpected. They had to have had another method for raising the fragments. Hopefully they'd be stuck using that one.
chapter 528
It took ten minutes to get everyone prepped and ready to move in at a moments notice, slightly faster than expected. Upside to being trapped in a dangerous ruin of a world full of a mutated monster beasts is that it tends to bring a group together. Speaking of which, as we were finishing everything up, I decided to take a minute to talk to Travis and thank him for the help. Stepping up next to the man I held out a hand.

"Hey, I just wanted to say I appreciate the assist." I said sincerely. "Things are kind of awful right now. Your help really made a difference."

He just laughed. "Didn't have much choice. I wish Adrian had been in here with us, he'd have done a better job. But I was all we had, so I had to take charge. It was kind of a default thing, honestly. My group only gathered up a few minutes before the Blood Murder Palace hit us. Not much time for a vote."

"Yeah." I said uncomfortably. "Sorry about that. I was the one who knocked him out of here. I can't help but think this might have been easier with someone like him around."

His smile had no recrimination in it. "Hey, you did what you had to. The boss was a hell of a fighter, but you beat him. You had no way of knowing this would all happen. If you want to make it up to me though, you could let me in on the raid. I'm sure you could put me with one of the teams. Adrian may not be here, but he picked me as his second for a reason. I won't let you down."

I had to admit, his tone was earnest and I could tell he meant it. He had this sort of buzzing excitement about him, like he couldn't wait to get into the fight.

"Alright." I said with a laugh. "I'd say stick with Callen. He's going in the front, but he's a powerhouse so don't be afraid to hide behind him if needed. It was the least suspenseful and hardest to fuck up position, and he'd be right behind us anyway.

Clapping him on the shoulder, I told him to get ready and prepared myself to get in position. We'd be heading in the back entrance after that team hit their target. Straight for Felix. My grip tightened on my staff. I had some saved up death energy to burn, picked up over the last few fights. I'd be using it all on him. Hit him hard and fast.

With everyone in place, we all nodded, and the raid began. Callen smashed in through the front, Bethy vanished into the vents, Chelsea was ahead of us coming in through the back, and Abel headed through one of the other vents, all aimed at their targets.

I'd debated using Moonlit Night, but we didn't want to spook them and it wasn't the fastest spreading skill. As I came in behind my sister, I left her to do her own thing, attacking her target as my eyes locked on mine.

Felix was standing in front of the black marble box that Bethy described, in his hand was a vial of Lamentation Liquid. He was pouring it into an aperture at the top of the box as he slowly turned a dial. Above the box I saw a portal. Forest. Lake. Volcano. I saw different scenes flicker by with each turn. He seemed to be looking for something specific, because each time it came up he growled and flipped to the next one.

The others had hit their targets instantly, and none of them were in a position to destroy the portal. Which left just Callie, Benny, and I to take on Felix. Unfortunately he heard us coming. When the others started their attacks, Felix instantly checked his back, and saw us coming. Pulling out another vial, he poured a few drops into it and set it on the top of the device before shotgunning the rest of it, dumping it all down his throat.

My eyes widened as darkness filled his eyes, creeping blackness rolled over his body. Dripping another three drops into the aperture, he clicked the dial three times, and the thing started to destabilize. Then he turned to me, frustration bleeding off his darkening form. "You know. You're much more irritating than expected. I'm glad I get to kill you before I leave."

"Where's the cup, Felix." I said grimly. "Even with your little psycho power boost you can't take all three of us. Might as well just tell us. I can let you walk away." Which...was a lie. I was going to kill him. Premeditated murder. It wasn't a great feeling, but to be honest him drinking liquid soul torture and becoming a demonic rage monster was helping with my conscience.

He held up a darkening hand. "You mean the one in this ring?" He took it off, setting it next to the vial. "You'll have to be stronger than me if you want it." There was a blur, and he was gone. In his place, a pitch black panter with glowing red eyes. As I watched, the blackness pulsed and a new leg grew where his missing on had been, a grotesque dark pulsating mass of a limb.

With a yowl, he blurred forward, and I exploded into motion, my staff lashing out to meet him as I triggered Mephistopheles. I didn't hold back either, I poured all my death energy and explosive power into my blow, trying to put him down in one shot.

Felix flipped in the air, his dark limb detaching and slamming into my staff, exploding as he rode the wave of energy away, landing once more on four feet as the Lamentation Liquid regrew him ANOTHER limb. I was kind of glad Billy had thrown himself into a fire after drinking this stuff, fighting him while he was on it would clearly have been a nightmare. The portal was flashing behind him, changing scenes still.

Unfortunately for Felix, I wasn't fighting him alone. I was confident in beating him even in his augmented state given enough time, but time was something we didn't have. So I'd brought backup. The shadows under the cat exploded into a complex webwork of bindings, wrapping tightly around the cat.

Benny appeared behind him, pulled back his fist, and started hammering triple strength tranq punches into every piece of exposed fur he could find.

The bindings gave way after about thirty seconds, but I was already there slamming a blow into the cat. Callie got him in another binding, and I turned to Benny. "Help me get the vial and the ring while she holds him!" I bellowed. We bolted for the altar as Callie redoubled her restraints, trying to deny him any leverage to break free from her. "Hold on." I said as I snatched up both objects. Just watch my b-"

I stopped, staring down at the half foot of steel sticking through my gut. My brain couldn't process what was happening. Looking over my shoulder, I saw Travis smiling back at me.

"Sorry Shane. I'm afraid I need those." Reaching down, he plucked the ring and the vial from my hand. The wound in my gut started to burn. Poison. Probably the same stuff I'd used on the BMP initiates. I dropped to me knees, the burn quickly growing into a bonfire.

I looked around frantically for my best friend, and found him...standing bewildered next to Callen, who was finishing off his target. My eyes flicked back to Travis. Translocation. He'd wanted to be in here so he could get the cup instead of Felix. He'd even told me he only met up with the others a few minutes before we arrived. Travis was the translocator. We'd never actually seen his face.

Slipping the ring on, he clicked his tongue at me. "Honestly, you should be more careful around strangers Shane. Just because someone doesn't have a big black hood on, doesn't mean they aren't out to get you." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out two objects. One a small metal orb and one a rock. "Don't worry though. I'm not going to strand you here. In fact, I'm going to guarantee you don't get stuck."

Eye balling the shifting portal, he waited for a specific scene (a swamp) then tossed both objects. The rock went through the portal and the sphere landed right next to Felix. With a wink Travis switched with the rock, leaving it to clatter to the ground. My eyes snapped to Callie, and I flooded the bond with terror, hoping she would get it.

She did, dropping into the shadows instantly when she felt my panic, just before the metal sphere exploded, consuming the black cat in an orb of eerie blue flame. There was a scream as he died, and then the portal, which had stopped when Travis went through it, erupted in a cascade of purple sparks and shifted again.

I stared as my friends all crowded around me, Jessie rushing in through the now undefended front as she heard Callie screaming my name. They caught me as I fell over, and I just stared at the portal. With Felix dead, the wish was fulfilled. The portal led home now. I recognized the outside of the temple.

"Shane!" Snapped Callie, waving he hand in front of me. "Stay with us baby. Jessie says the poison is blocking her healing. Chelsea is going to purify the wound, but she says it's going to hurt a bit. Just bear with it for a minute ok? It'll all be over soon." Her voice was slow and soothing but I felt her terror through the bond. There was a lot of blood.

The venom was preventing my wound from closing, and I was bleeding a lot. My head was fuzzy. Not fuzzy enough that I wasn't cursing myself though. Fucking Travis. I'd TOLD everyone to be on the lookout for double agents. I'd just assumed that once they made their move they'd all be with the hood groups. He'd fucking played me and I'd taken the bait hook like and sinker. That hurt even worse than being stabbed. I paused as my sister applied white fire to the wound. Oh, nope, wait, being stabbed hurt more.

I screamed. Loudly. I felt my fucking throat tear and the room around us shook as my incredibly powerful lungs blasted out vibrations that rattled every surface around us. In the background I saw my friends move through, flooding through the portal. At least they were safe. Once the pain subsided Callie lifted me up, Benny getting my other arm, and they started carrying me through.

Nat came last, seemingly incoherent with rage, though getting stabbed apparently spared me from being the target. She seemed to have taken the attack personally. Valk put a hand on her shoulder, pulling her through before the portal closed, leaving us all sitting on those circles where we'd started, staring dazedly at the golden pavilion and the flame inside.

There was a fuss as dozens of new figures appeared, older figures, surveying the, after a quick count, thirty survivors among those still inside. I recognized some of the early exits, like Vinnie and Simon, and some of the late departures like Adrian. I resolved to have a word with him about Travis, but now wasn't the time.

I was just lying there, bloody, as Jessie continued to pour in healing energy now that the wound was clean. She must have waited until we crossed over to begin. Smart since the portal had collapsed. I saw a shadow fall over me, and glanced up, expecting to see Zeke rolling his eyes. Instead, my eyes landed on something else. A familiar face, half remembered in hazy memories. I reached up and took off my mask, grinning through bloodstained teeth. "Hey mom. I'm home."
I am excited for this arc to be over, not because it's bad but I want to see the full depth of his new ability
I am excited for this arc to be over, not because it's bad but I want to see the full depth of his new ability

The difference between DS Mastery as a Skill and as an ability are mainly going to show later on. It's a half step into B-rank, which is going to make that much easier, though the actual changes in the moment aren't as pronounced. Though there will be a noticeable effect when he ranks up and the Skill evolves, which will be relatively early in book 9, so you can look forward to that.
chapter 529
My mother was...intimidating. I recognized her. Barely. Not just from me memories but somewhat from my own features, and especially from Chelsea's. Still, the soft smile I remembered as a kid in that one blurry image was nowhere to be found. The woman towering over me as I lay bloody on the ground looked like a warrior. An amazon or something. Tall, blonde, with stern yet kind features. She looked like a saint.

"You're lucky I erected a barrier around us already." She said tiredly. "Someone might have heard you."

I glared up at her, sitting up as Jessie finished filling my body to capacity. I still had healing to do but she'd topped me up and now I just had to wait. Callie helped me stand, and once I was vertical I stood a few inches taller than my mom, not that she seemed to notice. "That's it? No 'thank the gods you're ok'? No 'I'm sorry"? All I get is 'watch your mouth Shane someone might figure out we're related? And I thought dad was the shitty parent."

She flinched like I'd hit her, and I immediately felt bad. Then I got pissed at myself for feeling bad because fuck her, this was her fault. But...she was still my mom, and seeing her like that, looking like she was afraid I was going to attack her or something, made me feel like a scumbag. She swallowed hard. "I...I won't ask you to forgive me. I don't deserve it. I did something unspeakably cruel to you, and there's no way that an apology would fix that."

"Is that what you think an apology is?" I demanded. "Some band-aid you slap on a problem to make it go away? You shouldn't apologize because you deserve it. You should apologize because I do." The fact that she wasn't even trying to defend herself made me even more pissed off.

"That's enough." Said Chelsea as she stepped in between us. "Shane...you're right. Mom screwed you. It was awful. But it's not her fault. It's mine. I-"

My mom held up a hand. "No. Not here. He deserves an explanation, but this isn't the time or place. As much as I wish it was. I'm not sure what's happened, but SOMETHING did, and we need to discuss it. The others are in a frenzy. Ezekial is holding them off for now, but even his insolence can only stall someone for so long."
I snorted at that. "No one calls Zeke that. Do you say it to his face? I bet he hates it."

Her grin in that moment reminded me a lot of mine. "Why do you think I do it? He's insufferable, and very few things bother him. Using his full name is one of the few ways I have to really irk him. He's like the annoying kid brother I never had and usually don't really want."

It was hard to be upset at her when she was acting like a gleeful big sister, especially given I had so few ways to rankle my uncle myself. Still, she was right. This wasn't the time for this discussion. We had bigger fish to fry. "We need to talk to everyone, but probably Zeke first. Some stuff went down where we ended up. I'm glad we're back but we need to get the word out to every faction what's coming."

She looked like she wanted to question me herself, before realizing that I was WCP and possibly Unity, but not with the Church and hence not part of her chain of command. "I'll get him." She said softly. "After things have calmed down...maybe we can talk. You and Chelsea and I. It won't fix things I know, but you're right. You deserve to know, and you deserve an apology even if you don't accept it. Because I AM sorry Shane. So very, very sorry."

The sincerity in her voice, the pleading in her eyes, it almost broke my heart, but I firmed my expression, gesturing for her to go.

Chelsea was watching me nervously as our mom left. "I know I'm the last person who should be saying it, but she feels terrible. Once you know why...well, like she said I doubt it'll magically fix everything, but at the very least I don't think it'll hurt as much."

"You're right." I said sharply. "You ARE the last person I want to hear that from." She flinched just like mom had, and I quailed internally. I might be willing to lash out at my absentee parent, but my twin sister, regardless of whatever nonsense she'd convinced herself of, had been a child when we were separated. She wasn't the problem here. "I'll hear her out." I said more gently. "I promise."

Mom came back with Zeke a minute later, and my uncle smiled and waved casually. "Oh, hey kid. You're not dead. Cool, that would have been a bitch to deal with."

My mom smacked him upside the back of his head. "What he MEANS." She snapped. "Is that he's glad you're alright, because he cares about you, and because if he'd let my son get killed I'd have cut out his tongue and nailed to his forehead." That was...weird. Not the graphic threat, I was used to those. The feeling of my absentee mom telling off my guardian who was always there for not caring enough. It must have shown on my face that I didn't like it, because she blanched. "I mean..." Her shoulders slumped. "I'm sorry."

"Be easy kid." Said my uncle firmly. "Sasha might not have been around much but she..." He hissed, the symbol on his forehead glowing. His eyes snapped up to the empty dark sky around us. "Are you fucking KIDDING ME?" He yelled in outrage. "She's right HERE Eli! When does this fucking thing BREAK?"

My mother sighed sadly. "He's gotten more restricive about his geasa. Ever since he made the shift to devil to break through to A-rank...I can't believe he's changed so much."

"We ALL change Sasha." Said my uncle bitterly. "None of us are the kids we used to be." He looked at me. "Not even the kids we used to be. It's the price we pay for what we are. It's easy to forget that when you live in the Red Revenant's special holier than thou clubhouse I guess. Now, since apparently your bastard father is STILL shutting me up, kid, hows about you do the talking?"

I nodded slowly. "Ok, well the first thing is that this whole mess was apparently caused by the Blood Murder Palace."
"What?" My mom said in alarm. "How? Hatescream is dead. My father was there when it happened. He killed about six S rankers when as he died. He ALMOST killed Black Sorrow and our Lord, and would have if the Wishmaster hadn't stepped in."

"Both of them?" I said, appalled at the sheer power that must have shown. "I heard they worked together for that fight, apparently that's rare?"

"Very." Said my mother firmly. "They hate each other with a passion. God executions are probably the only time I've heard of them putting aside their differences. Lots of bad blood between the churches, it goes back millennia obviously. It proves how seriously they took Hatescream."

Callie, who had been standing protectively beside me, holding my hand, finally spoke up. "I've been wondering about that for a long time. Why? Why do the Red Revenant and Black Sorrow hate each other so much? More than the other gods I mean. It can't just be a worshipper thing or they'd have it out for everyone, but it seems so focused, the grudge between the two of them."

"They were married." Said my mother with a wince. "Before their Ascension. Still are I suppose. Regardless, they have many grudges between them. But we're getting off track. Your story?"

I started. She was right, crazy faction history was interesting enough to distract me, but I needed to get this out. "Well apparently this place was connected to an Academy from some old empire that's been exctint for tens of thousands of years or something. They used the trial as a cover to break in to steal some kind of spiritually reactive biomatter that'll let them sort of clone god flesh."

Then I laid it out for them, told them all the story as I'd heard it. About Hatescream and his plan, about the guy who bought the mountain, about how all of this had been a leadup for a coup, a way to distract the factions and let Hatescream work in the dark to resurrect his people.

By the time I was finished, their faces were both grim. "That's...bad." My mom said, her tone implying a truly monumental understatement. "If that's true then this is going to be war. Not a crusade or an extermination, but exactly what the factions have been trying to prevent for all these millennia. A War of the Gods." I could literally HEAR the capital letters in her voice as she said it.

"I'm sorry." I said through gritted teeth. "It was my fault. I was a moron. I thought that since all those cloaked figures showed up we didn't have to worry about traitors anymore. I HAD that damned cup, and I basically hand delivered it to the BMP like a fucking idiot."

"Hey." Snapped Callie. "That's bullshit. You got us home, which was borderline impossible to start. It wasn't your job to prevent some ancient dark murder sect from accomplishing their grand scheme. You were responsible for us, and you got us out of there. Or...almost all of us." She glanced at Nat, who had left the bubble of isolation when we arrived and was sitting by herself nearby, with Valk hovering a ways away watching her.

My mother nodded. "She's right. They've been planning this for longer than any of us have been alive. If it hadn't been this way, they would have found another. This opportunity only recently presented itself, so there's no way they didn't have a backup plan. Speaking of..." She glanced down at our joined hands. Holding one of her own out to Callie. "I'm Sasha Anders."

My girlfriend blinked, wide eyed, at my A-rank mother, then swallowed hard and, letting go of my hand took hers and shook it. I was secretly grateful to my mom. She'd noticed Callie's sorrow and tried to defuse it by making this an awkward meet the parents thing. It had worked. "I'm Callie, Calliope, that is, Reynolds, miss. Ma'am, madam?" She looked like she was getting more and more flustered.

Laughing, my mom released her hand. "I like you, but let's stick with Sasha, shall we? The rest of those make me feel old, and if you SAY a word Ezekial, your next mask is going to be your own ass." She held up a finger threateningly without looking, and I saw Zeke slump sulkily, muttering about harpies in a voice that was hidden from no one in this bubble."
"Now." She said as her smile slipped. "We need to go talk to the others, tell them what's happened, and try to get some sort of conclave on the books. I'm guessing it'll be a year out at best."

I blinked. "What? It's a potential GOD WAR." I sputtered. "How can they possibly justify that? They should be meeting TOMORROW."

She shrugged. "Might be faster given the severity, but you need to remember how big each faction is. Freeing up big actors like the gods and their subordinates takes a LOT of micromanaging. My father is one of the busiest people I've ever met. Though it's not all downside. Given your involvement I wouldn't be surprised if the Wishmaster brings Malachai for this, so you might be able to meet both your grandfathers."

With that, she said her goodbyes, kissed Chelsea on the forehead, looking uncertainly at me for a moment, and then left. Zeke sighed as he watched her go. He looked like he wanted to speak, but couldn't muster the words, then he too just turned and left. I wasn't sure about the whole mess with my family or what the truth was, but I knew one thing. I needed to find out. That conversation couldn't come soon enough.
the god romance sounds really interesting and I love learning things about his parents. Damn the geas, I can't wait for this talk
chapter 530
I didn't see my mother again for a few hours. We went back to the Necromedes and retired to our own rooms in the building Killian had lent us. It had been a long...however long it had been. I honestly didn't know, with the time distortion we'd felt like we'd spent weeks, but as far as I could tell it had only been a day since we were transported, at least based on my wish ability.

Despite that, I decided to meet with her alone, and everyone else had gone to sleep by the time she showed up. Her knock on my door was tentative, like she was scared of my reaction, but when I opened it I couldn't tell if she'd been more scared I'd open it or that I wouldn't.

My room was pretty spacious, and I even had my own little side kitchen. I'd been nervous and couldn't sleep so I'd made cookies, and I made us both some tea to go with them before we sat down to talk.

"So..." I said, taking a long, slow sip. "Explain." I didn't stammer, or make nice, or try to distract. I wasn't going to make this easy for her. As much as part of me felt bad about how miserable she clearly was, part of me was just pissed off. Why did Chelsea get a real parent while I got dad? Why did she leave me and never reach out. Why had dad all but told me she was fucking dead and made Zeke imply the same?

She let out a shuddering breath. "Alright. Explain. That's going to be tough, but I can do it. I'm just trying to figure out where to start. I suppose at the beginning. Do you remember I told you that the Red Revenant and Black Sorrow used to be married?"

That seemed like a bit of a non sequitur, but I wasn't going to interrupt. I just nodded, hoping I was giving her serious 'get on with it' vibes.

"Well, they also had a daughter. Her name was...well, most people called her Drowning Shade. She wasn't always exactly a nice person, though stories of her nature were somewhat exaggerated. Regardless, she was their only child, and they both loved her. She spent most of her time with her mother, but she would visit Holy Dominion, and while things between them had long since devolved into aggression, she was allowed to come and go as she pleased from a young age."

I frowned. "That...doesn't match what I was told. I thought your dad killed her. In fact, legend has it he wiped out a whole planet doing it."

She nodded. "That's the story. But it isn't what happened. The Red Revenant had one daughter, and seven disciples. His most trusted students. Drowning Shade grew up in and out of the Holy Dominion and she spent time with all of them at one point or another. But she was especially close to the man who would eventually become the Radiant Pope. My father, Nicholas Anders."

"So they were an item?" I asked in surprise. "And grandpa killed her? That's...cold." And honestly fucking disgusting to me. Imagining having to kill Callie, for any reason, made me ill. My mom seemed to notice, because she shook her head.

"Shane, Drowning Shade isn't DEAD." She said emphatically. "She never was. The planet my father 'destroyed' was a false flag operation. He evacuated all the inhabitants before he wiped it out. He and Drowning Shade had been secretly together for years at that point. Something her mother didn't know about or she'd have killed them both. Despite loving her daughter, recursion had long since eroded most of Black Sorrow's humanity. Especially in regards to her husband."

"Alright." I said slowly, still not seeing the relevance. Still, it was interesting history, so I wouldn't derail her. "So why then? From what you said this was ages after they first became a couple. Why did they suddenly need to fake her death after presumably centuries together?"

"Because she got pregnant." Said my mother. "With me. Ascendants, particularly high level Ascendants, aren't the most fertile people. It's rare for high rankers to have children, at least comparatively speaking. Your father and I having twins was...a shock. Twins are fairly common in lower ranking Ascendant couples, for obvious reasons. But you two were a surprise. It's not time for that yet though, I'll get to it."

I was still processing. "So my grandma, who I've never met was...what? A demigod? Except both her parents were gods. What does that even make her? Was she born a god?"

Mom shook her head. "That doesn't happen. The Impact would be unsurvivable. As far as I know she was born with a divine soul. Specifically a Mirror Soul. Past black, which is what you hit at S rank naturally, is the Obsidian Soul Body, which becomes a Mercury and then a Mirror Soul respectively. I'm sure you're well aware of the benefits of having a powerful soul."

I tried not to shudder at what someone could do with a divine soul from birth. Hell, the things I could do for my level with my Azure Soul Body were already absurd. I had more flexibility and raw control over my Skills and abilities than anyone my rank with a normal soul could match.

"So grandma was...scary. Ok." I forced my brain to move past that admittedly huge revelation. "Grandma was born terrifying. Good to know I guess, though I don't seem to have inherited any of that. Did you? Or did Chelsea? Is that why you had to take her away?"

Her face twisted in pain. "Sort of. You know Chelsea was born with two abilities, yes? One my father's Flames of Purification. The other was her grandmother's Enshrining Darkness. The power she got from her own mother. If anyone had found out...Black Sorrow would have killed you. Your sister. Your father. Me. My mother. MY father. Probably the guy who sold us breakfast the day before."

Ok, angry god I could understand. That was a rough thing to deal with. But it wasn't like she was the only one. "But what about your grandfather. The Red Revenant would protect his daughter right? You said he loved her. He must have known about all this."

"You have to understand that my grandparents relationship isn't a healthy one." She said, possibly attempting to attain some sort of universal record for understatement. "My grandfather hates my grandmother. But he also loves her. They've been locked in constant battle for millennia. I don't think he's even capable of killing her at this point. Not just because their powers are at a similar level, but because he couldn't bring himself to do it."

"I don't suppose Black Sorrow SHARES these deeply hidden feelings?" I said, pinching my nose as I started getting a headache.

My mother laughed. "The Red Revenant is a different kind of god than Black Sorrow. Emotion and passion are part of his nature. They aren't part of hers. If she found out about us, she would kill us, all of us, and he wouldn't stop her. At least that's what my father says. He wouldn't tell her, of course. But we wouldn't get any help from him."

"Ok, but what does that have to do with leaving me?" I asked. I could see the problem, obviously, I just didn't get why the solution they'd come to was necessary.

She swallowed hard. "Because Chelsea was born with the REAL Enshrining Darkness ability. The one you see Black Sorrow passing out like candy is a modified version mixed with other Skills to make it more easily teachable. Something like the Fist of the Red Revenant my grandfather made for his disciples. Very few beings have that ability, and that in itself would imply her father was a high up in the cult."

My eyes widened in realization. "Except I have the Wish power, and we're twins. Which means dad was her father and there's no place the ability could have come from except you or him. Considering grandpa is an S-ranker with the WCP I imagine dad's lineage is well established. If your daughter suddenly developed the Enshrining Darkness ability at birth, Black Sorrow would put two and two together easily."

"Despite being a sociopathic lunatic, my grandmother is quite bright." Mom said miserably. "The truly absurd amount of Focus she's got probably helps. So, yes. I had to leave. I had to take Chelsea. Because leaving her and taking you wouldn't have solved anything. I had to abandon my baby." Her eyes were welling up with tears, and it hurt to look at, so I kept following the threads.

"My ability." I said after thinking it through. "You traded it to dad for the first eighteen years of my life. You wanted to make me irrelevant to anyone paying attention for long enough that when I did develop powers they wouldn't associate me with Chelsea. Hell leaving me with Zeke probably helped even more. Most people don't know Elijah Wyndham even HAS a son. Is that why dad left?"

She nodded. "Eli...Eli isn't the same man I fell in love with. He hasn't been in a long time. He reminded me a lot of you at your age actually. But he didn't have the Conglomerate to soften him. The Empire is a harsher place. Eli's response to the difficulties most candidates face was to codify relationships. Make contracts. The stronger he got the more he detached. But he ALWAYS loved you. Chelsea too. His method of keeping you safe wasn't the one I'd have chosen. But it was effective."

I couldn't argue that. Even I hadn't known I had a sister. I was, for all intents and purposes, completely uninteresting. Dad had made me basically invisible. Or at least I had been. I'd been doing a lot to demolish that particular defense. He HAD warned me. If I wasn't ready to risk my life I should just stay home and fade into obscurity. I'd made my choice. But that left one thing I was curious about. "What about the Wishmaster? The original one I mean. Dad's...great great grandfather or whatever. Couldn't he have protected us?"

"The Wishmaster's nature is...mercenary." She said with a grimace. "If we wanted protection we'd have needed to pay. We didn't have enough. Even my father can't throw around the kind of resources you'd need to pay to get him to go to war with another god. I promise you Shane. We couldn't see any other way. I'd have done ANYTHING. Given anything, to stay with you."

Her eyes burned with sincerity, tears still streaming down her face. I had to look away. "I believe you." I said hollowly. "I believe that it wasn't a matter of choosing. That it would have killed all of us, including me." Her face was starting to brighten, become hopeful, and I felt like an asshole crushing that hope. "But I don't know if it matters." She flinched like I'd hit her. But I kept going.

"I don't hate you." I said gently. "Not now. I don't think ever. But I can't just...forget. Maybe I can get past it. Eventually. I'm not making any promises other than to try. But as of this moment I just can't let it go. The years of abandonment, the pain. The damage you and dad caused. I can't just wave my hand and say bygones. I get why you did it. But you still did it."

She nodded slowly, almost like it hurt. "I know." She whispered. "I knew it would be like that. And I did it anyway. I knew it would hurt you. I don't deserve your forgiveness. I told you that. But you were right. You deserved to know."

I stood up, walked around the table, and opened my arms. She fell into them, her tears finally breaking into open sobs. I might not forgive her, but I didn't hate her. She was my mom, and the very least I could give her was a hug. We had a long way to go. I had a long way. But despite the pain I was in...part of me was happy. Some wounds need to be reopened so you can clean them. I was pretty sure we were all going to be ok.
What an amazing chapter. I'm glad he was finally able to get the reason of why he was abandoned and I'm happy there was actually a legitimate reason. His dad is a grade a asshole though but at least his mother seems nice.
This story keeps proving why it is goated. I don't suppose that by the end both gods will return sane, same as his dad, and it will end with a whole family dinner and happily ever after?
This story keeps proving why it is goated. I don't suppose that by the end both gods will return sane, same as his dad, and it will end with a whole family dinner and happily ever after?
I think that would be disappointing but the reverse would be as well. I would like it to be something like he has to make big and small sacrifices to get what he wants and something's sometimes can't be changed no matter how powerful he gets
chapter 531
"You ok?" Asked my girlfriend as she slipped into the room. My mom had calmed down and left, not for good, she wanted to have dinner with Chelsea and I before she headed back to the Holy Dominion. Callie was invited, and anyone else I wanted to bring, so I'd agreed. I wasn't going to see her for a while, and one meal wasn't going to kill me.

I shrugged. "Not especially. But I will be. A lot to process. How much of that did you get? Emotion wise? I didn't close the bond so I'm sure you picked up something."

"Frustration. Anger. Grudging understanding. More anger." She listed casually. "About what I expected. Though less of it than I anticipated, so that's good. I figured I'd come in and check on you. If you don't want to talk about it we can always check in about the stat gains." At my blank look she giggled. "You forgot we would be gaining a big chunk of stats after surviving that mess didn't you. I mean, this was a huge incident. Not that many of us came back."

I shrugged. "Fair. I guess I was distracted. I'm surprised it didn't all hit anyway. Doesn't it usually slam into you after the end of the incident?"

"Soul strength." She said with a smile. "Lets us control our stats better, in basically every way. We're going to need to relearn how to fight basically, but it comes with some perks. Still, it'll hit us eventually. With the extra soul power though, it shouldn't be nearly as painful, even if it is a big bump."

That made sense actually. Part of the reason for stat limits was soul weight. Yet another benefit of my Azure Soul Body. Now that I was paying attention, I did feel a kind of...buzz in the back of my head. I reminded me of stat gain, at least a bit. The connection between the soul and stat gain was something I really needed to look into. There was so much about it that I didn't understand. Maybe souls shit was how the bigwigs delayed things like the scavenger hunt. Though how would that even work?

Deciding I officially needed to get to this, I gave her a worried grin. "Alright. Well, I guess there's no use putting it off. At the very least it should take my mind off things." Closing my eyes, I focused on the buzz, a completely new sensation that my new and improved soul allowed me to experience, and just kind of...let it in.

I could feel how muted it had become compared to last time. Sure it was a smaller percentage, but still, it was a BIG boost, and while it certainly wasn't pleasant, it wasn't crazy either. The familiar purple flames rolled across my vision as I took it in.

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.

Intermediate Path of the Doom Sovereign- A Solid Path toward a great destiny.


Progress to next rank:6008/10000

Soul strength- Azure Soul Body

Stored:7 shadow attacks, 10 shadow jump (seven in reserve), 10 Stealth charges, 0 fire attacks, 10 triple strenth tranq blows (ten in reserve), 10 triple strength density shifted attacks (ten in reserve). 10 spider leg attacks (ten in reserve), 10 heal bursts (10 reserve), 3 gravity attacks, 10 shadow clone (2 in reserve), 19 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 let out a long whistle at the bump. "I think I'm still riding the god slayer wave, what little of it I caught. You'll probably be seeing a big bump too. Five hundred Might, four hundred Fantasy, four hundred Focus, and five hundred Perception. A big bump to mental stats for figuring things out and a big bump to Might from my fights with Adrian and the others. I wonder what the Fantasy is for? Maybe because of the weird immaterial nature of the place?"

Callie shrugged. Who knows with these things." She grinned at me, and I beamed back because she was happy, and smiling, and not devastated, though I expected that to hit when she had a chance to get her mind off all this. "Now, want to see what I got?" She sounded like a kid unwrapping a present, and I knew that this was almost as fun as loot for her. I laughed and nodded, and she showed me her stats.

Calliope Reynolds. Ability: F-rank Abyssal Infiltration- Enter the shadows and emerge where you will within range, shape the darkness to your call, moving it as if it were part of your body, and even extend your senses through the shadows to spy on your enemies.


Progress to next rank: 8100/10000

Soul strength- Green-50%

Pet-Wolf named Rellia

Skills: Minor Tracking, Minor Dual Dagger Mastery, Beginner Stealth, Beginner Trap Mastery, Beginner Disguise, Lesser Balam Mastery, Intermediate Shadow Manipulation Mastery. Beginner Paired Dueling.

Path of the Abyss-Illusory.

I blinked at her in shock. "Sweet Revenant Cal, that's insane. Twenty nine hundred points? I know you're still getting god slayer rep, but that's crazy. You got over a thousand points of Might straight up. And eight hundred Focus. Which to be fair, you really needed." I winked at her. "I was getting tired of being the brains of the operation."

She snorted, rolling her eyes. "Please don't joke about something so horrifying. Imagine if it was true. You'd run us off a cliff or something."

"You actually DID run us off a cliff." I reminded her. "Granted, you made sure we had a hang glider, but still, you definitely did it. But it's ok. You're just the muscle. You punch what needs punching and leave the brain using to us intellectual types." I winked at her, and I could feel her joy and comfort at the teasing, getting back to our usual rapport. I felt the same way honestly.

The lack of teethcracking pain was really nice. I'd expected to be down and out for a while after the points dump, but honestly I kind of felt energized. I turned to Callie, who looked slightly less well off. "You doing ok?" I said, picking up some pain from the bond. "Your soul isn't as sublimated as mine, and you got more points. I know it's been a while, but are you still feeling any pain?"

Chuckling, she laid a head on my shoulder. "Brag, brag, brag. Do you have to show off so much? And no. I'm fine." Her face fell. "Well, I'm fine about that. Shane-"

"Perit was not your fault." I said, feeling her guilt surge again. "We've been over this. You're helping me get stronger so we can help Nat wish her back. Focus on that instead of on what happened. Unless you think self-flaggellation is more important than fixing your mistakes?"

She narrowed her eyes at me. "You know I don't. Ass. And don't think I don't know you're making me angry on purpose to make me feel better." Her smile was soft as she leaned up to give me a quick kiss. "And don't think I don't appreciate it. But let's quit talking about my horrible guilt. Instead let's talk about what to do next. Because...we're kind of done here, right?"

That...was a good point. What DID we do next? I had ideas, but nothing that seemed like it would be rational or important. We needed points, and for the first time since we started our journey we didn't really have a destination. We were just floating in space. Both metaphorically and literally.

"There's a war coming." I said, after thinking for a bit. "I'd like to be in the conclave, and we have an invite from what my mom said, but they scheduled it a year out. I assume they'll be doing SOMETHING about Hatescream before that, but nothing we can get involved in."

She nodded slowly. "I agree with all that." She said slowly. "But it doesn't really tell me much. Like I can feel that you have an idea, but for once I'm not really following."

"Simple." I said with a shrug. "We need to learn war. We've been in fights. In raids. But we've never been in war. Not to mention we all grew massively and could use some polishing. The Empire is full of noble houses and cultivators fighting over land. I think we should head out there and sign up with someone. Get some experience in the battlefield. Because given Travis's personal experience with us, I'm betting once things really kick off we're not going to have much choice but to be in the thick of it."

Callie bit her lip. "That's a pretty heavy direction to take." She said finally. "I'm with you, because you're right, we need to get stronger, but the others might not all be onboard. I assume you'll be asking them?"

"Of course." I said with a sigh. "I won't force anyone. Mel and Abel will be onboard I'm sure. Probably Bethy if she's sticking with us. Nat will want training and Valk follows her lead. Jessie...I actually think she might be interesting in learning battlefield medicine, but I'll ask. Benny will probably be in, if I know him he wants to put some of his training to work. Our only real maybe is Celine."

My girlfriend shook her head. "She'll go. She loves Benny. She won't let him run off and get killed. Not given all the guilt she still feels about betraying him. She might even be happy they have some training they can finally do together. Can we just...join an army though? And how does that work?"

"Not sure." I said. "But I'm happy to look into it. We can talk to Vinnie too. Maybe Zeke if we approach it right. Plus as mid to high F-rankers we can actually get into high ranking planets now. It'll be a good place to build up a reputation for the pavilion and recruit new allies. Maybe we can start a mercenary company or something." The more I talked about it the more excited I got.

She laughed. "Let's get all our ducks in a row before we start on details. Chances are good we'll be cannon fodder if we end up in the wrong spot. I want to do some research before we decide where to go. Plus we have to actually GET there. Though it's possible we could get Killian to give us a ride. Speaking of hitching a ride, do you think your sister will come with us?"

"Couldn't say." I said with a shrug. "I hope she does. I'd love to get to know her better. Mom made it sound like she usually gets locked up in the Holy Dominion, but given what's going on the higher ups in all the factions will be busy. If we're going somewhere out of the way she might be able to come." Getting to know my twin sounded amazing, at least if it was possible.

Callie laughed at my clear enthusiasm for the idea. But given all the baggage, she seemed like she just wanted to calm down and distract herself. I saw an idea pop into her head. "Alright. Well I think I could use a workout. How about you and I do some training and then head to bed." I raised an eyebrow and she winked, flicking me in the forehead before melting into the shadows. "Tag." Said her voice from everywhere and nowhere at once. "You're it." I triggered Eye of Revelation. One distraction coming up.
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chapter 532
The next day's wishes were focused on Vitality. It was one of my lower stats now, and an important one, so I scoured the ship for some people willing to give it up. Six wishes, each now giving me seven points (it had gone up after the big bump in stats) left me with forty two new Vitality for the day

I was planning to meet up with Jessie and Benny, but they were both otherwise occupied. I sent an invite to dinner, but they couldn't make it, so here I was in late afternoon with Callie, getting ready to have my first meal in memory with my mother and sister. I tugged on my jacket again, annoyed that it didn't seem to be sitting right, feeling like my lapels were off center somehow.

"Stop that." Snickered Callie as she smacked my hands away. She reached up to adjust my tie, then smiled and leaned up to peck me lightly on the lips. "Perfect."

I grimaced. "I look like a thug. I can't believe there was even a tailor on this ship. This was a dumb idea, why do I need to dress up for a family dinner. I should have just gone in my armor, it would have been totally functional, and it wouldn't have cost us anything."

My girlfriend rolled her eyes. "Don't be ridiculous. This is a formal event with a high ranking member of a faction. We need to present ourselves properly. Remember that nobody else knows the truth. We have the excuse of saving her daughter to explain the meeting, but we need to keep up appearances. If we're taking casual meetings in our armor with an A-ranker people are going to figure something is wrong."

"Easy for you to say." I said with an adoring smile. "That dress makes you look like an angel." Callie blushed lightly, her cheeks setting off her lipstick when they went red and the pale skin providing a contrast against her black hair and long black dress when the blush faded. She looked stunning, but despite knowing I meant it, she still seemed shy about the whole thing.

She smiled sweetly up at me. "Right back at you big man. You look fantastic. And since you know I mean that, can you calm down a bit. Things will be fine. Besides I'm the one who should be nervous."

"About what?" I said in confusion. "You already met my mom and sister. You even saved Chelsea's life. Or at least helped."

"That was just business!" She said frantically, starting to pace. We were just outside the house my mom was using on the Necromedes, and we'd been plucking up our courage to go in. "This is like...meeting the parents. It's a DINNER. You think you're nervous about your outfit? I spent four hours with the tailor waffling about cut. I'm still not sold on this."

Catching her hand as she went by, I pulled her against my, chuckling as I held her tight. "Callie. I worry about a lot of things when it comes to my mom. The choices I've made, the things I've done. She and I might not be close but she's my mother and I wonder if she's going to approve of the way I live my life. I shouldn't care, but I do." She was looking at me nervously.

"But." I continued. "Not a single one of those worries is about you. You're the best choice I've ever made. Bar none. And my mom will either see that, or I don't give a shit what she thinks. No nerves, no hesitation. You aren't negotiable. Not that I think it'll come up. Anyone would have to be an idiot not to adore you. But I just wanted you to know."

Callie's smile was the brightest, most heartfelt thing I'd ever seen, and my heart jumped a bit staring at her face. "If I wasn't worried about smearing my lipstick I'd kiss the hell out of you right now." She said in an awed tone. But since anything more than a peck would make us look like cannibals I'm just going to have to take a rain check. Expect it later though, mister."

I laughed and squeezed her once before letting go, though I kept my hand around hers as we stepped up to the door. We knocked forcefully and the door slid open, revealing my sister, beaming ear to ear. "That." She said with a smirk. "Was pretty much the cutest thing I've ever heard."

I blinked, and then Callie's face twisted in horror. "Oh gods. I wasn't stealthing that. You heard every word we were saying."

"It wouldn't have mattered." She laughed. "Mom is inside and her Perception is insane. She'd have heard it anyway. But don't sweat it. I think if anything it won you some points. You two are sickeningly adorable. I wish I had a boyfriend I loved that much."

My face must have been disturbed because she giggled at my expression. "Don't know how to react to that huh?"

"You're my twin sister, so I feel like I should say something, but I barely know you so I feel like I can't." I agreed. "Plus you're already an adult so I can't really weigh in. "Let's just ignore your lovelife completely, shall we? I'm not equipped to walk on that emotional minefield right now."

She laughed harder. "Fine. I'll take pity on you. Come on in, mom's been wringing her hands and minutely shifting dishes a few microns for the last fifteen minutes. It stopped being funny a minute or two ago, and I'm worried she's going to wear a hole in the table."

Swallowing hard, I squeezed Callie's hand and we stepped into the house. "So, nice place." I said cheerfully. "Mom and Killian go back huh? Makes sense he gave her the good digs. Not that ours weren't, but this is like some high level diplomat shit."

"That happens when you're a high level diplomat." She said with a chuckle. "Mom's chef, Jenny, is pretty great though. You guys will love the food. I usually have to make do with Callen's cooking, which isn't terrible, but it's pretty middling." She paused, looking around quickly. "Oh, good, he's not here. He seems to pop up every time I say that. Here, dining room is this way."

She led us down the hall, into a huge white paneled room with gold trim along the edges. It was an odd design style, lots of intricate scrollwork. In the center was a huge dark wooden table, a white and gold tablecloth tossed over the surface. The table was set with crystal candlesticks and white and gold dishes covered with delicious smelling food.

"Shane!" My mom said happily as she pulled me in for a hug. I was honestly a pretty huggy person when possible so I didn't mind. We were getting to know each other, but it still felt nice to get a hug from a family member. She pulled back, and, without hesitation pulled Callie into a hug. "And Callie! It's lovely to see you dear. Welcome."

Chelsea was grinning at me from off to the side, giving me a look that clearly conveyed her amusement at the fact that mom had obviously heard my speech and was pretending she hadn't so she could score points. She'd even heard Chelsea tell me I was sure, but apparently we were pretending that hadn't happened. I felt Callie's triumph and relief through the bond though, and I was happy to play along if it made her feel like that.

We sat down at the table, and a man appeared, wearing a white suit, he strode to the platters on the table, the same white bone china, and lifted the covers off. "For your dining pleasure tonight." He said in a crisply accented voice. "Beef Wellington as the first course. Served on a bed of grilled asparagus with a full bodied bourbon peppercorn sauce." On the platter lay a series of what looked like tiny loaves of bread on long spears of green.

Plating each one out, he lifted a gravy boat, bringing it to each of us and gesturing to the food to see if we wanted sauce. I decided to try it. Callie was practically drooling like a cartoon dog by the time he got to her, and once everyone had their food we started eating.

It was amazing. The meat was F-ranked, as were the other ingredients, though I didn't know the specifics. Even at out own ranking though, I couldn't have come close to making a meal of this quality. This was the work of a Master chef. Possibly higher. As we ate, my mom shot uncertain looks at both of us, finally stopping and dabbing her mouth with a napkin that matched her white dress.

"So, Shane. What are your plans now?" She asked politely. "I'm sure you've got something in mind,. I'd love to invite you home but..."

I nodded, swallowing my bite. "I get it. Luckily I kept the whole 'she's my mom' thing pretty quiet. Just Gabe and a few of his people from the church know about it I think. I'm sure you can arrange for them to be told to keep quiet." My eyes widened as I hurried to add. "Nicely, please. They're friends. Don't like...kill them and dump their bodies in space."

My mother huffed out a laugh. "You've been spending far too much time around your father's side of the family. The church doesn't execute devoted initiates, darling. Not without a very compelling reason. They'll be rewarded for being of assistance, perhaps given their own branch in some backwater system for a time, should they wish it. There ARE ways to get people out of the way without harming them."

"Speaking of spending time with family, I was hoping to talk to you both about that." I said, figuring this was as good a segue as any. "We still need to talk it over with the others, but I plan to head for The Empire. Their factional approach to cultivation, nobility and such, means lots of small wars and skirmishes. We're going to try to join up with a smaller force's army and learn what war is really like. To prepare for what's coming. I was hoping Chelsea might be able to come along."

She flinched. "Shane...that's- Chelsea isn't supposed to leave the Dominion. Most people outside the Church barely know she exists. That isn't safe at all."

"It is." I said firmly. "Zeke can watch out for her, and for anyone close to her level she has Callen. Plus, like you said, most people don't even know she exists. We just need to keep quiet about our parentage and she should be perfectly fine. I know it's not a foolproof plan but-"

"Make a foolproof plan and the universe just makes bigger fools." Cut in my sister. "I want to go." At my mom's shocked look, Chelsea shrugged guiltily. "Mom. I love you. You know that. But Shane is my TWIN. Now that I have a chance to know him, I have to take it. And I hate being cooped up. I know you just want to help, but I'm an adult. You can't keep me prisoner if I want to leave."

My mom's face was a mask of pain and helplessness as she sighed, letting her head slump forward. "Fine." She said after a moment of silence. "I'll speak to Ezekial. If he agress to look after you, I'll trust him. Anyone below middle A-rank shouldn't give you trouble, and I can pay Killian to change routes to drop you off wherever you decide to go. He'll be around to keep an eye out."

I was surprised it had been that easy, but I was pretty sure some of that was guilt. Whatever it was, I would take it. We had a ride, a destination, and a new traveling companion. I couldn't wait to set sail. I wasn't sure if the training we were going to get was going to be enough to prepare us, but it couldn't hurt. We needed to prepare for war.
chapter 533
Before we could leave, we needed to check in with the others. After dinner with my mom, we went to visit Benny and Jessie. They were up first because they were main team members. Chelsea came along, excited to officially re-meet everyone and learn about her new traveling companions. Callen was around apparently, but we hadn't seen him. With mom around and on Killian's ship there was no reason to worry about my sister's safety.

When we arrived at Benny's place, I rapped on the door. It only took a minute for him to answer. He appeared to have gone to bed early, because his hair was tousled and his eyes looked a bit blank. "Shane?" He said in confusion. "Aaaand you brought your sister." He grimaced, glancing down at his bare torso. "One second." He shut the door, then came back about two minuted later fully dressed. "What do you need?"

I shrugged, pushing past him with a laugh. "You're in bed? At like ten PM? What are you, a thousand? We need to talk about our next destination. You free?"

He rolled his eyes. "Please, come on in. Ass." He turned to Callie and my sister. "You girls are welcome, by the way. I appreciate you having basic manners." He jerked his thumb at me. "This dipshit has been a lost cause for years. We're lucky we were able to housetrain him."

"I will knock you out and dump your unconscious body in a cave." I said flatly. "Now where's your better half? She usually keeps you from making an ass of yourself while we talk."

Benny just snorted, and both of us grinned. Chelsea seemed confused, but Callie just patted her shoulder. "Ignore them. They snipe at each other as a sign of affection. They don't realize how obnoxious it is...somehow. Which is astounding because everyone tells them constantly."

"Anyway." Said Benny. "Celine is asleep. We had a nice relaxing day together. No training. Then we went to bed. Jessie is with Cark and Cass last I saw, since I assume she's next on your list. What did you have in mind for our next leg?"

"The Empire." I said with a shrug. "There's a war coming, and I figured what better was to prepare for a war than to be in ACTUAL wars to get better at it. We're going to go join up with some noble house. I was hoping to talk to Vinnie about it before we leave. Thought maybe we could join up with him. Assuming there's no hard feelings for killing him in the temple. I think we're safe though, considering it turned into a nightmarish survival incident with an almost 90% mortality rate."

He snickered at that. "Yeah, they got off easy. The Empire huh? So what's the question? You're not thinking of leaving me behind, are you?"

"Given how worried you were about Celine I was thinking I'd make the offer." I shrugged. "No pressure either way, I'd love to have you. Although I am curious about what kind of bump you saw from this whole mess. I assume you got a pretty decent chunk of points too?"

He grinned. "Nothing insane, I wasn't front and center here. But between this and the leftover juice from the Glade I did ok. Here, check it out." He grabbed a nearby piece of paper, scrawling out his information carelessly. Between Might, Perception, and Focus, his writing basically looked like a printer.

Benicio Cortez- F-rank. Ability: Intermediate Mechanical Embodiment- Allows the integration of existing inventions into the users body for the purposes of strengthening and enhancing them.


Progress to next rank: 5473/10000

soul strength: Green 25%

Pet- Wolf named Rolf

Current integrated tech. 10/10. Torso: G-ranked intangibility for short bursts. Right fist: triple punch. Left forearm: F-ranked energy barrier or variable shape. Left fist: minor slow acting tranquilizer effect. Right foot: Density shifting to create heavier kicks and more powerful jumps. Left Foot: momentum neutralization to allow stopping instantly. Head: slight cognitive boost to allow more thinking time. Back: ability to grow a shell to tank damage. Chest: Pair of golden G rank spider legs that arch up from the shoulders. Waist: Belt of spiritual calming. Heart: Illusionary double

Skills:Minor Cooking Mastery, Intermediate Inventing Mastery, Minor Haggling Mastery, Minor Stealth Mastery

I whistled. "Damn. Nice. Seventeen hundred. I'm glad you got a few points in Fantasy. I assume that was upward pressure from your rank. Having any stat that low wasn't going to last long. The rest was in Focus and Might though, which makes more sense with your build."

"Yup." He said smugly. "More than halfway now. Celine did ok too, though nothing nearly as extreme. She was even less of a player this time than I was. Which is part of why I know she'll want to come on this little recruitment drive of yours. She feels bad for not being able to help more. She should be fine as long as we're all training together. Like I said she didn't love how absent I've been lately."

Callie nodded. "Yeah, I was pretty irritated with Shane for being gone all the time too. Though lording my new stats over him helped. Plus he could sense my annoyance and took some steps to placate me. You and Celine should talk to Abel and Mel. The bond is amazing for a relationship. Real communication is the best thing in the world for couples."

Case in point, my ability to feel her gleeful malice as she tried to casually convince my best friend to train with Abel, an experience she knew very well was absolutely miserable. I kept my face blank too, not wanting to ruin her prank. To be fair, the bond WOULD help their relationship. The process of getting it just fucking sucked, mostly because Abel, main teaching method (unless you were a nine year old girl) was to hit you until you figured out how to pick things up.

"So, Chelsea, you're going to be coming along with us huh?" He said as he slumped down on the couch. "Our meeting was a bit brief last time, so in case you forgot my name is Benny Cortez. I've been Shane's best friend since we were kids, so if you want any embarrassing stories I'm an open book."

Callie let out an offended gasp. "Why don't you ever tell ME embarrassing stories about Shane? I need blackmail material."

He shrugged. "Sharing with his sister is one thing, but I'm not about to spill state secrets to the girlfriend. Even I have limits. I might joke about it, but a man's got to have a code." His expression was solemn, and I shot him a manly nod of respect and gratitude...until he continued. "You should ask Maria next time we're home. It's HER job to embarrass him, so she'll be happy to spill."

My sister giggled at our antics. "Seems like you're all really close. I hope I can be part of that. I definitely want to get to know Shane, embarrassing secrets and all. I don't really get out much, and I'm honestly shocked my mom is giving me a pass to go with you."

Benny and Callie didn't know about the exact details of my sister's abilities. They had the general picture, but my mom had begged me not to tell anyone about my grandmother, saying even knowing could be dangerous for them, and I'd agreed. Plus Chelsea's powers were her own to share or not. Still, I wanted them to be friends. Benny and Maria were the closest thing I had to family, and it seemed like Chelsea could use that as much as I could.

"So." Said Benny after a minute. Face getting serious. "We have to join an army. Will you be able to do your wish thing in that kind of environment? Or will you need to keep it secret."

I shrugged. "Zeke will be around to ward off the big guys, and Callen is pretty damned scary. We should be fine. Plus Vinnie knows I'm WCP. And meeting here probably gave him a good idea about what my power is, given it's only the cream of the crop that come the temple for the trials. No way he wouldn't be interested in having a candidate among his army to grant wishes."

Aside from just stats, I had a few ideas for how to help with that kind of thing. "You get a chance to do any research on the way that works, Cal?"

My girlfriend nodded. "Looked into it during my downtime today. Basically it's a pyramid. Every 'noble' from the Emperor down to an Earl has other nobles under them. It's really stratified. Each of them can field an army of their supporters, and battles tend to be pretty rank specific. So we'd be fighting other F-rankers. The Empire doesn't want to waste their nobles in battles with higher ranks."

That sounded pretty similar to what the other factions did. Die in battle with someone your rank and you were just useless, but they didn't want anyone higher up killing too many of their lessers, since it didn't differentiate talent or instinct. That was how you lost good people that could be put to work. "I assumed it'd be like that. Does it matter which army we join?"

"Oh yeah." She said emphatically. "Not all E-rankers are created equal. Some are members of powerful factions and families that allow them more leeway. Family skirmishes, noble houses in particular, are a bit more freeform. Less limitations on rank because your family's seniors are expected to protect you rather than the rules."

That lined up with what I'd heard from Zeke about his family. That hadn't seemed quite so simple. I wanted to go with a big battle, but I didn't want to end up fighting E or D rankers. "We'll have to ask around. Our options should be a bit more varied if Jessie comes with us right?" If there was one thing I'd picked up from games and movies, it was that armies needed healers.

"Definitely." She said with a smile. "Even without the healing, her little energy boosting thing would be a huge help in battle. Imperial conflicts are all about stamina. You don't just fight hard, you fight long. Less losses than you would expect, but it's a drawn out process."

"Sounds like we have our work cut out for us." I chuckled, glancing at Benny. "You still sure you want to come?"
He shrugged. "What's life without a little risk. Or a lot of risk. Or certain death. That's what makes it so much fun. Besides, I want to see if I can make some cool inventions to help with the battles. Maybe some kind of mines or something. I'm sure my Inventing will come in handy."

I hadn't even considered that. He could make some nasty stuff, and even put together buildings that could be used in combat. That was going to make things interesting. At least assuming they didn't have Inventors already around.
We got to talking about details, whatever we knew or could scrounge up from our scan rings. Chelsea really got into it, telling us everything she'd read on the empire's caste system and how nobility cultivation worked. It was a fascinating subject, and we ended up talking well into the night.

Eventually Celine woke up and came down. Benny filled her in and as he mentioned she seemed more than prepared to go into battle with us as long as we all went together. She'd heard a bit about the empire too, since the Faerieland interacted with them more than any other faction, and tossed in plenty of her own trivia. It turned out to be a pretty interesting night. I hoped we had more like it once we arrived. Before that though, we had to leave, and before THAT I had some friends to contact. I was just hoping they weren't too pissed about the whole murdering them thing.
chapter 534
Our next stop (and last on the ship) was talking to Jessie, Cark, and Cass. Nat was almost definitely coming with us, and Jessie was a probable yes, but Cark was going to have to make a call. He'd been hanging with Cass pretty much full time, and I wasn't sure if he'd want to come along and put himself in danger after all the downtime. Of course he'd ALSO been training with Zeke, and gods only knew what THAT had been like.

Knocking on the door of Jessie's place, I didn't have long to wait before pounding footsteps came rampaging toward the entryway. Within a few seconds the door was thrown open and a familiar face grinned up at me. "Shane!" Cheered Cass as she saw me. "And Callie!" She threw herself at my girlfriend, who caught her with a laugh.

"Hey kid. You seem sprightly today." Setting the nine year old on her hip with no difficulty, Callie carried the excited girl into the house. "You been good for your brother and Zeke?"

Cass giggled. "Sure. But Tony hasn't had much time for me anyway. Uncle Zeke has been training him. He's always super tired when he gets home, so I get to do pretty much whatever I want. I mostly watch cartoons and practice my Ragam. I heard Master came back with you guys?"

It was still weird hearing anyone refer to Abel as a respectable teacher. I nodded though. "Yeah, he's off with Mel somewhere. I think she wanted some time off before we head off. Granted, we're going to be in transit for a few months probably. We need to talk to your bother before we leave though. He might want to get off the ship before we depart, or make plans to stop partway."

When mom had mentioned arranging our trip, she'd given me a bit of time. I was using it to double check if everyone wanted to come along, and I was going to get in contact with Bethy and Gabe before leaving. Cark had been with us for a while, but this next leg of the journey was going to be pretty rough. I was happy to let him come along, especially after training with Zeke, but he'd probably be away from Cass a lot of the time. He deserved the opportunity to bail out if he wanted.

"Cassidy." Called a tired voice. "Don't harass our guests please." Cark stepped out of the hall, looking exhausted. "Shane, Callie, good to see you two. Here to see Jessie?"

I was guessing he was in serious pain, because he'd apparently missed all the stuff we'd said to his sister. My second clue was the fact that his eyes were blazing the telltale green of Jessie's life force. He must have been training like a madman not to be feeling energized by that much of her power. As I'd seen with my poison, Vitality prioritized injuries over anything else, so if you got yourself damaged enough it would soak up all the healing energy so you wouldn't be energized. He must have wrecked every muscle in his body to offset that much of it.

"And you." I said with a nod. "If you have the time. We're heading out on another trip, and I was hoping you'd come along this time. It's not like the Temple. Cass can stay with Zeke and you can visit her, but I'm not sure how much, so I wanted to give you the particulars. Though Jessie should also be part of this conversation, is she around?"

There was a loud crash from the back of the building, and Jessie came stumbling into the room, somehow covered in pots and pans on strings. "I'm here." She yelped. "Sorry, Cass and I were building a fort and she just ran off and left me in a big web of hanging pots."

"You were building a fort...out of pots?" I said incredulously, glancing at the wide array of metal cookware.
Cass sniffed derisively. "Blankets and pillows are for babies. I wanted a real fort. Like the ones you read about in books that can stand up to armies and stuff. I told Jessie and she said the biggest supply of metal in the house was all the pots. So were stringing them together and Jessie was gonna grow some special trees around them to hold them in place. Do you want to help?" Her tone was excited and pleading all at once, and Cark turned to Jessie with a frown.

"Why do you let her talk you into these things?" He said in exasperation. "And where is Randall." One of the pots rattled where it had been dragging on the floor, and it popped up to reveal a small bear the size of a loaf of bread. I blinked at him, and Cass squealed with delight, bolting over to scoop the little animal up.

I grinned at Jessie. "Been practicing with that shrinking necklace huh? Seems like it's working well for you." My friend had been untangling herself from the pots, and she didn't bother to look up as she shrugged. "It's convenient being able to take him places without Abel to act as a taxi service. Plus he's super cute like this." She paused, rolling her eyes and glancing at the bear. "That's not demeaning. Being cute is a good thing."

Recognizing the beginnings of an argument between them, I hurriedly cut her off. "Gotcha. Did you hear what we were saying to Cass? I'm thinking Cark was deep in his Focus, trying to concentrate on something other than pair, since he missed it, so I can explain again if you want."

"I got the gist." She nodded. "We have a new destination. You're here to find out if I wanted to go, though I'm sure you guessed I probably would. Mostly here to see if Cark is in, that all?" At my nod, she laughed. "You know I'm with you to the end. I take it you're also here to check on my stat bumps?"

I nodded easily. "Sure, if you want to share. We got Benny's already, and I'm curious to know what you got, though I highly suspect I know already."

She grinned. "My stats do tend to be in a specific vein. Though I'm starting to hit the point where my rank is dragging to low ones up with it. Most of it was what you'd expect though. Lots of Vitality, still riding off the godslayer incident from what I can tell, and a big chunk of Might." She grabbed some paper and scrawled out her stats for us to see.

Jessica Evans- F-rank. Ability: Intermediate Lifeweaving- Infuse living things with life itself and direct their actions while the users power flows through them. Control had limited effect on sapient entities. Prolonged exposure to life energy may cause lasting effects in controlled subjects.


Progress to next rank: 4780/10000

Pet- Wolf named Lily and bear named Randall(Beginner Beast Bonding with Jessie)

soul strength: Green- 20%

Skills: Intermediate Horticulture, Beginner First Aid, Minor Herbalism, Minor Flower Arrangement, Minor Beast Taming Mastery, Beginner Beast Bonding, Intermediate Shape of the Wild

One thousand three hundred and twenty two points. Not bad. I wasn't surprised her stats had all been dragged over a hundred, she was the only one of us that still had anything lower, and I'd been expecting that soon. Still, a flat one thousand Vitality and two hundred fifty Might wasn't bad at all. Especially not for Jessie, whose Vitality was higher than any stat any of us had now, despite her being the lowest in total stat points.

"Very nice." i said with a whistle. "No wonder you're so happy to play with Cass. Do you ever run out of energy?"
She chuckled. "I do juice myself up more than I maybe should. Anyway, is that enough points for...whatever you're planning? Actually, what ARE you planning. You've been cagey since you got here."

I considered how to phrase it, but in the end coming right out seemed smartest. "With the big fight coming up." I made sure not to use the W word in front of Cass. "I thought we needed some more regimented training. Not just in fighting, but fighting in a group. Stuff that's going to carry over when we expand the pavilion later and during my candidacy. So I want to head to the empire to join up with one of the noble armies. Get some field experience. I figured you wouldn't be against learning some field medicine."

Her face brightened. "That sounds like a blast. My First Aid Skill is falling behind anyway. I need it at Intermediate before my next rank up. And with my new soul strength I could even get it to Expert maybe! My Horticulture I've been training on my own, just recently got it to Intermediate, so that's taken care of for now. I got a nice bump in the alchemy room back at the Academy."

"We figured you'd feel that way." Callie said with a grin. Turning to Cark, she raised a questioning eyebrow. "The big question is how do YOU feel? You willing to come with us? I'm pretty sure boot camp and being deployed with one of the noble armies isn't going to be fun, but we're almost definitely going to learn a lot. If you'd rather go off on your own we could drop you two somewhere nice though. Or you could keep training with Ze-"

His eyes went wide with panic. "NO!" He almost screamed. "No more. I'll go. Going through basic training sounds like heaven compared to what HE has me doing." Suddenly I was less upset that Zeke's geas kept him from training me. I'd seen Cark take on monsters the size of a bus, but he sounded like he was going to cry just remembering what Zeke had been doing to him. What was it with high level Ascendants that they only knew how to train people like monsters?"

Cass pouted at him. "You should be nicer to Uncle Zeke. He's just trying to help you. Master says that training is three parts hard work, three parts talent, and four parts suffering. You need to keep going if you want to get stronger."
I tried not to snicker at my friend's devesatated expression as his nine year old sister who wasn't allowed to do anything but katas lectured him on hard training. "What is he TEACHING you? And WHEN? I've sat in on all your lessons except the ones Zeke watches over." He glared at me. "This is your fault you know. Your uncle has no concept of human limitations."

"Because he's basically not one?" I said with a shrug. "After a certain level of advancement you start losing that kind of stuff, or so I'm told. Maybe don't expect temperance from the guy whose idea of a relatively long training session is probably spending a hundred years sparring."

I wasn't sure Zeke saw things like that, but some of his comments made it likely. Plus I'd seen him spend like a week almost uninterrupted crafting masks. That level of focus (or maybe Focus with a capital F) wasn't something that normal humans would have. He sighed heavily. "Yeah, you're not wrong. I'm so used to dealing with G-rankers and lower, back home I never had the chance to even interact with anyone at E-rank, nevermind a MASTER anything."

Laughing, I clapped him on the shoulder. "Trust me, I feel your pain. Anyway, I'll ask Zeke to lay off for the duration of the trip. It'll probably take a while, and we can all relax, aside from my basic wish stuff. But before our downtime we have one more job to do. We have to say our goodbyes to everyone else, and talk to a few friends before we leave." Bethy and Gabe were still floating nearby on her dad's ship. I just hoped the Vampire didn't mind us visiting.

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